Interview with James Hampton


Interview with James Hampton


James Hampton was born in February 1925. He was an apprentice engineer before the war with Laystall Engineering Company and was in a reserved occupation before joining the Royal Air Force in 1943, where he trained as a flight engineer in Bomber Command. He tells of how his experiences and his training, and how he was moved from operations to 41 Group headquarters after his two older brothers were reported missing, presumed killed. His former crew was killed a month later, on an operation to Essen. James tells of his role in flight testing the Halifax, and how he became officer in charge of prisoners of war looking after a hundred German prisoners, his trips in a Halifax, and how he met his future wife. After the war, James became a civil servant at the Air Ministry travelling extensively. His final job before retirement was as the senior administration officer at the Rocket Motor Establishment at Wescott. James is also an author who published his memoirs ‘Selected for Air Crew’.




Temporal Coverage




01:05:48 audio recording


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AHamptonJ160831, PHamptonJ1601


PJ: My name is Pete Jones, I’m interviewing Flight Engineer James Hampton, other people attending are Sandra Jones, and James’ daughter, Julie Appleton. It is 31st August, 2016, and we are in James’ home in Thame, Oxfordshire. Thank you, James for agreeing to be interviewed for the IBCC. James, tell me about your early years before you joined Bomber Command?
JH: Before I joined the Air Force, I was an engineer, an apprentice engineer and because I was an apprentice engineer that I was able to join as what was called a direct entry flight engineer. That didn’t mean that I could join the Air Force and immediately become a flight engineer because I was a direct entry flight engineer. Until then, all the flight engineers had to come from the Air Force itself, and they had to have been members of a technical trade group, they had to be technical men, but obviously word got out how long you would survive as a flight engineer among the regulars, and that dried that up completely. So after that, they relied on people with an engineering background coming into the Air Force and so there were sort of two age groups. If you look at the age groups, you find that about half of the flight engineers were teenagers, late teenagers, I was nineteen at the time, and also men in their thirties who were engineers outside, and they suddenly decided, I think I’ll join the Air Force and go and kill somebody. So, but anyway, that’s how I came, and of course the Air Force, I chose the Air Force for two reasons, one it was part of my family tradition, nobody seemed to join the Army, they just joined the Air Force, that was point number one. The second reason was that the firm I worked for, I was in a reserved occupation, and you were not allowed to leave a reserved occupation even to join the forces, unless you were joining the RAF as aircrew, then you were allowed to leave a reserved occupation otherwise. Well when I joined Laystall Engineering Company, two of the men there had been territorials before the war, they had joined the Territorial Army pre-war and, you know, had gone on camps and so on, but when the war started, Laystall said, they were called up to the colours, Laystall said, ‘We’d like our two men back now because we are doing war work’. So, and incidentally, we had long hours to work, we worked till seven o’clock, and of course, I was a teenager at the time so I was perpetually tired, and it was a job getting out of bed in the morning, so I ended up in front of some kind of tribunal because I was on war work, and I’d been sort of dodging the column by coming in late and so on, and the manager decided he would make an example of me and so I was taken in front of this tribunal, and they said, ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’ And I said, ‘Well, I dispute the fact that I was on war work’. And I turned to the boss, I said, ‘I’ve spent the whole of the last week repairing a scooter for the manager’s daughter, now is that war work and if so, which war was that?’ Collapse of stag party. So I said, ‘In fact, I did some war work but, you know, I wouldn’t be able to identify it’. So that was that. Anyway, when I was eighteen, I decided I would now volunteer for the Air Force, and I joined the Air Force, but in those days there was such a, they were never short of aircrew, ever, and all aircrew were volunteers, there was no such thing as conscripts in an aeroplane because obviously they could not have done their job. Um, and as a, these young lads who’d joined the Air Force, there was so many of them that they would go away for three days, that’s what happened to us, we went away for three days to an aircrew selection centre, and you persuaded them there that you were a suitable man to be aircrew, and they would either agree or disagree, and if they agreed, you would now be sworn in and sent home on what was called deferred service, and the deferred service in my case it lasted from April 1943, when I went to the aircrew selection centre to the 5th September 1943, when I actually went. Now in the meantime, I’d been keeping a close eye on all the other young lads who I knew of, and I saw that some of them were being treated better than me, and that they were being called up before me, so I wrote to the Air Ministry and complained, and I had a letter back from the Air Ministry, which I’ve quoted in there, er, it’s signed by the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, known to the other politicians as the Laird of the Air, he was a Scotsman, the Laird of the Air. And his letter was so patronising, that when, at the time I thought, that’s great, you know, to become aircrew, you’re very fortunate and you must be above average and so on, otherwise you wouldn’t have been accepted. And I read it later, and one of the phrases in it, to have been selected