Interview with Janet Hughes, One


Interview with Janet Hughes, One


Janet Hughes’ father, Reginald Charles Wilson, volunteered for the RAF in August 1941. In January 1942, he was posted to America under the Arnold training scheme and was later remustered to train as a navigator in Canada. After forming a crew at RAF Kinloss in 1943, the pilot was killed in action, so they located another pilot while converting to Halifaxes at RAF Rufforth before joining 102 Squadron. Hughes describes Wilson’s use of Gee and H2S, and how anti-aircraft fire damaged his navigational instruments during his first operation, forcing them to land with mines on board.




Temporal Coverage




01:06:41 audio recording


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DM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre, the interviewer is David Meanwell, the interviewee is Janet Hughes. The interview is taking place at Mrs Hughes home in Farnham, Surrey, on the 2nd of November 2017. So, Jan could you say your father's name and then say a bit about his early life and growing up?
JH: Yeah sure. My father- My late father’s name is, was Reginald Charles Wilson. He was born in 1923, on the 20th of- 26th of January, 1923 in, Hackney in East London. He was the third of five children, and when he was about ten the family moved to Ilford, or the outskirts of Ilford in Essex, where he lived until going off to war basically, in, in 1940.
DM: Right, do you know why he joined the RAF as opposed to anything else?
JH: Yes, I, I have a very clear recollection of what he said there. Basically, when war broke out he had only just left his grammar school, and probably I think he left prematurely because of the war, and he did a couple of admin jobs. First with the railways I think and then with Unilever, and he experienced first-hand the seventy-eight consecutive nights of the Blitz, when East London was particularly badly affected and when they missed the docks, you know, the bombs and the incendiary devices would quite often fall on the roads surrounding where my father lived. So it was, it was something that he- It was a daily thing, and one day when he went into Blackfriars to, his job, it was the 30th of December 1940, the night after the notorious second great fire of London, as it has become known, when the city of London was bombed very heavily, and the firefighting operation was limited by the low level of water in the Thames. It’s said that the Luftwaffe had known this and chosen that night to do the bombing because they knew that the low level of the Thames would hamper the attempts to quench the flames, and London- The City of London was extremely badly affected, and there’s an iconic photograph of St Paul‘s standing defiant amidst the surrounding devastation, saying ‘You’re not going to get me’, and when my father referred to this photograph, which he often did, he said that’s- That photograph it captures exactly what he saw, that the surrounding area was still smouldering but St Paul‘s was still rising, you know, like the phoenix out of the ashes, and he said at that moment he, he decided that he had got to do something, that he had got to fight back, and he, you know, like lots of young men at the time had a dream of being a Spitfire pilot, and indulging in dogfights and basically shooting them down before they got as far as London. So that was his plan, and you know, he knew that eventually, when he got to the age of eighteen, he would be called up anyway, and I think he decided that by joining the RAF volunteer reserve he would be more likely to end up doing something that he wanted to do rather than something that he’d been forced to do.
DM: Okay, so, he joined the RAF, the reserve, he got called up, what happened about his training?
JH: Right, well the training was quite long and convoluted. It’s described very well in his own diary, and, and in the book which I co-wrote with him in recent years. The early part of the training was sort of square bashing and general fitness for the armed forces, and he subsequently went to the United States on a troop ship for the early part of his training. So, it says in his notes here that he joined the RAF volunteer reserve in August 1941, by which time he would’ve been eighteen and a half. I’m not quite sure why there was a delay, perhaps you know, took that long to do the paperwork. He joined the aircrew, and they- The first part of the training was in, at St John‘s Wood in North London, and then in Torquay in Devon, and that was the basics of- The bit in Devon he learnt meteorology, air navigation, aircraft recognition, wireless telegraphy, and then the usual square bashing and clay pigeon shooting, and then he was promoted from AC2 to LAC, and this is the critical bit I think, he was posted to Marshalls airfield in Cambridge for a flying test, and this was in a Tiger Moth [chuckles], and after about eight hours he convinced them that he had the necessary skills to join the Arnold training scheme in the USA. So then, he joined the troop ship Montcalm, at Gourock on the Clyde, and this took them to Halifax in Canada. He commented that it was quite funny that he went to Halifax for the first part of his training ‘cause he ended up flying a Halifax, and, the crossing was quite eventful, bad weather because, you know, January seas and the ships weren’t very stabilised in those days, and half a dozen other- They weren’t torpedoed or anything, but half a dozen other ships that were in the same area were sunk, and at that time, about sixty ships a week were being destroyed by the German U-Boats in the North Atlantic. So, when he got to Halifax, they- Which was a sort of mustering area I think, they went to the USA and they travelled in uniform, and this is significant, they were