Interview with William Holmes


Interview with William Holmes


William Holmes remembers his time as a pilot in the RAF. Gives a vivid and graphic account of the dramatic crash-landing which left him badly injured and brought him to join the Guinea Pig Club. Remembers various episodes of his operational life: training in Canada; flying Stirlings and Boeing-Stearmans; targeting U-boat pens in Brest; dropping supplies for the Maquis; being awarded a DFC. Mentions Wakey-Wakey pills.




Temporal Coverage

Spatial Coverage




01:12:57 audio recording


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CB: Ok, Bill, we’re starting to record now.
WH: Well, I’m astonished to be asked to do this because I certainly didn’t do anything very different than thousands of others. I was born in Banbury, two-up, two-down, which is the reason that I am sitting where I am now. My daughter many years ago came with me to see where I was born and she said: “Daddy, you didn’t live there!” I said, come off it, Louise, that’s why you live where you are now because I was determined to get out of it and I did. And now, every time I come through my gate it pleases me, I look at the house but it’s a bit ridiculous in some ways because it [unclear] onto the back of the village shop. But, as far as I’m concerned, it is detached. When I get to insurance companies asking me, is it semi? Well, technically it is but not what they are thinking of. And it’s a stupid way to buy a business but we walked down the gravelled drive and I said, oh yes, I could live here and I could see the possibilities except that I hadn’t got a lot of money. In fact I’ll correct that, I hadn’t got anybody [laughs] and I could see the potentials that I could develop, which I did. And I know there’s two shops, three or four flats and it’s my pension fund. So, I’ve achieved my aims, in some ways. But my father and mother were marvellous to me, they, I’m, I still got my mother’s photograph by my bedside cabinet. I, unfortunately when I left England after re-joining the RAF I went out on the town and I was, I think the word is drunk, and when I left her I was still drunk in the morning and I never saw her again, I was abroad and she died. So, it, yes it was a tragedy to me, for one of those things. Now, during the war which is all vivid to me although it’s seventy years, I don’t know, long time ago but it’s still vivid and as much I can remember every other highlights. I crashed my last aircraft, I crashed landing, wheels up and unfortunately I say, killed my navigator, he burned to death. But he shouldn’t have done because I got them all in crash positions but there we are one of those things. Now, most people, or lots of people have never heard of a club that I belong to, the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded by fighter pilots early in the war under a famous, when you get old you forget words, skin,
CB: Plastic surgeon? Plastic surgeon?
WH: Excellent! Plastic surgery. And the story goes, and it always makes me laugh, early in the war, it was mostly fighter pilots that he was treating, I reportedly, reputably, he came and looked and said, this lot won’t drink water, we were all dehydrated, he said, bring on the beer. And as far as I know, it was one of the, if not the only hospital that had a barrel of beer at the end of the war. And it achieved its object because we did drink it. But going back to earlier in the war, I didn’t particularly want to fly, I hadn’t even thought of it, it was beyond my ken and early in the war there was, as far as I can remember, a very large photograph, I say photograph, poster, with, change your overalls for a flying suit and I thought, ah, well I was a reserved occupation so I went off and tried to join the air force and they sent me home, they said, oh no, you’re in a reserved occupation, you go back to work, we don’t want you but eventually I think they ran out of pilots [laughs] and I was accepted and but for that accepted I would never have seen the things I did see. Trained in Canada, learned to fly on Tiger Moths, and Boeing-Stearmans and flew alongside the Rockies actually, a marvellous experience, one that I would have never been able to achieve on my own. But it’s all still vivid to me. I can remember looking at the first Wellington coming off, Ansons, and Airspeed Oxfords and I thought, oh my God, how am I going to get on with that? But fortunately it’s about one of the few accolades, I don’t know where that’s the right word, I did get above average on my instructors comments, that was learning the basics to fly it but then when I went to a squadron and looked at the Stirling, which most people haven’t heard of, was the forerunner of the four-engine bombers and it was huge but, like everything else, you take it in your stride. But as I say the highlights are still quite vivid to me and we were shot up quite badly, petrol, fuel, running down the fuselage and we were all drunk on it, lots of people don’t realize you get drunk on the fumes but I did some way foolish things. But alright we all do in our life. Only a few weeks ago I pranged my wife’s car, I didn’t let her see it, I put it away and took it off for repairs before she did see it because for some time I have been saying, do not swing out through our gate, approach it cautiously and obviously I didn’t. However, that’s life. And what else can we say about the war? I’m quite proud of my distinguished flying cross. Lots were awarded at the end of the tour but there was another category, a [unclear] awards which were for the particular sortie and I’m quite proud of it. I think rightly so but I don’t like people think, well he’s boasting which I don’t intend to but I am still proud of it. But, as I say, still all, [phone rings] ah, interrupted by the phone.
