Interview with John Eric Hatherly Dean


Interview with John Eric Hatherly Dean


John Dean’s childhood memory of watching a Spitfire and a German aircraft having a dogfight in the sky above him spurred him to want to become a Spitfire pilot. He didn’t achieve his aim of becoming a Spitfire pilot and instead became a navigator. On one operation the Flight Engineer noticed the Lancaster immediately above them and then saw the bomb fall from it and in to their own aircraft from where the crew argued what to do with it. On his first operation he realised to his horror that he had turned the aircraft too early and they were far off target but they managed to rectify their mistake and complete the operation.




Temporal Coverage




01:03:02 audio recording

Conforms To


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ADeanJEH170913, PDeanJEH1701


DM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is David Meanwell. The interviewee is John Dean. The interview is taking place in Mr Dean’s home in Westerham in Kent on the 13th of September 2017. Ok, John if you could perhaps tell me where and when you were born and a bit about your early life.
JD: Yeah. Well, I was born at Edmonton in North London in 1922 which means that I’m ninety four. Ninety five next birthday. And I grew up mainly in London but my family moved out when I was about twelve and we went to, to live in Middlesex. And I remember on the morning of the 15th of August 1940 standing outside the house where I lived with my parents and watching a German aircraft which I think was an FW190 being pursued by a Spitfire. This was in, coming from North London and the FW190 had smoke coming out of its engines and obviously the Spitfire had [coughs] had shot it down. It was pursuing it until it crashed. And from that moment on I decided I wanted to be a Spitfire pilot. And as I was just over eighteen I was able to go to the RAF recruiting office in London and I joined up. I joined up on the 1st of November 1940 when I was eighteen years and four days, four days, five days old. So that was my introduction to the Air Force. Unfortunately, I didn’t achieve my ambition of becoming a Spitfire pilot because although I did elementary and basic flying training on, on Tiger Moths and later on Harvards I met my Waterloo on Harvards because I developed this annoying habit of landing the aircraft about thirty feet above the runway. So [laughs] they took me off Harvards and sent me to a navigation school in, in Canada in fact which was quite interesting and I did my training there and came back, and I was, ultimately found myself in Bomber Command with 77 Squadron.
DM: When, when you went to Canada you went by ship I assume.
JD: Yes. Sure.
DM: Was that sort of eventful or was it an easy, an easy trip?
JD: Well, only eventful to the extent that it was very uncomfortable because we went out in a very small Dutch vessel called the Volendam. And it was only about, I don’t know twenty five thousand tonnes or so. A very small ship and there were masses of us crowded in this small ship. And for most it took fourteen days to cross the Atlantic, and most of the time we were in a violent storm and the number of people who were sick on each other. I can remember it, you know with some horror really. But on the way back we came back on the Queen Mary which was then a troop ship and that did the trip in three and a half days so that wasn’t too bad. Yes.
DM: Whereabouts in Canada did you train?
JD: Well, we went eventually, initially to a place called Saskatchewan. Swift Current in Saskatchewan and we went by train from Halifax and that took, as far as I can recall it took about four days to get to, to Swift Current which was then a tiny hamlet but today I gather its quite a rather large township. And there I did some flying training on, on Harvards, and as I say my training came to an end and I then went back. Was transferred to a place called Chatham in New Brunswick to do my navigation training.
DM: So you came back to the UK. Trained as a navigator. So, I suppose the next thing, was it crewing up that happened next?
JD: Yeah. We went to [pause] it was either 1652 or 1658 Heavy Conversion Unit at, it was either Marston Moor or Lisset. I can’t remember precisely and there I got crewed up with an Australian pilot called [Gallant Lee] and he had already acquired all the other crew members and it was, it was the flight engineer who approached me asking me if I was looking for crew. So I said yes and that’s how, you know I met my crew. And as soon as that happened of course we were posted off to, to 77 Squadron and we did half our tour with Bill [Gallant Lee] at Elvington.
DM: What type of aircraft were you flying?
