Interview with William Hough


Interview with William Hough


Bill Hough came from a farming background, went to a local grammar school in Northwich and was a member of the Air Training Corps. He joined the RAF in 1943. He describes his initial training at Bridgnorth. Bill then goes into the continuation training then going to wireless school where he became a wireless operator and air gunner. Bill was then part of 8 OTU (Operational Training Unit) where they flew Wellington’s, then the HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) flying Halifaxes. Bill then went to Finishing School and flew Lancaster’s. A part of the Pathfinders, Bill flew with 582 squadron. Bill then reminisces his operations, one of which where his aircraft was attacked by a Messerschmitt 262. Bill then details being shot down and his experiences of getting back to Britain through Belgium, where he stayed with American forces and recalled that they were much better fed. Bill took part in Operation Manna and details the experiences of anti-aircraft fire. Bill also recollects his squadron and the Victoria Cross recipient, South African Captain Swales, Bill did not have close contact with him but knew he was well liked. Bill also remembers another Victoria Cross recipient, Squadron Leader Palmer, who was a pilot in 109 Squadron but was flying with 582 Squadron and a 582 aircraft at the time. He also describes his experiences when he was off-duty and often went to Bedford and St. Neots to drink and dance. Bill later details his experiences after the war and being selected to go on a goodwill tour to Brazil with Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris and was in Brazil when the war in Asia ended. After instruction duties, Bill emigrated to Canada and stayed for fourteen years, and met Air Gunner Johnny Campbell who saved his life. Bill’s interview finishes with the legacy of Bomber Command and receiving his medal clasp.




Temporal Coverage

Spatial Coverage




01:26:24 audio recording

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JM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslin. The interviewee is Mr Bill Hough. The interview is taking place at Mr Hough’s home near Warrington in Cheshire on the 5th of September 2016. Mr Hough, you’ve asked me, you’ve invited me to call you Bill. Bill, I wonder if I could ask you just to tell us please a little about your life before you joined the Royal Air Force and your reasons for signing up.
BH: Well, I’d come from a farming background really but I didn’t myself go in to farming. After I’d left grammar school, I attended grammar school in locally, Northwich. And for a period, I think I was sixteen when I left grammar school but I knew eventually I was going to have to go in the forces. But in the meantime I had a temporary job with ICI which was a pretty big employer in this area, and then when the time come to join up I volunteered rather than be recruited. Mainly so I could go in to the air force rather than be recruited in to say the army or the navy which I wouldn’t have liked. So I volunteered for the air force as soon as I was able. What’s that? Eighteen and a quarter I believe it was when you were able to. So it was in 1943. Spring of 1943 when I joined up.
JM: Would you say that your experience of the Second World War was a factor in you choosing the Royal Air Force?
BH: My experience of the —?
JM: Well you must have seen some of the blitz bombing of Liverpool and Manchester.
BH: Oh certainly. Certainly. I was always attracted to aeroplanes I suppose. I remember going to air shows locally. I was in the cadets.
JM: The ATC.
BH: ATC yeah. For a while. So, and you know I got into various things by doing Morse code and that type of thing so, you know, I’d got a background in aviation and it was natural that if I had a choice I would go into the air force. And well that’s what I did. I was accepted. I was accepted as air crew as well.
JM: Where did you go to enrol?
BH: When I first joined up you mean?
JM: Yes.
BH: I went to Lord’s Cricket Ground. The nursery end actually [laughs] Yeah, I joined at Lord’s Cricket Ground. I don’t know why it was there. It was just a place that was used by the air force I suppose. And we were billeted in St John’s Wood in, there were some very posh apartments there and they were requisitioned. And that’s where we were. We didn’t stay there long because we, you were moved on pretty — you did some drill there but you quickly moved on to ITW. Initial Training Wing.
JM: And where was that please?
BH: Bridgnorth.
JM: So that was the West Midlands.
BH: Yes. Bridgnorth. Yeah.
JM: Do you have any memories of your time at ITW?
BH: I remember arriving at ITW. I don’t know if you know Bridgnorth at all.
JM: Slightly.
BH: Well it’s in two sections — an upper and a lower. And we arrived by rail and the station is at the lower end. The camp was at the top end. We were met by an officer there, a flight lieutenant I remember. And he made, we carried kit of course, and he made us jog all the way with full kit up this hill. It was quite a, quite a difference in height and, you know, we weren’t that fit then [laughs] and he jogged us right up this hill to the camp. I can remember that distinctly. And that’s what? A six weeks course or something isn’t it? ITW. Something like that. Which was pretty well all drill.
JM: Basic airmanship in that sense.
BH: I suppose so. Yes. I can only remember the drill part of it, you know. The parade ground stuff. I suppose to get you fit in a way. Everybody coming in was probably very unfit.
JM: And where did you go to after ITW?
BH: Well, by then I’d opted — I think you had a choice of where you went. Well not, not a choice but you couldn’t be a pilot or a navigator because they were trained overseas pretty well. But I opted for a wireless operator/air gunner. And, you know, which was going to be in two parts and eventually I was sent to the Number 2 Radio School at Yatesbury, Wiltshire. That was a pretty isolated place that was but that was, that was where I went. And that’s where we learned the basics of radio communication. And also did our first flying. Initially in Dominies.
JM: Yes.
BH: And then in Proctors.
JM: Proctors.
BH: Yeah. Well that, I think that was, I don’t know, it was quite a, quite a long course. Probably it might have been six months. It was quite an intensive course. You learned aircraft recognition. Morse code. You had to pass at a certain level and as I say you had to do this stuff in the air as well. First in groups in a Dominie and then on your own. Just with the pilot in the Proctor.
