Interview with an anonymous interviewee (An00509)


Interview with an anonymous interviewee (An00509)


The interviewee was born in Berlin in 1924, his father being a British Army surgeon who was posted there to treat badly wounded soldiers. He went to school in France then attended boarding school in Hertfordshire. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force to become a fighter pilot but failed the medical on eyesight. Offered to be a navigator, he was sent for training in the United States and Canada. Upon returning to England he was posted to RAF Halfpenny Green advanced flying unit, and then to RAF Cosford. He trained in Ansons, then crewed up with Pilot Patrick Howlett and ended up being a navigator on Wellingtons and Lancasters carrying out operations to the Netherlands and Belgium. He discusses flying training, anti-aircraft fire, military life and ethos, aircraft damage, aircraft identification, bombing techniques, diversionary operations, using Window, mine laying, dropping incendiaries and their effects.







00:43:08 audio recording


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GC: This is an interview being conducted on behalf of International Bomber Command
RW: Sorry?
GC: Centre Digital Archive. My name’s Gemma Clapton. The interviewee today is [omitted]. Also present is his wife [omitted]. This is taking place at Aldham in Essex near Colchester on the 25th of April 2016. I’d like to thank you very much for talking to us. Tell me, can you tell us a little bit about your life before the war please?
RW: Sorry. A little bit about what?
GC: Your life before the war.
RW: My life before the war [laughs] I was a school boy. I was in public school, boarding school in [unclear] Hertfordshire.
GC: What, what was it like at public school back then?
RW: What was it like? Well it was very rigid and very strict. We had rules but if we broke the rules, well we were punished. It was a simple as that and if we were caught. Most of us were very good at avoiding being caught when we were breaking the rules [laughs] but we did break the rules and we did get away with most of it but when we were caught we were either severely punished and restricted or we got canes. We got the, the, the cane but it hurt most [laughs]
GC: So you was born in 1924?
RW: Yes.
GC: You said your father was an army major in —
RW: In, in the British Army.
GC: Oh brilliant.
RW: The Royal Army Core, you know. He was a surgeon, he was an MD and a surgeon. In other words an MD and an FRCS, Federal of the Royal College of Surgeons. In other words he was fully qualified right across the board with medicine. He could handle anything. As an MD he had the, the same rights as any doctor anywhere and as a surgeon he had all the rights of surgeon, that were contained within the concept of surgery.
JW: And he served at the front in the First World War didn’t he darling?
RW: Sorry?
JW: He served at the front in the First World War?
RW: He served actually, he was three hundred metres behind the front trenches.
JW: Yes.
RW: So that he could carry out emergency operations on people who had just been hit by a bullet or shell a few minutes before they could rush in with a stretcher three hundred yards to the, the trenches where he had his surgery. That was in the World War One.
JW: But why was he then posted to Berlin?
RW: Because he’d had to speak German and French fluently.
JW: And what did he have to do in Berlin?
RW: What did he have to do?
JW: Yes.
RW: Well he was, first of all he was a qualified surgeon as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgery and there were so many severely wounded soldiers in the army that he spent most of his time operating on badly wounded soldiers.
JW: Yes, but I seem to remember you telling me also that he was doing research into war gases.
RW: Yes, he, at the same time as he was doing this job, after he’d finished doing that job he was asked to join a special group of doctors in the military services to do research on war gases and so he because he spoke fluent French as well as fluent English, obviously, he was working very closely with the allied French medical core.
JW: But based in Berlin. So that is why you were actually born in Berlin.
RW: That’s right.
JW: Weren’t you? Yes.
GC: Do you remember much about your life in Berlin?
RW: [laughs] I remember when I was born as if it was yesterday [laughs] to be honest I was four years old when I left Berlin, so my memory of Berlin has been carted around in a wheel chair, or baby carriage or being held by the hand while I was taken to a park. Took to play in the park and the most advanced weaponry I had was a scooter [laughs]
GC: Your, your dad was a surgeon?
RW: Yes.
GC: Did you think about following him?
RW: He was a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was an FRCS and an MD. He was fully qualified in all branches of medicine.
