Interview with Robert Holman


Interview with Robert Holman


Robert Holman was born and brought up in Leeds. He joined the Air Training Corps, enjoying camps at RAF Pocklington. On leaving school at fourteen he went to work in the shoe industry. He then joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer on ground crew. After working on an aircraft the crew would occasionally take Robert up to give them confidence that he had done a good job. He was finally posted to Lincolnshire with Bomber Command. He recalled that there would be eight or ten engineers working on a major service, which could take two or three days. He worked on Lancasters, Oxfords and Stirlings; the latter being for training purposes.
After the war Robert went back into the shoe industry as a retailer and finally opened a shop for Timpsons. He became a member of the Air Training Corps Old Boys Comrades.
Robert enjoyed his time in the services and remembered incidents, including when he was on guard duty at the gates; having three weeks off after having his appendix out whilst working at RAF Scampton, and getting a lift in the back of a wagon conveying dead sheep.




Temporal Coverage




00:50:18 audio recording


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AHolmanR180420, PHolmanR1801


IL: Robert, tell us a little bit about your early life and how you came to be in the RAF.
RH: Well, well, I joined the Air Training Corps and we used to go to Pocklington for weekends and I saw one that crashed and blocked the road at Pocklington with the wings across the road, blocking the road, and the fuselage in the gutter. And eh we had flights in the eh and we had weeks camps at Pocklington under canvas opposite the aerodrome and eh I, I really got attached, the, the main thing and the prize was the RAF uniform. It was a collar and tie, a smart uniform, and we stood out from the rest of the servicemen and the pride me father had on his face when I went on the weekend leave from after three weeks at Arbroath they gave us a seventy two hour pass before we went back for six weeks of field training after square bashing three weeks and eh the admiration with the uniform because the rest of the people just had ordinary khaki uniforms, no collars and ties. So we stood out from the rest of ‘em and then from, from eh Arbroath I went down into Lincolnshire a place called Skendleby.
IL: Right.
RH: It was a UTFLE.
IL: What does that stand for?
RH: Under Training.
IL: Oh I see. [laughter] Okay. Okay. So, but just take a step, just to take a step back. You were born and brought up in Leeds.
RH: Yes.
IL: At Seacroft.
RH: Yes.
IL: Okay and you also em but you, and you left school at fourteen.
RH: Left school at fourteen.
IL: And what, what did you do after you left school?
RH: I went to work in the boot and shoe industry, putting shoe uppers which was a craftsman’s job.
IL: Right.
RH: You know, even at, even at that job I had to wear a tie, so, ‘cause it was a different department making [unclear] fitting but the clicking department was the craftsman’s.
IL: So who, who were you working for? Was it just a - ?
RH: S [?] J Parsons
IL: Was that a shoe manufacturers in Leeds?
RH: Five hundred people worked there.
IL: Oh right. Okay.
RH: Men and women and they made shoes for all the different shoe companies.
IL: Aah! Okay. Okay. But you, you joined as a, you, you, you became an engineer. But that’s what you were doing in the ATC wasn’t it? How did you decide, who, who decided or did someone decide for you that you were going to do engineering rather than flight crew or, you know, learning to fly? ‘Cause a lot of the boys obviously who did ATC were just there because they wanted to fly.
??: You were very good with engines weren’t you Robert? [background chatter]
RH: [mumbles] I was very mechanical and I still remember my six month course such as eh induction, compression, power, exhausts, the four strokes of the internal combustion engine and eh the first job that I did was at East Kirkby when I passed out as a flight mechanic after six months was adjusting the contact breaker points on a magneto which was twelve thou’ plus or minus one, with a feeler gauge and I often used to stand at the side of the flight path and watch the Lancasters take off with admiration of the beautiful aircraft. It was all operated by just a little, a couple of brass studs, eh it was a magneto that were firing the spark across to lift them off with bomb loads on and everything.
IL: You must have felt very proud watching them take off when you, when you know, when you knew that –
RH: It was a real sense of achievement.
IL: Yeah.
RH: It was a real sense of achievement and admiration and you put your, your thumb up to the crew and they put their thumb up back and you wished them well with a little prayer, secretly.
IL: Absolutely, absolutely.
RH: And eh, you know, that was, that was a [unclear] but as I say, the very point of the conversations the ground technicians, the cookhouse people, the first aid people, none of them were ever mentioned in any books to do with the RAF and they were all aircrew, aircrew, aircrew. And I’ve nothing but admiration for the aircrew but without the ground staff working all night long in snow, rain, all of us, [emphasis] you didn’t do eight hour shifts. You were on the airfield sometimes at 7 o’clock in the morning and you were still there at 4 o’clock next morning.