the first aircrew trainees to be travelling in uniform, because America had only just become an ally, following the bombing- The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on the 7th of December 1941, so basically that brought the Americans into the war, and that kind of was a game changer in terms of the way everything was organised. So then, they went to Albany in Georgia, a place called Turner Field, and that was an acclimatisation month. During that month dad celebrated his nineteenth birthday. Turner Field was run on the lines of the American army, so it was an American army air corps training centre, so they wore their [emphasis] uniforms, American air corps clothing, and they were treated like cadets. So that meant drilling and physical training, calisthenics at six o’ clock in the morning, apparently, they were given literature that told them how to behave and how they were expected- You know behaviour and etiquette, how they were expected to conduct themselves, and the bit that I think dad found the most memorable was marching behind a brass band, which was playing American air corps music, this was on the way to all meals and also before retreats, which was the lowering of the American flag in the evening. Now these young men had come from Britain, where rations had been in place for quite a long time, and when- America was the promised land, you know, they were waited on hand and foot by, and these are my father’s own words, ‘coloured waiters’, and that was something again that was quite strange to British people because, this was, this was the south of America, and at that time coloured people were not considered equal to whites and there was a kind of apartheid, like in, later in South Africa, they had to sit at the backs of busses and, in different parts of the cinema and they were generally treated as second class citizens, so this business of having them, you know, at their beck and call was something I think, quite a lot of the British people found quite difficult, because they just weren’t used to- Although, Britain was more racist then than it is now, they, you know, you still treated everybody with, with dignity. So, I think he found that, you know, quite, quite a shock, and also you know, in Britain they had to queue up for their meals, get all their meals on one plate, take your own cutlery in your gas mask case, and wash it up afterwards in a tank of greasy water, so to be waited on hand and foot, you know, and be served amazing food, was, was, was quite nice given what they’d been used to, you know, up to a month beforehand. So, after this month of acclimatisation, he went to Lakeland, Florida. This was a civilian flying school, which presumably had been commandeered because they needed the capacity, and it was for primary flying training, and that, this was a great experience. Dad went solo in a Stearman biplane, and before that the instructor had had to buzz off a herd of cows from the landing field by diving at them, and here dad completed forty hours of solo flying, including acrobatics, stalls, spins, loops and so on, and underneath them were the lakes and orange groves of Florida in beautiful sunshine, so what a change from Britain, and, they had a lot of hospitality with local American families and lots of contact with their daughters, so I think really this, this felt like a very long way from war. There’s some lovely pictures of dad during that period, you know, carefree existence, and then, at the end, the end of the course they had a few days leave and so, you know, not wanting to waste this amazing opportunity, dad and a colleague hitched off to West Palm Beach, and they booked into a hotel but while they were there they were invited to stay with an American lady called Mrs Hubbard, who turned out to be the daughter of Rockefeller, and she had an English woman staying with her who had a son in the RAF, and so they were spoilt by these two ladies who were trying to sort of do for them what they wish they could do for this lady’s son. And they were looked after for the next couple of days as if they were long lost sons, the house had an amazing swimming pool with an Italian style garden and an arcaded drinks bar, and they were, they were - I think they thought they’d died and gone to heaven. He- During this time dad met and was photographed with one of the few surviving Fleet Air Arm pilots, who had- Was one of the people who, the previous year had torpedoed the Bismarck, and enabled the British fleet to sink, sink it, and he was touring America as a hero, and he had also been invited to, to this lady's home, so they, they met him, and somewhere in dad's album there’s a picture of these, him with this chap, and my dad looks very diminutive in that although he was quite a tall man, ‘cause the other guy was much taller. So anyway, after this period they went to another- No, this, this was an American army air corps flying school, so not a civilian one this time, and that was in Georgia, again, for intermediate training, so he’d done the basics, this was the immediate training, and he started a course of flying on a basic trainer which would have been a more sophisticated plane than the Stearman biplane, but this is where dad’s fortunes changed because- And he was quite bitter about this, actually in later life, ‘cause he said after a lon- A number of flying lessons he was unable to convince the instructor that he was safe to go solo, so that was the end of his pilot training, and he, he, he did say that in his opinion had he been trained in an RAF flying school in the States, he might have passed. Anyway, he was disheartened at the time but he tried to make the best of it. One of his friends had been killed in Georgia on a, on a simple training exercise, so