Interview with Harry Hacker


Interview with Harry Hacker


Harry Hacker first came into contact with aeroplanes at the age of sixteen whilst working as an apprentice for Rootes Motor Group who were making Wellington aircraft. He was a member of the Home Guard and after applying to join the RAF went for basic training in London. He was however selected to become a bomb aimer and was posted to South Africa for training. He was posted to Palestine via Cairo where he joined his crew and began training on Wellingtons. After completing training he and his crew were posted to Italy and joined 40 Squadron attached to the American 15th Airforce. His first operation was to bomb the docks at Marseilles and his second to bomb Romanian oilfields. When he had completed his tour of operations he became a liaison with the Red Cross helping with the repatriation of prisoners from the Japanese camps.




Temporal Coverage




01:42:46 audio recording


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DB: This interview is with Harry Hacker on the 19th of August in Lindfield at 10.50am. Harry, can you tell me a little bit about what your first contact with aircraft was?
HH: My first contact with aircraft. It was in 1939 at the age of sixteen. I’d just left technical college and I went to work with a factory. It was a Rootes motor manufacturing firm in the district of Speke on the outskirts of Liverpool, and many of these factories were turned over to government production of aircraft because war was just about imminent and that, it was, they were building at the time when I joined them originally as an apprentice but the apprenticeship scheme was scrapped when the war started. They went over then to twenty four hour shifts and that was building the Wellington. The long nose Wellington. That was the second modification of the Wellington. A wonderful aircraft. It later on turned out to be quite an important one as far as Bomber Command were concerned. And that was my first contact. Working with skilled engineers building the Wellington bomber. I never ever thought at that time that I would finish up flying with bombers. And I worked for about, I don’t know probably a year maybe at the Blenheim manufacturing and then I, then decided to go for a more permanent and future apprenticeship as a Post Office engineer. So then I applied and was taken in and worked as a post, Post Office engineer. It was during this time the Blitz was going on and I joined the Home Guard and served originally as the, in the LDV, the Local Defence Force. That was in the May I think it was and later on it became the Home Guard. So I belonged to the Home Guard of the Post Office and we used to guard our own Exchanges and the Post Offices. Places of importance. And that was it. During my work as a youth in training I worked with another chap. And because of the Blitz going on they decided to change our studies at Night School to day time because there was the Blitz and we were going to Night School as it was so called on a Saturday afternoon. So one Saturday afternoon another a friend of mine, a chap called Dougie Irving who later on became a gunner in the RAF, we decided we’d play hookey from Night School and we went along to the Recruiting Office to join up. There we met this big strapping sergeant major who approached us as if we were two naughty boys and said, ‘What do you guys want?’ We said, ‘We want to join up.’ He asked us what our profession was and when we told him we were in Post Office engineering he said, ‘I can’t. Sorry you guys I can’t take you because you are in a Reserved Occupation.’ So, we thought oh, what a shame. ‘Is there nothing whatsoever?’ He said, ‘Well, there are two outlets for volunteers and one is aircrew with the RAF and the other is with submarines in the Royal Navy.’ So we both immediately said, ‘Aircrew. We’ll go for aircrew.’ So he took our names and addresses and sent us home. And then it was some weeks later we got a call up if you like for necessary interviews, a selection board which was required for RAF where you sat before a board of, of, of aircrew officers and they would fire questions at you. Mathematical questions. All to do with your education. What standard you were at. And eventually after that selection board we then had a further day of medical. Medical examinations which was one of the strictest medicals I’ve ever undertaken. And eventually we were accepted, given the little lapel badge of the RAF Volunteer Reserve to, so that members, any members of the public who were inclined to criticise young lads that weren’t joining up could see that we were already accepted into the RAF Volunteer Reserve. We were sent home then to await call up. Eventually from there I think it must have been quite some weeks later we were, I got a draft to, to go, a rail draft to go down to London and, and make for Lords Cricket Ground which was then, in those days we didn’t realise it but it was a big recruiting centre for aircrew. And that’s where I spent my initial days. In the Regent’s Park area. We were billeted in some new flats in Hall Road in St Johns Wood and a lot of our marching was all around the areas of, of London. And of course part of our uniform then was a little white flash that we, we wore in our forage caps to indicate that we were trainee aircrew and that was quite treasured by us young lads, you know. It was quite something to distinguish you, if you like from anybody else. And we used to march around very proudly around the streets of London. Hall Road and the Great North Road out from Marble Arch. All around that area. And Regent’s Park. And they were exciting days in those days. All young lads together billeted in these new flats. No bedding of course. You just had a straw mattress that you were given which was on the floor and a brass ashtray in the middle which you had to keep highly polished. But it was great fun in those days.
[recording paused]
I didn’t, that’s another story actually is I joined up with, he went to a different place. He was called up at a different time to me so I never saw him again but strangely enough oh in about nineteen, 1960s I think it was I was working then running a safari camp in East Africa. In Kenya. I’d got into the safari business and we used to go to the rail head every now and again to collect supplies at a place called Mtito Andei and at this, at this, there was a little hotel. It was a halfway route between Nairobi and Mombasa and I went in there one day in to the bar and who do I meet but Dougie Irving who, who we had both volunteered to join up with way back in ’39. So that was quite a meeting. After, after Lord’s Cricket Ground if I remember rightly we were shipped to a village up in Shropshire called Ludlow and during these early stages because the flying schools, elementary flying schools and all that were all very much crowded. They were looking for jobs to keep all us young fellas occupied and they sent us to, it was a big estate in, in Ludlow. I forget who it belonged to. Some member of the aristocracy. But Ludlow I can always remember, and we were supposed, we were told supposedly we were building roads on this estate. Very convenient for the owner but we were told that it was part of our toughening up, and there we went through very strict disciplinary training. We had the corporals there who were very, very strict in our training. So our early training was along the lines of strict yeah in every aspect of strict but also to speed up our thinking and our reactions and what have you. So everything was done very, very quickly. And I can remember after that, later on I went to ITW which was in Aberystwyth in Wales where we did all the educational subjects, all the ground subjects of flying — navigation, aero engines and so on and so forth, and our instructor there was a Welshman called Tommy Barnes who was at that time, I think a middleweight champion boxer. And what he, he was a great a real human character, he loved, he used to take us, march us out into the country and then stop us outside a pub somewhere and say, ‘Well, I’m going in there for a drink. You chaps can do what you like for the next half hour.’ Of course, we all gravitated into the pub. But when we met, he met us on train coming in he said, ‘Now, you’ve probably been told that you will march at such and such a pace here,’ he said, ‘But,’ he said, ‘That’s a lot of bullshit.’ He said, ‘We do it faster than that.’ We, we marched like the old Green Jackets, I believe which was a hundred and forty paces to the minute. So everything was smart and quick in, in marching and in drill. It was all to get the mind really working and it certainly worked. We were billeted in a very nice hotel. Stripped of all the furniture of course but it was good accommodation on the seafront at Aberystwyth and there we sat all our exams. All our ground subject’s exams. All of us youngsters had one single ambition and that was because of what we had witnessed in the Battle of Britain. All the young boys quite naturally their age wanting adventure. All wanted to be fighter, fighter pilots. But then of course the whole campaign, aerial campaign was expanding and strategic warfare was coming into place long distance which the RAF had never experienced before. Long distance navigation and long distance bombing into, into Germany. So they introduced a scheme called the PNB scheme, which was the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer scheme because they were wanting so many different types. Prior to that they’d only wanted pilots and observers. So we, there really was the whole Air Force was expanding in to various categories. And eventually we went to Flying School which was in Brough in Yorkshire just outside I think, believe close to Hull. There was an aircraft factory there but also a strip which they had turned into a training ground. There I went on to really find out what flying was all about. We were introduced to the Tiger Moth and taught how to fly the Tiger Moth. And funnily enough the Tiger has got, when you open the throttle, has got quite a sorry, quite an extreme torque, which, and it tends to swing to the right. So the introduction that the pilot instructor gives you is that he gives you the pedals, he takes charge of everything else. He gives you the pedals and he pointed to a chimney. A tall chimney on the horizon. He said, ‘Now, I want you to head the plane towards that chimney.’ Of course, as he opens the throttle it swings around to the right so naturally you instinctively hit the left pedal and it swings to the left. So your initiation of flying you’re going down the runway or, yeah just weaving from side to side. So it teaches you really what, what is happening in, when you open the throttles what to expect. And then later on of course you then when you start flying you then come around to the landings and landings were extremely difficult because the early aircraft in those days, the Tiger in particular had a tail wind. It didn’t have a nose wind. It had a tail wind so you had two, a main undercarriage and you had a tail wheel and the idea there was to put all those three points down at the same time. Known as a three point landing. And that was very difficult. What you had to do was when you were coming in to land is you’re gradually pulling the stick back until you get to an estimated twenty feet off the ground and then you ease the, ease the stick, it was only a stick right back in in to your, in to your middle. So then if everything has gone right you then adopt a stalling attitude and down it sits on the three wheels which are the three points which all sounded very interesting but very difficult to find. So you finish up usually either estimating your height wrong and you suddenly drop out of the sky at about thirty feet and you finish up bouncing along the runway. So that’s the most difficult thing in flying. Then once you start flying the first thing they teach you then is how to get out of a spin because you could get into a spin very easily when you’re learning to fly. You stall your aircraft and whichever rudder you’ve got on you will spin and you are heading for earth and that is quite an experience. What you do there is you pull the stick right back. When you’re at a reasonable attitude pull the stick right back and get the nose of the aircraft coming up until eventually you stall. As you are stalling you kick the pedal depending on which way you want to spin. Right or left. And your aircraft finishes up then going down in a vertical dive either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Quite an experience to see the earth going around beneath you like a record. But then you have to then centralise your, your controls because you can’t get it out of the spin without you’ve done that because you’ve lost control. Your stick is floppy. Everything. Your rudders. It’s all, it’s all gone. There’s no control whatsoever. So what you have to do then is centralise your stick. Push your stick right forward and then give it a pedal the opposite to the way you’re rotating until eventually you finish up in a straight dive and then you pull the stick gently back into your stomach and you come out of the dive. So that’s the first thing they teach you. And then after that then they teach you the rest of flying. Rate one turns, turns starboard or port and they then rate it at rate one, rate two, rate three, rate four. Rate four would be a complete right angle. So you had various degrees. Again, this was a difficult aspect to get together because you had to have the right amount of rudder and the right amount of stick on it to, to control your ailerons and your rudder. And if you, if you didn’t control it right you were either skidding or you were slipping in so your turn had to be on the clock at rate one, rate two and you were following this clock. And that was another difficult point of, of flying but the whole experience was, was quite fantastic. I had two instructors over that period. My first one was a sergeant pilot who had never been in combat but then later on for some reason or other he didn’t turn up and I had a Battle of Britain, a Battle of Britain man. His method with the control was quite different. When being taught by the first instructor everything was done gently and smoothly. When I had this Battle of Britain pilot he said, ‘Come on. Bring it down and turn. Come on. Move the stick. Really move it.’ So, he was teaching you really to do everything quite positive and fast, you know. None of this gentle business. You wouldn’t have time for that in combat. The whole lot was, was quite different, and I did eight hours in that actually. And then during that period we were then went through a selective progress. You were doing various aspects of mathematical calculations. Night vision exercises. All sorts of varying exercises. What they, what they were trying to do at the time then was to see which category of aircrew would, you would be most suited to. I, I don’t know whether that was the reason but I particular, I had particular good night vision so I finished up being selected as trainee as a bomb aimer. And later on after going to Heaton Park outside of Manchester which was a big collection point if you like for all the different categories that they were looking for. A school where you could actually go and finish. Finish off your flying. And I finished up then being sent to Blackpool which was used as an embarkation centre and we were shipped down to Liverpool and from there went, I found myself on a convoy heading for South Africa. The journey by convoy to South Africa was quite interesting. It transpired, we didn’t realise it at the time it was one of the biggest convoys going because they were also shipping troops to the Middle East and to Singapore out to the Far East. And we were about, I think in all we were something like five or six weeks at sea because we were all over the Atlantic to avoid U-boat wolf packs, which were operating at the time. I think we had something like twenty three ships in the convoy. All loaded with troops. I was on the Strathmore which we had, I think, I believe it was about something like five thousand troops which was quite something, and we were billeted on all sorts of decks and usually the accommodation was a bunk. There wasn’t the room for enough bedding and that was an experience. That was my first sea voyage out into the Atlantic and experiencing some of the very deep waves. But as I say we were about, about six weeks. Eventually we had the usual crossing the line procedure when we crossed the equator and going down the west coast of Africa my first contact actually with Africa was in Sierra Leone. Freetown. That was quite an education, where we didn’t get ashore there but we were dropping off some troops then that were known as the West African Frontier Force who wore hats very much like the Australians with the, with the side up at one time. And but that was quite interesting. And then to pull in to African ports in those days we’re talking you know way back in the ‘30s and early ‘40s was quite something. It was like the famous, “Sanders of the River.” I think that was made many many years ago with, I think a man, an American singer called Paul Robeson. But it was quite a sight to see the village as it probably was then of Sierra Leone with all the grass huts and what have you and all the natives were coming out in what were termed bumboats and they were all after trading what little they had with the troops on board. But also they developed a habit. Some of the troops would throw coins over the side and these natives would go diving after pennies and it was quite remarkable. So, we had twenty four entertainment there with the local natives and for money and that we’d throw over the side for them they would load a little basket with probably things like pineapples, fruit and stuff coming up which we had never experienced then. It was quite something. And then from there on we went down the west coast of Africa which was my first experience of the sight then of German, used to be German West Africa which is now nowadays Namibia. And on from there seeing the sights of, of tropical seas with flying fish coming out of the water, flying alongside the troop ships. Dolphins and porpoise. And first experience of seeing a whale. The sperm whale spouting water off the coast. Fascinating. Until eventually we came within sight of Cape Town to see the famous Table Mountain. We were in Cape Town for I think twenty four hours while they took on board some fuel and supplies and then on to Durban where we, of the RAF that were going to train there disembarked. The rest of the troops on board were going on to the Far East and Singapore. Little did they know unfortunately, at the time as fast as they were arriving there they were being taken prisoner by the Japs because we were losing Singapore then. But and then we were, we had a lady, I forget what her name was now, a South African lady, a Zulu, a very big stout lady had a fantastic voice and I believe she met every troop ship in by, she was standing on the quay and she would sing songs. And it was, it was something I’ve always remembered. She had a marvellous voice. She became really well known because her reputation, she met in every troop ship that was going around South Africa. And then we were shipped out to an ex-race course in, in just outside of Durban called Clairwood. Used to be a horse racing course and there we, it was like a distribution centre again, if you like until we were sent to the various flying schools. Later on I was sent to Port Elizabeth, to 42 Air School I think it was. Here two air schools. Went to one at Port Elizabeth and later on another at East London where we did various aspects and here we went to our bombing training which was mainly what we’d being bomb training for but also training in navigation and air gunnery. So a lot of different aspects of aerial combat. Our bombing targets were out in the Indian Ocean. It was a twelve foot square raft I think painted orange or yellow and that was our target. And I had the privilege in that time in the whole of Bombing School of breaking the Bombing School record by every, every one of my exercises had been within I think it was a hundred yards diameter of the target and I broke the record there. So right close to the end I had one that was not as good as my previous ones and the query going on then amongst the pilots was because they had a bet on, I believe to see when I would have a fail. Fail one. This went on but then they discovered it was they had a hole in the tailplane of the aircraft which was causing it. They put that down as an excuse. But then anyway later on air gunnery training. Flying at low level and there we came across the, the Lewis gun. Lewis machine gun and the Thompson sub-machine gun. Using those flying at low level firing those at ground targets. So the training was pretty comprehensive until on the Christmas Eve of [pause] when would that be? It would 1943, I think. I think, I think we had Wings Parade and we all got our wings which was a very proud moment. Our bombing training usually took place in the Avro Anson which was a strange aircraft. It used to flap its wings like, like nobody’s business you know which made you a little bit nervous but then, you know we were told so long as it moves its ok. Mobility is fine. When it’s too stiff no good. And, but the thing about the Anson, our bombing bay where the bomb aimer in training used to lie was, was like, it was a sliding door. It wasn’t as later on we had Perspex. It was a sliding door which you slid back. So in effect you were looking out over open space which took a little bit of getting used to. And that was the Avro Anson. Our gunnery and navigation was done on Airspeed Oxfords. But as I say both schools at Port Elizabeth and East London. But there were good aircraft but nowadays very ancient aircraft but the Anson was a very popular aircraft in its day.