JM: Did your experiences as a cadet help you learning Morse code?
BH: I suppose that’s perhaps in a way why I opted to be a W/op air gunner. I suppose that did contribute. Yes. Yes.
JM: What sort of speeds did you reach?
BH: You had to be able to read twenty. Twenty words per minute. That was the pass out speed. Twenty words per minute. Yeah.
JM: And were you trained in the technology of wireless as it was at that time or was it merely a matter of sending and receiving?
BH: No, there was some technical stuff as well. It was all pretty basic. You weren’t a mechanic or anything, you know. You were an operator. Not a mechanic. Not a radio mechanic. You were an operator. So, but obviously you had to learn some basic stuff to know what went on behind the sets and so on.
JM: And when you’d finished at Yatesbury, at Number 2 Wireless School, where did you go after that?
BH: Well, I went to gunnery school which was at Castle Kennedy, Scotland. Of course I trained as an air gunner because at that time the position was W/op air gunner. It was sort of harking back to the smaller planes where you did two jobs. Whereas when the four engine bombers came in they were quite separate and I never did operate as an air gunner. I trained as an air gunner but I never operated as an air gunner. But I went to Castle Kennedy in Scotland. We did some ground firing initially with a turret on the ground. And then of course you got in to the air and I think we mainly flew Ansons then. You fired from the mid-upper turret at a drogue which was being towed by another aircraft. And as I say I trained there but never used the skill. If it is a skill [laughs]
JM: Well it is deflection shooting.
BH: Yeah.
JM: Did you find that difficult to master?
BH: No. But that’s the basis of it obviously. Deflection shooting. But I don’t know you’ve got to score. They used to score you on what, how close you were. That sort of thing. You got a certificate. It’s in my logbook actually. But you got a certificate when you passed out saying you know, I don’t know, gave you some kind of pass mark I suppose.
JM: So you’re now qualified as a wireless operator/air gunner.
BH: Yes.
JM: And what happened to you next, Bill?
BH: Well, it was [pause] it was OUT, I suppose it was called.
JM: Operational training.
BH: Operational Training Unit.
JM: Yes.
BH: And that was at [pause] Worksop wasn’t it? Yeah. Yeah.
JM: So you were at Worksop near Nottingham.
BH: Yes.
JM: On number, Number 8 OTU.
BH: Yes. Number 8 OTU while we flew in Wellingtons. I had that period before that. Number 6 AFU. That’s —
JM: Advanced airborne fighting unit?
BH: Flying Unit. I can’t remember doing any flying there. I remember being at Staverton but I don’t know what we did there exactly. It was a very short period. We soon passed on to the OTU where we flew in Wellingtons and I’m trying to remember when we crewed up but I think that was later. Yeah. It was. Yeah. We did the OTU at Worksop.
JM: Do you have any memories of flying in Wellingtons?
BH: Not a lot really. The positions were quite different there I think. I remember, I think I remember, the wireless operator’s position was down in the nose somehow, whereas later on it was all up on one level, you know. But I think that was down in the nose there.
JM: And did you fly on any missions as part of your OTU training? Did you do leaflet raids or anything of that sort?
BH: No. I think that was a lot of that was done wasn’t it? And when they first did these thousand bomber raids, you know, they included some people from OTUs just to make the numbers up. But they were mainly instructors I think. I don’t think it was in-training people. It was the instructors that went on those. And then after that we went to HCU which is a Heavy Conversion Unit and that was at Lindholme, which is near to Doncaster isn’t it? 1656 HCU. Now, I think that’s where we crewed up. We were then flying Halifaxes actually. That was the training aircraft at that time. For four engine bombers. And I remember the crewing up process was, I don’t know, a bit of a shambles somehow. I mean, I eventually got with a Canadian crew. Now, I can’t remember whether — I remember being in this big room and people going around saying, ‘Have you crewed up yet?’ ‘Have you?’ ‘We’re looking for a wireless operator,’ or, ‘We’re looking for an engineer.’ This type of thing. People just walking around. And, you know, not any system at all. Just leaving it up to, I suppose, the pilots, the captain of the prospective crew. But you see I think five out of the seven of our crew were Canadians and I have a feeling that they were already together. The only two English people were myself who was the wireless operator and the flight engineer. So, I remember, you know, Art Green, who was the skipper, coming up to me and saying me, ‘Are you crewed up yet,’ and sort of giving me a few questions [laughs] and so on. But eventually —
JM: Yeah.
BH: You know, accepted me and that was how you got crewed up and then you started flying in Halifaxes and started to get serious, you know, some serious training.
JM: What did you think about a Halifax as an aeroplane to operate?
BH: I can’t remember a great deal but it obviously didn’t have a great reputation. Not as good as the Lancaster obviously but you know it had its points and was a good training aircraft I suppose. But operationally it wasn’t a success was it? Well, not as successful as some others. That and the Stirling of course were not as successful.
JM: And was it when you were on Heavy Conversion Unit — was that the first time you did operations at all?
BH: No. I didn’t do any operations from there at all. The Lancaster was coming in at that. Well, it had probably been in for a while but it was coming in in big numbers and the Halifaxes were being phased out in favour of Lancasters. So the next step was, for us was to go to an LFU. Oh, what was it called? It was an LFS. Lancaster —
JM: Finishing.
BH: Finishing School. Yeah. In other words converting you from Halifaxes to Lancasters. Mainly for the captain’s purpose I suppose. I mean he was the one that would find the biggest change. I mean the wireless operator was, you know, was operating the same equipment and the gunners were operating the same guns and that kind of thing so it was mainly for the, for the pilot. But that was, you know, quite a short period that LFS. Only a matter of two or three weeks I think, something like that. And then from then you were posted to an Operational Unit.
