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Navigating War: Memories of a Lancaster Navigator

by Flight_Sgt_218Sqn

Contributed by 
Flight_Sgt_218Sqn
People in story: 
Denis Innell Humphrey
Location of story: 
Britain-Canada-Germany
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A1940014
Contributed on: 
31 October 2003

Navigating War: Memories of a Lancaster Navigator

Volunteering

When the war broke out on September 3rd 1939 I was 17½. On the 4th of September, which was a Monday, along with millions of others I presented myself to the recruiting office and told them “please, I want to be in the RAF.” They accepted that and during April 1940, I was sent for a two-day medical examination to RAF Uxbridge. This meant staying overnight and was basically the first time I’d ever been away from home. However, it evolved into one-and-a-half days of medical examinations over every part of your body, in front of about eighteen different doctors. Having passed that we were given a little badge to put in the lapel of our jacket, and it was stamped ‘Volunteer’ — this stopped you being asked what you were going to do about the war effort as you went round the streets.

At the time I was working on a vertical milling machine at an engineering company in Slough, and this involved a journey on the Green Line of an hour each way and we were working twelve hours a day making all the machines of war, or doing our bit towards it. Eventually, doing that 14-hour day, I fell asleep during the day whilst sitting on a box as my machine was working and they had rather a nasty job to wake me up. The doctor said I had to change my work, so I went into an office of General Aircraft at Feltham. It was a lot nearer home, and what I was doing basically was looking after thousands and thousands of drawings of various parts of aeroplanes.

Now whilst I was there I joined the LDV which was the Local Defence Volunteer, which eventually became the Home Guard or as you know it today ‘Dad’s Army’. Each time that the siren blew we were rushed out to the airfield with our trusty rifle, looking for German parachutists — never saw any. But we also did the odd tour of night duty. One night duty, yours truly was standing on the perimeter track of the airfield — a civilian airfield mind — and there came towards me at a great speed of knots, a little motor car. I yelled at this flaming thing to stop, as was my duty, and he didn’t. I did no more I put a bullet up the spout and fired it — thank God I didn’t hit anything. The next few minutes were quite hilarious. An army officer got out of the car, trembling from head to foot, and approached me, I too was trembling from head to foot, and he said “d-d-d-did you f-f-fire at me?” And I said “y-y-yes I d-did, y-you didn’t stop.” So, anyway (laughs) he showed me his papers and he went on his way. Of course, what I didn’t realise at the time he’d got a dolly-bird in the car and he’d been having a bit of fun on the other side of the airfield. It must have frightened him silly - I know it did me.

At the same time we were fire-watching up and down our own street. I used to patrol up and down with the old man for four hours at a time, and that passed until, on the 10th May 1941 I got a travel warrant and orders to report to Babbacombe in Devonshire, to the Initial Training Wing. This was a most pleasant place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed it for eight weeks. We did a lot of square-bashing in fact we went there to learn square-bashing. Now a lot of people see the soldiers drilling and they think “that’s very nice” but it serves a very important purpose. The great thing is that when a man is given a command, he must obey immediately, without question, and this is what square-bashing does for you. It enables you to act instantly and do what you’re told and can not only save your life it can save the lives of a lot of other people as well.

However, we also had a lot of fun down there and I was in the concert party, I got to know a pair of young lasses, who had both suffered polio and were in wheelchairs. They were twins, they were very nice people and I could always go home on leave and go in there for a cup of tea before I went to bed. They were an amazing family and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay down there.

Now, from there we were posted to Abbey Lodge, London, which was a pit. When we first got to Abbey Lodge there was nothing. We got a couple of blankets and bed mattresses, a couple of biscuits, and had to lay on the floor of a big flat in a big block of flats, in the vicinity of Regent’s Park. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had been drafted to fill these stores with all the equipment and shift it all in for about three thousand men. And it took us quite a while and it left us quite shattered (e.g. me) but it was good fun, and I was on the Bakerloo line which led to the Piccadilly line and I spent most of my weekends at home and I thoroughly enjoyed that.

The idea of being there was to have a final eye test. Now I had gone in originally to be a pilot, and I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the eye test, and it didn’t come and it didn’t come. Eventually one lunch hour I saw one of the doctors, and I approached her and I said “look, I think I’ve been left off the list. I’ve been here so long and I haven’t yet had my eye test. Can we arrange to do something about it?” So she said “Well sit down and we’ll do something about it now.” And it was that test where you have the upright red line and where does it come in the middle of the chart. Well, mine came nowhere. My left eye was unfit for eye training to correct my vision, so I remustered to navigator, and then the fun started. After that, before we left there they gave us the little bit of white cloth to stick in the front of the cap, which we called the ‘cap-flash’. This indicated that we were potential officers, God help us.

I was posted from there to the Wireless Training School at RAF Cranwell. This was the RAF equivalent of the Army’s Sandhurst but we were nothing to do with the officer training side of it. We were strictly on the Morse Code training side, and I will say that going from nothing to getting us up to twenty words a minute must have been a bit of a daunting task. But we were going to be wireless operators, so we had to learn the Morse Code and how to use the radio. At this place you spent eight hours a day with earphones on your head and the old daa-dee-dee-daa-dit coming through all the time. This actually drove one instructor, whose ability was up in the forty words a minute section to go off his nut and he was put in the local bin. At least that was the rumour, this could have been right or not.

To Canada — and Back

Anyway, after that course, which included a few flights in single engined aeroplanes for air-ground communication, just a total of eleven hours, we were allowed to put up the old Radio Oper’s flash on the sleeves. It was from here that we got further posted to our navigational training stations. Now, we had a choice. We could either train in Britain, or we could train in Canada, and the old man said to me “if you don’t go to Canada you ain’t the man I thought you were”. Well that was it then so I put my name down for Canada. Sounds very simple, but RAF clerical staff being what they are they had to cock it up. I was left off the Canadian list by name, but discovered I’d been left on it with my Air Force number. Once I discovered that I was on the list with my number, but not my name, it all had to be done again and I was a little upset about it. Anyway, having got on the list we were sent to a transit camp at Manchester where I arrived at five o’clock in the morning and yes it was raining all the bally time. From there after three weeks of doing nothing, just waiting, we were sent to Liverpool and we went on board a ship that was being escorted with a US convoy.

It was at this stage of my life that I learnt I do not want to go to France across the Channel. This was a seven or eight day voyage, I forget how long. It finished up in New York, and for most of that time I was not very well indeed. We arrived in New York and of course New York harbour was an absolute mass of lights, which we hadn’t seen in the streets or buildings for a couple of years, and it was quite an experience. They thought nothing of it, any more than we did before the war started, but it really was terrific. From New York, we had a four day train ride to Hamilton, Ontario, to get to Mount Hope, 33 Air Navigation School. We started off there a thousand of us sleeping in one hanger (laughs) in triple bunk beds. Your stuff was just left around, but nobody ever bothered with it. But after some three weeks of that they managed to put us into wooden huts of about twenty to a dormitory. This was where the real flying started in Anson aircraft with a retractable undercarriage which had to be wound up every time after take-off. We flew, two of us at a time with a pilot, we were first and second navigators and it was always the second navigator’s job to wind up the undercarriage. It wasn’t bad going down because you had the weight to help you, but going up it was absolutely fiendish. It was during this period that I got my first knowledge of danger in flying. This was a night flight and we were on the circuit. Now, we had no contact with the ground at all, no radio, and the only communication was the light from the runway controller which flashed the number of your aircraft either with a green light or a red light. Obviously if you got a green you could come in, if you got a red you had to stay away. I was standing at the time in the astro-navigation dome in the top of the aeroplane so my head was more or less out in the air, and all of a sudden my pilot swore, he sliced the aeroplane most steeply to the port, and as he did so I heard the roar of the engines of another aeroplane above the roar of the engines of our own. And I looked up and saw this dark shadow going above us. Now these days I read that if two aeroplanes are five miles apart that’s a near miss. On this occasion I don’t think we could have been even five feet apart. It was one out of the blue and where the hell he came from I don’t know but he was actually flying right across the circuit, so he must have been fairly well lost the silly idiot.

I said we had no communication with the ground, that’s not strictly true, we had that radio with the old Morse Code bit, and whilst you were second navigator you were either map-reading or radio operating, so you were always kept fairly busy. At the end of the period, about three months, I think, maybe four months, we had to sit twelve examinations, that’s all noted in the log book, and you’ll see from that it wasn’t too bad, I was a bit disappointed but I was point four of a percent of being able to ask for a civilian navigation certificate, to go into navigating civil aeroplanes, which I thought was a great shame — they missed out.

After my stint up there I was sent by train — a two day train journey — to Prince Edward Island, and that’s quite a God forsaken hole, it’s not quite as bad as the Isle of Islay but it’s not far off it. There we did a course called ‘Ship Recognition’. Now in the war we had four navies — the American, the British, the French, the Japanese. None of the others — oh, the Italians, but they didn’t really count for a lot — but we had to try and recognise all these miniature models of all these bally ships and say whether it was a Japanese frigate, whether it was an American battleship, or whether it was a Japanese cruiser, and I flopped that one, and I think all told that was about — that was, in fact, the only examination I failed — but fail it I did, I wasn’t allowed to sit it again so I had to came away without that one. It didn’t matter a great deal as it happened because as you’ll see eventually I came out of Coastal Command and went into Bomber Command where ship recognition was not of the utmost importance.

Coming back was a bit of fun, well, call it fun. We came as you know in the first Queen Elizabeth. It hadn’t been finished, it was taken out of the shipyard really before it was ready to sail and it crossed the Atlantic without stabilisers. Now I don’t know a lot about shipbuilding but what the stabilisers do apparently is stop the flaming thing rocking from side to side. Well we were twenty-five? Yes, twenty to twenty-five in a cabin in the bowels of the ship about four or five decks down with three-eighths of an inch of steel between us and the Atlantic Ocean, and that boat really came through that water like a greyhound, you would lay there at night and you could feel it and it was doing I’m told about forty miles an hour which in those days was extremely fast and of course no U-boat could have kept up with it, and the idea was that it zigged and zagged, and zagged and zigged, and it took four days to get home, and we arrived at Greenock. What I haven’t mentioned was that whilst in Canada the snow started to fall in October and we left Canada in March and the finest thing of all was arriving at Greenock, and seeing green.

From there we were sent straight down to Blackpool, where we flew from Squire’s Gate airfield in Oxfords, and they gave us four or five weeks refreshing our W/T knowledge, and that was a great time because we simply left our billet as it was, we caught a train from Lytham St Annes into Blackpool, the same train every morning, did our job, caught a train home and came back and found the billet all cleaned up, all the beds made and I didn’t have that, either before or after in the whole of my service. That really was a most pleasant period.