[recording paused]
Time off we were given. The South Africans were very hospitable people. We had, we had one difficult group amongst them, in amongst the Afrikaaners in particularly. I think they were called the [unclear] I think, which was Afrikaans. But they were not so much pro-German but anti-British because of the reputation of the British in the Boer War when a lot of the Afrikaaners died in, in what was then the first type of concentration camp. And we had to be very careful sometimes. Especially if we were out at night and coming back, walking back to camp. We had one or two of our lads would be hijacked by these people and, you know taken miles out, in to, in to the bush sort of thing and either beaten up or stripped of clothing. And apart from that the South Africans were very hospitable. So, their homes and their farms, many of them were farmers were open to us boys. One particular farm I went to at a place called Tarkastad and it turned out they were lovely people there. Turned out that they were descendants of Nelson. How, how it came about I don’t know but that was what they, they told us. That the, I think it was the lady was a descendant of Lord Nelson, Admiral Nelson. But they were lovely people. At that, at the same time I took up dancing for something to do. Ballroom dancing. And another chap and I called Pat Keene who later on unfortunately we lost on operations, but he was a great buddy of mine and we took up dancing together and we had then the youngest dancing teacher in South Africa. She was only seventeen, I think. A girl called Ada Krueger. And there again they were a lovely family. We were often invited in to their home, and I finished up eventually one evening with Ada doing an exhibition dance. And I can always remember when she was teaching the tango. The tango in those days you had to keep body contact with the right side against the, against the, your partner’s side. Always close contact. A very passionate dance. A very emotional dance. But then we always found something to do. And the people as I say were lovely. They really were lovely. Until the day arrived as I say when we got our wings and the future ahead of us. We were then waiting to be shipped. We didn’t know where to. It was either to be the Middle East or back home to the UK. In my case it turned out to be the Middle East. I was posted up to Egypt and then eventually on to Palestine where I did my operational training. On the way up we found it very interesting. Putting into the ports of Mozambique which was then Portuguese East Africa, seeing Zanzibar and Madagascar from the ship in the distance on the horizon and then were pulling into Mombasa. And we were in Mombasa for twenty four hours. Again, that was fascinating to see an early African port as it was in those days. We were not allowed ashore of course so it was a question of always wondering what, what lay beyond the palm trees and the horizon little knowing that some years later I would be emigrating to this country and spending thirty odd years there. That was fantastic. But the morning we left Mombasa it was a Sunday morning and it was church service on board the ship. And we were about an hour, two or three hours away from Mombasa heading north when we were having church service and the padre announced to us that a ship that had passed us going towards Mombasa an hour before had been sunk by a submarine. So we must have come within sight of that U-boat commander but either he wasn’t interested in us or he couldn’t catch us because we were then alone. We were no longer in convoy. We were moving as fast as the, the ship would take us then and, and weaving around. So maybe we were fortunate in being a difficult location for the U-boat commander. But the ship that had passed us going towards Mombasa a couple of hours before had been sunk. Our next port of call then was, would be, I think Somaliland. We pulled in to Djibouti, I think it was and then on to Aden. Aden of course then was a, was a British possession or colony. So that was quite an experience to see the sights of Aden. Again we didn’t go ashore. We had lots going on with the latest coming on to the boat. That was a lot of fun. And of course we were entering in to the Red Sea then and that, was very, very hot because you had land on both sides port and starboard within view and it was very, very hot indeed. And it was so hot, that’s where I believe the expression ‘posh’ came from. In the Indian days when you were sailing, sailing as it was in those days. People going out to India had a saying you go out, say port side out and starboard side back so you had the best side of the ship to, to the cooler side of the ship both ways. And that’s, I believe the origin of the famous word POSH. Port Out, Starboard Home. Then we had the experience of the Suez Canal. We went ashore at [pause] not Suez. Yes. We went ashore at Suez for a little while and then we were told we were disembarking then and going to Cairo. We went to Cairo and in to Cairo we, again a big selection. A big centre. I forget what you would call them now. Like a demarcation where all categories of all types were all placed in there ready to be posted to various units and we found ourselves then posted to Palestine where I did my operational training and converted then on to Wellingtons. And that was an education because the Palestinians then were becoming very difficult. The, the, many of the Jewish refugees from, from Europe were wanting to settle in Palestine and there was lots of conflict going on at the time. And again they had two terrorist organisations. Oh dear, I did know the name of them. I can’t forget. I can’t remember the name now but they, they were, again we had to be wary because sometimes our lads could be treated, you know pretty roughly if if they got their hands on any of us. But at the same time the population as a whole again were very generous and it was really good. We had, I think seven weeks I think in an operational training where we were converting on to Wellingtons. That I would say was equally, as equally traumatic in training as operations because converting then from smaller aircraft where you had instructors converting on to, in this case the bomber aircraft, the Wellington, a much bigger aircraft where you initially had instructors and after that you were on your own. So then you were learning to fly under such conditions and it was tough and we lost a lot of members there. At one time we went through a period where we were having funeral parades almost every day and you were losing a lot of the lads you’d trained with just in operational training. We did have one incident. We were attacked by enemy and that was, we were on a navigational exercise up to the Lebanon from Palestine. Up in to the Lebanon and I was at the controls at the time because I was also training to be a co-pilot as well and flying along merrily there in the pitch black and suddenly found tracer fire coming from behind us over the wing. So I took the necessary evasive action and then nothing happened. He disappeared. We can only assume that he came from Crete which the Germans had occupied then and obviously realised that bomber crews were training there so they were having a go at some of us novices. But that was the only incident. Bombing exercises were a little more difficult. Our targets then were out in the desert at Jordan and funnily enough when you were flying over the desert we found navigation exercises over the Egyptian and desert in those days very, very difficult because you’d got no landmarks whatsoever and its sometimes difficult. And this time we were trying to find a target measuring something about twelve yards square in, in the desert is extremely difficult. But then we were using real bombs and in training in South Africa they were only eleven and a half pound practice bombs. Now, we were going on to much bigger ones. Two hundred and fifty pounders. One or two tricky incidents that we experienced. One, one was, we were flying at night over the Jordanian desert I think it was when suddenly there were navigation lights coming straight towards us and our pilot who was an Australian called Hack Butler instead of, as one should have when you meet aircraft coming towards you, you turn port to port. So when you see the red light which is a navigational light you turn to, you turn away. But this time our skipper decided to go underneath the approaching aircraft. He did a quick dive. And as he did a quick dive I left my seat which was in the dickie seat next to the pilot, banged my head on the roof. But then I immediately thought then that everything sort of leapt out of, I immediately thought in the back in the fuselage we had two one hundred pound magnesium photoflashes which when you press the bomb tit and your bombs went away the photoflash took a photograph of what you were doing and I immediately thought what would happen to these because these were only lying in the flare chute and gravitation was the only thing holding them there. So I immediately thought my God maybe these things have been pulled out. I, I’ve never moved