JM: And where were you posted to?
BH: Firstly to Elsham Wolds. That’s where’s that near? I don’t know.
JM: Elsham Wolds is North Lincolnshire.
BH: Yeah.
JM: Not far from the Humber Bridge now.
BH: I think that’s near to Worksop as well actually.
JM: Not far.
BH: I seem to remember Worksop from there. And that was to 576 Squadron. There were actually two squadrons there you know. 576, and I think it was 103. Both Lancaster squadrons. And from there, we are getting now to September ’44. I mean I’d been training for over a year at that point. It was a long process. And from Elsham Wolds I did ten operations from there.
JM: Do you remember those operations at all? Do you remember how you felt on your first one?
BH: Scared to death I suppose [laughs] well, as you were on most operations for that matter. You just were a bit more familiar after a while. You knew what was coming. But on a first operation obviously you don’t. And I forget where it was too but it was there. I did ten from there and we also — there was a satellite base at Fiskerton which is near to there. And I think we were based there for part of the time for some reason. I don’t know why. But it was a satellite of Elsham Wolds. I did one operation from there. I did ten operations from Elsham and one from Fiskerton. And at that time we were recommended for Pathfinders. The crew was recommended for Pathfinders. So we had to go on another training conversion course and that was at Warboys. We went from Fiskerton to Warboys for the NTU. What does that mean? Training. What’s N mean? Anyway, it was sort of conversion from main stream squadron to, to Pathfinder. We were still flying the same aircraft of course. On Lancasters. And that was only actually three days I see. Just three days for this conversion. And then we were posted to 582 Pathfinder Squadron which was at Little Staughton which was near to Bedford, St Neots. And at little Staughton — it was formerly an American base but when Pathfinders were formed I believe they took it over. I mean Pathfinders hadn’t been in existence for, I don’t know, about a year or eighteen months. And the Yanks gave it up and the Pathfinders took it over. 582 Squadron was based there, that’s a Lancaster squadron. But there was a further squadron — 109 Squadron which flew Mosquitoes. So there were two Pathfinder squadron operating from there.
JM: And how many operations did you do with 582?
BH: Well I did eleven. I did thirty four altogether so that leaves twenty three from there. I did thirty four. Yeah. Fourteen to thirty four.
JM: Was your selection as a Pathfinder crew — was that based on a good record of bombing when you were at Elsham?
BH: Yes. It obviously was but it was mainly to do with the proficiency of the pilot and the navigator I think. I mean the navigator was the key man or was the key man in Pathfinders because, you know, they had to be bang on. Find the target, and mark the target for the Main Force who may not have been as efficient as our navigator. They would have had trouble finding the target if we hadn’t marked it so I think that was the criteria. That you had a good pilot. We had a very experienced pilot. He was [pause] he was a peacetime man, pilot. He was in his thirties actually. He was a flight lieutenant. Later squadron leader. But, I mean, some of the pilots were quite raw. In Main Force particularly. You know, twenty, twenty one, twenty two. And the only flying experience they had was in their training whereas Art Green he had flied before the war and then of course volunteered into the war. So he was a very experienced pilot. Very level headed and, you know. A man you knew you could rely on. Trust.
JM: Just for the tape you said Art Green. Is that short for Arthur Green?
BH: I suppose it is [laughs] I never, we always called him Art actually but [laughs] yeah. We always called him Art. I suppose it was Arthur.
JM: Yeah. Yeah. And was it a collective decision to transfer to Pathfinders or did the captain make it and you had to go along?
BH: I suppose he was invited or selected and we had to go along with him. I don’t think he had a choice. No.
JM: Because it was a longer tour of operations wasn’t it?
BH: Oh yeah. You had — a normal tour in Main Force was thirty ops but in Pathfinders because you’d done so much training you were more, sort of, valuable. And a tour there was, was it thirty five, I think? I think it was thirty five. Yeah. Whereas in Main Force it was thirty.
JM: And was there a special badge that you got to show that you were in the Pathfinder force?
BH: Yes. You had a thing on your breast pocket.
JM: A brevet.
BH: Which we were very very proud of it. It was a golden eagle, ss it? I suppose. Yeah.
JM: Yes.
BH: The air force eagle. Yes. You wore it on the left breast pocket.
JM: And your job with Pathfinders was to illuminate the target with flares.
BH: Yes.
JM: Could you say a bit more about that please?
BH: Well, to me it didn’t [pause] sort of affect my job, anyway, you know. It, it was, I suppose the navigator and bomb aimer that would. And the pilot I suppose. But as far as I was concerned I was just a wireless operator in an aircraft. Obviously, you were going in first and you were, you were in a more dangerous situation because you were first in and sometimes you had to go around and go back in if you missed the target. That sort of thing, so — but apart from that as I say it didn’t really affect me.
JM: Did your aeroplane just carry flares or did it have a mixed load of flares and bombs?
BH: Well, often it was mixed. Yeah. You had a mixture quite often. Depends what you were. You sort of category. Sky markers, and blind markers and all that kind of stuff. So depending what you were you carried a mixed load normally.
JM: Do any of those operations particularly stand out in your mind?
BH: Well, I was shot down on one of them [laughs]
JM: That was —
BH: That stands out in my mind. Yes.
JM: Tell us about that please. If you would.