JW: And I seem to remember darling, you did tell me you had thought about following him and becoming a doctor yourself.
RW: Sorry?
JW: You had thought of following your doc— your father and becoming a doctor yourself.
RW: Well I did but then World War Two interfered with that.
JW: Yes.
RW: So I took the quick route. To do my bit in the war by volunteering to, to fly as a pilot for the RAF instead.
GC: So tell us about when you decided to join up for World War Two.
RW: Well I decided to sign up the day France fell, because I was in France when war broke out and I went — my first school was in France in Paris. I, I didn’t’ got to school until I was six. And from the age of six till the age of ten I thought I was a frog. I only spoke French and I only went to a French school.
GC: Um.
JW: Many of your relatives were in France weren’t they? Your grandmother?
RW: Oh my grandmother was —
JW: Yes.
RW: My grandmother married the managing director of the, err [pause]
JW: The Zurich wasn’t it?
RW: The Zurich Insurance Company.
GC: So what again, what, you said you joined up when France fell. Why the RAF?
RW: Sorry?
GC: Why the RAF?
RW: Because I, I wasn’t very keen, I was walking about in mud in the trenches like they did in World War One, this had four years in trenches which wasn’t exactly much fun so I decided to create my own fun and I volunteered to be a fighter pilot. But they failed me on my eye sight as a fighter pilot because I couldn’t land a fighter plane well enough to be trusted with it in the dark at night time. And of course a lot of our fighting was done at night time against the Luftwaffe.
JW: And I think darling you said that you ruled out the navy as a possibility because you were inclined to be seasick weren’t you?
RW: Yes, I, I wasn’t a good sailor I am now but I wasn’t then. A very good sailor and so one way or the other I had to get into the air. So when I was failed as a pilot because I landed, instead of landing from one foot to eighteen inches above the ground I would land twenty feet above the ground [laughs] which was a bit of a big drop. You know, twenty feet was like [unclear] so it was quite a big drop. So I couldn’t judge because at that point the altimeter wasn’t very reliable so you couldn’t, you couldn’t rely on the altimeter you had to rely on your own eye sight so that, that’s why, so they decided I, I, I was too good an airman to throw away but I had to do something other than flying a plane itself. So they said it looks as though you good enough to be a navigator but not got lost so I said try me and so they did and they said yes you’ll make a good navigator so we’ll put you through the course. So that’s what they did. I ended up being a navigator on Wellingtons and then on Lancasters.
GC: Can you tell us a little bit about training to be a navigator. What would they go through with you?
RW: Training to be a navigator [laughs] well it was very simple. To try to be a navigator you had to understand a) map reading, b) the meaning of airspeed on a, on a mobile, like an aircraft and so understand the importance of maintaining the right altitude and the right temperature. When you understood all these things they would then let, let you loose with a trained crew and you would then have to fly a, a bomber under wartime conditions over enemy territory and if you survived that then you became a bomber navigator which is what I became.
GC: Oh. So you, you’ve trained to be navigator. Explain about picking a crew or being picked by a crew?
RW: Sorry?
GC: Explain about being picked by a crew. How they picked you for a crew?
RW: Being flexed?
GC: Picked.
JW: How were you selected?
RW: You mean chosen?
GC: Yes, sorry.
RW: Oh. How come?
GC: How did they select you?
