Interview with Ralph Freeman


Interview with Ralph Freeman


Ralph Freeman volunteered for the RAF in 1942. He began initial training in March 1943 and was posted to Manitoba in October, where he qualified as a pilot after training on Cornells and Ansons. Upon returning to Great Britain, Freeman was remustered and completed flight engineer training on Lancasters at RAF St Athan, before forming a crew at RAF Bottesford. The crew joined 101 Squadron at RAF Ludford Magna on the 6th July 1945, but moved to RAF Binbrook in August, where they undertook flights to Italy under Operation Dodge. For his final posting, he completed maintenance at RAF Stoke Heath and left the RAF in December 1946.




Temporal Coverage




00:33:05 audio recording


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AFreemanR180312, PFreemanR1801


DK: Let’s try that again. David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre, interviewing Ralph Freeman at his home on the 12th of March 2018. So, if I just put that there.
RF: Yeah.
DK: So, first of all then, if I was to- What were you doing immediately before the war?
RF: Before the war?
DK: Before the war.
RF: I was working for the BBC on the transmitters, and I was away from home because I was- I had to go into [unclear] which is too far to go to travel, and I was held back for about six months because it was in a so-called reserved occupation, and I often wonder what would have happened if I'd have got in when I volunteered. But as I say they held me back for about six months.
DK: So, can you remember which year this would of been?
RF: Yes, it, it was 19-
DK: Do you want to have a look at that?
RF: I’ve got my [paper rustles] 1942.
DK: 1942. So, what made you then, want to join the air force? Was there any particular reason?
RF: Well, I was- I hadn’t done any flying but I was in the ATC, very keen to fly, and as a- As I was in the ATC for some time and then, I volunteered for air crew. But as I say I was held back about six months before they let me go.
DK: So, what did you want to do as air crew then, were you hoping to be a pilot?
RF: I wanted to be a pilot [laughs] which I did achieve actually.
DK: Right, so can you remember going to the recruitment office?
RF: Yes, I can, I’ve got all the dates here.
DK: Oh yeah, if you want to go through those?
RF: All those, yes. I went to London ACRC on the 1st of March 1943, and I was there just over a fortnight. Then I went to Brighton, and I was in Brighton about three weeks.
DK: What were you doing in Brighton?
RF: Square bashing mostly [chuckles].
DK: What did you think of the square bashing then? Was that-
RF: I didn’t mind it, because we used to do what they called a continuity drill, where you count in numbers all the time and- Making various rules, I thought that was quite good. But, most- Funny really because there’s always somebody who took their own direction [chuckles] but, we finished up quite well on that sort of thing. So that’s what we were doing mainly in Brighton. But then, we were billeted in The Grand Hotel, which was bombed.
DK: Ah ok, yes, yes, remember that.
RF: Yeah, I can remember that very plainly, and then from there I was right to ITW at Newquay and I was there for just over three months.
DK: So, what were you doing there? Can you remember what you were doing at Newquay?
RF: Oh, at Newquay, ITW, Initial Training Wing, mostly classroom lessons. Theory of flight and controls and all that sort of thing.
DK: So, at this point you were still hoping to be a pilot then?
RF: Oh yes, oh yes, I was still hoping to be a pilot, and we finished that and from there I went to Cambridge, just for a fortnight where we had some training on Tiger Moths.
DK: Right.
RF: I wasn’t there very long.
DK: So, would that of been the first time you flew then?
RF: Yes, on the Tiger Moths, yeah.
DK: And what did you think of that then?
RF: I thought it was marvellous [chuckles] yeah.
DK: So, you only sat in the back as a passenger then?
RF: Yes, I didn’t solo then until much later on when I was on a sort of, in-between thing. Of course, I got to solo on a Tiger Moth then, yeah, and then from there- Try to see what I'm doing. Yes, went to Heaton Park as a holding- That was a holding centre for- Before we went abroad for training. I was there about three of four weeks, and then we went to Canada, in October ‘43.