you know, it might’ve given him a stay of execution, and he said at least if he eventually died in combat, which he didn’t, it would be for a just cause. So then, by this time we’re in June 1942, so he’s been in the RAF for nearly a year, so he took the train back to Canada and this time it was to the Royal Canadian Air Force camp at Trenton, in Ontario. He did some interviews and took an exam, and was remustered to navigator, and the transfer gave him a chance to see some more of Canada. He visited Lake Ontario, Toronto, and Niagara Falls, so lots of travelling that a man of his age would not of had the opportunity to do had he not joined the RAF and left civilian life behind him. So, there’s - Then in his notes there’s quite a lot of very colourful description of, of the geography of various parts of Canada. So, then he was posted to the Winnipeg air navigation school, by which time it was August ‘42. The school's services were run by civilians but the teaching of the subjects was carried out by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Winnipeg’s in the grain growing area of Mani- Manitoba, which is flat as a pancake, so the relevance of this for flight training is that when you're flying at a few thousand feet you’ve got an unrestricted view as far as the horizon, and you can pick, everything out very easily because there’s no hills, or, or forests or anything to obscure your view, and the towns were marked by grain elevators and water towers that have the town’s name printed on the sides, so you couldn’t get lost. And they were spaced along the railway line so, you know, it’s like having a Google map underneath you. And these, these water towers were visible from any cross-country route so you just couldn’t get lost, because even at night there was no back- blackout in Canada ‘cause they had no need for it. So, they were there for three months, half of the time in classrooms and half on air exercises. There they flew Anson aircrafts, with civilian pilots. These were great big cumbersome things that had to be manually wound up, the wheels had to be wound up on take-off on a winch, and down again on landing. But one thing that marked him, during this period was the crash of a light aircraft only a few yards away, and the raging fire that ensued which made it impossible to rescue the pilot. So, he actually saw somebody fry, even at that stage, and the nights were very cold. They used to practise astro-sextant shots, one of the applications of a navigator, at night-time, but the leisure time was- As in America, eating Christmas-like turkey dinners every Sunday, and going to dances, socialising, probably a bit of womanising as well although he hasn’t been too explicit about that. He got his navigator’s wing on the 20th of November 1942, and at that point he was promoted to the rank of flight sergeant, just a few marks, a few short marks, again something he was a bit bitter about, off getting a commission. Although, that happened later as I will say later on, and then they travelled by train to Monckton in Halifax, stopping on the way in Montreal, and they returned to England on the Queen Elizabeth. Fantastic experience. It had been converted into a troop ship, so they had two meals a day on board, seventeen bunks to a state cabin, they travelled without escort and it took them only four days to cross the North Atlantic which was amazing, given the technology of the time, and they were on home- At home on leave for Christmas, and basically, by this time he had done, he’d been in the RAF for just under eighteen months, and was now back in the UK.
DM: So once your dad got back to Britain what, what happened next with his training?
JH: Right, well this was the beginning of 1943. So dad would’ve been just coming up for twenty that month, and there was- At that point there was a glut of trained aircrew coming back from the North American and Commonwealth training schools, so lots of them were held in holding centres in Harrogate and Bournemouth to await postings, and to fill the time, dad and a few others were transferred to a regiment training course, an RAF regiment training course at Whitley Bay, near Newcastle, and that was the February 1943 when it was pretty damn cold up there. So, it wasn’t until 19- April ‘43, so that’s three months later that they took up flying again. So I suspect they were a bit rusty by this time, and a party of them was posted to the RAF navigation school at Jurby, which is on the Isle of Man, still flying Ansons, and during this time my dad brushed up on his navigation skills because he hadn’t flown for five months, and this was achieved by means of day and night cross-country exercises around the Irish Sea, the East Coast of Northern Ireland, and the West Coast of Britain, and the weather was quite cold. He remembers using the toast rack railway on his days off, which ran from Jurby to Douglas, and he remembers all the hotels along the sea front which were wired off because they accommodated many of the so-called aliens, who’d been interned there for the duration of the war, in case they engaged in espionage I suppose. Anyway, so when this course was finished, he got some more leave, and then he went to the RAF Operational Training Unit at Kinloss, in Scotland, on the Moray Firth. So it’s sort of late spring early summer by this time, and he was now set for crewing up in Bomber Command and getting nearer and nearer to operational flying. This I think was a, was a, was a very, satisfying period. He said he arrived at Kinloss in the first week in June and the weather was fantastic, and stayed like that for the whole six weeks that they were there, (early summer in Scotland is often lovely), and for part of the time, they were housed in a mansion like property, where- Just