Interview with Peter Cyril Beckett

Title

Interview with Peter Cyril Beckett

Description

Peter Beckett grew up in Mildenhall village. He attended the local Air Training Corps which enabled him to visit the airfield and take the opportunity to have air test flights with operational aircrews and help the ground staff with their work. He volunteered for the RAF and was selected for aircrew training but while awaiting the signals course to begin he was posted back to Blackpool for driver training. He was then posted to RAF Melksham for advanced driver training. He was posted back to Mildenhall and became the driver for the sergeant in charge of B Flight Armoury. This meant that on one occasion Peter had to assist the armoury sergeant to defuse a bomb that was still contained in the bomb bay of a Lancaster.

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Date

2018-03-17

Temporal Coverage

Language

Type

Format

01:04:57 audio recording

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

ABeckettPC180317

Transcription

DB: Today I’m interviewing Peter Cyril Beckett in his home at Holywell Row. It’s the 17th of March 2018 and the time is 1500 hours. Peter, would you like to tell me a little bit about your life with Bomber Command?
PB: Certainly. Yes. I am ninety two years old, and my name is Peter and I was born in Mildenhall in December 1925. For a long time I had wanted to put in writing my tribute to the amazing fortitude, courage and self-sacrifice of the wartime serving aircrews of Bomber Command 1939 to ’45 jokingly referred to as the Brylcreem boys during the Phoney War and ultimately Bomber Harris’ Bomber Boys. The Command had an abundance of coded slang in place of everyday words. Many incredible facts apply to the aircrew. Firstly, every one of them was a volunteer. There were no, there was no going back on the deal. They were committed. If the RAF didn’t want them they had to throw them out unceremoniously. In all my years I never met one aircrew member who wanted to give up his job. My association with Bomber Command began in 1940, just after I had joined the local Air Training Corps Cadets at my home town in Mildenhall. It was 301 Bury St Edmunds Squadron and I was only fifteen. Our local Air Training Corps voluntary, volunteer officer Flight Lieutenant Parker was a former Royal Flying Corps officer from the World War 1914 to ’18, and with, and was well acquainted with the group captain of RAF Mildenhall, one mile from my home and I had, and I suspect also acquainted with other officers of 3 Group Bomber Command which was also at the RAF station. In any event it transpired that a limited number of Cadets could on weekends facilitate their training and instruction on the station including some station duties. Full marks to our Air Training Corps Squadron instructors. They trained us twice a week at our local school. We got our uniforms, learned the Morse code, did dead reckoning navigation, did square bashing to a high standard. So, it was at the tender age of fifteen but with a war on, and it was 1940 I found myself on RAF Mildenhall bomber station in 1940, having marched from the guardroom at the gate to the parachute section. And among a dozen of my colleagues in the Air Training Corps following some quick instructions on the, on the fitting of parachute harnesses and carrying, and carrying the chute in a pack he, including a warning from the equipment, parachute equipment staff the dire consequences of touching the release handle we then marched, not so smartly this time because of the, of the parachutes to the grassy side entrance to Number 1 Hangar, and were dismissed to wait on the grass while the aircrews inside on duty held their briefing in one of the hangar rooms. I imagine a few ribald remarks about baby minding and a lot of, ‘what next,’ in inverted commas were expressed within [pause] and a few of the aircrew were peering through the anti-blast strips of the windows of the room to see what sort of rabble was awaiting them outside. By the time they came out from the briefing we were lined up either side of the entrance. A motley crew of the long, the short and the tall draped with, with canopy canvas straps. The keenness and the feeling of expectation must have aroused the aircrew and convinced them that there that was no going back and so with good grace individual members of the crew picked three or four dozen of the Cadets to accompany them to the newly arrived driver, WAAF driver’s truck. Some of the lads were too small to make it up to the back of the Bedford QL, especially incumbered with their chute bag and harnesses so a playful, there was a playful heave up from the, by the crews who obviously were beginning to enjoy the diversion. As each dispersal is reached the waggon disgorged, disgorged two or three Cadets with their crew of six or seven members, where some adjustments were made to the Cadet’s safety equipment. Then to entering