Interview with Ivor William Ernest Foster


Interview with Ivor William Ernest Foster


Ivor Foster of Plymouth volunteered for the RAF as soon as he was of age. He was initially accepted for training to become a Pilot, navigator or bomb aimer but decided the length of time for the training was too long and chose to train as a gunner. He was posted to 186 Squadron as a mid-upper gunner and took part in operational flying and Operation Manna and Operation Exodus. On one operation a piece of shrapnel broke through his turret and ripped his Mae West. Pieces of shrapnel were embedded around his eye but he was otherwise unhurt. After every operation the pilot would descend from the Lancaster, stand on the tarmac and say, ‘Well, boys lady luck has been with us today.’ After his tour Ivor was posted to Habbaniya as an equipment assistant.




Temporal Coverage




00:33:09 audio recording


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RP: This interview is taking place on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. The Interviewer Is Rod Pickles. The Interviewee is Ivor Foster. Also present in the room is Bill Nicholson. The interview is taking place at Ivor’s home in Plymstock, Plymouth on the 21st of February 2018. Good morning, Ivor and thank you for inviting me to your home. Could we start then by if you could tell us when and where you were born and what made you join the RAF?
IF: I was born in Stonehouse, Plymouth. What was called Edgcumbe Street. Then it became Union Street. And that was the 16th of August 1925. And I went to High Street School in Stonehearst and at the age of eleven I went to Public Central in Corporate Street having passed what is today the 11 Plus and I left there at fifteen and a half and I had various jobs until I was eligible at eighteen to volunteer. And I volunteered for the RAF, and I got called at eighteen and a quarter and I went up, after the medical I went to the Lord’s Cricket Ground and reported to the RAF to start my service. And then I left the, I left the hotel there with a number of others and we were put on the train to Newquay in Cornwall where I did six weeks there ITW and it was all training for pilot, navigator and bomb aimer and I decided that, they would, they would go abroad after, after another six weeks so I decided that I would change over and become an air gunner. So I sent, I was sent to [unclear] at a place called Eastchurch and remustered there as an air gunner. And then I started my training and I ended up after another ITW, on air gunner training. I went to Northern Ireland to a place called Bishop’s Court and after three months there I came home on a week’s leave as a sergeant air gunner. And at the end of that leave I joined, what was it? Five others and we crewed up as a crew in a Wellington. And after our training there we ended up north at a place called Woolfox Lodge and we went on the mighty Lanc and picked up our engineer.
RP: Do you remember the crewing up procedure? The crewing up procedure. Did you, how did you choose each other then? Who chose the people?
IF: That’s a good one because all trades of aircrew were in a big hangar and the commanding officer came in and said, ‘Right. You will talk amongst yourself and crew up amongst yourself. Nobody is going to tell you you’ve got to go to this pilot or that pilot. You pick yourself.’ And he said, ‘I’ll be back at mid-day and the pilot will give me his crew that he’s formed and any of them that are not in a crew in the afternoon will come back and I shall be here and then you will be ordered to go to this crew or that crew.’ And that’s how we crewed up. I first of all picked up a gunner. He turned out to be our rear gunner for the rest of our service. Then we picked up the pilot and from there we carried on picking up the rest of the crew. The bomb aimer, wireless operator, navigator and like I say we say we went then after flying on Wellington to Woolfox Lodge where we picked up the engineer because we went from two engines obviously to four and he had a job to look after those four engines and had to move the petrol around the wings so that we weren’t caught short of petrol. But then finishing all of our training on the Lancaster we ended up at RAF Stradishall, 186 Squadron and that’s where we started our operations bombing Germany.
RP: Can you remember your first sortie?
IF: Yes. I can. I’ve got it in my book here. It was a place Wesel. W E S E L. And it was lovely keeping this logbook. I refer to it time and time again because a lot of it is just like yesterday. Yes. That was on the 18th of February ’45.
RP: So, you did quite a lot of training before then.
IF: Oh yes.
RP: You must have done over a years training at least.
IF: Yes. Yes. I I started my actual training before I went to the Air Gunner’s Training Unit in Ireland, Northern Ireland. And that was the first time I’ve ever flown an aeroplane and it was the Anson and my pilot was called Sergeant Hedges and lo and behold he came from Plymouth.