DK: Can you remember much about the trip to Canada?
RF: Oh yes, yeah. It was a troop ship, it was the Mauretania, we went on the Mauretania and came back on the Queen Elizabeth I.
DK: Oh right.
RF: And, it was unescorted because the speed and the zig-zag [unclear] them, there was no startling[?] of runts[?] on that.
DK: So, was there many on board the Mauretania?
RF: Yes, it was quite a lot.
DK: What were conditions like on the ship then?
RF: Not too bad, not too bad. I think I had a lower bunk. I think there was about four bunks and I had a lower one but, the main thing I remember was the fact that you could go and buy sweets and things because they were all rationed at home and we thought that was- You could get chocolate and- Thought marvellous [chuckles] and- So it was quite a pleasant trip that really, but we didn’t do very much in the way of any lessons or training or anything, it was just the journey. Then, we got to- Went to Moncton which was a holding centre in New Brunswick, and from there I went to Manitoba for my EFTS flying, that was the first flying course I was put on, and at the end- That was about three or four months and eventually went to a service flying training school in Manitoba, service, was there about seven months.
DK: And this would’ve all been practical flying experience then?
RF: That’s right, yes, yes, a lot of flying and I got my wings then, at the end of that course.
DK: Can you remember what it was like then, when you first went solo?
RF: Yes, I can, I can. We were doing circuits and bumps and eventually the instructor- We pulled up outside the flight control and he jumped out and said, ‘Right, go and do one by yourself,’ and I just- I’d done plenty of it and I said- I thought it was marvellous by myself and I did these circuits and bumps no bother [chuckles]. So that was- I’ve got a record of it in here.
DK: Can you remember what type of aircraft you were flying?
RF: Yes, it was a Cornell.
DK: Right, yep.
RF: [Paper rustles] My first solo was on the 16th of November 1943, yeah, and we finished that course and then I was- Went to service flying training on Ansons because they- At the end of the EFTS they graded you as to either single engine or multi-engine, and I wanted to get on single engine but wasn’t lucky.
DK: Did you see yourself as a fighter pilot then?
RF: Yeah [laughs] everybody does.
DK: So, when they said multi-engine, was that a bit of a disappointment to you? Or you just-
RF: Not really, not really a disappointment, I didn’t fret over it at all, and then we went to- [unclear], yep. EFTS, flying Ansons, yes, and I came back to this country, I was abroad about just over a year, about thirteen months.
DK: So, what was Canada like then because obviously there was the blackouts and rationing in England, what was it like when you got to Canada?
RF: Oh, marvellous, absolutely marvellous. The people were really- Well, they’d do anything for you. We- If we had a free weekend, or anything like that, they would give us an address to go to and a private house and you’d be looked after and fed and shown around, and they were most hospitable people, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was really pleasant.
DK: Was there much to do in your off times there, did you go into the towns and?
RF: Yes, yes, we used to get forty-eight hour passes and that sort of thing, and as I say, we’d be given an address or a couple of addresses to call at and they’d put you up and feed you.
DK: What about the weather though, was it cold?
RF: It was cold, but it was a sort of a dry cold, and we had to have ear protectors because of cold. But it was- As I say, it was dry, so I coped with that alright.
DK: So, you’ve come back then, on the Queen-
RF: On the Queen Elizabeth I, yes, that, that was about six days I think, and-
DK: Can you remember where you docked when you got back?
RF: Yes, when we left, we left Greenock in Scotland.
DK: Right.
RF: And when we came back, I think it was Liverpool. I'm pretty sure it was yeah, and, where are we? Yes, went to Harrogate, to Harrogate at a sort of a holding centre for a couple of weeks, and then I went to Brough in Yorkshire and that’s where they had the Tiger Moths, we had a mess around with those for a bit.
Dk: So, you were flying on the Tiger Moths there, were you?
RF: Yeah, just before- We got our wings in Canada you see.
