Interview with Frank Lawrence Boutcher


Interview with Frank Lawrence Boutcher


Frank Boutcher worked as a junior clerk for Southend Borough Council before the war. He wanted to join the Royal Navy but they only required able seamen on a long commission, so he joined the RAF instead to train as an engine fitter. After passing out he was posted to a training squadron at Longtown, after which he was transferred to RAF Castletown to work on Spitfires. He recalls one aeroplane that he serviced was lost to enemy action and its pilot was lost. He passed his Fitter 2E course and was posted to RAF Chedburgh in Bomber Command to work on Stirlings. Whilst working on Halifaxes at another aerodrome an engine caught fire and he beat the flames with his hat, until he put the fire out with an extinguisher. He was posted to the Air Sea Rescue Training Centre eventually going to Calshot in Hampshire to work on rescue boats where they would be positioned to be able to offer immediate assistance to struggling aircraft returning to the UK.




Temporal Coverage




00:48:02 audio recording


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DB: My name is Denise Boneham and I’m talking to Frank Lawrence Boutcher. The date is the 18th of the 3rd ’18. 16.15 hours. In Hadley. Frank, would you like to tell me a little about your life with the RAF in World War Two?
FB: Did you want me to start before the war and go on from there? Yes. Well, when I left school I got work at the Southend Borough Council as a clerk, a very junior clerk and I worked there until the war.
I decided I would like to join the Navy and I went along to the Labour Exchange to sign up and they told me where I would have to go and that just at that stage they would wait until I was a little bit older. So, I went back to work and it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I actually joined up and the circumstances were that I decided to go for what was called a Government Training Course where they would train me to be a fitter. And I went to Watford on this Government Training Course and I spent about six months there training to be a fitter. And together with some of the other lads who were in the same place as me we all decided to go, where was it we went to, Pam? In London? Where was it we went to, Pam? To sign up.
PB: Oh, how far have you got?
FB: So, we went to Mill Hill and there was the Naval [cough] Excuse me. Naval recruiting place was upstairs and RAF downstairs so we all trooped up the stairs and we were told by the Navy that basically all they wanted was able seamen for twenty five years which surprised us because there was a war on. So we decided we didn’t want that. We came downstairs and there was an RAF sergeant waiting for us who knew exactly why we were coming down and he signed us up for the RAF. After a short while we received our orders where to go and I went to Cardington and I was there for one day [pause] and went from there to Blackpool. And at Blackpool they signed me up properly together with a lot of others and I think we went to the Winter Gardens and we had an inspection from a female doctor. There were just thousands of us in the Winter Gardens there all lined up and she was going along with this stick and just going like that. And of course, we all passed [laughs] and very shortly afterwards I was transferred to Morecambe. And at Morecambe I went through a five week training course on the sea front marching backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards and doing all those other things that you do on that sort of course. When we finished that we then went around to five different garages in Morecambe in each of which was a different engine, a different type of RAF engine and we were instructed on these engines and what to do to do the fitting of them and so on. And at the end of that five week [pause] I’m sorry, the five week course was the marching and fitness course. I can’t remember how long this particular course was but [coughs] excuse me, but at the end of it we had to, you know, pass a test and that was the end of my time at Morecambe. And when we passed out I was transferred to a training squadron at Gretna Green or just, just close to Gretna Green. Longtown. Just over the border into Scotland and I was there for a short while, not more than a week or two when I was transferred again to the far north of Scotland to Castletown, overlooking Castletown Bay and the water between there and the Orkneys. And this was a fighter squadron with Spitfires and one or two Hurricanes as well. The pilots were nearly all Dutch. There was one black man and as far as I can remember all the rest were Dutch. And I was given a particular Spitfire to service. Obviously, at first there under the instructions of a more senior flight mechanic. Unfortunately, the plane that I serviced went out over Scapa Flow and was lost to enemy action. We never really knew quite how that happened but we were just told that it had gone down and the Dutch pilot was lost. After a period of time there, up there in Castletown the whole squadron was transferred down to Norfolk and we were at an aerodrome called Ludham near Norwich. This was one of the wartime airfields and we spent some time there. I think mainly the, the Dutch pilots were training mostly because I don’t think they saw very much action there. Subsequently, we were transferred. The whole squadron was transferred to Hornchurch and we came down to Hornchurch which was in a terrible mess. It had been bombed so many times by the Germans that it was really almost unusable and we spent most of our time filling bomb craters on the runways there. But we were only there for a week or two and we were then transferred. I can’t remember the name of the satellite but it was a satellite aerodrome on the Sussex coast and our sort of mother aerodrome was Tangmere. I think we were there for some months and I remember them coming along one day and taking out all the machine guns from the wings of the Spitfires and putting in guns and the subsequent job for our squadron was to go over and shoot up enemy convoys in Northern France. And this is what they did. But unfortunately, on this particular occasion on their way back from France over the Channel they were attacked by Messerschmitts and very few of them returned because with these particular guns they were no match for the Germans. So it was decided by the powers that be that the whole squadron would be taken out of the action and we were transferred to just north of Liverpool. And it was there that we were paraded in front of the then royalty of Holland. What his name, Pam?