RW: Well, err [laughs] you, whilst you were picked as an aircrew they then tell you you’re gonna be a pilot, you’re gonna be a navigator, you’re gonna be this or your gonna be that. And what they did they selected you for aircrew and then we, when you, you always flew the same for six months of training for flying duties and then you were segregated into those who had more time for flying for taking off and landing. Those who had more talent for surviving at night and bringing the aircraft home safely as navigators and air gunners or bomb aimers whatever, or flight engineers. You were selected for the thing you were best trained for. So I was best trained to be a member of the, what you might call the inner circle. They were the inner circle were two pilots and, err, a navigator or bomb aimer but they were, without those four people you were no good as a bomber crew and then in addition we had flight engineers, and air gunners and bomb aimers and all that sort of thing. So we, we, normally there were seven of us and the two most important people were the pilot and the navigator obviously, because one without the other in no bloody good [laughs] you have to be able to take off and get to where you’re supposed to be and back again you see. So that’s what I did, I became a navigator. I could fly but I couldn’t land the bomber at night accurately enough to be trusted with a four engine, four Rolls Royce engines and a big heavy bomber about forty tons of bomber so they said what we’ll do because of your eyesight isn’t good enough to land safely at night we’ll have to make you a navigator instead cause you then don’t actually have to land the aircraft you only have to get the aircraft back over the airfield and then the pilot takes over once we’re over the airfield and he has to worry about the landing so that’s what happened so I became a navigator. And my job was to get us off the ground to the target safely and back and back to our own airfield so that we, the rest of the crew could take over and land the aircraft safely at our own home base. That’s in a nutshell what we did.
GC: Can you, can you remember any of your crew or crews?
RW: [laughs] oh god. Well the trouble is with the crews we didn’t go by surnames we went by, you know, sort of nicknames like Taffy or sort of a Johnny.
JW: But was it Pat darling?
RW: Sorry?
JW: Did you tell me Pat Howlett was a pilot?
RW: Sorry?
JW: Pat, Pat Howlett was that the name of your pilot at one time? Pat?
RW: Cat?
JW: No Pat.
RW: Pack?
JW: Pat Howlett. Was that the name of your pilot?
RW: How, how do you spell that?
JW: P, A, T, Pat.
RW: P, A, T?
JW: Yes Pat.
RW: Pat?
JW: Yes.
RW: Well that’s that was his nickname.
JW: Right, right.
RW: His real name was Patrick I think.
JW: Yes sure.
RW: But we all called him Pat.
JW: Yes.
GC: But were they, were they all English or were they from —
RW: No we had some, we had a New Zealander. We had a, a, I think it was a Dutchman and we had —
JW: What about Taffy? What nationality was Taffy?
RW: Taffy?
JW: Yes.
RW: Oh Taffy was a — died in the world [unclear]
JW: He was.
RW: But most of us were British subjects. But we came from all over the empire. We could have a navigator from New Zealand, a bomb aimer from Australia, a pilot from Leigh-on-Sea. Oh what ever, you know. But overall we all had to speak and understand English fluently that was the main thing. As long as you could understand and speak English fluently you were all ok. So we were then sent abroad we had to cross the Atlantic twice during the height of the Nuremburg war where one in two, one in three of our ships were being sunk by the Luftwaffe or by the U boats so I was, we were lucky because one in two were sunk at sea before they ever got back fully trained.
GC: Um. So you went across to Canada?
RW: I went across to America and then from America I was posted to Canada.
GC: What was Canada like?
RW: Wonderful. There were no bombs being dropped at Canada but we were completely in a peaceful country in Canada during the war because the [unclear] was hard to reach for the Luftwaffe they couldn’t reach us because they didn’t have the aircraft with the range they needed to be able to bomb us in Canada, so that was very lucky. And if by chance one foolish German pilot decided to risk everything to bomb Ottawa or Montreal or Toronto he never got there because as soon as he crossed the line [laughs] he was shot down by dozens of us waiting for him.
GC: So you’ve done, you’ve been — how long were you in Canada for?
RW: To do our training?
GC: Yes.
RW: Well just under a year and the reason for that was there were a big demand for pilots and navigators and so on and they couldn’t get us all through as quickly as they wanted to because they didn’t have the training facilities to get the numbers out as fast they needed them so they had to send some of us to Canada for training some of us through Alaska some of us to Florida some of us to Mexico I think it was. So, and some of us to New Zealand and some of us to Australia. So the training programme was very widely spread so I started out in England and then went out on to Canada and then to America and then back to England and then I finally started to fly on the wartime conditions once I had been posted back to England to a bomber squadron you see.
GC: Where was you first — when you came back to England, where were you first posted?
RW: When I first came back to England?
GC: Yes.
RW: Oh, don’t forget, they, they, they didn’t give us the names of towns or villages because we weren’t supposed to know where we were but we obviously had to find out in due course. But we in, in our case we had a huge number of training grounds, airfields in and around the London area because of course the main target for the Luftwaffe was always London wasn’t it?