for sleeping, and they were each given a bike to get to and from the airfield. So, they were cycling through the beautiful countryside with the lovely weather and the birds singing in the hedgerows, and he said the war, the war seemed very far away at that point, they couldn’t actually believe what they were training for because it all seemed so remote from what they were experiencing. Kinloss had Whitley bombers, these had been withdrawn from operational flying in ‘42 and they were known colloquially as flying coffins because they were very sluggish, in responding to the flying controls, that’s a major defect, as they were to discover when flying in formation over Elgin, to celebrate a special occasion. He doesn’t say what it was but I suspect it was someone's twenty-first. So after a few days they were crewed up, now, in his notes he hasn't actually said how this achieved, but somebody else told me that they just put them all together and let them pick their own, their own teams because I think it was thought that if they, effectively chose their own crew members they would, they would, they would gel better, as a crew. They would have more in common, and they would, they would be more likely to work well as a team if they, if they hadn’t been imposed on each other so they were basically told, you know, find you, find your - I don’t whether the pilot went round and said ‘right I need a navigator and a bomb aimer,’ and so on, I’m not quite sure, but this- And I’ve heard this from more than one source, that they, that, that somebody decided, very sensibly actually, that that was a better psychology then just teaming them up arbitrarily. So dad’s crew at this point was Flying Officer Vivian, S. R. Vivian, known as Viv, he was the pilot, my father himself, Flight Sergeant R. C. Wilson, as he was then, navigator, known as Reg, Flight Officer L. A. Underwood, that’s Laurie, whose the bomb aimer, Sergeant Ross who was the wireless operator and air gunner, he had two, two roles, ‘cause different planes had different requirements in terms of crew, some of, some of the roles were- In some other aircraft I think the bomb aimer and the navigator was combined. Anyway, Sergeant Ross was a wireless operator/ air gunner, known as Bill, and Sergeant John Bushell, Johnny, the rear gunner. So, for six weeks, they flew day and night, in this crew, just five people, carrying out exercises such as cross-country and formation flying, air firing, fighter affiliation and bombing practice, and they had to do some ground work. At this point dad was introduced to something called the distant reading compass, this was located near the tail of the aircraft away from magnetic influences, which otherwise would have corrupted it. It was a gyro-controlled compass, it was very stable and it could be adjusted by the navigator for the earth's magnetic variation, to give true north readings, and this thing had electric repeaters for the pilot, the navigator and the bomb aimer, so they could actually access the readings from the front of the plane, although the actual gadget was at the back. He can remember flying at night, trying to practise astronavigation, and this was difficult because they sky was barely dark. You’ve got to remember this was around the time of the summer solstice, mid-summer, in the north of Scotland and at ten thousand feet the sun’s glow was present on the horizon for most of the night so it never got completely dark, but the Grampians and the Highlands below looked gaunt and forbidding in what was basically a kind of twilight, I suppose. So, as was the case with many crews by the end of the training, the crew had become great friends, they’d spent time together at Findhorn Bay, on the Moray Firth, and on some afternoons, in the pub in Forres town on some Saturdays, and he recalled that he- They’d spent one entire weekend confined to the mess. They’d been confined there by the CO because they’d landed in error at RAF Lossiemouth which was an adjacent airfield, instead of Kinloss, and they drank a lot of beer, not surprisingly. They left Kinloss for some leave, but they never saw Viv, the pilot again because he had been borrowed to, to fly with another crew, this happened quite a lot, and he was killed three weeks later, tragically just a few days after he’d got married, while, whilst on leave, and again a lot of people did that, got married perhaps prematurely because they thought they might, you know, might not get another opportunity. So, this was before they even reached RAF Rufforth in north- In Yorkshire, which was the conversion unit for Halifax heavy bombers. So they got to Rufforth in the middle of August, discovered that Viv had been reported missing, on the 10th of August, whilst flying as a second pilot, second dickie pilot, which they had to do to gain operational experience before they could take their own crew out on operation. Anyway, so Viv had disappeared on the 10th of August while flying as a second dickie on a raid to Nuremburg, and dad subsequently found out that his pilots' aircraft had crashed near Ramsen Bolanden in Germany, and six were killed including Viv, and two became POW’s. So, Viv, dad’s pilot actually never got to head up his own crew and that left the rest of them a headless crew. So they then had to wait the appointment of another pilot, and this is when, you know, the party was over at this point, they’d had all these wonderful experiences in Canada and the USA, and Scotland, lots of travelling, lots of leisure time, lots of laughs, but at this point it became- It began to look, look very serious, it became a lottery. There’s no way they could tell from day to day, even in the conversion unit, before operations started whether they would live or die, because during their short stay at Rufforth, sixty air crew were killed due to mechanical failure of aircraft or accidents, and dad recalls an incident of the collision of two aircraft in mid-air, and another aircraft crashing when its propeller fell off into the fuselage, and another one came down at night on a practice bombing raid. So after a few days they got a new pilot, so flylan- Flight Lieutenant P. G. A. Harvey was appointed, and Sergeant A. McCarrol as the mid-upper gunner, they hadn’t had a mid-upper gunner before by the look of it. So, Sergeant McCarrol had been a drummer previously in murricks[?]