CB: [unclear]
WH: [unclear]
CB: We’re restarting now after the telephone. Ok.
WH: Well, at risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again, I’m very proud of my DFC but it was astonishing to me, just a country boy, I didn’t think anything happened like that to me and this particular raid was on the U-boat pens at Brest, which, the main force couldn’t penetrate the pens with high explosive and the only other answer, the navy admiral’s etcetera told us was, right, mine the entrances, this will prevent the submarines from, U-boats from getting in and out and demoralising their mine-sweeping crews because the mines were set at different, at different settings. Harry, my second pilot, my bomb aimer explained in his letter to me, in his memories that they emphasized, do not ever consider, again I’ve lost a word, jettison, good, these mines because we didn’t want them to dissect, I don’t know if that’s right, take them to pieces, in other words, and find an answer to them but Harry wrote, my second pilot wrote and explained it all, which possibly went over my head at the briefing, can’t remember that seventy years ago. But, but for the war I would never have gone to Canada which was a marvellous experience, Estevan, out in Saskatchewan, sometimes in the winter under two or three feet of snow and the local drug store used to look after a lot of our lads and I became great friends with a man and his wife and eventually after the war they came over and stayed with us. The hospitality of the Canadians was marvellous, really, they were very kind to us and of course, we were flying in safe conditions which in England with its weather problems, the conditions for flying in Canada were very different. I remember looking out one day, a hell of a lot of snow, and I said, ah, good day off. Oh no, when we looked out they were rolling steam rollers down the runways, a different kind of snow, not wet, dry and it packed out. We didn’t get a day off, we just flew off the top of it. But when I realised the size of the hangars of the snow and one was topping the hangars, and I thought, God this is some snowstorm. But a marvellous experience. I went out on, I don’t know if the boat is the right word, it certainly wasn’t a liner, I think a banana boat, and it was sunk in Halifax harbour, the second trip after I’d landed and I thought, well that was lucky. Luck, it’s, I’ve always said that better to be born lucky than rich, I’ve always thought that I am lucky anyway in many ways. But coming back to decorations when the CO sent for me I was on leave on D-Day and I thought, oh dear, what have I done? And he told me about the decoration and I couldn’t believe it. I got outside, tapped on his door again and he said, yes, what is it? I said, well, with respect, sir, would you tell me all that again because I haven’t taken it on board and he laughed and did, Wing Commander Pickford. But we had one advantage because he was on the same course Wellingtons and we called him Pick and when I saw him on the squadron walking down the road I said, hello Pick, and oh my God, he is a wing commander. How to win friends and [unclear] people but all a very useful experience and I think altered my life totally and after the war, long after, I was asked would I like to go on a NATO exercise and I thought, well, what does this entail? And it was a trip to Germany and I’ve got to be honest about this, there were quite a few of us reservists and we got together and my sergeant of my section said, are you interested in this? I said, no, not really. Well, he said, go on, have a trip up the Rhine, he said, if anybody asks for you, I’ll say, oh yes, I’ve just seen him he’s just, I said, do you think that will work? Oh yes, he said. And there was about a dozen of us we sailed from Cologne up to Koblenz past the Lorelei, a wonderful trip, which I’d like to do again on the boats with accommodation, but again something I would never have the opportunity to do but for the Royal Air Force and I suppose the war. People have said to me, well, you know, you chaps talking about the war, I said, hang on, it was a very big slice out of our life. It was times when we were scared out of our wits. I’ve heard lots of people that say, oh no, I wasn’t frightened. Well, I’ll be totally honest, I think all of us were scared, you didn’t know, you took off, you didn’t know whether you were gonna come back or