BH: And this was operation number thirteen [laughs] which might have been our worst. It was a daylight operation actually to a place called Heimbach Dam which was [pause] it was in Northern Germany anyway. But at that time we were — allied forces were advancing through Belgium and there. And just into Germany possibly and we were on this daylight raid bombing just ahead of our forces. In the American sector actually. And this was a dam that was just inside Germany. Heimbach. It was a daylight operation. We took off pretty early. Eight. Eight something I think. It wasn’t deep into Germany so it was only probably a two or three hour trip to there. The weather wasn’t forecast to be marvellous and I remember going. Flying in over Belgium and we were nearing the target. Flying over ten tenths cloud. The forecast just wasn’t good. The weather wasn’t good and we were flying in a stream obviously as we usually did. And we were on the outer starboard side of the stream on the right hand side which was not a good place to be. And then the, our gunner, Major Campbell. He wasn’t a major really. We used to call him major. He was a warrant officer but his nickname was major. Major Campbell. Rear gunner. He reported a plane on the starboard quarter and but he couldn’t identify it, he said. At the moment. It was quite a way off. Two or three miles away but I sort of fancied myself at aircraft recognition. I was always very good at aircraft recognition actually. And I stood up in the astrodome which was near to my position and I immediately identified it as a Messerschmitt 262. Now, that had not been in service very long at that time. It had been operated mainly as a fighter bomber actually. And I don’t think it had been encountered as a fighter but that’s what it was.
JM: And this is important because this was the first operational jet fighter in the world.
BH: Yes.
JM: And this attacked your aeroplane.
BH: Yes. It [pause] he reported this and I identified it as that and I thought he was keeping his eye on it when all of a sudden another one came directly behind us. And he reported that one quickly and said, ‘Corkscrew starboard.’ Which was the procedure when you had, you were being attacked but before we could really get into the corkscrew we were hit. The plane behind was the one that had fired. They carried cannon of course. They were pretty lethal these. And they were fast of course compared with a Lancaster. And it hit us in the port outer. Hit the port outer engine and we were immediately set on fire. Whether it was the fuel or the engine itself I suppose. There’s fuel tanks in that area. So that immediately took fire and we operated the fire extinguishers which didn’t make any difference. So the immediate outcome was for the skipper to say, ‘Abandon aircraft.’ And he ordered myself and the two gunners to go out the back entrance. The rest were at the front. So I clipped my parachute on. You didn’t wear it normally. You had it by your side. You had to clip it on to your harness at the front, and made my way down the fuselage. And the mid-upper gunner, the turret where he was located his feet protruded into the fuselage. You could see the bottom part of his body. There was only the upper part that was in the turret. So I remember going past him and giving him a bang on the legs to sort of tell him to get out in case he hadn’t heard or something like that and made my way down to the rear exit. And Johnny Campbell, the rear gunner was just getting out of his. He’d centred his turret, just getting out of his turret and by the time I got there he’d opened the door. The rear door where we got out. And he indicated to me to go first. And as I stood there my parachute came out. I never have known to this day what happened but my parachute came out through the door and deployed outside the aircraft. You know, pulling me as well and — sort of Johnny Campbell sized the situation up pretty quickly and got hold of me bodily and sort of pushed me out of the door. And going out I banged my head on the door and was lifted up. You know, normally have a parachute you should go down [laughs] initially anyway. But I was lifted up over the tail plane of the Lancaster. Banging my ankle on, on the elevator as I went out. But I eventually got free and after all the chaos that was going on in the plane and the noise everything seemed quiet. You know, just the plane had gone. I couldn’t see it anymore. I couldn’t hear anything. And the only problem was that my harness which you wear all the time in the aircraft. That you sometimes would slacken it off because it was a bit uncomfortable, you know between your legs. You would slacken it off a bit to make it more comfortable. And I omitted to tighten it up when I went out [laughs] and I was half out of the harness and I had hung on with two hands to hold on to the straps of the parachute. And otherwise I might have fallen out of it. But I eventually got down. I could see I was going to land in a field outside of a village. And as I got further down I noticed that there were people coming out of the village there. They must have seen the aircraft and seen me. They were running out of the village and I landed in this field which was, as I say, just outside the village. Not a very good landing obviously because I wasn’t able to do the standard roll because I was hanging on because of this loose harness. And it was quite windy as well as I remember. But I didn’t do any harm to myself and I was quickly grabbed by the villagers who grabbed the parachute and everything. Stopped me from being pulled along and there I was. It was a place called [pause] Tongeren I think it was, near to a place called Juprelle. It was in, it’s in northern, north western Belgium actually. And after about a quarter of an hour the Yanks came. I told you before it was in their sector and they arrived in a jeep and took me to hospital. Now, the outcome was that this gunner — I told you I banged the gunner on the way out. The outcome was that he didn’t get out. Everybody else got out but he didn’t. We always assumed that he was in the line of fire from the plane shooting over the top of the aircraft. Hitting an engine on the port side. He was probably shot, because he never got out. And he was, he was a replacement. That was the ironic part. Our own gunner — Ken McKeown, or Mac as we called him. He was called Mac. Mac McKeown. He was Canadian as well. Ken McKeown. The night before the operation he’d been, I was in the hut with him, we were both sergeants so we were in the same area there. He was cleaning his pistol. We carried a pistol on operations which was stuck in to your flying boot usually. But he was cleaning his and he put it in to the palm of his hand like that and pulled the trigger. And there was one up the spout and it went right through his hand. Clean through his hand. He was taken to hospital. He survived alright. It wasn’t serious I suppose in a way but he survived alright. But the consequence was he couldn’t take his position the next day. And I suppose the fellow that took his place was actually the gunnery leader. He was the Squadron leader. Gunnery leader. He didn’t normally fly. But I suppose he figured it was a pretty easy operation. Just over northern Europe. And he, he went in his place and he didn’t come back.