JD: Halifaxes. We started off in the early Halifaxes with inline engines. The Merlins. And of course they were very much underpowered. Anyway, we did half the tour with Bill [Gallant Lee] the Australian and then he was grounded with sinus trouble. So, we were then transferred back to I think it was 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit which was then Marston Moor to find another pilot which we did. And he was a South African. A flight lieutenant called Smiler Welch. And he was called Smiler because he was never seen to smile. Typical RAF humour, you know. So we got back to the squadron with Smiler Welch, and he immediately became a flight commander which meant that we didn’t operate very often. Perhaps once every two or three weeks rather than every other night. So it meant that we took about six months to complete our tour. So all in all we were on the squadron for a year to complete a tour. Which was much longer than most people of course. Anyway, we, we were successful in completing our tour of thirty three ops which included six mine laying trips, which as you probably know was each mine laying trip was counted as a half. And then that took us up to July or, yeah July or August 1944 and at the end of my tour I was transferred back to Marston Moor as an instructor. And that lasted for about six months until about December 1944, or January of forty, no. It must have been a bit later because we were posted. Oh, incidentally yes I acquired a new crew at Marston Moor and at the end of the six months training we were posted to India. And we were all packed up ready to go when the war ended fortunately. So we didn’t go to India. So I stayed on. I forgot to mention at the end of my training my crew and I were transferred to Transport Command and we stayed on in Transport Command until I left the RAF in 1947.
DM: So we go back to I suppose really you could say that your operation, your thirty flights or more because you did some mine laying flights was sort of split into two halves with two different pilots.
JD: Yeah.
DM: As you said the chap who had the problem with his sinuses and then the South African. Were they both similar in their outlook or —
JD: Completely different.
DM: Right.
JD: Yeah. Bill [Gallant Lee], he took a violent dislike to me when we met [laughs] He used to refer to me as, ‘That bloody pommie,’ you know [laughs] And anyway eventually we settled our differences and got on extremely well. And I liked Bill. He was a very straight talking Australian as most, most Australians are and he died, oh it must be about ten or fifteen years ago and I was very sorry to hear that. Yeah. Completely different to Welch. He was a very, what’s the word I’m looking for? He never said very much and —
DM: Taciturn, I suppose.
JD: Gave the impression he was terribly unhappy with life generally, you know. And whereas my flight engineer, unfortunately he died two years ago he kept in touch very closely with Bill [Gallant Lee] in Australia and actually visited him. With Smiler Welch he, at the end of the war he disappeared from our orbit and we never heard from him again. And I don’t know whether he’s still alive or not. I did try to find out some years ago by writing to somebody in South Africa. There’s an organisation which is connected to the RAF but they had never heard of him. Anyway, so that was Welch. A completely different cup of tea.
DM: Have you any particular memories from operations? Any close calls? Any sort of particular horrors, or —
JD: During our tour?
DM: Yes.
JD: Well, yes I mean it is extraordinary. I’ve always, I still think this, I thought it for some time. I think it’s extraordinary how in the midst of such horror going on with aircraft being shot down and being, catching fire and so on we virtually sailed through our thirty three ops with hardly a scratch. I did think there were a number of people who experienced the same thing, but there were one or two incidents where we came very close to meeting our doom as it were. One was a case where we were bombed by another aircraft and this was on a daylight raid. Not a daylight raid. A night raid to a place called Lens which was a big, big marshalling yard in France and it was so important that the Pathfinders had lit up the place with their flares so when we got there it was just like daylight and there were about three hundred and fifty aircraft converging on this place, Lens. And as we were doing our bombing run the flight engineer, Derek who was standing up next to the pilot and on the Halifax there was an astrodome immediately above where the engineer worked. He looked up and he said, he said, ‘There’s an aircraft right above us.’ And then there was a pause of a few seconds and he said, ‘There’s a bomb coming down.’ And a few seconds later it hit the aircraft and came in to the Halifax. Well, we were a bit, well to say a bit scary was probably an understatement but we just waited for this damned thing to explode but it didn’t. And then after about a minute or so the pilot said to the engineer, ‘Derek, go back and see what it is.’ And he undid his, his intercom and went back and then a few seconds later he came back on and said, he said, ‘I’ve got the bomb. It’s a twelve pound oil bomb.’ And by that time the, the aircraft that that had dropped it had moved off but Derek knew sufficiently enough, enough about aircraft to identify it as being a Stirling. And then there was a debate in the aircraft I remember. Half the crew wanted to take the damned thing back, the bomb. And the other half wanted to get rid of it.
DM: Which half were you with?
JD: What?
DM: Which side were you on?
JD: I wanted to keep it actually [laughs] and then the pilot intervened and said, ‘Enough of this bloody nonsense. Get rid of it.’ And so Derek got rid of it. So that was a very close call because I gather that there were untold instances of aircraft being bombed but nobody lived to tell the story. But we were probably very lucky. And then we had one or two encounters with, with night fighters which was a bit scary and on one occasion we were very severely hit by an anti-aircraft shell which completely disabled all our electrics. It didn’t interfere with the flying ability of the aircraft strangely enough. The engines kept working. But it meant that when we got back to UK we had no means of communicating with the ground and at the same time we, I was operating a navigational aid called Gee. You’ve probably heard of it. And that didn’t work, and it was still very dark when we got back to the UK and none of us had a bloody clue as to what, where we were. So we were stooging around UK looking for somewhere to land and then we saw this runway lit up and so we just went, went in and landed and of course we were unable to tell the people who we were so they started firing at us with, [laughs] well, I suppose it must have been some sort of cannon or something. Fortunately, they were very bad shots. Anyway, we landed and we couldn’t open the hatch to get out because this anti-aircraft shell had damaged the door so they had to, the people, the people on the ground had to go off and get a long piece of wood and smash the door in. So, and then we found out that we’d landed at a, what was it called? [pause] What was the name of the training unit before an HCU?