IL: Right. So there wasn’t a sort of, you know, did you do, was it like, were you there, were you working seven days a week or did you have days of, or?
RH: The, we had the power plant bays, you had to do strip and build four engines.
IL: Right.
RH: So we used to work till 10 o’clock at night time and instead of taking ten days to do ‘em, we did ‘em in nine days, so we got a day off.
IL: Right. [chuckles] Okay. So that, so, it was, you spent roughly a couple of days with each engine?
RH: Yes.
IL: And so, did the engines, when you say stripping them and rebuilding them?
RH: New, new eh exhaust studs, new piston rings, new eh new valves and everything.
Il: So is it a bit like em an MOT?
[mumbling in background]
IL: So that you, each aircraft, each engine..
RH: All the aircraft had what they call a DI, daily inspection, where you look for obvious faults.
IL: Yeah.
RH: Where you took the [unclear] up and had a look for obvious leaks or anything and eh then they had minors after so many hours, then they had majors after many more hours and so that’s the how it worked.
IL: So how many, how –
RH: When you’d done a job, the first shock I got after leaving Cosford was when the sergeant said “Jump in and give the aircrew a bit of confidence in your work.” [laughter] And so I went up in Lancasters for fifty minutes at a time. From East Kirkby and places like that.
IL: So you, so you, you were flying in them just to give them –
RH: Confidence in the work. [laughter]
IL: That’s pretty good, isn’t it? [emphasis]
RH: That, that was the, we went up at Syerston and we’d worked on this aircraft it had crash landed and eh nose had gone into the, off the runway, into the grass at the side. We put new engines in and he says “Jump in and give the aircrew a bit of confidence.” And the only time we got chutes, Scotch bloke and meself, we went and got chutes and as it were flying, the wings were trembling, all the rivets had been shot to pieces. And as it jumped out he undid his chute, he pulled the ripcord [laughter] he couldn’t get out fast enough. And that were the only time [coughing] we used eh the chutes.
IL: Yeah.
??: Tell him that funny story about when you were measuring the, with the feeler gauges, and that other person came and said “I’ll take over.”
RH: No, that were after VE day, I got a call at East Kirkby and I was doing me LAC course, I was a first class, and I’d been working on, in the background, a spanner, I had to make a spanner as part of me LAC test and I’d made me spanner and I went into the office to see the sergeant and a phone call came through to go for injections for overseas, and the next thing I was at RAF Locking, Weston-Super-Mare being transferred into the Fleet Air Arm as we were still at war with Japan.
IL: Right.
RH: And so I wound up in the Fleet Air Arm for nearly a year and I went to work in a place, it may well have been Shropshire, HMS Gotwit it was called and there were Oxford aircraft, and I were working on them and so, it was common practice to jump in those like having a cup of tea. Then the war was coming to an end so you took advantage of having a few flights.
IL: Absolutely.
RH: But, what Dennis is talking about is, I was running this Oxford up where you had to build it up to one hundred and twenty pounds per square inch on the clock for the break pressure, to build the break pressure up. And this NCO came in and says, “What you doing? Get out.” And I got out the seat and he shot the throttles forward and jumped over the chocks and he went across the perimeter track into two other aircraft and got three aircraft off.
IL: Oooh! [emphasis] So I bet he was popular?
RH: Well, he eh, on the eh, eh, column, it was the RT button that was fastened with black tape, so he undid the black tape and put it behind the break and somebody else got the blame for it.
IL: Ooh. That’s very naughty isn’t it? Em, just coming back to your Bomber Command, you were, you were posted to Lincolnshire, but we’ve, you weren’t just based in one air, one, one, one air, one air, you weren’t just based in one air base? You, you travelled around quite a bit.
RH: I was based at Headquarters 5 Group. When they wanted any help at any of the airfields, we were in a Bedford van with a WAAF driver, being taken to Fiskerton, Wigsley, Syerston, Waddington, Scampton. The Dambusters went from Scampton.
IL: Oh absolutely.
RH: I went from Scampton to Lincoln Military to get me appendix out.
IL: Really? So you had, so you had your appendix out during the war as well?
RH: Yes, at Lincoln Military and from Lincoln Military they sent me to a place called Southwell, South’all.
IL: Oh yes, near Nottingham.
RH: And it was a stately home. Eh and eh they eh [rustling noise in background]
IL: Aah! [emphasis] Okay. So you, so you got three weeks off for your appendix?
RH: Yes.
IL: That’s a, that’s not bad is it really?
RH: Well, I, [background chuckle] I was taken to Lincoln Military, then we got three weeks convalescence at Southwell.
