Interview with Gerald Joseph Abrahams


Interview with Gerald Joseph Abrahams


Gerald Abrahams was sixteen when war was declared. He volunteered for the RAF the day after the Armstrong Vickers factory where he worked was targeted by the Luftwaffe who bombed the local school resulting in the deaths of many children. He trained as a wireless operator and was posted to 75 Squadron at RAF Mepal. He and his crewmates were very aware of the poor odds of survival. On their last operation they came under fire from an anti-aircraft fire ship and found on return to base that there were thirty-eight holes in the fuselage. Gerald continued flying after the war and ultimately became a commercial pilot. He flew about twenty different aircraft including Yorks, Britannias, Viscounts and DC4s.







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CJ: This is Chris Johnson and I’m interviewing Gerry Abrahams today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We’re at the Spitfire Museum at Manston and it is Saturday 17th of June 2017. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today, Gerry. So, first of all perhaps you could tell us please where and when you were born and your family’s background?
GA: I was born in London in 1923. And my father was in textiles, and I suppose we were a lower middle-class family.
CJ: And did you go to school in that area?
GA: I went to school in London. Yes.
CJ: And so did you have any part time jobs or — ?
GA: No.
CJ: You were helping father or —
GA: No. Nothing at all. No.
CJ: Ok.
GA: No.
CJ: And so when did you — how and, did you come to volunteer for the RAF and when was that?
GA: Well, when I was sixteen the war was declared, and I decided I had to leave school and do something for the war effort. So, I got — I joined Vickers Armstrong and I was based at Newbury which was a specialist Spitfire experimental factory. It was, we were working on the contra-rotating prop which later came on the Griffon engine, and the retractable tail wheel which gave you a knot or two extra. It was hard work. It was twelve hours a day or twelve hours a night six days or six nights a week. But one morning the air raid siren went which was very unusual for a sleepy country town and we all trooped to what they laughingly called an air raid shelter. And I looked out and I saw the Heinkels coming very low to get rid of this very important Spitfire factory. But they missed for some reason, I don’t know how and they bombed a school nearby and killed a lot of children. So next day I went to Newbury Recruiting Centre and said I was an engineer and I wanted to join the RAF as an engineer. And he said, ‘Where do you want to? Where do you work?’, and I said , ‘Vickers Armstrong’. He said, ‘We can’t take you then,’ he said, ‘You’re a reserved occupation.’ And I said, ‘Is there no way I can get into the air force?’ He said, ‘Well, there’s two things you can do. You become an artificer on a submarine or aircrew.’ Well, it took me about a microsecond deciding I wasn’t going on submarines but I quite liked the idea of aircrew. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I said, ‘Yes. I’ll become aircrew’, and that was how I joined up.
CJ: And so did you go — so that was at age sixteen. So —
GA: No. This was, I was seventeen and a half by this stage.
CJ: Right. So you actually went straight into the RAF or you had to wait until eighteen?
GA: No. I had to wait a few months. About three months I waited. Yeah.
CJ: And where did you start your training?
GA: I went, well, we started at aircrew, ACRC London, St Johns Wood. And then I went to Bridgnorth for ITW.
CJ: Sorry. ITW?
GA: That’s your square bashing thing. Initial Training Wing I think it means. Yeah. And then I went to Madley in Hertfordshire.
CJ: And what was the training you were carrying out there?
GA: Oh. I trained as a wireless operator. Yeah.
CJ: And how long was that training then before you went to an operational squadron?
GA: About a year. Yeah. And then after that I went to AFU which is another training thing, and then to OTU where you all crewed up. And this, I crewed up and was sent to a New Zealand squadron.
CJ: And how were the crews made up?
GA: There was one, two — four New Zealanders and three English.
CJ: So , how come the English were in a New Zealand squadron?
GA: The New Zealanders just didn’t have enough to fill the posts. And they had the gunners and a lot of the pilots but the rest they couldn’t fill.
CJ: And how was the, your crew made up? Did you choose each other or were you allocated to a crew?
GA: Well, it’s, it’s hard to tell. It’s — OTUs are very strange places. There’s one mess, one bar. You talk to people. You judge people and in my case I got into a very big poker game and after the poker game we decided that we ought to stay together.
CJ: And so did you train together as a crew before you went on operations?
GA: Oh yes. Yes. Quite a crew. Then we went to — we trained on Wellingtons first of all. Then we changed to Stirlings. And fortunately we didn’t do any damage in Stirlings because they changed us to Lancasters at the last minute. And I did thirty one operations. I did one extra you see.