DM: Oh.
JD: It’s something like an Initial Training Unit or something.
DM: Yes. Yes.
JD: Anyway, it was, it was Silverstone which later became, you know the motor racing place, and they were training crews for Bomber Command using Wellingtons. So that, you know what was a nice ending to the story too. Again, what could have been quite a nasty ending because we were lucky to find an aircraft. I think we had about ten minutes petrol left when we landed. Yeah. So one or two quite narrow escapes, but from which we, we emerged successfully as it were.
DM: Was that the only time you got lost or did you have other — ?
JD: No [laughs] To my everlasting and undying shame we got completely lost on my first operation which was to Mannheim. And Mannheim is, let me see, it is, it is northwest of Berlin and it is situated between Berlin and the north coast of Germany. Up near [pause] I can’t, it’s, it’s sort of in the Lubeck, Lubeck area, where the coast is. And the route planners took us up north of, of the northern coast over the North Sea so that to give the impression to the Germans we were heading for Berlin, and then about fifty miles short of Lubeck we had to turn a sharp right and approach Mannheim from the north. Well, somehow and I don’t know how it was I turned right about twenty miles west of Lubeck instead of fifty. No. The other way around. Sorry. We turned right which is what we should have done so that it took us down to the west of Mannheim, and I remember the flight engineer saying after we’d flown, after we’d turned right for about an hour or so the flight engineer saying, he said, ‘It’s very strange,’ he said, There’s a big, big fire on our, on our port side.’ He said, ‘I wonder what that is.’ So I had a look at my chart and then I realised I’d made a gigantic error. So I said to, it was still Bill [Gallant Lee] then, I said, ‘Bill, I’m dreadfully sorry. I’ve made a complete cockup,’ I said, ‘We’ve turned too early.’ And I said, ‘Mannheim is on our left.’ And he said, ‘Ok.’ So he turned the aircraft to the left and we, instead of approaching Mannheim from the north we were on the west side of Mannheim and we were meeting aircraft coming out of Mannheim having dropped their bombs. So, again it was rather a perilous thing to do but we did it. We went back and dropped our bombs on Mannheim and managed to get through. So when I can, you know I think it was an example of the guardian angels looking after us really. But when I got back we had to, I had to discuss, you know the trip with the squadron navigation officer which was the usual thing and he looked at me and he said, ‘John, you are bloody lucky aren’t you to be here?’ And he was right actually. But that was the only time I got lost I think.
DM: When you were training navigators after your, you know, when you went to the HCU to be trainer was that mainly ground based or was there a lot of flying?
JD: On the contrary, no. We, most of the time we spent in the air. This was at Chatham, in New Brunswick. Most of the time we were flying Ansons and you know, the training at Brunswick I do recall was very exhaustive, and we were trained by Canadian instructors and they were very, very good and passionate about the job they were doing, you know. And we spent, I can’t remember exactly I’d have to refer to my logbook, but we spent a great number of flying hours in Ansons training and one of the things we did was to take, we did quite a lot of training on aerial photography. And somewhere in the house here I’ve got quite a lot of photos of, taken from Ansons. A very slow, sort of noisy aircraft but very interesting.
DM: When you were a trainer so, because you did some training between your tours I think, didn’t you?
JD: Yeah. Well, I was with [pause] I did my, yeah I was an instructor at I think it was 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit and of course there we flew again. I think it was Wellingtons. I can’t remember. But my job was to, again mainly in the air. I did very little instructing on the ground. I used to go up with trainee navigators as part of their training to observe what they were doing and to correct them if I thought they were doing anything wrong. So I did quite a lot flying there.
DM: Where were you based when you were doing that?
JD: I think that was Marston Moor. I should have got my logbook with me but I think that that would tell me. But I think it was Marston Moor. Quite near York. A celebrated historical place, of course.
DM: Indeed.
JD: Yeah.
DM: Yeah. So, I assume that included night exercises as well as daytime flying.
JD: Sorry, the —
DM: Night exercises as well as daytime when you were assessing the navigators.
