Interview with Ken Done


Interview with Ken Done


Ken Done served as a wireless operator on Air Sea Rescue. Upon leaving Battersea Grammar School aged 14, he was employed at Chelsea Town Hall as a junior clerk. When the war started, he discovered he was in a reserved occupation and unable to enlist. However, suffering The Blitz was too much and after being rejected for aircrew because of colour blindness, he eventually enlisted as a wireless operator. He became aware of Air Sea Rescue and managed to arrange a posting to RAF Calshot, from where he was allocated to a crew. Postings to Grimsby and Gorleston-on-Sea followed. It was soon realised that rescues from land were taking too long to reach aircrew from ditched or shot down aircraft and the boats used to pre-position in the North Sea or Channel along the routes aircraft were expected to fly. During the D-Day Landings, the Air Sea Rescue boats provided support, and he was later stationed in Ostend and then Norway. Whilst there, the crews from the rescue boats were involved in the recovery and subsequent military funeral of two crews from Blenheim aircraft that had collided during an operation near Bergen earlier in the war. He also talks about trying to save a young American pilot, but unfortunately, they were unable to save his life. He talks about meeting his wife and getting married in 1942. His wife became a WAAF.




Temporal Coverage





00:51:16 audio recording


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ADoneK170608, PDoneK1701


GC: First of all, I’d like to say thank you for agreeing to talk to us and, em, tell me a little bit about your life before the war, before you joined up.
KD: Mother and father were good, were very good parents and eh, at eleven I managed to obtain a scholarship and went to a marvellous school called Battersea Grammar School where there was, not only a marvellous set of masters, but also a Cadet Corpss. My father, having first served in the 1st Lifeguards of the Household Cavalry, was able to get me smart when I joined up into the Cadet Corps, which incidentally, when I left school, I ended up as a Company Sergeant Major. When [coughs] I finished my education and I eventually got a job, a permanent job, as a junior clerk in the Borough Treasurers’ Department of Chelsea Town Hall in London, before it became joined with the Royal [clears throat] Kensington. The point is that during the few months [coughs] before the actual opening of the War there was many things to do that I was given. For example, I was called in one day by the Borough Treasurer and told to take two cars, here’s an authority, go into any shop, anywhere, and buy blankets. Well I was eighteen at the time. This carried on until when I wanted to em join up I found that I was classed as reserved occupation, but, being in London during the Blitz, my anger was such that I wanted to get up in an aircraft and do something about it. Unfortunately, although I was exceedingly fit I was found to have poor colour sight which prevented me from going into aircrew. However I trained as a Wireless Operator and was posted to a camp, aerodrome, called Castle Camps right on the bottom of Cambridgeshire. I then at a one particular time, and I will not worry you how it happened, but I suddenly discovered that there was something called Air Sea Rescue and this attracted me considerably and consequently I managed to get a posting to Calshot one of the main depots of the Royal Air Force after it became joined with the Royal Flying Corps plus the Royal Naval Air Service and from there I was then crewed up onto my first boat which was known as a Hans and Dawson, a peculiar name but the local bus service was the Hans and Dawson Bus Company and this new type of craft looked as though it had got two decks, hence its nickname, and I joined and we were on orders to take up our position up at Grimsby. On the eh way there, because, being a short little lad, I’ve also been rather cocky, and as we steamed up the channel, I checked everything electrical. I even uncovered the mains em searchlight and people were just looking at me and eh making no comment and then it got dusk and suddenly there was a call for sparks. I thought “Oh, that’s me” and the skipper said “Dover Castle are calling you.” Now I was a trained, and quite good, as a Wireless Op, but I hadn’t worked very much with the lamp and I couldn’t read a darned thing. The skipper said “Give him T”, then came another one, and when it was ended he quietly said, “Give him R”, and then “Wellington Dock, Coxwain”, and I’m damned certain he knew where to go. However, I did recoup myself. There was, what we would call, a do and there was a large number of Air Sea Rescue boats, Motor Gunboats and Motor Torpedo boats and there was some exercise or fencing of, by trying to get the Luftwaffe up and be waiting for them and frequently we would stay at Dover for some, a month or more and we were frequently posted out to rendezvous just off of em [pause] I’m pausing. On the South Coast. But we also went in company with a smaller, faster type of boat, who always steamed off quickly. Because I had been in Station Headquarters at Castle Camps I was well aware of one time pads for coding. The one thing we were waiting for, of course, would be “Return to Base”. On this occasion, I had coded this before we left Dover and placed it in front of me. As soon as it came through, “Return to Base”, I was able to tell the Skipper immediately. It was the only time that anyone ever queried my work, but I pointed out that it was probably still decoding in. Right. We then got back to Dover before the Whaleback and much to my great pleasure, my crew were pulling the legs of the crew of the Whaleback, and one of them I heard say, “You wanna get yourself a decent Wireless Operator”, and I then knew that I had been accepted as a member of the crew. From that point we eventually went up to Grimsby. At this time, what was happening, is that the system was to have a duty boat standing by in case there was a call out and it was then realised by the people that matter that if the call out was [unclear] some thirty or forty miles out, it would take us some time to get