IL: Yeah.
RH: And the Women’s’ Institute at Nottingham used to lay parties on in Nottingham with a tea and a show, very kind, you know.
IL: Yeah.
RH: And eh, going back to kindness, the people in Lincolnshire, we used to go out from different camps, two or three of us, one of the chaps used to be a religious person and he used to say how he’d seen the light, and we went back to the farmhouses for a good meal [laughter] and the tables were laid out with lovely food and, you know, eh beautiful stuff, and he, as I say, we were sat in the background while he were going on about seeing the light and we were invited back for a nice meal.
??: Tell him about –
IL: ‘Cause it must have been, well it must have been nice to sort of be in a farming county, ‘cause presumably it improved what you were actually getting to eat.
RH: Well, yeah, we used to go out on push bikes, two of us, a chap on there were called Bob Twigg, and we eh used to go out miles away from camp on push bikes and knock on door and ask if they had got any eggs for us to take home when we went home, and he used to tell a story about his wife just having a baby, in a bad way, and so they used to feel sorry for him and they used to give us eggs.
IL: Was he married?
RH: Eh?
IL: Was he married?
RH: He was married. [laughter]
IL: Well, that’s all right then [laughter]
RH: We were rationed to an egg a week at home.
IL: Yeah.
RH: The civilians were rationed to an egg a week. And eh, that were that, and eh, you know, we used to do different things like that.
IL: So were you rationed to, as a, as a, in the RAF? ‘Cause one of the things that obviously, you know, we’ve heard from eh some of the aircrew over the years, is that the one thing that they always seemed to get whatever time of day was bacon and eggs.
RH: That’s right.
IL: So were you, were you allowed to have the, were you, were you, did you share the bacon and eggs?
RH: No, no but we, we eh as a unit I had a pass, 5 Group Servicing Section, and I could go into the cookhouse any time of the night and get a meal.
IL: Right.
RH: ‘Cause I were working up to ten or eleven or twelve o’clock at night and I could go and get a meal in cookhouse with me pass.
IL: Right. So what, when you were working, how, how long, what sort of, you were working very long hours sometimes. Was that, sort of, you worked until the job was done or –
RH: We were waiting for the aircraft.
IL: Right. Okay.
RH: We were waiting for the aircraft. In me diary it’s recorded that I worked on F for Freddie sort of thing waiting for the aircraft.
IL: Okay. So you, so when they’d arrived back they’d go into the hangar, then you’d,
RH: Yeah.
IL: you’d. Were you always work on one air, so, obviously most of the, the [telephone ringing in background] well [background talking]
RH: We didn’t know what we were gonna be working on, we just went into the flight office and they said, you know “Go out and do so and so, so and so.” You got the cowlings off and [unclear] it all, and drained the oil and whatever wanted doing and whatever other things in the diary here. [mumbles]
IL: So how often did, how often did you, you know you mentioned about minor services and major services, so how often would a plane, how, how many hours did a plane, an engine have to do before it had to go in for service?
RH: I think it was something, they had DI every day that you checked for obvious things.
IL: Yeah. But if there was nothing wrong with, if there was nothing wrong on inspection?
RH: Twenty nineth of Monday, January 1945 ‘Worked till 9 o’clock gave it studs and bearer bolts and gun turret pump drained.’
IL: Right. So it wasn’t just the engines you worked on as well, sort of you know, gun turret pump as well, so you worked on the eh –
RH: It was all part of the accessories to the engine.
IL: Right. So you worked on, you worked on anything mechanical within the air, within the aircraft?
RH: Nothing worked without – every other trade the RT people and everybody else had to wait till the engines were running.
IL: Right.
RH: You know, the gun turrets and everything operated from the engines.
IL: So when you were working on – say doing a major service, how many of you would be working on that, on that particular plane?
RH: There would be probably about eight or ten of us.
IL: Right. Okay.
RH: Two each of us you know, starboard or port, starboard aft, port aft. [?] You know what I mean.
IL: Yeah. And so how, how long would an aircraft be out of commission while you were working on it, say doing a major, a major service?
RH: Probably em two or three days.
IL: Right. Okay. ‘Cause you were saying that you had four – is it four at a time, you had four, four at a time?
RH: That was in the power plant bay. We used to bring four engines in that had been taken out of aircraft.
IL: Right.
RH: So you’d strip ‘em of the exhaust manifold, cylinder head, and all the other scraper rings and piston rings and replace ‘em all, and do that with four of ‘em.
IL: Right. And that – you were given ten days to do four? Is that right?
RH: That’s right.
IL: But you managed to usually do it in nine, so you got a day off?