JD: Oh yes. Sure.
DM: Was that, did you feel safe? Or —
JD: Well, yes because [pause] did I feel safe? Well, I suppose I did [laughs] Yes. I mean we were using, we were using Gee and whereas Gee was jammed over, over Europe, in Britain it wasn’t of course and it was an excellent navigation aid that I recall. So we were never lost at all. So I felt you know completely confident that we’d get back all right.
DM: So then you were supposedly going to go to India but as you say that didn’t happen because the war ended. And then, but you were in Transport Command.
JD: Yes. We were. After the war we were transferred from Elvington in Yorkshire to a place called Stradishall in, in Suffolk and that was about twenty five miles south of Bury St Edmunds. And Stradishall Aerodrome was a peacetime RAF base so that all the buildings were pre-war RAF buildings, including the officers mess because by that time I’d been commissioned. And whereas previously in, at Elvington we had to bunk down in in Nissen huts at Stradishall we had posh buildings and rooms to ourselves you know. So that was quite a step up in the social world as it were. Yeah. And the aerodrome of course was right next to Stradishall village. A tiny village. About two or three hundred people and it was there, of course I met my wife and got married.
DM: So, she was a local girl was she?
JD: Yeah. She was the wife of the local vicar so, and I met her in a pub dare it be said. Yeah. So, that was Stradishall and we operated out of Stradishall flying a variety of aircraft including the York which was the model, the civilian version of the Lancaster. And the York was the first aircraft where we were allowed to smoke. In Halifaxes and I understand Lancasters and certainly Wellingtons it was absolutely taboo to smoke in aircraft. Unlike the Americans where they used to issue out cigars if you wanted them I gather. But in the York I don’t know why but we were allowed to smoke. Most of us did smoke then of course so that we did. But we used [pause] yes. Smoke. Sorry, Yorks and Stirlings, and the Stirlings were found to be not very stable aircraft, and there were a number of crashes both her in the UK and also enroute. And the route to India took us via Libya. That was the first stop. I remember that it took us ten hours from our base in Stradishall to get to the first bit. The first landing stage in Libya. So we were pretty worn out then, and then after we’d spent a night there and then the next stage was Cairo West which as the name indicates is west of Cairo and that only took about, about eight hours. Seven or eight hours. And then we went from Cairo West to Habbaniya or Habbaniya I’m not quite sure which is the right pronunciation, in Iraq which was an RAF base. A peacetime base. And we landed there for refuelling and then after a few hours we took off, and then we went through to Karachi which was the end of my journey. Although on one occasion we went down to Madras so the whole of that trip was of course very interesting. And I remember on one occasion we were going in to Habbaniya or Habbaniya in Iraq and there was some natives on the ground who started, who had rifles and they started firing at us. So the pilot said to ground control, he said, ‘What the hell’s happening?’ And the controller said, ‘Well, go around and disappear for a minute because we’ve got a little tribal war going on.’ And apparently in that area one tribe used to fight with another sort of every other Wednesday, you know, and that sort of thing. And when we appeared we were another choice target and fortunately they were very bad shots. Anyway, that was quite exciting.
DM: What sort of things were you carrying?
JD: Well, mainly war material but it was all boxed up so we didn’t, we didn’t know what it contained. We assumed it was things like guns and other stuff which, which couldn’t be left in India. And occasionally half a dozen people but not very many because the aircraft wasn’t really converted to carry passengers. It was mainly boxes and we never knew quite was in them. It could have been bombs I suppose but they never told us. Also we were able to, I remember on one occasion we were allowed to bring, I think it was one item which we brought locally in Karachi and most of the, most of my crew bought carpets so there were quite a large proportion of the air craft was taken up with carpets. Anyway, we got those through. Yes. Happy days.
DM: Did you used to fly things out to India or was it an empty aircraft?
JD: Sorry? No. As far as I recall we flew out empty. I can’t remember [pause] Yeah. I don’t think we took anything out. It was, we were just meant to bring things back. Quite why they used aircraft to do this I never found out because it would have been a damned sight cheaper to use, you know ships. I suspect that those boxes contained, you know what we would refer to as secret material of some kind but they never told us. Never told me anyway. I suppose the pilot knew. And in those days of course when you’re young you tend to accept things without question don’t you?
DM: That’s true.
JD: Which we did.
DM: So you were doing that for about two years.