PB: Prince Bernhard.
FB: Prince Bernhard, who was Queen Wilhelmina’s husband and I well remember him coming round up and down the rows of airmen and, and you know the pilots obviously as well. And that was the end of my time with the Dutch squadron so, I was transferred from there [pause] to Blackpool and I was put on a fitter 2Es course. Fitter 2E which was, if I passed out would be a step up from being a flight mechanic to a fitter. I don’t know if this still occurs. Anyway, I spent some months there being transferred from Blackpool where our lodgings were to, and I can’t remember the name of the aerodrome close by where we got all our instructions and so on. And following that I was transferred to Bomber Command. This took me to Chedburgh in Suffolk which was an aerodrome I think about eight to ten miles west of Bury St Edmunds and I believe it is still there actually, and the planes that I was working on were Short Stirlings. Four-engined great big beasts. Very slow and really not terribly effective in the war but very useful there for training pilots who would go round every night doing circuits and bumps under the lights. So, although everywhere else was blacked out when they were coming around the lights would be put on and they would land on the runways or where ever [laughs] And we would then service them and they would go off up again and do a further number of these circuits and bumps. And so I was there [pause] I think we’re now talking about 1944. June 1944. And whilst I was there I saw an advertisement I suppose you would call it up on the notice board in the NAAFI saying that they required fitters to work on air sea rescue boats. And so I applied for that because I was rather fed up with being mostly in the hangars on the top of a Stirling working on them. And I went, I can’t remember the name of the place but it was on the west coast of Scotland and I do remember that, oh no I’m sorry. Forgive me. Just before this came to fruition I was transferred to a bomber airfield on [pause] what’s the name of that Moor, Pam?
PB: No. No. Sorry, you’ve lost me.
FB: One near York. It’s the name of quite a famous Middle Ages war between, I don’t know, the north and the south or the Protestants and the Catholics or something. But anyway, I was transferred to this aerodrome and I was there working on something I’d never worked on before and I had very little knowledge of and that was Halifaxes. And whereas in, in the past I’d worked exclusively on Rolls Royce inline engines I was now on Halifaxes which were radial engines so I didn’t really know too much about them. But I wasn’t there all that long because after I’d been there a short while one of my jobs was to go up, climb up the inside of the Halifax and push the nozzle for the petrol to go in to start the engines while the pilot and the crew up above were pressing all their different buttons for that. So, we were under their instructions. They would say, you had to press and they would try and turn the engines and [pause] and the whole lot caught fire. So I was stuck up there and I remembered what we’d been told in the very early days of being in the RAF that the quickest way to put out a fire if it wasn’t too bad was to hit it with your hat. So I took off my forage cap and beat at the flames until such time as they were able to get the extinguisher and put the fire out. In the meantime, all the crew had got out and the flight sergeant came up as I came down out of the thing and said, ‘Good lad. You’ve done a good job. I shall be writing to the Air Ministry—’ whoever, and he said, ‘You should be mentioned in dispatches.’ I didn’t really know what that meant [laughs] but it sounded alright. But within a couple of days I was transferred again to the west coast of Scotland on to the Air Sea Rescue Training Centre. It’s quite close to Stranraer. And so we were instructed there on what to do and and how to look after these engines and amongst other things we would go out and run courses around outside in the Irish Sea off the west coast off Ayr. And after a period of time, when we passed all our tests we were transferred to an operational station and the one that I was posted to was Gorleston in Norfolk. And so I took a long train journey all along the North Norfolk coast and arrived finally in Yarmouth where amongst others I was met and taken to a, a lodgings. And almost immediately before we had time to get rid of our clothes and sort ourselves out, they said, ‘Oh, there’s, we think there’s Germans landing on the Norfolk coast.’ And so they whipped us downstairs and on to a truck and they took us up the North Norfolk coast and we, I can’t remember the name of the place but it’s somewhere near where the sea is taking all the houses away off the cliffs at the moment. It’s in that area and we were there most of the night. Eventually the sergeant came back and said, well, ‘It turned out that they were Norwegians and they were escaping from Norway [laughs] So you can all go home.’ And they took us back and we had a sleep and then we prepared for our work in Gorleston. And as we spent a little time in Yarmouth but I can’t remember what for. And then we went to Gorleston which is just down the road from Yarmouth and went on to the boats. And the first boat that I went on I met somebody who we called Knocker. He was the sort of senior fitter and we got on very well. We were very friendly. I say this in view of what’s going to come up a little later on. Anyway, by this time, oh yeah, we [pause] yeah. No. So we, so we went out from Gorleston on what was called a square search. In other words we would go to a place just off the Dutch coast together with a lot of other boats and we would then take our place and wait for the bombers to come back. And if of course one of them came down because an awful lot of them were badly damaged we would be close at hand to be able to pick them up hopefully. We didn’t stay in that position. We used to go from one position to another on a square and take up a position at each. And so for some while this is what we did. The war was coming to an end and eventually I was transferred from, from that boat to Calshot in the Southampton Sound and there I was put on a boat for the Far East because they had a number of these what they called long range MTBs. Motor torpedo boats from the Navy which they’d altered somewhat in order to accommodate us and what we needed to do. Anyway, I was put in the second squadron and the first squadron took off from Calshot to go to the Far East and they got as far as the Eastern Mediterranean, but before we went the war ended. The Japanese, I’m talking about the Japanese war now. That ended and so they decided instead that we could do something else which was to cover the American Air Forces efforts to get their wounded back to the States. And so to do that we took off from Calshot along the Channel and up the North Sea until we got to Aberdeen. And when we got to Aberdeen unfortunately one of the engines went and we spent about three weeks there fitting an old engine out and waiting for another one to come. Putting that in. There were two of us boats and the other one went on from Aberdeen. We followed it a week or so later and up to the Caledonian Canal at Inverness and down through from there from the east side of Scotland to the west side of Scotland all the way down through the Caledonian Canal until we reached Oban. We spent a day there and then we went out through the islands to the Isle of Islay and this became our station. And our job basically was to cover the Eastern Atlantic so that if one of these American aircraft, which were mostly Liberators and very dependable actually but if they did come down we would be there or somewhere near to pick them up. But on, but fortunately we never had to do that and finally, six months after the war ended they decided we could go back to base. And so we went down from the Western Isles of Scotland, down through Londonderry and we came out and round to Larne near Belfast. Then across to Douglas, Isle of Man. Then North Wales. Then South Wales. And then around Land’s End to Torquay. No. To Newlyn. Newlyn to Torquay. Torquay, finally back to Calshot and Calshot is where I ended my days. Not very well [laughs] because they really didn’t have anything for us to do and I remember the sergeant said to me, among others, ‘Get on that boat.’ And we, we were shunted along the line of various odd boats that for some reason the RAF had got and I was dumped on one of these. And I remember in the middle of the, my time there during that day looking up and seeing the Queen Mary coming back up the Calshot water, absolutely enormous against this little, little boat that I was in. And that’s about it really. I was, I was finished at Calshot and came back home and I went back to my more prosaic life at the council at Southend. Well, now the council had said that anybody employed there who had gone off to the war could come back and they would find them a job of some means. And so I was transferred almost immediately to the Building Inspector’s Office of the Borough Engineers Department and there I trained to become and did become a building inspector at the time that Southend was being built up very rapidly. Now, why did I say that? Not rapidly. Housing was on licence and I think we were licensed by the government to build twenty five houses in the area which for towns that size was nothing. But there was a lot of work and this was really all building repairs of bomb damaged houses so we were pretty busy and I learned quite a lot there. And eventually, and finally after a lot of training I went and [pause] to the Institution of Municipal Engineers and passed their exams and I became a licensed building inspector. And I was then given an area of Southend on which to check all building work that went on. And this was alright for quite some while but finally I decided that I’d rather do the building myself and so I became, I decided to become a builder. During my time at the Building Inspector’s Office I met Pam. I think she was, yes she was already working there. She had come back from the Wrens and she’d got back there just before me and we met and married. And that was our life after that wasn’t it?
PB: Tea?
FB: Tea. Well, I must say that I was fairly bored when I was on the bombers. I was really mostly in the hangars at Chedburgh repairing or doing servicing on engines which meant you were way up in the air because they were massive things. So you’d climb up there and work on them. On the Spitfires it was much more exciting of course because firstly they were easier to work on. Most, most of our servicing of the, they were Rolls Royce Merlin engines. They were really good engines and I really enjoyed working on them and of course you did it mostly standing up on the ground really because it was just about the right, about the right height. I did like it on the boats. I enjoyed that. I think after the first time of being seasick I enjoyed it after that but of course they were fast and light boats and they used to zip along and go up over a wave and then crash down and so you know it was quite a, quite a quite a lot of movement really. And we were back down in the engine room at the back so, I should say stern really. By coincidence the