there, normally in the dark, and what then happened later on as we came down south to Gorlestone near Yarmouth, is that boats were sent out on rendezvous to station themselves under the flightpaths of the bombers when they were going out and we would go out before then, being if they were in trouble we were always quicker on the pick up. From there, after time, we had D-Day. This was a terrible time for the Army and what they were doing on the shore, but we were concerned because we had been on rendezvous, told by the Skipper that this was D-Day, and then we were given a message, “Carry on”, and he said “Start up”, and we closed in round to the ring of the landing area, em and em the em this simple message “Carry on,” told us that the landing had been achieved. With the success of the Allied Armies carrying the War through France back towards Germany, obviously the ports along the north coast of France, Belgium etcetera, came into the Allies hands and my unit as a whole, was then posted over to Ostend. Now at Ostend we did quite a lot of work but fortunately very little necessity to pick anyone up. It may be a little unkind but some eh eh an example of service humour is that em we were billeted in the top floors of a hotel. One night about four men came home, climbing the stairs and being absolutely doubled over with laughter. They wouldn’t tell us what was happening, but suggested simply that we went to see the Black Cat Café and told us where it was. A day or two afterwards, I and three friends said “Let’s go and find this café,” and, as I have already said, I was rather cocky, I led. I pushed the door open and em I will just use the, say that it was the F word, to go out, which rather surprised me but he smiled and offered four seats and apparently the British Army soldiers had told him everything back to front. I will not tell you what was going on. He desc, I won’t tell you how he described the Belgian beer. I won’t tell you what he offered his two daughters for and when we left he gave me a nice smile and said, “Hello, hello, don’t come again.” After the War was over it then occurred that the main German Army had been fighting on the Continent but there was a large contingent of the German Army in Norway. There was a concern as to whether these, these section of the Briti, the German Army had not been in terrible fighting and whether they would surrender and in consequence they sent a section of the Army, either the SAS or the Commandos, over to Norway by air and they posted six boats over to the west coat, coast of Norway to cover their flight and we were in Norway for some nine months. Among other things, eh, what had happened in em, and this is for Bomber Command, a flight I believe of Blenheims had gone on a Christmas, either 1941 or 1942, to strafe Herdler Airfield, which was just a little trip up the field from Bergen and during the raid, two of the Blenheims had collided, dropped into the lake on the island. The German authorities made their inspections and decided to leave them there and, among other things, em the Allied em Graveyard Executive wanted the bodies to be recovered such as it was and we got together a gang of German POW’s and em the number of people of em the Navy or the Royal Air Force in Norway at that time was very small and it was arranged to give them a proper ceremonial burial. Because most of my crew had to do pallbearing, the only people officially behind was an elderly Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer, followed by three people, including myself, as the main contingent and to our great pleasure and pride we were then followed by masses, literally masses, of the Norwegian people to show their gratitude for what we had done, or these men had done, for them and em the only other thing that stands in my mind is that our second coxwain was em because we were fly, going up and down the west coast, and only one Wireless Operator, I made arrangements with a local RAF Wireless Station to call them every day at midday to find if there were any further instructions for us. On this day, after taking down the correct messages, I received a personal message for Corporal Frank Standon saying that he was now the father of a son and that wife and ba, child were very fit and well. I showed this first to the Skipper and suggested that we wet his head, which the Skipper immediately agreed and we had, we had all got a tot of rum. He then handed this to Frank and then we all congratulated him. On our way back when we were very cold, we were going via Denmark and unfortunately [unclears] our centre engine went for a burton. We called into Ytteborg for a weekend and then staggered to Copenhagen whilst the other boats, the other five, steamed off home. When we got to Copenhagen, we then, we, the Skipper, sent messages asking for a new engine. Apparently this was put to one side for some time until in the end he was so disgusted he sent a message addressed to Air Ministry, to Bomber, to Fighter Command, to each Naval Officer in charge of any particular area, to em our own Headquarters and this took up a large amount, simply for the message to say “Please reply to my message dated so and so”. We got our new engine and away we went. We got through the Kiel Canal and somewhere off the Elb we’d run into a fog. You couldn’t see one end of the boat to the other, it was so thick. The Skipper asked and said “I want to pinpoint a bell buoy”, and he got fed up when people said “It’s on the starboard bow. Oh no it’s not it’s in the portside”, and he said “Oh, to hell with this, drop the hook.” He then said “Sparks, get on to Cooks [unclear] and get the German lifeboat out. We won the War. They might as well do some work for us.” Which I did. We waited. We waited, and finally, when the fog had lifted, I got a vessel flashing to me. Apparently they wouldn’t come close So I remembered some German from school and said, “Komm”. K O double M. To which they replied M I N E N. Minen. And there was a deadly hush in the Wheelhouse when I said “I’m sorry Skipper but we’ve landed in a minefield.” However, we got out of it, managed then to scramble home and consider putting our uniform off and civvy clothes on. Finish.