CJ: So, the operations started when? Was it the beginning of —
GA: ’44.
CJ: ’44. Right.
GA: Yeah.
CJ: Ok.
GA: Yeah.
CJ: So the — and when you were going on operations how, how were you told and how did you prepare for it and what was the routine?
GA: Well, there was a thing called a Battle Order which was a sheet of paper. You got up in the morning. You looked at the Battle Order to see if you were on it. You could either — because there were a lot of daylights in 3 Group I was in, so it was either a daylight that day or one that night.
CJ: And how did you — how did the crew prepare the aircraft, and how did you get your information about the target and the route and so on?
GA: Well, you had a briefing. We were all in one room and the, all the various people — the met people, the bombing people and all the rest of them told you where the target was. What the ack-ack’s likely to be, what the fighters are likely to be, and the navigators got their winds and the wireless operators got their secret codes, and everybody got their information they needed. Then if it was a daylight you usually had lunch or you may have gone off an hour later. If it was a night one you tried to get some rest and then you always had the, the egg and bacon before you flew and away you went.
CJ: So, you say you did thirty-one operations.
GA: I did.
CJ: But a tour was usually thirty.
GA: Thirty. Yeah. I had to go with another crew and they were brand new. The target was Munich which they never found, and they killed themselves on the next op.
CJ: And how did the crews pass time between operations?
GA: Well, if we were free at a weekend we’d go to a pub and then go to a dance. Or if you were in the mess I suppose you had a drink and it [pause] you needed a lot of rest. That was the thing. Yeah.
CJ: And what was the feeling amongst the crew when you were going on an operation? Did you have to put worries aside and concentrate on the job?
GA: Yeah. I can’t say that [pause] — you hear so much about strain and worry and all the rest of it. I can’t say we experienced that. I think that we knew there was a job to be done and the sooner we got it over the better. We knew the odds. Four to one that we wouldn’t come back. We were aware of that and we got on with the job.
CJ: And what were the typical targets that you were on operations against?
GA: Oh, German.
CJ: And bombloads?
GA: Oh, we usually, I looked the other day and there was a lot of marshalling yards but I — we went on the famous Dresden raid and Chemnitz the following night. We did our last op which was, the last op’s always frightening and we thought it was going to be a doddle because it was gardening which means mine laying. But we were caught two flak ships, and when we got back we had thirty eight holes in the fuselage.
CJ: So, did the aircraft systems suffer any damage?
GA: No. No.
CJ: The hydraulics. No?
GA: No. We didn’t. We had another incident on a daylight when we were hit and we lost an engine. And of course we were in formation but all the formation went because they were faster than us and there were American fighters overhead that were supposed to protect us but they didn’t. They went too. So, we were all alone in daylight over Germany but we got away with that as well.
CJ: And are there any other raids you particularly remember? Any operations?
GA: We went to Wesel when they were crossing the Rhine and we used to bomb on a specialist radar called GH which was very accurate. And we got a letter from the Guards. We didn’t see the ground at all. We bombed on the GH. And we got a letter from a Guards officer thanking us for our accurate bombing and that. And another one was Saarbrücken. We saw lots of motor boats leaving the island as we bombed. We didn’t, but some of them went down and strafed them.
CJ: And I think — sorry, on operations what was the procedure then if you were attacked by a fighter?
GA: Well, you corkscrewed. We actually shot a Focke Wulf down. You dived and rolled and then you climbed and rolled the other way. I picked up the — they had a thing called Fishpond which was a radar which worked off the H2S and you could see any fighters on there. And I picked up a fighter and the gunners shot it down.
CJ: And I think your last raid was shortly before VE-Day. Do you remember what happened on VE-Day? What everybody’s feelings were?
GA: I was on leave, and I sent a telegram to the squadrons saying that, no I wasn’t on the squadron then, I was on Bomber Command Instructor School. I sent a telegram saying I wouldn’t be returning that day [laughs] Received a telegram back saying, ‘Fine.’
CJ: So, lots of celebrations.
GA: Oh yeah. Yeah.
CJ: And where were you posted after VE day? Did you continue with the squadron?
GA: No. No. I went, first of all I went to Bomber Command Instructor’s School and then I was made Commanding Officer of a signaller’s unit. And while I was there we received a notice saying that BOAC was starting up and they wanted crews to be seconded. And they said only those with a first class CO’s reference would get it. So, I applied and I hoped they didn’t notice the applicant and the CO had [laughs] had the same signature. And I was accepted so I joined BOAC for a while. Didn’t like it, and when I was demobbed I left BOAC and I joined a firm called Airwork Limited.