not. And there was a standing joke, the flying meal we always got and the joke was if you don’t come back, can I have your egg? And we also got a rum ration but it was after operations, I would have preferred the rum ration first but it’s all very real to me and I presume always will as long as I got my memories yes. I have done something like this before, there was a local historian asked and we did the question and I answered set up which I will give to Chris and he may play it. I am so confused with modern methods of listening to CDs. My club, the RAF association club, pulled my leg frequently. How the hell did you ever fly aeroplanes, you can’t do your car radio and your mobile phones are mystery to you and I just laughed that one off. But whether Chris will want to play this small CD, cause I haven’t found out, I had to play it back, I had forgotten what it said now, but as Chris pointed out to me, short of occasions like this recording stuff eventually will all be lost because inevitably we shall all die and it’ll be gone. So I’m quite grateful, I’m quite proud to be asked but astonished because I didn’t do anything special. Thousands of lads did just the same as I did and it always makes me laugh when people say, oh yes, I knew somebody in the RAF, did you know? When we are talking of thousands of people, it’s ridiculous things as I say. However I think I’ve come to the end of my reminiscence. I’ve no doubt and I thought this time I think of all sorts of things I should’ve said. I do this frequently, think of the smart answer long after the event. I think, well, I should’ve said that but I didn’t.
CB: It’s ok Bill because we are going to do some questions in a minute.
WH: I’m sorry.
CB: Restart. So we are starting again now.
WH: Yeah. Ok.
CB: With the Brest raid.
WH: Well, we were briefed by [unclear] admirals and I thought we’d got, there was more gold blade on their arms and my second pilot, Harry Stannus, who wrote a brief history which was very interesting actually and he emphasized that under no circumstances were we to jettison any of the bombs that we didn’t complete, of mines I should’ve said, that we didn’t complete the sorting. So, out we went but the thing that Harry in fact I did take on board, it was emphasized, the mines had to be dropped precisely from three and a half thousand feet, not very high and in fact too damn low on a bombing run at a three and a half thousand feet over a heavily, a highly defended target was, I was gonna say, suicide but they hit us with everything, small arms and Harry, lying prone in the front of the aircraft, had the best view of everything. In fact he was blinded by searchlights, couldn’t see the dropping point and he said, go on skipper, go round again and I often think that Harry should’ve got some recognition because at that point a bomb aimer had control of the aircraft. He could see what was required and as I said, he said, go round again, skipper, and this happened so many times that I was throwing the aircraft about because of the ammunitions coming up we were hit, but not vitally but we were peppered with all sorts of holes when we got back. But the one thing we didn’t reckon on was fuel tanks. Losing highly toxic fumes down the fuselage and we were, drunk is the only word I can think of, intoxicated sounds a bit better and we all did some very foolish things. And one I shall never forget, we’d lost two port engines from anti-aircraft fire and had a runaway starboard outer and foolishly I attempted a left hand circuit which was madness but I can only blame toxic fumes, well, that’s my story and I stuck with it but instead of landing as I intended on the runway, of course left hand against two port dead engines was stupid. And of course instead of landing where I intended, wheels up, crash landing, we crossed the runway and of course soaked with fuel, up she went. And I can remember again Harry pushing me out, he got very badly burned himself because of the delay in getting himself out and pushing me out, but I can remember vividly, stupidly I’d lost my flying boots and I thought, well, the grass is wet, and it was very wet and I headed with the rest of us, we all, well, we didn’t all get out. The navigator burned to death unfortunately, but the rest of us and we thought, well, the ammunition was going off, and I thought, right, let’s get the hell out of this, but the time we got to sick