GC: Um.
RW: And of course our, also our ports like Liverpool, South Hampton, things like that we had to defend those places as well so we were trained to resist the German bombers and to do our own thing to defend ourselves and also to bring up a squadrons of our own bombers that would give back to the Germans what they gave to us.
JW: Can I just interrupt for a minute to answer Gemma’s question about where you were posted because I’ve just looked up in your book darling.
RW: Oh.
JW: And when you came back to this country after training in Canada, firstly you had some leave didn’t you so you went to your family?
RW: That right.
JW: But after that you were posted to AFU, Advanced Flying Unit.
RW: That’s right.
JW: Located near Wolverhampton.
RW: That is correct.
JW: And it went by you see the unlikely name of Halfpenny Green [laughs]
RW: Yes, that’s right. Good thing I wrote, I wrote it all down.
JW: And you were flying Avro Ansons weren’t you initially?
RW: Avro Ansons is correct. Yes. Twin engines. They were designed as front line twin engine bombers but of course by the time the war had been on for about a year these Avro Ansons which had been designed in the early thirties were completely outdated, too slow and didn’t carry enough bomb load so they were converted to training programmes only and not, they were no longer were used as bombers because they were too vulnerable to German fighters so we, we did all our training on actual bombing, so called bombing raids on the, the Avro Ansons and luckily we survived but half the Avro Ansons that I ever flew never finished the war they were shot down long before the end.
GC: Can you remember your first operation over Europe.
RW: Over Europe.
GC: Over Europe.
RW: I suppose I can, if I think about it. You see operations were quite different in every respect from flying and learning to fly over your own friendly territory so by the time we were being sent with the real bombs to bomb targets on the continent this was the real war, it was a completely different thing from what we’d actually been trained to do [laughs] because what we’d been trained to do was do the actual bombing but not to do anything beyond defending ourselves but when, when we were actually on raids things suddenly happened in front of you which you hadn’t predicted or thought would happen, you know. You’d be flying with your wing man on the starboard side and your wing man on your port side and suddenly we’d find ourselves surrounded by everyone or another, Messerschmitt, night fighters, Charlie on the right would disappear in one big explosion and the other one would disappear in flames over there somewhere and you’d be left all by yourself. That was what, what happened all the time or what could happen all the time. Luckily I survived all of that and I was one of these people who the almighty decided to spare simply because half, fifty percent of bomber command were killed in action. One in two, people like me were killed. I survived the whole, all of the war and never even got a scratch, you know. And I, I got shot up, you know, I mean our aeroplane got shot up, big chunks of our aeroplane landed on navigators lap and things like that but basically the, the Wellingtons and the Lancaster that I flew in were very solidly built aircraft and they held together very well. They didn’t fall apart so obviously that helped us to get home again even if we couldn’t reach our own airfield. As soon as we crossed the line, the coast line and knew we were over friendly territory we’d bail out so we would land safely on our own home territory whilst the aircraft would be headed out to sea where it could crash into the sea without doing any harm to anybody. But, because there were certain things you could do with an aircraft even though it was badly shot up but there were certain things you could not do because it would be silly to crash to land and probably blow up because you couldn’t switch off all the petrol and, and all the engines if you were, were learning to, landing in an emergency we learnt all of that and of course all of that made you very vulnerable as well because you might be streaming petrol after the starboard engine tracers and so all the enemy fighter had to do was to put one, one bullet into that particularly vulnerable engine tank and the whole thing would go vroom and blow up.
GC: So was you actually injured at anytime?
RW: Well it depends what you mean by injured [laughs] if you mean was a I sent to hospital for any length of time to recover from my injuries the answer is no. But if I, if you mean injuries being injuries well I had all kinds of fragments that were flying about from fuselage when the Luftwaffe were attacking us with all their guns. We’d have a big chunks of metal, about this big, flying about inside the aircraft which could do you a lot of damage if they hit you. Especially if they hit you in the face. Luckily I didn’t get any injuries like that but I did get very close to losing an eye or having half my face blown off because I could hear the shell fragments come shoo straight past my cheek and land in, on the aircraft, you know, so —
JW: And there was an occasion darling wasn’t there when your boots caught fire?