DK: Yeah.
RF: But I got back and hoping to get onto a squadron, but instead of that they sent me to St Athan in Wales on a flight engineers’ course.
DK: Oh right, so did- Was there a reason why you didn’t end up as a pilot rather, as a flight engineer?
RF: Well, they said that there was a glut of pilots at that time
DK: There was too many?
RF: Too many of them, and we were sent on this- Oh we had a choice, you could either go as glider pilots or we could go to St Athan and train as flight engineers, which is what I did.
DK: Presumably if it was the gliders, it meant you’d be transferred to the army?
RF: Yes, more or less, yes.
DK: Yes, so you wouldn’t of- You didn’t want that then?
RF: I didn’t, I didn’t fancy that, no. Some of our flight went and I never heard what happened to them, but there we are.
DK: So, you got to St Athan then-
RF: Got to St Athan and it was about a three-month course.
DK: And what were you doing there then?
RF: We were training to be flight engineers on Lancasters, and from there were went to conversion units, to be crewed up.
DK: Right, so can you remember which conversion unit you were at?
RF: Yes. Bottesford.
DK: Bottesford.
RF: Nottinghamshire, yeah.
DK: So that’s where would’ve first met your crew then?
RF: That’s right, yes. Apparently, I was crewed up twice, and I can’t quite remember the reason. So, I was there longer than usual.
DK: So, what was the crewing up process, how did you meet your crew?
RF: Well, as far as I remember, it was meeting in a large hall with various flying types you know, like pilots, bomb aimers, and navigators, wireless operators and gunners we, we just sort of got round talking to each other and if we liked him, what they looked like and if they liked us, we said, ‘Well, what about crewing up together,’ you know, so it was quite a short process really.
DK: So, it’s quite hap-hazard then?
RF: Hap-hazard, yeah.
DK: No formality to it?
RF: No, no.
DK: Which is quite unusual for the military, did you think that worked well?
RF: Well, it- Yes, I was quite happy with my crew yes, and I think- Yes, you all fitted together quite well.
DK: And can you remember the name of your pilot then?
RF: Yes, Reynolds- He finished us as a flight lieutenant, but he was a flying officer when I first got to know him.
DK: So, you all got on very well together then as a crew?
RF: Mm-hm.
DK: So, is that when you're training on the Lancasters started then?
RF: That’s right, yes.
DK: So that would’ve been your first time on the Lancasters?
RF: Yes.
DK: So what did you thing of the Lancaster as an aircraft?
RF: Very good, very good, we didn’t have any trouble with it at all.
DK: No vices?
RF: No, not really, no.
DK: So, could you just say a little bit about what the role of a flight engineer was, just for somebody who doesn’t-
RF: Yes, well, mainly to do with the fuel and the various tanks, booster pumps, that sort of thing, making sure that we changed over at the right times, because we used different fuel tanks on the Lancaster, about four or five I think, and looking after hydraulics, that sort of thing, checking. But, the main, main job I think was looking after the fuel, and checking the pumps and-
DK: So, where abouts were you positioned in the aircraft?
RF: On the right-hand side, next to the pilot.
DK: Right.
RF: And had a blank row, which was on my right for the fuel. We used to keep checks on the fuel and if the tanks, the tank you were using was getting low, you used to start the booster pumps on the other, next tank and swap over.
DK: Did you help with the take off at all, or was that down to the pilot?
RF: Yes, in as much as the throttle, the throttles and looked after the undercarriage and that sort of thing
DK: Right.
RF: And then, [unclear]. Then, controlling the throttles all the time, synchronising the engines, and maintaining the shooting speed or climbing, whatever was needed.
DK: So, so you had to work very closely with the pilot?
RF: Oh yes, very closely.
DK: Did you have to kind of second guess once you got to know each other?
RF: Oh yes, yes, we were very- Quite close, yeah, got on very well with each other.
DK: So after the heavy conversion unit then, you’re now fully trained crew-
RF: That’s right.
