Interview with Harry Harris

Title

Interview with Harry Harris

Description

Harry ‘Sam’ Harris grew up in Scotland and volunteered for the Air Force. He trained as a navigator in South Africa. On the penultimate day of his training he flew over a multitude of lifeboats bearing the survivors of a torpedoed ship. The next day he flew over a U-Boat above water and the pilot turned the aircraft to attack it. On return to Great Britain he was posted to 576 Squadron at RAF Elsham Wolds. After his first tour he wanted to continue to fly and was posted to a Mosquito Squadron. He discusses being attacked by a Me 262. He notes that of the thirty two men who passed out with him in South Africa only eleven were left after the war and three of those had been prisoners of war. After the war Harry stayed in the RAF and flew in a wide variety of aircraft.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-09-09

Contributor

Julie Williams

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

01:19:59 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AHarrisHST150909

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

BW: Alright. This is Brian Wright and I’m interviewing Mr Harry Harris on Wednesday the 9th of September at 2:25 in the afternoon in his house. So, Harry, you were in the RAF, in Bomber Command. What was your rank when you left?
HH: Flight lieutenant.
BW: Ok. And start us off. Just please tell me about your home life before the war.
HH: Well in 1939 I lived in ‘Trose and I went down to London to start a chef’s course at the Westminster College for Cookery and I stayed with an aunt who lived in London. I was there during the Blitz and then my, my cousin and I didn’t agree so I was evacuated to Exeter as an evacuee.
BW: Right.
HH: But I didn’t like it at Exeter and I came back to London. Started, re-started on the course and I lived in a sort of YMCA place beside the River Thames and it was the centre of the bombing there and, but I liked it. I went out every night to watch the bombers. But then I had to leave and I found out later, my aunt had been paying for my education and she had to stop work and look after her parents. So, I had to go home and I worked for a year in a mental, the hospital of a mental asylum.
BW: And what year was that?
HH: That was in 1941. And then when I became seventeen and a half — it was 1940, I came back. And when I became seventeen and a half I volunteered as a pilot at Aberdeen. Then I went to Edinburgh about July to do the course. The tests and things. And they drilled me then as a navigator and I found out much later, when I was at the RAF flying college that if you got a certain, they did a maths test and if you got above a certain number you automatically qualified as a navigator. Under that you became a pilot or an air gunner. And we used to, when we found out we used to call them the dim pilots [laughs] because they couldn’t pass the test. But then I went to, went to London to Lord’s Cricket Ground. That was where we think we met. And then went down to Torquay. Babbacombe near Torquay, for the first course. Training course. And then from there to Eastbourne for another course and from there went to, to South Africa for our flying. We landed at Cape Town and went up to Pretoria and then down to Port Elizabeth where we did our course. Our flying course. And then passed out and got our wings. I got mine in November 1942.
BW: And this was your navigator wings.
HH: Navigator. Yes.
BW: Right. What prompted you to become a navigator? I think you mentioned earlier you wanted to be a pilot.
HH: A pilot. Yeah. Well when I went —
BW: Why the change?
HH: When I went to this board at Edinburgh. I forget what they called the board. Screening board. And we did, you know, oral interviews. We had written tests and one was a maths test and apparently that’s when the heavy bombers were coming in and they wanted navigators and so they did this by choosing above a certain percentage in the maths test. You were automatically selected as navigator.
BW: Ok. And when you went down to Cape Town for the, for the flying was that the navigational instructional part of flying?
HH: Yes.
BW: So you were put in an aircraft and learned to navigate.
HH: That’s right. Yeah. We flew in Oxfords. Yeah.
BW: Ok.
HH: At Port Elizabeth. And there used to be three u/t navigators in an aircraft. One was navigating. One was sitting beside the pilot and using the wind to find out the winds and the other one did the Astra. And —
BW: The Astra being the star navigations.
HH: Astra navigation. Yeah. And on the second last one of our course we flew out over the sea and our course commander was an ex-naval officer and we flew over the sea and we saw all these lifeboats. A tremendous number of lifeboats. We couldn’t communicate with them so we came back to Port Elizabeth and they sent out a boat and picked up all the survivors. But the next day we went out again. This time I was sitting in the front with the pilot and I saw a boat. It was a U-boat.
BW: Right.
HH: And the pilot, the South African pilot and he turned towards this U-boat and started diving. Now this U-boat came up, there was three gunners at the far end of the boat with a gun and they were firing at us and the shells were just going two or three feet above us because they weren’t allowing for us going down. So we carried a depth charge and as we got closer the three men ran towards the conning tower. As we got closed the conning tower was closed so they couldn’t get in. We dropped the depth charge and at this time we were only about fifty feet and this time we turned. There was nothing left. The U-boat had gone. And years, years later I met the course commander and, you know I asked if anything had happened about that. And he said, ‘No. They never confirmed the loss of a U-boat.’ Yeah.
BW: So you weren’t sure whether it had dived and avoided it or whether it had been hit.
HH: No. We didn’t know.
BW: There was no trace of it.
HH: No.
BW: Right. And that was just on, that was just on the training.
HH: [laughs] Yes. On training. That was our last trip. Funny. We went back to Cape Town and then, I forget where and we got on the boat again to come home. And we were in the South Atlantic when we, the ship ran into the wreckage of a ship that had been torpedoed. We lost a propeller and had to go in to New York and we got there on the 26th of December. And we were there for three weeks. Beautiful.
BW: Very good. And so, you then must have come back from America.
HH: We came back to New York.
BW: At some point.
HH: Back to Glasgow. Yeah. And then we did more flying at Wigtown on Ansons. Just to get acclimatized, you know, with the country. And then we went to the Operational Training Unit and it’s all written down there. That’s where we met the first of the crew. The pilot was Ken Murray and he’d trained in America and he wanted to fly on fighters. And when he found he was going to be flying on bombers he wasn’t a very happy chap I can tell you. But we got on well.
BW: Good.
HH: And the first day there they had to crew-up and at the end of the day there was twelve of us hadn’t crewed-up. That was two crews. So we want to the pub in Loughborough and somehow we got together and we stayed together.
BW: And this was The Golden Fleece in Loughborough. Is that right?