JD: Yeah. Again, I’d have to refer to my logbook. Yeah. Actually, I’ve got the chronological times a bit wrong. I was transferred from Elvington, the squadron to Marston Moor as an instructor in July 1944 and that went on until December 19 — 1944. January. And then in January 1945 I’d forgotten to mention I was transferred from Marston Moor to [pause] to Stradishall. That’s right. I’m sorry. I think I said that I went from Elvington to Stradishall. That’s not the case. I went from Marston Moor to Stradishall where we were formed up as 51 Squadron and it was 51 Squadron who did all the flying to India. So, I hope you can make —
DM: Yeah.
JD: Sense of all that. And so we flew from India from, from [unclear] flew to India from Stradishall from about January 1945 to July ‘47. Just over two years.
DM: Did you volunteer for that or did you not have any choice?
JD: We were just told, you know.
DM: Right.
JD: There was no question of —
DM: Yeah. Yeah.
JD: Yeah. Well, they had to. I mean, now that it is all over of course one realises that Bomber Command HQ had to find somewhere to put all its aircrew, surviving aircrew you know so that they could become gainfully employed. And I suppose Transport Command was the obvious choice really. I mean I don’t know how many other members of 77 Squadron ended up in Transport Command. All that I know is that we were told to go there. We went.
DM: Could you have stayed on longer if you’d wanted to?
JD: Yes. I could and in fact that was my intention. I wanted to stay on in the RAF but my wife, well we got married fairly, fairly soon after we met really. Oh yes. It was at Stradishall on 51 Squadron after I’d got married there that we, I was posted, we were posted to India. And when I said, told my wife about this she said, ‘Do you really want to go?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to go either. What about coming out of the RAF?’ So, that was why I left really.
DM: Right. What did you do when you came out?
JD: Well, I spent some time trying to find out what I wanted to do and eventually came up with the, with the answer that I wanted to be a surveyor. And at that time the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors which I wanted to become a member of had arranged training courses at various places and I applied for one and I got a training place. And this was at [pause] somewhere near Reading I think it was. I can’t remember. And that training lasted for about six months to give us a basic, a basic idea what a surveyor did and then the rest of the time in order to qualify I got a job at Ipswich where my wife was living and did home study to qualify. And that took me about three years and then eventually I sat their exams and did qualify and I became an Associate Member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. But I then did, having qualified it sounds strange to say this but I found it very difficult to get a job, a paid job and this was because so many people had decided to travel this route because of this, the availability of this training. And the only job I could find was in Manchester and I went home and told my wife. She said, ‘I’m not going to Manchester.’ I said, ‘Well, what will we do?’ She said, ‘Well, we must find something else to do.’ And then I spoke to a colleague of mine who’d, he wasn’t . He didn’t train as a surveyor. He’d done something else. And he said, ‘Why don’t you write to — ’ he said, ‘I do know that they need surveyors abroad. Why don’t you write to the Colonial Office and ask them if they’ve got any vacancies?’ Which I did, and they wrote back. Well, I went up for an interview and they wrote back six weeks later and said, “Dear Mr Dean, we can offer you, thank you for coming for an interview. We can offer you a post in Hong Kong.” And I really wanted to go but my wife wasn’t very keen so I wrote back and said, “Well, thank you very much. Do you have anything a bit sort of a bit nearer? Say, like Africa?’ And they wrote back strangely enough and said yes and they offered me another job in Northern Rhodesia. So that’s where I went and I spent fifteen years there. Not as a surveyor. I went out, they said to me that the only job available at the time was as an administrator. So I went out as a, what was called a district officer and spent, you know fifteen years there. And that was quite good fun. Africa of course was, well I don’t know about today of course. It’s a bit, it’s a bit sort of full of guns and dictators but in our time of course it was very peaceful and the conditions of work were very good. We used to do a tour of three years and get six months leave and that sort of thing. Ostensibly, the six months leave was because of the unhealthy living conditions but where we were in Northern Rhodesia we found it extremely healthy but fortunately the authorities hadn’t caught up with that.
[telephone ringing – interview paused]
DM: So you came back, I suppose. Back to the UK.
JD: Yeah. Came back to the UK and I got a job as a, with a national training organisation where eventually I became a personnel manager and that, that lasted until about fifteen years when the training organisation I was with closed down. And so for the second. Oh yes. I was with, I was in Northern Rhodesia until it became independent. It became Zambia and I stayed on. It became, Northern Rhodesia became independent in October 1964 and I stayed on for a couple of years until, until ’64. Yeah. Until ‘66 ’67. And then I decided that it was time to retire and come back because there really wasn’t much future in Zambia for white civil servants quite naturally. So I came back and I managed to find a job as I say with this training organisation where I became personnel manager and that lasted for fifteen years until the organisation closed down. And then I became, I was very lucky because I was out of work for about two or three months which I found extremely boring. Then I don’t know quite how it happened but I managed to find a job as, as bursar to a school in Kent and that lasted until well past retiring age. So, again I was very lucky.