quarters, just to bring a note of hilarity into things, one of the staff brought a damn great pair of scissors, approached me, and I was insistent that he didn’t cut off my brand new [unclear], didn’t make any difference, he just cut away. But we then became McIndoe, Sir Archibald McIndoe, the plastic surgeon, he used to go round squadrons, picking the people that he wanted to treat and he took the whole crew and I, I don’t know whether you have heard of the Guinea Pig Club, nothing to do with guinea pigs but applicable only to aircrew who had been burned on operations. Nobody wants to join because the only way you can join is to be burned on operations against whatever enemy. So it’s highly selective but dwindling now. We’re all dying. Well, some of us. Unfortunately, our dinners, our annual dinners have now ceased, for obvious reasons, because we are scattered all over the country and all over the world, there’s lots of Czechs, Poles, Americans, all sorts of people but it’s getting too difficult now to organise an annual dinner but Prince Phillip is our president. Used to come round and talk to all of us and he, he was very interesting actually, but he, he is a very ordinary, I say very ordinary, perhaps that’s the wrong expression, but he’s like you and me, very nice chap to talk to and the last time I set eyes on him was at a reception in Banbury town hall and he came with the queen some years ago and I thought, well, on this occasion I will wear my Guinea Pig tie. And from some yards away, he looked over and he said, they’re finished? I said, no, they’re not, Sir. I’m still here. And that concluded the occasion. I can’t think of anything else that I can think of, other than it changed my life totally.
CB: So you, going back to the mine dropping,
WH: Yes?
CB: How many times did you go round?
WH: Yes. Well totally, five times, that was in, out, in, out. I’ve got documents from the Royal Air Force, I can’t remember what the document is now but emphasizing that there were five approaches in all and presumably why I got a [unclear] for it but Harry should have got one. I didn’t know that I could recommend anyone because a previous trip I did write to my CO about one other member of my crew, Tommy Smith, who’d done a previous trip with the same, a previous tour with the same squadron and many years after at one of our dinners he said, thank you Bill, I said, what for? He said, the letter you wrote, he said, I got a DFM, I said, oh, I didn’t think I was able to recommend anyone, but I think possibly I should have recommended Harry for his, for his part in this raid at Brest. The thing that is the most important to me I mean main force we were bombing from ten, fifteen, twenty thousand feet but three and a half thousand feet at what we called straighten level which it had to be for the mines, apparently the mines, I am told, would break up if they weren’t dropped precisely at three and a half thousand feet. But I presume that’s why I got a [unclear] but as I said, it’s all changed my life totally, in fact so much so, after the war, in another job I was assistant adjutant, which I hadn’t been trained for and I used to bash out one finger typewriter letters for jobs and I took the Telegraph and I’ve been taking the Daily Telegraph ever since because it had more jobs than the others. And when I’d applied and got questionnaires, what school did you go to, where, I don’t know, oh dear. Well, I got a county, Oxfordshire county council scholarship which it was called at that time and I used to have to write on the questionnaires, I got this scholarship and this enabled me to apply for a pilot’s course, I think they only took, well, not only, probably school boys but they wanted people with some intelligence and it usually got me an interview and I’ve always said, well, if I can get an interview, I can get a job which is a bit naughty I suppose. But in a fact it worked, and it did, it got me interviews so I shall be forever grateful to the Royal Air Force and I don’t think I would ever have been commissioned other than thousands of us that were because all the American pilots were all commissioned, not so the Royal Air Force, lots of us sergeants, flight sergeants, yeah, I think I’ve run out of reminiscence now.
CB: Ok, we will take a break there for a bit. So, Bill was in a reserved occupation, when he left school,
WH: Yes.
CB: So, what age did you leave school?
