Interview with Ian Henderson


Interview with Ian Henderson


Ian Henderson was born in Lockerbie and studied law at the University of Edinburgh for two years before joining the Royal Air Force. He travelled to Canada onboard the RMS Mauretania to train as a pilot, after two months near Edmonton on Oxford and Anson aircraft, Ian transferred to navigator training. He joined 153 Squadron at RAF Scampton flying Lancasters. Ian’s crew included Pilot Donald Legg from South Africa, Wireless Operator Russel Rawlings from Canada, Bomb Aimer Dave Jones from Wales, Upper Gunner Andy Anders from England, Rear Gunner Jack Beat and Flight Engineer Jack Ross from Scotland. He recalled an operation on the Urft Dam in December 1944 where his aircraft P–Peter suffered an engine fire due to anti-aircraft fire and they carried out a forced landing in Brussels, then under Allied control. After a night spent in an ex German army barracks his crew flew home to RAF Scampton aboard a transport aircraft. His damaged Lancaster was destroyed on the ground at Brussels in a Luftwaffe attack shortly after. Ian described using both Gee and H2S navigation aids, with Gee being jammed by the Germans for perhaps 50% of the duration of an operation. On the 13/14 February 1945 Ian took part in an operation on Dresden, he described how to the crews it was just another operation. Crews were briefed that it was at the request of the Russians who feared German troops were amassing in the area. When they were around 90 miles from the target Ian recalled being told there was no need to navigate further as the fires from the burning city were clearly visible. Ian was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. On completion of 30 operations Ian was commissioned and transferred to Transport Command as a navigation briefing officer. Posted to Karachi he briefed crews making the journey from the Far East to Great Britain on known hazards they could face. Returning back in 1946 he resumed his studies at the University of Edinburgh before joining his father’s law firm in Lockerbie.