CJ: At BOAC what aircraft were you flying?
GA: Yorks.
CJ: And what routes?
GA: Yorks. From Hurn to Africa. Yeah.
CJ: Wow.
GA: And then I started training, pilot training then and I got my commercial pilot’s licence. And after that I flew right for many many years as a pilot.
CJ: And, again what aircraft were you flying and what routes were you on?
GA: Well, I flew Ambassadors. I flew Britannias. I flew Viscounts. I had about twenty different aircraft I flew and the very Ambassador that I flew is on show at Duxford. The very one. And then I came down here and flew DC4s for Invicta Airways.
CJ: And did you have a favourite amongst all those aircraft types?
GA: Oh yes. I loved the Britannia. Yeah. A beautiful aeroplane. Yes. Yeah.
CJ: So, why particularly the Britannia?
GA: It’s hard to tell. It was, it was a big prop jet and it was very responsive. Lovely to fly. And you could go at thirty thousand feet for twelve hours, you know and, you know with two hundred people on board, and it was a beautiful aeroplane.
CJ: Right. And when did you stop flying?
GA: Well, in about — I can’t remember. About ’70 I suppose I had a routine medical and they found that I had type 2 diabetes so I lost my licence. If I’d have got it now I wouldn’t have lost it because it’s not a failure anymore but it was then, and so I had to stop flying.
CJ: Oh.
GA: Yeah.
CJ: I’m going to step back a bit because I believe we’ve missed 622 Squadron.
GA: Well, 622. When I flew for Airwork the RAF couldn’t cope with trooping and all the rest of it, so they asked Airwork to form an auxiliary squadron which was 622. And we had Valettas and we took part in the Suez Campaign. That was 622.
CJ: Ok. Thank you. And after the war were you able to keep in touch with any of your crew? Did you have any reunions or —
GA: Yes. Yes. I, the navigator and I were very close. The engineer went to America. All the rest of them went home but they’ve all died except Buzz Spillman. But I kept in touch with him up ‘til last year. But he’s getting dementia now so we’ve stopped.
CJ: And did you have, were there any squadron reunions organised?
GA: Well, they were all in New Zealand. What — it was strange. The navigator and I did a caravan holiday because we wanted to visit the old Mepal where we were based. And we went there and they said, ‘Are you coming down for the reunion next week?’ And we said, ‘What reunion?’ They said, ‘75.’ That was a hell of a coincidence but unfortunately neither of us could do it, you see. So —
CJ: And do you have any feelings about the way Bomber Command was treated after the war?
GA: I’m disgusted the way it was treated after the war. Yeah. To get [pause] recent I was very fortunate. When they gave out the clasp, I was one of the twenty that was invited to Downing Street to be given it to by the Prime Minister. And that was nice but to have that nasty little clasp instead of a medal all those years later was, was very, very upsetting. Yeah.
CJ: And have you been to the Memorial at Green Park?
GA: Yeah. I have. Several times. Yeah. Yeah.
CJ: Were you, were you invited to the opening?
GA: I was there.
CJ: The unveiling.
GA: I was there. Yes.
CJ: So did you manage to meet any dignitaries?
GA: No. I met a couple of New Zealanders that came over for it. But yeah it was a lovely day.
CJ: Ok. Well, we’re holding this interview at the Spitfire Memorial Museum at Manston where I think you’re a volunteer. Would you like to tell us how you became involved with that?
GA: Well, some years ago I wanted something to do and I’d always been interested in the museum. I’d visited it for years. And I said I’d like to become a volunteer and so recently I’ve been made a trustee and my job is to get the money together because we want a Spitfire simulator. And my job is to get the money together and to date I’ve got, within a few weeks this, I’ve got five thousand three hundred pounds. It’s not enough but it’s a big start for it, and we visited other simulators to see what they were like and what we should get. And the cockpit’s arriving on Monday so we’re getting there.
CJ: And what’s the, what sort of questions and comments do you get when you have school trips here?
GA: Oh, they ask all sorts of things. ‘What was it like?’ is the one which you can never answer [laughs] You know, you get asked everything and I like the school kids coming. I had, I had the party of Dutch and English last Saturday come which I took around, and I go out to schools and they come here.
CJ: Well, thank you very much for talking to us today and for giving us this interview.
GA: That’s a pleasure.
CJ: That’s a great insight. Thank you very much.
GA: Ok.


Chris Johnson, “Interview with Gerald Joseph Abrahams,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,

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