WH: Well, despite the scholarship I wasn’t very happy. In fact, I was very unhappy. I saw this as an escape from school as well, I didn’t go on till I was sixteen. But it they considered the, the authorities considered it was a vital job to be captain
CB: [unclear]
WH: [unclear] as I said, on troop training, train on all sorts of things, that was an experience in itself and again something that I remember quite well. Only, the only thing I did remember having left hospital bandaged up, desperate to come home and I was walking down the high street in Banbury and met some chappie with also a cleaner and he said, oh, how are you doing then, Bill? I said, oh, getting by. His reply astonished me. Well, is your own bloody fault, you didn’t have to go. Which upset me and annoyed me. But, if we’d all felt like that, we’d have had a very thin Air Force. But, as I said, it changed my life totally. And when I was recommissioned, going back in the service in ’50, that meant more to me in many ways than routinely being commissioned during the war. I always remember the interview for commissioning and I expected to have my life probed in depth but nothing of the kind happened, I went in and I don’t know if it was an air marshal or what, saluted them, all I got was, ah, good morning flight sergeant, did you train in Canada? I said, yes, I did, sir. Did you like it? I said, oh yes. Nothing about my schooling or suitability or anything and I finished a two or three minute interview and I couldn’t believe it and I came out and the adjutant said, oh, you’ve seen the air marshal? I said, yes, well that’s it, he said, you’re commissioned. I couldn’t believe it. And then I went back to the squadron and the CO said, well, you’d better take a day off, go and get a uniform. So we, I took the crew with me and we went to Cambridge and went into one of the outfitters specializing in uniforms and a little lad behind, well a little old man behind the counter said, ah, here we are sir, your fits you well, what sort of a hat, a cap do you want? I said, how do you mean, what sort of [unclear] or operational? I said, [unclear], he said, very correct but operational battered and. I said, oh, and he threw it on the floor along a lot of dust and came up with a cap that looked like a German officers. And therein lays another tale. I asked first time I was conscious and hospitalized, have you got my hat? It became a standing joke, Bill’s hat. I said, well where is it? He said, I don’t know where it is. Obviously burnt with the aircraft. But, that was a minor thing. At that time, aircrew could go up to London and you could get uniforms, overcoats, caps, all sorts of kits from people that had been killed or left behind them and rekitted, people that had lost of. And I came away with an overcoat and an operational cap. I wish I’d kept it. Never mind, Well, I hope we’ve got enough material. The only thing you, who’s gonna be listening to this [unclear]? I did but there was I believe, and I can’t remember whether I dreamed it up or whether it was fact. I understand there was an Air Ministry order, AMO, air crews, repeat air crews will not urinate against tail wheels. Well, apprehension before taking off, I won’t say scared, apprehension cause you didn’t know what was gonna happen. Everybody relieved themselves against tailwheels, whether that rotted them or not I don’t know. Quite a thought. Whether that AMO ever existed or not I’m not sure.
CB: What other, what other little tales have you got?
WH: Yeah. He didn’t say to me Chalky White, our navigator, he said he was, I won’t use the expression it’s rude, he was scared, I said Harry, he wasn’t the only one who was scared. But nobody wanted to let on that they was scared to other people. But it to be scared frightened, it has, I’m trying to think of an expression I wanted, it was contagious, it made other people scared. I can remember one of my crew and I won’t remember, I won’t name him, he said, oh no, not again, I got my log to fill in. I told him what he could do with his log. I said, Harry, we’re on, no, not Harry, this is an operation. So and so did you log, I don’t care what you do with it but he was sticking to the book. I said, well, rules are not written in stone, they are for guidance. But we didn’t realise until long after that he was twice our age so I could understand it, he got a wife and children and we were, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, no such responsibilities. But all, still to me [unclear], all very real, vivid. Hopefully, somebody listen to this. It may have conveyed some of the thoughts and fears that we suffered. My rear gunner was a Canadian and day off he’d go to bed in full Irvin jacket, which was a beautiful flying jacket, sheepskin. Same trousers, and he’d go to bed all day. I said, oh God, I want to live life not I don’t want to [unclear], I got lots of time to sleep. It used to astonish me. But one other story it was my rear gunner, he, I said, no I don’t want my rum, oh, I’ll drink it, skipper, and that got me into a lot of trouble because, he used to dish out the Wakey-Wakey pills and he, how, was I going to say.
CB: These are Benzedrine.
WH: Old age, you forget things, mid-sentence and you stop and you think, what the hell was I going to say?
CB: These are
WH: I’m sure it’s not only me, I’m sure it happens to other people. However, whoever listens to it perhaps it will bring a little, well.
CB: So how well did the crew [unclear]?
