Interview with John Holtham


Interview with John Holtham


At the age of 15, John ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the British Army. In 1917 he joined the Royal Flying Corps, qualified as a pilot and volunteered to join the Royal Naval Air Service. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force and spent time as the senior training officer at RAF Great Yarmouth. In 1941, John joined the Air Training Corps and the following year he was offered a place on the RAF university entrance scheme for six months. He then went to Oxford to read history and do RAF training. After six months, he was able to re-join the RAF and went to Canada for a navigation course. He and a friend volunteered to go to an Operational Training Unit in Nova Scotia where they were paired with their pilots and did an eight-week course on Mosquitos. After another Operational Training Unit in Shropshire, they were posted to France, where they joined 487 Squadron. When the war ended John went back to New Zealand and transferred to 139 Squadron. In 1946, his next posting was to Nuremberg where he was involved in the trials. In 1947, he was discharged and went back to university. John got married in 1951 and re-joined the Air Force in a teaching capacity.




Temporal Coverage




00:27:33 audio recording


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JM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslan. The interviewee is Mr John Holtham. The interview is taking place at Mr Holtham's house in Staffordshire on the 22nd of May 2018. John, I wonder if we could start the interview by you telling us a little bit about your background before you joined the RAF.
JH: Yes. Right. I’ll start with my father if I may.
JM: Please do.
JH: He was born in 1900, the youngest of four brothers and by 1915 three of them were serving so he ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Army. Well, luckily his father got him out of that but in 1917 he joined the Royal Flying Corps and trained and qualified as a pilot, went to France flying over the trenches when he was only still only seventeen but then they asked for volunteers to join the Royal Naval Air Service and he and his friend both volunteered, were sent back to Calshot and learned to fly Flying Boats which in those days were made of canvas over a wooden frame. And he spent the first of the war flying over the Channel. Then World War Two came along and he wanted to rejoin the RAF. Of course, in April of 1918 the two forces, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps had amalgamated but he was told that because he had been in the Royal Naval Air Service he had to go in the Fleet Air Arm. So that was what he did and he spent the rest of the war as the senior training officer at Yeovilton as he was considered too old to fly. Now we come to me myself and in 1941 they announced the formation of the Air Training Corps and as I’d been an Army Cadet I at once went to my headmaster and said, ‘Could we form a school company?’ And he said, ‘Yes, we could.’ Obviously, he was the CO and because I had some training I had instant promotion to flight sergeant. Now, in 1942 when I was seventeen and three quarters I went along to the Recruiting Office in Exeter to join the RAF but the flight sergeant said, ‘No. Go back to school and it will be to your advantage.’ Which is what I did and two weeks later a squadron leader turned up and interviewed me and offered me a place under the RAF University Entrant Scheme. They would send me to university for six months where I could study whatever subject I liked and at the same time take my preliminary exams with the University Air Squadron. So they sent me to Oxford. I went to St Edmund or Teddy Hall and read history and did my preliminary RAF training. So after six months early in ‘43 I was in the RAF proper. And after a few weeks we went to Heaton Park, Manchester where we were told what we were going to do and I was given the heading of navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator. NBW. It was a very long training. The longest in the RAF but it did mean that we would be in small aircraft where we had to do everything except fly the thing. So first of all we went to Cranwell for an eighteen week radio course which mostly consisted of Morse Code. They did tell us how to mend the wireless but when you're going five miles a minute in ten minutes you’ve gone fifty miles and you're probably lost so the private advice was if it doesn't work hit it with your fists and if it still doesn't work leave it alone. So at the end of that course we were off to Heaton Park again and then across the Atlantic on the Mauritania, about three hundred of us and it took eleven days actually because we zigzagged by day and went straight by night and we arrived in New York. Then after Moncton and New Brunswick had our first taste of a Canadian winter. After a few weeks there it was down to 33 Air Navigation School at Mount Hope, near Hamilton and, for our navigation course. This was twenty six weeks. Longer than the normal navigator’s course as we made two flights as a navigator and one as a wireless operator. At the end of that we were given our wings and then they asked for two volunteers to go to