RP: Oh right.
IF: That was my initiation into flying. And that, it took us, well it took me from that day, right up to when we first went on as a bombing crew and it took me ‘til [pause – pages turning] That’s Woolfox Lodge finish. Here we are, 14th, no, the 18th of February was my first bombing trip to Wesel.
RP: Do you remember much about it?
IF: Apart from well, the first one I wondered what I was going into. I know we entered in “Light flak,” but there was puffs of smoke coming up everywhere. But there again I was told by one of the old colleagues of aircrew on the station, ‘Don’t worry about those puffs of smoke. That shell’s gone away from you.’ He said, ‘It’s the ones that you can’t see.’
RP: Yeah.
IF: That’s not a puff of smoke ‘til it hits you.’ But [pause] Yeah. It’s [pause] I don’t remember. You know, I say I don’t remember. It was all new. Everything was new and things were going so fast. Going out to, being driven out to the plane, jumping in, taking off and that and then finding being a day lighter because that’s what our, our station supplied unless they wanted to do a bit more strength at night and we did a couple of nights during my period there. It was everything going on around you and of course as an air gunner you’re looking all the way around and I had the best view of the lot on the top turret because I could see everywhere. I could see everywhere. But then after you’d done the first one they seemed to slot in and each one’s the same until something happens and if it happens close to you and the plane goes down, you know you realise then you’re in with it.
RP: Because you’re not, you know, the people on the plane.
IF: Yeah.
RP: Yeah.
IF: And of course, being on top as well you’re looking for our boys up over you and they would drift over with their bomb doors opened and it’s not a very nice sight looking up at someone else’s bombs ready to come out.
RP: Did you ever have to take avoiding action?
IF: I did that. I said, my pilot wrote a book on it and he thanked me. He said, ‘I’ve got to thank you twice for making me dive to get away from those up above us.
RP: Oh, that was good.
IF: Well, it so happens and yet you see at night you wouldn’t have seen that.
RP: No.
IF: And there was a number of crews lost with bombers over them. But one of the, one of the, well I say the best trips that I ever saw, it was an eye opener, is when I took part in a thousand bomber raid and we were a hundred and fifty from what we called 3 Group which was, like I say day lighters and we were, we were in formation and gaining height on a Sunday afternoon. A beautiful sunny afternoon. Better than what we get today. And we were over Southampton circling and we knew there was going to be a thousand and fifty bombers. We were a hundred and fifty and I can still hear now the bomb aimer sat down in his little cubicle down and under saying, he said, ‘Here they come underneath us.’ And there was nine hundred and they were, the ground was just blackened out with aircraft.
RP: It must have been an impressive sight from where you were then.
IF: Oh, my dear. All going the same way. But then when the last one, this wonderful timing and why a film was never made of a thousand bomber raid I’ll never know. And as the last crew left the shores of England at Southampton we set course as well.
RP: Where were you heading?
IF: We were [pause] we were going to Essen. That was it. Essen, we went. That was on the 11th of March ’45 and we, being day lighters we used to bomb on radar. That’s why we were in formation. But I don’t think there was much else left of Essen for us to bomb by the time we got there and how there wasn’t more accidents I don’t know. But wonderful planning.
RP: Yeah.
IF: Wonderful planning.
RP: But obviously there was a few shot down, I assume. Was there?
IF: Oh, I expect so. I didn’t know of the, you know we —
RP: But you, you returned safely. Yeah.
IF: We were number one.
RP: Yeah.
IF: We, it’s terrible really to say it but you look after yourself.
RP: Yeah.
IF: People then realise that there’s seven in a crew. The number of times people say, ‘Oh, you must have been frightened.’ You’ve got no time to be frightened because the seven of you have ate, slept, drank, worked, played as one. You were like brothers and it was like a chain. You couldn’t afford to be that weak link because if you were you’ve put six others in peril. And that I think sums up most bomber crews. It’s a wonderful feeling to be one of them but there’s a lot of responsibility for each one carrying to think that his work on that plane is saving six others. Not just yourself.
RP: Yeah. Well, it’s the comradeship, isn’t it?
IF: Oh, wonderful.
RP: So, that, you mentioned the first one and the thousand bomber raids. What was your last bombing raid? Where was that too then? Where you were going to?