RH: We used to work till ten o’clock or probably longer so we could get that day off.
IL: So what did you do for leisure? What was your, what was your –
??: I’m going to have to go Robert. Are you okay?
RH: Yes. Yeah. Okay Dennis.
??: I’m just going for some shopping. But I just wanted to be about when –
RH: Yes. Big thank you for your efforts.
??: Don’t forget to tell him some of your funny stories.
IL: Oh aye. We’ll get round to those.
??: The firecracker one. [laughter]
IL: It’s lovely to meet you Dennis. Take care.
??: Take care.
RH: Thanks for coming Dennis.
??: When I see Archie – What’s your surname?
IL: Ian Locker. I say, he, he won’t know me.
??: No.
IL: So, we’re back on again.
RH: So we used to hitchhike up from Newark to Leeds you know, to Seacroft crossroads and one funny decision, we were on the bridge at Doncaster, thumbing a lift and this car pulled up and an officer, army officer got out and me and this Bob Twigg, and another flight mechanic, jumped in and it was a staff car. He hadn’t stopped to let us in, he’d stopped to let this senior officer out and it were a sergeant driving so he must have been a senior rank. He had red epaulettes on his uniform and so we got almost to the crossroads in a staff car.
IL: Very nice. [emphasis] [laughs]
RH: Another time we had a lift and we were on like a, like a wagon with dead sheep in. You know, we’d still got the [unclear] on and we were stood on back of the cab of the driver, standing on dead sheep.
IL: So was that, so did you, you came back to Leeds even just for a day? Sometimes?
RH: Oh yes. Quite often.
IL: Right.
RH: Yeah. You used to hitchhike up.
IL: Did you have a lady friend in Leeds?
RH: No, not for – that’s another thing, one of the lads who came from Swansea, Fred, Frank Selwood, he married a NAAFI girl from the East Kirkby NAAFI. He came to live in Seacroft, ‘cause she lived in Seacroft.
IL: Right.
RH: So he met his wife and as I say, that he was a Taffy, but he came to live at Seacroft.
IL: Right.
RH: And he used to come round every Sunday for tea.
IL: [laughter] What, to your Mum and Dad’s, or is this, were you coming home to parents or?
RH: Well, yeah, obviously you know, the family were all still going on. I was only a boy, I weren’t married, you know. There were plenty of girlfriends every – it was just eh one girl up in Dundee who came to Arbroath, gave me her address and we were pen pals for all, all war. Never met her again, and after the war she got married, and then I sent her a wedding present. But she were – I used to get a letter about every month from her. We just met casually up in Arbroath.
IL: Yeah. So that was lovely isn’t it?
RH: Yeah.
IL: So just coming – sorry, em so in terms of aircraft, were you just mainly working on Lancasters or were you working on all sorts of aircraft?
RH: Well, as I say, that, that last we were working on Oxfords.
IL: What was – I don’t think I know the Oxford. Was it a bomber or a fighter bomber or?
RH: It was a trainee eh plane.
IL: Oh right.
RH: And that was the Welsh boy.
IL: Ah. [emphasis] [pause] So is that you?
RH: That’s me.
IL: Are you on the left or the right?
RH: I’m the tall one.
IL: You’re the tall one. [emphasis] Ah. [pause]
RH: I eh, the eh Oxfords were the eh – what was an aircraft, when pilots had been overseas, without instrument flying, they came back and they learnt instrument flying on the Oxford with instructors.
IL: Right.
RH: And so they were taught to eh I’ve got a picture of an Oxford somewhere. Anyhow the eh [pause] I’ll show you one before you go.
IL: Oh, that’s alright. No. I’d love to take a picture actually. I’ve never heard of, I’ve never heard of the Oxfords. So it was a two seater training, you know, two seater training em?
RH: It was generally used as a trainer.
IL: Right. [long pause] [background rustling] So was it very different in the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF?
RH: It was entirely different.
IL: Right.
RH: ‘Cause it, the RAF are tradesmen. You didn’t do general duties when you had a trade.
IL: Right.
RH: Whereas in the Fleet Air Arm you were put into a port or starboard watch, so you could be on night flying all night tonight and tomorrow night you could be on airfield guard.
IL: Right. Okay.
RH: Every man that manned the ship in the eh Navy, in the eh RAF, as I say, they had HGDs and what have you. You know, you know what I mean, aircraft hands.
IL: Yeah.
RH: General duties. They used to do eh the eh –
IL: Ah right. [pause] So it’s a two-engined, at least two seater. I’ll take a picture of this if I may before I go, ‘cause, as I say, I’ll be interested to see that. So –
RH: I was working on them in the Fleet Air Arm, you see. As I say, it were called HMS Godwit, but it was a shore base, outside Ollerton in Shropshire.