During this period, when we had nothing on in the way of training, we would fly alongside the pilot. Once when I was up front he handed over the controls to me (the fool), but I really enjoyed trying. I didn’t make much of a fist of it — not straight and level, more up and down switchback style. As a matter of interest this particular pilot was Australian and legless, I don’t mean drunk but of the Douglas Bader type — but a far more pleasant man.

Beaufighters

Well, from then on I was posted to Crosby-on-Eden, in what is now Cumbria, for operational training on Beaufighters. And this was the final training before we were going to be operational, and by then we had realised that, or at least I had realised, that I was due for somewhere in the far east. I didn’t think much of it, I didn’t think anything about it really it was just something that had to be done and I was training with that end in view. This was where we had to ‘crew up’. It was a two-seater aeroplane, there was me and the pilot and we had to match ourselves up and try and make a crew and I paired off with an Australian pilot — Flight Sergeant Norman. Now his initials I see from the log book were E K but for some reason he was always known as ‘Bill’. This was quite an interesting time because not only was I training but he was training as well and we were doing all sorts of things like machine-gunning targets and firing rockets at things in the sea and one of my training sessions was to drop a million candle-power flare. But before I can tell you a lot about that I have to explain the cramped conditions for the navigator of the Beaufighter cockpit. One sat at the navigation table which was probably fourteen inches by twenty-two, and that was on a flapped up hinge. When it was lifted up you fixed it with a hook on the side of the aeroplane and that held it up whilst you turned your seat round. But when you had turned your seat round you were faced with the radio — the transmitter and receiver. That had to be pulled out on a swivel and clicked into position. When you had got that in position you could start sending messages. Now you must realise that the whole time you’re sending messages the flaming aeroplane is still flying, and hopefully it’s flying on the last course that you gave the pilot, but you’re in a wide open ocean with nothing visible so all you can do is hope — this is what they call flying by dead reckoning. This was where one used a found wind (direction and speed) and then plotted magnetic directions until you were able to find the next wind and from that a line to your assumed position showing the wind enabled you to find your exact position. My recollections on this particular navigation method are rather sketchy, this is the best I can remember after so many years.

It was during an exercise such as this after I’d turned my seat round, flying out over the Irish Sea that we came across the British Navy. Now, there’s two things the Navy could never do, they could never march in step, and they couldn’t recognise flaming aeroplanes. At first glance, the Beaufighter looked very much like the then, I think it was the Junkers 88 — I think that was the number of it. In silhouette they looked very similar. So of course, the first thing we get from this mass of ships careening across the Irish Sea is a load of flashings. Well, what the Navy can do, they can manoeuvre ships and they can signal, and these swine were signalling at about twenty-four words per minute with an Aldiss lamp and my speed was about eight. So there was no possible chance of me reading anything they were sending. So, the only thing I could do was to fire off the colours of the day. Now that sounds simple enough in itself you’ve got to fire off the colours of the day. But I’m arse about face facing towards the radio and the pilot’s screaming at me to do something about the Navy which any moment is going to send a couple of shells up and knock us out of the sky. So, the first thing I’ve got to do is I’ve got to manoeuvre the radio set back on its swivel until it clicks and can be held. I then turn my seat round, I then lower my navigation table and I look for, and I find, the code book with the colours of the day. Now the colours of the day changed every two hours, so you had to be issued with a week’s colours for the week ahead. So when you’ve got the book down you’ve got to look up today’s date, and if that doesn’t come to mind quite readily that wastes a few seconds, you’ve then got to look at your watch, get the time of day, and you’ve got to look up the colours to fire for this particular moment in time. Well, I believe it was probably something like a yellow-red-yellow. This is a Very cartridge of course, and in the ceiling of the Beaufighter you’ve got a six-chambered Very cartridge pistol. You simply put the cartridge in the hole and pull the bit of string, and that fires the cartridge — you hope. Anyway, I found the colours of the day, I looked through the cartridges and found the right colours, I slammed it into the gun, expecting any moment to have a shell come up my backside, and I fired it off. And nobody has been more relieved than I when those colours went correctly and the Navy quietened down and said “OK friends you can now pass on”.

My second bit if fun was when we were put on an exercise. From a height of about 5,000 feet we were to drop a one million candlepower flare. This was a phosphorous device attached to a parachute which at night lit up the whole sky for miles and miles around and gave bombers their target. This was to be used over the sea if we ever came across the Japanese fleet. The idea was this, in the floor of the aeroplane you had a tube — a matter of four inches diameter — which went out into the open air, and this flare thing was a round contraption of about three and a half inches diameter, about two feet long and it was quite weighty. It had a parachute, about a million candlepower’s worth of explosive and a seven second fuse. Now, the charge for this thing was in the bottom of the missile, and it was thrown out of the aeroplane first. So the fuse was at the other end, and what you did, on the side of the aeroplane there was a wheel with a bit of string, and a hook. And you hooked the hook into a loop at the end of this flare and you threw. And you threw as hard as you could throw. Well, I threw, but what do you think happened to me? The bloody thing got caught up in the slipstream. Not only does it get caught up in the slipstream but the fuse has ignited and is hissing merrily away. This is because the wheel to which the string is attached is so rusted up there was no chance of it moving at all. So there we are, we’ve got a million candlepower flare trapped in a flying aeroplane, and we’ve got seven seconds before the thing blows up. Well the fuse if you can understand it is a disc, a flat disc, which screws onto a lower part, so you’ve got a lid screwed into a tin sort of thing, and from this emanates a long brass-type funnel, which is about a quarter of an inch at the top. And in that is the mechanism which, when it is pulled, sets the fuse going.

Well of course it was pulled and it was going, and I’d got seven seconds to do something about it. So, the obvious thing to do of course was to take out the fuse and take the fuse away, you should be alright. So, how do we take the fuse out? Well, we unscrew it. So I grab hold of the thing to unscrew it, and this funnel thing comes away in my hand, and I’ve got about one and a half seconds left. So I’m away out of that cockpit and through a pair of armour-plated doors, I climb over six cannon ammunition tanks, I go through another pair of armour-plated doors and all of a sudden I’m standing beside the pilot. I had enough time to say “look here mate this things going to blow up on us it’s got caught up in the slipstream” when I heard it go ‘poof’. And then we waited and nothing happened. Realising what was happening my pilot put the nose down towards the sea with the idea of if necessary ditching because we were thinking that the tail would be blown off. But it was a most peculiar experience, we kept on flying, kept on flying, so I went back to see what was happening. I was obviously the luckiest man alive because the charge, being in the tail of this thing it was thrown out first. It had acted like a rocket, and it had gone upwards and had gone out straight through the astrodome, the Perspex astrodome, and the only damage caused was a bloody great big hole in the roof! I told the pilot over the intercom what had happened and we made our way back to base, and of course we had to fill out a long report. And one bloke said to me — he looked at the hole in the roof, he said “by golly man” he said, “you’ve managed that well”. I thought to myself “you should have known”.

I got a choking off for not pulling out a length of string before I tried to throw the thing overboard, and my excuse that the thing was rusted up and not maintained wasn’t wholly accepted, but I think something was done about those wheels afterwards, but nothing very bad was said to either of us and we seemed to get away with it and we just carried on with our training.

During this period we were caught one day whilst we were flying over the Irish Sea with a thick, thick fog. It was a bit hair raising but we got back safely, but unfortunately my pilot’s mate, he didn’t, and it was obvious that they had been lost in the sea, particularly when he told me that he, my pilot’s mate, another Australian, didn’t trust his navigator. This is a particularly important thing because after all there is only the two of you and nine tons of aeroplane and quite a lot of responsibility. All that we could conjecture about my pilot’s Australian friend was that —not trusting his navigator — he came lower and lower and lower to try and find the bottom of the cloud so that he could get them home but there was no bottom of the cloud until they hit the drink.

Anyway, it caused us to have two days of ‘square searching’ the Irish Sea. Now, the square search is a means of covering an area where you go round in bigger and bigger squares each time. And of course it’s a lot of work for the navigator because you’re travelling sort of North, South, East, and West and there’s only one wind and every course is different and it’s something that you’ve really got to keep up with. So, although there was the unfortunate loss of life there we did get some exercise that we wouldn’t have got normally — probably wouldn’t have wanted it either.

However, while we’re talking on this subject at the same time we had at this operational training unit an American pilot. Now, as far as I know it was never known why he did it but he had the misfortune to put his aeroplane into the side of a hill in Cumbria. Now, that wasn’t a very nice thing to do and of course, it put the station into quite a dilemma. We’ve obviously got a dead American and there’s no way we can sort of fly a body back home because there really isn’t one, so we’ve got to arrange a funeral. Now, this gives the station warrant officer quite a star part, because he is the big white chief. Thank the Lord the one that we had knew the proper way to do it, and knew how it should be done. And the first thing he did was look for six men of the same height — tall men, and of course yours truly was one of them, and we were going to be the pall bearers. So, we were all ready to take this poor devil to the cemetery and we — being the lucky ones — didn’t have to march to the cemetery because we were in the cars. When suddenly the padre (the station padre who was going to conduct the service) says “Oh Lord, we’ve only got a Union Jack on the coffin, he was an American, we’ll have to find an American flag”. So everything was held up while off he raced to find a stars and stripes to drape over the coffin. And off we go to the ceremony, and in the cemetery there’s a little chapel, and we’re going to have a small service in there first. So, the first thing we six men do is we pick the coffin out and put it on our shoulders and we carry it in, where it’s laid to rest on a couple of trestles. Now, I must tell you that all this carrying is done at the slow march, which in the RAF is seventy paces per minute. Well, if you can ever get hold of a metronome and run it at seventy beats per minute you’ll get some idea of the speed you’re marching at. And at the same time you’ve got quite a heavy weight on your shoulder, and what they taught us to do was grab a handful of the man’s coat next to you, so that he was hanging on to your coat and you were hanging on to his and the weight of the coffin was suspended between you. It was a good thing they did this as I’ll tell you in a moment, because after the service it was then our job to carry the coffin from the chapel, and put it in the back of the hearse. But of course, with Humphrey on the job there has to be a cock-up. And what they don’t do is they don’t put the coffin on the hearse. Now, this leaves us in a bit of a dilemma. Here we are with half a ton of basically stones and earth on our shoulders — we know that’s what’s in there because we can hear it rattling up against our ears as we rock from side to side in this slow march caper. But the difficulty is that in the end we had to carry this poor devil a quarter of a mile. Now, that at the slow march is quite a long way. Anyway, we got over it with our aching shoulders and we laid the poor blighter to rest and afterwards the padre came up and apologised for the mistake in not putting it on the car and said how well he thought we people had done. It wasn’t a bad effort and it all went really quite well.

