Interview with Harold Allen


Interview with Harold Allen


Harold Allen’s parents travelled to the UK to escape the pogroms in Europe. He lived in London during the Blitz. When Harold volunteered for the RAF he trained as a wireless operator on the ground. He did not want to join aircrew because he was conscious of his family responsibilities and he was very aware of the survival statistics. The sense of comradeship he found during his time with Bomber Command is his outstanding memory.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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00:42:28 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


HA: 099RAF.
TO: And what year were you born?
HA: 1923. So I am ninety three. I’ll be ninety four in May.
TO: You mentioned last time that your parents were from Poland. Was it?
HA: Yes. They came as immigrants in the twentieth century when the pogroms were on there. And it was [pause] there was a lot of anti-Semitism then and also the economy was bad.
TO: Did they ever talk about their lives in Europe?
HA: Well, we actually have a life history of my father and my mother compiled by a niece of mine. So, we’ve got these booklets of my mother’s life in Poland and here and my father’s life. And we think there are still remnants of the family there. I don’t think we’ve, I haven’t even been there. I’ve been meaning to go but I’ve never got around to it.
TO: And did you experience any anti-Semitism when you were growing up?
HA: When I was grown up?
TO: Growing up.
HA: When I was —
TO: When you were at school.
HA: No. Not in — I went to a Jewish School. Jewish Free School. And yeah, there was anti-Semitism and that’s why I changed my name. I couldn’t get a job. My original family name was Abrahams. And in those days if you lived in the East End then, you were a Jew, you had a job getting, you had difficulty getting a job. And a lot of people changed their names and all sorts of things.
TO: And when did you get your first job?
HA: Oh God [pause] You mean before or after I was in the RAF?
TO: Before. Before the Air Force please.
HA: Pardon?
TO: Before the Air Force please.
HA: Before the Air Force. My sister worked in a building firm. That was in the city of London in a tiny little place called Little Britain. And she got me a job with that firm there.
TO: And did you hear about Hitler’s behaviour in Europe?
HA: About what?
TO: Hitler’s behaviour in Europe in the 1930s.
HA: Hitler. Oh yes. I heard all about it. Well, it was on the news and it came through and there were refugees. And it was children who were smuggled out. There was Schindler. Schindler’s List. You know about that. And there was all sorts of things happening. And there were refugees living in London and they belonged to an organisation called the Association of Jewish Refugees. AJR.
TO: And what did you think of Chamberlain, and him appeasing Hitler?
HA: Oh. Horrible. Chamberlain was a fraud. Appeased Hitler. He was an appeaser. And we felt he was [pause] to tell you the truth it’s so far back I can’t remember the detail of it. But there’s a wonderful book floating around here. A very good photo book of the history of Jews and it tells you all the places that have been [unclear] There’s one called the Pale of — what was it? The Pale of [pause] The Pale. I mean it was a separate land put aside for the Jews to live in it. The Pale of Settlement it was called. And it happened in Poland, I think. You could ask my wife. She remembers all these things.
TO: And do you remember the preparations that were being made for the war?
HA: Preparations?
TO: Like maybe air raid shelters.
HA: Oh yes. There was a thing called the Anderson shelter which was basically a corrugated piece of iron that was bent over and there was earth on it. And it was meant to act as an emergency bomb shelter because the Germans started to Blitz London and the East End in particular because of the docks. But people were sleeping overnight in the underground stations on the platforms. Well, I never did that.
TO: Were you living in the East End?
HA: Yes. Until I got called up at the age of nineteen. I had to volunteer for the Air Force because I could have gone into the army. Because I didn’t want to get in the army so I volunteered for the air force.
TO: Do you remember the day when the war started?
HA: What day was that?
TO: I think it was a Sunday. The 3rd of September 1939. I just wondered if you remember it.
HA: It was when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. That was the nearest one was it? When the Germans advanced. And over, they annexed Austria as well. Austria become, became [pause] Hitler — look you’re asking me something in memory that I simply can’t remember.
TO: That’s fine. That’s fine. Were you — did you have any relatives who were in the armed forces?
HA: Yes. My brother was in it. He was a gunner. An anti-aircraft gunner. And I had a brother in law who was also in the army. And they went to the — eventually they went to the north east. To Africa. Fighting the desert wars against, you know with Rommel and all that. And the 8th Army. Montgomery. And at that time the Germans [pause] the British bombers, what were the big bombers? The —
TO: The Lancaster.
