Interview with James William Birchall


Interview with James William Birchall


James Burchill was in the ATC before he volunteered for aircrew training. He was expected to be deferred but was told he had been chosen for immediate service. On one operation he was injured and by the time he was ready for operational duties again he had lost his crew. He reformed with a crew who had lost their pilot on his second dickie flight. His aircraft was shot down and the crew became prisoners of war. While being walked to the collection point under guard he saw four RAF crew hanging from lampposts. When he was seen by the civilian population they set on him and he was rescued by members of the SS. Jim took part in the Long March and saw the bodies of men who had frozen to death. After the war Jim had an interesting career in civil aviation and became involved in the Joint Services Staff College courses and the Air Traffic Control Experimental Unit.




Temporal Coverage




01:33:02 audio recording


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 and





DB: This interview is with James William Birchall and it’s on the 16th of August 2017 at 15.50 hours. Also present in the room is Mr Brian Keen. James — or apologies, Jimmy.
JB: Thank you.
DB: Tell me a little bit about your life before you joined the RAF.
JB: The RAF. If I start reading. I left grammar school at sixteen which was the usual time then. I went into a solicitor’s office. At eighteen I wanted to volunteer for the RAF and I was in the Air Training Corps. My older colleagues were volunteering but at that time there were too many volunteers so they put us on what they called deferred service. ‘We’ll call you back in another six months to start your training for air crew.’ I thought if I go in December they’ll call me back in June which would be about the right time to start. But on the 7th December 1941, I remember that date because it was Pearl Harbour, I went to RAF Cardington for medicals. The warrant officer said, ‘You’re one of the lucky ones. Down for immediate service.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want to come in the middle. I want to come in the middle of the year.’ And he said, ‘Oh, you’ll have to explain that to the group captain and it’s Friday afternoon and he’s gone playing golf. You can’t see him ‘til Monday.’ So, I stayed in this empty camp. Everyone had gone off for the weekend. The warrant officer on Monday said, ‘Write out why you should be given this deferred service.’ He underlined various sentences in red pencil, went into the group captain, came out and said, ‘The group captain’s considered your case and you’re still on immediate service.’ I went to the Aircrew Receiving Centre and that’s ACRC at St Johns Wood. Spent Christmas there on picket duty. Then finally went for the Initial Training Wing at Stratford on Avon where you did initial training. Square bashing, learning aviation law and things like that. Then you did what was called a grading course flying Tiger Moths to see if you had an aptitude because most of the flying training at that time was done in South Africa or Canada or America. Our weather was too bad. Anyhow, I soloed in eight and a half hours. If you hadn’t soloed by ten hours then you were out. I soloed in eight and a half hours. The instant I’d done this I was shipped off to Calgary in Alberta, Canada. It’s rather a coincidence that my son who is a medical consultant he got a scholarship to Stow and then on to Cambridge to study medicine. He’s there now. I won’t carry on about him. He is married and has three daughters. Flying training. I did my elementary flying training in Calgary in PT17s which were like biplanes made by Boeings. They’re still using them today for wing walking. Single-engined. Very good for aerobatics. Very good for training. From there they assessed your aptitude for fighter aircraft or multi-engined aircraft. Bombers. I thoroughly enjoyed instrument flying. We did some instrument flying in the PT17s with the hood up. Then I, we were then moved to Service Flying Training School which was at a place called Penhold, flying Oxfords. And it was parallel to the Rockies. I got my wings on the 18th of December 1942, exactly a year from my start. Sailed back from New York in the Queen Elizabeth carrying fifteen thousand troops. Mostly American. Crossing the Atlantic at the height of the U-boat packs. There were too many of us but at that time the RAF had units that would absorb you. So they gave us a commando course at Whitley Bay. Swimming in the North Sea in January and February wasn’t fun. To assimilate us back in to flying we went on a refresher course and then we did a lot of beam approach flying and then from there on we progressed to OTUs. Operational Training Units where we flew heavy twins. Wellingtons. Lovely aircraft. The pilot had a cushioned leather seat instead of just a metal bucket seat where you sat on your parachute. Wellingtons are much heavier, much bigger than Oxfords. We did a course of about fifty hours flying Wellingtons from Seighford near Stafford. And then here in a big hangar at Stafford men were gathered in groups of aircrew. Navigators, bomb aimers, radio operators and rear gunners. ‘Go and pick your crew.’ That’s how it was done. We then trained as a crew on Wellingtons. Did one or two operational flights at the end of our training over North France. From there we progressed to a Lancaster Finishing School. LFS at Lindholme near Doncaster flying Halifaxes and Lancasters. About the same size as Lancasters Halifaxes were much heavier to fly with a very strong undercarriage. I’ve got here built like a brick shithouse but I don’t know whether you [laughs] Lancasters were a delight to fly. Beautifully balanced. More delicate. But you had to be careful on take-off. If we opened up and then it goes on to say that they would normally swing to the left and you’d got to be ready to correct it. After Lancaster, Lanc Finishing School I went to 12 Squadron in 1 Group at Wickenby near Lincoln. I did three or four bombing trips there. One was to Hanover. And then it’s here where we were shot up by a Messerschmitt 109 and we got the impression, it felt like a bucket of hot coals had been thrown over us because it was a tracer hitting us. I felt a kick in my back and nothing else. And then we were — we lost our mid-upper gunner. He was, his Perspex turret had splintered and part had gone in his eye and he lost his eye. At the time I got — I then went with him to the Medical Centre. We were x-rayed and they found that I’d got a bullet in my back, and a couple of — I’m getting [pause] Then I, when I was in hospital at Rauceby for three months when I was fit again I was a head without a crew because my crew had been cannibalised while I was away. But there was another crew without a head in 103 Squadron. Their captain had gone on a flight as a second pilot with another crew to get experience and he’d been shot down. So, here was a headless crew and here was a head without a crew. That crew had been trained together from the beginning. They were all NCOs, and ultimately when we were shot down they were sent to an NCO POW camp all together. So, I never really saw them again until after the war. Another trip of interest was to Nuremberg on the 30th of March 1944. I think everyone knows that date. And the briefing we got from Bomber Harris said, ‘Very shortly Bomber Command will be called upon to support the invasion of Europe.’ And Sir Arthur Harris is anxious to strike at one last target before this happens. It’s a target he knows is very dear to Churchill’s heart. Nuremberg deserves a maximum effort and that is what it’ll get. Then there will be ten squadrons in one group, eight squadrons 3 Group. Etcetera. In addition there are fifteen Mosquitoes adopting an intruder role. So you will have lots of company but keep a good look out at turning points. And then it says Pilot Officer JW Birchall, Captain, Lancaster ND700 which took off at 22.10, landed at 06.46. Coming back of interest he coasted in at Selsey Bill. We were based south of the Humber. Ninety six aircraft were lost and a further ten were damaged on landing and were written off. I think I’ve got further details separately. The type of German night fighter technique, it was called schrage musik which apparently means slanting music which means jazz. It’s the German for jazz. The twin engine night fighters mounted four twenty millimetre cannon behind the pilot, sticking out of the cockpit at an angle. The ground radar monitored these night fighters in to the bomber stream and using his airborne radar the navigator could direct his pilot towards the target. When he got about two miles away the night fighter could duck down and come up underneath the bomber. We didn’t even rumble it. We couldn’t see underneath in Lancasters. He could then almost read the registration of the aircraft fifty feet above him. They then had the gunsight arranged so they didn’t aim at the middle of the aircraft to kill the crew. They were like ourself. He just wanted to knock out the aircraft. And — no I won’t. So, I think this is getting a bit laboured isn’t it? The next one was Dusseldorf on the 22nd of April. I think I’ll probably try and summarise that. They were, on our squadron there were fifteen aircraft detailed to go to Dusseldorf and we lined up each side of the runway and the aircraft ahead of us, we were still waiting, took off and on take-off he swung off the runway into the soft ground. Undercarriage collapsed. His bomb load exploded and we could see the crew evacuating, rushing off. But instead of cancelling operations the tower said, ‘We’ll change to runway — ’ I think it was runway 22. So it meant that all the ones behind me had all got to turn around with their bomb load on on the perimeter track. And some got off and some didn’t. And we had just got to the stage where we were lined up and then the tower said, ‘Aircraft not airborne return to dispersal.’ Now, at that time we were conscious that the set course time had been and gone about twenty minutes before. So we were going to be twenty minutes late even if — so I said to the chaps, ‘What shall we do? Shall we do as we are told and go back to dispersal or shall we go?’ So, we all said, ‘Oh, let’s go.’ So we all went and tried to catch them up. I asked the navigator to give me a straighter course. He did this, which took us right through the Ruhr up to Dusseldorf and so we, we got hammered going through the Ruhr and by the time we could see the fire of Dusseldorf ahead of us we were still about thirty miles below it err before it so we carried on. We dropped our bombs. And then we turned for home and suddenly something hit us. Just about knocked us on our back. And it must have been one of these night fighters with its four twenty millimetre cannon. It had formated underneath us and bingo. The number three engine, the starboard inner engine was on fire. We put out the fire. The engineer put out the fire with the extinguisher and we feathered the engine and we were going to hope to get home on three engines. But then we saw the fire come back again and it was really burning very intensely and getting very close to our number one tank which I remember was five hundred and eighty gallons. It got to the stage where we couldn’t do anything about it. We used the fire extinguisher. So I had to, told the crew to abandon the aircraft. Well, to abandon aircraft in Lancasters you have got to be dominated by that big spar which goes right across. So, people like the wireless operator, the rear gunner, the mid-upper gunner who were behind, aft of that big spar could go out through the main back door. The people who were in front of that would never stand a chance with parachutes on and all the rest of it so they would go out through a small hatch underneath the chin of the aircraft. It was a padded seat that the bomb aimer used to lie on while he was lining up his sights. So the place was blazing. I was holding it as fast as I could while the other ones got out. I could see the flight engineer went out, the bomb aimer went out. And I managed to see the navigator and he went out but I had a, an impression that his flying boots were on fire somehow. And he was interested in knocking flames out when he went out. And unfortunately the bomb aimer, whose job was to jettison that hatch before he went out he brought it indoor and he’d left it inside. And with the motion and the suction this I could see as the navigator went out wedged cornerways in the hatch. I couldn’t get out myself there. So the only way I thought was to get out through the roof. Now, I wasn’t thinking rightly because the little exit in the glass panelling we used in practices for dinghy drill with the aircraft supposedly floating on the water so we had to get out above it. But if you’ve got a parachute on and your flying gear to get out so I remember I panicked. I tried to rip this metal canopy apart. Couldn’t do that. So then I hit on the idea unhook my parachute, push it through still holding the rip cord and then I could follow it out. And it pulled me out so I was lucky to get out. So, that was how I made my entrance into Germany. Now, I I think I’m, that was a photo, a squadron photograph we had taken. I’ve got an arrow here with me. In the original which the wireless operator got he’d got a little arrow on this side but it’s chopped off a bit so we couldn’t see. So I put a ring around it. But it shows how big a Lancaster was when you see the whole squadron including the bull dog which was the mascot. But then you have the WAAF drivers. You have all the ground crew and it’s a lot of people to man fifteen aircraft. I think that was just on the official records of this ME 741 in 103 Squadron. It was built in April ’44 and it was lost over Dusseldorf on the 23rd of April having only flown thirty one hours. My capture — well I don’t think that’s [pause] I landed. Well, in your battledress you had a kit which gave you foreign currency and of maps of Europe so you could escape. And as was coming down I got all this out and I thought oh, this is alright. I can make a trip now through Germany and Spain. I also noticed that I heard the German all clear because we were so far behind the rest of them once they shot me down there was nothing [laughs] That made sense because we were the last aircraft over the Ruhr and we’d been shot down. So they sounded the all clear and I remember thinking the German all clear is the same as ours. I started to concentrate on where I was going. It was a moonlight night. I could see the River Rhine and thought I was going to land in it. And I could see I was drifting away from the Rhine so I was alright. Then I could see something round coming up in the moonlight and I thought that’s either a round greenhouse or a summer house. I couldn’t make out what it was I was aiming for. And I plonked down and found it was an ack-ack gun emplacement and these were all the sandbags around it. There was only one Luftwaffe man guarding it. The rest had all gone back to their billets having heard the all clear. He was surprised and he called an officer who attempted to interrogate me. He spoke, ‘Some German?’ I said, ‘No,’ I said, ‘English?’ He said, ‘No.’ So we had a bit of French and didn’t get very far. A train took us. We got a train the following day to Krefeld where we were to be taken to a Luftwaffe collection point for shot down POWs. At that time there were a lot of Americans because every time a Flying Fortress got shot down there was a ten strong crew. We got off the train and we walked. Walked to the town centre where a tram car would take us to the collection place. I was with this corporal who made me carry my parachute. I’d landed heavily so my knees were very painful. On the way to the square we made to turn up a little side street when he hesitated and walked past it. I thought oh he doesn’t know his way. But as I walked past that little street I had a glance up there and saw four RAF sergeants hanging from lampposts. Krefeld was part of the Ruhr which had taken an enormous pounding. And I thought this is real, this is happening. When we got to the Square and waited for the tram car people gathered around to see one of the terror fliegers carrying his parachute. They were very volatile. Surged in. Kicked me. Hit me. I remember one big plump fellow with a walking stick shouting that I’d, ‘Bomben my kinder and frau in Dusseldorf.’ He walloped into me. Knocked me down, kicked me, jumped on me. I was losing consciousness when I heard a pistol shot. I think it must have been the guard whose responsibility I was. Four SS men arrived which terrified me even more in their black uniforms with skull, silver skull and crossbone badges. But they held the crowd back ‘til the tram came along. Two of them came on the tram with the guard and for once in my life I was grateful to the SS for saving me from being hung up on that next lamp post. That was a bit of the parachute which I got the crew to sign after the war. I’ll just rabbit on. I don’t want to. Yes? The interrogation — we were at this collection point for a couple of days when they took us, a group of us, mostly Americans to the main flyer’s interrogation centre at Oberursel near Frankfurt. Built specifically for interrogating prisoners. I was in a solitary cell, eight by six. I paced up and down. The walls were all lined with some sort of thick absorbent cardboard and the window had bars on it. It was hot in Frankfurt in April and in the daytime they would switch on a big radiator in each room and close the shutters from the outside so you really cooked. At night the radiators went cold and the shutters were opened so you were exposed to the night and got very cold. That was the only form of torture I suffered. They fed us much the same blah blah blah. After about a week I was taken to a big interrogation office where a Luftwaffe major who spoke excellent English did the interrogating. He was very friendly. He said, ‘I’ve told the German High Command that you are a shot down British airman but they don’t believe me. You are a spy.’ I said, ‘No. I’m not a spy. I’m wearing my uniform. I’ve got my dog tags for identification.’ He said, ‘Yes. But all spies, not knowing where they are going to land put on a uniform so they, they’d be helped by the Geneva Convention. Dog tags. they’re no proof.’ He said, ‘Well, tell me about your aeroplane. If you are a shot down British airman we’ll have the wreckage of your plane with its registration on. Tell us that.’ I said, ‘No. All I can tell you is name, rank and number.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Tell us some members of your crew because we will have caught those. That will confirm you are a shot down British airman.’ ‘No. Name, rank and number.’ So, he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I can’t convince them that you’re not a spy.’ And then, well they, which is the German High Command I think, ‘You’re not a spy and that orders are that at 8 o’clock tomorrow you will be shot.’ I didn’t sleep much that night. 8 o’clock still no jack boots down the corridor outside my bell. Breakfast came at the usual time. I was there for another week thinking that if they ask me again I’ll tell them anything they want to know to prove that I was a shot down airman and not a spy. Well, it just goes on. But anyhow the next time he interviewed me he had, it was in the same briefing room but he’d got a large map on the back wall and a lot of these manilla folders with the squadron crest on the front. And he thumbed through these and he had his pink tape on the map behind him but he didn’t have our base on it. The tape was just from the English coast. They could monitor where the bomber stream was on the radar. He was thumbing through some brown manilla files on his desk. Each one with the squadron crest on. ‘Oh yes. 103 Squadron. Recently you’ve had quite a few losses on your squadron.’ On such a night so and so was shot down. He had three or four of these but thinking about it they had been shot down. They’d have been interrogated so he'd have got their details. Then he said, ‘Did you know your squadron commander had been recommended for his DSO?’ We didn’t. I didn’t know if it was true. He was looking to see my reaction each time to confirm if what he was saying was correct. I asked him about one of my chums who was shot down and hadn’t come back. ‘No. He probably had to ditch in the North Sea so we wouldn’t have any details of him.’ All very plausible. So, he asked me one question about the funnel. The leading light funnel leading to the runway. And he called this, he says, ‘Out of interest what’s this Christmas tree you have at night along your runway? A series of lights you call a Christmas tree.’ Did he mean the six mile funnel of lead in lights? One aircraft was coming in to the land and unknown to us a night fighter infiltrated. Coming in behind him on final approach. Positioned under him and shot him, shot. The aircraft crashed and they were all killed. This must have been what he was talking about. So it was a different form of interrogation he made. Confirmation of known facts and the Christmas tree question. But he did give me the consolation, ‘We’ve established you’re a shot down airman.’ Can we have a break now?