HH: Yeah. And the other crew that were there that night they were killed at the Operational Training Unit. They crashed on take-off and they were all killed. So if I’d gone with the other pilot I wouldn’t be here today.
BW: That’s fate isn’t it?
HH: It is. Yeah.
BW: So you were based in, in Lincolnshire.
HH: Yeah. Elsham Wolds.
BW: Or Leicestershire. About there. Is that right? At that time?
HH: Pardon?
BW: You were based around Leicestershire at that time if you were in Loughborough.
HH: At that time. Yeah. We must. We did our first operation from there.
BW: So where were you, where you were based at this point on — had you joined operations at this stage? Now you’d crewed up.
HH: No. No. We, we went. We did our flying training on Wellingtons. Wellington 1Cs. And at the end of the course we went on an operation to Dunkirk. And it’s all written down there. And when we got over the target we got hit by flak but we managed to get back home. The hydraulic system had gone. So had to wind down the undercarriage. Wind down flaps. And the next morning the engineer came and said that the shell had missed the fuel tank by three inches [laughs] And we wouldn’t be here.
BW: Wow.
HH: Yeah. He had it all. He said three inches.
BW: And so the early part of your flying career then you were flying in Wellingtons.
HH: Yeah. Wellington 1Cs. Yeah.
BW: And from then on, I mean we understand that you went on to fly Lancasters.
HH: On to Lancasters. Yeah.
BW: How many operations did you fly on Wellingtons?
HH: One. Just the one.
BW: Just the one.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And how was the change made, or the decision made for you to fly Lancasters?
HH: Well we, from the Wellingtons we went to train on Halifaxes. And then when the pilot was capable of flying the Halifax we went on to Lancasters. And then when they were satisfied that he was fit then we went to 576 Squadron, Elsham Wolds.
BW: And Elsham Wolds is also in Lincolnshire isn’t it?
HH: Yeah. Lincoln. Lincolnshire.
BW: And how did you find that change from Halifaxes to Lancasters? Was there—
HH: Oh, I loved the Lancaster. Yeah. That was, yeah.
BW: And there are more, are there the same number of crew in the Wellingtons?
HH: Yeah. Same number of crew. Yeah.
BW: Ok. So you were able to keep the same crew together?
HH: Oh yes. The same crew. Yeah.
BW: And what were the living conditions like on base at that time?
HH: Well, there was Nissen huts. I suppose we got used to them. Each Nissen hut got somehow fourteen, somehow twenty beds and you just got used to it. You had, well they just had the basics I suppose.
BW: Just a bed and blankets.
HH: Bed and blankets in them.
BW: And a stove in the middle.
HH: Yeah. Yeah there was three, I forget what they call them now. Three square things made up the mattress. Yeah. And that’s all there was. And the washing facilities were always outside. And in the wintertime there was no heating in the ablutions and so the water was freezing cold. Sometimes frozen altogether. And the heating inside the stoves [pause] well you used what you could. Logs or anything we used to use just to keep the place warm when we were there.
BW: Did you have the hut to yourself or were you sharing with another crew?
HH: We shared. Until we got to the squadron we shared with another crew. When we got to Elsham Wolds we had to wait until they got the Nissen ready. And we got the Nissen and we found out later that we had to wait because the crew that had occupied the Nissen had gone missing. And there was room for two crews actually but we only ever had the one crew in it. The losses was pretty heavy so we only ever had just the one. Just ourselves.
BW: And were you fairly close to the aircraft? Or to the mess?
HH: No. We had to get —
BW: Whereabouts on the base were you?
HH: We all had cycles. It was about a mile, a mile and a half to cycle.
BW: Each day. Just to —
HH: Yeah. Just to get up to the main part.
BW: Right.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. All the living accommodation was spread away from the airfield.
BW: Right. I’m just going to pause the recording for the moment.
[recording paused]
BW: I just paused the recording there to allow us to just put the door to and avoid any background noise. So, continuing on you were at Elsham Wolds then. You were flying Lancasters. And you were living in Nissen huts.
HH: Yeah.
BW: At the edge of the airfield. What were your, or describe for me if you would please a typical sortie for a Lancaster operation from sort of getting ready to do the operation and then flying it and then coming back. What was that like?
HH: Well we, we used to, every morning we went and got breakfast. Went up to the squadron offices and sometimes we would go ahead and do an air test and we’d wait until about lunchtime and then they would say whether the operations were on that night or not. That was usually around lunchtime. And then the briefing was with, there was a navigation briefing first. Just the navigator, the bomb aimer and the pilot there. And we got told the target, the route and I made out the flight plan. And when that was finished we went to the main operations room where the station commander, he would, all the crews were there and he would tell them where the operation was and that was the first they would know. We had known maybe half an hour, three quarters of an hour before but then they only knew then. And they went through the drill — what was happening, what the target was and any questions. And I can’t remember anybody ever asking a question [laughs] and then we went to the aircraft and took off at the allotted time.
BW: It, it’s been said at certain times that aircrew had superstitions. Were there any that you were aware of on your aircraft or in your crew?
HH: Any? Any what?
BW: Superstitions or habits or, guys would take, for example personal items with them as lucky charms. Were there any instances like that?
HH: See that picture behind you.
BW: There’s a, on the wall is a picture of, like a little gollywog.
HH: Yeah.
BW: Was that yours?
HH: Yeah. My wife, when we came back from South Africa my girlfriend, now my wife she bought me that and I wore that every time I flew. For the rest of my flying career I flew with that.
BW: And what’s —
HH: It’s downstairs.
BW: What sort of size is, is that? Is it, it must only have been a little figure was it?
HH: It was — high. Yes. It’s downstairs.
BW: So about three to four inches. Yeah Three or four inches tall.
HH: It just fitted inside the pocket. Yeah.
BW: Right. So that was your lucky charm that you took on a mission.
HH: That was my lucky charm. Yeah.
BW: It seems to have worked.
HH: The lucky charm and a box of matches in that pocket. And twenty cigarettes in the other one [laughs]
BW: About —
HH: I never ever flew again without that mascot. And I flew over nine and a half thousand hours.
BW: Wow. And did the, did your other mates have any similar things?
HH: Yeah. They had similar things but I can’t remember what they were.
BW: Right.
