Interview with Denis Francis Cockbill


Interview with Denis Francis Cockbill


Born in Newport, Denis volunteered for the Royal Air Force as he was tired of bombing, wishing to get his own back, he joined the Air Corps at 17. Wishing to train as a wireless operator because of his interest in radio technology, he officially joined the Royal Air Force three months after his 18th birthday. Having to train for two years, Denis joined an aircrew in 1944, flying Lancasters. He attests that learning radio communication was like learning a new language and that he has never forgotten it. He recounts several operations in which he flew over enemy territory, including flying over Berlin, an operation which took eight hours. He also recalls several experiences during his time, including near-misses, as well as Operation Manna and Operation Exodus. He gives detailed information about Operation Manna, stating that he also joined the Manna Association and travelled to the Netherlands once every five years for a celebration. Denis states that his relationship with his crew was excellent and believes that it had to be because they always worked as a team. He recalls that he completed ten operations in total, but believes he was lucky to survive these, recounting a specific experience in which he was escorted by Spitfires. He admits that he rarely spoke of his war, following his father’s example of the first world war, until recently. He now invites primary school children to learn of his experiences. He continues to give combined talks about Operation Manna with a Dutch lady who survived the Second World War. He believes that the representation of Bomber Command has been terrible, naming Dresden as a legitimate target, but he also prefers to talk of saving lives through Manna and Exodus. He states that the general public does not understand Bomber Command’s losses.




Temporal Coverage




00:29:06 audio recording


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LD: Right. This is an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Laura Dixon and the interviewee is Denis Cockbill. The interview is taking place in Penhale on the 8th of October 2017. Right. Hi Denis. Hello.
DC: Hello.
LD: Could you tell me just a bit about your early life before the Bomber Command?
DC: Before the Bomber Command.
LD: Yeah.
DC: Well, I was born in Newport.
LD: Ok.
DC: In 1924. I went to school in Newport. Went to the Grammar School. And my father worked as a, he was a clerk in the steelworks. And I had twelve months. Before, when I left this school I had twelve months. I only volunteered for the Air Force because I’d been bombed. Near misses a couple of time. I thought I’d get my own back so I joined the Air Force. So I was in the Air Training Corps. So when I was seventeen I volunteered as aircrew. I was attested because it’s quite tough, you know. You’ve got to be really fit and what have you. I passed that and they said, ‘Right. Pilot. Navigator, Air bomber.’ Which was the normal what people wanted to be. I didn’t. I wanted to be a wireless operator because my CO in the Air Training Corps was an ex-Merchant Navy radio officer. And he’d got me interested in radio. For instance when I went to the radio school they said, ‘In two or three months you’ll be doing eight words a minute.’ I could already do twelve so I walked it. So, I joined the Air Force when I was eighteen. Actually, I was three months late because the day I should have joined the Air Force I had an appendicectomy. So I was three months later. And three months on the squadron could have saved my life. Right.
LD: Ok. So a wireless operator. What do they actually do? Are you based on the plane or on the ground?
DC: Oh no. Aircrew wireless operator. Aircrew. Two years training.
LD: Oh ok.
DC: Ten months in radio school. Two hours of Morse a day.
LD: Right.
DC: You either learned it or you go around the bend and some did of course. See.
LD: Yeah.
DC: It’s like learning another language. You know, I mean I haven’t used it for donkeys years now but, you know what’s your Christian name?
LD: Dixon.
DC: No. Your Christian name.
LD: Laura.
DC: Laura.
LD: Yeah. Laura.
DC: De da de dit de da dit dit da dit da dit de da dit. That’s in Morse.
LD: Right. Ok. Wow.
DC: You don’t forget.
LD: Really. Oh, ok. So how long would a mission last for?
DC: Well, if you had a short mission two or three hours. The longest one I did was Berlin I think which was about eight and a half hours.
LD: Ok.
DC: Sat on oxygen all that time. The gunners were the worst off. I could move around. They couldn’t. They had to sit there for eight and a half hours.
LD: Wow. So, what other, apart from Berlin what other places did you go to?
DC: Actually, because I [pause] I mean I was fifteen when the war started so in three years I was eighteen. So when I joined the Air Force it was 1940, end of 1942. So the worst part was over. And I was two years training. So it wasn’t until the end of 1944 that I joined the squadron. War was over. So I was lucky. Fighter escort.