[recording paused]
After the interrogation they took us by train to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in Silesia. The notorious camp of the Great Escape where seventy six officers escaped on the night of March the 24th ’44. Only three got back to England. The rest were re-captured and on Hitler’s express orders fifty were shot. I arrived in the camp before this fact was known. The senior British officer, Group Captain Massey demanded of the German commandant that their bodies should be returned for a decent internment and perhaps a monument. And although told that they had been shot while escaping the bodies came back to indicate that they had not been shot in the back but in the front. It looks like a firing squad. We tried to find things to do. I read the whole of Charles Dickens. We had one navigator and he set off to run a navigation course up to the standard of the Civil Navigator’s Licence Second Class. You could get documents through the Red Cross and do the final exam through them. It was something constructive to do and I got my licence. We had lots of theatres. There were, there were POWs who enjoyed training for theatre work and they used to put on a play for us every week or two. We, the audience dressed in our best blue which we’d sent from home. I remember Blythe Spirit. And Messaline, which was written in the camp about a Greek prostitute, I think. There was Pud Davies, that was Rupert Davies who later played Maigret on television. Then there was Commander John Casson RN. He was the son of Dame Sybil Thorndike. He worked in the management side of theatre. There was Talbot Rothwell as was known. We knew him as Tolley. Another expert thespian who now produces the Carry On films. And also Peter Butterworth who was also on the Carry On team. There was one effeminate Squadron Leader, Bobby Lomas who always played the female. And the whole camp, starved of female fancied him. There was no rapport with the German guards with strict rules, but when we had a theatre show we invited the commandant and the senior guards to come and gave them the front seat. And we of course dressed in our best blue. So, all very prim and proper. We were still tunnelling. There was one under the theatre hut. And you — the tunnels dug through sandy soil required to be shored up by slats from bed boards, and each bed had eight slats. And when you were called to surrender one slat for shoring up the tunnel you took the biggest slat and split it in two so you gave one to the tunnel but you still had eight. You could see the Germans doing inspections through the windows as you were lined up outside counting the slats. But the slats were getting thinner and thinner and eventually a bed would collapse. If it was the top one of three tiers it would come crashing down on the two beneath. No more tunnels were successful while I was there. Then we met the winter, the bitter winter and the Russians started their offensive across Poland, and they had liberated Warsaw. And at Sagan we heard rumours that we POWs were either going to be shot or taken on a trek. Hitler wanted to hang on to POW officers for possible bargaining at the war’s end. They could let the Russians take other ranks from their camps to Odessa and ship them back to England. The week before we’d seen horses and trailers with big boilers and chimneys. One or two people had been in Belsen or Buchenwald and had even seen these Death Camps. So we started to get a bit twitchy when a dozen of these boilers were lined up outside. Were they going to incinerate us? We decided that if they did we’d make a mad rush for the wire and try to climb over. We’d all be shot but it was better than being cooked. Anyhow, the following morning it had all gone. It was a German field kitchen. On the 27th of January, about 10.30pm we got the call, ‘We are marching out in one hour’s time. Take a blanket, take your overcoat, your greatcoat and gloves if you’ve got any.’ And we left at midnight on that date, the 27th of January where snow had been snowing for the past three weeks. And we marched for two or three weeks in the snow from then. The Germans didn’t know where we were going. We were just wandering aimlessly about. It got really cold and we had one instance where we were sleeping just outside the, on a barn, outside a barn. And in the morning the Germans came, prodded three officers but they had frozen to death during the night. One was Pop Green. He was quite an old one. I was marching on the side when I, with German tanks going past I collapsed having been struck by a tank and I was just hauled out by my buddies. We all pulled together. We marched almost to Hanover where they took us by train. Locked us in cattle trucks labelled forty hommes or eight chevaux. They packed us in as tight as they could and we travelled about Germany for two or three days. Those with dysentery were crowded into one corner and the rest took turns sleeping. Half lying down while the others half stood up. We were occasionally given rations when a field kitchen caught us up. It was barley glop. Boiled up barley but it was nice and hot. We drank rusty water from the tap on the side of the engine. When the train stopped we were allowed to walk about with the guards all around. The spring weather came and we were met very often by Typhoons or Tempests, some of which came out of from Selsey. The — that time they had they, they thought that we were German troops evacuating so they would take pot shots at us. And on one occasion towards dusk we were parked in a field with guards all around and we heard Merlin engines. A Mosquito doing a reccy had spotted a field full of troops so soon, the next thing a Typhoon came and had a go at us. One or two people got injured. Part of our walk finished up in a field by a German autobahn with a bridge nearby. Under it for safety were four or five German horse drawn carts. A couple of Typhoons spotted them and started shooting, annoyingly killing the poor old horses. We felt very sorry about that. As we crossed the Elbe some more Typhoons or Tempests had a go at the ferry. Wasn’t very successful. Nobody was hit. We then stayed at a place near Lubeck and we were told that we need not stay in Lubeck because they had typhus or, or typhoid. Instead we were permitted, we got the German commandant to agree to take over a large estate and he was very cooperative then because he knew the end of the war was in sight and he hoped we would speak up for him afterwards. Anyhow, we persuaded the troops, the German troops to throw hand grenades into the lake. The fish floated to the top and we swam in and got them. We dined well from there. When we got back to England they expected us to be skin and bone but we were fine and fit from living in the open. The, the Germans surrendered on May the 8th. We were, on May the 2nd we were liberated by a jeep with a driver and a British army corporal who stumbled across us. ‘You’re all liberated now. Stay here. Don’t try and wander. We’ll arrange transport to take you back to England,’ So, they took us to a Luftwaffe station called Diepholz where Dakotas or Lancasters took us back to England where we arrived in the afternoon and interrogated to find out what we’d seen in Germany that might be of interest. Any secret weapons or whatever. They gave us money, identity papers, clothing, railway warrants. So, on the 8th of May, VE Day we worked right through the night and I was given a train pass and arrived home the next morning in South Lancashire. No one was at home. They were all at church celebrating VE day. When they came back what a surprise. They’d heard nothing from me since September the previous year.