for aircrew and I thought, well I would use that as my, the title of my book, so that’s why it’s called “Selected For Air Crew”, it’s a, out of a patronising letter which is in there from the Secretary of State for Air. The first thing that happened, we all went to the Air Crew Reception Centre, that was in London, and we were accommodated in various hotels, where they had stripped out every last piece of luxury, we didn’t even have beds, we were sleeping on the floor on highly polished lino, and each of us had three little mattresses, two feet square and about that thick, and the idea was that you put these on the floor and sleep on them. Well, you can imagine, shiny floor, they’d all do this and that, so the next morning you’d end up with aches and pains everywhere, although you were only an eighteen year old, but that’s where we did it. And we were there for a month, and during that month, we learnt to march, learnt to salute and so on, and reached a good standard actually. We were good enough to go to Luton to lead the parade in the Battle of Britain Parade, we’d only been in about a fortnight in the Air Force, and there we were you know. The thing that we were very proud of, as air crew cadets, we dressed like all other airmen but in our hats we had a white flash to indicate, this fellas aircrew, and we were rather proud of the white flashes, and we were always referred to as aircrew cadets in the Air Force, not as airmen. And the privileges of being an air crew cadet were, instead of being issued with two pairs of boots, it was one pair of boots and one pair of shoes, the ground staff got two pairs of boots, and the aircrew were given a pair of white sheets once a week, the airmen, the ground airmen, just slept between blankets and kept the fleas company I suppose, but [laughs] so there were little, um. The next step from the Air Crew Reception Centre was Initial Training Wing, ITW, and that lasted for six weeks and we had that up in the north east on a proper RAF Station, I remind you we were sleeping in hotels in London, but up there it was an RAF Station with huts, beds, little iron beds, they were the first beds we’d had so far, and we spent six weeks doing that. At the end of it, we got our first leave and we were so happy to go home and show ourselves off to the local girls and what have you, but my leave was spoiled because I’d been home on leave for about three days when I heard my mother coming, flying up the stairs in the morning, which was most unusual for her, and just simply burst into my bedroom and fell on her knees and handed me a telegram to say that my eldest brother, Flying Officer John Hampton, had failed to return from operation. So that spoilt my leave then I obviously couldn’t go out with the boys or anything like that, so that was. And then at the end of my leave, I went back to the Air Force and started the flight engineer course. That was the beginning of November 1943, and the course ended sometime in May 1944, it was just over six months, the flight engineer course. It was a very intensive course, and among other things we used to have lectures on Saturday mornings, of course, was a five and a half day week, but there were also voluntary lectures on the Sunday, which you felt obliged to go to because if you didn’t you might fall behind, and you were only allowed to fall behind three times, and when I say fall behind, every Friday afternoon, there was a progress check an examination, a kind of examination, and if anybody failed it, they were held back, so they now left all their friends in this party and joined another group of strangers, they were all trainee flight engineers but they were a week behind them, so they did that week over again but with a bunch of strangers. And people were allowed to fall back three times and do the thing for an extra three weeks of the course, and if they fell back, then they were finished as flight engineers and had to do something else, so it was a very intensive course. But I’ve never, ever been with people who were so enthusiastic, till quite late at night we had lights out, we didn’t turn the lights out, they were turned out centrally somewhere, you know, there’d be a thing over the tannoy, lights out in ten minutes time so get yourselves in bed, and long after lights out had gone, somebody would shout out, ‘What causes hydraulicing in an Hercules engine?’ And somebody would shout, ‘Feathering it and feathering it after more than fifteen minutes’. ‘Yeah that’s it’. And it would go on like this, they were so enthusiastic and trying so hard to qualify. At the end of it, we had a final examination, we never flew by the way, flight engineers never, ever flew, we had aeroplanes there, we would go out and start up the engines and run them up and so on, but we never flew, so there was always a terrible thought that when you did fly, you’d be airsick to the extent that you could not, you know, in case anything happened. Now flight engineers, they were different from all other aircrew, in that they were all trained at the same place, other people, pilots for example, air bombers, navigators, they were trained, well my eldest brother Jack, he did a pilot’s course in America, The Swarm School of Aeronautics Miami, Oklahoma, not Miami, Sheridan, er Florida, he did a bomb aimers course in Canada. Other pilots, navigators, bombers, they went to Southern Rhodesia, you know, to, to learn to fly and do whatever they did, and air gunners, there were lots of air gunnery schools, wireless schools, but all flight engineers were trained at No. 4 School of Technical Training, RAF St. Athan, and about five hundred would pass out every week and go and join Bomber Command, because they were basically the only people. There was a Transport Command with some four-engine aircraft which needed a flight engineer, but they didn’t suffer any losses to speak of. And there was Coastal Command, which the bomber boys always referred to, looking down on them, as the kipper fleet, they didn’t