- morris wennix [?] dance band and was well known on BBC radio in the pre-war period. The flight engineer was Sergeant J. McCardle, and that completed the crew for the Halifax bomber, which normally had seven members unless they had a second dickie pilot on board, in which case there would be eight of them. Now, the new pilot, Flight Lieutenant Harvey was a very experienced pilot, he’d survived two operational tours but these had been in the Middle East in 1941 and on Wellingtons, and they couldn’t really understand why this man would want to take on another tour. But anyway, he did, maybe he was after a, an award of some kind, but anyway he’d volunteered, but, dad points out that flying on operations deep inside Germany in ‘43 was a different dimension, it was a different ball game, and this is because cities in Germany were heavily defended by ack-ack, and night fighters armed with cannon, and equip with radar homing devices were everywhere. So, this was very different to flying in the Middle East in 1941, where a lot of the missions, although in a warzone weren’t actually bombing missions, they might’ve been deliveries and, you know, service flights. Now because Harvey was a seasoned pilot, they decided that they could fast track the process. So the minimum time was taken to crew up, to get familiar with the Halifax and to take on the new disciplines, which they needed in the Halifax, of a flight engineer and a mid-upper gunner, and dad had to learn how to use Gee, that’s spelt G-double-E. This was a radar device, for measuring pulses from two transmitting stations, and these were displayed on a cathode-ray tube which you then plotted on a special gridded map, and this gave pin point accuracy of the ground position, and this was a new gadget as far as dad was concerned. So, they had air exercises for bombing, air firing, fighter affiliation, and the latter exercise, so that’s fighter affiliation, was one to remember. This was the 2nd of September ‘43, they flew at ten thousand feet and a fighter would attack, that’s in inverted commas because it’s a mock up, obviously, training exercise, from behind and the two gunners would then co-operate with the pilot so that he could take evasive action. So, they would depart from the plotted route to dive or, or, or change course suddenly in order to get out of the way. Now in taking evasive action, Flight Lieutenant Harvey, managed to turn the aircraft on its back, and it was seve- several thousand feet later before he succeeded in righting the aircraft. Dad, the navigator had spun round in the nose of the plane, there were broken rivets rattling round everywhere, and the chemical Elsan toilet at the back of the aircraft had emptied its contents all over the rear of the plane. Not pleasant experience, and they were all shaken up by this, especially because, you know, Flight Harvey- Flight Lieutenant Harvey already had nearly four hundred operational flying hours to his credit and they didn’t expect him to lose control, they thought he knew what he was doing. But the good thing that came out of it was that John, the rear gunner, Johnny, Johnny Bushell, he decided from then that he wouldn’t- Then on that he would store his parachute in his gun turret [emphasis], rather than in the fuselage which was required by regulations. So, a maverick, and this action would later save his life, and dad decided as well that he would try and minimise the risk to himself, so he, he kind of devised this routine to cover baling out. So, point one, this is like bullet points, point one, helmet off, and the reason for this was you could break your neck if you had the helmet still attached to the oxygen supply and the intercom, so the first thing he did was take it off. Parachute on, for the obvious reason that it’s not a good idea to jump out without it, and then, this is one special to dad, handle on the left hand-side. Dad was left-handed, and aircraft was sometimes due- killed due to an unopened parachute with the d-ring, the handle, on the ‘wrong’ that’s inverted commas side. So, if you were right-handed, obviously the right side would be the right-hand side, and for dad it was gonna be the left-hand side. So dad had also decided that, as he had a minute or so to spare while over the target, he would fold back his seat, lift up the navigation table clear of the escape hatch and be ready to bale out immediately, if necessary because this was the point at which they were obviously at their most vulnerable over the target, and because the navigator’s job was very cerebral and was, he was constantly occupied throughout the whole flight, unlike some of the other crew members, this was his only opportunity really, to take a break. So he basically got ready to bale out on every single operational flight, just in case, and he said that he believed that these plans, together with the action taken by Johnny the rear gunner, gave them and Laurie, or gave dad and Laurie, the bomb aimer, additional vital seconds when the three of them were to save their lives nearly five months later. So Laurie and dad were saved by dad having folded up the, the table, and Johnny by having his parachute more accessible