JM: Very sad.
BH: Yeah. It was very sad.
JM: Let’s have a break shall we?
[recording paused]
JM: Bill, we got to the point in the story where you were telling us about being shot down. I wonder if I could ask you to tell us a little bit more about that event.
BH: Well, I can tell you about what happened afterwards. I told you we were taken to hospital which was in a place called Hasselt which is in Belgium. It was a hospital. A very stark place I remember. It was operated by nuns. I was kept in for three or four days. I’d nothing serious. Just bumps mainly. No cuts or anything like that. After that I was taken to an American camp nearby where I stayed for one night and I recall having some very fine American food while I was there. Something that we didn’t get in the RAF. The Yanks were much better fed then we were. And then they took me to Brussels airport where I hitched a lift. There was no sort of formal arrangements. I hitched a lift on a Dakota back to the UK. First went to Down Ampney and then to [pause] where did I go to?
BH: Well it doesn’t matter but it was Down Ampney. And then I went to somewhere much nearer the camp anyway. And then I took a train to St Neots where I phoned up the camp and said I was there. And they came and picked me up. I was still wearing my, all my old flying still, flying boots and my flying kit and everything. Got back to the station and all the other people had arrived before me. They probably hadn’t been in hospital. I don’t think anybody was hurt. Only me. And it was then that I learned that the mid-upper gunner hadn’t survived. And as for the flight engineer — we never saw him again. I don’t know what, we never knew what happened to him. I think he had, this was Denny Naylor who was the other British person, on the, in the crew. Flight engineer. And I think he had some kind of mental breakdown. I think it affected him and he never came back. So we had to have another flight engineer after that. And after that we were given a rest period I think. Probably, intentionally I suppose for people to recover. And I didn’t do another operation for probably six weeks or something like that. This was December the 3rd ’44 that we were shot down. And I think the next operation was February. Early February.
JM: Did you experience any reaction to your events? To your adventures?
BH: I’m sure I did as I say. I didn’t sleep for a long time. We used to come back in your mind, you know. You would see an engine on fire and all this kind of thing. It’s forgotten now but I’m sure at the time it did have a great affect on most people. All the crew. I’m sure.
JM: But there wasn’t any sort of support measures. Counselling or anything.
BH: No. We’d never heard of counsellors in those day [laughs] I don’t think. No. I don’t recall any of that. I mean if you had any problems like that you were soon shipped off. LMF. Lack of moral fibre. That was the term for it wasn’t it? I don’t know whether that happened to our engineer. Whether he just had some kind of mental problem. I don’t know. But as I say I never saw him again.
JM: Did you talk about it within the crew?
BH: About?
JM: What had happened?
BH: I suppose we did but not a great deal I don’t think. I don’t know what the correct approach was. Whether you talk about it or whether you forget it but I don’t recall talking to the crew about it and analysing and saying what we didn’t do properly and this kind of thing. Or what we should have done. I don’t recall anything like that to tell you the truth. It might be on my mind but I really don’t recall anything like that. No.
JM: That’s very helpful.
BH: But, you know, we operated as a crew afterwards again and did quite a few operations again with a new engineer and just got back to normality. If you can call it that.
JM: So you never thought well lightning can’t strike twice.
BH: No. I don’t think so because it does. I knew it had hit. With various, not with us obviously but with other people it could. Yes.
JM: And you completed quite a number of missions in early ’45. Right up to the war’s end.
BH: Yes. Yes. We went right up to the war. We [pause] the last one was — it wasn’t an operation. It was what we called a Manna. Where we took [pause] I don’t know how it was loaded. It was loaded in sacks I suppose — food. The Dutch people had had a very tough time during the war and a lot of them were all starving. And I think this Operation Manna, we only did one but it was before the war actually ended. I think it was the day before. May the 8th the Armistice was signed but this Operation Manna to take food to the Dutch people was on May the 6th or 7th probably. And we were required to load up the stuff in the bomb bay where the bombs would normally be and fly at a very low altitude over this park outside Amsterdam. Release the, open the bomb doors and release this stuff. And I do recall going in. There was, there was still there, a German anti-aircraft post that was still manned. And we could all see the look on these German soldiers you know. I think they thought we were going to bomb them. But that’s the last sort of operation we did.
JM: Now, I’d like to take you back a little way if I may. Could you tell us please, a little more of what it was like to be a wireless operator on a Lancaster raid?
BH: Well, as I say there was a lot of inactivity because your function was to listen. And what you might expect to hear was further instructions from the base. I mean, there was no sort of satellite communication and things like that. The only way you could get into contact with an aircraft that was quite a way from base was through medium wave / long wave radio which we had access to. In the vicinity of the airfield the pilot had contact with the airfield through the short frequency stuff. So as I say the the function of the operator was to listen mainly. And the messages you might get was, you know to change target. To change. Recall you. Something like that. If the weather was deemed to be too bad you might be recalled. And in an emergency you could transmit if you were going to ditch or something like that say. I mean in our instance we didn’t have time to do anything so, but if you were making a gradual descent and you had time to do something like that you could transmit. You were advised actually to lock the key down sometimes. You just locked the key down. It sent a continuous signal instead of being an interrupted signal which Morse code is. It just sent a continuous signal which would be picked up and it would indicate you were having problems. But otherwise as I say it was not a lot to do. I used to spend time in the astrodome which was nearby to have a lookout and see what was happening or say, identify something like I told you in the [pause] when we were shot down I was able to assist with the aircraft identification.
JM: So you will have seen, perhaps approaching the target you’ll have seen the searchlights and the anti-aircraft fire.