IL: Did you ever have to go, did you go to sea at all?
RH: No.
IL: Right. So how long were you in the Fleet Air Arm?
RH: About eleven month.
IL: Right.
RH: ‘Cause as I say we were still at war with Japan and everybody thought end of war was VE day. But we still, you know everybody celebrates VE day and never think about VJ day.
IL: I bet you did ‘cause [chuckles] it allowed you to get out in the end.
RH: Well, you eh obviously thought when VE day came along you were on your way home.
IL: Yeah.
RH: Instead of that, a phone call, on your way down to Locking for a [unclear] conversion course into the Fleet Air Arm. Fleet Air Arm aircraft working on the airfield.
IL: So was that, so your conversion course was mainly technical rather than, you know, an introduction to a different sort of marching or?
RH: Like I say, they had Fireflies which were the equivalent to the Spitfire, and the Barracuda and stuff like that that were on the airfield that we used to run up and work on. And obviously conversion, lashing the hammock and one thing and another, you know?
IL: So did you have to sleep in a hammock?
RH: I didn’t sleep in one but you were issued with one.
IL: Right.
RH: It was part of your kit, you know? You had a toolbox and everything, you know?
IL: Which did you prefer?
RH: Well, the RAF, eh was by far the best service. Eh, I’ll tell you a funny story. One of the NCOs, they used to fly from this camp eh on flights and if anybody were going on leave, they would drop ‘em off at some airport that were near where they were going on leave and this NCO sent me to his mess to pick a case up and eh on push bike I’d got this case on handlebars, the case, and the Commander of the shore base yelled over at me, ‘Hey, you! Don’t you salute officers?’ So I says, ‘The RAF, you don’t salute officers on push bikes.’ So he said, ‘You are in the Senior Service now and you salute officers at all times.’ But if he’d have told me to open the case I’d have still been in glasshouse because the NCO was on the mess committee and there were pounds of bacon inside and mutton and everything else [laughter] and he put it down on the station while he went for a wee or something and when he went to go for his case it had gone. [emphasis] So he said to the porter ‘Have you seen a case?’ ‘It’s in lost luggage.’ And when he went to the lost luggage they said to him, ‘What was in it?’ He had to declare his bacon and butter and sugar and all that and he were brought back under arrest.
IL: Oh dear. [emphasis]
RH: And so if that commander had told me to open that case, he wouldn’t acknowledge that it was his case it would’ve been my case.
IL: It sounds like there was a lot of em [chuckles] it sort of eh, it sounds a little bit like, there was, not a rivalry, but the aircrew didn’t particularly acknowledge the ground crew and that –
RH: No, no. The aircrew, which I have every, every respect for, but don’t misunderstand me, I have nothing but admiration for the aircrew and they were only lads like what we were and the conversation used to be some of ‘em had never kissed a girl before they got killed at nineteen and there were conversations like that. But the thing is that even tradesmen like meself, other people, in the cookhouse and the M.O. section, you know, and staff they were a division between you.
IL: Yeah. Did you, did you socialise with em, you know, aircrew? Were you part of the same mess and - ?
RH: No. No. No. They had their own eh toilets. All ranks had different toilets. Sergeants had different toilets. Officers had different toilets. NCOs different toilets.
IL: Right. So in many ways you’ve probably as air, as ground crew, were you aware of the sort of losses that Bomber Command was taking in terms of men?
RH: Because like the Station CO used to announce like Berlin had been taken and Free French had got Paris over the tannoy system. So you were aware what were going on.
IL: Sorry, I was meaning more were you aware of you know the sort of the losses in aircrew that Bomber Command was em suffering at the time, you know. Were you, say aircraft losses, when aircraft were replaced did you have to service them before they were allowed back on to the bases to replace the ones that were lost?
RH: It were drilled into you. Don’t worry about the aircraft, just worry about the crew. The aircraft can be replaced, the crew can’t be replaced. And so you worked with that safety in your head all the time.
IL: Yeah. But did you ever sort of, you know, did you ever see em get to know people and then they just weren’t around or -?
RH: Well, well, what your trying to get to I think is like East Kirkby a chap comes along with the hosepipe and swills his rear turret out.
IL: Right. Okay.
RH: And you don’t get involved. You obviously have a word with him and he’s divorced from you and he’s divorced from his job. You understand what I mean don’t you?
IL: Absolutely.
RH: You don’t eh the Fleet Air Arm place where I went to, I was told I’d been to replace a flight mechanic, air mechanic, in the Fleet Air Arm, air mechanic, flight mechanic in the RAF had had his head chopped off marshalling an Oxford in.