About this time we had an early morning take-off. Now, fortunately for us it was in the middle of June, so an early morning take-off at four in the morning was a daylight job. But we didn’t take off at four we took off at about five, and we went out on an exercise over the Irish Sea. Basically I don’t know whether it was air to sea firing or whether it was a navigational exercise but after about an hour the pilot said “I’m taking this aeroplane back Den, I don’t like this one, this port engine’s a bit rough.” So I said “OK, do as you will.” I gave him the course to go back, and we landed at just about seven o’clock, as the Squadron Leader got to dispersal. Dispersal was the hut well away from every other hut which acted as a sort of flight headquarters, and told you which aeroplane to take and when to take it. We reported to this bloke, and my skipper told him what had happened, and he said “oh, alright, I’ll give it a run.” So, we sat ourselves down outside this hut and the next thing we knew there was a hell of a roar from the sky, and there’s this idiot, in what my pilot says is a defective aeroplane, and he does everything bar make it stand on end. Mind, he was a well qualified Beaufighter pilot, he’d done a tour of operations. He turned it round, he rolled it, he looped it, he did everything bar make it sing, and he landed, and he came back, and my pilot was white with fear as to what sort of blast he was going to get. And the bloke just said “oh yes, it is a bit rough, just take that one over there”, and he allotted us another aeroplane. But what a sight it was to see that aeroplane being thrown around like a Spitfire.

So, we did that exercise and came back, and nothing more was said. An exercise a bit later on ended a little differently. We took off in a little shower — it was a nothing really, it was just a bit of fine rain, the sort of rain that wets you and soaks you right the way through — but it didn’t matter to us. But on the way up, when we got up to eighty or a hundred feet or so, the pilot’s canopy flew open. It was a bit uncomfortable because it made it a bit windy and we were a bit afraid it was going to be torn off its hinges. So, I went again, forward through the armour plated doors, over the six ammunition carriers and through the other armour-plated doors and I stood behind the pilot and I did my damndest to try and pull this thing down and get it closed. But of course, with the slipstream it was absolutely impossible. So, we had to land with it open. Well, the screens in those days on aeroplanes , they didn’t have wipers, they just had nothing, so the pilot was looking through a mist of fine rain on the windscreen. At the same time, the canopy having opened, his goggles had become spotted, because the first thing he did was pull his goggles down over his eyes, and we came down to make a landing. We got the green to land, and we landed, and we touched down and then all of a sudden we ran out of runway. Here we are still doing about 110 mph across the grass at the end of the runway, and the tail’s still up. Anyway, he got the tail down and we carried on across the grass, we went through a hedge, across a bit of a ploughed field and we finished up between two trees, each of which pulled off one of the wings. And as it pulled of one of the wings, the bodywork broke into three and the third part at the back clobbered me right in the back of the neck.

We came to rest and all was quiet, and I said “I’m alright Bill how are you?” he said “I’m alright”, so we sat there and waited. There wasn’t a lot else we could do and we were damn lucky it didn’t catch fire. But the ambulance turned up and this — not the same Squadron Leader that changed the aeroplane for us on the early morning flight, but another big-head — he stopped the ambulance going straight to the hospital and had it stopped at his office. And there’s my pilot standing there, he’s cracked his head on the gunsight, and he’s bleeding from the forehead. I’m alright, I’ve got no outside scars, and the pilot’s got no other. And this idiot stands there and gives him a right choking off for five minutes for careless cockpit drill and then says “oh well, now you can go to hospital.”

We went to hospital and his little cut was patched up, and there wasn’t much else for them to do, so they put us back on duty more or less the next day. And we finished our course there, and then we went, together, to the Isle of Islay. I think I may have cocked this up a bit and got it a bit out of sequence because I think I mentioned the Isle of Islay a bit earlier on — where we went for the ship recognition that I so abysmally failed.

Anyway, during my period on the Isle of Islay the flying was pretty bloody because at one end of the runway was the sea and at the other end there was a mountain, 2,000 feet high. And it was a most peculiar experience to take off, get airborne, get ten feet off the deck and start climbing and not get any higher — because you went up this mountain still ten feet from it until you reached 2,000 feet. Now this is the same Island, the same runway and the same bally mountain that clobbered Prince Charles when he crashed the aeroplane, and I’ve no doubt it was for much the same reason. I’d imagine that he was approaching from the mountain side and it’s not the easiest thing in the world, and I sympathised completely with what he had to do when he bent his aeroplane. We never bent any of ours up there but fortunately the course was very short. At the very end of the course I had to report sick, I had terrible pains in my back which I think were caused by the crash that I’d suffered some weeks previously. So I had a while in Stranraer hospital, and we had a bit of fun there as well because it was there that we made handbags and things, there was a saddler in the town and I used to wander in and buy half the side of a cow, in leather form and we passed our time making these handbags all my sisters in law had one. And again we struck a bit of luck because in one of the beds there was a cobbler and he showed us how to work the leather.

To Bomber Command

But from there, as I was sort of in the air — not in the air literally but hanging about to do nothing I was sent back to Crosby-on-Eden to do a bit of flight controlling, in the control tower. Now I’d got my sergaent’s stripes when we left Canada when we’d passed the first flying course and during this period I got my Crown which made me a Flight Sergeant. I was quite happy in this control tower seeing these Beaufighters come in and out. I’d got one or two passenger flights and what have you while the flying was going on. And then in May 1944 I was sent to the Isle of Sheppey, down here in Kent, where I was posted to Eastchurch, which was a remustering centre where you changed from Coastal Command to Bomber Command. Now, when I went sick with this back pain after I came out of hospital I said to the powers that be “now look, all I want is a bigger aeroplane that I can stand up in and ease my back.” And I had thoughts or hopes then of a Catalina or a Sunderland flying boat where they did twenty-four hour flights out over the Atlantic. But that wasn’t to be, somebody thought ‘well no, we won’t do that, we’ll get rid of the bugger and so they put me into Bomber Command and that was another chapter, but the funny thing was that while I was at the Isle of Sheppey waiting remustering my old pilot turned up. Now, he’s pranged another aeroplane and he was being remustered to somewhere else, I forget quite what his story was, but the funny part was that he told me that the Squadron Leader who had given him such a choking off for bending one had done exactly the same thing and he’d crashed a Beaufighter — that gave us cause for joy.

The navigation in bomber command threw me for my first two or three exercises because it was so different. Instead of travelling in knots we travelled in miles per hour. Instead of using nautical miles we used statute miles, and in Coastal Command we measured our nautical miles with the minutes of latitude shown on the side of the mercator chart, whereas in Bomber Command you measure your statute miles with the minutes of longitude at the equator. I don’t know if you know the mercator chart. Now I’ve just got the encyclopaedia out because this bloke Mercator was quite a clever wretch — he lived in 1512 and what he did, he looked at the globe and the lines on it and saw how they all came to a meeting place at the pole, and thought well, somehow we’ve got to get this lot flat, so the lines of longitude at the poles he stretched out so they were all parallel. At the same time that stretched all the land masses east to west and quite elongated them so he had to stretch the same amount north and south to put them back to normal. Now, without this bloke I don’t quite know what we would have done because without his charts navigation would have been quite impossible. And to think the bloke lived four hundred years ago is quite something.

Anyway my first posting in bomber command was Chipping Warden and we were in Wellingtons. And it was there that I met my pilot who was an officer, he was a Lieutenant — Flight Lieutenant Hoddnet. His name actually was Vivien, but he wouldn’t have that and he was known as ‘Pod’, so he was Pod Hodnett and we did quite a lot of flying together in the Wellingtons and it was his second tour he had done a tour of operations in Wellingtons and we had one or two adventures together, we made a flapless landing when there was no hydraulics in the system and we had to be diverted to an airport with a longer runway and he made a good job of it, as he should have done because as I say having done a tour of operations he knew what he was doing. Well that lasted us from July forty-four into August. Now this was all navigation exercises, fighter affiliation exercises and WT exercises and what have you just normal familiarisation with the aeroplane. In October of that year we were sent to a conversion unit. A conversion unit is mainly for the pilot and it converts him from twin engined aeroplanes, as per the Wellington, to four engined aeroplanes, as we did — the four engines we started with were Stirlings. But it’s a funny thing — probably because I didn’t have a lot to do I don’t remember much about this period. I see it’s here in the log book but in the main it’s circuits and landings, circuits and landings, we had I remember (we’ve got one down here) a flight of four hours fifteen minutes marked up ‘cross country’. Well, the aeroplane we had was an old Stirling and we had take the thing up to 30,000 feet. Well, we got it up to about 29,999 and the engine started panting so badly that we realised this was the best we could do. So we stuck up there at 30,000 feet, there was no way we could go any higher, and we were over the aerodrome, because when you do these things you’ve got to start off from a fixed point and you start off from the aerodrome, so we’d flown for the best part of half and hour round and round and round crawling up to 30,000 feet and we were going to start the exercise. So alright, I found a wind and I gave the pilot a course, he set course and away we went. Well, half an hour later we were still there, we were still right over the aerodrome, we hadn’t gone half a mile. So what we found out was that we had a groundspeed of 100 miles per hour and we were heading into a wind of 100 miles per hour so it was a sort of a stalemate. So we had to radio base and ask if we could do this flight at a lower height, so they knocked 10,000 feet off for us and we managed it at 20,000 feet, but what was to have been a really high level exercise turned out to be a sort of a medium height exercise.

These exercises and these familiarisation patterns, they covered the whole of October forty-four, then in November forty-four we were sent to No.3 Lancaster Flying School at a place called Feltwell. Now, I’d have to look these up on a map to find out where they are because I haven’t got a clue at the moment. Anyway, we started familiarisation exercises at this place on the great Lancaster — and what an aeroplane that was. We did a lot of familiarisation, for the pilot — circuits and landings and I see we had a dual check one time, more circuits and landings. The fighter affiliation was quite fun, I must explain that to you, fighter affiliation. Now we were taught, if you’re being attacked by a fighter, it’s obviously going to come in tail-end either from your port or starboard stern (so you have the stern of an aeroplane the same as you do of a boat). And the idea is that the first thing you do when you see this fighter coming in from port or starboard you start what they term a ‘corkscrew’, in that direction. This is a manoeuvre where the air-gunners come into their own, and is a manoeuvre governed completely by them. Now, what you do in a corkscrew the air-gunner, tail or mid-upper, will call out ‘fighter fighter! port stern, corkscrew port’. Now that told us we’d got a fighter coming on from the port side, now we are going to meet it and that will shorten the distance between the two aeroplanes to a considerable extent and shorten his aim and more or less put him on his nose. So you get this order ‘corkscrew port’ and the pilot immediately drops the port wing to a great extent, that causes the aeroplane to sideslip, and as it sideslips down he levels the aeroplane up again. And then he dips the starboard wing, so you’re still going down sideways. The engine power is more or less off and you’re falling under gravitation. And then the engine power is put full on and you start climbing. You’re still climbing in a left-handed circular motion and you go up as high as you can until you get to a zenith and then you level up, and you do the same thing all over again, so that from the back it appears you’re going round in circles, which is exactly what its doing, and it gives the fighter cause to think.