WH: The navigator who died unfortunately, his brother came to see me in hospital and he said, look Billy, it wasn’t your fault, it was one of those things. But, now what were we talking about?
CB: The crew.
WH: Oh yes. Well, the flight engineer, as I said, was, well to us, he was in his forties so I could understand his reactions were different to us youngsters. But quite frankly at nineteen, twenty, twenty one, whatever, to be in charge of a damn great aircraft, when I think back, [unclear] how the hell did I do that? But [unclear] we all drew [unclear]. The Air Force used to boast, there’s nothing clever about flying, we can teach your grandmother to fly, you’re not special, but you gotta solo in so many hours and if you’re not we are wasting our time. But of course soloing, the first time you’re let loose on an aircraft and no instructor, they didn’t warn you, you went out on a normal, as you thought, a normal instruction flight and you got in and then the [unclear] just got out casually and said, well, that’s it, take it off, you’re away. And I, depends on many factors, the size of the aircraft I suppose, but the Boeing-Stearman, was a proper aircraft as opposed to a Tiger Moth and it was fully aerobatic and it was or had been a fighter in the Spanish War. But to be sent off on your own, but you, you just did things that you’d been taught and hoped for the best. They used to say, all these aircraft [unclear], I said, no, they don’t, not to me they don’t anyway. But I could. I’m going to boast now I could. Grease, I say grease. I could put a Sterling down fairly accurately with comments from my rear gunner saying, skipper is like a ten gallon drum back here, no five gallon drum. I said, what do you mean? It’s bouncing up and down. I said, no. A little later I said, you’re improving. It’s only a five gallon drum now. And he did say, or sometime after on a training trip, I don’t know how it came up but he said, well, all you’re doing is sit up there. I said, you’re what? I said, come on [unclear] you come up here. I put him in the second pilot’s seat. I said, there’s the course, just the fear, just the fact that he’d never being trying to do anything like this whatsoever, the sweat was rolling off him and I said, there’s nothing to it, all you gotta do is sit there. Don’t ever tell me I’m just sitting there. But he always criticised my landings although we all, I say all, I remember if ever I had a senior officer sitting in a second pilot’s seat it made me nervous and I could drop on him from fifty feet and one I can remember, the CO said, oh don’t worry Holmes, I’d do one myself, we all do. Inevitable. Well, mark [unclear], some pilots are better than others. But again, it’s quite something to be an [unclear] pilot and I don’t know where I saw it but I am convinced I’ve seen it that the award of a brevet, a pair of wings, is considered a decoration. Now, I’ve seen that somewhere but where I don’t know. I still got mine, original wings somewhere, sitting there, I can’t bring myself to get rid of stuff. Hence the trouble with my wife with all the stuff I spread. I shifted everything in a hurry off the kitchen table when I knew she was coming home. Well, we transferred to
CB: Initial Training we are talking about.
WH: Stearmans which was a proper aircraft, not bits of wire and. But I, yes I enjoyed it cause there was no interruptions from enemy aircraft and not in Canada, good weather, not a lot of cloud, and it was, well, it made life a lot easier but as I said before, when it snowed, it snowed, believe you me, but there is two kinds of snow, wet and dry and they just steamrolled, I say steam, they rolled in away. Over the top, and we just flew off over the top of it, no difference, whatsoever. But a marvellous experience, one I’d never have had otherwise. The only thing I didn’t really like was going there being batten down under hatches and we went over on a ship called the Letitia and we were batten down under hatches a three destroyer escort at the height of the U-boat war, which was a bit scary. I used to sleep on top of a hatch. I thought, well, I want to get out of here if it’s gonna happen, but, oh, well it didn’t. Obviously it didn’t cause I [unclear] sit here, sitting here [unclear] away. OTU, shipping warden, I stood amongst dozens of other aircrew, pilots, waiting for information, [unclear], sergeant Holmes, yeah, that’s me, shipping warden. I started to laugh, she