BH: Yes. Yes. Well, tracers and everything. It’s like a firework display when you’re going in I’m afraid.
JM: Did any of the anti-aircraft ever get close to your aircraft?
BH: Oh yeah. We had damage often, you know. You could hear it banging in the fuselage. And when you got back you might be peppered with holes. Oh yes. You got, and of course, you know if it was very, if a shell burst very close to you it upset the balance of the aircraft so — but you also got shrapnel from those shells. That was what did the damage but unless you got a direct hit I suppose you got away with it. But it was quite a sight going in. And plus all the stuff that was on the ground. The flares were there that we, that had been dropped. Yellow, green, red flares. And of course the fires. Often there was huge fires. So it was a spectacular sight in a way.
JM: Now, 582 Squadron was an important squadron in many ways but it had, as a member, the South African Captain Swales VC.
BH: Yeah.
JM: Could you tell us a little bit about that? Did you know that officer? And can you tell us a little about it?
BH: I only [pause] knew him, sort of to speak to. I wasn’t friendly with him or anything like that because most of the time I was a sergeant. He was an officer obviously. So we were in different messes. But after I got shot down early in ’45 I was promoted to flying officer but he’d been lost by then I think. So I didn’t really have close contact with him but I mean I was very familiar, quite familiar with him because he was a bit different. He wore an army uniform and he had a bit of a reputation. He acted as Master Bomber on various occasions. But apart from that, as I say, I couldn’t give any sort of personal assessment of him at all. But he was well — I know he was well liked. I used to know somebody from his crew. They were, you know were very fond of him. Trusted him. In fact I think when he was shot down there was only one crew member got out and that was the rear gunner who I did know quite well. I can’t recall his name now but I remember I used to speak to him at these reunions and things like that. But he was the sole survivor of that when Swales was shot down.
JM: He wasn’t the only VC winner on that squadron.
BH: No. There was one to Squadron Leader Palmer. Now, he was actually a member of 109 Squadron. Another Pathfinder Squadron. They did what was referred to as oboe marking. It was a beam that was sent out from [pause] from this country over the target and they would bomb on the end of that. They did a similar job to us but they only dropped flares mainly. But this particular operation, I don’t know, it must have been something special. He, Palmer who was a pilot with 109 was assigned to fly a Lancaster instead of a Mosquito and he was also acting as Master Bomber. So I don’t recall why it was this way but he was in a 582 plane at the time and when he was awarded that there was some debate of whether it should be credited to 582 Squadron or 109 Squadron. I suppose in fairness its 109 Squadron but he was flying with 582 Squadron and in a 582 aircraft at the time.
JM: Can we go back to your story because you’ve taken us very clearly to the end of the war. I understand you did a Cook’s Tour operation. Could you tell us about that?
BH: Well this was one of the things that we did after, after May the 8th. After the Armistice. There were various aircraft were consigned to do this so-called Cook’s Tour and it was to take ground crew mainly who, you know, had done a great job during the war. We relied on them for all the servicing and so and we got to know them very well. We normally had the same ground crew and we were allowed to put in [pause] I don’t know how many you could get in a Lancaster. Probably five or six. And take them of a tour of Germany to see what damage had been done with their assistance. And mainly, a tour was mainly down the Ruhr Valley. Where we flew down the Ruhr Valley, down the course of the Rhine at fairly low level. Sort of a sightseeing tour. That’s why it was called a Cook’s Tour. But, you know, on the way down you saw all the damage that had been done to places like Cologne and Ruddesheim and places like that. Mannheim. All the way down the valley. I often wondered what they could see because there was, there was really no viewing point in a Lancaster. No windows apart from the turrets. So they must have taken it in turns looking out of the turrets I think. Or going forward. The pilot might have let them in the flight engineer’s position. Something like that. But this, this, I think we did a couple of those. Just sort of appreciation of the work that they’d done really. And then after that we did trips to Italy. This, there was a great rush after the war to bring prisoners of war back. It was obviously going to take a long time to get them all back. So to, you know get some back as quickly as possible whole squadrons were sent to Italy to bring back prisoners of war. We flew to Bari, which was on the opposite side from Naples on the east side. And, yeah we usually stayed a night and then flew back with a compliment of prisoners of war. Now, I don’t know how many we packed in there but we packed them in quite a few. I mean a Lancaster is not, it’s not very roomy inside. There’s nowhere to sit. Must have sit on the floor. They must have sat on the floor and must have been very uncomfortable but I suppose it’s only a three hour trip so they were probably glad to, to, to suffer the conditions. But I often wondered that, you know, it must have been extremely uncomfortable. Particularly if they weren’t feeling too well with air sickness and that kind of thing, you know. But that’s what we usually did. We usually had a night, as I say, in Italy and I recall we were probably going to Naples. We had some few adventures in Naples with various [unclear] I don’t know what I was thinking about there but [pause] I remember going into a shop to buy something and with a few other people and somebody stole a knife. Had picked the knife up and must have taken it out. One of the people I was with. And this shopkeeper noticed it. And he got really upset. I thought oh we’re in trouble here. You know, we got out pretty quick. He didn’t follow us God he was annoyed. And I remember on one occasion we went to the opera. The Opera House in Naples. What’s it called? I don’t know. But we went to the opera which was a new experience for me. I’d never been to the opera before.
BH: I wanted to ask you really about your social life. That’s the wrong word. Non-operational life when you were operating with 582. What did you do when you were off duty?