HA: The Lancasters were out bombing Germany. Every night, you know and you could see some of them going over sometimes. Depends if you were near an airfield or not.
TO: What did you think of the RAFs bombing campaign?
HA: Like all bombing campaigns a lot of innocent people died because of it, but nobody talked about German civilians dying because of the bombers going over. But certainly a lot of civilians died on this side when the Germans dropped their bombs and flew low in. One of them flew under Tower Bridge, I think. I heard it was a fighter. A Stuka. A dive bomber.
TO: And do you remember what rations you had when you were — before you joined up?
HA: Meagre. Yeah. You had the coupons. Food coupons. So you were entitled to so much of this, that and the other. And some things you couldn’t get at all. Like you could never get a banana. You could get fruit that grew in England but fruit that was imported you never, hardly ever saw.
TO: And do you remember the — seeing any of the Battle of Britain?
HA: Well, I didn’t actually see it. I mean it was — are you talking about the bombing thing?
TO: Well, the, the dogfights and the bombing. Either.
HA: No. We wouldn’t see the dogfights. They didn’t happen very much over England. They were mostly on the continent because the English had anti-aircraft batteries all the way along around the coast and they had —my brother was in one of them. And they had these balloons that they used to float which were meant to bring the aircraft — to keep them away or bring them down. I’m not sure if they ever did but — ok?
TO: Do you remember when the Luftwaffe started bombing London?
HA: Well, yes. The bombs just came down. They were fire bombs. Incendiary bombs. And, you know the people were recruited to do air raid precautions. ARP. And there were people that would go on to the rooftops and try and put out incendiary bombs. But they were, they were special divisions you know. And I was evacuated to High Wycombe and that’s where I ran across Bomber Command Headquarters. I lived in High Wycombe.
TO: What do you remember about seeing the Bomber Command Headquarters?
HA: I don’t think I saw the headquarters but we knew that it was nearby. Bomber Harris it was.
TO: How did you feel about Bomber Command’s attacks on cities like Hamburg and Dresden?
HA: Dresden was a big mistake. Dresden was an open city and it was a cultural city. And it, it was, it was firmly opposed by people who said they shouldn’t have done it. But I’m not sure of the detail of that. I mean I’ve been near to Dresden. But I belong to a synagogue choir that took off to Czechoslovakia after the war and we went and visited all the sites where there were Jewish Communities. And there would be deserted synagogues. And we went to the cemeteries. And in fact, in the old synagogue that I belong to here Finchley Reform, they’ve got a Torah that came from there. And there are a number of them.
TO: And what year was it that you joined the RAF?
HA: God, I don’t know. 19 — 19 — [pause]
TO: Would it be 1942?
HA: ’42, I should think.
TO: Ok. And can you tell me about the recruitment process?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Can you tell me about the recruitment process?
HA: Process?
TO: Yes.
HA: Well, you were just taken to an intake place where they fitted you up. Then they decided what you were going to do. And I became a wireless operator. But ground. It’s very vague. My memory’s not very good.
TO: That’s fine. You’re doing great so far.
HA: Pardon?
TO: You’re doing very well.
HA: Not sure how accurate all this.
TO: Did you consider volunteering for aircrew?
HA: No. I know that if I did that I’d be a dead one. I had a father who was ill. He was asthmatic and I was worried about him being at home because I was one of nine children. And aircrew — I shied away from it. And then I was down in Paignton in South Devon where they had a big hotel where they’d lodge a lot of the intake people. And then we were training for wireless operators. We were up in Blackpool.
TO: And what training did you have for being a wireless operator?
HA: You had to learn the Morse code. And once you learned it you never forgot it. It stuck in your mind. Even now I know the whole of the Morse code, because when you were actually becoming a signals man you, you sent the signals out encoded but in plain language. So, you had to know when you read the messages that you had to send. You obviously had to interpret them into Morse.
TO: And did each letter of the alphabet have its own equivalent in Morse?
HA: Yes. A - de da. B - da de de dit. C - da de da dit. D - da dit dit. E - dit. F - dit de da dit. G - da da dit. H - di di di dit. I - dit dit. J - de da da da. K - da de da. L - de da dit dit. M - da da. N - da dit. O - da da da. P - de da da dit. I - dit dit. C - da de da dit. So, you know, it’s there. You never forget it. Of course, it became obsolete because the advance of technology. You know, there was radar and all sorts of things.
TO: You mentioned something last time about wireless operators speaking to one another in Morse.