the Wellington bomber supervised by a crew member. The engines are running up on test and Cadets were told to stand as near the main spar in the centre of the aircraft and shown where to hold on to and to remain there during the taxiing and take off, and to move only when told to do so. Cadets would, cadets were advised to hold their hands over their ears during the engine run up and take off which was not an easy task and holding at the same time. There was no issue of flying helmets or ear guards. And this, this flying each weekend continued all through 1940, 1941, ’42 and ’43. Many hours flying with operational Bomber Command crews. Squadrons stationed at Mildenhall included 149 OJ squadron, number 15 LS squadron, 622 GI, 622 Squadron, 419 Squadron VR. The wonderful aircraft Vickers Wellington, Short Stirlings, Lancasters. All flew in all those aircraft during those years. And there were two station aircraft however in which I never flew and they were the Gloster Gladiators of the Meteorological Flight which flew every morning near dawn in rain, hail or snow to provide a local forecast. The flights, the Cadet flights with operational crews could last anything between an hour to three. Mostly they were known as night flying tests. It was a test to prove every operational, every operational function connected with the aircraft was in full order for the night’s operation. Not always the, was the crew carrying out the air test the same crew to fly the aircraft on operations that night but it would most likely be the case. Through the years I learned a lot from these, these men. After three years I became a Senior Cadet flight sergeant and in wartime there was the ability to grow up quickly. These young flyers were only a few years older than myself, and I could perceive that for all their horseplay between themselves there was a deadly serious attitude. An attitude with, with some rigidly serious rules. Rule one was don’t ever let the side down. Rule two was give your crew one hundred percent support. Put your crew first in all your decisions. And I realised it was because each man believed that it was only his colleagues that could save him from death. This I realised was indeed logical thinking. These gallant, grave men that were called the bomber boys. The pilot’s skill saved the lives of many crews. Witness Middleton VC. Air gunners have shot down numerous FW190s, ME109s, and 110 night fighters about to perform the coup de gras with a bomber. A wireless operator finding a beacon with the aircraft lost in fog even on training missions for example. The navigator who provides a vital plot to avoid enemy flak concentrations. The bomb aimer making a decision for the pilot to abort the bomb run and go around again. To think every bomber crew had a right. It was their crew that was most, that was most essential to their survival. Turning to these cadet flights organised at weekends between 1940 and ’44, not all were night flying tests. Some as I remember were cross country and even local flying. These, these were helpful to new crews from Operational Conversion Units, or even overseas crews new to the station. This suited us Cadets admirably because we loved looking on our familiar countryside bird’s eye view. But more exciting flying was after ’42 and ’43 in the beautiful Lancasters, especially on fighter affiliation. At six to eight thousand feet enter the Spitfire. We are taking turns in the astrodome. We have been searching the blue sky paying special attention to the fluffy white clouds but have seen nothing, but through the borrowed helmet we hear the rear gunner call, ‘4 o’clock high, skipper.’ Prepare [unclear] skipper. Prepare to dive. Left. Left.’ Before we’d done, before we fall I think, shortly before we fall I think I saw a moving dot. How did that rear gunner see that speck? Would he see, what would he, how would he see it in the dark? On a dark night over Germany. Also, not every weekend did we fly. Some weekends we gave support to the ground crew. Ground crews. We rode around on the bomb trolleys towed by tractors and helping with the bombing up was good, good fun in good weather but serving on the airfield in bad weather was tougher. On occasions the whole flight of Cadets were allowed to be present at take-off for a night raid. One such night we were allowed to go to be in the control room of the control tower for a raid on Duisburg [pause] Yeah. That’s it.
[recording paused]