IF: Oh, now that one —
RP: I know you moved on to other things which we can talk about but can you remember where the last bombing raid was too? And did you know at the time it was your last bombing raid?
IF: No. No. We didn’t. My last bombing raid took place on the 24th of April and we went to a place called Bad Oldeslow, near Lubeck and we went for marshalling yards on that one.
RP: But you were only what, a couple of weeks away from the end of the war by then, weren’t you?
IF: Yes. Oh, yeah.
RP: But did they tell you when you got back you wouldn’t have to go again or what?
IF: No. No.
RP: When did you find out?
IF: Nothing was told. Nothing was told until we heard that the war was over and then that was the 24th of April. Then the 7th of May was my first trip to the Hague in Holland and we were flying five hundred feet dropping food to the Dutch.
RP: This, this is a different kind of sortie now [laughs]
IF: There was a, we always said as a crew that sortie, dropping food to the Dutch people and the four trips we did to Juvencourt in France and brought back twenty four each time of our own boys who had been prisoners of war we were doing something for humanity. We were no longer destroying. We were bringing good to people. The prisoners of war coming back and we, we found out one big lesson. Our first trip bringing them back we were talking to them as they were coming to the plane. Some of them went and kissed the grass. Some of them just knelt down and prayed. We walked away on the next three. That was their life. They’d come back to soil that they had belonged to. That was very very touching —
RP: Yeah.
IF: Believe you me to see a man —
RP: I mean the good thing was to get them back so quickly, wasn’t it?
IF: Oh, oh yes. It was. And I got photographs there where when we landed we lined up all the way up one side of the runway and when we, when we finished taking the prisoners, or ex boys away we, when we flew to Juvencourt we lined up and when we were given the allocation everything was [unclear] who they were coming in whose plane. Obviously, they had to get details of everything in case something did go wrong. And then they’d come to our plane and we seated them then as best we could. And when we got back to Juvencourt and that we’d walk away having brought the plane in to a dispersal or the side of the airfield and they walked away. And later we would go back, pick up our plane and take off and fly back to base. Very very moving. Unless you’ve been there to experience that, to see men, you know not boys but men and some of them old men —
RP: Yeah.
IF: I know we had twenty four ex-prisoners of war was Indians our second trip. Wonderful. Wonderful to see them putting feet on England.
RP: So how many trips did do to Holland on Operation Manna then?
IF: One.
RP: Just the one.
IF: We did the one and then we got called to do these.
RP: And then you had to go and recover —
IF: Bring our boys back because they they wanted to get them back quick.
RP: Yes.
IF: And of course, they wanted, they had other ones that hadn’t been to Holland dropping food so they went.
RP: Yeah.
IF: And we were shifted then to bringing our boys back which was a —
RP: Yeah. By the 7th of May of course the Allied Army would be moving in to Holland, wouldn’t it?
IF: Oh yeah.
RP: They’d surrendered. So, things would be a little better. So, you mentioned when you crewed up initially. When you actually finished how many of the original crew were, were you together? Were you still the same people?
IF: No. When we, when we crewed up we had unfortunately, he was a nice lad from Canada and he was our first navigator but during training they found he couldn’t navigate properly.
RP: Oh right.
IF: Something went wrong with him and we didn’t know what. He was just taken away and we were given then another navigator.
RP: Oh.
IF: And the navigator we got then, old [Jerry] I was a boy eighteen nineteen. Nineteen I was then and he was thirty two. But he was a wizard at navigation and his flight plans, very very small writing but you could read every letter and every number on it.
RP: So, in reality you got a better navigator because of that.
IF: Yes, we did.
RP: Yeah.
IF: We did. But at the end of the day, and I can still see him now as soon as my pilot, he was the last one to leave the plane when we came back, we would be there having a cigarette. He never smoked. As soon as he put his foot down on the grass, he’d step on the grass on the tarmac and he’d say, ‘Well, boys lady luck’s been with us today.’ And that’s what it was. Luck.
RP: Did you have any, were you ever, suffer any damage on your sorties then?
IF: Well, we had one burst quite near us but I was the only one that caught a bit of that one. But it went right through my turret. A bit of shrapnel.
RP: Oh right.