GC: Can I ask you about D-Day? What you actually remember of D-Day, please?
KD: Well [pause] I won’t say we were ashamed, but they’d made such an effort, and they’d made, all the carnage that went on, they did get a foothold. But what we were doing is to be ready, not necessarily aircraft or anybody and there was a, there was a shore, there was a Armada and dotted round were the rescue boats. So we were standing by all the time, but we didn’t, we weren’t called, so that my main feeling about D-Day itself was to hear “Thank God. Carry on.”
GC: How about em, training? What was the training regime like to, to
KD: The?
GC: The training regime? When you was learning your trade.
KD: Oh, em I was eh pushed up to Blackpool and had to start learning the Morse Code which was devilishly difficult. But then em once you had learnt that it was a question of continuously sending and receiving in order to get a simple [pause] signal, and I don’t mean the whole signal, I mean a letter, to be able to recognise it instantly without having to think. But em fortunately and em something else did happen to me at eh Castle Camps. I had been posted to Station Headquarters at the Signals and em again it must have been another idea at Air Ministry, to save time in training WAAF they sent some of them to various aerodromes to, and instructed the Signals Sections to teach them the code before they went up to do their full training and who was, who was posted, to teach them, [chuckles] was Ken. I had about six girls and em I realised that they were absolutely green. I even got the eh Flight Sergeant to come in so that I could explain to them what a Corporal was, what a Sergeant was, and things like this and em they always thought of it as a dot and a dash. But it’s not it’s a dit and a dah, because that’s how it sounds when it comes over. So I got them to sort me out with a em [pause] a key, a morse key, so that they could practice with it etcetera and some years after the war, Iris and I were down at em Bournemouth and we went to a Tea Dance and em I thought that Iris was a bit fool for wanting to go but em this woman, about our age, and her husband came up and she said, “You won’t remember me, but I was one of the girls,” she said, “And your training put us absolutely streets ahead of everybody else.” So eh I did a bit of good and eh [pause] I suppose in summing up, other friends of mine have said that [pause] instead of being in, instead of being seated on a, on a aerodrome, taking down Morse and sending messages, these were necessary but at the same time we were actually the only other section of the Air Force as a whole. I mean, you’ve got to have cooks, drivers etcetera, but we were active [emphasis] and also we were saving life instead of taking it, and it was quite satisfying.
GC: Can you remember the first time you went to sea? Did you have your sea legs?
KD: The first time, well I told you just now, how I’d em felt alright going up the channel, but when we got to Grimsby and eh it was horrible. I, I for some time, I eh had to sit on the eh quay with a bucket between me legs. Until one day when we were further south and came ashore at Gorlestone and was walking back to the billets, I thought to myself “There’s something different.” And I realised that I hadn’t been sick. So I’d got my sea legs. I could then go down the Engine Room and give them a hand down there and that seems strange, but the type of, and I can show you a photograph, the way they started up the engines, there was a big air intake, and in order to force it, you had a tennis, table tennis bat, with a hole in it, so whilst there were three of these on each engine, so I’d hold two of them for him whilst he [unclear] then he’d press the button. So, I, and they taught me how to splice ropes, knots and things like this and I, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But em [pause] I’m going to be personal. Do you go to church?
GC: No.
KD: Do you feel that you are a Christian?