DM: Did you keep in touch with people from the Air Force?
JD: Yes. Well, I kept in touch with, I’d already said the pilot, by that time of course Bill [Gallant Lee] our first pilot had died and Smiler Welch, the second guy, pilot had just disappeared. But I kept in close touch with Derek Compton, my flight engineer and we used to meet up occasionally. He lived down in Dorset at Christchurch and he died about two years ago. I also met up with my wireless operator who lived in Liverpool and I did a trip up there to meet him. I got along with him extremely well. And I also met, I also met the rear gunner. Butch Sutton. He was called Butch because he was the son of a butcher you know. RAF term. The bomb aimer I didn’t keep in touch with because he lived in Scotland and the rear gunner [Kitch May] sorry, the mid-upper gunner [Kitch May] lived in Cornwall. But I used to, we used to correspond [Kitch May] and so for a few years anyway I kept in touch with most of the crew but towards the end it was because they, you know how it is you stop writing and stuff like that. But with Derek Compton my flight engineer I stayed with him several times and unfortunately the poor chap died about two years ago. So yes I did keep in touch and also 77 Squadron formed a Squadron Association which I joined and we formed, when I say we members in the south of England formed a sub-branch because the main meeting was up in Yorkshire I believe. Anyway, there were about a dozen or so of us in the south who formed this sub-branch and we used to meet every May at [pause] I’m afraid my memory isn’t very good these days, a town down [pause] I can’t remember where it is. The town begins with M but it doesn’t matter the name of the place. We used to meet at the White Horse in this town starting with M and there were about a dozen or so of us and we used to meet sometimes with our wives or girlfriends, whatever and chat and have lunch you know. And I used to meet Derek Compton my engineer there. He was there on every occasion. And I used to pick up another navigator from 77 Squadron who was badly shot up over [pause] again my memory lets me down. It’s a big, a big port in France. In Brittany. Beginning with B I think it is.
DM: [unclear]
JD: Can you remember it? You can’t. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. But the poor chap got badly shot up and virtually lost an eye so he was grounded and he lived at [pause] oh dear. Again, my memory for places. He lived at [pause] well about thirty miles from here towards Guildford. Near Guildford. He lived near Guildford and I used to get there and because, because of his eye he couldn’t drive and he, he had a very nice Mercedes car. And when we first met he said to me, ‘Will you drive me to the reunion?’ I said, ‘Of course I will,’ I said, ‘But there’s one condition.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘You let me drive your Mercedes.’ And he said yes. So once a year I got the opportunity of driving this magnificent car down to wherever it was. And the poor chap he developed dementia and eventually was admitted to a home. You know, a nursing home and died there about three years ago. But he and I, we knew each other from, from the squadron and we got on extremely well. And he, he ended up as a director of operations with British Airways so he had done very well. But I remember one of his drawbacks was on the way down, driving in this car of his he kept on saying to me, ‘Now, do you know where you are, Dean?’ you know [laughs] And I used to tell him, I used to say, ‘For God’s sake, shut up otherwise we shall get lost.’ But we had a good relationship and I’m sorry, I was very sorry he died, you know. Yeah. Those were most of the people who went, who attended these, these May meetings. Of course, it got to a point where it was difficult for them to drive or get to to the meetings. So we abandoned it or it was abandoned about two years ago. And it was started I remember that the whole this, this sub-branch was started by a man called Varley, who was another navigator who I knew and he unfortunately he died to. So I’m beginning to think I’m about the only one left from 77 Squadron. There must be others. Talking about the survivors I was interested to find out quite recently how many Bomber Command aircrew are left alive today. And I’ve always thought it was about between three and four thousand and I tried to get in touch with the Bomber Command Association of which I used to be a member but I gather that’s been completely disbanded now because there are so few members. And then on the internet, I use the internet quite, quite a lot on Facebook I came across this Bomber Command history forum and in the forum was somebody there call Dee mentioned the IBCC. You probably know about this lady, Dee.
DM: I’ve heard.
JD: You know about her. Well, she in fact put me in touch with the IBCC or reminded me because I’d been in touch before and I posted this question on Facebook and she came back and said she’d spoken to somebody at IBCC and they thought it was just over two thousand. But nobody really knows because no records have been kept have they?
DM: No. No.
JD: So, it’s all guesswork really but I think two or three, between two or three thousand is right. I mean immediately after the war there was something like a hundred and twenty thousand left. But the war, that’s what we are talking about? Getting on for seventy years ago now, aren’t we? So, there can’t be many left.
DM: No. Do, do —
JD: Yeah.
DM: Do you remember your time with Bomber Command with fondness or —
JD: With —?