DC: Right.
[pause – pages turning]
DC: Let me get my glasses.
LD: Ok.
DC: That was the first trip I did which was Gelsenkirchen. It gives you the time. Take off at 0600 and we landed at [pause] no. It was five hours. That was in the, in the Ruhr and it was one of our worst trips. We were holed. We lost an engine and managed to limp back. My navigator had a bit of flak just miss him. So that was one. Then there was, then we did Kiel. And we sank, we sank the Admiral Scheer. And that was in red. It was a night trip. Then we went out again during the, on the same one on that day. That was 9th. On the 13th we went out again. Then I did Berlin. Heligoland. Bad Oldesloe.
LD: Never heard of that.
DC: That’s in the Ruhr.
LD: Oh.
DC: That’s in the Ruhr. That was what? Six hours. That was the longest trip you see was this one. No. Berlin. Where’s Berlin? [pause] Eight and a half hours at night time. And then we did, oh this was when we dropped, have you heard of the Manna raids?
LD: I was going to ask about that. Yeah.
DC: I was on that. In fact, if, of because logbooks aren’t filled in always by us. These were filled in by somebody else, “Spam Raid,” “Flour Raid.” And these were counted as operations because we were flying over enemy territory. Germans, if they’d opened up four hundred, five hundred feet high they couldn’t have missed us. And we dropped. I did, I did three I think [pause] I thought I did three. Yeah. One. Two. No. I did, I did two actually. That was Manna. Then we did Exodus which was bringing prisoners of war back from France. And we also did later on from Italy as well. So, yeah. Was that what you wanted?
LD: Yeah. Ok. So what was your relationship like with your fellow crew members?
DC: Oh excellent. It had to be because we were, we were, it was we were a team.
LD: Yeah.
DC: And if you had one bad apple in a team it doesn’t work. And the biggest problem of course was when you were crewed up. Do you know how you crewed up?
LD: No.
DC: Well, in a Lancaster there’s seven. The pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and two gunners. Right. So when I, when I did my, finished my training and I got my wings and everything I went to eventually I went to what they called Operational Training Unit where you crew up. You meet. You get your crew. You get the crews together. Right. And what would happen you’d get an intake of say twenty wireless operators, twenty pilots, twenty navigators, twenty flight engineers and forty gunners, because there were two gunners in a plane, eh. They put you in a hangar for the morning with coffee and say, ‘Right. Crew up.’ Now, you were with all these people you’d never met before. Right. And you’ve got to decide who was the best. Which is very difficult. And the best one to get of course is the pilot because he’s the one that flies it. Nobody else. If he goes we’ve had it then. And you just mingled around and get talking and actually on the way there in the train I was sat on a train with a bomb aimer and he was just joining up as well so we clicked altogether. We had two of us, see.
LD: Ok. So what would you do —
DC: And then there’s, there’s a story of the pilot. He was short of a bomb aimer. Got all the crew but a bomb aimer. And he saw the bomber walking around. He said, ‘Are you crewed up?’ And the gun aimer, he was a gunner actually, he said ‘Are you crewed up.?’ And the gunner said, ‘No.’ So the pilot said, ‘Would you like to join my crew?’ And the gunner said, ‘Yeah. Ok. But,’ he said, ‘I’m a bloody awful gunner.’ And the pilot said, ‘That’s alright. I’m a bloody awful pilot.’ [laughs] So they gelled.
LD: Yeah.
DC: You’ve got to gel.
LD: Ok. So what did you do in your spare time when you weren’t flying? As entertainment? What would you do together?
DC: The NAAFI. Cakes and buns. The cinema, which was very popular. And, yes, loafing around as normal. Playing football and probably snooker if you had a snooker table there. And if you had time to go out down to the local village. To the pub if they had any beer.
LD: Ok.
DC: That’s about it.
LD: So, can you tell me more about Operation Manna. Because —
DC: Yeah.
LD: It must have been a lot different from dropping bombs.
DC: Could you switch it off a minute?
LD: Yeah. Sure.
[recording paused]
DC: Sorry about that.
LD: No. Ok. I’ll just. You know, we’ll I keep some of that for the recorder. So —
DC: Yeah.