HA: Yes. We used to. In Blackpool we’d call to each other. Or if we called another station and it was in the morning we’d call them up and use a shortened version for good morning which was GM da da dit da da. And that was common knowledge. And I had a friend of mine who was sent down to the Congo River in Libreville. And I’ll never forget the call sign there was an H 7 H de de de de da da dit dit dit dit dit dit and he was a friend of mine. So we kept in touch, you know.
TO: Did people around you ever wonder what you were doing when they were talking to each other in Morse?
HA: I think they thought we were nuts. You mean like in Blackpool? Well, the landladies were only pleased to have customers. We were billeted there. They had the power of billeting but they got paid for it. I don’t know what the landladies thought. They must have got used to it.
TO: And do you remember what kind of equipment you were using to train with?
HA: What kind of equipment?
TO: Yeah. The types of radios.
HA: Radio?
TO: Yeah.
HA: No. We never got to that stage. We had a Morse key in front of us and that was connected to the transmitter. We never actually saw the transmitter. It was basically a box and they could tune it in to different, different wavelengths. They worked on the wavelengths. There was, I think, I’m not sure if they had frequency modulation then. They’ve got it now. FM. It’s a long way back. I can’t remember those days.
TO: Was it hard to learn the codes?
HA: No. It wasn’t for me. Some people took to it easily. I’m not sure about others who couldn’t. You’d have to be of a certain frame of mind to do it. And in many ways it was like a bit of a hobby. And there were different transmitter keys. There were buzz keys that the Americans used which went from side to side. Are you familiar with those? They were on a spring and you whirled it and it went [unclear] And there were others where you actually went down with the keyboard.
TO: And what do you think was the most important battle of the war?
HA: When the Second Front was opened. When the German, when the Germans tried to invade Russia and they tried to get in to Moscow and Stalingrad managed to keep them at bay. It was the first time that the Germans had known defeat. That was the turning point. And there was a big lobby to open the second front because there was a lot of opposition to it because they didn’t want anything to do with the communist Russians. In the end they had to accept. The Germans just got near to Moscow.
TO: And do you remember when America joined the war?
HA: I don’t but I think it was when they, they got bombed in Pearl Island. The American fleet was lying at anchor and the Japanese came in and took a big toll of them. It was when the Japs joined the war.
TO: Do you remember how you felt though when you heard America had joined Britain?
HA: Well, I felt pleased because we had an ally. You know, England is a relatively small island. To put up anything to combat the might of the Germans. The Germans had been preparing for years and years for war and they had tanks and all sorts. And the whole of their industry was devoted to the war effort. Eventually of course the English had to do something similar.
TO: And what did you do in your spare time in Blackpool?
HA: Spare time? [pause] Well, there was the troops were given entertainment by an organisation called ENSA. And they used to go around the country and there were various well known people who gave turns and did things. Some of the voices you would, were quite well known. Vera Lynn and some others. I’ve forgotten the names of them now.
TO: People like Gracie Fields?
HA: Yeah. Probably Gracie Fields. Yeah.
TO: And what was your rank in the RAF?
HA: A leading aircraftsman. LAC. LAC. 1803099 was my number in the Air Force. I can still remember it. And I got my discharge book. We’ve got it here. Discharged from the Air Force. And they gave you —
[break in recording]
HA: Coupons when you got discharged. And clothing.
TO: And were you a non-commissioned officer?
HA: No. I was a leading air craftsman. I was just one of the rank.
TO: And did you hear about the Battle of the Atlantic? With the U-boats and the merchant ships?
HA: Yeah. You heard a lot about it because the U-boats were sinking supply ships. You know, as a regular thing. And they used to travel in convoys and they would have guns on some of the ships that were bringing food over. And all of it was coming over from the Atlantic you know. From America. And we had a lot of their food. You’ve heard of spam I’m sure.
TO: And can you tell me about how you were sent out to Nigeria?
HA: How I was —
TO: Sent to Nigeria.
HA: Yeah. I was on a troop ship. It left from Glasgow. What was the port at Glasgow? And it had a regular trip down to South Africa and it was a Dutch owned company that went down there on a regular trip. So, we got to South Africa and then we got transferred over. I think it was called the Windsor Castle. I’ve just remembered the name. It was the Castle Line.
TO: And do you remember when you, when you were actually told that you were going to Nigeria?