so fast in all my life. There was no question of of, of fear whatsoever. It was just a reaction and I thought I’ve got to do this whatever the precaution I was going to take. It had to do it quick because we only had seconds. If the cable had pulled the detonator on these fuses we’d be blown out of the sky. And I went over the main, the Wellington had a main spar between the wings which cut across the fuselage and that was in a confined aircraft sometimes difficult to, to cross over. That’s where the navigator and wireless operator sat. I don’t remember clearing that at all. Went straight over it and there I found my two flash bombs had actually pulled out but, and I quickly rubbed my hands together unscrewing the detonator caps hoping it hadn’t been struck. And I was lucky. It was ok. I took the detonators out but that was a, that was a close call. I got marked in my logbook after that. The bombing leader marked me down as, “This man is very erratic in his behaviour. May improve on a squadron.” That was put in my logbook which I thought was quite funny. And another time we had the roof hatch flew open on us. It obviously hadn’t been connected properly. It flew open on us. So it was my job, I was standing on my seat with the wireless operator and navigator holding on to my belt while I pulled the doors and then closed them. So I was standing there with the top half of me sticking out of the fuselage. All down to, if you like inexperience. We were young lads training there. And how we joined together as as aircrews is rather interesting. Unlike the Americans where the Americans usually allocated who you flew with the Air Force adopted a voluntary basis and when we arrived at the transit place in Jerusalem when we first arrived in Palestine we were all, all together and you would meet in, in hallways for lectures and all sorts of things. So you were all mixing together and this was, you were given then the opportunity if you joined up with somebody else or you made pals with a navigator or an air gunner and you got on quite well together you asked, ‘Shall we fly together?’ And this was how the RAF then formed their crews together which was very good because it was, it was left to the human individual to pick. And we had quite a mixture. The pilot was Australian. My navigator was a very serious man called Geoff Partridge. He was from Cheltenham. Myself and my wireless operator were from Liverpool. Both from Liverpool. We were both Liverpudlians. And our tail gunner was a West Indian, Arthur Skerritt and he was quite a character. And from then on we were flying together. I suppose almost a year as a crew. And that is in itself is quite an experience. You fly together through all sorts of conditions as a crew. As a team if you like which your strongest member is your weakest link if you like and you come together as a family so that later on when you find yourself on operations, usually you kept silence unless there was anything needed, any need to talk because you were looking out for enemy aircraft all the time. You could tell by the inflection in a man’s voice, whoever it was talking, how he felt. And that, you didn’t want to let your comrades down. So this welded you together weak or strong. Whatever it was which you knew each other intimately by the sound of their voice, how they felt and what have you which counted for a lot when it came to operations later on. On completion of, of operational training we were sent back to Cairo, to Heliopolis again, to the transit camp and then from there on we were shipped this time as a crew by the old, the old faithful DC3 and we, they flew us to Foggia in southern Italy where we joined 205 Group RAF, and attached to the American 15th Air Force. And we then became part of what was known as the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Command which was broken up into three. You had a Strategic Command which we were attached to. The American 15th Air Force where we used to do the daylight bombing mostly and sorry, where the Americans would do their daylight bombing mostly. We would, most, most of our operations were night time operations but we worked together then for squadron for something like seven months I think, in which time I did thirty nine operations. But it was, it was again an experience. Typical of, of RAF or British if you like. We RAF members, we had ten squadrons all, well, eight squadrons. Two South African squadrons of the Royal Air Force and then they formed in different Wings. I was with 40 Squadron and 104 Squadron of 236 Wing. And there we operated on for the whole of the period that we were there. Very often the Americans were on the same airfield. They lived in a style of luxury that, yeah they flew, they had casualties, they did a marvellous job but their accommodation was far superior to ours, their food was far superior, in fact if I can remember, our food was mostly dehydrated and it was terrible stuff. Potatoes. Dehydrated potatoes was like rice pudding. Terrible. And I did the whole period, seven to nine months on the squadron I can’t remember getting an egg through our own people. I think later on I think a lot of it was going on the black market because the Italians were, were starving. They really were. So we, we used to scrimp and scrape. I remember Christmas time when we pooled together and I think we paid about seventy pounds for a pig. So we had roast pork for Christmas dinner. But we could trade with the Americans. The only thing Americans lacked was Scotch Whisky and aircrew, NCOs and officers got a spirit ration. So for a bottle of Scotch Whisky you’d get a jeep from the Americans. For a crate they’d give you an aircraft. But it was quite amusing but they had everything. We were under canvas, old torn shredded tents from the desert campaign which were alright in the Italian summer but in the Italian winter then of ’44 and ‘45 was dreadful. Feet, feet of snow all over the place and cold. We’d reached the stage we had no heating in the tents. We were make do and mend until eventually our group captain signalled headquarters and said, ‘If I don’t get heating for my aircrew and ground crew I can’t guarantee the efficiency of, of my Group.’ And we got, within twenty four hours we got Valor stoves. So they were there. Somebody had them somewhere. But a lot of it then was black market. You could get about seventy five pounds which in those days was a lot of money for a flying jacket off the Italians, you know. But you always had to watch who you were dealing with on the, on the black market because the RAF had special branch there amongst them and if you were caught trading any RAF stuff you were for it. But an interesting time as well as, as well as an experience time to be flying operations. When my, my first operation by the way was to the south of France. That was the invasion of southern France which was six weeks I think after D-Day. That was my first operation. Reasonably calm one. We saw a lot of our ships. Convoy of ships going in over sea. We had to make sure our IFF which was a signal you’d send from the aircraft automatically Identification Friend or Foe. If you didn’t have that switched on the Navy boys would open fire on you no trouble at all. They wouldn’t wait. But it was a fairly eventless operation. We succeeded in bombing the dock, the docks at Marseilles and then back. That was a very interesting operation. We were flying in to the sun so we were following the sun. Quite a strange experience. But my second operation was my real baptism of fire. In those days in Europe there were, the enemy were relying on, because Germany itself produced no fuel, only synthetic oil a lot of the oil was coming from the Caucasus in the Ukraine and the Ploieşti oil fields of Romania. Because of their value of course they were both very heavily defended. The Russian advance then which was beginning was retaking the Caucasus, so the Germans apart from odd satellite oil fields in the odd country here and there their biggest supply was the Ploieşti oilfields at Romania which were quite notorious. And the enemy we were told was relying on about sixty percent of its fuel oil and it was then at the stage where it was fighting for its existence. And the oil then was transposed from Romania which was very close to the Black Sea. So it was quite an operation, and also when you were getting briefed in Nissen huts which we had then, all assembled, all the air crews that were flying that day you were allocated a flight. You had A Flight, B Flight and you were told that morning which flight you was, on the flight board there whether you were operational that day, that night or not and you would assemble in a Nissen hut. In the Nissen hut everybody, all the aircrew all together all chatting away you know. All you could hear is gabble, gabble, gabble gabble but I’d never seen a Nissen hut go quiet so quickly as when the intelligence officer stands up and he says, ‘Good evening gentlemen. Your target for tonight is — ’ and he would tell you what the target was. When he mentioned Ploieşti the whole Nissen hut went dead quiet because we knew what the opposition was there. It was a, I don’t know something like maybe a six hundred mile flight there over enemy territory. Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, heavily patrolled by night fighters and then also we were told that they had two elite squadrons. I believe they were Romanian squadrons but flying the famous 109, F109. The 109 was I think produced by Focke as well as, as the, other aircraft. I can’t think what the other manufacturer is now. If somebody, anyway, that’s beside the point two squadrons who would be over the target because they were, they were elite squadrons and they weren’t afraid of even though their own defensive fire was going up into the sky they weren’t afraid of flying in amongst the bombers. So, and plus the fact that the whole oil fields, the whole area was surrounded by very massive ack ack fire. I mean the famous JU88 anti-aircraft gun which was notorious on the German side plus many light ack ack all dug in in the hills. It was forming an umbrella if you like over the target. Really something to contend with and also they had masses of searchlights. Amongst the searchlights you had what we call, what were known as master searchlights which were a very intensive blue one and they were controlled by radar. So they would track you by radar and get you. And if you ever got one of these master searchlights on you then all the other searchlights would cone in and they would get you in a cone. And we used to say if you were caught in a cone it’s like walking down Piccadilly naked you know. And you really felt sometimes it was quite something to get out of. So we were always advised then never to fly straight and level for more than about twenty five seconds at a time because that’s how long it would take the enemy to track you, get a shell in their gun and get it to where you were supposed to be. So we were always, going in towards the target, lots of evasive action. You were looking out for night fighters as well, and a hell of a lot going on. So you’d not only be bounced around the sky by ack ack fire, you could even smell the cordite but you were also dodging and weaving the, the searchlights and everything and the sky was full of smoke. But also running up to the target you could see tracer fire both from the ground and from our own boys going in. First of all the Pathfinders ahead of us. They would be answering enemy fire with their own gunners. So, it was like, it was like a Dante’s Inferno ahead of you, you know. The, the target indicators. The Pathfinders used to drop red, no green I think in the first instance. No. They would like to light the place up with flares. Just fill the sky with flares lighting up. From the flares they themselves would hope to identify the target proper. And if so then they would drop green target indicators usually if they could in the form of a triangle. In the middle of that triangle was your target. If they found, the following Pathfinders found that they were spot on then they would drop red target indicators right on the target so we had three forms of target observation to bomb on. First of all the red indicators. If we saw those, if they were in place. Sometimes they weren’t. Green as a result if the red ones weren’t there. If they weren’t there then you bombed visual because you’d memorised from the photographs of the area. You’d memorised what your aiming point was. And that was the critical time when you were coming up to the target when you’d got no choice. You had to stay straight and level and that’s when you were holding your breath. And that’s when your training and your discipline comes in to being because as a bomb aimer I know my crew had fought hard to get me there, it’s now up to me to do the job properly. So they’re listening to my voice giving corrections, ‘Left. Left. Steady. Right. Steady.’ Correcting the pilot, trying to get my target in the tram lines, and, and keep it there and hope to God while you’re doing that you’ve got to stay in the air. One time we had, on the run in we had an aircraft, one of ours just disappeared in an orange flash. He’d obviously been, had a direct hit either in his bomb bay or fuel tanks and that was quite chilling when you saw that sort of thing happening. Also you see flaming aircraft going down around you. So it’s, it’s Dante’s Inferno. It really was something. And this was only my second operation. Anyway, we managed to, to, to get to the target ok, dodging all the flak. You could even smell the cordite as you were going through and I dropped my bombs. Just as I dropped my bombs a yell from the, from the, from the gunner saying there was a fighter coming in starboard quarter up because you divided your aircraft in to sections. And the air gunner would tell you then and also at the same time that he heard it the wireless operator was doing nothing because you had radio silence, so he’s standing in the astrodome also helping to look out for night fighters and he yelled another one coming in from starboard. So we had two fighters coming in on us. Now, the critical point here if you are a really good gunner. He’s well trained and keeps his cool he’s firing his machine guns by, he had a graticule of sights which are circles and if he identified the enemy aircraft that’s coming at him then he knows what type it is. He also knows what sort of armament it’s got and what range he’s likely to open fire, if your air gunner is right on the ball and I reckon our chap was. So he would say where the aircraft was coming in from. In this instance was coming in from starboard and the gunner had said his was coming in from starboard quarter up. So in other words coming in from the top. So this indicated when he, when he’d estimated that the enemy would open fire he would, first of all he would say, ‘Enemy fighter coming in. Starboard quarter up. Stand by.’ [pause] ‘Corkscrew starboard.’ So you always corkscrewed, which was an evasive action in the direction of the enemy fighter because that narrows the angle and, and it makes it more difficult for him to keep his, his sights on you. Also, he’s travelling faster than you are too. A lot faster. So, if your gunner’s got it right then he would shout, ‘Now.’ And immediately we had that, ‘now,’ then we would, up front we were waiting by. We had the warning from him telling us which way to start our corkscrew. As soon as he yelled, ‘now,’ that’s when we would start it, and when he estimated the enemy was going to open fire. And when he shouted, ‘now,’ in this instance we immediately started a climbing turn to, to port. We were going to starboard. We were going to starboard, the same side that he was approaching. We were also going up because he was approaching from up. So we were trying to make it as difficult as possible for him to maintain his sights on you. Yeah. Fighters coming in that way so you’re doing, you were starting your corkscrew there. And a corkscrew literally was you’re climbing, you’re diving, you’re climbing, you’re diving and you’re alternating all the time to try and make it as difficult as possible for the enemy to keep his sights on you. And that was quite important. Anyway, we managed to shake them both off. But as we were doing that, up front we saw our airspeed indicator was down to stalling speed as we thought. So we thought Christ we’re going to fall out the sky any minute. So immediately, do you remember we were talking about spinning, how to get out of a spin? We immediately thought we would get in to a stall here which would be bloody difficult with a big aircraft. So immediately we pushed the sticks forward to gain airspeed. It was only after a few seconds we realised we weren’t stalling at all we were actually diving because what happens is when you throw the, all your instruments on a Wellington are controlled by a gyro. When you’re throwing the aircraft around the sky these gyros get toppled and it takes about twenty minutes for your instruments to come back working. But then you are really flying by the seat of your pants. And so we found ourselves in a steep dive. We thought Christ, you know, the wings are going to come off. It took two of us on the controls to pull it back. And we could feel the aircraft juddering as we were pulling it out of the dive, and we finished up almost down in amongst the, all the derricks, and down in amongst all the flaming chaos. So we thought we’d survived the dive. We got out of it alright so we thought we’d stay low. Anyway, we’d already bombed our target, our bombs and we thought we were keeping low because night fighters don’t like fighting at low level at night so we stayed quite low level for, for quite a bit until we got well clear of the target area and then we resumed our cruising flight then to go home. But even then we still had two hundred, six hundred miles of, of control we were told by night fighters, about two hundred controlling the approaches to and from the target. So it was a very difficult target Ploieşti. And that was my second operation but it taught us an awful lot. We survived it but it taught us an awful lot and enabled us to get through thirty seven more.