GC: Yes
KD: Right. Now I go to church, not because I’m a goody, goody. I’m a stupid old fool. But I feel that I need help and it’s always helped me. But, I have said, I think, that I was always fit and I’d spend as much time as I could in the gym, the gymnasium and eh I then realised that the human body is one of the most glorious organisation that I’ve ever met. It really is fantastic and you have to believe that Christ was born among other things, but there’s his birth, Mary’s virginity, etcetera. I could, one thing when I was going, rehearsing, I was asking one of the curates that em it takes a thousand years or more and yet, what was the man’s name? Darwin, said you know about the way life existed and I said that according to the Bible, He made the world in seven, in six days, and rested. How can this come about? And he said, “It’s simple. A thousand years on His side is only a second in ours”. See what I mean? So I could accept this, then I could accept eventually. But what I found difficult, is another life, and a man had to die before he got there.
GC: Mmm.
KD: We were, out of Gorlestone and eh we hadn’t, we used to get a bit of noise because that might be rendezvous Z and this is rendezvous B and we were here and they’d do a pick up. Then the next day we’d be there and they’d have a pick up here and we got so fed up with this and eh we were on the rendezvous, it was a lovely day, and it was only a little bit loppy and we thought it was calm. The sun was shining, the distance was perfect [coughs] and I did the first watch and my oppo had his lunch and came up and I went up onto the Bridge to have a fag. Now we also had a receiver in the Wheelhouse on five hundred kc’s. The moment we set off I switched that on because that was the rescue five hundred and as clear as a bell I heard “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” And there was a button, among other things, emergency, and I thought “I’d love to push that!” I dived into the Wheelhouse and pushed it. Everybody jumped into everything, the engine started up, the Skipper “What’s on?” I said “A mayday call” and we could hear what control told him. He was a young American fighter pilot and he’d ran out, stayed out too long. And em as we listened, eh all boats were called Seagull, but they had numbers, and my number was three zero and eh control said, and call told him to, Victor on a particular line of flight and call Seagull three zero. I looked at the Skipper and raised my eyebrows, he nodded and I took it from there. I called him, “This is Seagull three zero,” and I talked to that bloke and em I wasn’t doing anything wrong but normally it’s “So and so, so and so, this is so and so,” and I’d say, “So and so, this is so and so.” But I threw that away and just talked to him as though he was on the ‘phone. And eh I said, “To begin with, we’re good at this. We’re well trained. We will find you. [emphasis] Nobody on this boat will want to go home until you are on board. We will find you [emphasis] and I sense that you can still do some things? If you check up, down, sideways, back and front and you are satisfied that you are alone. Do you need a seatbelt, because you are going to let, undo it later on?” Do you see what I mean? Then I said is eh, I had to be careful what I was saying, what might have been something very new in his cockpit, but I said “Look around. Is there anything else you can disconnect?” and so we went. And em consequently we were getting on alright. Then I said, “Hang on. Somebody is, there’s a lot of shouting.” I said, “We can see you. We can see you. I’m looking at you. Can you see us?” He said, “No.” I said, “Come on. I told you before we’d got our levers up against the stops. We are absolutely tearing. We must be leaving a wake at least a mile long. Look dead ahead and look for the wake.” He came straight back, “I can see you.” “Can you see the red and white squares?” “Yes.” And I said, “That’s us, buddy boy!” And you, you could, he was laughing. [pause] [sigh] Anyway he said, [sigh] “I’m coming down now boys. Look after me.” And I just finished up, it only took two or three minutes and walked on deck and the foredeck to say, cocky as usual, “I am Seagull three zero.” And I was so shocked. I don’t know what happened. It might have been a, what we would call, a Roman Candle. I just don’t know. And yet, here he was, on the stretcher in the sick bay and not a sign on him, and that, something, that if the, our bodies are so wonderful, then what controls it must be even more wonderful and I therefore cannot accept that it’s thrown away on a, rubbish dump and so I have accepted that there is an afterlife. Now, I’m not asking you, I’m saying, this is me. But even after all these years, did I do anything wrong. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
GC: Let’s, let’s find something happy. Tell me about Iris. How did you meet Iris?