LD: Talk about Operation Manna. It must have felt —
DC: It should have been on the recorder, shouldn’t it? What I just told you.
LD: It was but I can repeat it anyway. Or, you know, repeat bits of it. So, you know you’re dropping food and not bombs.
DC: That’s right.
LD: That must have felt different from your usual.
DC: Oh yeah. It was brilliant. And I mean the Dutch were out. All the flags. We went out on D-Day, just before D-Day and there were orange bunting and flags and they were waving and cheering. It was fantastic. In fact there was a Manna, Manna Association. Every, once every five years we went over there and we were feted by the Dutch people. They thought we were fantastic. In fact, I got, I got a medal.
LD: Oh ok.
DC: Do you want to see it?
LD: Yeah. Sure. I’ll stop this now.
[recording paused]
LD: Course not. No. It’s interesting. So, with Operation Manna do you know how bad, how bad the people were?
DC: Oh, yes.
LD: How bad the starvation.
DC: Well, what happened, how it came is about is our troops were pushing through the low countries and they decided to leave the bulk of the Netherlands under the control of the Germans because they’d already blown some of the dykes. And the fear was if we attacked they would blow all the dykes and Holland would be completely under water. Which would be no good at all. So we left them alone. But it was one of the worst winter. A very, very bad winter. And because nothing was getting in or out including food people were starving. And eventually about over twenty thousand died of starvation. Mainly the young and the very old. Now, we knew about this and eventually we made an agreement with the Germans. Eventually. It took some time. That we would fly our aircraft at a very low height. We had to fly very low because it wasn’t on parachute. It was just double hessian sacks with the food inside. If you dropped from height it would damage. So we had to fly very low. And the agreement was reached. They agreed that we could do it. So, we did. The first trip was cancelled. Probably because some disagreement. And when we did, we flew, the gunners were already armed and when we flew over the coast you could see the Germans behind their guns. Five hundred feet. If they’d opened up they couldn’t have missed. We lost one aircraft in two weeks. We don’t know what. It just disappeared in the North Sea somewhere. But over the period we dropped almost seven thousand tons of food and saved lives.
LD: Ok.
DC: You meet a Dutchman and say Manna they love you.
LD: That’s lovely. So did you keep in touch with any comrades in the years after the bombing?
DC: I did. They’re all gone. I’m the only one left.
LD: Yeah.
DC: My last crew member was our flight engineer. He died eighteen months ago.
LD: Oh. Ok. Oh.
DC: My pilot was an Australian. We’re in, I’m in touch with his family but only recently because we were very reticent. We don’t talk. I never spoke about my war at all. My father never spoke about his war which was a great pity because I was born five, six years after the end of the First World War. My father was injured at Passchendaele. He got the military medal. We don’t know how because his records were bombed in the Blitz. And he never spoke about it, about his war, at all. I never asked him. I wished to God I did.
LD: Yeah. It’s a pity.
DC: And my son said [unclear] saying to me, ‘Write a book.’ So, what they do when I go out with them they take a tape recorder. Because the things I say now I’ve never said before.
LD: Yeah. Ok. So, with your, could you tell me about your primary school visits and the kind of reaction that you get?
DC: Oh, excellent. Excellent. What happens, they don’t do it any longer by the way but they used to bring school children in from South Wales and Gloucestershire to the Drill Hall in, they do it all over the country but here it was the Drill Hall in Chepstow. And they come for the day and the Drill Hall, the museum would be rigged out like war time kitchens and all this sort of thing. And in the Drill Hall they’d have war time posters and all the equipment and the ladies would talk to them about that. And then they’d bring them all in for us to talk to them.
LD: Ok.
DC: And some of the questions you get from these kids.
LD: Yeah.
DC: How many did you kill?
LD: I don’t know.
DC: No. They were fantastic. And it stopped now unfortunately which is a great pity. Because school people, it’s amazing how many youngsters [pause] May, if I may call you a youngster. How old are you?
LD: Twenty two.
DC: I was still flying —
LD: Oh yeah.
DC: When I was your age. You’re still to me a youngster.
LD: Yeah.
DC: And there’s a lot of things that you don’t know about my war. I didn’t know anything about the First World War. Henry the fifth in history we got up to, I think. Nothing about modern stuff at all.