said, what’s funny? I said that’s seven miles from my home, [unclear] just right. Having said that, when I did ask for a posting near my home, the second time ran, [unclear]. I said that’s nowhere near my home, for God’s sake. OTU, ship warden. Wellingtons, old Wellingtons, they’d done a tour, they weren’t the best. We weren’t getting new aircraft. So there was a [unclear] of [unclear] really make mistakes, and we all made them. We used to night cross countries, hoping the navigator got it right. On one of the cross country night exercises I, no, it must have been daylight not night, I hadn’t got a clue, I went as a training navigator, I wasn’t the best, I said, oh my God where are we, what are we up to? And the wireless operator was giving me fixes, so many minutes, hours, away to be of any use and the pilot flying the aircraft said, where are we? I looked down, I said, Ireland. What do you mean Ireland? I said, well, it’s green, it’s down there. Well, where are we? I said, well, I just told you. No, I want to know on the map. I said, I haven’t got a clue. Well, hand over. So I handed over to another pilot, he said, where are we? I said, Ireland. Yeah, but where? I said, well I saw a [unclear]. How the hell we get back, I don’t know. [laughs] But as a navigator I’d make a very good bricklayer. I was, I used to keep a thought in my mind, flying reciprocal, which was the opposite of what we were going out, if we were going out just in the hope that I’d be going in the right direction, not farther into Germany. But I often think I should have be interned in Switzerland because I was downed near into Switzerland, try to think where the hell that was. And I said, oh no, we are going home.
CB: We’ll come back to that. So, from the OTU you went to the HCU, conversion unit.
WH: Heavy conversion unit, yes. And
CB: Where was that?
WH: As I said, it was a huge aircraft.
CB: But, where was it?
WH: Wratting Common, I think.
CB: Yes.
WH: Yes.
CB: And that’s when you went to the Stirling?
WH: Sorry?
CB: Stirling.
WH: Stirling. Yes, yes. And it was huge. I, well I look at that photograph and I realise how huge it was. A bit fearsome when you just went over for the first time but alright, you just got on with it. Did as you were told. That’s the one thing I regret, I’ve no photographs of me at all, with the, because we were said, cameras weren’t allowed and so obeyed but lots of people didn’t cause they got photographs leaning out of aircraft. Perhaps I was daft not to but I regret that, I’d loved to have had a picture of me. I did ask, now wait a minute, who did I ask? Someone wrote to me. Ah yes, [unclear], saying he was, well you know what he was saying, and I put in my letter to him, if you have any photographs and he said he was looking for something in particular, I’m sure he’s got photographs and if he has of my wrecked aircraft I want to see what it looked like afterwards. But I went down and did ask many years, well, some years ago now, I said, oh I’ll go and see the adjutant and ask, has he got any photographs, he said, when, I said, ’44, God no [laughs]. I said, oh, I thought you took photographs of everything. Oh well, we did but we haven’t got any here but as I said all a long time ago. Memories that will never leave me, well, hopefully. And I never dreamed as a small boy that I’d ever be doing anything like this. But for the war I wouldn’t have done. Wait a minute, Squadron 149, yeah, 3 Group, 149, 3 Group, Lakenheath and then Methwold, Suffolk. Don’t ever want to see Suffolk again, really. Not the most, well, we did
CB: At the HCU.
WH: We did, what we called a Second Dicky, a second pilot trip and I do remember one thing. Afterwards I thought, oh my God, we were over the target and I don’t know how close but an aircraft when across in front of and I thought, my God I thought we had it. I can’t even remember the target now. But it was, there was a lot of railway marshalling yards and stuff to, targets that were, well opening up for the second front. But when I left hospital, we drove up, I couldn’t remember, couldn’t believe the amount of, well, it was the build-up for the D-Day obviously, I was on leave D-Day. But we came up from East Grinstead and there were thousands and thousands of cars and lorries and I didn’t know what was going on. But obviously it was the build-up for D-Day. Wouldn’t have missed any of it, wouldn’t, couldn’t do it again. Not a very nice day, is it? Remember most.