HA: Yeah. I thought we were going to Burma and that was a place you didn’t want to go to because there were a lot of illnesses there. But when we went to Nigeria they gave us [Methocrin?] and our skin used to turn yellow. It was designed to contact — to keep you [pause] to deal with Yellow Fever but the result was that your skin went a bit yellow.
TO: Did you ever catch any diseases while you were there?
HA: No. No.
TO: And did you, was anyone on the ship, were you afraid that the ship might get attacked by U-boats?
HA: Well, there was always the fear there but there were things you didn’t talk about. You were below decks and you never saw very much. And, you know the boat was equipped adequately with life-saving equipment. You know, with the floats and everybody was issued with a jacket so that if you got into the sea you could float. You know. That sort of thing.
TO: Did you ever have life boat drills?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Did you ever have life boat drills on the boats?
HA: I’m sure we did. Yeah. I can’t remember in detail but I’m pretty sure we did.
TO: And were you allowed on deck?
HA: Well, not a lot [pause] Yeah. On the boat the officers were kept separate from the erks as we used to call them. You know. It was a class thing and it existed right throughout. Officers had special privileges, special quarters and all that.
TO: Did that ever bother you at all?
HA: Sometimes it did. It used to annoy me. You see the officers came from the middle class and mostly they were from schools, you know that were beyond the grade that I had anything to do with. So, there was always a bit of antagonism from some people who were, if you like you can call it politically aware. Don’t forget we had to deal with Mosley and the family background there. The Astor family who were pro-Hitler almost.
TO: Did you ever talk about politics when you were in the RAF?
HA: Yes. Amongst ourselves. There was a group of us that used to. And there were discussions, you know. At certain meetings. But mainly we’d listen in to the radio and because we were wireless operators we had radio equipment. So we could get things, you know that maybe other people couldn’t get.
TO: And what were your living conditions like in Nigeria?
HA: Very primitive. Long huts with corrugated iron roofs and when the rainy season was on the rain would come and pound on the, on the roof and you could hear it. It was like hailstones.
TO: And did you — was it, was it very warm in in the climate?
HA: Yes. It was tropical. It was oppressively warm so that you perspired a lot. Well, we had clothing that was not exactly lightweight but it was a tropical outfit. The usual pockets and, you know standard uniform.
TO: Did you, did you ever see, see — you mentioned you’d seen fighter planes being shipped in last time.
HA: We didn’t see them. They came in boxes. They were, they were assembled in Lagos somewhere. And there were stations where they would hop up to the Middle East. They had to go in small routes because of the fact that they were fighter aircraft and they couldn’t carry much fuel and they weren’t designed to a fly long way. So they used to — I’ve forgotten the name of the territories up north from Nigeria. I remember some of the names. Maiduguri. And there were hill towns there where the, the well to do used to go to get a bit of cool air when it was very hot. And there was Chad. That was the name of some of the territories.
TO: And what was your — what were your everyday jobs in the RAF in Nigeria?
HA: Well, I can’t remember. There was always a routine. You got up in the morning. You had your breakfast. You did some exercises somewhere. You went to your designed position where you were operating and you would wait until messages that had been encoded were passed to you and you would transmit them.
TO: Was it — were there a lot of messages coming in?
HA: I can’t tell you. We didn’t, we were not party to the meaning of them. They were encoded. So, there was another department that did that deciphering.
TO: And what did you do in your spare time in Nigeria?
HA: Used to read books. You could go about Lagos. There was a cinema there but it was pretty — there wasn’t very much to do in your spare time. And that, as I say they laid on the entertainment. Musical star. ENSA.
TO: And was Lagos a segregated city at that time?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Was Lagos a segregated city?
HA: Segregated?
TO: Yes. Was it segregated?
HA: Do you know I can’t remember the detail of it. I know there was the RAF station. That was outside the edge of the main town. And that was more or less where the jungle began as it were.
TO: Was disease ever a problem for any of your colleagues?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Was disease ever a problem for your colleagues?
HA: Some of them got ill. Yes. It was pretty rampant.
TO: What’s your best memory of your time in the RAF?
HA: The comradeship. Because we were all together and I met guys that came from, you know some came from Canada. At the time when the, you know the North Americans came in. Got to know people.
TO: And did it — was there anyone you knew who refused to take the anti-malarial medicine?
HA: Sorry?
TO: Did any of your comrades refuse to take the medicine they were given?
HA: I can’t hear you very well.
TO: Did any of your friends in the RAF, did any of them refuse to take the medicine that they were given to avoid disease?
HA: I don’t think so. Not, I never got to know of that.