KD: Well, em, [pause] in my day you had what you call matriculation which was em an examination. Do you want to switch that off? Em, which would be your first step toward going to University, or you could get school certificate. Now you had to do maths, the three maths, a language, em geom, em history, geography, etcetera, etcetera, and I could hold my own on everything except, I could never understand, I still can’t, instead of going to school at the beginning of a school year in September, I was pushed down there in Easter. [emphasis] I don’t know why. Now when we came to the examinations, I was still holding my own, but [emphasis] I hadn’t been doing English grammar, which, you needed grammar, I didn’t know what a noun was, I didn’t know what a em adjective was, so I couldn’t understand why, in French, they had to put. Do you see what I mean? And I failed. The whole lot. No. I got through the others, but I didn’t get, eh they kept me down for another year. But instead of being able to concentrate on the French, I had to still work hard because I might have boobed on the others. Do you see what I mean? So that em it eh, it irritated me somewhat but em when I left school em I felt, right, I’m gonna learn some of this French and I went to an evening class, one for gymnastics, one for French and when I went there I met a chap, a charming man, fellow. Iris knew their name because he lived not far from her and eh he wanted to learn to dance so I went with him for that. And eh elderly ladies started so we could do the waltz and eh he then wanted to go to the students’ dance. So I said “Alright, I’ll come with you,” and that’s where I met Iris. And eh I thought “Oh, she’s nice,” and I was a bit canny cos I thought, I’ll walk her home but I wanna [unclear] well yes. “Where do you live?” Oh, yeah. “Can I walk you home?” I thought that’s alright and em that’s how it started.
GC: Did you get married before the war, or?
KD: No. In the war.
GC: In the war?
KD: Nineteen forty two.
GC: And she was serving?
KD: Hmmm?
GC: She was serving?
KD: Yes.
GC: She was in the
KD: No. She wasn’t in the Service at the time but I was, and eh I didn’t really want to get married because, em for some reason, her parents had split up and the father had gone, and the mother was quite a controlling person, and em she was really against, as I said earlier, into em a factory or anything like this. And so she finally decided to go into the WAAF and em it was, yes, I had done my square bashing and learning the Morse Code at Blackpool, had a break of a week, then went down to Castle Camps to learn all about the wireless sets and eh she then says she’d got her papers and she would like to go in as a married woman, and I sent her, without thinking, I sent a telegram back simply saying “Yes.” So she had to go and tell my parents and organise things but em I had been going to, I’d been confirmed, and there was, in West Norwood, Gypsy Hill and eh Gyps, J Y P, Guild of Young People and as I walked her home there was a girl talking to some boys and apparently I knew her as Vera Ford and it was Iris’s cousin and eh the mother really was a, a so and so. My mother was good, but I look back on it now and she ruled the roost rather, and anyway I, I said to her em “Can I see you tomorrow?” So, well in those days you either carried a em umbrella or a Macintosh and so I went up, went in, met her mother and we went off, walked, over the common and we’d, the house was on that side, but instead of crossing the road down there and coming up this way, we still, on this side, until we were opposite and the traffic wasn’t so much. We were halfway across the road when suddenly the front door was flung open, her mother came storming out, flung open the gate and she was into the middle of the road. She nearly knocked me over by pushing me away, “Oh, Iris, Iris. What’s happened? What’s happened?” [background noise] Oh, yes. There was, and then at other times em I was suggesting something and she [background noise] turned round, in front of me, “Oh Iris. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” [background noise] And em em she belittled me quite a bit, but anyway, that’s it. But that was em in forty two. So that’s fifty eight, sixty eight, seventy five. [background noise].
GC: Wow!
KD: Well if you go in there, you see, we had a card from our friend, Elizabeth. [background noise]
GC: You’ve earnt it. You’ve earnt it. So you, you, you’ve done your service. Is there any incident or, can you remember the crew who you served with? Can you?
KD: The?
GC: Can you remember the crew that you served with? What they were like? As a crew?
KD: I, not all of them. There’s one bloke, he’s in these, our magazines, and he actually went on to the boats, immediately he went in as motorboat crew and, as I say, he was a coxwain, and he did a helluva lot of eh pick ups. Em, one for example they had a meeting, em only eh three or four months ago and there’s photographs of Frank, he’s still alive, talking to the Duke of York, and em after he’d finished talking, someone near him, Frank, said “I heard what you were saying to the Duke, but if you hadn’t ‘ve picked that crew up, said it was, I heard you say Stirling,” and eh, he said, “If you hadn’t picked him up I wouldn’t be here. My father was one of the people you picked up.” And that was just off the Hook of Holland. That was something. So that from an activity point of view, Frank is the person, really is, but em, as I say, I wanted to know how it actually happened. How we got there. Now, I think that’s about as much as I can go.
GC: That’s okay. So, is there anything else you would like to go down on the, on the, on the history? Is there anything else you can think of that would look or sound good?
KD: Em, [pause] I don’t think so.
GC: No. Are you happy?
KD: Can I show you some,
GC: Can I? I was just going to say thank you very much for talking to us this afternoon. It’s been an absolute pleasure and an honour and on behalf of the International Bomber Command I would like to say thank you very much.
KD: Well, can I just show you a



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Ken Done,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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