DK: Where did you go then?
RF: We went to 101 Squadron, although it was at Bottesford, that’s right. Yes, went to 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna, they called it Mudford Lagna because it was all muddy.
DK: So I've heard [chuckles].
RF: And we were there for about three months or so and then they moved to Binbrook which was more or less a permanent base which was much better.
DK: With the same squadron?
RF: With the same squadron, yes, and I went there on the 10th of August ‘45. I didn’t actually do any service- Any operational flying because I was bit too late coming in you see. By the time I was- Got onto the squadron it was the 6th of July 1945, just after the end of the war.
DK: Right.
RF: So, I was very lucky I suppose in that respect.
DK: So, your crew never did any operations then?
RF: No, no.
DK: What was Ludford Magna like then, ‘cause it’s in the middle of nowhere isn’t it?
RF: More or less, yeah. Yes, it was, it was muddy there’s no doubt about it [chuckles].
DK: Did that affect flying at all as you landed?
RF: Not- No, not really, no, it- I, I had purchased a motorcycle in those days and I stored it in a farmer’s barn nearby and this allowed me to get home if we had any weekends and that sort of thing.
DK: So, did you and your crew socialise together then?
RF: We did yes, quite a bit.
DK: So what did you used to do?
RF: Go down the pub and drink [laughs]. The skipper, he had a motorbike at that time before I got mine, and believe it or not, it will take seven people [chuckles] on the way back [emphasis] from the pub [laughs].
DK: Probably wouldn’t want to do that now?
Other: No [laughs].
RF: Yes.
DK: Was there anything- Were you ever told anything about 101 Squadron, because they were doing some special duties there? Were you ever-
RF: Yes, we- Well as I say, by the time we got there, the war had finished. We did a lot of cross-country flights and we did trips to Italy and fetch back some Middle East people who had been in the army there.
DK: Yeah, Operation Dodge.
RF: Is that what they called it?
DK: Yeah.
RF: Yeah, I don’t-
DK: 101 Squadron though, they had some special equipment on-
RF: They did, yes that’s right.
DK: Did you ever see any of that at all, or was it quite sort of secret?
RF: Well, I, I did yes but it was mainly operated by the wireless operator so I didn’t have much to do with it so I didn’t know very much about it really.
DK: So, you weren’t really told then about the specialty [unclear]
RF: No, as I say, the war was over and, I suppose there wasn’t any need for us to know about it.
DK: So, you’ve done the operation- Not the operation, you’ve done the flights to Italy to pick-
RF: Yes, we did, quite a few flights to Italy and one to Berlin.
DK: Oh right.
RF: And brought back- I think we used to fetch back about nineteen soldiers at a time, sitting on the floor.
DK: What sort of condition were they in, presumably they hadn’t been home for a few years?
RF: Oh, they were over the moon, you know, they didn’t care about where they sat, and they all wanted to see the white cliffs, so we let them come up-
DK: Up to the cockpit?
RF: Yeah.
DK: You say you did one trip to Berlin-
RF: One trip to Berlin.
DK: You actually landed in Berlin then?
RF: Yes.
DK: Did you get a chance to look round Berlin at all?
RF: Yes, we did, yes. We were there a day or a couple of days, and I went to Berlin and saw the wall, and-
DK: Presumably it was all ruined, the city then?
RF: I don’t actually remember seeing much of ruins at all. It looked to be a thriving city and, I didn’t see much in the way of damage at all.
DK: So, was there suggestions then that you might be going out to the Far East?
RF: Yes, there was, yes but the atomic bomb kettled all that you see.
DK: Right was that kind of a blessing in disguise then?
RF: Well, depends what side you’re on doesn’t it? [chuckles]
DK: So, had you had any training to go out in the Far East at all?
RF: No, we hadn’t had any, any training but I’m sure that was where we would’ve finished up, if it hadn’t been for that, and I-
DK: So, you finished the war at Binbrook then?