HH: But every one of them had a mascot. Every one [laughs]
BW: So you get into the aircraft. You get into the Lancaster and prepare. What sort of things would you start to do and the others start to do to, to get ready?
HH: Well, we, first of all we went to pick up our parachutes and Mae Wests. And then we got in a truck that took us out to the aircraft. We’d get inside and prepare. Like the pilot and the flight engineer would do all the checks. Checks. Myself and the bomb aimer, you know would get the flight plan and check all the other instruments were there. The wireless op was the same. And the air gunners, they would check all their equipment. And then it would be time to, to go to the take-off point. The take off point was a caravan and they gave a green light to take off. And beside that caravan, every time I can remember there was a crowd of WAAFs there. And airmen but mostly WAAFS would come to see us take off. And, and that, I was thinking back. That was the time that we were most frightened. Take-off time. Every time we talked it was, in case we would crash on take-off.
BW: Because the aircraft is fully loaded and fully fuelled.
HH: Fully loaded. Yeah. Had full fuel and we had a big cookie each. What was it? Two tonnes plus incendiaries. And one night we didn’t take off properly. We went through, past the end of the runway, through the fence at the end of the runway and luckily there was a quarry underneath and we went down in the quarry and came out at Brigg before we started to pull up again.
BW: So if there hadn’t been a quarry at the end of the runway — ?
HH: That was, we would have gone [laughs] That was, that was the worst one. Yeah.
BW: Wow.
HH: Yeah. That quarry saved us. And it was a long time it ever happened because we would fly over Brigg which was quite a few miles away before we started to climb.
BW: And yet the other aircraft would have been similarly fuelled and armed.
HH: Yeah but they —
BW: And they got off all right.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. Don’t know what it was. No. No.
BW: So, on the flight out you’re now airborne heading towards the enemy coast. What sort of things are happening in the aircraft at this stage?
HH: Well, on the Lancasters then we had a navigation aid called Gee. You know, where we could fix our position within, you know a half of mile. But once it got outside Britain the signal faded and the Germans were jamming it anyhow. So after that you relied just on, I don’t know the Pathfinders would pass winds and you used to use these winds because they had H2S which gave a map of the ground. But the winds weren’t always accurate. Sometimes a long, long way out. And so we, we just had this Gee. That was all.
BW: And apart from that there was just dead reckoning presumably.
HH: Dead reckoning. That’s all there was. Yeah.
BW: Did you —
HH: But then we got an aircraft. It was fitted with H2S [laughs] That was towards the end and that, that was absolutely different altogether. Yeah.
BW: Made the job a lot easier.
HH: Yeah. It did. Yeah.
BW: So did you have to circle the airfield to form up?
HH: Oh yeah.
BW: Or did you meet the formation over a certain point?
HH: No. We, you were given your take-off time and the first crews took off first so, and then you had time to set course over the airfield. That’s sometimes you’d get airborne and it was twenty, twenty five minutes before you got back over the airfield for the right time to head out. And it was strongly, they put, always had the new crews on there. They should have put the older crews on that but they didn’t. They didn’t in our squadron.
BW: So you had, you had a separate take off time to be airborne.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And you then had to be overhead the airfield at a certain time to set course.
HH: Yeah. All aircraft. Well if it was fairly light you could see the other aircraft. Otherwise you didn’t.
BW: And did —
HH: And I think there were some crashes there too.
BW: And did you see much of the other aircraft throughout the rest of the sorties?
HH: No. No.
BW: Missions.
HH: Not unless they were caught in the searchlights. No.
BW: So —
HH: We did, it was all night stuff we did.
BW: So presumably then very rarely would you actually see other aircraft in the, in the formation.
HH: No. You wouldn’t. No.
BW: How did it feel then? Did it feel as part of a combined effort or did it feel pretty much as a lone crew out there?
HH: Well it just, it was just the sort of thing you did, you know. I don’t know. As I said the only time we saw other aircraft was when they were caught in the searchlights. And over a target, you know when the target was all lit up then you could see other aircraft. Usually then there was full searchlights. But no. In the darkness we never saw anything.
BW: So when you left the shores of England and you were flying out over the Sea were you able to see France or the Dutch coast at all?
HH: No. No. No. It was always dark. Always dark. Never saw the ground.
BW: Did you ever receive any attention from the flak guns on the ground below or from night fighters at all?
HH: We once had night fighters and the rear gunner, he fired his guns but then I don’t know what happened. It just disappeared. That was the only time.
BW: And so when it came to being over the target what would be happening in the aircraft then?
HH: Well, the bomb aimer would be down giving directions. He’d find the [pause] the what do you call it? [laughs] The target indicator. And it was red, blue, whatever it was. And he’d find that and he’d head towards that and give directions to the pilot — left, left, right. And then the flight engineer and the pilot were in their seats. I would get out of mine and I would stand behind the flight engineer to see what was going on. And the, then there’s bombs gone and then they had to wait because the camera would take a photograph. So it was like forty seconds I think till the bombs went down and once the photograph was taken it was bomb doors closed. I would give the pilot the next heading and off we’d go.
BW: And all this time on the run in to the target and the run out you had to keep straight and level.
HH: Oh yes.
BW: One, in order to, to allow the bombs to fall accurately but also to allow the photograph to be taken.
HH: Had to be absolutely straight and level. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Were there times when that wasn’t possible?
HH: The only times if you’d got behind another aircraft and then you’d go bumpety bump. That was awful. But when I was, later when I was in Mosquitoes and doing the bombing that was beautiful. The Mosquito could hold itself nicely. But the Lancaster, no. There was always aircraft in front. It was a bit bumpy, you know.
BW: Just because of the turbulence —
HH: Turbulence. Yeah.
BW: From the aircraft ahead. And so once you’d dropped the, dropped the bombs and turned for home what sort of things were going on then? What —
HH: Well, that was, I think that’s when we lost a lot of the aircraft but I’m not sure because the German fighters then, they were all from over the place, had gone. They knew where the target was and had gone there and there was lots and lots of fighters.
BW: So the gunners were pretty active.