RW: Yes [laughs] I had one raid where I was over, I think I was over, over either the Isle of Man or one such island which belonged to us officially and I was flying over that particular part of the territory when I was attacked, our, our aircraft was attacked and we had big chunks of our aircraft blown away and suddenly to my left, on the port side, I was next to where the main, the main wing the main spar joined the fuselage, suddenly I saw where there should have been a piece of solid metal to make sure the wing stayed up there was a great big hole about this big. Right there where the wing had joined the fuselage which meant to me at any moment the other, the two engines that we still had running on the port side, because we had four engines on the Lanc, could drop off and in which case I’d have to try and get out of the aircraft pretty quickly if I wanted to survive. So that was quite a tricky situation.
JW: But a fragment arrived, arrived near to your feet didn’t it darling?
RW: That’s right, yes.
JW: And created a fire?
RW: Created what?
JW: A fire?
RW: Yes that’s right.
JW: So your boots were catching fire.
RW: Yes my boots were on fire and I didn’t even realise it until my feet got so hot and I saw this red glowing ambers all round my boots and it turned out that my, the, the soles had been set on fire by the, oh, incendiary bullets which were coming from the fighters, the enemy fighters and several of these incendiary bullets, similar to the ones we use on them, you know, so we knew what damage they could do, set fire to our fuselage and as I say there were flames underneath my navigators table. So you know I could’ve been dead that same night, luckily the bomb aimer came along with enough fire hose left to put the fire out underneath my table so instead of that spreading right across the fuselage we were able to extinguish it at the source. But we were, these were things you took in your stride. You didn’t worry about them if you worried about them whether they happened to you but the rest of the time you got on with the job because you didn’t have time to worry [laughs] about what could happen. You had to concern yourself with what did happen.
GC: You also said earlier about bailing out. When did you bail out? Can you remember?
RW: Bail out?
GC: Yes.
RW: When? Well we, we had to do all kinds of bailing out. We had the, the real thing when one of our aircraft was on fire and there was no way that we were going to be able to extinguish the flames before they reached the fuel tanks so the skipper said, announced that we had to bail out. Which is what we did, but that was the only time I can remember where we actually were in real danger of blowing up but we had chunks of this thing blowing off our tail or wings or you know because shrapnel which was exploding all the way around you has a very powerful way of damaging your aircraft because a, a, a chunk of red hot metal this big hitting the tip of your wing could take the whole top of the wing off, in which case you go into a spiral and find yourself heading for the ground. So these things happen all the time and we were taught how to overcome them and also taught at which point we should abandon the aircraft if it was all beyond hope. Luckily although we had big chunks taken off every aeroplane I ever flew through enemy territory, none of them were fatal or caused us to blow up but we got very, very close to it. We, we had one, one shell which blew a hole about this big only about two inches away from the main fuel tank, you know. So it’s the luck of the draw.
GC: Can you remember any of your ops over Europe though?
RW: There were about — No you ask any navigator and I’m sure they’ll give you a similar, similar answer because all ops [background talking] were dangerous, right. Secondly you knew, you knew that there would be aerial defences of anti aircraft aimed at you with a view to shooting you down, right. You also knew that any fighter at night was definitely recognised whether it was a twin engine British night fighter or a twin engine German night fighter and so on. So you had to be on the defensive every minute that you were flying at night over enemy territory. So there were all kinds of things that you had to be conscious but you couldn’t find the time to worry about it because if you did that you would never get home you’d be lost because you, your pilot would force through or alter course so many times. I would give him a course to fly, right and within minute we would be attacked by a night fighter or another and we had to do this and navigate all through the sky to get away from him and that’s how we don’t bother with that. We were probably about seventy miles away from where we started getting away and you know you had to start all over again to establish where you were and start your job as navigator all the way back to where you left off and it was very difficult to do that.
JW: I seem to remember darling you saying to me that you never had time to feel afraid because you were working none stop.