than it would otherwise have been. So, a week or so after this, this last training flight, they were posted to 102 Squadron in Pocklington to commence their operational service, so quite a long haul from joining at the beginning, quite a long process. So, Pocklington, is twelve miles south-east of York, it has eight-hundred foot hills, three and a half miles north-east of the aircraft- airfield. So while dad was there, two Halifax bombers complete with bomb loads, crashed into the hills after take-off, so the result of that was that they didn’t use that particular runway afterwards, because of the, the, the risk of running into the mountains. Pocklington was a wartime airfield, some of the others had been in use before the war, and the ones that were basically, got ready just for the wartime, only had temporary accommodation so they were all billeted in Nissen huts. These had semi-circular corrugated iron roofs, roofs and walls and concrete ends, not very comfortable, dispersed in fields, near the aircraft- Sorry, in fields near the, near the airfield, and they were pretty dreary, inhospitable places. The heating was only a central coal burning stove, so whenever they weren’t on duty they went for refuge and relaxation in the relative comfort of the sergeant's mess, or the pubs. Or famous places like Betty’s Bar, in York, or the dance halls like The De Grey Rooms in York. Pocklington had three affiliated airfields, Elvington, where there’s now an air museum complete with a, model of a Halifax which has been made from parts of Halifax bombers welded together, because none of the Halifax bombers were saved after the war, unlike the Lancasters, something else he was- Dad was quite miffed about. So anyway, there was Elvington, Full Sutton and Melbourne, and they were all sort of in a group, and they were commanded by Air Commodore Gus Walker, who was the youngest air commodore in the RAF at the time, only thirty-one years old. He’d lost his right arm when a Lancaster had exploded on the ground at Syerston, the airfield which he’d commanded in 1942. So mid-September, Pocklington, 1943. Flight Lieutenant Harvey, was promoted to acting squadron leader in charge of A flights, so this meant that his crew would not fly as frequently on operations as other, other crews. That was a mixed blessing, because it meant a tour of thirty operations would take longer if they were under his command. So, over the next two weeks they completed a number of cross-country exercises, mostly for dad’s benefit to practise his navigation skills with the new equipment. So he learnt how to use Gee at Rufforth, but in the meantime the Germans had learnt how to jam Gee. So as the aircraft approached the coastline of continental Europe, the radar pulses were obliterated. So the navigator then had a race against time to obtain as much data as he could before they crossed the Dutch, or Danish coast, and at Pocklington they had a, what was then, state of the art, new piece of radar equipment called H2S, height to surface. It was located in the aircraft itself and it sent out pulses to the ground, around the aircraft for ranges of fifteen to twenty miles, and the reflections that were received back were shown as bright specks on a cathode-ray tube, and the density of the reflections depended on whether the aircraft was flying over sea, land, hills, rivers, cities or lakes. So from this, a rough typographical map of the ground was, was translated, the quality of the picture varied but it was much better than what they’d had previously, and the map, was displayed on the cathode-ray screen. The best results were produced between land and sea, but if the navigator factored in his, his awareness of the ground position he could recognise coastlines, large rivers, lakes, sizeable towns, and other prominent features, both on the way to and back from the target. So he could use this information to plot the bearing and distance from these landmarks, and he could recalculate wind velocities, required tracks, ground speeds, and the ti- Critically the time that it would take to reach the target. So, with the help of H2S some more experienced navigators would have the ability to blind bomb, which- Blind bombing meant that you could reach your target without the need to use the markers dropped by the Pathfinders, and the Pathfinders incidentally also used the H2S equipment. H2S couldn’t be jammed, but the night fighters could home in on the H2S frequency if it was on continuously, and unfortunately this is something they didn’t know at the time, and some aircraft were shot down because of it and probably that accounts for the, the demise of dad’s aircraft later on. Another new piece of equipment was the air plot indicator, and this was available to the navigator by this time. That linked the gyrocompass and the airspeed indicator, gave a continuous read out of the air position in latitude and longitude, used for navigators, a navigation device but, you couldn’t rely on it entirely. So basically, the navigator had to use a combination of all the things that were available to him, and you know, his common sense and sometimes just basic geometry, when everything else failed. They had a handheld Ican that’s I-C-A-N computer, computer used in the original sense of the word there, something that calculated. It was a manually operating vectoring device, so they used that to plot a course, geometry really, calculate airspeed, make good their desired track and ground speed, and then they added that information into the main chart, and they also had radio bearings that were taken by the wireless operator and astro-sight shots[?], and they were converted into position lines by the use of almanacs, so basically, using the stars. But neither of the, these