take them too seriously, the kipper fleet, but again, they didn’t suffer many losses so, most of the output of No. 4 School of Technical Training was for Bomber Command. At the end of that, we went to, we passed out as a sergeant, but there was one proviso. Those who got over seventy percent in the final examinations would automatically be seen by a commissioning board if they so desired, and I got seventy point nine, which was like creeping in under the barbed wire, but they were as good as their word, and I appeared before a commissioning board, and I’d never flown, and I thought how terrible it would be to arrive somewhere as a pilot officer, never having flown, and then being airsick, you know, somebody had said it’s time you got some in mate or whatever. So I said, could it be, they wanted to know are you interested in being commissioned, I said, ‘Yes I am, but I don’t want to be commissioned for at least six months, I want to get six months experience’. But it was all forgotten about, I didn’t realise that in the Air Force, if you don’t do something at the time then it’s usually forgotten about, and it didn’t crop up until after the six months. But that’s, the next step was to go to Heavy Conversion Unit, now the process for aircrew, all aircrew, would train at their specialist place and never meet other people, other aircrew during that training, so pilots would only meet other pilots, navigators would be with other navigators, bomb aimers etcetera, engineers with the engineers, but the next step for all but flight engineer, was Operational Training Unit, and that’s where the crews were brought together. Oh I should have said, they did advance flying training after their basic training, then they went to Operational Training Unit where they would meet up as a crew, and the way it was done, they would all be put into a big room, usually a hangar, and they were told to sort themselves out into crews, so it followed from that that you chose people who you thought you’d be at ease with, and on friendly terms with, and so on and that was a good, one of the better aspects of service life, you know, all self-selected, and they would do the Operational Training Unit. A little aside, my last job in the Civil Service was as the Senior Administration Officer of the, the Rocket Engine Division of the Propellants and Explosives and Rocket Motor Executive of the Ministry of Defence, and it was at Westcott, which is not very far from here, that’s why we were living here, I was posted here, you see. And Westcott, during the war, had been No. 11 Operational Training Unit of the Royal Air Force, Bomber Command, and my eldest brother John, he did his OTU there, so by now I was sort of senior enough to pull a few strings, and I got on to the chap at the Air Ministry and said would you send for me, write and say could your Mr. Hampton please come to the Air Ministry for discussions, and in the meantime, will you get the operational record book from the Public Record Office, where it now is, on No. 11 OTU. And I would go up to have these discussions and I’d go through the operations record book, which is a wonderful book, every RAF unit has one. It’s usually referred to as the 540 because it goes on a form, 540, so everything that happens of any import, new officers arriving, the names go in the book, so if you want to know who was there in 1921, go and have a look at the ops record book for that, it was maintained once a month. So I did that, and went and had a few discussions at the Air Ministry, I wasn’t allowed to take it away of course, it’s a sacred document, but I got enough from it to be able to write a brief history of No. 11 OTU, which is now much sort after by the people who were there, I’ve got a copy of it to show you, you can have a look at it, but anyway, that was a little aside. I was at Heavy Conversion Unit, but to go back to the flight engineer days, and it was at Heavy Conversion Unit that we actually flew, first of all as a second engineer, and then you’d be allowed to be the flight engineer, and then it was there that you would meet up with the other six men, who’d been together now for about four or five months, so you were like a stranger. There were two strangers, the mid upper gunner would join their crew there, and so would the flight engineer. The other five, pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and rear gunner, they would have been together from OTU days, where they would have spent three or four months on Wellingtons or something, so we were the strangers. And the first thing we did there, was to go to what was called an aircrew co-operation school, where we were taught what to do if you were shot down and survived, and what your duty was to try to get back to your own country, easier said than done, and in fact, very, very few managed to get back and they were almost invariably people who had landed in Holland or France. It was most unusual for anybody who had landed in Germany to get back, and in fact anybody who did come back was sent around the squadrons and so on, to give a talk on their experience of what happened after they were shot down and got back. They were never again allowed to fly over Europe, by the way, because if they had been caught by the Germans, they would know all about them, because they made it their business to know about them and they were saying, ‘When you were here last time, who befriended you?’ And they’d got ways of helping you to remember it, so they were never allowed to fly again. But the men who went around talking to the squadrons and so on, I remember two men coming to us and they had been shot down over Germany, but one of them at least was fluent in German, and before you took off, you were given money that would see you through Germany or the from other countries some foreign currency and it was called your escape kit. You’d have some photographs which could be used to, um, in a passport, if somebody could make a passport, you had a photographs, nine photographs you had. So you had all that, and these two, they’d come down over Germany, one was a fluent speaker, but they decided to give up, they could see no way of getting out of Germany and getting back and they were on pins the whole time. So they decided, you know, they would give themselves up, but they had got to do one last thing, they went to a cinema, they were going to go to a cinema, to get rid of the last of the Germany money, and when they were paying, they were stood in an RAF uniform but they’d taken their rank badges and flying badge off, the man at the cash box said, it’s half price for servicemen, so they thought, well there’s still hope, and they managed to get back. That gave them that little bit of hope, you know, the fact that it’s half price for servicemen and they got back through Sweden, so quite amazing really, wasn’t it. But on the, we finished Heavy Conversion Unit, we did all this escape, you know what to do if you were shot down and so on, at an aircrew co-operation school where we spent three weeks. Then it was on to Heavy Conversion Unit proper, where we learnt to fly the Halifax, and as we saw the flight engineer, they did away with second pilots when the decided they needed a flight engineer, they want to keep the crew numbers down. So part of the flight engineers terms of reference were to be able to fly the aeroplane on a course as given by the navigator, and that was just a bit of a joke, that was for flying a link trainer, a very early type of simulator, and over there, those three would have a thing that was called a spider, that would be tracing out a course that the man in the cockpit was flying, and that would now be compared with the course that he’d been given by one of the other two, turn onto 340 and so on, and see if you managed it all, so that, that was a bit of a giggle you know, for a bit of space in the tour, a bit of light relief. Anyway on the squadron, the first thing that happened, the whole crew would arrive together, now trained on the Halifax but we trained on the Mark 2, although the flight engineer, he’d done all his training at the School of Technical Training on the Mark 3, because it was known that they would be on the squadron by the time he got there, and they were a much different aeroplane really, the engines were much more powerful and so on. So the first thing, was to convert from the Mark 2 with Merlin Engines, onto the Mark 3 with radial, the Hercules Radial Engines. The Merlin Engines, they were about twelve hundred horsepower, the Hercules Engines were about sixteen hundred horsepower, so there was quite a good leap forward in technology. And a little aside, if you’d been flying in a Mark 2 and then into a Mark 3, you could feel, on take-off, you could feel it pushing you in the back, you know, the acceleration from these extra engines is quite remarkable. So we learnt to fly the Mark 3, and we were there for maybe a week, at one time the pilot would have to go second dickie with another crew, but by the time we got to the squadron, they’d stopped that, and we just went on our own. I won’t talk about operations, because really, I just, I got me feet in the water, I did a few but not many, and in fact, if I hadn’t been, I was called for by the squadron commander, Wing Commander Cassells, and he said, ‘Have you got two brothers in Bomber Command’. And I said, ‘Yes’. And he said, ‘Have they both been reported missing, presumed killed in action’. And I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Well you’re not to fly anymore, anymore operations, you’re going to Headquarters 41 Group and you’ll be doing flight testing, but you’re not to fly on anymore operations’. So I said, ‘Well what about me crew?’ He said, ‘I’ll look after your crew, don’t worry’. So I said goodbye to the crew, after a very short time and in fact, a very short time after I left, they crashed on the way back from Essen, so if I’d stayed with them, I wouldn’t have met you. I now tell people I was never a veteran, I don’t class myself as a veteran, in fact, if you look in there, the introduction, I make a special point of that, that this is by no means a, you know, a personal account, because I wasn’t there long enough, I never class myself as a bomber boy, a bomber veteran, because I wasn’t there long enough, so I wasn’t on the squadron for very long. When I left the squadron, a very short time afterwards, the next month, my crew were killed coming back from Essen. I had a letter from the squadron, somebody there, to tell me, so and there were no survivors from the crash. They crashed, they were on fire actually, because I used, you know, a little bit of my influence as a civil servant with the, in the Air Ministry, to get the crash card, recording the crash of my crew. And all it is, about six inches by four inches, filled in in long hand and that’s all there was about the crash, and all seven on board were killed, it was on fire in the air, one of the engines was on fire, and then it says the pilot then obviously lost control, and went spinning into the ground, and there was a secondary fire which destroyed the aeroplane and killed the crew, so that happened just after I left them, which is a great shame, they were all nice chaps, you know. Anyway, on my behalf, now I was posted to Headquarters 41 Group, which was at Andover, so I travelled from North Yorkshire, where 76 Squadron was based, being a Halifax squadron, all the Halifax squadrons were in Yorkshire I don’t know if you know that, and the Lancasters were all in Lincolnshire, Stirlings were in Suffolk, so they took up most of the East Coast. And I went all the way from the north of Yorkshire and I still felt that I was a recruit, I hadn’t been in the Air Force, I’d been in a year by now but I didn’t, I’d been so busy at schools, Air Force training establishments, that I hadn’t picked up any of the, um, lore [spells it out], the lore you know, I was very much a recruit, and I took everything I had with me. Only later did I discover that what you could do, is hand in all your flying kit at Station A, it would be taken off your flying clothing card, which was a permanent in your possession, a little booklet, and that when you got to your new place, you draw another set of flying kit and that would go on your flying clothing card, but you wouldn’t have to carry it all the way. I carried it all the way down to, going through London was a nightmare, I’d never been in London before, apart from my ACRC, and now I was trying to go up and down the tube, with all my own kit, plus another kit bag of flying kit, and it was exhausting. I’d go hundred yards, put one of them down and go back and get the other one, that’s the way I progressed through London. When I got to Headquarters 41 Group, the man I had to see, a squadron leader, he said, ‘Where’s your home?’ I said, ‘Liverpool’. He said, ‘Right’. And he then looked at huge map, he said, ‘Mmm where are we’. He said, ‘Right, well, we’ll get you to somewhere near Liverpool’. I said, ‘Well, I don’t especially want to go home, sir, you know, I’ve joined the Air Force to see a bit of the world’. And he said, ‘Well anyway’. Then he looked at another chart where all the names were, and he said, ‘Well there’s no vacancies there’. So I said, ‘Well where there’s a vacancy?’ And he said, ‘Edzell, and Kinloss’. I said, ‘Well I’ve heard of Kinloss, I’ve never heard of Edzell’. And he got a long stick and pointed to the top of Scotland, and he said, ‘That’s Edzell, and that’s Kinloss’. So I’d now have to set off all the way back, with all this flying kit, through London again, to get to Edzell, I’d only been with him for about half an hour, that was the interview over. Although I did stay overnight, and I went to see my brother John’s widow, I did you know, she lived in Andover so I was able to see her and her family. But it was back to the north again and I spent the next three years testing Halifaxes. About three weeks after I went there, we were air testing a Halifax, it was always just a two man crew, there was no bomb aimer or what have you, just the test pilot and the flight engineer, and it was the chief test pilot who was flying the aeroplane this day, Squadron Leader Johnson, and it was a Sunday morning, and we were bombing down the runway in this Halifax when suddenly, starboard outer exploded and the whole front of the engine came off, the reduction gear, the propeller, the whole thing came off and hit the starboard inner propeller and bent one blade forward. You can imagine they’re about fourteen feet diameter so they, the vibration it nearly, you know, everything was going up and down, including me [laughs], ‘cos I never used to sit down for take-off, I always stood up, it was against the all the laws, you’re supposed to be strapped in, but I always stood up. And anyway that was two engines gone on one side, I stopped the starboard inner one, and it didn’t want to stop because the way it, the way it all worked, when you wanted to feather an engine, you simply pressed in the feathering button and left it, and it was held in by a solenoid, when the propeller had turned round to head on into the wind, it would stop anyway, the pressure would continue to build up and it would put the solenoid out to break the circuit, for the solenoid, but inside the propeller itself, there’s a little needle, a valve that moved backwards and forwards, and in one position it was allowing oil under pressure to go to one side of the piston. It’s a very complex thing, the propeller, because the blades all turn, so it’s a very complex thing, there’s a piston in there and high pressure either goes to one side or the other, depending on the position of this valve inside, and when the thing stops and the pressure builds up, the solenoid comes out and the needle moves to the unfeathering position to allow oil to go to the other side of the piston, the piston doesn’t actually, it turns and that’s what moves the propeller, there’s all sorts of gears inside. But because of the damage it had suffered, I pushed it in to feather it and it got down to about 800 rpm, and then it started to unfeather, and back to this terrible vibration again, so I pressed the button in again, and again it started to unfeather. So I had a picture in my mind of this valve inside, and I thought, well, what’s happening, the pressure’s building up because of the amount of force it’s having to use to overcome this bent blade, and another blade was split down the middle, so I could see it all in my mind, so what I did was, press the button, pull it out, press it, pull it out, thinking that now will have just moved it, you know, and eventually it stopped. And as a little aside, there was an investigation, our formal enquiry, as to why it all happened, you see, and I was asked, ‘Why did you keep pressing the button?’ And I told them why, and I’d made a big exploded diagram of the propeller, and I said, ‘That little needle valve there, that directs oil, you know, this way and the other’. I was a sergeant at the time, and when we were coming out, the chief technical officer, ground staff officer, a squadron leader, he said to me, ‘I never did know how those bloody propellers work but I do now, thanks’. So that, he said, ‘That’s the first time I realised how they worked, I never bloody knew’. So I said, ‘Well, we learn something new every day, sir’. So anyway, then we turned and the port, the two port engines had to be kept at take-off power for, you’re only allowed to do that for up to three minutes, because over that, over three minutes, the engines start overheating, that includes, you know, take, when you’re taking off, you’ve got to throttle back after the three minutes, unless, of course, you’ve lost an engine, in which case you’d keep them open and damn the consequences. On this occasion, we had the two ports still at take-off power, well beyond the three minutes, and explosions started coming from the port outer, and I thought, I know what’s happened there, it’s got overheated and the, those explosions are coming from the supercharge of the lube casing, and it turned out to be the case, so I said to the test pilot, ‘Shall I stop it?’ ‘Yyyyes’. So I stopped it and well, you know, we still had a lot of vibration going on and he didn’t have his mask on, and he couldn’t really let go of the, you know, it was very, very dicey for him, trying to fly it on two engines, then one engine with all this carry on going on, so it was a remarkable piece of work on his part, but er, he said, ‘Yeah stop it’. Shouted out, so I stopped it, we carried on, on one, came into the funnel and landed, and we both got a green endorsement, have you ever seen a green endorsement in a flying log book? I’ll show you my flying log book, ‘cos nobody ever sees it, it’s not like a DFC or something [laughs], it’s in your log book, you’d have to walk around with your log book open, you know, green endorsement. [laughs] But that happened within about three weeks of my arriving there, and it fortunately set a seal on my competence, the chief test pilot had been flying the aeroplane, and after that, even if he was going to fly an Anson, he would insist that I went with him, and on the Anson, the oil pressure gauges are on the engine itself, and of course, all the vibration, the needle would be doing this, and I remember Squadron Leader Johnson, ‘Are you happy with that, are you happy with that engine, are you happy with it?’ ‘Yeah, it’s okay’. I was the gent, kidding [laughs], know about everything you know, what a laugh that was. Anyway, while I was there, Squadron Leader Johnson was posted, a new man came, a new chief test pilot, Squadron Leader Phillips, and one day he said to me, ‘I’d like to have a little walk with you around the pedy track, a private walk’. Because there was six of us on the test flight, four test pilots and two engineers, and there was no privacy at all, so this was a private talk, and I thought I wonder what he’s going to talk to me about. So we got out and he said, ‘Have you ever thought of applying for a commission?’ So I told him that, you know, I’d been interviewed, and I’d said leave it for six months, he said, ‘Well, I wish you to apply, so I will get the papers’. And so, I was now commissioned. And I think the voting age in those days was twenty-one, so I was an officer in the Air Force before I was old enough to vote. [laughs] Everyone in the Air Force had a secondary, every officer had some kind of secondary duty to do and my secondary duties, my main job was testing aeroplanes, but I was also sports officer. I’ve got absolutely no time for it, I can’t be bothered, don’t watch anything on television to do with sport, just can’t be bothered with it, and the other secondary duty was officer in charge of prisoners of war, we had a hundred Germans, the war was over by now, and we had a hundred German prisoners. They’d been taken prisoner, these hundred men, in North Africa, with the Africa Corps, they’d been taken to Canada, kept in a POW camp, when the war ended the Canadians just wanted them off, but the British wanted a bit of work out of them, so we got a hundred of them at RAF Edzell, and I was nominated as the officer in charge. There was a staff there to look after them and so on, but as the CO said, ‘If anything goes wrong, the Air Ministry will want a head on a plate, and it ‘ll be your head, so just bear that in mind’. [laughs] There was no way they’d want to escape or anything like that, and they were all hard workers. We had one of them on the test flight itself, Oberfeldwebel Gustav Bergman, a very mature man, I would have thought he was in his forties, that was sort of sergeant major in the Germany Army. And on the test flight, he introduced a bit of law and order that we didn’t have before, we didn’t have a parachute section because we weren’t big enough, there was only six of us on the flight, you see, so our parachutes, when they were due to be unpacked and dried out and then repacked, they would go to RAF Montrose, which had a lot of flying going on and was a training school, and a big parachute section, so you know every month, we’d think which parachutes, oh, just take six parachutes, take them, you know, and then the next thing, Montrose would be ringing up saying, these parachutes were only done a month ago. Anyway, old Gustav Bergman arrived and one of the jobs he was given was officer of six parachutes [laughs], and he used to make the morning tea and so on, and odd job man, and he was brilliant at it, and the chief test pilot was telling somebody one day, the visitor sort of said, ‘What’s that German doing?’ you know. ‘Oh, he works, he’s in charge of the parachutes’. In charge of the parachutes!’ ‘Would you fly with it?’ He said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Well how do you know he’s not going to, you know, interfere with them?’ He daren’t, he said, ‘Guards, Gustav’. So Bergman came in, ‘Yes, sir’. He always, you know, ‘Yes, sir’. He said, ‘Get yourself a harness on and get yourself a parachute and get ours, you know, we’re taking the Halifax up and you can come with us’. Just to prove that [laughs], so Gus Bergman, he was walking on air then, you could imagine, he would be dining out for years on that, how he flew in a Halifax bomber, so er [laughs], that’s what happened to him. So it wasn’t all, you know, shouting at them or anything, well they were never shouted at, the Germans, there was no point, they wouldn’t want to escape, they worked so hard, it just wasn’t true. And I had a motorbike with a broken kick-start, so what I had to do was put it in gear, hold the clutch in, run it, let the clutch out, which would start the engine, and then jump on board, you see. The Germans were having none of that, the German sergeant major was almost weeping at the sight of an officer pushing a motorbike, because their officers, they were little tin gods, and he said, ‘The men will push it’. I said, ‘No it’s all right’. ‘The men will push it, sir’. So the next time