Quite frankly you can turn a fighter over on its back because of the disturbance of the air and he can drop some thousands of feet before he makes any sort of recovery. We were doing this one day, and this sort of thing happened. They used to pair us up with ex-Battle of Britain fighter pilots. You never knew him, all you did was see him coming into the attack. During one of these exercises I was lucky enough to be standing up in the astrodome and I watched this bloke come in, and the air gunner gave the order ‘corkscrew starboard’. And we went down like a bomb and the fighter got in so close I could almost see the colour of his eyes — but he got in so close he just flipped over straight on his back and went straight down. He managed to make his recovery, I’ve no doubt it had happened to him before, but that was as much fun as anything, that was as much fun as firing off rockets from the Beaufighters.

Now, I’m sorry about this, I’ve got to go back. I’ve got to go back and talk about the first real operation that we were on. During 1944 — in the August of forty-four — while we were flying these Wellingtons we were sent on a diversion. Now, the idea was they sent about forty or fifty Wellingtons down to the north coast of France, and we flew along the north coast of France dropping ‘window’. We had a bomb aimer with us we’d met our bomb aimer and he was dropping window out of the bottom of the aeroplane as fast as he could go. Now window was strips of metallic silver paper basically — tin foil or lead foil, whatever it might have been. And what it did, it screwed up the reflection (as you no doubt know) on the radar panels. If you’ve got forty Wellingtons coasting along the north coast for France, looking like three hundred Wellingtons because of all this ‘window’, or looking like three hundred bomber aeroplanes it gives the Germans something to think about, and whilst they’re thinking about that you sneak another load of aeroplanes around the back and you batter hell out of somewhere else where they’re not expecting you. Anyway that was what we had to do on this particular night and I can see that this pre-operation operation lasted for five hours and five minutes, which ain’t bad. I can remember that for the first twenty minutes I had the wind up a bit just in case we met the opposition. We didn’t, as it happened, and it turned out to be quite a bit of fun. I’m sorry about that, that goes right back to the period on Wellingtons during August forty-four, and you’ll have to put that in the right place when you come to it.

218 Squadron

Anyway, to get back to our Lancaster flying at the end of November we were posted to 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Prior to going there my pilot had had an offer to go to 100 Squadron and he told me about it and asked me what I thought. Now 100 Squadron was a special, secret operational squadron — a special operational squadron, which took up German speaking radio operators and listened in to all the commands from the German ground control to their fighters directing them on to the bombers and did their best to countermand them. And all sorts of diabolical things used to happen. The Germans knew this happened and they used to play a tune before they gave their order, which would identify them as genuine. And it took our blokes about three or four seconds to get the same tune, and they played it from the ground in London before the German speaker in our Lancasters countermanded the order. It would have been fun but he decided in his wisdom that he didn’t want to do this, he wanted to do another tour of ops. And we arrived at the squadron, and at the end of November we went on our first ‘daylight’. This was to Köln marshalling yard, in Cologne. Now, if you read any books about aeroplanes in the Second World War, in all of them you will see that during operations, when they were over the target the navigator kept his head down. He had nothing to do, he was completely at a loose end because during the time over the target the bomb aimer was in charge.

He lays on his belly and he adjusts his bomb sight and his only instructions really are ‘left, left, right’. He always said ‘left’ twice — ‘left, left’ and then ‘right’ so that they could be easily distinguished through the intercom, and our bloke quite enjoyed this. But while this was going on knowing I had nothing to do the skipper said to me ‘here Den you must come up and look at this’. So I went up and had a look, and down below on the ground there’s about 3,000 flaming people trying to shoot me out of the sky. Well, I wasn’t very happy about that so I said to him ‘no thank you, that’s enough’ and I went back to my little den — the excuse being of course that I had to keep track of the courses that the aeroplane flew whilst he and the bomb aimer were laying up on the target. Actually it’s basic cowardice — if you’re going to get hit for crying out loud you don’t want to see what’s going to hit you. So I went back to my little cubby-hole and worked out the course for home. And as soon as we could after the bomb aimer had said ‘bombs gone’ we complied with instructions and flew the track we were told to fly and made good the course for home.

On one daylight raid — we’d only been out for about two hours or so — and we got a radio message ‘return’. And they gave us a latitude/longitude out over the sea off the south coast where we could drop our bombs, because there was no way we wanted to land with them all on board because they had been — they weren’t primed but they were fused, and it wouldn’t have been all that pleasant so they gave us this location to go to and we made our way there and we dropped our bombs. But the funny part about that was that the next morning in the paper there was big headlines about heavy guns firing across the channel and wondering what had happened.

On one Christmas Eve — well, the Christmas Eve of 1944, the only one I spent on the squadron, the saucy wretches gave us a job to do, and I rather think this must have been an individual higher-up getting a bit of his own back, because it was a case of: “go out on a night job and bomb Bonn Airfield. Now it was a doddle of a target, it was only just over the border, and there wasn’t a great deal in it, and I think there was only about a hundred aeroplanes on the job. But of course, having bombed the target, of the hundred aeroplanes we have to be the idiots that are attacked by fighter. All of a sudden we get the call from the upper gunner ‘fighter fighter, starboard stern, corkscrew starboard now’, and away we went. Well, again I had a job to do because although the front of the aeroplane faced in the same direction, there were variations, and I had to keep some idea of where we were going. And that too was a bit of a hair-raising period, you wondered what the hell was going to happen. But as we corkscrewed into the direction that the fighter was approaching from our guns started to fire and once I heard our guns start to fire — both of them — I had no worries. You know, all the fear went, and you thought ‘well that’s alright, we’re alright now’. But when we came back to the airport and the word got around we were almost flaming heroes, I could never understand why because it was only a bit of luck. But it passed the night I suppose, and we never heard what happened to Bonn aerodrome, I don’t think it was ever out of action.

Well I think it was after that I did about three more operations, all of them quite successful I think, but none of them meriting great mention anywhere. You’ll see in the log book where they were to.

Now during this period when we had three or so days off on pass, my pilot and I decided to hitchhike from Cambridgeshire to London. There wasn’t a lot of traffic about in those days, but there was some so we took a chance. We were walking along this main road and Pod waved his thumb in the air, and lo and behold a Rolls Royce stopped. Pod ran to it (I likely wouldn’t have had the bottle to approach it) and he climbed in the back and left the front passenger seat to me.

The old boy who was driving asked if we were going to London, we said ‘yes please’, and off we went. Our driver was quite a big older man in civilian clothes, and we had no idea who he might be, but conversation turned to the service, and quite suddenly he said ‘what do you know about H2S?’

Oh blimey what a question. H2S was our very latest, highly secret radio aid, and an uneasy hush fell, nobody said a word. And then the old fellow said ‘Well, we won’t talk about that’ and then he asked me ‘What rank is he?’ pointing to Pod in the back of the car. ‘Flight Lieutenant’ I said ‘OK’ he said, ‘I’ll take him to the Officer’s Club.’

Now I’ve no idea where the Officer’s Club was, but after he had apologised a dozen times because he could not take me in there we arrived and off they went leaving me in the car. I was quite content and after a while my skipper came back to the car and I said ‘Who is this bloke mate?’ He replied ‘This is Archibald Fraser-Wash, Air Vice-Marshal.’ We could say no more as the old boy got into the car and said ‘I’m sorry you couldn’t come in there Flight but now we will go to Quaglino’s, and then you can drive me home. I live in Weybridge [I think it was] and my daughters will give you eggs and bacon off the farm for breakfast.’

My word, what was he talking about, I had never driven any car, let alone a Rolls and my hair was on end. He was a good man and kept his word and took us to Quaglino’s and treated us to a fine meal (for wartime). However, all the time he kept on about how I was going to drive his car home, and I really was getting the wind up about it. The waiter brought him the bill which he signed, and he was still keeping on about me driving his car when he passed out and went to sleep. This was quite a relief to me as he had been telling me that it was an order — I was to drive his car, and I was getting quite scared about it.

However the following moments seemed like quite a well rehearsed series of moves. Two waiters came to the table and said ‘We will take care of Sir Archibald’ and I don’t quite know how the next bit happened, but suddenly and with no apparent effort I was out on the street and making for the nearest underground station. That really was the most classy place I have ever been thrown out of, and all done so smoothly. Still, it was quite something to talk about.

The 28th January Raid — Shot Down over Bonn

And we come now to the operation on the 28th January, that was the last one, and this was rather peculiar. It was to be an early morning take-off, at half past five. Well, with these take-offs the navigators’ briefing was always timed an hour and a half before. What happened, with a job like this, you were woken at about three, you were in the briefing room about half past three and you were briefed until half past four. The rest of the crew then came in, and they were briefed from half past four until about five, and then you had your breakfast, you went out to your aeroplane and away you went. All went well in this instance, and at about five o’clock in the morning we had an egg, a couple of slices of bread and butter, oh yes, a piece of bacon and a couple of mugs of tea, and away we went on the transport, out to the aeroplane.

We checked everything, we each you see had our instruments to check, and make sure they were all working. The pilot went through the old routine and checked everything and found everything alright. And then we were told to shut down, we wouldn’t be going yet. So we sat in the aeroplane out in dispersal, and time passed, and time passed, and I began to get a bit uneasy. I said to the pilot ‘for gawds sake find something wrong with this aeroplane, I don’t want to go on this one’. And he says ‘oh don’t worry about it we shall be all right’. And it happened that we didn’t take off, for some silly reason, until half past eleven that morning. Now the met forecast was that there was to be ten tenths cloud (I think that’s now done in eighths, but it was ten tenths cloud) which meant we were to have complete cloud cover over the target, and we would be therefore able to fly at 16,000 feet, which was a bit low, but anyway that was what we were going to do. And as I say half past eleven that morning we took off and we made our way.