methods were practical when off- operating over enemy territory, because operational aircraft were growing faster, and the need to take evasion action at any moment because of flak or night fighters would mean that you, you didn’t have time to use these devices. And when no navigational aids were available, for some reason or some technical mishap, and map reading over cloud or at night, especially at high altitude, they’d have to resort to something called dead reckoning, and that required accurate plotting of air position, the use of wind velocities which had been supplied by the MET office officer, at the briefing before they left, and sometimes these were updated on route by radio, or the use of those calculated by the navigator en route. So they need to be modified all the time for changes to the forecast weather, to take account of wind velocity changes and any alterations in altitude, which might be caused for reasons that couldn’t be predicted. So, how did they prepare for a bombing mission? Well, it, it was a lengthy procedure, it occupied a good part of the day prior to the night's operation. So, the first thing that would happen would be mid-morning, ‘ops on’ would be announced, if there was to be a raid that night. So the ground crew would be busy checking each aircraft radar, guns, engines, filling the wing tanks with over two-thousand gallons of fuel. Armourers would load the guns with ammunition, and bring up and mount a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs ‘cause there were two types in the bay, in the bomb bays for that night's target. So these bombs were stored in a remote part of the airfield for safety obviously, behind blast walls, and they had to be fused for the target and towed along on long low trolleys you see that a lot in the old films, and towed by tractor to the des- The aircraft dispersal points, and although the target wasn’t disclosed at this point, because of the strict security rules, you know, walls have ears and all of that, ground crews would have a good idea from the amount of fuel loaded and the type of bomb load where the target would be. So more fuel meant further east, further north, further away. So about the same time as the ground crew were doing all these things, the aircrew would be briefed, so I will try- I can’t remember where it was, I think it, I think it might have been at, at Elvington we, we went to a re-enactment of one of these briefings and dad said it was very good, so I’ve actually experienced this as well because, you know, you have the sort of flip chart with a map on it and then, you know, they lift up the blanket and you see Berlin and everybody gasps and, you know, Dad said it was, it was just like that. Although it is actually done quite well in some of the films as well. So, there’d be a leader for each discipline, so the pilots would have a speaker, the navigators, the bomb aimers and so on, and the navigators would be the busiest, they’d be issued with flight plans, meteorological information. They’d be the first to know the target, because they’d have to plot the route on their chart and smaller topographical maps, and then they would highlight towns, lakes, rivers so that they, you know, could, could recognise them when they were flying over them, familiarise themselves with the territory. Initial courses and airspeeds would be calculated from the wind velocities supplied, and these would be modified as more information was gained from Gee and H2S during the flight. So, the navigators- It was essential that they kept, were kept to their prescribed altitudes, tracks and timetables. This was to maintain the concentration of the bomber stream, in order to keep to their time slot over the target, which was no more than three minutes long so, it was really important that people, you know, did exactly what, what they’d been told to do and didn’t deviate from it. So, the aircrew would then go to the mess, have their operational meal of eggs and bacon, which was a treat because civilians were lucky to get one egg a month, they’d fill their thermos flask with coffee, draw their flying rations of chocolate and orange juice to sustain them, during the long night, and they’d also have available caffeine tablets to keep them alert. Then they’d get the briefing, so everybody due to be on operational duty that night, about a hundred-and-fifty personnel, were assembled in front of a large war map of Europe showing the route and the target. If it was to be the big city, Berlin, a gasp would go round the hut. This was considered to be the most dangerous target of all. The briefing was carried out by the squadron commander, the intelligence officer, the MET officer, and any other specialist whose views were pertinent to that night's raid, so that could depend on what the target was and what the purpose was. So the briefing would cover the size of the bombing force, the objective, of any diversionary raids taking place, ‘cause sometimes they’d have a decoy to put the Germans off the scent, the weather expected en route, and when returning to base, the forecast wind changes, the extent of cloud cover en route and over the target, and icing risks at various altitudes and obviously that would depend on the time of year as well, how the Pathfinders would be marking the route and the target, and any hot spots, danger spots for flak and night fighters, and then all personnel, especially navigators were asked to synchronise their watches to the second, to GMT. Then they would draw their parachutes and their Mae Wests, their life jackets, they left any personal items in a bag to be picked up if and when they returned, and departed by truck to the dispersal points and there they had time to smoke a cigarette outside, not frowned upon in those