I went on my motorbike, when I was ready to leave, he got six men, three on each side of a motorbike, and being from Liverpool, I thought, well I’ll teach them a lesson, so when the engine start, I just kept it at low revs and they were still running along, all trying to keep up with me on the motorbike and thinking they were pushing it [laughs], and in the end, I just sort of opened the throttle and roared off and left them to it, but, so it wasn’t all fear and, you know. And it was on that test flight, that we had an officer there called Flight Lieutenant Hesp, who had a bicycle inner tube and every time the weather was bad, Flight Lieutenant Hesp was looking for something to do, he was a very restless sort of man, always looking for something. He used to say to the girl clerk, ‘Go get the inner tube, chuck’. We always called her chuck, I don’t know what her name was, and she’d say, ‘Oh no, Mr. Hesp’. ‘Go and get the inner tube’. So she’d fetch the inner tube and he’d put it round her shoulders or somewhere and stick ‘em on top of the door and then bounce her up and down like a baby bouncer [laughs], and it was all very funny for the rest of us, but not for old chuck. So one day she got fed up with it and went to see the queen bee, you know, the senior WAAF officer there and had a moan about it, so they transferred her out, and another girl arrived to take over as the flight clerk, LACW Grace Morrison Crawford, and I eventually married Grace, but anyway, the chief test pilot lined everybody up and he said, ‘If anybody so much as looks as this girl and an inner tube or any other, it won’t be the girl that’ll be going, it will be the officer, do I make myself clear’. ‘Yes’, and right. So my wife arrived, I didn’t know she was going to be my wife but she was, that’s how she ended up, we married for over sixty-seven years till she died a couple of years ago. We were married at the age of twenty-one in Dunblane Cathedral where that tennis player was married, and I noticed, who was that other fellow that was married there, Julie? It was in the paper last week. Every Saturday in the Daily Mail, there’s a magazine and there’s an article there and photographs, it was David Steel, and they have six items which they tell you why they want them in this sanctum sanctorium, you see, a tiny little room, and one of them is a photograph of him and his wife on their wedding day at Dunblane Cathedral, so they didn’t mention we were married there, I don’t know why. Well then, I stayed in the Air Force for five years after the war, principally to get some money. If you signed on for five years, if you were an officer, you got five hundred pounds at the end of it, and five hundred pounds was a fortune in those days, so I did five years on a short service commission. And then I saw an advertisement one day for an open competition for the Executive Class of the Civil Service and also I saw some exam papers, and I made enquiries and these belonged to a Flight Lieutenant Hoveran, so I found him and I said, ‘What are these exam papers for, Sammy’. And he said, ‘Well, I saw an advert about the Executive Class and I rather fancied sitting that exam, but I sent for the papers and I don’t think I will’. I said, ‘Can I have your exam papers then?’ He said, ‘Yes’. So I took them home and went through them and thought I could pass that exam, so I sent off for the another set of, they sell old exam papers, you see, I got them and I went through them and I thought, I think I’ll try this, so I sat it and got through. There were seventy-five vacancies in the Executive Class and there was just over seven hundred people sat the exam, so I was fortunate there was about a one in ten chance, and I became an Executive Officer in the Civil Service, and I’d only been an Executive Officer for less than three years, normally you did about eight years before you were promoted. A job came up and it said, ‘Suitably qualified executive officers will be considered and will be given temporary promotion’. So I thought, I’m suitably qualified, so I applied and I got it. Well it was like going from acting squadron leader, from acting flight lieutenant to squadron leader in the Air Force, going from Executive Officer to High Executive Officer, ‘cos in the Air Ministry, they do roughly equate flight lieutenant and executive officer. In fact, my first job as an executive officer was to take over from a flight lieutenant whose job was being civilianised to save money, because we were a bit cheaper than flight lieutenant, and his boss was a high executive officer, so I was sort of, I think, promoted from flight lieutenant to squadron leader. It was executive officer to high executive officer and it more or less doubled my pay all in one go, because for executive officer, it was a twenty year scale from start to finish and I was, you know, simply at the bottom somewhere I think because of my age, I was twenty-eight when I sat the exam, and because of that, I was given a couple of years notional seniority, so they pretended I’d been on a bad point something or other pay scale rather than the bottom, but it was low down and I went from there to the bottom of the high executive officer scale and never looked back. We moved all over the place, um, the first posting was to Stockport, and I went from Stockport to the Air Ministry in London, from there to Carlisle, from Carlisle to Andover. It was always from one end of the country to the other never, you know, sort of Aylesbury, it was always miles away, but it was a very satisfying career, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And got promoted twice to high executive officer and then to senior executive officer, and my last job was the senior administration officer at the Rocket Motor Establishment at Westcott. Do you want to ask me anything?
SJ: Yes, can you state your date of birth please?
JH: Beg your pardon?
SJ: Date of birth?
JH: Yes, 26th February, 1925.
SJ: And how did your parents react when you went into the Air Force?