PB: In 1943, April 1943, I was at last able to attend a interview in Cambridge for my application for aircrew to join aircrew in the RAF and I attended an interview and medical in Cambridge. And my result was passing medically fit, A1, for pilot, navigator or bomb aimer category. And now I have to await now before I’m called up to the Aircrew Recruiting Centre. In effect, I, I didn’t much like the waiting game. Forty, forty, all through the beginning of 1943 but was only too pleased that at last news had come through that I was ok to enter the RAF as aircrew. And then on, after another long wait on the 24th of June I did receive my papers for calling, call up papers to go to the Aircrew Receiving Centre in London, and I went to, it was unfortunate that only the week previously the, the Doodlebug buzz bomb threat started in London and had been, the flying bombs had been landing all the previous week. Nevertheless, I was only too pleased to get on the road to the RAF and sure enough I found that we were to be billeted right in the heart of the city at St John’s Wood, a short distance from Lord’s Cricket Ground, on the Prince of Wales Road near Regent’s Park in a empty hotel called Viceroy Court. The situation to be in London in the wonderful city was dampened somewhat by the debris and ruins and bomb damage, but wasn’t helped at all by the fact that very shortly we were subjected to another onslaught of flying bombs which were different to the enemy bombers which I’d heard over in Suffolk which only droned over. These were devils of the sky which cut their motors and then we waited, holding our breath for the blast explosion. But training had to go on and we paraded in the streets for our marching. We marched to the dining, our dining place for meals. We went to the swimming pool for our physical training and also running in Regent’s Park for PT. We had to get used to the, a whistle which meant that we immediately had, if we were in marching, running we had to disperse immediately and lay flat every time that the whistle blew for an air raid alarm. In all we had some narrow escapes with, with the flying bombs landing. One, one particularly in the opposite side of the street where our billets were and my kit bag tied up with all my worldly goods had to be abandoned after the raid because it was full of splintered glass that had penetrated the whole of the kit bag and all my kit was rubbished. And we, we then had to stay there for our training for a further eight weeks with the flying bomb menace day and night which meant that we also had many extra pickets to, to go on duty. Fire picket, pickets spotting on the roof of the hotel and to give warning for others to take cover, and even we had to mount pickets in the military hospital which was in Baker Street. A converted building in Baker Street. All in all, we were looking forward to the end of our eight week course and passing out. Leaving, leaving London in August ’44 the next stop was to be the Initial Training Wing, where we learned further skills and learned further, oh —
[recording paused]
PB: For our next stage of training which was to leave St John’s Wood and the flying bombs we were all trained to, put on train, trains to go to peaceful Yorkshire. What a change from London was the seaside Yorkshire town of Bridlington and its sunny beaches. We were, that we had then to do a course for further training on deflection of firing. Firing guns, and further drilling, and the learning the Morse code, sending and receiving. It was to be an eight, a further eight week course. One we were billeted in civilian empty, or civilian boarding houses on the front. Four of us to a room. The rooms were very sparse. One electric lightbulb was the whole of the furniture in the room and of course the RAF beds. Our food. We received our food by queuing and going to the local Spa on the seafront but we were soon recovering from our experiences in London except for one thing. The Halifaxes, as they landed or took off for a raid, or came home from raids were very disturbing for us. Having been so used to the flying bomb and it’s cut off engine we almost fell out of bed when the Halifaxes came over before we realised it wasn’t going to stop its engine and plunge on us. Apart from that the weather was fine, the shooting on the beach with shotguns to learn us deflection was fun, and apart from one thing, one obvious fault was that I succumbed to, and along with six other airmen to a bout of dysentery which was supposedly caught from an airman who had returned from the far, from the Middle East.
[recording paused]
I finished off in a lovely country house outside Bridlington for convalescence, or for treatment in the RAF sick bay. So, in 1944, October 1944 the course at, at Bridlington for the Initial Training Wing was ended. And having passed out on the, on the ITW we expected to move on further on the flying course but unfortunately, it was not to be because the radio school which was our next step for, for our course for signaller wireless operator air gunner was fully booked up and unable to take any more trainees. So, in the interim period we were to be placed on a course for a ground trade which was going to be a driver’s course on a mechanical transport course for drivers. So, we were to move from Bridlington to, of all places another seaside venue, Blackpool which was where we were to receive further training for, to become