RW: Absolutely, absolutely correct. If you stopped to worry you were a gonna, you know.
JW: And your ops I seem to remember you told me you were involved in things like windows.
RW: That right, windows is some of our a form of plastic fragments, lots of little bits which we used to drop over enemy territory as we approached the enemy defences we would drop this window that we had which would completely upset the radar of the enemy so it was quite a useful thing to have. They did the same to us.
JW: Were you involved in mines as well? Laying mines as well at all, or not?
RW: Mines?
JW: Yes.
RW: We had a few, very few of them but we had a few mine [unclear] traps especially up in, in Scandinavia and they approached us to Scandinavia and also they approached us to Holland and Belgium. We dropped a lot of mines and things like that.
JW: I seem to remember you telling me also you were involved in diversionary raids.
RW: Oh yes. That was another standard practice. In order to fool the enemy we would head off in the direction of a very obvious target and then at the last minute we would be told to alter course and to starboard or port and then go somewhere completely different, by which time the enemy defences were completely put off because they didn’t know where you were going you know. Things like that.
JW: But the main task force then had a clear run to their intended destination and target didn’t they?
RW: Well yes.
JW: Because you diverted the enemy.
RW: Yes that’s right.
JW: Away from that target.
GC: Can you remember anywhere you did bomb?
RW: Can I what?
GC: Can you remember anywhere that you did actually bomb?
RW: Actually bomb? Oh gosh [bleep] territory things like that. So it would be very awkward sometimes for us to send to the Germans to attack safely the enemy planes over your territory because you can never be one hundred percent sure that the plane you hit was actually one of the enemies. Rather sad.
GC: Yes.
RW: Especially at night when you can’t see the markings.
GC: So did you get scared?
RW: Did I get scared?
GC: Yes.
RW: That’s a difficult question that. I think you, you could get scared on the way there as you realise what it was that you were going to face. But the moment you were in action you forgot about being scared, wondering what to do was to make sure that you controlled your aircraft sufficiently to get you home again and that you took all the evasive action you could to avoid being hit and that was your main aim at that point. And also to drop your bombs before you and your aircraft blew up because somebody had put some shells into your bombs. So it was very much a hit and miss sort of career. Once you were airborne you could be shot down just as easily by a mistaken air gunner on your side or mistaken air gunner on the French side or whatever. It was very difficult at night time with the sky lit up with search lights doing this and explosive bombers or anti aircraft going boom boom all over the place to tell whether you were among friends or enemy, you know. Very hard.
GC: So how do you feel about it now? Seventy years later.
RW: Well, you have to bear in mind that now the planes and weaponry used are quite different. In those days we had, we were cruising at about a hundred and forty miles an hour in the air today a bomber would be cruising at five hundred and fifty, six hundred miles an hour, much harder to bring down and attack because of the differential in speed. Because assuming that you, that you could zero in on the end of the aircraft your best bet these days would be to send up the fighters that had the speed, and the range to reach and attack and shoot down these particular aircraft because anti aircraft now is so much more sophisticated than it was during the war but by the same token it’s very hard when anything is moving so fast in the sky. Very hard to determine which is the enemy and which is the friendly one. You understand? And often we, we shoot down planes or missiles that we shouldn’t have shot down because as I say were ours but these things happen in war and there’s not much you can do about it.
GC: So what did you do once the war was over?
RW: Said “thank God” [laughs] you know. We survived. That’s the important thing we could go out and have a few pints and five or six, seven pints of beer and get slowly sloshed to celebrate the fact that we were still, were alive and still standing on our feet. Mind you after seven pints of beer you might easily drop dead anyway [laughs].
GC: Well I think that can conclude our interview. I would like to say thank you very much to Ron, thank you very much to Jill.
JW: It’s a pleasure.
GC: And it’s been an honour and a pleasure.
RW: Oh dear, oh dear, I didn’t realise that this was all, I’d forgotten all about you were supposed to be writing it all down or taking notes, but if, if you want me to elaborate on anyone particular point which we could do because of the way I structured the whole interview just, just ask me the question and I’ll see if I can answer.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with an anonymous interviewee (An00509),” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 8, 2023,

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