chap who I worked with down there, his name was Nock. I didn’t know his first name. We all called him Knocker. I lost touch with him after I’d left and so I decided that I’d like to find him and try and get in touch with him again and I did try but he said that he didn’t really want to be associated again. He, he would rather forget about the war and everything that it meant and so I lost touch with him. And I suppose about a year ago or something like that I was contacted by his son. Now, his son quite the opposite. He wanted really quite a good contact. And so what I’m going to be able to show you shortly is nearly all what he has sent. Well, all of it is what he sent me really. Pictures that, you know are back from the war. So I’ve got a record now, of all the stuff here is from those wartime days. But his father’s dead. Been dead a few years now. I don’t think he was much older than me really but I’m getting on a bit myself. I’m ninety six now so [laughs] I guess he’d probably be a hundred perhaps. I don’t know. But it’s been very interesting actually to have seen so much of what, you know, his father had obviously taken home with him. And so, although I’ve never seen the man it’s possible that I will do. He lives up in Lincolnshire so he’s a fair way away but I may see him someday. But I did put him off earlier on when he said about coming to see me because I’ve not really been very well this last year and I didn’t really feel like, you know going in to all that with him.
[recording paused]
Down to in to the village of Chedburgh sometimes in the evening and watch a film and on this particular occasion we were all sat there and they said, ‘There’s been a crash and it’s close by so we’re turning you all out.’ And we all went outside and there was one of these RAF planes. I don’t know which one it was but it was probably one of the Stirlings that had gone round and crashed close by. Unfortunately, not very nice. We weren’t able to get anybody out. It went up in flames. The other thing to tell you about was the fact that I was able to get home from Chedburgh. And in order to do that we had bikes so that we could get around the circuit more easily and we were allowed, when we had a leave to which I did get from there occasional weekend leave and we would get on our bikes and cycle from Chedburgh down to Sudbury. And the main road of Sudbury you probably know it goes through the town and then it goes up a steep hill and in to Essex. We used to wait more or less at the bottom of that hill and then hope to get picked up and most of the lorries or vans that went by would be on their way to London and I was particularly interested in getting to Brentwood where my parent’s home was and so that’s what I used to do occasionally. I think, oh this was when I was working on the Halifaxes. I didn’t really have any knowledge of Halifax engines and I was only transferred there for a few days before I was retransferred on to the air sea rescue section. But during the period that I was there the thing I had to do was to climb up inside the undercarriage of the Halifax, up on the wheel and up in to the underside and push the [pause] what do you call it? [pause] Oh, dear. I can’t think of it. [pause] Anyway, it was you pushed this and this squirted the petrol up into the engine so that the pilot could start it by pressing the button for the ignition up in the cockpit. So, he would press and he would shout down to me, well through the intercom I suppose that he was ready and I would then do that. And so I was doing this and doing this and doing it and I kept on doing it and really and truly the whole of the undercarriage area became filled with petrol fumes and somewhere must have been an open wire or something because it all went up in flames. And it can’t have been all of it I suppose because I remember they said that if if you had a fire like that you could deal with it with your hat. So, I took off my cap and sort of stabbed at the flames with that. And I think this must have held it off enough for the ground crew down below to get fire extinguishers working and and put it out. And when I came down the flight sergeant said, ‘You’ve done a good job, lad.’ Or something like that [laughs] ‘And I shall be reporting this to commanding officer and you’ll hear more about this. In fact, you’ll probably get mentioned in dispatches.’ But I never heard any more because I was transferred a day or two after that to the air sea rescue training place in Scotland and that was the end of that.
[recording paused]
Well, it’s quite funny really. We weren’t allowed. The commanding officer of Chedburgh decided to stop airmen swimming in the big reservoir there that was used for water for the base. But the Wrens, Wrens, the WAAFs were allowed to continue swimming so it became a sort of females only allowed and he stopped all of us. And so, when it came to payday we used to be paid out on the airfield on the, on the circuit and when we were all stood there on parade your name was called. The first one didn’t move so they went to the second one. He didn’t move either. And this, nobody had said we are not going to do this but it just happened and a result of that was that this was of course strictly against the orders of the CO and he got [pause] I wish I could remember his name but he was a famous fighter pilot. You can’t remember his name, Pam?
PB: Not offhand.
FB: No. And he had obviously gone up a few ranks and he had become the commanding officer of our [pause] the drome that ran several other dromes and he came down and of course he was a very nice chap and he knew exactly what the trouble was and he put it right straight away. And I mean everybody wanted to do what he wanted anyway because he’d got such a name and so it all worked out in the end. That’s it, I think.


Denise Boneham, “Interview with Frank Lawrence Boutcher,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 22, 2024,

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