the Operational Training Unit at Debert in Nova Scotia on Mosquitoes. Well, myself and my friend Geoff we both volunteered and we were the only ones that did so we got the job and we went after a leave we went up to Debert which was right in the middle of nowhere and we were paired up with our pilots and we did, I think it was eight weeks course there flying the Mosquito. My first flight in a Mosquito was when I was still nineteen. Then across the Atlantic again this time with twelve thousand American troops as company. We landed at Christmas Day. I remember we had K-rations on Christmas Day. Not the best thing in the world but the catering facilities must have been stretched to their limit with that number of people. And then we went to another OTU in England at High Ercall in Shropshire to get used to wartime conditions. And then they took away the radios from the Mosquito and gave us radar, Gee radar instead which was much better as you could fix your position with great accuracy on home on the end of the runway. After a course there it was off to France and we joined 487 New Zealand Squadron at Epinoy near Cambrai and the war was coming to an end and there was not a lot of opposition. Our job was Army cooperation and we, our chief targets were anything that moved on the ground. So we flew very low and just popped off at anything like a train or a lorry that was on the road. When the war came to an end the New Zealanders very quickly went back to New Zealand and I was transferred to 139 Squadron. Now one duty we had was to take a dispatch daily from Germany. Nuremberg back to England and we all took turns which gave us a chance to go into the war crimes trial and you dialled your language and you could hear an instant translation. In the dock was a German general and he was later hanged for crimes against humanity. They looked a very ordinary bunch of men but the, Goering stood out from all the others in a white jacket. I remember hearing Shawcross, the British lawyer say the same thing. There are, then I had another job as well at [unclear] which was editor of the local, of the newspaper. The station newspaper. We did one thousand five hundred copies a week with a pin up which necessitated my going to the Windmill Theatre in London. We had a crossword, we had leading articles and I believe they’re all stored at the Air Museum. After some time I was given a third posting and this time up to, further in Germany at Lunenberg, near the frontier with East Germany. From there to the Maintenance Unit at [unclear] and was flying aircraft back to England to dump them. Have them broken up. So the longest trip I made there was just before Christmas in 1946 when the CO said he wanted turkey for everyone for Christmas and we flew to Northern Ireland. Think we landed twice to refuel. Brought four hundred pounds weight of turkey and flew them back to the station. This was the worst winter of the century and our final trip was down to Eindhoven where the aircraft froze solid and we were unable to go any further. I was discharged in 1947 and went back to university to take applied optics and joined civilian life. In 1951 I got married and also joined Auxiliary Air Force doing part time work teaching other people navigation. I left there in 1957 and my contact with the Air Force continued with the Royal Air Force Association which I’ve been a member for many years. I’ve been welfare officer, secretary and for many years chairman. I’ve now retired from all such things as I now feel that at my age I deserve to take things more easily.
JM: John, thank you very much. Could we just go back over some of those points and just discuss them in a little bit more detail? I’d like to start on this occasion right at the early stage in your RAF career when you were being trained to operate the wireless and as a navigator. Could you tell us a little bit more about how that took place and how easy you found it to master those skills?
JH: Yeah. Well, I already, I already had a good knowledge of Morse Code. We, we had to get your [air observer’s] badge you had to be able to Morse Code at twelve words a minute but with the RAF you had to have at least sixteen words a minute and I think we managed twenty two words a minute which is, a word is five letters so twenty two times five is over a hundred. More than one a second and you’d got so used to doing it that you could read a book and take it down at the same time. But it was something you never forget and even today seventy years later I can still remember the Morse Code but not as quickly as that. It was of limited use really because you don’t use your radio when you’re flying over Germany because it gives your position away and if your only message you receive are a change of target or a general recall. But in point of fact I never used it as such because we had Gee radar instead.
JM: And Gee worked on the basis of receiving signals from a ground transmitting station.
JH: Yeah.
JM: Was it easy to use Gee?
JH: Yes. Very easy. Yes. You had two little blips and you used to align the blips. I forget how you do it all now [laughs] but you could align the blips and push a button that gave you a reading and you could read off of the map exactly where you were or you could set on it the position of the end of your runway and then watch the two blips coming together and when they came together there you were over the airport.