drivers of mechanical transports. The, the stay, my sixth day in the hospital as a result of catching the dysentery bug meant that I was with a different flight of, of trainees for this move to Blackpool and during the month of October the whole flight was entrained to, to journey to Blackpool. So, we moved to, the flight moved to, to Blackpool and the accommodation was to be the same as we had experienced at Bridlington in that we also were to be billeted in civilian boarding houses which were empty other than for, for RAF. The RAF having taken over the empty boarding houses and my billet was in Hornby Road in the centre. The training was to be, we understood done with Hillman cars and was to learn to pass proficiency in driving and the course began with driving the Hillman RAF staff car. After four weeks of doing all the tests, and passing the tests on, on driving cars, we were once more on the move and the movement order was given in the middle of November, and on the timing was to leave by the railway station in the dark November evening. The whole flight of thirty to forty airmen marched through the streets of Blackpool, full kit, carrying their kit bags, and in full marching order. Three, in ranks of three. For some reason the local populace, sightseers and holiday makers decided to line the route and give the boys a send-off mistakenly thinking that they were going to be embarking on the second front. Unfortunately, we were only moving to Wiltshire but we marched in full order never the less. So, after marching to the railway station at Blackpool, on board we get with all our kit and we each carrying our loaded kit bags, in great coats. Not the best way of travelling. Not the easiest. The train is absolutely full up with our RAF men and we’ve got a longish journey, a slow journey to Melksham in Wiltshire. Finally arriving at Melksham we’re transported to the, to the RAF Melksham and starting a new driving course which will be more advanced than what we have passed through at Blackpool, and the first introduction comes with the, a bigger vehicle to drive and, but the main interest with most of the airmen is driving the RAF armoured vehicle. A tank like vehicle with only a slit viewing screen from the front to drive by which means the travelling at a terrific speed when you’re only going slowly, and incidentally missing corners or misjudging corners as one of our pupils destroys a wall in Devizes. But everybody carries, enjoyed the course, and most passed it. But we are still waiting to get to a radio school, which is our next objective and proceed with our training for wireless operator air gunners.
[recording paused]
Before leaving the course at Melksham the whole, the whole curriculum had to be gone through and passed on vehicles from small light vans up to Crossley bomb tenders and, and large Bedford lorries. A lot of driving was done in convoys and, and particularly the Crossley vintage lorries were of World War One vintage and had gears that needed double, the use of the double clutch and gate gear so, but that was finally passed and still there was no news of leaving for the Number 4 Radio School to which we were awaiting. So nevertheless, apart from a final test for the practical side of the driver’s course, identifying various engine parts the, the whole flight were presented with a list in Daily Routine Orders of the various postings which would apply while the flight was waiting for the radio course. On inspection I found that RAF Mildenhall was one of the postings that could be applied for and I told my, my particular friend, Skid Archer who I knew lived in Ipswich if he would like to go and join me and get posted to Mildenhall, which would still be in Suffolk. And he agreed to do so and so we both put in for a posting to RAF Mildenhall. and eventually the postings came through. And so again I was to be on the move, this time with my best mate Skid, Sam in brackets, Archer. While posted in Melksham I was, I was confronted with this information that, that I could ask for a posting to RAF Mildenhall and so my friend, my best mate Skid Archer and I both put in and we found the next day that that posting application had been successful. And so, my next move will be back home to Suffolk from Wiltshire, and, and stationed near enough home to go home for a NAAFI break. And so the next move was to RAF Mildenhall. A bomber station. Skid and I both settled down to life at Mildenhall. I found I couldn’t get home as I had expected, every day of the week. The embargo was placed on the personnel if there were operations taking place on that day or that night the whole base, the whole camp were confined to, as they put it, confined to barracks. So to get home from the short distance of only two and a half miles just wasn’t possible and I had to stay on base with my friend Skid. We were, we were billeted in one of the airmen blocks and we had both been booked in at the