IF: Come in one side, behind me luckily and went out the other side. Ripped the back of my Mae West. The bolt’s there that keeps your head up when you’re in the water.
RP: That was close.
IF: But I had six slithers of Perspex around this eye because I was facing to the rear and they took me down. You’d think I was a wounded soldier but because of the height and the cold and there was slight trickles of blood from where these splinters went in I had to be protected from frostbite and that. So, yeah. But there, I’m here like.
RP: Oh good [laughs] Yeah.
IF: Still got my eye as well.
RP: That’s the main thing. Did you ever shoot anybody down then from your turret?
IF: No.
RP: Did anyone else? And of the —
IF: I never never fired my gun all the time we were flying. Or the rear, rear gunner
RP: Really.
IF: No. We did see one time on one of our trips there was a flash went beside. Whoof gone. And we thought then that was a jet. They were just bringing in the German jet fighters and we thought it was one of them because we’d never seen anything like it. Just a red flash and it was gone. If you wanted to open your gun you couldn’t —
RP: Yes.
IF: Because it was gone so fast.
RP: So, you’ve come back from the POWs. At what point after that did you disband then? When did it come to an end?
IF: It come to an end, our last trip, I think [pause] Hang on. I’ll soon tell you when we [pause] My pilot’s got all that in his book. He wrote a book about it. It was, “Ghosts of Targets Past,” by Philip Gray. [pause] Our last trip. That’s when we went to 622 Squadron to join them from 186 to train to go to Japan but the war finished. That stopped that. Our last flight was on the 3rd of August.
RP: Oh right.
IF: That was a night cross country and a couple of days after that the seven of us walked in different directions and that was it. I ended up ten months, eleven months in Iraq. RAF Habbaniya. I’ll always remember it. Fifty five miles from Baghdad.
RP: What were you doing out there?
IF: Well, they put so many of us to train as equipment assistants. I was one of them and we had this exam and then you were then an AC1 equipment assistant. And I got sent out there as an equipment assistant and believe it or not I was in charge of a bakery, butchery and slaughterhouse. We used to kill the meat because there was over two thousand of the local population that were like an Army out there. They did all the guard duty around the camp and all that. And there was a terrific number of our lads and women there because they had their own hospital there. It was like a little town really. There were shops there. But the big thing, there was, they had their own electricity works there and it was five civilians manned that twenty four hours a day. Made their own ice and that for the camp. And if, I remember I got my move from there. I had to come back what they called [Medlock]. That was a shaker. I flew from Habbaniya down to the Canal, Suez Canal and put in a camp there all under canvas. Then we were taken and we got on a boat and we went what they called [Medlock] and that boat took us to Piraeus in Greece and then we went to the south of France, got on the train, hopped to Calais and then across to England. That’s how I come home.
RP: That must have taken a few days.
IF: The trains, they were, they were slats to sit on and we were about twenty four hours coming from the south of France off the camp.
RP: Ok.
IF: Yeah.
RP: So, after that, how, how long before you were demobbed then?
IF: Oh [pause] I did, I did a fair time down, down in Honington. Dunkeswell. The station just outside Honington.
RP: Oh yeah.
IF: And I got the, I’ll tell you when I got demobbed because I’ve got my book here. I think it was the [pause – pages turning] I went overseas in August ’45 and come back. [unclear] if that. The 28th of December. Came back the 3rd of November. But I got demobbed. I think that was my last day in the RAF was 6th of the 7th ’47.
RP: Gosh. That was —
IF: Yeah.
RP: That was long after the war.
IF: Yeah. Yeah. It was.
RP: Looking back on the time when you were the, when you were the gunner and going on all these sorties if you had your time again would you do it all again?
IF: If I had the same crew. Yeah.
RP: Did you keep in touch with any of them afterwards?
IF: Yes. Yeah. We kept in touch and unfortunately the first one that passed away was our wireless operator. He was walking. He came from Hayes in Middlesex. Always remember it. “Home of His Master’s Voice,” was the railway station there. And he had a heart attack whilst he was out walking. He went. Our engineer, believe it or not when he joined us and don’t forget we were nineteen and twenty and that, he was forty two. A grandfather. Poor old Frank came from Tiverton. He passed away when he was fifty so he didn’t have much of a retirement. And the last one to go was my pilot. He emigrated with his wife to New Zealand. Was out there thirty years and he lost her. Then he emigrated to Toronto and that’s where my wife and myself used to visit him.