[recording paused]
The rest of the tour, I completed thirty nine operations in all, the rest of the tour varied from bombing targets. Some of the targets we had on the squadron were mine laying along the Danube. They were quite dangerous ones because it was low level and if ever you were hit at those, those sort of heights you had no chance whatsoever of parachuting or even recovering. So they were very very difficult. We lost a few of our chaps on those low level mining of the Danube. We were occasionally, one time we were bombing tank works. I think it was in Austria. Herman Goering tank works in Austria. We were coming back from that one and we must have been hit in our port engine because we had a fire in the port engine and also we noticed we were losing fuel, and consequently we were finding it very difficult getting back home and maintaining height. So we had to break radio silence then because normally when you were well away from your target you would radio base to say that you were coming home and they were ready, preparing for you. In this instance we had to break radio silence and we told base that we wouldn’t make home. We’d lost an engine, had an engine on fire and that we were losing height. So they gave us an alternative which we had no idea where it was. Somewhere in the western part of Italy near the coast. But they were just, all we had were coordinates and we had a wonderful navigator. Our navigator, he was so good. He never liked flying. He used to lock himself away in his, in his navigation cupboard especially when we were over the target. He would lock himself away and keep quiet there and, but he was a super navigator. So much so we christened him Pigeon. He was like a homing pigeon. Very rarely would we have to change the, change the original navigational ports that he’d given us. He used to correct it now and again on the way. But this time we got these coordinates and as an alternative landing strip. We had no idea who it was. Where it was. We knew by the look of the, the coordinates it was somewhere near the front. The front line. So we just hoped to God we weren’t going to come down in enemy territory. Anyway, we managed to put the fire out on the aircraft and we were aiming for these coordinates. Pitch black night it was. Absolutely pitch black. We were losing, losing height and we were getting a little bit worried here you know. Nothing to see. We had no idea where we were, or the new direction we were heading and all these coordinates, and we were losing height and we were, eventually we got out about fifteen hundred feet and we thought we’re going to have to consider possibly ditching in the, in the sea just off the west coast of Italy. When we were thinking about this suddenly ahead of us came two lines of lights and they would be acetylene torches in those days. Many landing strips used these as, as marking our landing strip and we saw two of these. We thought thank God for that. We’re going to get down. Didn’t know whose airstrip it was. So, anyway normally when you’re going in to land if it’s an emergency you would fire off a red signal and hope to get a green one in reply. So we were going to, we were going in anyway because we were so, that we had no option. So we fired a red, a red flare to show that we were, that it was an urgent landing. We were coming in. Anyway, we managed to safely touch down, ran along the runway and just as we turned off the runway at the end our final engine because we only had two engines in the Wellington kicked off. That’s, so we had really come home on a wing and a prayer. But were we home? We didn’t know. We climbed down the ladder to get out of the aircraft. We saw two jeeps coming towards us with chaps in fatigues armed to the bloody teeth. So we got out and stuck our hands up in the air and said to the best of languages which is that we were allied airmen. Not a word was said to us. We were both, all pointed to go in to both of these jeeps. Couldn’t understand the language. It certainly wasn’t Italian. You know. We thought where the bloody hell are we? You know. It’s not German either. Anyway, we finished up in a Nissen hut two or three hundred yards away. When we went into the Nissen hut we were approached by a tall officer in, in battle fatigues but he also had wings up and he said in perfect English, he said, ‘Good evening gentlemen. We’ve been expecting you. Welcome to Brazil.’ We had landed unbeknownst at a Brazilian fighter bomber base which was part of course of the Tactical Strategic Command attached to, attached to the American Air Force. None of us knew at the time that Brazil was even in the war. Anyway, they gave us a wonderful time for about four days we were there. They sent for our own Maintenance Unit. They obviously told our squadron that we’d landed alright and we were safe and they sent their own Maintenance Unit to sort out our Wellington and get it, get it flying. We had a wonderful time while we were there. We realised that we were I think just north, just north I think of Rome or just south of Rome. We were close to Rome anyway so we hitchhiked in to Rome and that was the quite a, the first time I’d ever seen Rome. It was quite a colourful episode because there were troops and there were allied airmen, troops all over the place in different uniforms, and mostly armed to the teeth. But Rome was very peaceful because the Germans had pulled out of Rome and they’d left it an open city because it’s such a biblical and historical city they didn’t, they had that at least humanity about them. So that was quite enjoyable. Anyway, we eventually when we got to, our own unit had fixed our aircraft ready to go and the, the mess boys wouldn’t think of us settling our mess bill with them. We got that for free. So we thought, well right, this is a fighter bomber unit so let’s give them a fighter bomber take off. So we did, with our Wellington. As we got airborne although we didn’t, we didn’t pull back on the stick to get straight up we kept as low as we could and gave the boys a really, really fighter take off. They were all lining the airstrip waving us off. That was a fantastic time but then for us it was reality. We were then going back to, to our own bomber unit. Back into reality. Back in to, in to the war. So that was an exciting episode. Getting home on a wing and a prayer [laughs]. At the end of operations the group then was a mixture. 205 Group was a mixture of Wellingtons. We had ten squadrons of Wellingtons but also a mixture of Halifaxes and Liberators, American Liberators which the RAF were using then. We were converting on to those but because we had done at this stage done thirty nine operations, and it was decided it wasn’t worth, we were getting near the end of our tour anyway, it wasn’t worth bothering to, to transfer to a different type of bomber. So we were made tour expired which was quite a relief to be suddenly told, ‘Right. You’re finished chaps. You’ve done your operations now. You’re going back. Back home.’ Home to us then of course was Cairo. That was our base. So we went to Naples and waited a few days in Naples. That was a sad sight to see. Most of the Italians there were starving, and particularly outside the billets where we had women breast feeding their children you know as obviously to, it was a show of give us some, give us some food whatsoever. Which was pathetic to see. It really was sad. So we did. We gave them what we could in the way of food, chocolate bars and stuff like that. Cigarettes. Anything they would treasure because they had nothing. All the industries and everything had been ruined with the fighting in Italy and they really, the only thing they had was their vino which was a vermouth I think. But even then I think that was, that was, had been tampered with and had stuff added to it to improve its quantity and we were coming out in all sorts of sores and what have you and so, but it was a sorry sight to see. We waited there for a while and then again we were flown back to Cairo by DC3, and we didn’t [pause] Yes. We went to Cairo but then I was posted to a permanent, which was then a peacetime RAF station at Alexandria. And by then I’d been commissioned. On my latter weeks on the squadron I’d been commissioned. And when they have a mess do in, in the officer’s mess in an RAF squadron it’s the duty of the sprog officer as we called them, the junior officer, to toast the king. And I was given my job. I was a brand new officer. I was as nervous as bloody hell. And that’s when you have to, you know pass the port if I remember rightly from right to left. Pass the port to the table and then the sprog officer stands up and says, ‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast. The King.’ And that was quite an experience. Then I was posted to a telecommunications unit because I’d had some experience in my early youth in telecommunications and it was there that I, we had a lot of WAAFs there at the time and that’s where I met my first wife. Patricia. And she was from American parentage and born and bred in Kenya. And we started going out together and funnily enough it was strange when you look back on it but understandable to a degree. When, when the chaps were out in Cairo just enjoying themselves for the evening out and that sort of thing a lot of the girlfriends were WAAFs quite naturally. But when you came back in to, to the, it was a big unit in Heliopolis, when you came back in there there was nowhere to say goodnight. So, what the RAF would kindly do they set up a big marquee near the guard room when you went in the entrance. There was this big marquee so when you wanted to say, say goodnight you went in to the marquee which was pitch black. No lights whatsoever so you knew there were other couples in there with you and that’s where the good night cuddles went on you know. That was quite funny. And eventually we became quite serious and I started to hear in the end a lot about East Africa. And then eventually I worked at a telecoms unit and then I did some work on [pause] a lot of the Japanese prison camps had been taken over and internment camps. So all these people were coming back from the Far East and many of them were in a sorry state. In a sorry state, having been, some of them had spent four or five years in prison camps, and they were in a dreadful state. Some of them even had their hands grafted together. They’d been caught stealing. Their hands had been skinned and been sealed together. So there was a big, it was political how these people were treated by, by the forces so they set up in a place called Adabiya which is at the base of the Suez Canal. A big Reception Centre for all these people coming back. And they had all the forces represented there and this was a big field which had hangars and everything there. So they had welfare organisations. The British Red Cross was there. I had, I was posted there as RAF liaison officer to work with the, with the British Red Cross and to represent the RAF victims coming back who were captured. And also to, I had six padres under my control as well. That was an education. We all had, we were billeted in a place called Adabiya which is just south of the Suez Canal. That was an eye opener to see all these religious leaders. And one in particular I can always remember. The Methodist, the Methodists even today probably, they preach non-alcohol. I’m not sure whether that’s true but this character was was a Methodist and he was the biggest drinker of the lot. Our pantry in these digs was full of empty bottles of liquor. They were a boozy crowd. They really were. All six padres. And I tackled this, this Methodist and I said, ‘What about this? I thought your sect, particular sect preached non-indulgence.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s true Harry,’ he said, ‘But while I’m here I’m away from my parish,’ he said, ‘So I’m taking advantage of it.’ And I mean it was quite amusing to work with these characters. And I had a launch at my disposal, so that I could go out with all these ships. Any ship that was available because we’d lost so many ships during the Atlantic war and the Pacific for that matter they were using any ship that was available to bring these people back. Forces and civilians. And as I say many of them were in a sorry state. Some of them particularly the men had married all sorts of creatures when they came, and they were on the loose more or less in India waiting to be shipped back and they were meeting all sorts of some of them were very unsavoury characters and [unclear] And it was, and it was sad to see so we had the job, I particularly had the job of going on board these different aircraft from Naval aircraft carriers to the Mauritania which was then a passenger liner. All sorts of ships coming in. It was good in many degrees because you went on board especially Naval ships they had good food on Naval ships. And that was the first time I came in contact with the old Jacobs biscuits again. Things we hadn’t seen during the war. But that was education. I worked a lot with the Red Cross. I got one or two commendations from the major general which I was quite proud of at the end. The work I’d done with the Red Cross. And I was given a Humber Super Snipe actually that came out from the desert. One of these abandoned sort of surplus aircraft, cars at the end of the war. I had one of these at my disposal so I used to run around a lot of people. And then you brought these people ashore off the, off the boats and into this big area that had warehouses and you had entertainment. Mainly it was to clothe them because they were coming back in rags. It was to clothe them for the coming cold weather in Europe and the UK. So we were kitting them out with, with clothes and giving them decent meals and giving them entertainment as well at the same time. So it was quite an organisation. Mainly political. It was, you know who was going to get in government at home, so nothing was spared. Everything was, was there for the benefit, quite rightly, for the benefit of these people. And that was an interesting people. When I finished that job I was in, I took on the job of Canal welfare. I was given the job of the RAF welfare officer of the Canal Zone. Again, that was an education crossing the, we had a, I think there was a Swimming Club actually on the Canal itself and you had to be very careful there with ships coming down. I can remember one, one day swimming in this place. Trying to swim across the Canal. It was only about, I believe ninety nine yards wide and three or four of us were out swimming in the Canal one day when a tanker, a tanker came down and it was loaded and being loaded it was heavy in the water and the water either side of the tanker went in towards the tanker. And as this tanker was going by we found ourselves being drawn towards the tanker swimming like hell. No matter how hard you were swimming you weren’t moving. You were standing still. But if you swam like hell because in fear of being drawn in to, in to the ships. So odd little experiences like that along the, along the Canal Zone going to, from there to Cairo one day across the desert which was about a hundred miles. And I had this lovely Humber which was a powerful station wagon then, and a very narrow tarmac road across the desert. I’m going across this road like hell and it was used by oil tankers a lot as well and I hit an oil patch and I did then what we, what we used to call a ground loop. My car started spinning around, shot off the road in to the sand and as soon as it hit the sand of course it did stop but I was thrown straight out of the cab, into the sand. That was quite an experience going there. But I did that trip often between the Suez and Cairo until eventually I was shipped home. When I eventually again because they were short of transport it took a long time. It was 1946 by the time that I was given transport and that only took us as far as Marseilles, south of France and then we went by train across France and, and that was an experience, crossing from Calais to Dover. To see those white cliffs again and see the UK after I’d been away four years then I suppose and that was a lovely sight to see the white cliffs of Dover again. And then later on I was demobbed and was settling back with my parents in Liverpool when Patricia in the WAAFs followed me to the UK and I met her in Merseyside and she stayed with us for a while and then we got married. And that was in 19 — we were married in 1947 I think it was. And it was a little while after that she wanted to visit her parents again so we went out. I’d never met the family, so we went out and in those days because there was still a shortage of shipping it was very very difficult. So you had to, to get a ship to Mombasa. You had to sign on that you would agree to carry what they called passenger transport which were virtually like troop ships. Troop ships. You didn’t have the luxury of a cabin to yourself so men and women, married or not were all divided. So the men slept together, women slept together, and then you came together at mealtimes which was quite an experience. But to go back through the Med again it was, you know renewing old territories. Down the Suez Canal again. Down the Red Sea and along the Indian ocean and back to the port of Mombasa which I had come in to I think four years or whatever it was previous to that and wondered what was ashore. This time I was going to find out what was ashore, and eventually we disembarked there. It was a pretty eventful trip out there. It was, it was a bit rough still because it was only shortly after the war. Everything was still shortage. Rationing. Accommodation as I said. We were separated. But eventually we arrived at Mombasa, went ashore and that was an experience then when I first joined the East African Railways to go up to Nairobi. That was an education. The first time I’d been on an African train, a Colonial train as it was in those days where you had sleeping accommodation and we had, they had for couples they had what they called [coupes] which was a cabin for two which you converted your seat in to a bunk bed because it was a long trip up to Nairobi so you hired bedding, and there you had a little toilet and shower room off your cabin. And that was an experience travelling across the bush into Africa, I hadn’t seen it before and travelling through the bush country of Africa gradually going up to Nairobi which is then at an altitude of five and a half thousand feet which was quite something. Altitude up to, other than flying we’d not been used to living