JM: Your time in Canada must have been very important in your formation as a young man.
JH: Yes. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Canada. It was an eye opener. Canadian society was much looser and not so rigid as English society and it’s, it’s a great country, Canada. I’ve been back many times since and it really is a great country. The one disadvantage of course is the Canadian winter and all those who can afford it and are retired go down to Florida for the winter. But if you’re, they say that the best part of Canada is the West Coast. British Columbia. Vancouver. Vancouver Island. And having been there I can see that it is. They even play cricket on Vancouver Island so it is home from home for Englishmen.
JM: So, you convert on to the Mosquito. Tell us a little bit more please about what that aeroplane was like to operate and to learn to fly.
JH: Well, it [pause] it was a very complicated aircraft. One forgets how complicated it was but it had, it needed a very experienced pilot to fly it. All the pilots had to have a minimum of one thousand hours and you had to cooperate. The pilot and the navigator had to cooperate exactly to get everything right. But navigating you had to have your position within a hundred of yards of the track and it was a question of whether you flew under high tension cables or over them and the landing speeds and take off speeds were very high for aircraft of the time, a hundred and twenty miles an hour. And it was a very fast aircraft for the day. It cruised at two hundred and seventy miles an hour. Well, a Spitfire cruised at two hundred and fifty. And it had a very high top speed but we never had to use because we only used it in an emergency and obviously it was very expensive on the engine and very expensive on fuel and you shortened your range tremendously if you go belting across at four hundred miles an hour.
JM: Now, as a navigator you would have needed light in the cockpit to read maps or to do your work.
JH: No.
JM: But obviously that was a giveaway. So how did you get around that one?
JH: No. There were no navigation lights but we had a little torch. A little round torch about an inch across and you put tissue paper over the bulb so that it wasn’t so bright. Apart from my training flights in Canada I never flew in an aircraft which had a navigator station with a table or things like that. They were always up sitting next to the pilot and just with a map on your knees. But you got very expert and they always say a man is not lost, merely unsure of his position.
JM: But map reading at low level at high speed must be quite difficult to do.
JH: Yes. It is more difficult. Yeah.
JM: How did you go about that? What principles did you —
JH: Well, you’ve got to do it constantly. You can’t turn away from it. That’s why you couldn’t take time off to repair a radio set. If you do that you lose very quickly your sense of where you are. But the maps were very detailed and so you could figure out names. At night of course it was a different matter. If it was a black night there was nothing you could see at all on the ground and you [pause] I don’t know how we did it but we did do it.
JM: Now, your Mosquito was gun armed I understand.
JH: Yeah.
JM: Tell us a little bit about that.
JH: Well, they had four machine guns on the nose and four twenty millimetre cannon underneath the fuselage all firing forwards. It was particularly used for ground support. Shooting at anything that moved on the ground. It also did bomb specified targets. Particularly if the Army had asked for them. Rather funnily I was collecting money for the RAF Association outside the supermarket in Stone. This man came up to me and said, ‘Where were you in July 1944?’ I said, ‘I was still training.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Mosquitoes attacked our headquarters.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear.’ And then I realised he wasn’t English he was German [laughs] so I didn’t mind after all.
JM: Because you were with 487 Squadron which was a New Zealand squadron with a tremendous history during the Second World War. You were aware of those traditions when you joined it I’m sure.
JH: Oh yes. Oh yes. I mean the CO was a Wing Commander Kemp. He was flying in the Middle East and he didn’t want to stop flying. He knew they would stop him if his papers arrived back in England so he arrived to fly back so he arrived before his papers did so he could still go on flying and he had two DSOs and two DFCs. A very nice man he was. He was a peacetime veterinary surgeon and that’s what he went back to doing after the war.
JM: I understand that the Mosquitoes on 487 attacked quite specific targets on at least two occasions. Can, can you just tell us a little bit about those attacks?
JH: Yeah. Well, one of the most famous ones was the Amien Prison where they attacked the wall. An Australian squadron attacked the barracks and an English squadron was in reserve. The other one was the Gestapo Headquarters in Copenhagen where they were holding two of the Resistance fighters and torturing them for information and everyone gives way in the end. And they asked us to bomb it and even to kill them. To kill the agents. Now in point of fact they dropped a delayed action bomb which went straight through down to the ground floor killing the Gestapo but didn’t kill the two agents who managed to escape.