This was an operation to Cologne in the Ruhr Valley and I forget what the actual target was but there was an actual target in Cologne, and as I say we made our way there. And we got to the target, and that’s rather funny. We were supposed to arrange our navigating so that we could get to a target within six seconds of the time allotted. Ha ha ha. Because we used to put our time out in so many hours, so many minutes, and point what have you of the last minute. Anyway, if we got there within two or three minutes either way we were content. Well there was a hell of a lot of flak, it being daylight it came up thick and fast. And the trouble was, as I forgot to tell you, I mentioned the met report would be that there would be ten tenths cloud, complete cloud cover which enables us to go in at 16,000 feet. Well as we approached the target, about two miles from the target, the cloud stopped. And we were at 16,000 feet in the wide open sky with no cover whatsoever, and it was a holiday for the Germans, and as I say they threw up a hell of a lot of flak. But we made our way to the target, the bomb aimer was on his bed — laying on his belly in his bomb bay - and he was sighting up his bomb-sight. And he gave the order ‘bomb doors open’. So the pilot opened the bomb doors and as soon as he opened the bomb doors we got two shells come into them. Came straight up through the bottom of the aircraft and went straight out of the top, and didn’t touch a soul. Didn’t scratch anybody we were damn lucky. Whether they exploded above the aeroplane or whether they didn’t explode at all I shall never know. But the pilot then said ‘for Christ’s sake Frank drop those bloody bombs!’. And Frank says ‘look skipper, I haven’t brought all these this far to drop them on nothing, now left, left, and do as your told’ sort of thing. So we continued the bombing run and eventually the bomb aimer said ‘bombs gone’. As he said this, there was a hell of a thump on the aeroplane, it was a really nasty bang and we rocked a bit, and the pilot said to the engineer ‘port inner engine hit, extinguish fire’. Now that was simple enough, but of course bloody engineer panicked, didn’t he. And he went to feather the starboard engine, which would have put us into a little bit of a predicament. But fortunately the pilot was able to knock his hand away and point out what he had to do, and the fire in the port engine was extinguished, and the prop was feathered. Now, when you feather a prop, you turn the blade so that it is facing the same way as the line of flight, so this means the engine stops turning. So the port inner engine stopped. There was another thump and the aeroplane rocked again and the pilot said ‘port outer engine hit and on fire, extinguish fire’. This time the engineer was with it and he did the right thing and we feathered the port outer. Now this means we’ve got two good engines on the starboard side and nothing on the port side. So in no way can we turn into port, because if you do that you spin straight away, it’s obvious isn’t it — all the power on one side nothing on the other, you’re going to go around in ever decreasing circles.

So, although the briefing had said ‘after you leave the target (and we were travelling obviously into Germany, we were travelling eastward) turn north’ which means we had to turn to port, we weren’t able to do so, we had to turn to starboard. Well, it was toward the end of the war, it wasn’t far into Germany, so there were one or two Spitfires accompanying us. So we had to turn away from the rest of the stream, as the rest of the bombing stream turned port, to north, we had to turn starboard, to the south. And as we did that we got another hammering, we got a hell of a bang again, only this time it was on the starboard side of the plane, and the engines started to race like one o’clock, they went up to full boost and full revs, which put a terrible strain on that side of the aeroplane. He throttled back as quickly as he could, but what had happened was the controls to feather the propellers had been shot away, the rev controls on the engines had been shot away and there wasn’t much we could do about it. He simply had to fight it, and it was a fight, he had to fight it with his stick and his rudder bar. But we made our turn to the south, and we’d started off over the target at 16,000 feet. Now, if you look at the map you’ll see that due south of Cologne is Bonn, [laughs] whose aerodrome we’d bombed a few nights previously. By the time we got to Bonn we were down to somewhere in the region - because we were losing height — somewhere in the region of about 10,000 feet. And I’m trying to work out whether we’ve got enough height, speed, and distance to get across the river Meuse, now that runs parallel to the Rhine, and that’s where the front line troops were at that time, they were going across the Meuse approaching the Rhine. I thought that we could just about make the distance before we hit the deck, and that was my job to try and get us westward into our own lines. So I’d got my head down and I was at it and there was another bang, and again the aeroplane shook. And this time it was the tail gunner, he said ‘skipper, half the bloody tail’s been shot away’. And the pilot tried the controls, of course there was no rudder, and he said ‘abandon aircraft’, and that was another chapter.

As a combined crew we’d gone through the ‘abandon aircraft drill’ often enough on the ground, and we’d got it worked out as well as anybody else. And when the skipper said ‘abandon aircraft’ it worked, it worked well. The bomb aimer went down to the forward hatch and he threw the lid out, at the same time the tail gunner turned his turret right all the way around and fell out backwards, so that was those two gone. Now the next man out the front was the flight engineer. He was a dour Scot, and I know that among the crew it was presumed that if we ever got in a tight spot, whoever panicked, it wouldn’t be the flight engineer, because he was a dour Scot. More likely to be the navigator, he was the one that was going to do us all wrong and drop us in the cart. But I am waiting at the back of the hole for the flight engineer to get out of my way so that I can go through it. Well he sat at the front of the hole with his back to the forward movement of the aeroplane, and was going to go out. It was the wrong way to go but that’s the way he thought he would like to go. And then he didn’t. So he crawled round to the side of the hole, and as he crawled around he was going to throw himself out sideways. But he didn’t. He looked up at me and he shook his head and he crawled round to the back of the hole, and he bent down. Well that was it, I put the boot up his arse and he was gone — it didn’t take him half a second to get through that hole then. Now immediately he’d gone I went, the radio operator was right behind me, the mid-upper gunner was right behind him, and we got out so quickly that as we came down we could see each other. And we watched, at least I did, I watched this aeroplane go away hoping the pilot would get out. Now this was, I estimate, at about 8,000 feet, and I watched this aeroplane fade away hoping that the pilot would get out and all of a sudden I saw the black blob come out through the escape hatch, and as it came out so the aeroplane went nose down straight over him, how it didn’t hit him I don’t know. But that was the sort of state it was in. As soon as the controls were released it went straight down, and it went down with a hell of a scream and a roar, and a thud.

Now what I must tell you now is that I got out of the aeroplane, and I’m all on my own, and I’m wearing a chest parachute. It is only some four months previously that I’ve tightened up all the straps. Prior to that like everybody else I walked around carelessly with loose straps down between my legs. But I made up my mind for some reason that I would tighten them all up, and I did, and thank the Lord I did because when I went out the harness was as tight as a drum, it was really tight (I had to half-bend to walk comfortably) and that was, as you can imagine, quite a good thing. Anyway, here am I falling out of this flaming aeroplane and we’re told to count ten. I think I went about one, two, three and I pulled the ripcord. My next thought was ‘I think I’ll keep this ripcord as a souvenir’, and then I thought ‘when is this flaming parachute going to open’ and I put my hand towards the pack on my chest and it got flung away, very very quickly — it nearly pulled my flaming arm off. And the parachute opened. Now it opened with one hell of a crack, it sounded like a four-point-five anti-aircraft gun going off, and there was a very strong and sudden jerk. Well, as you can imagine, in the time it takes the parachute to open you’ve gained your top velocity and you’re falling at one hundred and twenty miles an hour. The parachute opens and you’re down to about twelve miles an hour, it was quite a jerk and as I say I was very grateful afterwards that my harness was very tight and very secure.

Well as I say I saw the other fellows, all their parachutes were open and we saw the pilot’s parachute open, so that was alright, we were all out of the thing and the aeroplane crashed to the earth. By then there was a wisp of cloud that we floated through and, I don’t know what the others did, but I landed in a forest. And fortunately there was a mass of snow everywhere. It was a very cold winter in Europe and there was plenty of snow. So the first order came to mind, bury the parachute. So I buried the parachute in the snow, and I though ‘now I’ve got to start walking’. Now the only way to walk is west. Well, in a little pack of rations that you used to keep inside your blouson jacket, right down in the corner of it, there was a compass. You didn’t have to open it, you could see it through the Perspex covering of the pack, and by this compass I started to walk westward.

Life as a POW

After five, ten, fifteen minutes maybe, I’m walking through this forest, and suddenly there’s a figure ahead, coming towards me. Now I can see as he gets closer that this is a kid in uniform, he’s somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, so the question is ‘what do we do now?’ So I thought well, I’ll walk past him, I’ll say ‘good day’, and hopefully he will ignore me. But before I could get close enough to him to say ‘good day’ he said to me ‘et zu Englander?’. Well, I knew what that was, and when I saw the little Luger pistol strapped to his belt, I thought ‘oh blimey, yes I am’. So I admitted the offence and put myself in his little hands, and I really think the bugger wanted to shoot me. The first thing he said was ‘pistol’. Well, I’m going to break off now and tell you a little bit about pistols.

In all my time in the services I think I fired every sort of gun, from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle to a Browning machine gun through to a sten gun and all the rest of them — and the only thing I never fired was a handgun. So, in the wisdom of the bureaucracy of the RAF they issued all aircrew each with their own .45 Colt. Now what a ridiculous thing to do. This bally pistol, it was enormous and it must have weighed two pounds, at least that’s what it felt like. And the ammunition was so large, as you can imagine .45 is damn near half an inch, so you’ve got a bullet that’s the best part of half an inch wide, so you can imagine the size of it. So, we all of us, not only my crew but I think every crew that flew in the RAF we all agreed that the best place for these bally weapons was left in the billet. And that’s what we did with them — mine was locked up in the locker and there it stayed as far as I know, when I didn’t come back it was taken away. I never heard any more about it, but I certainly didn’t want it with me.

Well, this bloke’s asking for a pistol I haven’t got, so I opened the front of my blouse and I show him all around the top of my trousers and he eventually twigged and says ‘nix pistol?’ Well I know what he’s talking about then, so I nod and say ‘nix pistol’, and he says ‘kommen zei mit’ which I gathered meant ‘come with me you wretched man’. So, away I went with him.

Now, he led me to a farm house somewhere outside the south-west side of Bonn I suppose it must have been, and I was taken in front of three German officers. There was a bit of a misunderstanding first of all because I made it plain to them that I didn’t speak German and they said ‘no, but you speak in English and so do we’, so that was that. And then it’s a question — it’s drilled into you all through your service — if you’re captured all you give is your rank, name, and number. So, it was a question of repetition. Rank, name and number. Rank, name and number. And they got a bit tired of this, so they sent me outside to the — I suppose the farmyard. And two youngsters — two infantrymen - were behind me and they prodded me up on top of a load of farmhouse muck. Now, this farmhouse muck was stacked up in the corner of a pair of wooden gates and a wall. So there an I like an idiot, up to my ankles in whatsname with my hands held up and two blokes behind me playing with the — I think they were tapping the clip of their rifle sling against the barrel. There’s a clip there and if you move it properly you can make it click, and this click click clicking was going on behind me. And after the first five minutes — or rather during the first five minutes you’re afraid you’re going to be shot. And during the next five minutes you’re afraid your not going to be shot because every time your arms drop down they come along and they bump you at the bottom of the elbows so up go your arms again — it gets a bit fatiguing after a time.