[recording paused]
My trip back from Germany was from a place, a German Luftwaffe station called Diepholz and we came back in a Dakota to one of the OTUs, in Oxfordshire I suppose, called Wing. It so happened that my future wife was in air traffic control at a place called [pause] it was at Westcott where the — no. My mind’s gone. Hut in Stalag Luft 3. We had fifteen of us in three tier bunks and in the top bunk there was a New Zealand squadron leader called Len Trent. And he was, used to be sleeping there in the afternoon and we had nothing else to talk about so we used to spend hours arguing who would win the war. Would it be fighters or bombers? And then we heard his voice, ‘For Christ sake shut up. I want to get some sleep.’ And we all stayed together where ever we went. We all stayed together. And we finished up by being interrogated in England. And there was Len and the other fourteen of us and we were all wanting to get cracking so we could get off home but Len was still being interrogated and talked. And we said, ‘Come on Len. Come on. You’re holding us up.’ But, ‘No. No. No. Shut up. No.’ And it was then, just after VJ day that word came out that Leonard Trent, New Zealand Air Force had just got the VC. And he hadn’t mentioned it of course to us. Well, he didn’t know at that time. So, that was Len Trent. I think it was three trips at 12 Squadron at Wickenby and then I got this bullet in my back. So, of course that was, although my crew then, we’d all been trained together I lost them at that time when I had to go in to hospital. They’d been cannibalised and so as I said I had then to take over a new crew on 103 Squadron and we didn’t do very many trips there. Altogether I think it was about twelve, thirteen but this was the time in April ’44 when the Germans had really organised themselves with these four cannon. And they would see where the bomber stream was going. They would then direct the night fighters into the bomber stream. The navigator in that night fighter could see his echoes and he would then direct his pilot on to the targets there. And when he got within two miles they’d duck down underneath and from then on [pause] And I spoke afterwards. Went to a place in London. There was some discussion I vaguely remember. Lord Tedder was there. But this fellow was a night fighter pilot and he said that it was, he regularly shot down four or five Lancasters every trip he did. And the average tour length at that time was about seven because you didn’t stand a chance. Yes. When I was shot down the team at the back got the mid-upper gunner, who was unconscious having had his face shot up. And they hooked his parachute hand over the ripcord which was the you know, the silver thing on the side which, and he was unconscious but they turfed him out thinking well that was the best they could do for him. And apparently he woke up the following day in a cabbage field. Blood all over himself and the parachute there. So he must have automatically pulled his parachute. So, I met them all afterwards and he’d lost his eye so coincidence that I had two mid-upper gunners lost their eye. But there are bits when you’re sitting on top there. There’s any, I’ve got the strip. These were reflections. We were all very young. Initially it was a game. I’ve got the parachute of the trip I was shot down in. I got the crew to sign it. The camp we were in. Fifteen sleeping in three tier bunks. Well, this was on the top bunk was Len Trent, New Zealand accent said, ‘For Christ sake.’ During that week in solitary in the beginning I thought I must think of something. Today, I will think entirely for the whole of the day on my mother, tomorrow my father, then my brother. Dragging up everything I could think about them to keep my mind occupied. How people survive in solitary for months I don’t know. I didn’t have a girlfriend at that time. I didn’t meet Heather ‘til after the war. So, I don’t think — these are just reflections. Then I think you’ve seen this one about when I went from RAF Feltwell. I’d been a little time when I was promoted to fill the squadron leader. Yes. This is about posting Heather to RAF Mildenhall ten miles away. She used to cycle over to see me and we carried on. Feltwell closed and was taken over by the Americans to store Polaris. I was then posted to Mildenhall because the squadron leader was demobbed. Then the group captain came. So I think that is that now. One — and that is in the camp I’d forgotten that I kept a diary. It was on a very thin flimsy paper and it was written in pencil and my mother must have been, at the end of the war she got hold of it. And this then came to my cousin and she said, ‘Oh, this is wonderful. You must make a record of it.’ So, what she did. Well, she wrote to, to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to see how you could preserve these things and what he should do. And then they contacted the RAF Museum at Hendon who were very interested and they have now been given, I think most of these books. But I’ll show you. I won’t go through them because it’s going to take you too long. I can say on this march, this long march we had the guards marching alongside us to see that we didn’t escape, although no one would want to escape in those conditions. But the guards were very old men and they got further and further behind. So they were moving slower than we were and they finished up at the back of the column. So then the guards had vehicles to collect them, take them to the front of the column, put them down and they started on the front of the column and gradually drifted back to the [pause ] but they were very, very old. This June ’46. On the 22nd of June Heather and I were married in Pinner Church after Heather’s demob in May. I applied for a vacancy in Civil Air Traffic Control having had my military experience. When they interviewed me the minimum recruiting age at that time was twenty five. However, when they saw me they reduced the age to twenty three and I was in. I landed up, they posted you nearest your home. I landed up at Speke Airport, Liverpool. Now, I think it’s called John Lennon Airport isn’t it? While there I did a month’s leave relief for a controller at Ronaldsway which was at Douglas Isle Of Man. Both Heather and I enjoyed the holiday although it was so cold that we ironed the sheets to warm them up before getting into bed. In 1947 I volunteered to open up Belfast Civil Airport. At the former RAF airfield called Nutts Corner. I soon devised a new routing coming and going from the Isle of Man direction. At that time the inbound and the departures all followed a common routing between Belfast and the Isle of Man and then further down to Manchester or Liverpool or, or London. So, we had to devise some way of separating them because if you had one aircraft coming in and another one going out you couldn’t climb one and descend one through the other. So, I hit upon the idea that I would, I went to see the Belfast BBC transmitter site which was well south of the inbound route. And departing aircraft then took off and turned south homing on the BBC beacon, and the, my efforts were approved. We had two separate routes and I was rewarded. Some, something else I did on the radar I became fifty pound richer. So, anyhow I must have impressed someone because in 1950 I was transferred to open up the Air Traffic Control Experimental Unit based in the north west corner of Heathrow, and with access to a radar installation. The ATCEU was a small unit. Just four controllers. Two operation officers and a team of radar radio staff at our disposal. The projects in which I was most involved was the use of a third parallel runway for Heathrow. We decided that the introduction of a third runway was not feasible or cost effective and to have a second runway at Gatwick at a later date would be more feasible. Sixty years later, well it’s now about seventy years later the government is still undecided. Another