JM: But there was a tragedy associated with that.
JH: Yes. Some of the Mosquitoes bombed a girl’s school. But the Danish were very understanding about it. They didn’t blame them at all. It’s surprising but they didn’t. No.
JM: Now, when the war was over you had the opportunity to participate in the Nuremberg trials which is something that history records but I have never met anybody who was actually associated with that.
JH: Yes we —
JM: Can you tell us more about that please?
JH: We all got a chance of sit in. You went on the balcony and put some earphones on and turned the dial to English so that you got a simultaneous translation. And the, all war criminals were in the dock together. They looked a very ordinary set of men apart from Goering in his white jacket. And there was a German general in the box answering. Answering questions. It was all very slow paced. This trial took many months. Some were acquitted. Some got lesser sentences and some were condemned.
JM: And executed.
JH: What?
JM: And executed.
JH: And executed. Yeah. Yeah. Yes, the Americans had their own executioner. A master sergeant executioner. He executed over three hundred American servicemen during the war over here.
JM: Good grief.
JH: Yeah. That was for murder or rape.
JM: Desertion or other criminal military offences.
JH: Not desertion. No. They were nearly all murder or rape.
JM: Was it? Was it? Yeah.
JH: Of course, a lot of them rape cases were black and you do see pictures now of blacks serving in with the white services but of course they didn’t. No black men served in the white services. They were all separate units. They went to different pubs. There was no mixing at all.
JM: But you, you did have black aircrew in the RAF.
JH: Yes. On my navigation course we had two West Indian brothers and a Nigerian and we had no problem with that at all.
JM: So there was no discrimination at that stage.
JH: No.
JM: You were all in the same uniform.
JH: Not at all. No. No. They were nice chaps and we got on very well. I met one of the West Indians later on. I’d landed somewhere and he suddenly, saw him waving at me. He’d also come in to land there. So I don’t know where he’d been or what he’d been doing but they had normal duties.
JM: Going back to your story you’ve mentioned that you were involved in bringing aircraft back to Britain for scrapping. There was no sense of holding aircraft for heritage in those days I gather.
JH: None at all. No. The principal place we took them was St Athans which was in Wales actually and I’ve never seen so many Lancasters all lined up wing tip to wing tip. All going to the scrap heap. It’s a wonder we saved any at all but a lot of aircraft, many, many types of which none exist because we didn’t save any. I was surprised to see a Defiant the other day which I didn’t know any of those existed. It was a useless aircraft but [pause] easily shot down.
JM: Yes. And, and then, you know you maintained your association with the Royal Air Force in to the 1950s.
JH: Yeah.
JM: You were saying that you were helping to train people to —
JH: Yeah.
JM: Learn the skills of navigation. How did you view the RAF changing in those post-war years?
JH: Well, it was, it was still quite a considerable sized force back then. There were one or two hundred thousand people. Now it’s only thirty eight thousand. As I say everyone knows everyone else’s name, you know. It’s like a boy’s club of sorts.
JM: Yeah. You have this marvellous model of the Mosquito here in your home.
JH: Yeah.
JM: It’s a wonderful model. You were telling me that the opportunity came to paint the spinners on the engines in a colour.
JH: Yes.
JM: Would you tell us about that?
JH: All the squadrons were allowed to have different coloured spinners. Ours was a blue ring and all the front of it was polished bright metal. So we had to do that and the CO didn’t want the ground staff to do it. He said they’ll resent it so you got to do it yourself.
JM: And that was hard work.
JH: Not really but it wasn’t what we were accustomed to.
JM: Now you didn’t maintain any contact with your pilot or the other New Zealanders after.
JH: No. No. I didn’t I’m afraid. But my great friend Geoff he’d been sent out the Far East and we did correspond for a time but he lived at Nantwich which in those days was a long way away from where I lived and we never met. I met one or two people but not many.
JM: No. No. No. Well, John, thank you very much for completing this interview with me. Thank you for all the information that you’ve given which is very detailed and very unusual and I’m sure it will go down in to the IBCC Archives and be of considerable significance to historians of the future. So thank you very much indeed.
JH: Pleasure. What I didn’t mention and wasn’t going to was one of my friends up in Canada —



Julian Maslin, “Interview with John Holtham,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 14, 2024,

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