DM: With fondness or —
JD: Yes. Well, it’s, no I don’t know about fondness. Yeah. I mean let’s be, let’s be honest it was a pretty scary time. Although as an individual I never felt that I was, I was going to get killed. I always thought that I was going to survive and I think this may have been due to the fact that when one is young, I was twenty or so you never think anything is going to happen to you. Well, obviously I was always optimistic. But I must confess that before each trip when we were sitting outside the aircraft waiting to get in and start the engines and they’d always happen for about a half an hour it then suddenly dawned on you what you are doing, you know. And then I do remember getting a bit apprehensive then. But once in the aircraft as the navigator I was busy from, you know the first, from the first minute as it were until the end of the trip. And that meant that one I was occupied and didn’t have time to think about you know being attacked. And it now, you know it’s occurred to me since that the other members of the crew sitting there staring out into the darkness they must have been petrified I should think most of the time but they obviously never mentioned it. Yes. I mean, I think probably a navigator in Bomber Command probably had the best job really because he was occupied as I say all the time and mark you one thing I missed was, was looking out of the aircraft and seeing what was happening all around us. Although, I did go up and I’d see. I used to get permission from the pilot to go up and stand by him when we were going in to the bombing run watching things happen and I think I wasn’t frightened at all. I was absolutely fascinated with what was going on, you know. And then of course you could see other aircraft all around you all being lit up and so on. So, yes it was something that one would never see again. Oh yes. I recall we did one trip early on in our tour. I think it was our second or third operation to Milan and that was quite an interesting trip because first of all it took almost nine and a half hours which was a hell of a long time. Secondly, the route took us over the Alps and we were flying on a bright moonlight night and it lit up the Alps dramatically and we were about I suppose the Alps go up to about fourteen or fifteen thousand feet and we were at sixteen so there wasn’t much between us you know because sixteen was about the maximum height, I think for a Halifax. Perhaps seventeen after a bit of a struggle. Anyway, we had a dramatic view. Fantastic view of the Alps both going and coming and then after we crossed the Alps we could see Milan in the distance because Milan is quite near the Alps, lit up and we could see searchlights waving. And then the nearer we got the searchlights stopped and when we got there we could also see anti-aircraft bursts in the sky and when we got there they completely stopped. So there were no searchlights and no anti-aircraft fire when we got there and I gather this was quite common that the Italians manning these things on the ground decided they’d leave, you know if we were there [laughs] Which was nice for us. So that was quite, I think we were meant to bomb some factories near, near the main railway station in Milan. And I gather according to the Bomber Command Diaries, you know that big fat book that the raid was very successful and we hit the factories. But that was quite an interesting trip. But on one I think on that same trip [pause] it was the same trip the pilot of a Stirling aircraft won the VC that night and it came, I’ve got a story upstairs about him. His name was Aaron, I think it was Aaron Smith. I’m not sure. But on the way, on the way down just before they got to Milan they were fired at by another Stirling aircraft and to this day nobody knows quite why the other Stirling aircraft did this because nobody owned up to it but it was presumed that the other Stirling aircraft just missed, he identified the other, you know the Stirling wrongly and took it to be an enemy aircraft. Anyway, he fired at this guy’s aircraft and he got badly badly injured and could no longer fly the aircraft. So the crew took him back and laid him down in the back of the aircraft and I think it was the [pause] I can’t remember whether it was either the flight engineer or the navigator took — no. It was the flight engineer. That’s right. He took over flying the aircraft because he had some instruction and they decided to abandon the bombing. So they released the bombs and they fell somewhere else. And then they decided that it would be dangerous to try and go back over the Alps to the UK and they decided to head for Sicily which was about I don’t know, I suppose and hundred and fifty miles south of where they thought they were. And then, oh yes the other thing was that the damage included putting out the radio. So they had no communication with the ground so they couldn’t find out where to land in Sicily. But eventually the wireless operator he managed to get some communication going with an aerodrome called Bone in North Africa. In Libya. And it was the only Allied air base in Libya at the time. Anyway, I don’t know how the wireless operator did it but he managed to speak to Bone and Bone said, ‘You must abandon the idea of trying to land in Sicily because there’s an invasion taking place and there’s a lot of fighting and we can’t advise you where to land.’ He said, they said, ‘You must try and head for Bone,’ and so they altered course and did that and eventually got there and this guy Aaron somebody, the pilot, he decided to get back in to the pilot’s seat to fly the aircraft and eventually he landed this aircraft despite the fact he was badly injured and he died nine hours later. And he got a VC for that. So that was quite an unfortunate dramatic ending for him. For the crew.