project I had was to visit manufacturers who were providing radars. There was Cossors, Deccas, Marconis and Plesseys. And the three of us enjoyed that project which determined, it was to determine the gappiness, the cover of any new radars coming by using one of our Civil Aviation Flying Unit’s aircraft from Stansted. We could fly slices through radar beams at various heights and thus determine whether a particular envelope was reliable. Then there was another project of new procedures for increasing the landing rate at Heathrow. And that got rather complicated. It involved the use of two radar talk down systems. In fact, later on we tried putting a trial. We arranged to close Heathrow for one night between midnight and 5 am. We borrowed four aircraft from the Civil Aviation Flying Unit plus four aircraft from the Empire Test Pilot’s School at Farnborough and invited any scheduled aircraft to participate if they wished. The second GCA unit was provided and we were all set to go when the minimum weather conditions we’d agreed were right on the lower limits. As half of headquarters had come to watch and Heathrow had been notified as closed and the aircraft and the aircrews were standing by I said, ‘Ok. We’ll go.’ It worked out a marginal success although one Farnborough Canberra aircraft on being guided back to the holding stack for another go, he lost himself and he declared Mayday and we spent some half an hour looking for him. We found him over Manston in Kent. In all it wasn’t a great success but once or twice when conditions were right and I was the watch manager at Heathrow I initiated a system but really it wasn’t a resounding success. There were too many variables which could fail. The other thing which was interesting, a possible high level holding procedure for the newly introduced family of jet aircraft. The Comet was the first jet aircraft coming along and with the Comet of, with the introduction of the Comet as the first commercial jet we worked closely with two BOAC pilots, Captain Rodley DSO DFC, and Captain Majendie DFC MA, ex-Cambridge and he was very much a boffin. And they were taking over the Comet from the manufacturers at Hatfield and they were evaluating it. One of the things we were rather concerned about was how much fuel they would use if they got to hold over Heathrow. And the favourite suggestion was for the Comet to reserve a slot but to hold at high level. When its approach time came the Comet would make a high descent in to the approach phase. I made many Comet flights at the time before the demise of that first and the British passenger jet aircraft. And in 1954 we moved into a newly built house at 40 Gatehill Road, Northwood where Ian was born. Two years later it was decided that I should get more experience in Air Traffic Control Centre work along the airways. And I became the watch deputy supervisor to facilitate travel to watchkeeping hours. We had to buy a three quarter acre plot on prestigious Stoke Park Avenue, Farnham Royal so we could get there by public transport at the later hours. Three years later, 1959 I was promoted to a grade one and transferred to become the D Watch manager at Heathrow. One of five watches. Each with some eighty controllers and twenty assistants. On one occasion and probably from my experience at the EU I was co-opted into the accident investigation branch to help concerning an aircraft crash at Gatwick. I left watch-keeping and became assistant chief controller at Heathrow with operational responsibilities and contact with companies. Ian was just starting at Stow and Heather, having refreshed her secretarial skills had become PA to Mr Robbins, European manager of Johnson and Johnson and then when they moved to South Wales she left there and became PA to Mr Bales, training manager at International Computers Limited at Windsor. And then a memory from my Bomber Command days. Our friend and neighbour at Stoke Park Avenue was Robin Mobbs, widow of Sir Richard Mobbs whose father had founded the Slough Trading Estate after World War One. She invited Heather and me to lunch with a friend of hers who lived about a mile away. That was Don Bennett. Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett CB CBE DSO and the Chief Executive and founder of British South American Airways flying Lancastrians. We both enjoyed that lunch with that distinguished guest. Concorde was the only regular supersonic commercial flight which caught my interest. The Russian Concordski, roughly modelled on Concorde was briefly operational but sadly came to a tragic end at the Paris Airshow. As the Americans never did develop a supersonic airliner they had a jealous admiration for us Brits. Yet having spoken with various British Airways Concorde crews a common theme arose. Concorde, departing from Kennedy would sometimes be shuffled towards the back of the queue awaiting departure thus burning fuel which may have been critical when it arrived at Heathrow. Another instance — to obtain the maximum arrival rate the radar director was positioned inbound aircraft of various approach speeds at different distances to ensure that the second aircraft would be about two miles out when the first one had landed and cleared the runway. We found that for no obvious reason the runway had not been cleared on one occasion and Concorde had thus to make a missed approach and re-position for other, for another try. The puzzled radar director assured me that they had left adequate spacing when turning Concorde on to final approach. After several of these instances I looked back through the records and found that frequently aircraft ahead of Concorde, having landed were slow to clear the runway. They were often Pan American or Transworld Boeing 707s or 747s. Coincidence? Again, when I was assistant chief ATCO there was one instance where Speedbird 02 had been well placed behind a British Midland prop jet which, having landed and missed its turn off point, was continuing slowly to the next. At six miles out, ‘Speedbird 02 request landing clearance.’ From the tower, ‘Negative 02. Continue your approach. There’s traffic clearing the runway.’ At four miles out ‘Speedbird 02 requests landing clearance.’ ‘Negative 02. Continue your approach. The traffic is still clearing the runway.’ Then at two miles out, ‘Speedbird 02, I’m landing on this approach and if the other buggers are still on the runway I shall spear him.’ ‘Traffic just clearing 02. You’re now clear to land.’ I didn’t put this word on it. I said, ‘If the other aircraft is still on the runway,’ [laughs] but it was obvious that he was getting a bit — Later an apologetic Brian Walpole who was the Concorde flight captain he phoned me to explain that 02 had been much delayed when taxiing out for take-off at Kennedy. Consequently, was very low on fuel. If he couldn’t land off that approach he would have needed to fly to his nominated alternate, Gatwick and land there. Surprised, I asked him why he didn’t declare an emergency as he would have then ensured and we would have then ensured the runway was clear for his approach. He replied that knowing transmissions galvanised the press who monitored our frequencies if Concorde had declared an emergency it would have been headline news. When Brian Walpole invited me to his office upstairs for lunch I was surprised to find that the flight manager of British Airways top flight lived in a small cramped corner office with walls plastered with photographs of prominent people on Concorde flight deck. Each of them had been given a speech bubble with amusing comment. The Queen Mother was saying, ‘I could take to this. It’s much quicker than by train.’ He invited me to join him on a crew training flight in Concorde the next day. We were off just before 8am. Landed at Gander in Newfoundland, refuelled, filed a flight plan and were back at Heathrow a little after 6 pm having spent an hour in Canada. 