Anyway after a while — I suppose about fifteen minutes they brought me in from this and they stuck me in a room, sat me on a sort of settle come form thing, and put two young men with SS badges on their shoulders to guard me. Now comes upset number two. One of them said to me what I now know to be ‘for you the war is over’ [again in German]. I twigged what it meant you know, and I sort of said yeah, I know all about that mate but you are SS. And they said ‘yes’, and I said — I twisted my fingers together and I said ‘SS-Gestapo are one’ (ist ein). And oh my word that didn’t half put the cat among the pigeons, that really upset them. They were nothing to do with the Gestapo, they didn’t want to know anything about the Gestapo, the Gestapo was this, that, and the other. And after that they quietened down a bit, once they’d convinced me that they were not Gestapo, because one of the things the intelligence officer had said to us — they knew most things that went on in Germany — but one of the things he said to us ‘recently the prisoners have been taken over by the Gestapo and if that happens to you I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ And he walked out of the briefing room and we thought ‘oh blimey, well that’s nice’. And here am I, in with a crack German regiment, the SS, whom I believe are closely associated with the Gestapo. Anyway these two youngsters, they were about 19-21, something like that they denied it and we settled down for a while and then I was taken to meet the rest of my crew who of course had all been rounded up with the exception of the bomb aimer and the rear gunner. So that left five of us together. So, they took us outside, they marched us — they formed us up in line and they marched us away. Now where they marched us to I’ve no idea but it was something that looked like the bottom of a windmill, it was probably the bottom of a hayloft or something there was plenty of straw about and they indicated that we should make ourselves a bed with this straw, which we did.

And then time started to pass, now I’d eaten as I believe I told you about half past five on the Sunday morning, so we bedded down in Germany on the Sunday night. Came the Monday morning, it wasn’t warm in fact it was damn cold there was still snow on the ground so we were doing exercises to try and warm ourselves up. There was no mention of food there and all we could do was chat amongst ourselves and lay on this bundle of straw, and so Monday passed. Tuesday dawned and was a repetition of Monday — nothing to do, plenty of time to do it, nothing absolutely happening, and when you think back about it the German army administration must have been just about as good as ours, because we were still there on the Wednesday. Now on the Wednesday afternoon about four o’clock somebody brought along a billy-can thing with some soup in it, and they indicated that we should try and find something to drink this soup from. So we all started looking around and we found odd tins — how long they’d been there God knows some of them had rusted right through, but we plunged them into the old soup and we drank the soup from them and it tasted absolutely vile, it was atrocious, it was a filthy dirty grey colour, and the taste was really obnoxious, but it was something to eat, and it more or less warmed us up a little bit. But when I looked at the tin I’d used I realised why it had tasted so foul — it was an old DDT tin. Now DDT was the old wartime flea powder, they used it for everything. Anything that crawled, flew or moved DDT would knock it off. So you can see that it wouldn’t have tasted very good anyway! But needs must when the Devil drives and I think it was on the Wednesday - on that particular Wednesday - they moved us to a nearby French prison camp.

Now this catered wholly for the French and up in one corner of it there were a couple of dozen American infantrymen. God knows how long they’d been there and God knows how long they were going to be there, but we were shoved up there with them — just the five of us and we kept very much to ourselves because the old American infantryman he’s a bit of a lout — a bit of a rogue, and we weren’t very impressed with them at all. (I don’t think they were very impressed with us!). We were housed then in breezeblock huts, I think the roofs were corrugated iron, but all the walls were this 18” x 12” breezeblocks, 4½” thick and it was still damn cold, there was still snow on the ground. The only thing we had to sleep in was some bits of old sacking that we’d found, Hessian. So you’ve got a concrete floor and the only way we could do our best to keep warm was to huddle up to one another, laying on this concrete floor. Now of course we weren’t on ration strength at this place so once again we went a bit short of grub, they only cater for Frenchmen. But they did manage to squeeze out for us half a cup of soup each day, and half a cup of water. We had nothing to wash in, we just had half a cup each day for drinking and I think this must have gone on for about seven or eight days.

During this time we were all sent for to an office in the HQ and the swine stole our flying boots. They were basically a wool-lined shoe with a fur-lined piece attached to it. It was stitched in such a way that if you managed to get away you could cut the stitches, dump the leg part, and you had an ordinary looking pair of shoes. They were most comfortable. Anyway they were taken from us and in their place we were given snow overshoes. Terrible things, but beggars could not be choosers and we had to put up with it.

We settled down one night, we’d dropped off, I was asleep, when I got a dig in the ribs and my flight engineer said “hey look at this Den, we are going to be in the middle of this lot.” And looking out of one window there is a green flare descending. Looking out of the other window there is another green flare descending. And looking at those two flares the old briefing came back, “always bomb the green, always bomb on the green”. Pathfinder put these flares down right over the target, you see, and the ordinary bombers come along and they bomb on the green lights, that is their target. Now pathfinders do this because they’re so bloody clever at navigation that they are never wrong, but in this case they were about five or six miles out because Bonn, which was their target was five or six miles down the hill. Now I’ll tell you why this raid took place in a minute because I’ve gone a little bit out of sequence but we’ll go back to it.

Anyway everybody was woken up and we were out of that cement hut like long dogs. And dotted around the place were trenches, six foot deep, eighteen inches wide, about six foot long, and of course we made for those straight away and we got well down into them, and it was a good job we did, because all hell broke loose. I won’t say it was a thousand-bomber raid, it was probably five, six hundred of the lads up there, but they sent down tons of it, and all so quickly it was unbelievable, it was all over in about eight minutes. God knows fully how much they sent down, we never shall know. Eventually they passed away, as they do, they made their way back, they hadn’t met any opposition as that we could tell — because there they were five of six miles away from their target. But when we collected ourselves we went back to our huts, and right where our heads had been laying there was about four lumps of concrete about four foot long six inches thick and about a foot wide, right where our heads had been, if we’d been there we’d have got crushed to a pulp.

Anyway we weren’t there, and we started to gather our stuff from under all this rubble — the bits of Hessian we slept in, our boots and that sort of thing, and gathered them all together. And then we started to look around outside. Well the wire fence had been blown down and the lights had been put out, obviously, but before you could say jack-knife, in all the gaps in the fence there was a German guard with a dog. I should tell you about the dog.

Anyway, once that was all over and we left that camp we walked down the road, only about eight or nine miles to another camp. Now I’m going to stop there because I want to go back and tell you another little yarn. This next yarn occurred about a week or ten days before the air-raid that knocked us for six, and I’m going to tell you the story as it happened, with absolutely no comment whatsoever. Sunday morning, about ten in the morning, a bright day, not a cloud in the sky, and suddenly there appear five flying fortresses. Now, the direction they’re going in they are going to bomb Bonn, which as I think I’ve said was about six miles from us down the hill, and that’s obviously the direction they were making for. When we first saw them they were some ten miles I suppose from their supposed target. As they approached the town, Jerry threw up four or five anti-aircraft shells, and they popped up with their usual lump of black smoke, and do you know (this really happened!) all those flying fortresses turned right, and flew away and they dropped their bombs on open ground, we bloody nearly wept, all of us, it was such a disgusting thing to see. Anyway, as I say, that happened and I make no comment whatsoever, because I have been to the Cambridge war memorial for the American Flying Corps and believe me, that is an eye-opener.

Anyway, we’ve now got the stage where we’ve been blasted out of our attachment to this French prison camp and we’re all being marched along in column for about ten miles as I tell you to the next prison camp. Now where it was, what it was, I don’t know, because as we marched through the gates somebody, with a little more intelligence than those we had been with up to date, spotted the uniform and they separated us. Now the five of us were turned around there and then and we were put on a truck and we were taken to a railway station. We had no idea where we were going, but it turned out to be Frankfurt.

Now the first thing Jerry wanted with aircrew was to get us separated and in the interrogation centre, and that’s where we were bound for now. Of course it was too late, we’d been together for a couple of weeks or so, and the morale had been boosted by each other’s company and we were quite chipper. They took us to Frankfurt by train, and we got out at Frankfurt station and we again had to march. Now we marched with a platoon of guards (Germans) with an officer towards Frankfurt (the station we alighted from was some way out of Frankfurt, and we were marching towards Frankfurt). At one time we stopped, we halted, and we hung about, and then the English speaking German officer said to us “you will notice that your guards have been doubled, this not to stop you escaping, this is to keep you from the German civilians.” (If I can think of it there’s another little story about that at the end of this). He said “you are going to walk through Frankfurt, do not laugh, whistle, do not talk, do not look up” and we continued the march - the inference was that we could escape if we wanted to but we’d do better to stay where we were because we were being protected — needless to say we all stayed where we were.

But in marching through this city — you could march through with your head down and quietly turn your head to one side and you could look up and see what was going on and quite honestly there was not, really speaking, two bricks one on top of the other. The only the movement around was people trying to sort the rubble out, get it tidied up in some sort of manner, but other than that there was absolutely no life in the city at all. And so we finished up in our interrogation centre. So here we are now being sorted out at the interrogation centre. Now I forget the German name for it, it had a name of its own, I’ve forgotten it. Here, we were each one to a cell, and as a crew we were well separated, one from the other. I don’t honestly think we were really on the same floor, let alone near one another at all. So this started quite a quiet, slow, lonely existence. Now, to draw attention to yourself alongside the door you had a flat key set into the wall, which turned. Well, as it turned, it lowered a chunk of steel, a chunk of steel which dropped down outside the cell door and went ‘clang, clang, clang’ and the guard then knew that you wanted something. You used this if course to go to toilet but they were very very careful that you were on your own in the toilet. You never saw another soul, and you never spoke to anybody, the guards wouldn’t speak to you, and you were quite frankly in solitary confinement.