Temporal Coverage




00:35:43 audio recording


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JS: Ok.
IH: Right.
JS: Right. This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jim Sheach. The interviewee is Ian Henderson. The interview is taking place at Mr Henderson’s home in Lockerbie on the 17th of October 2017. Ian, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed today. Could you tell me a little about your life before you joined the RAF?
IH: Yes. Well, the war started in 1939 when I was seventeen. And I had left school by that time and I went to Edinburgh University to study law and I had two years there before I joined up. I wanted to be a pilot but, and I went to London, at Lord’s I think we started off with. We had several stations. Training stations. And when I was twenty I went to Canada. At Edmonton, Alberta, still as a pilot trainee. Then after about a few months I was told they had too many pilots, trainees and I was asked to be a navigator. Train as a navigator. Of course, you just did as you were told in these days and I did that. I finished my navigator’s training, came back to this country and further training. And then I joined up with a crew and we went to Scampton, 153 Squadron. My pilot was a South African. Donald Legg. And an excellent pilot. And I’m quite sure we owe our lives to him because at that time one of the main dangers, risks was collisions with adjoining Lancasters or bombs being dropped from above on to you and a good pilot could avoid that. So we survived the war. We had one rather difficult experience. At December 1944 it was we were trying to bomb a dam called the Urft Dam and we were hit. Before that the cloud came down. We couldn’t see the target so we were told to come back home again. Dump the bombs in the North Sea. But then we were hit and an engine caught fire. We couldn’t get the fire out. It burned for about two hours. However, we got as far as the North Sea, dumped our bombs, got back to Brussels which was free at that time and landed there. Made a forced landing there and got home safely the next day. Actually, the following day the Luftwaffe came across in force and shot up all the aircraft in that particular airfield. So we lost our plane. It was pretty badly damaged anyway. And then, that was December 1944. The war ended about six months later and I was sent to India as a navigator instructor. Spent a year in India. And then I was demobilised in 1946 or ’47. Came back home, completed my law training in Edinburgh University. Came back to Lockerbie and went in to my father’s business where I spent the next forty five years. So I, I had a very enjoyable life. I’m glad I lived when I did [laughs]
JS: What, why, why do you think you wanted to join the RAF as opposed to anything else in the services?
IH: I think it was the [pause] it seemed the most, I don’t know, exciting service to be in. I still think that. Flying was such an adventurous thing and you were less regimented I think than in the Army. Or at least I got that idea. And I’m sure I made the right decision. I enjoyed my stay in the RAF immensely.
JS: You mentioned you did your training in Canada. So, how did you get to Canada?
IH: Oh, well we got to Canada by Mauretania ship. It was supposed to take ten thousand passengers. There were thirty thousand of us aboard in the hold. The various parts that they were very cramped. And we had to go very quickly to avoid the submarines. Thirty miles, I think it was thirty knots we travelled at. And we realised then we were so packed that if we were torpedoed there wasn’t much chance of getting up and into a lifeboat. However, there was no, we got across to Canada quite uneventfully and landed in Halifax. Took the train across to Edmonton, Alberta where I spent the next year, or eleven months I think it was. Before that as I said I was training as a pilot to begin with and then told I had to remuster as a navigator which I did. So after completing the course in Canada we came back home and, what year would that be? 1942 it was, I think. And spent most of the rest, I spent a good year, a year and a half at at Scampton near Lincoln. I think we did thirty, thirty operations without much. I think, I think we had quite a successful tour altogether. We were hit several times but nothing, nothing too serious except the time we caught fire. The most dramatic operation of course was Dresden. And we were one of fifteen aircraft from 153 Squadron at Scampton and our pilot was a South African. Donald Legg, who was a pilot. A Canadian called Russell Rawlings. A wireless operator, a Welshman. And upper-gunner was Andrew Andrews and the rear gunner was a Scot called Jock Beet from Dundee. Donald Legg, our pilot was thirty two years of age. Much older than the other members of the crew who were all in their early twenties. The Lancaster P-Peter, the second one of that name which this crew had. The first one had been destroyed a few a few weeks earlier when after a bomber operation on the Urft Dam the first P for Peter had been hit by flak which had started a fire in the port engine. The fire could not be extinguished but the pilot had been able to fly as far as Brussels and to land there. Brussels was at that time was in the hands of the allies. Before going to Dresden we’d been advised that the Russians had particularly asked for the RAF to carry out the attack to help them. They had believed, the Russians had believed that there was a build-up of German troops and armour in Dresden preparing to make a counter attack on them. To the crews involved it was simply another operation. The principal difference being that it was a very much a longer distance than the average operation and they would be under possible attack from enemy fighters and flak for a longer period. There was a strong wind blowing that night. We took off at 21.22. About ninety miles from Dresden the pilot told me to stop navigating because he could see the fires that were burning on Dresden. The Americans had been up there earlier. So, due to the, due to our diversionary tactics which confused the Germans no enemy fighters were encountered in the operation. But this was very exceptional and there was no sign of the Luftwaffe being any less strong or active previous to or after the Dresden operation.