1970, I was elected to go to the Joint Services Staff College. I became the second controller only to be accepted on to the JSSC course at Latimer which was composed of middle rank officers from the three services plus ten Commonwealth high rankers and a handful of American officers from all services. There were also three civilians. A nautical architect, a Hong Kong police superintendent and myself. Having been security cleared, vetted by two admirals and an air marshal at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. I enjoyed that fascinating six months course involving high level lectures from all walks of life. Government, cabinet ministers, diplomats, service chiefs, scientists, heads of security as well as military exercises including Cold War and nuclear exchanges. Being a joint service course we had the choice of outside attachments to each of the services to see how the other service worked. At that point [pause] where are we? Our — for my army visit I opted to go to Berlin which was the prize place, this was when the Wall was still there, because I was interested in their airway system and their traffic sequencing. More like Heathrow. A dozen of us in the team were housed in the brigadier’s residence overlooking the Berlin Lake which had supposedly belonged to Herman Goering, where we were briefed on the interaction with the Russians during the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. As military personnel we were allowed through Checkpoint Charlie to tour East Berlin. We found the methods used by the intelligence services most interesting. Our air force options covered a choice of a week on the Scottish RAF station where their involvement with flights in Nimrods proved very popular with our Naval members. These aircraft flew long range air sea rescues acting as command and control centres. Our Army members seemed to favour attachments to the newer Avenger and Phantom fighter units. I opted for a visit to Brize Norton to see the RAF troop handling which was coupled with a visit to RAF Valley in Anglesey to see pilot training. In Valley I was invited to fly in a Folland Gnat which brings Red Arrows fame, flown by the chief flying instructor Wing Commander Max Bacon. It was fascinating how tiny and so very light on the controls after Lancasters. Having been shown all its capabilities we did some very low flying in the designated low flying area of Snowdonia and we scared all the cattle underneath us too. Wonderful course. I remember one of our social gatherings at Pleasant Corners. Heather pulling out all the stops and Ian, back from Stow was helping. Amongst the sixteen officers at that party were Colonel Nigel Bagnall who became later chief of the general staff, an American commander in the Royal Marines who was OC flying on the American aircraft carrier Nimitz which was, I think the biggest American jet aircraft carrier they had. On which I believe he said they had seventy Phantoms. And the other member was Wing Commander Peter Harding. He was a great friend of mine. Largely of course because he was on this, on the RAF side and who later rose to the dizzy heights of Chief of the Defence Staff. So he was above the military. The lot. I also remember a Group Captain Beausoliel, who was head of Ghana. Now, it turned out that Wing Commander Peter Harding later came to grief. Do you remember his case? You probably wouldn’t. Well, he had a strong liaison with some woman who also was associated with a Russian and she said, ‘No. They couldn’t carry on their alliance.’ So, she said, ‘Well, let’s just have one meal in the Savoy.’ And as they came out she bent over and kissed him and she’d tipped off the press. And from then on that day he gave up his post. Not only as the supreme of all the armed forces but as the RAF. So, I’m sorry for Peter. But then this was the critical bit. Later in 1970, on completion of that Joint Services Staff College Course I was transferred to the Southern Division Headquarters at Heston. They felt that I was more a boffin now rather than just a practicing controller. Under a deputy director one section covered the airways and the other section covered the airfields. I became in charge of airfields and maintaining the level of air traffic control at various units. I was responsible for maintaining that and it includes non-civil aviation units in the southern part of England from — we had to look at the Scilly Isles, the Channel Isles, Bristol, Gloucester, Northampton and Norwich. Across that. And all airfields south. Along the south coast we covered Ashford, Shoreham, Goodwood, Southampton, Hamble, Leigh on Solent, Bournemouth, Exeter, Plymouth, Jersey and Guernsey. So, we had a twin Commanche at our call and what we had to do was when a new controller went to his unit, until he was valid he got his basic driving licence but he had to be checked out. So before he was validated he’d got to be checked by us and then we could sign his licence and then he could go solo. And so we had this twin Commanche and one of us would fly. I didn’t do any flying because I didn’t keep my licence going. But one of our team of four would fly and say, ‘I’ve got — lost an engine. I can’t maintain height.’ Or, ‘I have lost my RT,’ and you’d have to go to a system of one click for yes. Two clicks for no. All that sort of stuff. So —
Test. And Ian had left Stow and was reading for his medical degree at Clare College, Cambridge. I had to occasionally fit in just to sort of keep Ian in the picture. I moved back to Heathrow as the deputy chief, acting as a stand in for the chief controller. Amongst other tasks I covered the oversight of our Radar Training Unit and including the Validation Board. As the Chairman of the Health and Safety Committee I remember we were — on the same floor as my office was the Civil Aviation Medical Centre where pilots were expected to make the grade once a year. And as such I could sometimes see them when they came past my door on the way in or out. And one or two, one I recognised as Douglas Bader whom I had seen very shortly in the POW camp. But then because he was such a naughty boy what with him always wanted to escape they sent him to Colditz. So, we had a talk and I’d got a big conference table, a big mahogany conference table in my office and it didn’t have four corner legs but it had two central legs. And he came in, having a chat and he jumped on the table to sit on the table and of course the thing upended. And I rushed around and I just caught him in time and pushed. Otherwise he’d have been a goner. So, then I said, ‘Would you like to have a look around air traffic control?’ So he said yes. So, I took him and when it came to the very steep steps up to the glasshouse I suddenly realised what a faux pas I’d made because he couldn’t have any legs to walk up there. So I said, ‘Oh, last week the Queen Mother visited us and she walked up those steps.’ So, he said, ‘Well, of course anything she can do I can do.’ Typical Douglas Bader. And he did. He pulled himself up with his arms, trailing his legs behind. And when they got on the next step off he’d go again. So, and the next time I met him was when I had a phone call from the personnel manager of [pause] I’m thinking. Shell Mex, one of the big petrol station. And they had just taken over an HS125 which is a small fast twin jet aircraft and they’d take that over for use by the board when they were going. So, he said, ‘Oh, we’re just doing a route flying stretching this out. We’re doing longer and longer legs to see what the aircraft capability is and tomorrow we’re going to Milan. Would you like to come with us?’ So, ‘Yes, please.’ So we went out there on to the tarmac and who was there to meet us was the flying, the pilot, Douglas Bader. So we recognised each other then. Anyhow, he flew us down to Milan. We stayed in the aircraft. He re-fuelled. He filed his flight plan for the return trip and on the way back this personnel manager for Shell Aviation said, ‘Oh, well let’s sample the [pause] the dish, the spread that they’ve given us.’ They’d got a refrigeration and all the rest of it so out came this on this little table and just the three of us sat down. So, halfway through or toward the end he said, ‘Well, is there anything you can think of that’s missing?’ So I jokingly said, ‘Well the wine you gave us. Those was wine glasses when they’d been used there’s no place to put them again.’ ‘Oh, quite right. The trip’s been worthwhile,’ [laughs] So, he was grateful that I’d found nowhere to store used glasses. So, that was random. There was one occasion where since I’ve often been asked whether I’ve ever needed to make instant life-saving decisions. I had one such memory. As a watch manager at Heathrow I arrived to take over the afternoon watch at 13.00 hours. I checked with my approach control supervisor that his full team had arrived and I went up to the aerodrome control. The glasshouse. One team member from my team had not arrived. And the off-going man was still on duty. Now, partly to retain the respect of my team members and partly to maintain my own validation I periodically took over an operational position. Although I was aware of the other managers policies of why keep a dog and bark yourself. At that time, with an easterly wind Heathrow was landing from the west over Windsor Castle and departures took off to the east over London. Northolt had also been required to take off in the same direction. And if they were routing going south after take-off they’d make a left turn and route around north of Heathrow and down to the west. So, I took over the [pause] the, I let the landing, the last departing man go. I took over his air departure position with six aircraft at the holding point. There was a Turkish Airline Boeing 727 who had just lined up and I had given him clearance to take off and he started to roll. He was halfway along the runway when I heard someone behind me shout, ‘Christ. The Northolt one’s turned right.’ Well, immediately, in a flash I visualised two heavily laden aircraft colliding and crashing right over London. Although almost too late I instructed my aircraft, then close to flying speed, ‘Cancel take-off. Cancel take-off.’ Thank goodness he reacted immediately. Finally stopping at the upwind end of the runway. I thanked him and asked that he clear the runway to his left. He replied, ‘Negative. Can’t move. My brakes are red hot. I require ten, twenty minutes for them to cool down.’ Another occasion the chief and I visited Chicago because they were supposed to have more aircraft flying than we did. We found the reason was that they just packed them in and expecting that they would, some, a lot of them would not make the landing. Would have to overshoot. Well, we took a pride in getting most of them down. And it turned out the, the pilot on that VC10 was, had been in A flight 103 Squadron while I’d been in B Flight. Here we are. Incidentally, in my report I included the fact that on our return Heathrow was landing on westerlies. That is aircraft arriving from the west were required to fly past the airport turning back on to the final approach at about seven or eight miles. I heard the captain, because I was on the jump seat, I heard the captain ask his first officer if he would like to have a go at final approach and landing. Even to my inexperienced eye I thought his turn on in a heavy aircraft would position us on about a two or a three mile final approach. However, he made a turn on whilst still doing his landing checks. Yet he made a spot on landing. In my report I noted his name. First Officer N Tebbit. Norman Tebbit. Barcelona — we went to Barcelona. Shell Aviation. Milan and that I’ve already told you about. The personnel manager. I recognised Douglas Bader, Chopper blades. I don’t think you’d be interested in the chopper blades. Perhaps I, as inspector of Air Traffic Control Standards for the South of England I visited Netheravon one of the several military and Naval units which operated to civil ATC standards. As they had six helicopters on a night cross country when we were there soon after they were due to return we visited their control room. Now, unbeknown to Netheravon, RAF Lyneham were practicing night parachute jumps over Salisbury Plain using C130 Hercules. As it happened the two exercises coincided. The helicopters with downward facing landing lights appeared as did the higher flying Hercules. The paras were dropped about two or three miles away. Visions of paras carving up chopper blades. Being carved up by chopper blades. So I enquired why there wasn’t any coordination. They thought it more really approached military operational standards. I got the system changed. Netheravon or, if closed Middle Wallop would coordinate movements over Salisbury Plain. Another one, Sir Laurence Whistler. He, it appeared that some industrial group were making a royal presentation of a cut glass bowl engraved by Sir Laurence Whistler. It would show Windsor Castle with the City of London and Heathrow Airport in the background. This was required by the company to present to the Queen. He said that he would need to get a perspective involving the use of a helicopter positioned over Windsor Castle. Now, I considered this would need coordination between the helicopter, departing aircraft and that I should fly in the royal helicopter to reflect the coordination. I was suitably impressed by the interior walls and ceilings of quilted with cream plastic insulation. The tables and chairs and book racks had holding copies of London Life, Illustrated London News, Tatler and Vogue. It did however have the characteristic of a helicopter vibratory flight. He was pleased with the sketches and later sent me a photo of the finished engraved bowl. I won’t go on about the time when we’ve argued with the Duke of Edinburgh. So, I could go on but it’s taking too much time. So, that was my civil one. I can’t go on about this. I think I’ve probably have mentioned this diary which I kept. We’ve got mice [laughs] This was a entry from the Royal Air Force Museum. An entry to this it was probably a thing I would get from you isn’t it? It’s 125 towing a small glider. Now, we didn’t know what the glider was. At that time it was secret and it turned out to be a Messerschmitt 163 and it was towed up into the American formations. It only had ten minutes endurance and it would decimate the Americans. And then of course it would glide down. So this was this. We didn’t know what it was. And this was a Messerschmitt 110 towing a very small tubby glider. The wingspan of ten to twelve feet. I don’t know what that was. It was some memorial with a swastika underneath. Well, I was next on the list to get a new aircraft and the fellow ahead, who’d had the last one he was shot down so I got the new one. And I went into the control tower to watch it arriving and out of that when it landed, a lovely landing, came someone in a white overall with a helmet on and then a second person. So, I was waiting for the rest of the crew but there was just these two. They came over to the control tower, came up and then the pilot then took off his helmet and it was a woman. See, we’d never heard of, and beyond that she had no navigator, no radio. She’d just ferried this. And I’ve got the book about, “The Female Few,” and there are pages and pages. And she was quite a bright girl. She went to Oxford. She was head of Somerville College and obviously did a lot of and she did learn to fly before the war. And when I met her again when I was at this Experimental Unit and we were working to see how you could increase movement rates at Heathrow. So we borrowed some civil aviation. Two of them, or four of them, I think for that. And we had a break for lunch and who should one of them? Lettice Curtis.


Denise Boneham, “Interview with James William Birchall,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

Item Relations

This item has no relations.