IL: Oh gosh.
RH: And they painted the – if you look at the propellors, the air screws, on the tips there’s about four inches of indigo paint that the circumference is round. You can see the circle and all around the airfield there used to be posters with a head on ground what prop. He was marshalling, you see, you were marshalling people in in the dark with torches in mud and all the time you were running backwards your wellingtons were coming off at your heels.
IL: So, you, you had to marshal the aircraft back in, as well? Yourself?
RH: Oh yeah, yeah. It was all part of the job.
IL: Right. Was that just in the Fleet Air Arm or was that in the RAF? In both?
RH: Well, in the RAF it was procedure we went round the perimeter track to the end of the runway and it was a set out pattern, there were no need to marshal them. The Aldis lamp on the flight control tower used to signal them off with the Aldis lamp.
IL: Right. [chuckles] Okay. So did you ever feel that you were gonna fall over and sort of em come to a sticky end?
RH: Well, you just had to get on with it.
IL: Yeah.
RH: A funny thing I was on, as I say, you used to get duty every other night. I was on airfield guard at the gates at this camp, with the big iron gates there and I’m stood there and I could here a noise at back of me and I’ve got me rifle three o three Lee Enfield and five rounds were in me pocket rather than in rifle and I’m hearing this noise and hair on back of me neck were standing up and one thing and another and I were there thinking it might be a German sergeant coming to get an aircraft, you know, ‘cause you used to hear different stories about crash crews that brought – even British pilots brought a German aircraft back and that but the thing is – but when daylight come it was a cow in the next field [unclear] at the edge. [laughter]
IL: It’s a good job you didn’t shoot it.
RH: Yeah, but you know –
IL: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
RH: But you couldn’t see what were going on like, you know. And it were a hairy thing, there were two of you on guard and one’s going round on push bike into hangars to see if everything were alright and other would stand on gate and you’d switch over and with the engines cooling off it used to make a noise and it used to be quite hairy to go into an ‘angar with the engines cooling down.
IL: So how often were you doing it? How often did you have to do guard duty?
RH: Well, they just used to line you up in the Fleet Air Arm and say, ‘You six, on patrol.’ So they had a [unclear] run [unclear] for the people on the camp and you had to go, make sure you got on the bus without any fighting. [laughter] and while, you know, and they used to allocate like six were on patrol they issued you with putties [?] and webbing and you’d get down there and get all pictures taken [unclear] and then when it got to half past nine you went to bus stop to make sure that everything were alright. But then another time you’d be ‘You six, plate group.’ So you’d be in cookhouse washing plates.
IL: It sounds like a very, you had a very varied military service. Did you enjoy it?
RH: Eh, yeah, you can’t say that you didn’t enjoy it because it was an experience. But nothing mattered – all war is futile. All this that’s going on now, a hundred thousand pound rockets being fired and one thing and – it’s so futile that you’ve got a Health Service that’s short of money and their using one hundred thousand pound a missile. It’s crackers.
IL: Yes. Do you think it’s your war, your wartime experience that’s made you – how did you feel at the time? Did you feel that this was something that had to be done? Did you feel something that you supported? Was this – ?
RH: [mumbles] The thing was, you were indoctrinated that if the Germans come, they’d rape your mothers and your sisters and your [mumbles]. But up at Arbroath you’d be lined up and they’d indoctrinate you that if the Germans ever come, but it never happened because a friend of my wife’s lived in Jersey. She were in the occupation and they didn’t go into their houses and rape a woman. But it was how, it was put into you, you know? Kill or be killed when you charged forward with rifle and bayonet to [unclear] throat. Yeah. Up at Arbroath, I mean, you did five weeks on an assault course throwing hand grenades, firing rifles, firing sten guns, scaling the cliff at Arbroath. I climbed that cliff at Arbroath.
IL: Gosh.
RH: They put, the story was that at Dunkirk the RAF had to be carried off the beaches so they introduced this eight weeks course. And that’s how I came to be on the basic training course.
IL: Right.
RH: So.
IL: You remember, you remember an awful lot about your basic training. So what was the [coughs]
RH: I’ll tell you –
IL: What was the worst thing about it and what was the best thing about your service?
RH: Well you just accepted everything eh to – my brother was seven years older than I and he was in London Scottish Regiment, company sergeant major, got mentioned in dispatches, in Middle East and one thing and another, and he was like an icon. I couldn’t be the younger brother who showed weakness. So I was – you were a man. You weren’t innocent anymore. You were eighteen, you were a man.
IL: Yeah.