mechanical transport depot and department. There we had the experience of sitting in a waiting room like a lot of taxi drivers. In with the woolly old sweats who were there and had been there for years just waiting to see what the corporal sitting behind a desk in a, in one side of the room was going to come up with for, for driving jobs for us. And it wasn’t long before Skid was called up and given a, a form to, for the application for transport and the details of which vehicle to have, where to pick up the passenger and where to go. And we found this quite, quite nerve wracking at first because we didn’t know what we would have to go and take out of the, out of the compound to drive, or where we would have to drive it to and if we would know where to go. I was fairly confident that if there was anywhere off base there was no problem. I would know. I would know the whole district but not always would I know where on the base, or on the camp that we were expected to take the vehicles. As the days went by we, it became easier and easier for us. Notably one of the first jobs we had were to pick up explosive bombs from the bomb dump at RAF Barnham and transport them back to the bomb dump at RAF Mildenhall. And of course I knew the way to Barnham but I had no idea what sort of job it would be carrying high explosives. In the end accompanied by an older driver or one of the other drivers I took a Austin flat back bomb tender and drove to Barnham and had to reverse down the embankments to the sidings where the railway wagons were unloading and they unloaded eight or twelve bombs, thousand pounders, high explosives on to the tender at the back. I was amazed to find that the wooden floor of the bomb tender was all that was going to support these heavy weight bombs. And, and I was also amazed that the, the armourers were, that were loading the bombs up made sure the bombs didn’t roll off the vehicle or about the vehicle by hammering four inch nails into the floor, the floorboards of the trailer in order to, to support and keep the bombs from rolling against each other. And, but the, it seemed to work and although the load was very heavy once the bomb, the lorry was loaded we met with all the success we required. Except, following that on that the week or so after when I became quite adept at, at procuring these bombs and securing them I was asked to take a trailer on the Austin tender, also fully loaded with bombs and on the return journey taking a corner in the village of Barnham I found that the trailer had come off with a load of bombs on it and embedded the tow bar into the grassy bank and this caused quite some concern. But the breakdown crane from the base, from the camp came out, and virtually pulled the trailer out and refixed it on, and all was sailing again. The, I didn’t realise how, how dangerous a job the ground crew on the, on the camp in operations, and on operations how dangerous their work was until I joined permanently the armoury section staff as an MT driver. Not an armourer but as an MT driver and realised then the conditions and the danger that they worked under. I was only the driver for the sergeant in charge of B Flight, 622 Squadron and my job was to drive him around night and day all around the perimeter of the of the airfield from dispersal to dispersal and back to armoury sorting all the necessary bombing up and de-bombing work that had to be done. But the conditions in the middle of the night in December were, had to be seen to be believed. Especially one night, especially when things just did not go well. Did not go right. In connection with my new job as driver for the sergeant in charge of B Flight Armoury Section, and the bombing up of the Lancasters of 622 Squadron for operations I realised that every Lancaster had two crews. The crew that were in charge of her in the air and the crew who were in charge of her on the ground. But this particular night the huge black Lanny stands alone after two small vehicles a Hillman car, canvas backed Hillman van and, melting into the darkness a couple of armed guards. Other kites, RAF for planes, kites have returned successfully from the raid and they are at their respective dispersals all around the airfield where lights show their, their ground crews fussing around them. Working on them through the night. But T-Tommy stands in darkness seemingly abandoned. But not quite, we see. There’s an aircrew Cadet, that’s me, driver of the canvas backed Hillman, and the sergeant, that’s my sergeant, the armourer of 622 Squadron and we are peering up at the bomb doors of T-Tommy with a torch. They have, we have been called out to deal with a problem, and unusually on a squadron where the motto is, “We Wage War at Night,” every night operation over enemy territory in [pause] every night operation over enemy territory instigates problems. But this one is extremely unusual. A high explosive bomb, fully primed and fused is resting