Interview with Tony Coulson


Interview with Tony Coulson


Bill Clarkson was flying on operations from RAF Tempsford dropping agents and supplies over occupied territory. On one occasion they were recalled due to bad weather and had to return with the agent on board. Obviously, he was in civilian clothes and caused a security incident at the aerodrome. On another occasion when the aeroplane Bill had been flying on had been badly damaged and they had been forced to make an emergency landing. When Bill and his crew asked for more bread with their meal they were met with the incredulous words of the WAAF, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on.’




Temporal Coverage




00:12:07 audio recording


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TC: Right. We’ll do some of the stories. The, the [pause] the ones that do the personal bit and then let me just think. I need to do the Clarkson story. The Duraglit one and the, my mother’s and the, my mother’s and that would —
MG: Ok.
TC: Some of the incidents that Bill has told us through the years concern, and reactions to the flights or the operations that he’d been on. And one particularly bad operation coming from Norway they’d been beaten up by a lot of flak and they managed just to scrape into an emergency runway in, on the coast of England. They got there and they were debriefed, and they were sent to the mess to get something to eat and they were eating there with their aeroplane, you know being rescued from the mess that it was in and they went in to the mess, ate and Bill Clarkson thought I’d like some more bread. He said to the other lads, ‘Anybody else want some more bread?’ And some of them said yes. So he went up to the young WAAF who was on the counter and said, ‘Excuse me, can I have some more bread please.’ And she looked at him and looked at the lads and then said, ‘More bread? Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ It took the rest of the crew about ten minutes to calm Bill Clarkson down and to inform the young lady that yes indeed they know. The did know there was a war on. Another incident that occurred was when they were sent out to take a spy over to France and they were returned because of bad weather. The operation was cancelled and [pause] Sorry. It wasn’t France. Another operation was when they were sent to send a spy over to Norway and the operation was cancelled due to bad weather and so they had to fly and they ended up in Kinloss. They had their flying gear on and they were received until the, everything went well until the next morning when they’d taken their flying gear off and they were standing by the Lancaster and a particularly officious Red Cap came along and said, ‘Why is that guy in civilian gear?’ Because obviously he was a spy and he’d been dressed to land and blend in to the Norwegian background. ‘Where’s his papers?’ And obviously being a spy he didn’t have any. And so then they mustered the guard to come to this aeroplane and it took all of Heck’s persuasion and finally pulling seniority and phone calls before they were able to fly off and take the spy back where, to Tempsford where he’d come from. Another one concerns my dad’s marriage to my mother in February of 1944 [pause] They got married on February the 8th. February the 8th 1944. Sorry. Another story concerns my dad’s marriage to my mother in February 1945. They got married in Scunthorpe. The crews came up to Scunthorpe and helped with the celebrations and my mother was walking along again with a pilot on each arm and about fourteen young men surrounding her going to the dance hall in Scunthorpe saying, ‘I can’t decide who I’m having the first dance with.’ And my dad piped up, ‘Yes, you can. It’s me.’ And later on they honeymooned in London, again with both crews because they were all on leave together and it didn’t seem unusual that they should all stick together even on their honeymoon. And previous to the trip out in London my dad had said to my mother, ‘Oh, it’s important I get some Duraglit. I’ve got to actually clean my uniform and so she said, ‘Right. We’ll do that and make sure. I’ll remind you later.’ And so the two crews are walking down a side street in London and they see a barber’s shop. And above it was the legend, Durex, which was a well-known prophylactic. But in my mother’s rather confused and maybe over excited mind she’d mixed that up with Duraglit and so she piped up, saying, ‘Bill, you said we’d need some of that for later.’ Bill’s comments to me on the event was, ‘And you know neither of those crews ever repeated that story to me for the rest of the time that I knew them.’ Yes. Another rather tragic bit of that story was the second week. Dad was at Tempsford and it was obviously a secret aerodrome. Even people in the area didn’t know about its existence and my mother knew that.
[ringtone – interview paused]
Another sad aspect of that honeymoon was the second week that my mother spent in digs near Tempsford. Sorry. [unclear] again. Sorry. I’m not thinking.
MG: That’s not a problem.
TC: Another sad aspect of that honeymoon was mother was staying in digs near Tempsford which was obviously a secret aerodrome. They were dealing with SOE and other nefarious organisation and so the locals, many of them didn’t even know it was an aerodrome. Many of them just thought it was a farm. Or at least that’s the story we were told. She was going to the market in town and she got on the bus. Now, out of the window she saw a Stirling on training exercises. Now, she knew that my dad was on training on that day and this was February 1945. The 14th. And so she thought, ‘Oh, that might be Bill up there on training. There were only three of the Stirlings on training that day so she knew Bill might be one of them. Unfortunately, an American Mustang pilot at the same time who’d been involved in the training exercises decided to try one last attempt at a low-level attack on the Stirling and he misjudged the timing and actually took the tail end of the Stirling off as he crashed into it. And both aircraft fell to the ground and were, nobody survived obviously. My mother was twenty one, married for a week and she’d just witnessed a tragic accident that meant that possibly she had a one in three chance of having lost her husband. You can imagine how distraught she was. Furthermore, there was no way that she could get in contact with the aerodrome because it was a secret aerodrome and therefore had no contact with the public whatsoever. And so she had to wait until 6 o’clock that night to find out when my dad came out of the camp to see whether he was alive or not. One interesting story with that was that as the bus went along and my mother was in tears and being comforted by some other stranger that she didn’t even know was the local bobby was riding on his bike to investigate the accident and he flagged down the bus and put his bike on it and said, ‘Take me to Tempsford.’ Right. That’s two stories. What’s the name for it. Do you want just the last one of course. I’ll just finish. Right. Bill’s war career must have been an extraordinary event for a young lad from Scunthorpe. Never been out of town. No formal education. Left school at fourteen. And it was something that I know did shape him as a person but something also that he didn’t ever really talked about other than at the ludicrous level when, when I used to ask him as all little kids did, ‘Dad, what did you do in the war?’ And he said, ‘Well, I used to fly in aeroplanes and me and Churchill used to have a cricket bat and used to fly over Germany and hit people on the head.’ I said, as I grew older I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Come on. Tell me.’ He said, ‘Well, I used to drop mail and supplies.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t mind dropping the supplies but the mail was difficult. Especially when they had the lower letterbox.’ And it was that kind of facetious attitude that dad had all the way through until about twelve, fifteen years ago and he’d reached eighty odd. We’d taken him to RAF Duxford for his eightieth birthday and he just wanted another flight. So he paid all his birthday money. In fact, quite tragically he said, ‘I know you’ve given me this money. Do you mind if I spend it on this flight?’ And it was a 36 de Havilland that was doing joy rides around Duxford. And we said, ‘No. Of course not.’ And he went up there and that kind of triggered things, the trip to Duxford and he did start talking more and more about it. And even then when he went to work part time, at eighty he was working part time at Scunthorpe United on the gate and he used to tell some of the older gate men some stories and he became affectionately known as Gunner Bill. And even to that day I still work at the ground and they ask me about, ‘How is Gunner Bill doing?’
MG: Ok. Thanks very much Tony. That’s been really helpful and obviously thanks to Bill for allowing us to be, to be here with him and I’ll stop now.



Michael Grant, “Interview with Tony Coulson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 23, 2024,

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