HH: We could, we could see the other aircraft being shot down. We’d see the tracer bullets and this sort of thing. It’s quite a lot of, the worst one was on the Nuremberg raid where we lost ninety five. And on the way out it was a long, straight course and the fighters got up. And I was inside there, I didn’t see anything but the flight engineer was saying, ‘There’s another one,’ and the pilot said, ‘It’s only dummies. It’s only dummies. They’re just shooting dummies. There’s no aircraft there.’ And when we got back to base, at the debriefing he said, ‘And we lost an awful lot of aircraft on the way out.’ Oh [laughs] Trying to keep us from being frightened. Yeah.
BW: When, during the flight back did you begin to feel safe again?
HH: I think we felt safe all the way really. It was just we’d done the job and I was just getting back.
BW: Ok.
HH: I can’t, all I was worried about mostly was when we could pick up the navigation. Gee. You know. To be sure we were in the right place. But I, I don’t think we were. I could be wrong but I don’t think we worried too much going back. You know. It was going out. The very worst time was the take-off. That was, we all agreed that was the worst time.
BW: So once you were in the air the nerves started to settle a bit with doing your job.
HH: You were doing your job then. Yeah.
BW: So, roughly how long would each sortie or each operation have been then?
HH: About six hours. It’s all in there somewhere. Each one. About six hours I think. Yeah. But then after a while we started going to the French targets and that was, you know five hours maybe. And the very last one was on D-Day. We went to Vire Bridge in Northern France. And that was the first time that the bomb aimer had seen where the bombs landed. And two of them landed on the bridge. He was so happy we hit it.
BW: What was the name of the bridge again?
HH: Vire. V I R E.
BW: Oh. I see.
HH: Yeah. My eldest daughter’s, well she’s been going to France for years to a motorbike thing and she brought back a picture of somewhere around. There is a picture of Vire Bridge.
BW: Obviously rebuilt since your bomb aimer put two bombs on it.
HH: Yeah. Funnily enough on Mosquitoes I only once saw where the bombs dropped. It was a Cookie we carried. No, I wasn’t. Sometimes. And I can still see it. Yeah. There was a very, very wide road. A canal running along the side and a building with a massive door at the side. The bomb landed in the middle of this so it must have blown the door, must have blown the side off the factory. That’s what we were aiming for. The factory. That was the only once.
BW: And the bomb hit. It landed on the road. Or landed in the —
HH: Landed on the road. Yeah. It was halfway between the building and the canal.
BW: But it still blew the factory down.
HH: It would have. It was only about ten fifteen yards from the wall so it must have blown it right, right out. And the factory too, I hope.
BW: And when you returned to base after a successful operation what then happened? You mentioned debriefing.
HH: The debriefing. Yeah. You went in front of the intelligence officers and they, they mainly the questions, you know. They wanted to know anything and we just told them about the trip.
BW: And what sort of questions would they ask?
HH: Oh, about the Pathfinders. Did they drop the right, did they drop the right colours and that? Did you think they were in the right place? And this sort of thing. About the timing. Did you see any enemy aircraft and enemy gunfire? That was the sort of things they wanted to know. Just the defences.
BW: And once you’d had the debriefing? What? What then?
HH: Oh, we went back. Handed in our parachutes and Mae Wests and then went for a meal in the mess.
BW: How did you spend your spare time between operations?
HH: Well, we were at Elsham Wolds and it was quite, quite a long way to, Brigg was the nearest place. And Scunthorpe was beyond that. And we’d, initially we’d all go out together, all seven of us and we’d go to Brigg and drink in the pub there. And we had bicycles so we’d cycle there and cycle back. And then the pilot got commissioned so he sort of left us then and we split. We did the same as before. And then the bomb aimer and the flight engineer, they met a couple of people and they went to their home. You know and they sometimes stayed overnight if they could. And the two air gunners, they went on their bikes and they cycled all the way up to the Humber and they went together. So there was the wireless operator and myself and we just went our own way to the pub and the dance hall and back. That was it. Go to Scunthorpe. Got the train to Scunthorpe and get the last train back.
BW: And were you on ops every night or were there periods —
HH: Oh no. No. No. No. Very seldom it was two nights in a row. Sometimes there’d be a week’s gap or something. And every four days, every four weeks we had a week’s leave. But because of the losses sometimes we got leave every three weeks. Yeah. The losses were pretty heavy at the time.
BW: How did you spend your leave when you got the opportunity?
HH: With my wife. She, we lived not far apart in the village and we used to go out dancing and that sort of thing. That was all. In the summertime, well in the summertime then we had the bikes and we went biking, walking. But in the wintertime that was all there was because she was working all the time.
BW: How did you meet?
HH: Well we lived, my father and mother, my father was in the Royal Marines during the First World War and my mother was in the Women’s Royal Air Force near [unclear] in 1919. And they both lived in ‘Trose and they both went as nurses at the asylum, Montrose Royal Asylum. They both went as nurses. They met and got married and then I came along. And in that asylum, it was a small community and Mary’s father was the grieve. I don’t know, the head farmer. He was in charge of the farm. It was a great big farm. A really huge farm. So, you know, all the kids, we used to all play together and that in the grounds of the asylum. That’s how we met.
BW: And so you’d knew each other for a while before the war started and before you joined up.
HH: Oh knows, we played together and her brothers and that since we were five years old, you know, so. But it wasn’t until I was going overseas that I had a few days leave and I met her. And we just had a couple of days, you know going out and then we wrote and then it was another about fourteen months I think before we met again. Yeah.
BW: And how did you re-meet? When did you —
HH: Oh we kept writing all the time. Yeah. And then we got married in 1947 because I was going to be posted to an airfield in London, or near London. And I’d phoned the adjutant and he said accommodation was no problem. My wife would get a job. That was no problem. He guaranteed everything. So we got married. Went on honeymoon. Three days later we were going out the hotel and the porter came around and said I was wanted on the phone. I thought, ‘Oh. There’s only, there’s only the Air Ministry know I’m here.’ So I went and they said, ‘You’re posted to Singapore. You’re leaving in one week’s time.’ And so I went off to Singapore and at that time you weren’t considered married until you were twenty five. Well I was only twenty three. So it was eighteen months before she could join me.
BW: Just because of the service rules.
HH: Oh yeah. Eighteen months.
BW: So just, I’d just like to go back. You mentioned about flying Mosquitoes. At what stage during your career, your service career did you change to Mosquitoes?