DM: Did you ever visit subsequently any of the cities that you bombed?
JD: Did I ever —?
DM: Visit any of the cities that you bombed?
JD: Only Berlin. Yeah. I went to Berlin about five years or six years ago and of course the area which was bombed of course have you been to Berlin?
DM: No.
JD: No. The area that was bombed has been rebuilt but it’s instead of, it’s been rebuilt with mainly glass buildings. Very modern. So you get no, you get no sense of an area that was completely obliterated and it’s a, you know an interesting city but I think that they built they rebuilt most of it in glass or so. A mistake really because in other parts of Europe where cities have been rebuilt they’ve rebuilt particularly in France they’ve rebuilt them in the style they were originally. An example of that was Caen where Caen was effectively demolished by Montgomery in order to get his troops on the move as it were. At great cost to civilians living there. But after the war they rebuilt Caen as it was and to go there you’d never think a bomb had been dropped anywhere near. But that didn’t happen in Berlin unfortunately. There we are. Yeah. I can’t remember. No. I’ve not been to, oh yes I’ve been to Milan. Ah yes. Of course, I’ve been to Milan. Great place Milan. And we actually went to the, yes we flew to Milan. We were going to go to a place called Genoa in Italy. Or Genoa. I don’t know how you pronounce it. Genoa. And we flew to Milan and got on a train at Milan. So we actually went to Milan Station but there was obviously no evidence of the bombing so, but I’m impressed with Italian railways. Very cheap and very fast. Unlike the UK of course. So yes but I mean no in terms of visiting immediately after the war and this took place from Elvington we were instructed to do what were they called?
DM: Oh, are these the Cook’s Tours?
JD: Sorry.
DM: Cook’s Tours.
JD: That’s it.
DM: Yes.
JD: And we did two of these. We took, we took a number of people. I didn’t know who they were, I presumed they were VIPs of some kind over, we flew over the Ruhr and we flew over Essen and Mannheim and one or two other places very low. About we couldn’t have been more than about two or three hundred feet perhaps. No. A thousand. I don’t know. I can’t remember. But low enough to see the damage very effectively. So we did that and yeah, I think we were all taken aback by the immense amount of the damage which we’d caused and subsequently I didn’t realise then but in later years I realised that Bomber Command it did what it had to do and it was probably very necessary that we did what we had to do but what we had to do was quite barbaric. But I think that, I think we, I don’t think there was ever a question of whether we should have done it. I think we should have done it. What should have happened was for war to be avoided, I think. I’ve become very anti-war. I think a lot of people who took part in the war have. But yeah, I mean, I think I mean in London of course people suffered to a certain extent.
DM: Yeah. When you said that you grew up in Edmonton and Middlesex.
JD: Sorry?
DM: You said you grew up in sort of Edmonton and Middlesex.
JD: Yeah. I was out of London when the bombing took place but —
DM: Were your family still there or —
JD: No. No. None of my family live there now. No.
DM: Were they there during the war though?
JD: Oh, indeed. Sure. Yeah.
DM: So they all came through the bombing of London.
JD: They survived you know.
DM: Yeah.
JD: Because they weren’t in, they weren’t in central London. They were out in the suburbs. Wood Green which is a suburb and I don’t think, I don’t think any bombs were dropped there at all. No. It’s [pause] yes the I suppose you know since the war there’s been an enormous amount of literature hasn’t there and books written about Bomber Command. And I think that [pause] Well, I think that what we did played an enormous part in, in the defeat of Nazi Germany. I mean had that Bomber Command not done what it did then presumably all the German troops that were used for anti-aircraft purposes and I gather it totalled something like two million presumably those troops could have been released to fight elsewhere. Presumably against, on the Eastern Front against Russian and that might have made all the difference really. I don’t know. So, although I think what we did was, was not very nice I think it was completely and utterly necessary to get rid of this terrible scourge in Europe. And at the time of course when I was on the squadron I hadn’t really read very much about what was going on Germany. I don’t think many people had at that, at that stage because there wasn’t much news coming out of Germany in the nineteen, the late 1930s and early 40s. And as a young man I wasn’t as interested then as I am now in what happened in the past. So we were largely unaware of what was happening in Europe. But I remember having a feeling, you know then on the squadron that what we were doing was necessary. That we had to defeat these so and sos in Germany without really knowing about them. About all the horrors that were going on. But with that I don’t know we never spoke. Something we never discussed. I never remember discussing this with any of my colleagues. I think we were too busy thinking about other things like, you know going out to the pub or whatever or something like that you know.
DM: Yes.
JD: Very good.


David Meanwell, “Interview with John Eric Hatherly Dean,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 15, 2024,

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