on the bomb doors only which are three to four inches apart, and give every sign of further widening. The sergeant has checked the hydraulic system would hold the doors but with the weight of the thousand pounder it wasn’t entirely predictable. He decided the only safe answer was to defuse the device. Once the aircrew bomb aimer had selected the bombs and pressed the bomb release the bombs were fused. Each bomb had two fused, two fuses. A tail fuse which operated as the bomb fell through the space and a nose fuse which operated on impact. The bomb was lethal, and by the light of the torch that was held it looked a khaki green ominous monster. As we inspected both ends by the light of the torch, had the land lights and the land lights from tractors diverted away, their lights reflected into our eyes and caused the dark shadows. Dark shadows. A torch was the only answer. We needed a powerful light concentrated on the specific point to, to a specific point. All I had, had to do was to direct the service torch to his instructions. To my relief he decided to commence with removing the tail fuse. It seemed an age to complete and despite the freezing conditions we both had to remove our leather jerkins. We were, we were sweating and had to remove them. It was amazing to see how he worked with only enough room to get his wrists through the gap of the bomb doors and used the tools of his trade. I passed and received them as per, as per his instructions as well as directing the torch. When he finally removed the tail fuse and made that safe, after this time seemed to go much faster as we moved to the nose of the monster. This time when the fuse came out I was given vital instruction to place it in, on the ground with great care which I did very gingerly. The whole operation must have taken two hours but it seemed to me like two days. In fact, at that stage I seemed to be in a daze. I dimly remember everybody moving back behind any sort of cover, and the sergeant being given the doubtful honour of entering T-Tommy and releasing the bomb doors. Also walking over to the monster lounging in its, walking over to the monster laying in its own depression in the tarmac of the dispersal bay. The question is how had the aircraft flown back from Germany with the high explosive thousand pounder rolling on the bomb doors? How had it had made a successful approach and landing without the crew’s knowledge, plus taxiing to the dispersal? Who made the decision not to open the bomb doors which was the normal practice on return to the dispersal after a raid? Why didn’t the sergeant armourer receive some recognition for his courageous action? Why is there no record of the incident in station orders? What was the risk factor of a chain reaction to the explosion of a heavy high explosive thousand pounder bomb exploding among bombed up aircraft, including the station bomb dump and final filled fuel storage tanks? In fact, a conflagration. A conflagration. In such a conflagration how much damage would have occurred to the village and its population? Yeah. After the experience of working on and living with the ground crew personnel on a wartime bomber base such as RAF Mildenhall it became very noticeable to me how important bombing operations with the RAF was considered. Firstly, the security position so that everybody, all personnel on, on the station were, were aware of something big occurring and nobody ever interfered or objected or, or put anything to stop the operation taking place. People could be put under jurisdiction of a court martial if they did anything that prevented the base from supplying the number and providing the aircraft for that operation. It was very, so very important and it was an importance that was felt by every person on the base. Every person on the station. Cooks, parachute packers, fitters, instrument repairers, petrol tank drivers, MT drivers. Everybody had to bow to the god of operations. This, and this occurred every day. Every day, because every night there were the operations from the stations and that applied all through 1940, ‘41, ‘42, ‘43, ‘44 and ’45. Of a driver on the MT transport, for instance that was transporting Window, packets of Window to be dropped by the Lancasters on the forthcoming raid inadvertently reversed the back of his Bedford truck in to the side of the door of the Lancaster and dented the, just two dents either side of the door completely accidentally. He was immediately took to the guardroom and the last thing we knew he was posted away simply because he’d that accident that prevented that aircraft from being airworthy to fly on the night’s raid. Such was the, such was the power of the operation of a bombing mission.

Citation

Denise Boneham, “Interview with Peter Cyril Beckett,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 2, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/10102.

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