This time passed, and about a week, ten days later I suppose, I was thinking it was about time I saw an interrogation officer. He was an Herbert that the whole time I was there I never saw, which was most surprising but which was explained later on. I woke up one morning and I don’t know what was wrong with me but my left eye closing up with swelling my face felt as though it was swollen and the left side of my neck was absolute agony. So I dropped the flag to call the guard, and he came and opened the door and I made signs and he twigged that I was sick. So I was put on the sick parade. Now this involved going to see the doctor, and I must describe this a little bit. It was still very, very cold, there was still plenty of snow on the ground and the doctor was very busy — patients were queuing up in a long line all around the corner of this room that was his surgery. There was his desk in the corner, and next to that as it came down the length of the room was a bally great big radiator, and it was pounding out heat like a furnace, it was really battling on and it felt wonderful to stand by this. So, he didn’t know what was wrong with me I don’t think because he didn’t get much chance to find out, but what he did, he stuck a thermometer under my arm and then turned away to attend to the next patient. Well, that was wonderful for me so I did no more I leant on this radiator and it was red hot! God knows what temperature that thermometer went up to but by the time he turned around to look at me I was standing up straight again and he took the thermometer from under my arm, he looked at it, he looked at me, he looked at it, he looked at me again, and the next thing I know I’m in a motor car being taken to hospital. Now, this is the hospital, apparently, that was being run by nuns and it was a very pleasant place to be. And in there was an orderly, destined to look after me, who in my mind I call ‘Adolf’ — he was a nice enough bloke, and he was going to put me into bed. Now this bed was immaculate, the sheets were absolutely spotless as were the pillowcases, and I hadn’t seen sheets in weeks and weeks and weeks. You know, this is going to be a bit of alright. And then he told me to undress, well I undressed, My golly Moses, I was filthy!

Now in this Stalag Lufte, this interrogation centre, I’d been sleeping on the normal Geneva Convention of, I think it’s five boards — what you’ve got you’ve is a bunk and you’ve got boards across it four inches or so wide and you have to have one under your ankles, one under your knees, one under your hips, one under your shoulders and one under your head. If you can get more than that you’re more comfortable, but that is minimum that the Geneva Convention says you are to have. And whilst I was there all I was sleeping on was a sack affair, filled up with wood shavings. Well of course in this French prison camp to which we were attached we’d had no washing water. And in the two weeks or so that I was in the interrogation centre I’d had no washing water, I had in fact had nothing, and I was in a right state, I must have stunk like the back of a sewage works. Anyway, old Adolf held up his hands in shock-horror and I said ‘nix Wasser’ and he understood I hadn’t been able to wash, so he put me into bed, and it was gorgeous and I think I slept for about three days. I don’t know, but I must have been there for two or three days and when I woke up — in fact I was awakened — there was a German Army Officer (correction, there was a German Air Force Officer — Luftwaffe Officer) standing by the bed and he said “Well sergeant I have got no questions for you. I know all I want to know about you and your lot.” I said “Oh do you sir?”, he said “I’ve learnt all I want to know.” So I thought ‘that’s good, that lets me off the hook”. And what he did tell me was that our so-called ‘G-Leaders’, our G-Leader which was the aeroplane we were supposed to follow on this daylight raid because he was an expert on operating the G-radio tracking thing, he’d got shot down and he was on his last operation. He was on his thirty-first flight they’d all got lost, he did tell me that much.

But anyway he went and then Adolf came in and he put me in front of a sink with some hot water in it and he gave me a razor and a bit of soap, and I had my first wash since I don’t know when. He stood over me all the time to make sure I didn’t cut my throat with the razor although it was a safety razor, and then I had to try to get this growth of beard off my face. Well you’ll know what that means — all I had was a bit of toilet soap of a sort, German, a most ineffective sort of stuff, and one razor blade. So, nothing loathe I lathered it up as best I could and wetted it as well as I could and I tore it off — and ‘tore it off’ is the right phrase. And once I was fairly presentable, I was sent back to the interrogation centre, and on the way out, low and behold you know they gave me twenty cigarettes, and by golly what a gift that was. Why they did it I’ve no idea but they did. And we were put into a room to await transport to the proper prison camp. Well this meant bussing it on the lorry to — I think it was the main Frankfurt station — to pick up a train, we didn’t know where we were going but we were actually going to Nuremburg. Well, because of air raids and things, and there were plenty of them out there, train schedules were all up the creek, and we had to wait quite a long time, I think it was about twelve hours on Frankfurt station. Anyway we were in this sort of waiting room all of us, and we got our heads down. And I was well dozed off, and all of a sudden I got such a hammering on my legs and as I woke up I realised that some swine of a bloody guard, escorting a single prisoner, has hammered me across the ankles with his rifle. A nasty thing to do but there it was, it woke me up pretty sharply and he did this because he wanted one of the chairs my legs were on. Anyway this was quite a pleasant bloke this prisoner that this fellow was transporting, and of all the wonderful things he has he had some bread and jam and he gave me a couple of slices of bread and jam and by golly it was good. Unfortunately somebody else woke up and they all wanted bread and jam but of course by that time it was too late the poor blighter only had a couple of bits.

Well eventually we were loaded on the train and we were put in to cattle trucks with the doors that slide down the side. We laid on beds of straw, quite generous amounts of straw it wasn’t uncomfortable. Until, suddenly, the engine stopped, the truck stopped, everything stopped and there was a deadly hush, and we heard the word that there was one of these American Mustangs flying about. Now they took a great delight in strafing railway trains because apparently when you hit a steam engine with a cannon shell it blows up in quite a spectacular fashion, and they used to love it. And what happened when this alarm came up was that all the German guards in the truck went and laid on their bellies alongside the railway line, and they locked us in! And we had a Mustang pilot in the truck with us and he was damn near going berserk. You didn’t know which way to lay, you didn’t know whether to lay down the length of the truck, in the hope that the shells and the machine gun bullets would go each side of you, or whether to lay across the truck in the hope that they would go the other way each side of you, and it was quite a dilemma. Well after the first time that happened, (we weren’t actually attacked, fortunately), but after the first time that happened the officer in charge of prisoners and the officer in charge of Germans had a right up and downer, a right row along the side of the railway and the officer in charge of the prisoners told the German that if anything like this ever happened again on this journey he would make very certain the he was up for war crimes. Well of course the Germans had it at the back of their minds by then that they were losing the war, and so it was agreed that whatever happened, we wouldn’t again be locked into the cattle trucks.

When we left the trucks we were walked, I think some miles, to a most strange place, which to this day I have never understood.

It was a prison camp and I suppose there were German guards somewhere but I never saw one. We were met by Americans and the officer told us we would not be there long, and then he asked us if we had lice would we please move ‘over there’. Well that was me, so with others we were marched into a store room and given American clothing uniform of course. We were told to take off all of our clothing but to keep our battledress jackets, which showed our rank and brevets. After that we were guided into some hot showers and had a good cleansing wash (oh bliss) and scrub to get rid of the lice. After the wash and getting dry we changed into the gear with which we had been issued, and what an issue. There were two high-necked long-sleeved vests, and two sets of long johns (long legged underpants), a pair of khaki coloured trousers, two pair of socks and a pair of American infantry boots, and a woollen scarf. I must say we looked a bit strange in all the khaki and a blue jacket, but the jacket was essential for identification purposes. .

I must mention that before the shower we had our head hair cut off and our heads were shaved, so we looked a peculiar lot.

We were then taken back on a parade and told that all the Red Cross parcels were pooled and we would eat in the mess. We were also told that because we had been lice infested we were being got rid of the next day. As I say how this set-up worked I shall never know, but they obviously got supplies from somewhere to keep it all going, but we didn’t ask questions then, only since.

Eventually we arrived at our camp at Nuremburg, the number of that I don’t know , it was an ‘O’ flag of some sort which was an officers’ prison camp as opposed to a — what was it? — a Stalag, which was a prison camp for other ranks. Well of course one of the reasons that air crew were all given rank — we were all made sergeant — was so that under the Geneva Convention, the Germans couldn’t make us work, because anybody below the rank of sergeant could be made to work and as you know a lot of the army men, privates and rest of it, they had to work down coal mines and in cattle stations and God knows what else. They were used very nearly as slave labour but fortunately having the rank we had that didn’t happen to us, and once we got settled down in the camp all we had to do was pass the time. Now we had plenty of packs of cards which had come of course from the Red Cross parcels, and I taught one or two of them to play crib - there were one or two of us there who knew how to play it, but by the time we finished everybody played crib and we used to hold cribbage drives and that used to pass an evening quite happily.

I’d made up my mind when I first got shot down that under no circumstances was I going to try to be a bloody hero and try and escape. I realised by then along with everybody else that the war was fast coming to an end, British and American troops were on the Meuse and it wasn’t going to be long before they were on the Rhine and all we had to do was wait for them, which was basically what we did. Another way of spending our time was to walk round and round the wire.

When we’d been in this camp a while we were all gathered together and the officer i/c told us that we were on the move and we were going to make a march. And we were instructed on what to do with certain contents of the Red Cross parcels. To make iron rations we mixed oats up with condensed milk and let it dry, and put cocoa with it and all that kind of flaming rubbish, because they told us it was going to be a longish walk. Well, it turned out to be a walk from Nuremburg to Munich. I’ve often wondered how far it was — I don’t know, I’ve looked and I registered it at about 180-200 miles, but I could be well out in my estimate.

Well, you can imagine with something like 12-15,000 prisoners, this was quite a march to organise, but the one thing the Germans were good at was organisation. And we had with us guards, well into their sixties, and I suppose given the chance we might have got away, but it really wasn’t worthwhile even trying, and the whole column when it was spread out seemed to be about a mile and a half, which was fortunate for me because I was about two thirds of the way down from the front of the column, and we were on our first day’s march when all of a sudden we were strafed by a bloody Spitfire. Well it only hit the front of the march and I don’t know if anybody was hurt even. I don’t think anybody was killed, but I saw the most amazing thing the next day because the blighter came back the second time, the following day. We took shelter, but our bit of the column was up a hill, and as we looked towards the front of the column down in the valley at the side of the road in a field there were the three letters ‘POW’. These were made with food tins — tins that contained food, I don’t know if they did or not but as I looked at them the sun was shining on them and they were all reflected in a silver brilliance and these letters must have been something like eight foot — ten foot long. Whose idea it was I don’t know but it was obviously somebody with a brilliant mind up the front of the column that did this for us because they came over again, daily, and they seemed to be checking our position on the road, and I think this observation must have lasted for the next five or six days.

Well of course night time we were sleeping where we could, as we could and when we could, but fortunately for us in the main the weather was quite good and we used to nestle down in ditches and in fields. Before we left the prison camp we’d each been issued with one blanket, and that was a very useful thing to have, because you could roll yourself up into it and get yourself lost, and it was very comforting. Now, we paired up, and made mates of course, and what we used to do, if we came to a village, we had our Red Cross parcels and if there was anything in it that was improved by cooking or we wanted to put some potatoes with it which we’d knocked off from the fields, we got to the stage of such confidence that we used to knock on the doors of these villagers houses and we’d go in and cook our meal. Where we got the impertinence from I don’t know but we did. We were the conquerors, they knew we were the conquerors, it wasn’t finished yet, and while they didn’t exactly welcome us in they let us and we went in and we did what we wished in their kitchen — never took anything, never hurt anything. Used their pots and pans and left them to wash it up.