HH: Well, when we finished operations on Lancasters I was posted to a Canadian run Operational Training Unit. They were flying Wellingtons. It was run by Canadians for Canadians but in this country. And the only RAF people there were the station commander, a group captain and a wireless operator. He’d done a tour of operations himself. But we were the only RAF personnel. And instead of lecturing I used to just to go up, fly with them in an aircraft with the trainees. And that was all that was done so I got fed up with this and I went and saw the station commander and said I wanted a posting. And he said, ‘No. No.’ And every Monday morning I went. In the end he said, ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’ve arranged for you to go before a commissioning board.’ And so myself and the wireless operator went before this commissioning board and got our commissions. And the next day I went to see the group captain [laughs] He said, ‘Now, don’t tell me.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And a week later he, he arranged for me to go on Mosquitoes. That was good.
BW: And did you move onto that squadron on your own or were there any mates that went with you?
HH: No. Just on my —
BW: Just on your own.
HH: Just on my own. Went to the, what do they call it where you all met? The pilots and navigators. And I crewed-up with this George Nunn. He crewed-up with me. He picked me [laughs] And so we flew together. We flew on Oxfords at first during this training and then on to Mosquitoes. And then on to the squadron. And then when the war finished in Europe I had a navigator friend, he was from the West Indies and he was going to London to meet his own people. So, I went down to London with him to this pub. It was full of West Indians and, but we had a good time. And then they said that 105 Squadron, Mosquito squadron was going to start training for the Far East. I thought — oh. So, I went back to thingummybob and saw the wing commander and I said I would like to transfer to 105 Squadron. And he went up in the air because he was organising this sort of, what do they call it [pause] West Indies. A big aircraft thing. Commercial aircraft. He was going to be the boss and he was looking for people to fly. And so I kept on and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You haven’t got a chance going by yourself. You have to find a pilot.’ Well, George wasn’t keen because he wanted to go back to his old job but when he, when he heard that he said, ‘Right. Away we go.’ So we got posted to 105 Squadron. And we were doing this, this new bombing aid they had. And we were ready. Just to be ready to go to the Far East when the war finished.
BW: But you got, you got out there it must have been late 1945 then.
HH: Yeah.
BW: In that case.
HH: Yeah. So 1945 finished with Mosquitoes and I went on the training on what they called BABS. It was a blind landing aid. And we went to various Transport Command stations and taught them how to fly this. And then I got, got married and then Singapore on 48 Squadron.
BW: And what were you flying there?
HH: Dakotas.
BW: How long were you out in the Far East?
HH: Just over two and a half years. I flew a lot to Hong Kong. India. Bangkok. A couple of times to Australia. It was quite good. A good trip. Yeah.
BW: How did you find the change from navigating in Lancasters to Mosquitoes? Both aircraft have different, slightly different reputations.
HH: Yes. Well —
BW: What was the experience like for you?
HH: The big, the big thing with the Mosquito was the space. It was the pilot sitting, like a pilot would sit, sit there.
BW: Yeah.
HH: And I would sit here [laughs] and he had all these instruments in front of him. And just down below was the bomb bay. So that, you know, after the space in the Lancaster, you know, a table this size you just had a thing you picked up like that.
BW: A notepad.
HH: It was a chart and everything there.
BW: Yeah.
HH: So it was quite different.
BW: It seems different in the sense that when you were in the Lancaster you would be working as a single navigator.
HH: Yeah.
BW: But yet, when you were in the Mosquito you would be doing two roles because you were the bomb aimer as well.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah, we got trained on bomb aiming. Yeah. We got, we did our training, bomb aiming training on Mosquitoes and I remember flying over somewhere in Lincolnshire one day bomb aiming and something happened going towards the target and something happened and the bomb went. The bomb released. And [laughs] you saw it and it landed in a farm yard. So we went back and, you know reported it because there was maybe something wrong with the bombing. Anyhow, the next day we got a phone message from a farmer. He invited us all out for a drink [laughs] Because they’d gone to the farm, they’d apologised. He wanted to know who they were and he invited us all out. Not us but the whole squadron for a drink. So I don’t know what had happened. If he had insurance or something like that.
BW: Was it a practice bomb that had dropped? Or —
HH: A practice bomb. Yeah.
BW: Yeah.
HH: Fifteen pounds. You know.
BW: Yeah.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And it just happened to come off the —
HH: Yeah.
BW: Off the release and into the farmyard. What sort of operations were you flying in Mosquitoes then? And how, how different were they to those on the Lancasters?
HH: Well the Mosquitoes we did, I think it was fifteen trips to Berlin. We did nineteen trips altogether and fifteen to Berlin. And it [pause] it was, I don’t know. In some ways it was easier that a Lancaster trip. We never worried we’d take-off. That never worried us. And it was just a case of getting to the target and it was a lot shorter time. Four and a half hours to Berlin and back instead of nine hours. And now, you used to get down, do the bombing and never had any problems.
BW: Were you part of the Pathfinder Force on Mosquitoes?
HH: No. No. Not the Path, no.
BW: Or were you —
HH: We were just ordinary. Yeah. No, we had the Pathfinders in front of us. They dropped the target indicators. And it was, no, it was, I don’t know it was just the two of us there sitting like this, close together. And sitting in there somewhere we left Berlin one night and we were always they always got coned by the searchlights. Every time we went there. And I just, I used to like that because I could see inside the bomb bay, you know. See the bombs and everything. We never minded. And we were coming back out one night and the searchlights, you know and it was no good trying to dodge them and suddenly the searchlights stopped. They all dropped. And I looked. There’s was a blister at the side and I looked behind and I could see lights. Red and green lights and I thought, I said to George, I said, ‘There’s some silly bugger going in there with his lights on.’ I said, I said, ‘No. He’s overtaken us. I said, ‘Direct to starboard. Go.’ And George, and they were pffft. The cannon shells came right across. And one of them took the top off the aircraft. We went down and the searchlights had come on. George got blinded and we were going whoooa and essentially —
BW: Apparently down.