TO: Ok. And do you remember hearing when — the day that the war ended?
HA: Well, I know that we were all cheered up. And I was back in England then. I think I was in High Wycombe or somewhere like that. Yeah. It was a great time.
TO: Did you get involved in any of the celebrations?
HA: Well, you couldn’t avoid it. It was — there were flags out everywhere and cheering and what not.
TO: And how did you feel when they — when [pause]
HA: I think I’ll have to go back seeing as I’ve got my sister in law here.
TO: Yeah. I’ve only got a few more questions actually. So — have you ever watched films about the war?
HA: Do I?
TO: Yes.
HA: Yeah. I do. I saw one last week about the SAS. You know, the Special Arms Forces that were dropped behind the enemy lines and I had read various books about it. About the SOE. The Special Operations Executive. And somebody we knew had written a book about it so I got a copy of it.
TO: I’ve interviewed a man who helped to take the SOE agents out to Europe.
HA: Pardon?
TO: I’ve interviewed a man who helped take the SOE agents to Europe. He was a navigator aboard the planes that were taking the agents.
HA: Oh, I never, I never got to know that. There were people that were dropped in spots you know where they where it went wrong sometimes. Somebody had betrayed them or, or the Germans were aware of what was happening. Or the locals were pro-German. There were. I’m not sure if I’m telling you the truth other than what I’ve read in books. So, don’t rely on what I’m saying.
TO: Did you lose any relatives in the war?
HA: No. No. I didn’t. No.
TO: And how do you feel today about Germany and Japan?
HA: Well, Germany is a new country. It’s come up. And you know people are making a different way of living. Japan. I went there once in business when I was working for a company. And I didn’t have any feeling about the Japanese except that during the war they were not, you know they were pro-Nazi at the time.
TO: And how did you feel when, when the news of the Holocaust was revealed?
HA: It was unbelievable. We knew that things were happening. We got reports back here but you know when the, when the Russians first went in and liberated some of the Holocaust camps you couldn’t believe it. There were pictures shown of Bergen Belsen and the pile of bones and the gas ovens and all that. That was awful.
TO: Do you remember them showing that footage on newsreels?
HA: This is all currently looking at them. There may have been pictures in the newspapers when the allies first, when the Russian first got into some of the camps. Because they, the Russians advanced on to Berlin. Towards Berlin.
TO: And what have you done? What did you do after the war?
HA: Pardon?
TO: What did you do after the war? When you were demobbed.
HA: I’m an accountant. I took a course. A postal course in accountancy. And I’ve just done my fifty years of it and I’ve got a big certificate up in my room here to say that I’ve, I’ve been a member of, I’ve passed the examination of the Association of Certified and Corporate Accountants with the signature of the — on the thing. And that’s it.
TO: You — I think you mentioned last week you’d been involved in CND did you say?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Did you say you’d been involved in CND?
HA: Yes. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Yeah. I used to go out on their marches. Particularly when they started getting nuclear war, you know. And all that.
TO: And when — what, what was the process of being demobilised from the RAF?
HA: What was the what?
TO: The process of being demobbed from the RAF.
HA: The purpose.
TO: The process of being demobbed.
HA: Oh, the progress. Oh, you went to certain centres where they let you out and they gave you a certain amount of clothing and you got ration coupons and so on. And they tried to get you sorted out on some path where you could earn your own living. They did try various things. There were departments there. They were trying to reintegrate you into the civilian life.
TO: And is there anything you want to add at all?
HA: No. Except that war is a futility. Look what’s happened since then. How many wars there’s been. So, the war that was supposed to end wars never did. Because people go after power and power can lead to all sorts of things and discrimination and refugees. People going out, being taken out their homes by the millions. And children. And migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to England or any place in Europe where they thought they could make a decent living. Some of them made it. Some didn’t. Are you asking me personal history now?
TO: I was just wondering what your views are on it. That’s all.
HA: Well, I’m telling you. This country has always benefited from migrants. You know, when you think of the people who invented things and got on well in industry and they’re the backbone of the country. And the working people as well. The Trade Unions organise the working people and I was a member of a Trade Union.
TO: Shall we pause there? Shall we finish there then?
HA: Pardon?
TO: Shall we finish there then?
HA: Yeah.
TO: Thank you very much.
HA: You’re welcome.
TO: Really enjoyed hearing you. Thank you.
HA: Yeah.



Tom Ozel, “Interview with Harold Allen,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed January 24, 2021,

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