LD: No.
DC: And the kids today don’t.
LD: No.
DC: I mean, I was in, we were in Hendon. The Air Museum at Hendon and, with my family. I mean we were in front of the Lancaster and I was saying about various experience. Eventually we had a whole crowd around us and one chaps said, ‘We learned more off of you than the staff.’ And one, one chap said, we said about the Americans, what they did. If it hadn’t been for the Americans we’d have lost Two World Wars. And bearing in mind they lost thirty five thousand in their Bomber Command. Even people like Clark Gable. Have you heard of Clark Gable?
LD: No.
DC: Film star.
LD: No.
DC: Well, he was, he was a gunner on them.
LD: Right. Ok.
DC: They didn’t have to. They didn’t have to.
LD: Yeah.
DC: And one of the visitors said, ‘Were the Americans in the war?’ Where’s he been?
LD: How old, so how old was he? Was just —
DC: Oh, I don’t know. I can’t remember now. Probably forty. Fifty. Something like that.
LD: Oh right. And he asked that. Oh. Ok. Can you just repeat what you said about the girl from Holland that you, that you met?
DC: Yes.
LD: Yeah. If you could just repeat what you said about that. Yes.
DC: Well, the, the talk to the schoolchildren that were in the Drill Hall in Chepstow. And the first one I did rather than talk about dropping bombs to school children I tell them about Operation Manna because I’ve got a very good print of the actual aircraft doing it. After the first one Anna phoned me up and said, ‘There’s a lady that lives in Itton, and she was at school in Holland. So can you talk together?’ So we, we met eventually. We met at the next talk. I knew who she was but she didn’t know who I was. And I had a, behind me the big print of a Lancaster dropping food covered up. So eventually this lady got up and started talking about when she was a school girl in Holland. And her father was taken away, or almost taken away. And they had no food. They had to chop up furniture and people were starving. And then one day she said big aircraft came over and instead of dropping bombs they dropped food. And out of her bag she picked out a picture she drew as a child. You know. Of an aircraft dropping food. And I was listening to all this. So when she finished I got up and I said about this lady who saw these aircraft dropping food. So I whipped the cover off the picture. I said, ‘It could have been that aircraft. And I could have been in it.’ And she burst into tears. The teachers burst into tears. And ever since then all my future talks were, we were a double act. Very good. And we still are friends.
LD: Really?
DC: I still take her to lunch now. Yeah.
LD: Oh. So she lives —
DC: She lives in Itton. Only ten miles away.
LD: Oh, lovely. Oh, ok.
DC: We never met until — never met until —
LD: Yeah.
DC: The talks. That was about twelve years ago. Thirteen years ago.
LD: But she moved here.
DC: No. She —
LD: Oh.
DC: Well, she moved here.
LD: Yeah.
DC: After the war. She was a teacher of art in [pause] in she came over as a au pair actually and finished up as a schoolteacher in Bristol. And then they liked, the Dutch like Wales.
LD: Yeah.
DC: There are a lot of visitors. They don’t like, because there’s no hills in Holland.
LD: Yeah.
DC: She bought a house in Itton, which is in the Wye Valley. Very nice.
LD: Oh, that’s lovely.
DC: That was in the 60s.
LD: Yeah. Ok. So, how do you think the Bomber Command is being perceived now. Like how —
DC: Dreadful.
LD: Right. Ok.
DC: When I get and if I meet somebody I’ve never met before and I say I was Bomber Command the usual reaction is Dresden. Which incidentally was a legitimate target. The fact that we dropped bombs and killed people. But it was all out war. No mentions are made of what the Germans did before. We started it and so when I give my talks to school children as I say I talk about when we saved lives and not when we took lives. Nobody knows about that. Which is a great pity.
LD: Yes.
DC: And you’ve got to bear in mind that Bomber Command lost more on a pro-rata basis more than any other branch of the armed forces. One in three were killed. Five thousand. Well, I think a hundred and fifty thousand flew in Bomber Command. Fifty five thousand were killed. Ten thousand prisoners of war they managed to get out which was very unusual. Five thousand killed whilst training. Can you imagine when you’re training you’ve got the aircraft and they’ve come off the front line so they’re probably clapped out to start out with. The crews on them are on a learning curve. How would you like to get on an plane in say Cardiff to fly to Spain or somewhere and they said to you, ‘By the way the pilot’s never flown this before and he’s on his own.’ Would you go?