IH: My personal view at the time was that Dresden was just another operation which was intended to give assistance to the Russian allies and would be a further step in defeating the enemy which was still a powerful war machine in operation and was quite capable of carrying out long enough to develop and use more powerful weapons. Which they were working on. Namely guided rockets and the atom bomb. I firmly believe that the devastating destruction caused to Dresden which was contributed to by an exceptionally strong wind that night was a psychological blow to the Germans that resulted in the war ending many months earlier than it would have been otherwise and so probably hundreds of thousands, saved probably hundreds of thousands of lives of death camp prisoners, British and American servicemen and British civilians. At this stage of the war Germany was still occupied, had still occupied much of Europe including Yugoslavia, Greece and the Channel Islands. Jews were being murdered and the gas chambers were still operating in the concentration camps. The Germans had developed a new weapon, the V-2 and were attacking London with these rockets. There was no clear indication of when the war, which was in its fifth year would end. The orders to bomber crews were to hit only military targets and this they endeavoured to do despite heavy enemy defences.
[pause – pages turning]
IH: That’s Dresden.
JS: You spoke, you spoke, you spoke earlier before we started recording about your role as a navigator and some of the navigation aids that you had. Do you want to just —
IH: Yes. Yes.
JS: Say a little bit about that?
IH: We were lucky. We had several very useful navigation aids. Gee was a machine which recorded the position of your aircraft in relation to the ground. Beams sent out from Britain which the machine was able to interpret and tell you more or less where you were. It was frequently jammed by the Germans so you didn’t have the use of it more than maybe halfway through your trip. And the other was H2O. That was the name. H2O. Which sent down rays, reflected them back and you could interpret, find out your position that way. The only, they were useful over the coastlines and lakes, lochs but they had their limited use. Just. They didn’t tell you exactly where you were. So most, and of course you had the astro navigation which was a bit tricky at times because the aircraft was moving up and down so quickly that you couldn’t take an accurate fix. So it was dead reckoning most of the time. You knew approximately. You had your compass and your winds and you worked it out that way. It worked.
JS: You mentioned your crew.
IH: Oh yes. Ah huh.
JS: How did you crew form up? And how did you get on with your crew?
IH: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well. when you were fully qualified you were all taken to a large hangar and told to sort yourself out. And it was quite a hit or miss business joining up. I think the pilot would come around and spot you and ask you what was your position, what was your qualifications and when he got to the right number of his crew that was it. It was very, it was very hit or miss but very successful. We got on very well with our crew. We spent a lot of time together. The officers of course were billeted in one part of the, the airfield. And the other ranks, the rest were mostly at that time sergeants. Non-commissioned officers. Apart from the pilot who was a South African. So we got on very well together and we spent all our recreation time together. We were very often in Lincoln at a dance or, you know pub.
JS: How was Scampton as a base?
IH: Oh, Scampton was a war, a peacetime, I beg your pardon a wartime. No. A peacetime base it was. It was a very good station to be on. We were, I can’t, I think, I think we were in, I can’t remember what we were in. Probably in Nissen huts. No. I can’t quite remember that at all. The Nissen huts were quite primitive in these days but cold in winter. You were very lucky if you got a bed near a stove to keep you warm in winter, but yeah. When you’re in your twenties you don’t notice discomfort at all. At all. So I was glad I lived when I did and had a very happy experience in the Air Force. In the RAF.
JS: How was, how was Lincoln in those days?
IH: Lincoln was packed with RAF personnel of course every night. And my pilot had brought his wife across. They stayed at Vicar’s Court just beside the Cathedral. 4 Vicar’s Court. And very nice. A very nice city was Lincoln. A lot of happy memories of it.
JS: You, you mentioned your, your training in Canada. Just to take you back to that. So you were there for, around nearly a year.
IH: Yes. About, about a year. Slightly less than that. To begin with I was training as a pilot, and we flew Oxfords. Oxfords and Ansons. I think I was there probably about two months before I switched over to navigation. Edmonton was a very nice place to be. Well, we were out, slightly out of Edmonton but went in quite a lot. And it was a very happy experience. Canadians were a particularly hospitable people and when I landed in Canada, we landed in a small town. The lights were blazing. The shops were full. It seemed like, seemed a wonderful place to be. I was surprised afterwards a Canadian told me that that particular town was one of the most rariest in Canada. To me it seemed a wonderful place.
JS: So the weather there would be quite different from that you were accustomed to.
IH: Oh yes. Very cold in winter. Very, quite hot in summer. You went on parade in the hot summer weather. Hot summer day. Hot days. Someone always tended to faint, you know. Standing there in the heat. But a complete change in the winter. The winter was very, very cold. Yeah. But it was a wonderful place. Canada.
JS: How did the aircraft of that time cope with the diversity in weather from the incredibly hot to icily cold?
IH: I think they coped very well indeed. I never noticed any problems at all. No. No. I don’t think there was any, was any problems. I’d say they were mostly Oxfords and Ansons they were called. Two engined planes we flew in. But —
JS: You, you mentioned, again just back to your, your crew and the fact that the officers were separated from the NCOs which was, which was most of the crew. So how did operations and time off work like? What was the sort of balance between those? Like how often would you do operations compared with being stood down and recreational time and things like that?
IH: We did thirty operations over [pause] let me think now. Six or seven months. So quite a few training flights in between. But let me think now. The recreation. I think there was no difference then between the officers and the other ranks. We were all mostly sergeants, flight sergeants except for the pilot was a lieutenant. A flight lieutenant. The bomb aimer was a Welshman. Dave Jones. He was also commissioned. That left five of us flight, flight sergeants. And we were definitely inside at that time. Not in a, not in a Nissen hut. I remember we were in a permanent room in an inside building. I think we all spelt in the same room which was fine. And [pause] but, and recreation we’d all go out together in to Lincoln. To a dance or the cinema. Or a meal. No. Not a meal. We didn’t eat out much. But no, that was a very happy time.
JS: Good.
IH: A happy time.
JS: Good. You [pause] you talked about the operation where you had to land in Belgium. So you obviously lost your aircraft there then.