RF: That’s right, yes, and after that they sent me to a maintenance unit at Stoke Heath, 24 MU, and put me in charge of a gang of about five AC2’s and our job was to break up aircraft. The aircraft was supplied in very large pieces, and we- It was our job to get them broken down so they would fit on garbage trucks to be taken for scrap, which was- I didn’t like that job at all.
DK: Do you know what sort of aircrafts were being scrapped?
RF: They were American aircraft, that’s about all I can tell you.
Other: That’s alright then.
RF: But what sort of aircraft they were I don’t know, and I finished my service there and I came out on the 6th of December 1946.
DK: So, what was your career post war then?
RF: Oh, as I say, I was working for the BBC before I went in, on transmitters, and when I came back, I applied again for my job which I got, but they sent my onto a small transmitter in Wrexham, a local transmitter just for the area, in a couple of sheds it was [chuckles] and I didn’t enjoy that very much, and I wanted to get back home into the North East, but I couldn’t get back to the North East but they transferred me to a shortwave station in Skelton in Cumbria and that’s the nearest I got to home.
DK: So, this is still with the BBC then is it?
RF: Still with the BBC yes, but I could see no chance of getting back home so I chucked that job, and I went into radio servicing with a local TV, radio and TV shop.
DK: So maybe they should’ve had you as a wireless operator then?
RF: Well, that’s what I was frightened of [chuckles].
DK: Oh, you didn’t want to do that? So, all these years later, how do you look back on your time in the RAF?
RF: I, I look back on it as a very good time, I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because of the flying I suppose.
DK: And did you stay in touch with your crew at all?
RF: Pardon?
DK: Did you stay in touch with-
RF: I stayed in touch with the skipper, yeah, Bob Reynolds.
DK: Bob, Bob Reynolds?
RF: Mm, until about a year or so ago and then we- I don’t know what happened but we just sort of let it tail off, so I don’t really know if he’s still alive or what.
DK: Ok, well that’s, that’s marvellous, I think we better have a break there, but I think if you’re happy with that I’ll turn the recorder off
RF: Oh good.
DK: But, thanks very much for that.
RF: At- I remember telling- Came in and pulled up over the cliffs, and shot straight up passed this, while we were doing-
DK: Oh right, so you were parading on a promenade?
RF: In front, yes on the prom, on the road in front of The Grand Hotel, and he was flying so low that he had to climb very steeply to get some altitude, so he wasn’t able to fire us or anything because guns were pointing the wrong way you see[chuckles].
DK: So, it was German Focke-Wulf?
RF: It was a, yeah, 190.
DK: Right, so how did- What did- Did you all scatter or were you all-
RF: Well, it was over so quicky, we didn’t do anything [chuckles]. Because the [unclear] down Binbrook and we went and they had the FIDO petrol things.
DK: At Woodbridge?
RF: Yes.
DK: What was it like [unclear] at Woodbridge with the FIDO?
RF: They had petrol pipes each side of the runway which they lighted, and it cleared the fog and when you came in for the landing, you felt the lifts straight away from the heat from the petrol.
DK: Oh right, was that quite frightening, cause you’re landing in flames in effect?
RF: Yeah, yes, bit dodgy.
DK: Bit dodgy.
RF: [Laughs]
DK: So you were actually still flying Lancasters into 1946 then?
RF: Yes.
DK: And it’s got here some SABS bombing, S-A-B-S?
RF: Oh yes, that was-
DK: Can you recall what SABS bombing was?
RF: Oh, S-A-B-S, um.
DK: I think it was a specific type of bomb site wasn’t it?
RF: I’m not sure, I can’t really remember. I know it was a special range we flew to, to drop these bombs but they were only little things. I forget what the S-A-B-S stands for [unclear] that’s right.
DK: Right, the bombing range?
RF: Yeah [pause] 1946.
DK: So, the last flight was, April the 7th 1946?
RF: Yes.
DK: Ok then, we’ll put that-



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Ralph Freeman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 7, 2023,

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