RP: So, you have spoken to him.
IF: Oh yeah. And I lost my wife six year ago. And I, I went out in 2013. I couldn’t go the following year and that was the year that he passed away. And the friends he introduced me to out there I still keep in touch. The last time I went there was 2016.
RP: Oh, that’s good.
IF: Didn’t go last year. But, yeah I’ve got my memories and a lot of it is just like yesterday. I now, I can now tell you about my two gripes.
RP: Go on then.
IF: The worst one affects all aircrew is the fact that we never got our Bomber Command medal. And also our the head of Bomber Command, we always knew him as Bomber Harris and I’ll never forget there was a photograph up over the doorway. There was only one door into the room where we got briefed and it said words under, “If he says you go. You go.” But yes. He never got any recognition and we were never mentioned on Mr Churchill’s victory speech. And only, you know, not getting the Bomber Command medal it’s all them boys that came over and helped us during the war.
RP: Well, yes. Its —
IF: All the Commonwealth lads.
RP: It’s a worldwide thing, isn’t it?
IF: Australia, New Zealand, Canada just to name a few of them.
RP: Well, campaigns are running. Let’s hope we get there.
IF: Yeah.
RP: [unclear]
IF: Yeah. That’s one. And the other big thing was having been promoted warrant officer and two months later demoted to sergeant and if serving twelve months after that be demoted to the rank I joined, I think that was a big downfall of the RAF.
RP: Did anyone ever try to explain that to you?
IF: Nobody ever explained it. It was an Air Ministry order and from the date of that order that’s when that ruling took effect. I held my rank for about two months.
RP: That’s very strange.
IF: Yeah. And really speaking being out, being serving then in Iraq where I was in charge of a number of the natives working in the bakery, and the butchery and the slaughterhouse and one day I’m sir —
RP: Yeah.
IF: And the next day they see me with three stripes, sergeant it was a little bit degrading.
RP: Yeah.
IF: Yeah.
RP: I find that, yeah. Well, I think we’ve, we’ve covered your time in Bomber Command which has been a privilege to listen to and I’d just like to say thank you for talking to me.
IF: Oh, thank you.
RP: It’s been tremendous. Thank you.
[recording paused]
RP: Now, this is an add on to Ivor Foster’s interview. He’s got a couple of events that he’d like to discuss. Ivor.
IF: Yes. The [pause] It’s gone again. My mind’s gone blank.
[recording paused]
IF: On one of our trips we had a bit of airy scary. It was about the third trip I think we were making and we started taking off and unfortunately the old Lanc started to swing to port and the pilot couldn’t, couldn’t correct it. So he got the bomb aimer, the engineer to push the forward throttles through what they called the gate and they could only go through there for so long because the full power went on the engine and you can’t gun them too long before they’ll burn out and we were heading for the biggest hangar that we ever saw and we just managed to scrape over. And when we got the other side the rear gunner said we had sunk down a bit but after that we couldn’t stop the blinking plane from climbing. And when we got back to the station nobody mentioned a word about it.
RP: That’s strange.
IF: Like as if it never happened. But the rear gunner, he said he saw one man on his bike pedalling like hell going through this hangar because the other door was open the other side see. So that was that one.
RP: And you were going to tell us about the D-Day medal, I think.
IF: Oh yes. You see all those that flew from the beginning of the war up to D-Day they were awarded the Aircrew Europe. Unfortunately, it was stopped and after D-Day you got the normal medals that they gave you. The same as they gave the Army and the Navy. But what the powers that be never realised was as our troops were coming up through and taking over France and what have you Hitler was pulling all these anti-aircraft guns and all these fighter stations away from France and other areas and putting them around the big cities in the Ruhr. So, by the time we were there bombing various cities in the Ruhr the defence of the Ruhr instead of what it was before D-Day was doubled. All the, all the guns and that were brought up from France and placed all around so we were hitting targets there which was heavily defended to what it was prior to France capitulating. Or France being captured this time.
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
IF: No.
RP: Ok. Thank you.
IF: Thank you. Now —


Rod Pickles, “Interview with Ivor William Ernest Foster,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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