Walking along these roads in between these forests, I think the area is vaguely the Bavarian Alps I don’t know, but I think it was somewhere around about there and one day we came across some wooden huts. Along with my flight engineer we went into these wooden huts and it was the first night’s sleep we’d had under a roof for days and days and days. Being a nosy sort of Scot he went rooting around — he was on the top bunk, and he went rooting around among the rafters of this wooden hut and he came out with a packet of tea, what nationality of tea God knows, it was just tea in a bit of old brown paper. He looked at me and I looked at him and I said ‘well what do we do? Do we smoke it or do we drink it?” and he said ‘Well, let’s smoke it.” Now that was a silly decision really because we should have drunk the bally stuff first, dried it out, and then smoked it afterwards, but we weren’t bright enough to think of that then. So we smoked this stuff, now the only thing we had to roll it in — the only paper we had was bits of German toilet roll, which was alright for what it was intended but wasn’t a lot of good as cigarette paper because it was so porous, and of course as you sucked in air to smoke this cigarette so the cigarette was going out because the air was coming in through the paper around the cigarette. So the answer was you kept on licking it. So there we were sitting up on this top bunk smoking this wet papered tea (laughs) and thinking that we were actually enjoying ourselves. Sounds revolting at the moment but then it was quite pleasant thank you very much.

Well, so the march continued it became quite routine, the Red Cross met us on the road every other day with half a parcel each, and believe me boy they really saved our lives. What would have happened without them I don’t know. As the march went on, so these poor old German guards they got more and more shattered. One morning early in the morning I woke up, it was daylight and it was hammering down with rain. I was laying in a pool of water, my blanket was absolutely saturated, I was absolutely saturated, all my clothes were absolutely saturated, but twenty, thirty feet from me in this pouring rain the South Africans built a blooming great big fire. Now this fire must have been going up twenty feet, it was enormous. Where they got the wood from, how they did it, you know, where they had matches from I’ve no idea, but I woke up and there was this wonderful warm air coming from this fire, and it was great. It was so big and it was so hot that we actually managed to dry everything off. The Germans came along and said “put the fire out, put the fire out” but nobody took a lot of notice of them because it was daylight anyway and it dried everything off for everybody in my little bit of the column and it was a real Godsend. Well eventually we got to our final camp at Munich. Now we didn’t know it at that time, but the German plan was that we were to be held as hostages for certain conditions that they wanted to lay down at the end of the war.

Release, and the Return Home

Now, I’ve got an idea that somewhere on this tape I mention Count Bernadotte, the great peace-maker, well it was at this camp, whatever I’ve said previously, it was at this camp that I saw him. And because he was seen there, we got a whiff that something was up, but again we didn’t know what. We were beginning at about this time to hear gunfire, heavy gunfire in the distance as the troops were coming closer to us. Then one glorious morning, we’d been hearing light machine-gun fire and we’d been hearing rifle fire and all of a sudden a tank drew up outside the wire, and I don’t know which regiment it was, but it was an American regiment and they were surprised to see us, they had no idea we were there. We yelled and screamed and called at them to come and knock the wire down and bring their tank in, but they wouldn’t do that — they’d got to look after us anyway having found us. They weren’t going to absolutely daft about that. Anyway it turned out that it was General Patton’s mob — he became known as General ‘Pearl Handle Revolver’ Patton, because he always carried two pearl handled revolvers in holsters, one on each hip, a right idiotic thing to do I doubt he ever used them, but it was his trademark, and he was a bit of a martinet actually I believe. But from then on of course we knew that it was all over and we were going home.

Well rations improved a bit, one or two people got out — the South Africans they were buggers they got out and they came back with a cow. They slaughtered this animal, and that was where I learned that when you slaughter an animal the first thing you look at is its liver and if it’s got blue spots on you don’t eat it! Because that was what they found with this one so they just dumped it — apparently it’s a sign that the meat isn’t very nice thank you.

But we were by then having our diet augmented a bit, and we had an American Sergeant come into the hut one night. He said “How do you blokes feel about a bit of fish?” “Oh yes please, a bit of fish would be very pleasant, very nice”. So, he came back about half an hour later in the jeep and he’d got tons of the stuff — all fresh, all dead. And what they’d done, they’d gone down to the river and slung a grenade in. Well it was certainly one way to go fishing, but it worked, and this was the sort of implemented diet that we managed to make up for ourselves as time went by and eventually came the day when they brought up twenty, thirty, maybe forty darn great big open lorries. They were all driven by big black men and they were really the sort of thing we use these days for rubbish removing. And they managed to put in the back of these lorries — they were open, and we had to stand up — they managed to put about seventy men in each. And they drove us, well it seemed miles and miles, well I suppose it was bloody miles really, because, I forget whether we had a night’s kip or whether we just kept going, I really don’t
know. I think we must have done the journey in one because I don’t remember stopping off and sleeping anywhere else. But we went to a sort of transit camp, and this was an English place, and they were cooking good grub and they sat us down to a meal and we had German prisoners waiting on us and that made us feel really cock-of-the-hoop, it was really good.

Well next morning, after we’d had a sleep under a tent they put us back on these lorries again and they drove us to Rheims. Well the only thing I remember about Rheims is the lorry stopped and the direction I was looking in was between houses of course along a road, and there at the end of this avenue was part of Rheims cathedral. I don’t know whether it was the front, or the back or what it was, but I looked at that and I thought “well, I’m going to come back some time, and have a better look at you”, but it’s something I’ve never done.

We went from there to an airport, a local airfield there weren’t any runways, it was just a rough patch and they were lining up aeroplanes — Lancasters in our case - to bring us back home. But whilst we were waiting for our aeroplanes to arrive — they were taking off as many as they could and then coming back for more, as sort of ferry service. One morning while we were waiting there a flaming German Stuka came over, I think it’s the Junkers 87, the old German dive-bomber, with the anhedral, and then the dyhedral on the wings to give it strength as it pulled out of its straight-down dive, and this thing flew towards this airport and everybody scattered, we went like the wind, just in case. But as it flew over there were two white streamers flying off the wingtips and so it was allowed to land and presumably the crew were taken in hand eventually. Then the time came I got on my Lancaster aeroplane and we made for home, the navigator was quite kind, he let me sit alongside him and we sort of navigated this aeroplane home together, it was very pleasant to be back in flying harness again.

Well, we landed at Portsmouth, and we got off the aeroplane and they lined us all up, and there were orderlies there with darn great big pumps, sort of syringe type things with a long open spout on the end. And what they were doing they were squirting us with DDT. Now I can’t tell you what the chemical name is, but it is now known to be quite a nasty poisonous substance, and what they did with this they blew it up each arm of your jacket, and down the front of your trousers and you were then deemed to be clean of lice you see, and you could go into the mess and have a meal and have your debriefing.

The debriefing in the main consisted of a précis of all that had happened to you, and the intelligence officer simply read it through, asked any questions he wanted, got his answers, and that was that, so there wasn’t much in it. Then we were medically examined, I was held up for two or three days because I had an idiot of a doctor who claimed that I had a palpative spleen, whatever that might be. But he wasn’t sure, so he called in another four doctors, and they said “oh no, that’s not palpative that’s alright” but he still put it down as palpative and took me off flying, and I was then sort of confined to ground work. Well, before then the Post Office had been very good to us there was one telephone kiosk available to us, no charges were made and we simply dialled the number we wanted to dial and that was that. The people who had telephones in those days were few and far between but there was one in the shop next door to home. So I dialled that number and I spoke to the lady of the shop, I forget her name now, but I spoke to her, and the next thing I knew was she’d dropped the telephone. And her daughter came on and said ‘What’s it all about” and I told her and she said ‘Oh blimey, it’s you” I said ‘yes, why, what’s it all about?” and she said “Well. We hadn’t heard anything from you.” I said “well, you should have done, I wrote various cards and letters from prison camp.” She said “Well they didn’t get any.” And then the old man came on the ‘phone and I told him that I was fine, that I hadn’t had a scratch, I’d been extremely lucky and I’ d see them as soon as the medical people let me out, which wasn’t going to be for another couple of days.

Well eventually, I got the OK to come home, and they gave us travel warrants and I was given six weeks’ leave — given six weeks’ leave and double rations because when I parachuted in to Germany I went down at just on thirteen stone and I came back about nine stone four. But going back to the medical and this palpative spleen, the old quack asked if we’d been eating raw root vegetables, and I said oh yes, of course we had we’d been eating turnips, suede and potatoes and they hadn’t all been cooked, and I think they put it down to that.

Well as I say I came home and I had my six weeks holiday — six weeks leave and I was in touch then with my old bomb aimer, he lived at Southsea, near Portsmouth, and he invited me down for ten days. Well, whilst I was serving my mum had saved a lot of money for me because officially I had made her an allowance which she didn’t need, and which she banked, which was rather nice because I came home to about a hundred and twenty quid. She said to me “well, go out and buy yourself a motorbike”, so I did. And on this old Matchless 250 I went down to Portsmouth at my bomb aimer’s invitation and spent a very pleasant ten days with him. Well, you remember I told you that he and the rear gunner were the first two out of the Aeroplane over Bonn. They were out so fast that they landed together, in Bonn, in the town itself. And he told me that as he landed in the garden of a house the lady there screamed, and rushed indoors, slammed the door, and no further movement was noted. And as he was collecting his parachute he was roughly grabbed by a lot of people, and he was taken down an alleyway between two houses, and was put under a lamppost. At the same time a rope was produced and they were going to hang the poor bugger, they were going to hang him there and then. He and the air gunner, they were both together, and his story his that the German Luftwaffe actually knocked people down with their wagon as they came through the crowd to get at them, and they rescued them.

Now, it was rather coincidental that these two members, they were the only members of our crew who were married, and they were the only two names that there were available to the Red Cross people when my family went to the Air Ministry to enquire about the aeroplane. It was rather fortuitous that both were married and it was known that both of them were alive. We were all single so it mattered a bit less about us, it was very distressing for the families of course and when I eventually got home my mother’s hair was pure white, and after three or four moths it went to it’s usual dark silver-grey colour, but it didn’t do either of the parents any good. But anyway it was all a happy ending and as I walked down the street that Sunday morning — or Sunday afternoon as it was - there’s a damn great banner across the road “Welcome home Denis” which was very pleasant, and the street got together and gave me a party in the local school which was even more pleasant, and life went on from there.

Denis Humphrey

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