LD: No.
DC: We had to.
LD: Yeah. Oh wow.
DC: So, a lot were killed in training you know. Of course air, air collisions as well. I mean, I mean can you imagine a night bomber raid with say eight hundred aircraft all flying with no lights.
LD: No. No. But there were no problems with your particular craft that you, do you remember any injuries or any problems?
DC: Oh yeah. Well, we got shot up on our first trip to Gelsenkirchen. Lost an engine and the shrapnel in the aircraft and a piece just missed the, the pilot was, the navigator was standing up, it went through his legs. Other than that I was lucky. I didn’t do many trips. We only did ten. Whereas to complete a tour was thirty trips and not many did that.
Other: Tell, tell Laura about the how Ted lost his position on the vic.
DC: Say that again.
Other: Tell the story of how, tell Laura the story of how Ted, your skipper lost his position on the vic and he was flying along the line in the [unclear]
DC: Oh well. That’ a long story, John.
LD: Oh, no. Yeah. Sure.
DC: Well, most of my trips which, towards the end of the war we had fighter escorts. In the olden days they had no fighter escort because they couldn’t fly that distance and it was over enemy territory. But as our troops were pushing forward we had fighter stations in France which would give us cover. So on a daylight we would have fighter escort. And on one trip we did it was a daylight trip. Probably eight hundred aircraft. And we were called a GH squadron. We flew on radar. Even in those days. One aircraft out of three had this equipment and it was, it was a cathode ray tube in front of me and you’d have two lines with two scrobes. One above. One above. And you would, we would pass back the windspeed to a base in England. They knew the height we were flying. They knew the speed we were flying. And they knew the bomb load. So they could commute, compute the exact spot where they dropped the bombs. And what they would do then they would send signals out on this cathode ray. Where these two scrobes were they were like that and they slowly get together. When they got there you dropped the bombs. There was only one aircraft had this. The other two were followers. They’d watch him. Right. So the bomb aimer, as they got nearer the bomb aimer would open the bomb doors so they’d open their bomb doors. When he dropped his bombs they dropped their bombs. So in twenty minutes you got eight hundred aircraft dropping their bombs on the target, you see. Now, we were on this one trip. We were a follower. In other words we were one of the ones behind. Right. Now, you take off. Eighteen aircraft take off on the squadron. You’ve got letters on the side of the aircraft. Right. So, you knew who your leader was so you look out for that letter aircraft to follow him. We took off and couldn’t find him in the melee. So my pilot flew down the bomber stream. There was the bomber stream. He flew down the bomber stream looking for our squadron and we couldn’t find him. So as we got near the target there was one vic of three that was slightly out of formation so he pfft underneath and he was in between. And these other aircraft were, ‘Get out. Get out.’ You know. So, we flew behind him, dropped on him, dropped bombs and then, when, when we dropped the bomb we just pushed off on our own.
LD: Wow. Yeah.
DC: So things were quite funny as well.
LD: Oh, that’s good. Yeah.
DC: That what you mean, Steve?
Other: Yeah. And the other one was the where you got the Spitfire escort coming back on that first trip. And the mid-upper —
DC: Oh, that was Gelsenkirchen. Yeah.
Other: Yeah. And you were so pleased to see them.
DC: Another, when we were shot up on this Gelsenkirchen it was a daylight and we lost an engine. We lost an engine and a half actually. Now, she’ll fly on two engines but slowly lose speed. Lose height. We were about twenty thousand. Now, it was a lovely clear blue sky and we had to leave the formation. And once you leave the formation on your own, you know you’re set up for any night fighters. Any fighters of course. So we had, I had a verey pistol above me and the instruction was that if you need assistance you fire off a green. If you are in dire problems you fire off a red. So we said to Ted, we were on our own and we had fighter, we couldn’t see them. They were way above us of course. The Typhoons and the Spitfires and the Mustangs were the best aircraft. Anyway, we said to Ted, ‘Don’t you think we ought to get some fighter escort?’ ‘No. No. We’ll be alright.’ Anyway, eventually we convinced him. I fired off a green and within twenty seconds we had two clipped wing Spits on our wingtip. And that was, the pilot hit the roof. The gunners never saw them. If they’d have been German we’d have had it. Anyway, a lovely feeling flying back with two Spits on your wing. When we got, when we got to the Channel they disappeared. That was nice that.