RH: And that’s how you accepted it. You soon lost your innocence – went to Arbroath baths, were one of the things, they marched you into baths. I was in twenty three intake, twenty two intake were in there before you and they were all there in the nude swimming about and swinging on ropes and everybody were [laughter] like this and the next week everybody else were swinging on ropes.
IL: Yeah.
RH: In the nude. You know, you just fell in line with everything. You didn’t refuse the food that were put in front of you, you went for a second if you could get away with it. Even if it might look like pig swill [laughter].
IL: What did you do then after the war?
RH: I went, I went back to the boot and shoe industry, but I left that to go into shoe retailing and I wound up being a manager of eh wi’ Timpsons shoe company. Do you know Timpsons?
IL: Yeah. Yeah, I know Timpsons.
RH: And I opened the shop in Clover Street, York and managed that for seven years, in York. I was quite a successful retail manager, you know.
IL: Right. And em [clears throat] do you get, have you been involved with things like the associations for the em you know, the RAF and Bomber Command and - ?
RH: After the war they had the eh Air Training Corps Old Boys Comrades and one thing and another. But it all tapered away as I got married and had families and one thing and another. Just disappeared. I used to see one or two of the people that were on photograph. One of ‘em became an undertaker supplier, you know. He had a job with this supplies embalming fluid and coffins and that, that he used to get from Whitby and that, you know, talking to ‘im. But eh you eh that’s the chap who used to go with me for eggs.
IL: Oh right.
RH: Yeah.
IL: [chuckles] Sounds like a, sounds like a good business. Em, was he, em sorry, em I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. Em [pause] You were saying about funny stories with firecrackers.
RH: Oh, at Skendleby it was a very strict camp. When you went out of camp they gave you a number besides your service number last three, two o nine, they gave you like fifty seven and before you could get in, the guardroom was inside, you’d have to shout, ‘Two o nine, fifty seven’ and barbed wire were six foot high all the way around camp and the outcome of it was, it was eh one of these radar, with the tower that was one hundred and five feet high with a [unclear] and eh, there was an American technician captain and somebody decided that we’d go out, ten of us, with this captain and if we could get into camp, just get into the camp [emphasis] we’d conquered it. So we eh, we went to the pictures at Alford. We went to a place called Ulceby. I don’t know whether you know Ulceby?
IL: Mm.
RH: Eh, the WAAF were there for the camp. Eh we went in there dancing while one o’clock in the morning with the WAAFs. And on the first day we didn’t do anything but mope around and on second day we had forty eight hours to get back into camp and we left it till about an hour beforehand, and I had a pair of these eh leather gloves with the steel strips across and I climbed up the barbed wire that were six foot high and fell over the other side but we had what we called firecrackers and you had a strip of ignition tape around your arm and what you did, it was like a giant firework, and you struck the firecracker on it and it acted like a, an ‘and grenade and it didn’t explode like an ‘and – it exploded – anyhow the CO’s bedroom, the window was open, and I run fast after we were in there [chuckles]. I, I bet he jumped through [unclear] [chuckles] [laughter]
IL: So were you in trouble for that?
RH: No, no, nobody knew who did it.
IL: Oh.
RH: But next few days we were there putting barbed wire rolls on top of rolls, you know.
IL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
RH: So. I’ll tell you another. I went to Alford for the first time by meself and I went to this café and I saw on menu, Welsh rarebit and I thought ‘Oh that’ll be good. I’ll have a nice hot dinner,’ and it were cheese on toast when I got it. But the innocent boy of eighteen years [laughter] thought he were going to get a hot dinner. And in Alford they used to allow us to go in and get a bath in the brewery because there were only cold water. You used to get the water for the camp at Skendleby from Willoughby. There were a well at Willoughby. We had a petrol pump that used to get the water, suck the water up, and put it into the galvanised containers over the showers. So there were no hot water. So that’s –
IL: So you used to get a bath in the brewery?
RH: Yeah.
IL: So how did the brewery have hot water?
RH: Steam.
IL: Oh right. From?
RH: From the vats.
IL: Oh right. [emphasis] It must have smelt nice? [laughter]
RH: But you know what I mean, you know what I mean? Don’t you? There were a lot of kind things that –
IL: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.
RH: Nothing but kindness shown towards us. You know what I mean, don’t you?
IL: Mm. So did you [clears throat] did you identify with – you obviously, you know, have been involved, and have been invited to, you know, the things with the Bomber Command Centre. Do you identify yourself as a boy, as somebody who was part of Bomber Command? Is that, is it something that which you’re proud of? Is it something that you, you know, it’s just part of your life, or?