BH: Well, you would normally, when you sort of started your day you would check in each mess. When there was an operation on there was a notice posted in the officer’s mess and the sergeant’s mess. If there was an operation on that day they would give you all the details. First of all they would give you the crews that were on there. The time of take-off, time of the meal, the flying meal that is before the thing and briefing. Time of briefing. All that kind of information. If you weren’t on it well that was the signal usually to go in to Bedford or St Neots. They were the places that we frequented most. Bedford moreso I think. Drinking or dancing. Plenty of dancing going on in Bedford I remember. Our skipper had a car actually which we normally all packed in. We went out as a crew mostly. Johnny Campbell had a motorbike also but if we were going into Bedford we’d probably go in the skipper’s car. You know. Seven of us in it. A bit overloaded but not everybody went every time I suppose but he had this car so that was the usual thing. To Bedford. St Neots was not a bad place. There was only pubs there but that was about it. Drinking weak beer in St Neots or Bedford. Or dancing as I say. There was quite a lot of dancing.
JM: And you must have had the experience of hearing of the loss of friends of yours.
BH: Yes. I lost [pause] well I lost a very dear friend in training actually. I think it was at OTU. No. Not OTU. Yeah, I guess it must have been OTU. We were flying in the, yeah it was a training exercise. It was in the St Ives area. That’s the St Ives near to Huntingdon. Not the one in Cornwall. We did a lot in that area. And his name was Hopkins. He was a wireless operator as well. He came from South Wales. And he was on the same operations as I was. Flying in Ansons. And he just didn’t, he crashed somewhere in that area and didn’t come back. But you know operationally you were losing friends all the time. You never got really to know anybody that well because you know you weren’t together that long. You had a lot of acquaintances but not a lot of friends. I mean, your closest friends were your crew.
JM: So we’re now up to the summer of 1945. Did you stay with the RAF?
BH: Well, I only stayed because I had to. Right after the war Canadians were back to Canada just like that. They were back the same month almost. So all my crew left right away, you know. Probably during May even and so we were transferred to various things. I remember going to Graveley [pause] yeah. To Graveley. Was posted from Little Staughton to Graveley and I think we did a couple of these trips to [pause] to Italy from there. With a different crew of course. But then later on — well before that we were actually, the buzz was that we were going to go to the Far East. The Japanese war was still going on obviously and crews were being trained to go out to the Far East. But in the meantime there was a tour of Brazil being arranged and this was — during the war Brazil was very helpful to the United Kingdom. They opened their ports to our ships. Particularly for repairs and stuff like that. Air Chief Marshall Harris decided that he would make a goodwill tour of Brazil and crews were selected. One was, there were three crews to go with him. With Harris. I think one was from 5 Group, one was from 8 Group which was Pathfinders and one was from 1 Group. So there were various criteria for this. I don’t quite know what they were. But one of the criteria I do remember was that we had some civilian clothes and I happened to have some and I sort of volunteered this and I was selected as the wireless operator from Pathfinder Force. And we had a pilot from 582 Squadron as well I suppose. Now, this was, nobody was quite sure what was going to happen but in the end it turned out to be quite a trip. We were to fly in three adapted Lancasters which had been painted white actually. And the interiors had been fitted to accommodate various people. They put some seating in of some kind. I don’t know how they did it exactly but, you know, I can’t imagine Harris sort of [laughs] sitting on the main spar or something like that but obviously they did rig up some kind of seating. Because there was Harris and he had quite a lot of aides obviously and we had to carry our own ground staff with us because during the flight out we had to service. Do our own servicing. So there was a lot of ground crew as well. But I recall we were there more or less when the Olympic Games were on. This year. That period. Their winter actually. Winter in the southern hemisphere. The end of July beginning of August. But it was quite a route and quite an experience really because for one thing we had to fly across the South Atlantic which had never been done before. The route we took was down [pause] we took off from St Mawgan in Cornwall. Flew down the [pause] we had to be careful where we were flying. The military weren’t allowed to fly over certain countries, you know. I think Portugal in particular. So we had to skirt Spain and Portugal and fly down the — we landed first in Morocco. I remember spending the night in Morocco and then the next one was down in Bathurst. I think it’s changed its name now. Bathurst in West Africa which was the westernmost point of Africa. That being chosen to make it as short as possible the crossing. And I do remember there we had great difficulty in finding the airport because it’s jungle there and if you’re flying over what looks like trees all the time trying to find a place where there’s a clearing which would be the airport. But we got there eventually and from Bathurst we flew across the South Atlantic but they made special arrangements for that I remember. The Brazilians spaced three destroyers at intervals across the South Atlantic in case there was any problems. I think we flew from Bathurst to [pause] was it Natal or Recif? Natal I think it was. Which was in Northern Brazil. And from there down to Rio de Janeiro where we were to stay while we were feted. Well, sort of followed Harris around. He was feted and we sort of hung on to his coat tails and got all the festivities and so on that went on. One thing I do recall about Rio. The airport there, it was more or less inside Rio. Still there I think. I remember seeing it on the map of the Olympics this year. It’s called Santos Dumont, after the pioneer. But it had water at both ends and quite a short runway. So, you know, it was tricky landing but we landed there because we wanted to keep the aircraft there because later, at later dates we were going to give access to people. To show, to show the aircraft to the people in that area. But that was quite a thing. We stayed there. We had all kinds of dinners and visits and this kind of thing. Entertained at barbecues. We flew down to Sao Paulo. To Port Alegre. We were assigned a Brazilian Air Force Captain, he was. Captain Umberto I remember his name was. He had a plane that he flew us around in. A twin engine Beechcraft. And we were flown around various functions. As I say to Sao Paulo and Port Alegre. But that was a marvellous time really. We stayed, I think the visit lasted about four weeks. But when the time came to leave one of the Lancasters became unserviceable and needed an engine change. And we were selected to stay behind with it which [laughs] was no great imposition really, I suppose. So we were there for another couple of weeks because they had to fly this engine in from Canada. So we had to wait for the engine to be flown down from Canada and then put in by the ground staff of course before we were able to leave. So we had another couple of weeks. I mean all the official stuff had finished by then so we were given a daily allowance I think it was to sort of feed ourselves and so on because before everything had been on the Brazilian government and that kind of thing. But when we took off to leave you couldn’t take off from Santos Dumont with a full load of petrol because the runway was too short. You had to have a minimum and we flew to another airport outside of Brazil which I think is now the international airport. And, you know, to refuel there before we flew on. Flew back. Flew — where did we go? To Recife again I think. And then to the Bahamas. We missed America. We went straight to Montreal. We never landed in America. Went from Bahamas to Montreal. Goose Bay. Reykjavik and then back to this country.