HH: There were, the heavy aircraft were bombing, I forget the name of the place and we could visualise that and he turned and got the aircraft right and then looked at the altimeter and we were only about fifteen hundred feet above the ground and we’d come from twenty four thousand [laughs] Oh God. And anyhow we made it back. And it was years later when I was at the RAF flying college I was reading about, you know this thing and on that night, at that time, at that place, this German fighter that shot down a Mosquito [laughs]. I thought that’s great. It was the exact time and everything as that.
BW: If, if that’s the same account as I read about that was a raid over Potsdam. Near Berlin. Is that right?
HH: No. No. That was. We were at Berlin actually itself.
BW: Berlin itself.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And is it, was it right that the report said it was a Messerschmitt 262. It was a jet. A German jet.
HH: Yeah.
BW: So they were using those as night fighters.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And, and you were very lucky not to have put his bullets into the cockpit.
HH: Yeah. Just lucky we dived in time and just in the, oh and one, one of the bullets had gone through the tail fin. Right through the middle. The next day the ground crew there were sticking sticks through it [laughs] I thought, oh my God, that was close. Yeah. It was nice.
BW: I believe on that, on that particular raid on, as that was happening and you were spinning down you ended up upside down and you were on the, on the canopy.
HH: On the top. Yeah.
BW: So you were being pulled out of your seat.
HH: Yeah. Oh yeah.
BW: While the aircraft is upside down and you were on the canopy trying to get your parachute together. Is that right?
HH: I undid my harness to, to go down and get my parachute and open the bomb doors. Open the exit place. And it wouldn’t open. And so I got back and then I was sitting on the seat and she went pffft. Yeah. On our first Lancaster raid we never got to the target. We lost two of the engines and we had a full bomb load and a fuel load so we turned back and headed for The Wash to jettison the bombs. And the bomb aimer thought, you know, we thought well in case anything happens we’d better get ready to bale out. He couldn’t open the doors. Just, it was the pressure and that, it just wouldn’t open. So if anything had happened we couldn’t have got out. But we jettisoned the bombs over The Wash and then jettisoned some of the fuel because it was a tremendous amount of fuel we carried.
BW: But you managed to land safely.
HH: Oh yeah. Yeah. We did. Yeah.
BW: And were you ever caught in searchlights on other raids as well? You mentioned —
HH: Oh yeah. Lots of times. Yeah. Especially on Mosquitoes. Every time we went near the target they picked us up because they had a lot, a lot of searchlights then. But on the Lancaster I think there was only two or three times we got caught in searchlights. Just for a short time.
BW: Did the pilot have to take evasive action?
HH: Well in the Mosquito, we stopped because we couldn’t get out of them. They were, you know coming from all sides and it didn’t matter. On a Lancaster he could get out of them. Yeah.
BW: But you were never intercepted by fighters except for the, for the one occasion.
HH: Except for that once. Yeah. And very lucky.
BW: Were there other raids over France that you, that you recall? You mention one on the —
HH: Vire. Yeah.
BW: Vire Bridge.
HH: The one, the worst one of all was [pause] oh my memory. Starts with an M. It was the marshalling yards in the north of France. Now, what Bomber Command didn’t realise was that the Germans were sending troops up to the battlefield and the big anti-aircraft was based at this railway station. And we went in. If I remember rightly it was ninety five Lancasters from Number 1 Group. And we went in and just it was murder actually. And I think we lost forty nine. It’s all there somewhere. This stuff. Ninety five and we lost about half of them. That German anti-aircraft unit was stationed there and we were, for the Lancaster we were flying, you know at fifteen thousand feet. Which is ideal for them. Yeah. That was a tremendous loss.
BW: There’s a lot of reports I’ve seen of the German anti-aircraft fire being extremely accurate. It was always at the right height.
HH: Oh yeah. Yeah.
BW: But you never got hit yourself.
HH: No. Just that once in a Wellington. You know, that first flight. That’s the only time we got hit.
BW: You mentioned about flying on or around D-Day. Were you flying operations in support of D-Day? Do you remember anything about the build up?
HH: We didn’t know anything about it. D-Day was the 6th of June. We went out to a target in Northern France on the 5th of June but we didn’t know. Nobody knew it was about D-Day. And coming back, on the H2S on the Channel I saw the Channel was full of ships. And I said, ‘It’s the invasion. It’s D-Day,’ and we went back to, to Elsham and they said it’s D-Day in the morning and we just all laughed. And I said we saw them, you know, on the radar. And of course it was. Next day was D-Day. It was tremendous seeing all these ships. Yeah. But then we did our last trip then and that was it.
BW: And so very soon after that you finished flying on Lancasters. Just after D-Day.
HH: Yeah. On D-Day. That was our last trip. Yeah.
BW: And then you changed then to flying Mosquitoes.
HH: Now the pilot, he went back on Lancasters in ’45. Mid-upper gunner and the rear gunner, they both went back on operations ’45. But the wireless operator he just got to a squadron when the war finished. And the flight engineer, he didn’t want to do anymore because he’d got married.
BW: And did they let him? Let him —
HH: He was training. Yeah. He was. Yeah. Oh yeah. He spent his time training.
BW: But all the way through that you managed to keep together as a crew.
HH: Oh yes. Yeah. Yeah. And then we met again in 1978. It’s all written down there. It’s a long long story. It was a young chap. He went to Bristol to see the boat racing there. And he was staying the night in a pub and he saw an axe hanging up behind the bar and he asked the barman. He said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I used to break up aircraft after the war. During the war and after the war. And that’s from one of the aircraft.’ And he says, ‘Oh which aircraft?’ And he said, ‘Oh it’s got on it.’ And the bloke went and found out and it was our aircraft we used to fly in. And he lived in Kent. And he went to an air gunner’s meeting and met our air gunner and said, ‘Do you know, and it was our axe.’ And so from there you know we all got together then. It’s all written down there.
BW: Yeah.
HH: Bit by bit we wrote. And then they formed the Elsham Wolds Association. That’s how they got in touch with me from there.
BW: And were there more than one squadron based at Elsham Wolds?
HH: Yeah. Two squadrons there. 576. Was it 103 Squadron, I think? Yeah. I’m not sure. I think it was 103.
BW: And were they both Lancaster squadrons?
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
[pause]
BW: And so it seems you’ve had a pretty eventful and successful career and managed to avoid the, sort of impact of anti-aircraft fire.
HH: Oh yeah.