LD: Yes. Yeah. Ok. So, anything else before I leave? Anything you can think of. Any other stories or memories that we haven’t touched yet?
DC: No. I mean —
LD: No. Ok.
DC: It was, you know, you know I’ve told you how we crew up. And when we got back you know we had what we called the flying breakfast. But every time we took off we had bacon and egg and what have you which you couldn’t get in the wartime, see. Right. And when we got back the same thing. And the joke was you’d say to anybody opposite, ‘If you don’t come back can I have your breakfast?’
LD: Oh right.
DC: So you had a sense of humour.
LD: Yeah. Yeah. That’s true, yeah.
DC: We had a sense of humour.
LD: Yeah. Yeah.
DC: No. I know I shouldn’t say this but in some way I enjoyed it. I was young. No commitments. Flying. How many people flew in those days? I must admit when I flew first I was airsick by the way which wasn’t very clever. And when we did fighter affiliation [laughs] do you know what that is?
LD: No.
DC: Fighter affiliation is when you go up on a, on a training flight with gunners and you’re attacked by a Spitfire as if it’s a German and you take evasive action. And evasive action, if he’s seen coming from the port which is the left to you, ‘Enemy aircraft port. Corkscrew port.’ And the air, the pilot would throw the control column up, kick the control column and the aircraft would do that. And then he’d pull it up and he’d do that. So you’re doing that all the time. And if you suffer from airsick that doesn’t do any good.
LD: No.
DC: Now, the first time we did that was on a Wellington on training. And because the aircraft was very old he wasn’t allowed to do more than a thirty degree bank. In other words it would, I was sat there, I did nothing. I just sat there you see. But we couldn’t fly out without a full crew even then. But with, on the Wimpy it was gentle so I just sat there no problem. When we converted on the Lancasters and the first time I went up on the fighter affiliation I still sat there like this. I heard the aircraft, the pilot, the gunners say, ‘Corkscrew starboard,’ or port, ‘Go.’ The next thing I’m on the roof because I lost all gravity. I was on the roof. My pencils would be flying around in, there was dust in the air and when he pulled it up I couldn’t move see. And then I felt sick.’
LD: Oh no.
DC: And the elsan toilet down the back of the aircraft [laughs] So when we did, when we did future ones the pilot would call me up and say, ‘Taff, get down the elsan.’ [laughs] So, but the aircraft weren’t that wide at the bottom with two metal stanchions you see. So you go down. The elsan’s there. The rear gunner turret there. The elsan’s there. So you stand like this and you wait until you hear, you’re on the intercom. ‘Corkscrew. Port. Go.’ So immediately your legs come up so you daren’t be sick then. But you’ve got to make sure the lid of the elsan’s on [laughs] So then when he, when he pulls it up that’s the time to lift lid bluuugh. And once you’re sick you’re fine. It’s when you’re not sick.
LD: Yeah.
DC: I remember, I remember not long after the war we took what we called the Baedekers. We took the ground staff on a low level tour of the Ruhr to show them the damage we’d done. Now, on came these WAAFs with flasks of coffee and cakes and God knows what. And it was June. Just after the war.
LD: Yeah.
DC: Hot. And if you’re flying low when it’s hot you get updrafts. So we sat there. They don’t sit, they didn’t see much. They were sick all the time most of them. And I had a job to make sure I wasn’t as well.
LD: Yeah.
DC: Yeah. It was good fun.
LD: Yeah. It sounds good fun.
DC: So we enjoyed it as well.
LD: Yeah. I suppose if you’re young and you’re excited then, yeah. Ok.
DC: And of course I was commissioned eventually so I was walking around with the officer’s uniform with wings up you know. You felt good.
LD: Yeah. Ok. Well, if that’s, if there’s not anything else than I think we’re pretty much done. Ok. Well, thank you.
DC: Ok.
LD: Very good. Thank you.


Laura Dixon, “Interview with Denis Francis Cockbill,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 1, 2023,

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