at. So that took you quite a while to acclimatise. But then after, I think we were about ten hours, I think on board the train stopping various places. Every time we stopped of course we had the locals coming along with whatever produce they had. So they’re trying to sell you their produce through the open windows of the train and that was really experience Africa truly. East Africa. Wildest Africa if you like. Apart from the civilised part of South Africa which I’d trained in seeing that for the first time quite an education. Seeing the wildlife, wild animals from the train which you could see elephants and all those sort of things. Zebra all wandering around the bush. Quite an education. Until eventually arrived in Nairobi and I was a bit nervous because I was meeting the family for the first time. They were all there. My mother in law, her sister in law, brother in law, and one or two of the cousins. And the trains in there, the East African Trains the doors opened inwards, whereas here on British trains the doors opened outwards. So when we arrived there we got the window down, there’s the family all standing on the platform waiting to see what this new son in law was going to be like and I’m trying to open the door, pushing out and it won’t go and I’m kicking it like mad, you know. And then suddenly, I think it must have been my mother in law she reached forward and opened the door. Immediately I’m down to size straightaway. I felt a right clown having tried to kick this door open and it opened the wrong way. So that was, that was my experience of meeting my in-laws. We then went to the famous New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi which in itself was quite a place in those Colonial days. It was a very well-known hotel. It had a long bar which then was the, reckoned to be the longest bar in the world, and, but it was also a meeting place for people from all the world. Especially people coming out then to see East Africa because East Africa was then opening up many ways. It was developing after the war. Lots of things were going on and the hunting profession was coming in. They were making films and so all and everybody would all congregate at this New Stanley hotel. So that’s where I spent my first couple of nights there. And that was quite an education because on the outside, on the pavement the first, again the first time we had experienced pavement sort of dining. They had a place, it was christened the Thorn Tree because there was one. One tree in the, in the pavement. Big patio style pavement out at the front of the hotel and that’s where everybody sat. If you ever wanted to meet anybody in Nairobi that’s where you met. And now the period that I was there, not so much in the early stages, later on back in Nairobi I met many film stars in those days because they were doing lots of films then and I met people like William Holden, Deborah Kerr, Sydney Poitier, one or two British stars. Oh dear. One chap born in, born in, in Ditchling down the road here. But it was interesting meeting lots of those people. Later on of course when I went in to the safari business, I worked for Bill Holden who then was part owner of a safari club called the Mount Kenya Safari Club and he was quite a character to work for. But it was an adventure to me. And then a couple of days there and I’d got into, the family had got me out to Tanzania as they were living in Tanzania then because they had a ferry business there on Lake Victoria. And it was a ferry across the five mile mouth of the Mara River which transported passengers and vehicles from the south side to Tanzania to the north side which was a five mile crossing and eventually on the road to Kenya and so I had a work permit to run this ferry. I’d never been, I’d never operated a ferry in my life before. My sailing knowledge was nil but I learned very quickly and that was the very first time when we flew from Nairobi. Flew in a DH Rapide, a De Havilland Rapide and that was quite a, that was about a three hour flight. That was very interesting, and our flight didn’t know it at the time but we crossed over what is now known as the Serengeti National Reserve where the great migration takes place. Nothing was known about the migration in those days. A few scientists knew about it but my first experience of seeing that was seeing a line of buffalo that must have stretched from where we were seeing up in the air every, every bit of close on a hundred miles and something like a hundred yards to a quarter of a mile wide. Quite a sight to see. Never realised what I was witnessing but that was my first sight of the famous Mara migration which has often been on television ever since. And that was my first experience of wildlife. But then I was given command of this ferry crossing which we later, as a family bought, a lot of war surplus was going then and the ferry was being operated by an American motor launch dual multi-hulled motor launch called the Grey Goose and that used to tow pontoons. So it was on the pontoons that we carried these people and vehicles and then this war surplus auction came up in Mombasa and one of them was a Canadian built landing craft and it was a twenty five ton landing craft. So my mother in law, she was a widow at the time she put in a bid for this and her bid which was two hundred and fifty pounds which was a fair amount of money in those days. Nowadays nothing. We got this twenty five ton landing craft that had never been used, still in its packing cases, all packing case plus two beautiful big Gray Marine engines which in themselves were quite worth a fortune. And we got these in I think the total consignment was about seventeen cases which we had a thousand miles to ship to where we were on the shores of Lake Victoria. And we eventually, we shipped it together and started building it together. We had no facilities whatsoever. The only thing we did have, my mother in law then she was a widow and she had a boyfriend who was ex-REME, British Army REME and he’d got his, taken his demobilisation out in Kenya, in East Africa and he set up a business out there. A garage because he was a REME engineer. So he was very useful. So we got together and, and contrived, we built ourselves a rampway. We managed to get our hands on some old railway sleeper lines, some old sleepers, and we built ourselves a ramp so that we could launch this thing. We started to build it and everybody said this thing’s, as I say its twenty five ton and they said the local Europeans, about a hundred Europeans in this place, a doctor, a few hospital staff, district commissioner, my parents, my wife’s family only a handful of Europeans there they all said, ‘You’ll never get this thing launched.’ We did. We built it. We pushed it. We hired three hundred convicts from a local prison and we pushed this thing into the water and I operated that for a whole year and that was quite an experience. And also my first experience of hippopotamus which used to be roaming the garden at night because our house and plot was right down to the lakeshore. So we used to get those wandering around the garden at night. You had to be very careful. And during the day you always had to watch for crocodiles swimming as well, because just along the side my mother in law’s plot of land was a pathway down to the water where the local native women used to go and do their washing. That was of course a magnet for the crocodiles. The crocodiles were often lying off shore. We had one or two episodes with those over the period I was there, but on the whole it was quite, it was my experience of East Africa. I used to go with my brother in law who was then a teenager still at school. His family had been in the hunting profession. His father and his uncles, father and grandfather had all been professional hunters in those days which was the thing if you wanted a guide to take you around the country you hired one of these people. They were not only, many people think afterwards that a professional hunter was a killer of wildlife. He wasn’t. In a way he was an honorary warden so he was a conversationist. Yes, his job would be to guide people out into the country particularly Americans used to come wanting to hunt for trophies but he himself did very little shooting. He would back up his client if his client got in to danger at any time but he was a very knowledgeable man. He knew the country, he knew the language, knew the natives, knew the wildlife which was very important. So, I found myself being introduced in to this atmosphere and that’s when I did my first big game hunting which was exciting but eventually it didn’t appeal to me at all. I went over to eventually after a lot of experience I became a professional guide but mostly photographic. I carried a rifle many times, yes. But always and especially running the camp that I pointed out to you early on. I ran that for three years taking people out on photographic safaris, and again being fortunate enough to meet all sorts of people and it was my first contact with royalty. With Prince Michael and his mother Princess Marina. But that’s another story.



Denise Boneham, “Interview with Harry Hacker,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 23, 2024,

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