JH: Er, not very, they weren’t all that pleased to be honest, but it seemed to be the family tradition, and at that stage, nobody had yet been killed. So whereas the soldiers in the first war, my father had been in the first war, they would be lucky to get two leaves if they were in France for about three or four years, they’d probably get home leave about two maybe three times, and they would arrive covered in mud from the trenches or whatever. The aircrew got leave every six weeks, operational aircrew every six weeks, a week’s leave and they were well fed, well looked after and so on, and it was absolutely difficult to believe that they were engaged in activities which could cause their death at any time, you know. And in both my brothers cases, they’d just gone back off leave when they were on ops and they were shot down. So by now I was in the Air Force, but I told you about my squadron commander calling me in and telling me, I wondered about that for a long time, especially in the later years, because when you first leave the Air Force or any service, you just get on with your civilian job and that’s all behind you, you know, you’d only talk about that with other people who’d been there. So, and it was about the 1980’s before I started thinking of that you know how did I manage to, I made enquiries everywhere and I actually, I spent two afternoons with the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command during the war, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, I was at his home on two occasions, and the second time I thought, well we’re friendly enough by now, you know, for me to ask him. Was there any procedure whereby if two brothers had been shot down and there was a third one still in the firing line, you know, and he thought about it and he said, ‘Well Hampton, if there ever had been, I’d never heard of it, you know’. And of course, I considered, it was all done manually, nowadays if you want to know how many flight lieutenants have got red hair, somebody would say, ‘Forty-six, sir, and there’s one whose turning a bit grey, but he’s still got a bit of red’, you know, it’s all on the computer, but in those days it was all handwritten, so how they could possibly have kept any. Well I wrote my first attempt at “Selected for Air Crew” as what I called a monograph, and in the monograph I said, ‘Unfortunately the telegrams advising my parents that my elder brothers had been reported missing are not to be, are not available, I’ve no idea where they are’. And I eventually gave, I had a dozen copies made and gave them to members of the family, including my sister Ivy, she got on to me she said, ‘I’ve got those telegrams Jim, do you want them?’ So I said, ‘Well you know’. Said, ‘Well when mum died, you know, the telegrams were there with a lot of other things, would you like it all?’ And I said, ‘Yes please’. There was quite a wodge, I went through it quickly, found the telegrams and didn’t look at the rest of it until about 1990, you know, when this was getting, that was on it’s final, I got all this bumf out and low and behold, in there, there’s a letter, there’s a letter in there to my mother from the Air Ministry, and it says something along the lines of, ‘Thank you for your letter of such a date and we note that you have had no word about your son, Flying Officer John Hampton, nor have you had any word about your son, Sergeant George Hampton’. Now the reason I think they would have written to her to ask her if she had heard anything, people used to listen to a man called Lord Haw Haw, he was an Englishman in Germany and he used to broadcast, and people would listen to his things, it was sort of an offence, it was like traitorous to listen to Lord Haw Haw, but he would always have the names of a few men who’d been shot down. And in fact a colleague of mine at Westcott, the Rocket Motor Establishment, one of the engineers there, he’d been a flight engineer in the Air Force and he said when he was shot down and his mother learned of it, when one of the, oh, learned that he was still alive, when one of the neighbours came in, you know, all excited, said, ‘Lord Haw Haw has just said that your son’s a prisoner of war’. They’d been listening to Lord Haw Haw and he gave a few names out of prisoners. So anyway, there’s this letter from the Air Ministry saying, ‘Dear Mrs. Hamilton, we note that you’ve had no news of your son John or George, with regard to your request that your third son, Sergeant James Hamilton be grounded, this is receiving urgent attention.’ Well I was never grounded but I was posted from the squadron, and although I can’t say well that’s why because I don’t know for certain if that was why, but it gives me a ninety-nine percent, I would never have asked my mother about it because, you know, we never talked about my brothers ever, never done, so I wouldn’t have asked. So I’m pretty certain that she was the one set in train and I’ve got the letter now from the Air Ministry to her and it says, ‘I’m instructed to express the department’s grief, the department’s something or other, at your great grief’. To my mother. So obviously the people there think, cor two brothers getting shot down. Because in the First World War, we lost eight hundred and fifty thousand men killed, in the Second World War, and by now we were a much bigger country, a bigger population, we lost two hundred and sixty odd thousand, so it was less than a third, so whereas in the first war everybody knew somebody from their street, in the second war, it was quite unusual and for a lot of the time it was only Bomber Command who were losing anybody to speak of, because nobody else was involved in it.
SJ: When you went on your [unclear] to do your training, did you have any lucky mascots or any superstitions or anything like that?
JH: No, no.
SJ: No.
JH: No, [laughs] we had enough to do to get ourselves in there, climbing over the rear spar with all your kit on you know, harness —
PJ: Did you all go out together was there —
JH: Beg your pardon?
PJ: Was there that comradeship?
JH: Oh yes, we were all NCO crew, there were no officers in the crew, although the pilot became a pilot officer after he was, after he died, because it’s always backdated to the date of the initial application and he must have applied for a commission, probably told to apply ‘cos I think, by then, there had been a policy decision that all pilots of four engine aircraft would, in future, be officers, so, because up till then, there’d been sergeants, flight sergeants, warrant officers. Sixty per cent of air crew or thereabouts were NCO’s and about thirty per cent were officers.
PJ: Well on behalf of the IBCC, Jim, I’d like to thank you for allowing us to interview you. Thank you.
SJ: Thank you.
JH: I’ll show you some of these bits I’ve got here.
SJ: Yeah, you can stretch now —
JH: I don’t know about that laughs] —
PJ: It’s so frustrating, ‘cos you want to lark or psyche us up or say something, you know, and you can’t and I find that very restricting.
JA: But of course, Dad, what you didn’t mention about the German prisoner of war who went up in the Halifax.
JH: Oh yes.
JA: He went up in the nose cone, didn’t he?
JH: Oh yes, he, in the bomb aimers position, he wouldn’t have taken off there because it was absolutely forbidden for anybody to be forward of the cockpit for take-off.
PJ: That’s quite ironic, isn’t it —
JA: Exactly.
PJ: You know though, Jim was flying in that –
JA: Well apparently the Germans had babysat me, hadn’t they, Dad? Because I was born in early 1947 and they were still there the prisoners of war.
PJ: Yes.
JH: Oh yes.
JA: Yes.
PJ: You don’t realise do you.
JH: No



Pete Jones, “Interview with James Hampton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 16, 2024,

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