BW: And night fighters.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And all the sort of other dangers that people experienced in, and you —
HH: I was really lucky. Yeah. Really, really lucky.
BW: Did you ever know any crews that became prisoners? That had been shot down over France?
HH: Yeah.
BW: Were any captured?
HH: I think it may be in there. If not I’ll —
BW: Ok.
HH: I tried to, there was thirty two of us passed out in South Africa. At the end of the war there was only eleven of us alive and three of these was prisoners of war. I contacted you know because like the magazines, aircraft magazines they used to print losses you know. Who was killed and that. And I used to keep a look out for it all. Yeah. There’s eleven and I met, you know I met all eleven eventually.
BW: So you’ve done a lot of work to keep track of those guys that you met.
HH: Oh yeah. Well that’s —
BW: You keep in touch with them.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And that chance reunion in a pub down south with one of your, was it a bomb aimer who saw the axe over the, over the, at the pub?
HH: No. No. It was another bloke. Just a chap who was out there.
BW: I see.
HH: He lived in Kent and he went, he went to the Air Gunner’s Association because he thought maybe somebody knows about this axe. And he was right. Our mid-upper gunner did. And so it was he was he that formed the Society at Elsham Wolds. John. He’s been here once or twice. John Wiltshire. That was his name.
BW: John Wiltshire. And is he still around? Has he passed?
HH: I don’t know. I don’t know.
BW: Right [pause] Something I’m intrigued about if I could just ask. It’s your nickname. You have a nickname. Sam. Is that right?
HH: Yeah. Well —
BW: How did that come about?
HH: Well when we were going out to South Africa on the boat we used to have drills. You know. We had rifles and bayonets. We used to do drills and one day we were doing a drill and I dropped my rifle. And the course comedian, of course he says, ‘Sam, Sam pick up thy rifle.’ That was a song that was going at the time.
BW: I see.
HH: That stuck with me ever since. ‘Sam, Sam pick up thy rifle.’ [pause] Then when I went to that Canadian OTU I got Jock then. Jock Harris.
BW: Jock Harris. And you have the same surname of course.
HH: Oh yeah.
BW: As Bomber Harris.
HH: Yeah. The RAF.
BW: Was that ever put to you? The same nickname or —
HH: No. No. No.
BW: The RAF only had room for one Bomber Harris.
HH: Yeah. Only room for one.
[pause]
BW: Are there any other sort of memorable operations or, or events that perhaps spring to mind?
HH: Let’s think. No. I think we had it very easy really. [pause] No. The first Mosquito operation was fogged-in at base. It was fogged-in and we were running out of fuel and the pilot, George, he’d seen an airfield further back so we went back. We found this airfield and we were just, just wait to land and the engine stopped. Went bump on the runway and the fire brigade and that came out and got us out, you know. Bundled us out the aircraft and left the aircraft on the runway. And Lancasters, it was a Lancaster base and they were circling around the top because they couldn’t land. So we went and got debriefed and went to the mess and were having a cup of cocoa or something and there was a great thump on my shoulders. And I looked around. It was a chap who I lived next door to, we were born within three weeks of each other. We lived next door to each for about fourteen or fifteen years and he was on the one of the Lancasters. And he said, ‘Is that your heap of wood lying out there?’ [laughs]
BW: Is that your heap of wood lying out there?
HH: Yeah.
BW: Yeah.
HH: Jim Cassell. He’d got a mighty slap [laughs]
BW: What a way to meet up after living all that time next door to each other.
HH: Yeah.
BW: And then bumping into each other.
HH: Yeah.
BW: Literally in the, in the debriefing room. Which was your favourite aircraft, do you think to fly?
HH: The Lancaster during the wartime. But after that the Britannia was a beautiful aircraft. Yeah. That was the best one. But during the war the Lancaster. Yeah.
BW: You mentioned when you went out to serve with 105 Squadron in the Far East and you continued to stay out in the Far East for about two and a half years. At what stage then did you leave the RAF and what prompted the move?
HH: Oh 1968. I went to [pause] let me see. I left 48 Squadron. Came back to this country. I did a course, instructor’s course and then I instructed people to become navigators. In two places. And then I went to a place where they were training pilots on Meteors. I was a navigation officer and all sort of things. Then I went to RAF flying college as an instructor and was there for a while. Then went on Transport Command on Hastings, Britannias and VC10s.
BW: So you pretty well stayed on multi engine aircraft.
HH: Oh yeah.
BW: All the way, all the way through. Even though when you were instructing navigators for Meteors.
HH: Yeah.
BW: You weren’t flying Meteors yourself.
HH: Oh yeah. I flew in Meteors.
BW: You were. Right. You flew Meteors as well.
HH: Yeah. I, one of the blokes, he was a Polish bloke and at that time there were at the Farnborough thing. You know flying an aircraft straight up and then it would sort of come down, you know so he said, he got me flying. He said, ‘We’re going to try that today’ [laughs] We went up and the thing toppled over backwards and I was going to, I said, ‘I’m going to eject,’ and, ‘No. No. No,’ and he pulled it out then.
BW: So instead of going up nice and vertical and coming back tail down there the same axis you fell out backwards.
HH: Yeah. That’s the last time he tried it. Yeah. And I flew with Gus Walker on Canberras at the flying college. We did a trip to the North Pole from Norway but we ran out of oxygen just about seventy miles from the North Pole and we had to come back and we descended to the oxygen level and we landed at this place in Norway, Bardufoss. And as we landed we ran out of fuel and bump. She came down with a crash.
BW: You were very lucky there again.
HH: There. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Just made it home in time.
HH: Just made it.
BW: With no fuel.
HH: Yeah. Gus Walker. He was a really nice bloke. Gus. We were up to the top there once before and the Canberra couldn’t get back in. We were going to land then further south and there was a Hastings there and no pilot except Gus and he’d never flown a Hastings before [laughs] And he says to us, he says, ‘Will it be alright if I fly it? And we said, ‘Yeah. Yeah.’ And he flew it down there. Flew it to Oslo. It was alright. One of the funny things was when we was on Britannias there was a scare over Germany where a German aircraft or something had buzzed a civil aircraft. And somehow it got arranged that newspaper people would come and fly in a Britannia and this sort of thing would be, would be happening. And I was a navigator and Gus Walker was in charge of this lot. And he came up to the flight deck and we were chatting there and forgot all the fact that everything was going through to all the passengers as well [laughs] And then I looked up and I said to the pilot, ‘That’s not the airfield. We’re at the wrong airfield. Another airfield across there.’ And then I thought oh my. And Gus Walker went back and when we landed all the press came out and then one of them come across. He said, ‘That was good. I listened to all that. That was really really good. I enjoyed that.’ But nothing came out in the papers happily.