CB: Operation [unclear]
WH: Long, lonely flights dropping supplies to the Maquis, low level, five hundred feet, when we, yeah, one, on one occasion we couldn’t find a dropping zone and I think it must have been an airfield we crossed, they shot us to hell. I lost control of the throttles, I’m trying to think how and why but we landed back home. I don’t know why I didn’t really get, it didn’t occur to me to go up and see what damage they had done to the aircraft and I don’t know why, lots of people did but I didn’t. You just start to be alive. It was, it was always in your mind, because you came down and there another name was gone and that was it. When you start to think, a bit brutal, [unclear], oh dear, but question and answer like this is, well, somebody will hear it one day.
CB: How did you find the dropping zones for the Maquis?
WH: Ah, that was always a mystery to me, the navigator, how the hell he found them, he’d find a clearing or something, he’d have the coordinates of roughly where they were, obviously there was information coming to and fro but it’s never mentioned anywhere but it was vital to the second front, no, that’s not true, to the, it was vital to the underground, the Maquis. I don’t’ think they would have resisted [or existed?] without the help that they got from us but the people I most admire are the ones who took out light air craft, Lysanders and landed and dropped people, that must have bene a bit hairy.
CB: Did you deliver people as well?
WH: Sorry?
CB: Did you deliver people?
WH: No. Never, no. No, never, it was supplies, I still got a, I still got a container somewhere, I don’t know where it is. I can remember my sergeant saying, how many? I got lots of boxes, what the hell? I said, well, I came over with a suitcase, I said, but I’m going back with a wife and two children. I said, I’ve accumulated all this [unclear] of stuff and I, now I think they’ve been chopped off most of them and probably burnt but it’s, I wish this sort of thing had been available to my father cause I would loved to have known, what did he do to get a military medal?
CB: What did he do as a job?
WH: Well, I don’t know, he was just [unclear] Great Western Railway, no, I.
CB: In Banbury.
WH: Yeah. Honestly, don’t know. I knew, ah, I used to write his letters for him to the union because he got an industrial disease, dermatitis, caused by coal dust and oil apparently. And I used to write his letters. We were fighting a case and he wasn’t a scholar of any kind. I always remember someone saying, I saw your dad riding his bike, he said, he jumped off and his legs [unclear], it always tickles me, running alongside it. But I had a lovely home actually, they were, well, just ordinary people but cause they’ve [unclear] come from different background entirely I mean. I remember saying to her years ago, well, talking about cars, I said, we only had a Lancia? I said, Lancia, I haven’t got a pair of bloody roller-skates. But a different background entirely. And I think when we eloped at the vicar of, oh God, what was the name of the place? Didn’t want to marry us, and I think he looked to the documents and saw that Yvonne was from a different background than me and then we, ah, the vicar of Tottenham [?], Guilford and he said, oh, don’t worry, he said, nobody came to my wedding. And the chap who painted that came, he and his, he married a WAAF, I know, [unclear] something to say.
CB: So when was it that you got married?
WH: When? ’49. Which is, how many years ago?
CB: Yeah, it’s quite a long time.
WH: ’49. Fifty, well, fifty, sixty years. Yeah.
CB: Where did you meet Yvonne?
WH: Where did I meet? Well, Chalky my navigator and I had the same musical taste, can’t stand pop, well, didn’t exist then. But Yvonne had a beautiful control to her voice and she was heard in the town hall in Banbury singing, Doctor Leslie Woodgate, BBC, and he insisted that she go to the Guildhall School of Music on the Embankment. And they said yes, seven years, oh I wanna get married. Well, don’t stop singing. But she did have a beautiful voice. I heard her in the town hall. I know that my redeemer liveth, I remember it very well. But she did have a very, it really was a beautiful voice. I wish I could sing. Talent, you’ve either got or you haven’t. I got the blame for that too, cause I left the car at Hanger Lane, I didn’t wanna drive in to the Embankment. And when we came back, she rang up her folk from the, from Hanger Lane, and I got the blame for turning her down. Because she, I think she could’ve gone a long way. But I was fascinated. However. We all have different talents, well, some of haven’t got any, and I haven’t, I can’t, I can’t draw. I can’t [unclear]. Oddly enough the children are all artistic or they were. But I haven’t got a single party trick, I can’t even whistle [laughs].



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with William Holmes,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

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