JM: What an adventure.
BH: It was an adventure. I wrote an account of it at the time. All the journey times and mileage and all that kind of thing but it was quite an adventure.
JM: I must ask you did you form any views of Harris because you travelled with him? What was he like?
BH: I don’t know that I ever really met him. He wasn’t in our aircraft. He flew with a Wing Commander, Swann was his name I think. He flew in the 5 Group aircraft from Wyton. No. I can’t form an opinion of him but he hasn’t had a very good press I don’t think. But I can’t recall speaking to him, say. Something like that or even — we were in his company all the time obviously because we were going to night clubs and that kind of thing and going to ceremonies but we never came in direct contact with him.
JM: So when you got back to Britain after this remarkable journey did you leave the Royal Air Force at that point?
BH: No. I was kept in. I was sent to — the trip to the Far East was gone by then of course because the atomic bomb had been dropped and the Japanese war had finished while we were in Brazil. On August the 8th. We were in Brazil then when the Japanese war ended. No. After that I was posted back to Finningley in Yorkshire where I, I was an instructor. I instructed on various wireless things you know for [pause] well I didn’t come out of the air force ‘til March ’47. So I was at Finningley for possibly six months on these instruction duties.
JM: I think you told us that you were a member of the 582 Association. Did you, did you maintain contact with your crew?
BH: I did because after the war I migrated. I went to Canada because of the influence of this Canadian crew and everything. You know, things after the war were not good. I was discharged, as I say, in the spring of ’47. I stayed at home for about six months working on the family farm but I thought this is not for me and we decided to go to Canada. So I stayed in Canada for about fourteen years. From ’47 to ’61. And during that time I didn’t actually meet with the crew. Only one of the crew. Johnny Campbell the rear gunner was the only one I met with. The rest of them lived out in the west actually. Campbell lived in New Brunswick but the remainder lived in Winnipeg, Vancouver. So I never got out there so I was in contact with, you know it was letters or cards or whatever. But the only one I met personally was Johnny Campbell that saved my life. I saw him a few times. He came. Well he came to, I was in Toronto and he came to work in Toronto actually although he was from New Brunswick. But for a while he came to work for one of the oil companies in Toronto so I saw quite a bit of him then. After I came back I gradually lost contact. I’m not in contact anymore. Probably nobody’s alive anymore I suppose but —
JM: When you look back on that incredible period of your life how do you see things now?
BH: Well, it’s something that you can look back with a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction I suppose. But whether you’d want to repeat it I don’t know. But I often think that, you know — there was I, nineteen, twenty. With a lot of people all of similar age, you know. Pilots, perhaps a bit older than us because they had a longer training. But pilots of a four engine bomber with responsibility for seven crew. You know, people, people twenty two say. Twenty one, twenty two, twenty three like that. It was certainly an experience, but I think of my own grandson at times and I think when he was nineteen. When I was his age he didn’t, would he have been fit to go and do what I did. Would people nowadays at nineteen, twenty go and do what I did. It’s remarkable really how young we were and the responsibilities that we had at that age. Which, I’m sure, you know whether people would take to it today the same I really don’t know. But it’s an experience you wouldn’t have missed. But whether you’d, as I say, you’d volunteer for it again I don’t know. It’s certainly something that, you know has [pause] given me a lot of friends over the period. A lot of contacts and events to attend and that kind of thing. You know, I’ve always felt part of the RAF family since and I’ve always been going to any events that were planned via the squadron basis or whatever. Bomber Command basis. I belonged to Bomber Command. They had their own Association as well. So I used to belong to that as well. They used to have functions at Hendon and places like that. So, you know, it’s been life enhancing. There’s no doubt about it.
JM: Did you get your clasp?
BH: Yes. Yeah.
JM: Was that presented to you or —?
BH: No. I wrote off. I had to write off for it but I’ve got it.
JM: How do you feel about the way that Bomber Command was treated?
BH: I think we were treated fairly shabbily but I think it made some part reconciliation but not as we felt it should be. I felt we should have got some kind of campaign medal. And to his credit Harris always, I think he was the problem. He had disagreements with so many people. If you’ve ever read his biography or any biographies of the campaign that he was a difficult man to deal with and fell out with a lot of people. And a lot of people didn’t agree with what he did. The type of, you know this area bombing which, you know rather than strategic bombing. All the blame was put on him which I’m sure it wasn’t. It was further up. I don’t think he decided policy. He carried it out but he didn’t decide the policy. But I think he was treated pretty shabbily too. But —
JM: Bill, I think this would be a good place to finish. Thank you so much. You’ve given us a very full, thorough, detailed and very moving account of your service with Bomber Command. Thank you indeed.



Julian Maslin, “Interview with William Hough,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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