BW: So you managed to find the right airfield eventually.
HH: Yeah. Gus Walker. Yeah.
BW: Did you come across any famous pilots in the RAF at all? There were well known guys. People like Gibson flew Mosquitoes. Did you ever come across —
HH: Douglas Bader. I met him twice. Once when he was doing the instructing on, just after the war. I met him down south somewhere. And then when I was on 48 Squadron in Singapore he, I don’t know, he came in there to the mess. I don’t know. I can’t remember. And he recognized me in the crowd and I thought [laughs] and everybody’s [pause] yeah. He was a nice bloke.
BW: Ok. Is there anything that you would like to show us on the computer at all. But I think —
HH: I think you’ve got it —
BW: It might be a case of printing it.
HH: I think it’s all on there.
BW: Ok.
HH: Wherever you have it. Yeah.
BW: Ok.
HH: It’s all there. I hope. But if there’s anything else just phone. I’ll get it.
BW: Ok.
HH: I’ll tell you about these logbook pages.
[pause]
BW: Just going to have a look at some logbook pages.
[pause]
BW: We’re just, we’re just looking at one of the logbooks. Would you just describe what it says on the citation there? It’s dated 8th of October 1946. Is that right? At the bottom there.
HH: On 8th October 1946. Yeah. Something Headquarter 46 Group. Letter reference 46 at C250 something, something dated 20th of August 1946.
BW: What does the, so it says at the top. “Incidences of avoidance by exceptional flying skill and judgement of loss or damage to aircraft or personnel.” And it says, “Flying Officer HST Harris DFC, whilst navigation instructor on an Oxford aircraft EB798 during — ”
HH: “Exercise.”
BW: “Exercise.”
HH: “On eureka.”
BW: “On eureka.”
[pause]
HH: “Eureka homings”
BW: “Eureka homings from St Mawgan.”
HH: “From St Mawgan. The starboard engine failed and was feathered by — ”
BW: “By his skill.”
HH: “In operating the radar screen he enabled his pilot to carry out the shortened BABS. Let down.”
BW: “Guidance.”
HH: “And made a good landing in conditions, bad weather and poor visibility after breaking cloud at two hundred and fifty feet with the runway immediately ahead. By his knowledge of his radio aids and his skill in the operation of these he helped his pilot to save the aircraft from —"
BW: “Damage. Saved the aircraft from damage and the crews from —"
HH: “Injury.”
BW: “Injury.”
HH: That’s a long time ago [laughs]
BW: So that —
HH: 1946.
BW: Yeah. That is a citation that was presumably made into your logbook for skill in flying and avoiding an accident and injury to crew.
HH: Yeah.
BW: That’s very unique.
HH: That’s this one here.
BW: Well done.
HH: In six —
BW: So, 608 Squadron.
HH: Downham Market.
BW: Downham Market.
HH: That’s operations. Yeah.
BW: I’ll just pause again while you look for another document.
[pause]
BW: So —
HH: This is a bit here.
BW: So, for your services you were awarded the DFC. Was that because it was standard for aircrew or —
HH: No. It’s —
BW: For people to be awarded after so many missions or was there an act of gallantry.
HH: There wasn’t anything definite. But all pilots, when they did a tour of operations, all pilots automatically got a DFC. But I did fifty operations and I suppose that’s why I got it.
BW: Because you’d done over fifty ops.
HH: Hmmn?
BW: Because you’d done over fifty ops.
HH: No. The war finished then. No. Yeah, I could have done a lot more. Yeah.
BW: It’s quite something though to have come through so many operations. As you said before particularly because so many aircrew were killed during that time.
HH: It was just less than two months ago on the television they were doing some sort of programme and they said only one aircrew member in forty [pause] only one aircrew member in a hundred was it, survived forty operations. I forget the exact number now. I know that was forty operations and there were very few people.
BW: Yeah.
HH: That had done that.
BW: Yeah. That’s quite something. That’s quite an excellent sort of achievement really.
HH: See these things here. You’ve seen them [pause] This. My navigation logs. That’s, I think, I don’t know which aircraft that is. Put that other light on.
BW: So these are on, let’s have a look.
[pause]
BW: So these navigation logs are also recorded in —
HH: Yes.
BW: Wartime service so did you have to fill out effectively two logs.
HH: Some of them. Some of them are. Not all of them I don’t think. I’m trying to see.
BW: You Ok?
HH: Yeah. Where’s the switch? Oh, it’s up here [pause] The light switch is on there.
BW: So did navigators have to fill out another log as well as their own flying log?
HH: No.
BW: For operations.
HH: No.
BW: Or was this just done as an instructor?
HH: This light doesn’t work now. Oh wait a minute. Maybe it does. No. It’s broken. That’s why it’s off. I think the bulbs gone. Yeah. It’s —
BW: It’s alright.
[pause]
BW: Ok.
HH: You’ve got that all on there.
BW: So these records are all on the disc as well.
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Ok.
HH: It’ll take a lot of printing out.
BW: It looks like it. Yeah.
HH: And that’s.— [pause]
BW: Ok. I’ll just pause the recording while we look through for the documents.
[recording paused]
What I’ll do I’ll end the recording there. We’ve had a look through some documents and photographs of your time in the Far East. So all that’s left to do is, on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre is just to say thank you very much for your time Mr Harris. It’s very good of you.
HH: You’ll find a lot of things in these.
BW: Thank you.
HH: These CDs. Yeah.
BW: Yeah. We’ll arrange to get your CDs and documents copied by one of the other volunteers. They will send somebody out but they weren’t able to do that today. So we’ll sort that out for you. Thank you.
[recording paused]
BW: Very much so. Yeah.

Collection

Citation

Brian Wright, “Interview with Harry Harris,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 15, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11100.

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