RH: I, I’m proud that they’ve started this. I said it to Peter in a letter, that I was glad that somebody’s done something in appreciation. It doesn’t just go into oblivion because of what happened. Nobody knows what happened. And also people what I’ve spoken to, younger people about fifty and sixty say, ‘Oh we couldn’t have done that. We couldn’t have done that.’ And have no concept of what you did. It’s only by these things what’s happening now that they’ve got a concept of it.
IL: Mm.
RH: And they see the Bomber, eh, Dambusters, eh on the television and they see Guy Gibson and all that sort of thing eh and they see it portrayed as though it was some form of Brylcreem boy picture or something like that and they don’t realise that that fifty seven thousand went, you know,
IL: Oh absolutely
RH: when they were only boys, you know what I mean don’t you?
IL: Oh absolutely.
RH: And it, the worst crime that ever happened, they never recognised Bomber, Bomber Command as a medal, insofar as they were only copper or nickel and they didn’t cost fivepence a piece in old money and it wouldn’t have cost them anything and I often wonder ‘Did the German aircrew and ground staff get a medal?’
IL: Eh, yeah em, I can’t answer that I have to say.
RH: It’s that something that I’ve always wondered, I’m not, they were only doing a job like we were doing.
IL: Yep.
RH: And at the end of the war they were always concern about Dresden and one thing and another but nobody mentioned Coventry and Hull and different places, and London, and different places. We could all have been killed. But at the end of the war they put a statue up to Bomber Harris and somebody painted it in red. Blood on his hands. I don’t know whether you know.
IL: Yeah. I, I, well I’ve seen pictures of it. I’ve seen pictures of it being defaced.
RH: Yeah. Well, but I think reading between the lines, he went out to live in South Africa or somewhere like that.
IL: Yes, well he was born in – He was Zimbabwean.
RH: Yes, but he went back there in more or less disgrace, with blood on his hands.
IL: Yeah.
RH: And he were only carrying out orders at the end. Every bloomin’ raid that they went on –
IL: Did, did you say that he came to a party?
RH: No, he didn’t come to the party.
IL: Right.
RH: He sent a message, that told of appreciation of the work, the hard work that 5 Group Servicing Section had done that they’d throw a party for us. And that’s the only time we were all collectively together. But that was an appreciation, for the party. But it was signed by Bomber Command.
IL: Oh right. Okay. But you were personally thanked by the Wing Commander?
RH: 5 Group Chief Engineering Officer. It’s there.
IL: Oh absolutely. I’ve seen, I’ve seen, I’ve seen it.
RH: I can’t write that now in green ink [?] [chuckles] It were relevant at the time when we did it.
IL: Of course. Of course. Well it’s a huge thing, isn’t it really? You know, particularly in that, I think it’s important to have recognition.
RH: You see eh, I’ll just [mumbles].
IL: What are you looking for?
RH: I’m looking –
IL: Oh for your glasses [chuckles]
RH: My glasses. [background rustling]
IL: Aah! [pause] I’ll take, I’ll take pictures of these if that’s okay?
RH: Yes, certainly.
IL: Which we can em, which we can use.
RH: Yeah. Do you know what this is? ‘East Kirkby Monday eighth of the first forty five heavy snow. Nineteenth of the first it was very cold. Twenty second of the first polishing [?] in the snow.’ Nobody knows about those things.
IL: Oh no. You worked incredibly hard.
RH: There were nowhere to hide in Lincolnshire.
IL: No. It’s a very em, it’s a bit barren. Oh and is that you? [emphasis]
RH: Yeah. There were nowhere to hide from the wind. It were all flat land.
IL: Oh absolutely. It blows straight across.
RH: And that’s my training –
IL: And that’s your, that’s your training?
RH: Yeah.
IL: And so where are you?
RH: In the centre somewhere. Can you see?
IL: Aah. They all look terribly serious. Is there anything else you’d want to tell me?
RH: Only that the eh, as I say, the different aircraft, there were Stirlings, everybody talks about the Lancaster, but at Wigsley they had Stirlings.
IL: Right.
RH: You know, we worked on them.
IL: Were they, but was the Lancaster your favourite aircraft to work on? Did you get to, you know, know your engines? Did you get to sort of be able to know that the engine was right by the sound of it?
RH: It, it were music.
IL: Yeah.
RH: You can talk about operas and symphonies and anything but if you stood at the side of the perimeter track waiting for it to take off at the end of the runway then when you see it sweep up into the sky with the engines running, it were magical. I’m not being effeminate or anything like that, but just so admiration of that piece of machinery and with a bomb load on being lifted off the runway and taking off into the air, what a feat of engineering.
IL: Oh, absolutely fantastic. Right, I am going to stop there.



Ian Locker, “Interview with Robert Holman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

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