IH: Yes. The aircraft was quite badly damaged of course and we stayed that night in Brussels in an ex-German barracks. And we got some, given some money to go into the town for the evening, and next day we got, we flew back again in another aircraft. A Dakota. Back to Scampton. And either that day or the next day the Luftwaffe came across in force and shot up all the aircraft in this area where we’d landed in Brussels. So we lost our aircraft, our Lancaster completely that time. And we got a new one when we got back. Back to Scampton. That was the December. December 1944. So we’d have that until the war ended. That was in May 1945. After that we were split up and I went to Crosby near Carlisle to navigate for the longer distances over the Pacific against the Japanese. But before the course was finished the Japanese surrendered and instead of going out to fly, to operate there I was sent out to be a navigation briefing officer. By that time I was commissioned and at Karachi near Mauripur. Karachi. And all the planes were bringing back Army personnel by aircraft so all the planes went through Karachi and they were briefed about the various risks involved on the way back. Where not to have a forced landing because the natives were hostile. And I was there about a year. A year I think it was in Karachi. Again, a very enjoyable experience. After that I got back home. I was demobbed. Went back to Edinburgh University. Completed my law degree and joined my father in his business, legal business in Lockerbie. I met my wife to be at a dance in Lockerbie. She was in the WAAF but we didn’t, we didn’t meet in the Air Force so I met her at this dance and we got married a year later. And after that my life was uneventful but very happy.
JS: You, you spoke about being in Brussels and being given some money to go.
IH: Yeah.
JS: And do Brussels if you like.
IH: Yes.
JS: For the evening. How was it then? Because I mean it couldn’t have been liberated for particularly long before that time.
IH: Oh no. No. It was very bleak at that time. There must have been some shops but there was no, no light. No nightlife. I suppose we spent our money I suppose going to some local pub or would be. I don’t remember having anything having a meal of any sort. And certainly the, we’d spent the night in an old German barracks which were very primitive. Just a night but again at that age you don’t, not at all conscious of any, any, any discomfort. Took it all in [pause] took it all in our stride.
JS: That, that must have been quite a rare experience though for someone in your squadron to end up if you like having to put down on the continent.
IH: Oh yes.
JS: And then come back because to a certain extent you were on the right side of the line so to speak.
IH: Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s right.
JS: Ok. As a, as a Bomber Command veteran how do you think you were treated after the war when you came back?
IH: Well, very well indeed. No complaints at all. We were demobbed and given a suit of clothes. A new suit of clothes. I think a hundred pounds. And things were very different. Very strict, strict rationing then and there was strict rationing for about seven or eight years afterwards. But again, these hardships don’t mean much to you when you are in your early twenties. You just accept them. No. We were very well treated when we got back. And so I was very glad I joined the RAF in preference to the Army or the Navy. It was a very exhilarating time.
JS: You, you mentioned when we spoke earlier about Churchill’s attitude to Bomber Command and, and the end of the war.
IH: Yes. Yes, indeed. Well, Churchill had authorised or instructed I should say the bombing of Dresden. Up to that time the, the Germans had been bombing British cities, killing a lot of people and there was a great animosity towards the Germans and a great support for the RAF. For the bombing operations they carried out. But once the war ended I think it’s a slight change. The criticism of the bombing of the German towns especially Dresden. And I was a very keen supporter of Churchill during the war. I think he did a marvellous job. I was slightly disappointed at his lack of support for the Bomber Command at the end. And I think however it was understandable. He wanted, Churchill was keen to get back in to power in parliament and he thought that too much support of the bombing of Germany might damage his chances of being successful. But, and that, that was I think quite understandable. So, but no I was a keen supporter of Churchill really and that was, and I understood his reason for what he did.
JS: When you went to Karachi did you have a choice to be demobbed before that or was that just where you were sent?
IH: No. Just where I was sent. Yes. At that time. Yes. I ‘d been switched to Transport Command at that time and we were being demobbed in groups according to when, how long you’d been in service and I had a year after the war ended before I was demobbed. My turn. When my turn came up.
JS: But, but the thing you were doing in Karachi was predominantly to do with if you like that flow of, of prisoners and service personnel coming home then.
IH: Exactly. They all, they all I think came through Karachi and Transport Command at that time was taking them back home.
JS: And, and what sort of aircraft were doing the majority of that work?
IH: I think they were mostly Liberators. Big American planes in Karachi. In Transport Command. At that time I remember I was sent to Cairo for a few days to check up on the, the route and that was a Liberator I was on. And I found Cairo an interesting place. It [pause] the, then I came back to, went back again to Karachi and eventually we were demobbed. We came back. Yes. By, by sea it was. We flew out to Karachi but we came out by sea through the Suez Canal and that took quite a long time in these days. I can’t remember. Quite a long time. Going out to Karachi took, took about three days. Various stops in North Africa. But coming home of course by sea was a very pleasant experience. It was all over then.
JS: So, so what, what sort of ship did you come back on? Can you remember?
IH: I can’t remember the name of it. Like I can remember the name of the boat going out to Canada. The Mauretania. But I can’t remember the name of the boat, the ship we came back in. It was a passenger, a passenger liner. That’s all.
JS: Great. That’s been super.
IH: That’s great.
JS: Thank you very much for sharing.
IH: That’s a great pleasure.
JS: That’s been very —
IH: It’s been a great pleasure.
JS: Very, very interesting.
IH: A great pleasure indeed.
JS: Thank you very much. I’ll stop this.



James Sheach, “Interview with Ian Henderson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 14, 2024,

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