days, and then to check their equipment thoroughly before they took off. The air gunners would check their guns over the North Sea, and there’s a, there’s a nice little line drawing somewhere of the, the crew all having a pee against the side of the aircraft which was partly ‘cause it was more difficult to have a pee once you were inside the aircraft, but also, I think it was a kind of macho good luck, you know, boys' game. There’s a great little line drawing of it somewhere, I can’t remember where I saw it. Sometimes they’d get to this point and they’d have to wait for clearance of fog, the MET officer would’ve guaranteed that it would clear otherwise they wouldn’t have gone through the whole process, but sometimes it didn’t, and if it didn’t the whole operation would have to be aborted, and I think that must’ve been one of the most frustration things because they’ve all- The adrenaline’s flowing and then you’ve got to come down and you haven’t actually got anything to show for it. So, assuming it wasn’t aborted, at last it was time to take off, the crews were directed by the airfield controller to the runway. Many of the ground crew would then wave them off into the darkness, I think they felt a sense of ownership of, whatever plane they’d been working on, so they’re very much part of the team although they weren’t in front line. Then for the people in the air commenced the long ordeal, five to eight hours of freezing cold, heavy vibration, incessant roar of the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines in the case of the Halifax, in an unpressurised aircraft until they returned, hopefully unscathed, in the early hours of the following morning. When they got back they were debriefed, they were given hot coffee, a tot of rum by the padre, and again, this, you see this in some of the better films, and the- They had to be debriefed by an intelligence officer, who took notes about the bombing run, any details of flak and night fighters, information that could all be used to improve safety on subsequent flights, and then they had egg, bacon breakfast and trekked back to the huts, crawled into bed and tried to get some sleep and wait for the next one. Okay, so, they- Their first operation was a mine laying trip, called- Also known as gardening and planting vegetables, that’s the kind of code for it. This, that, that, this was supposed to be an easy, an easy option ‘cause it was not as dangerous obviously as bombing raid over a major city. So this was the 2nd of October 1943, and they- When they got about half way across the North Sea, towards Denmark, the flight- The, the pilot, Harvey, asked Laurie, the bomb aimer to take over the controls while he went to the toilet, and Laurie had never, he would’ve had some training to assist the pilot but not in flying the plane, and Laurie had never sat in the pilot seat of a Halifax before, and there he was on his first ever mission at the controls while the pilot went to the toilet. So, as they, as they approached the enemy coast, Laurie, the bomb aimer is at the controls never having- I don’t even know if he could drive a car, and Harvey had this urgent call of nature, and- Anyway, so, you, at this point there were no events, dad said if they’d actually thought about the magnitude of what was going on, you know, they’d of all jumped out, but anyway, when they passed over the cloa-, the coast there was a loud bang, which lifted up the aircraft, and at this point the Gee and the H2S went out of action, so they got to Denmark without these navigational aids, and they opened the bomb doors and they made their, their dropping run at eight thousand feet, tried to release the mines but they wouldn’t drop. So they tried to liberate them manually, but they couldn’t get them out, and Harvey the pilot, at this point decided to return to base with the mines on board, and he tried to close the bomb doors but they wouldn’t shut, so it was obvious that their hydraulic system had been damaged, as well as the radar equipment probably by flak. So they went down to two thousand feet to get under the cloud base, and got caught up in some nasty electric storms. But without technical navigational aids, dad had to pick out land fall as soon as possible, it was down to dead reckoning, and this was his first flight [chuckles], operational flight. So they didn’t need oxygen at this height, so dad decided he’d got to the loo as well. So he went to visit the Elsan at the rear of the aircraft, and he took a torch and he groped his way to the back, and he was just stepping over the main spar when he noticed a gaping hole beneath him, and had he completed the step he would’ve fallen two thousand feet into the North Sea without a parachute. So at this point he decided to wee through the hole, rather than complete the journey to the Elsan, and he returned to the nose to confirm to Harvey that there was no doubt that they had been hit by flak. So he had a drink of coffee to restore his nerves, but the damage was quite considerable. So, when the flaps and the wheels were lowered for landing, the bomb doors, flaps and wheels could not be raised again, which meant that if they were to overshoot the runway on landing, they would crash with two mines still on board. So they knew, you know, that, that, they were in great danger, and so they crossed Flamborough head on the north, North Yorkshire coast, and dad’s dead reckoning brought them back on course and they landed safely. But on landing one of the mines fell out onto the runway, and at the dispersal point the ground staff were amazed that in these circumstances they’d survived without a scratch. They thought the aircraft would be scrapped because the damage was very considerable, there was a lot of shrapnel holes and so on, but it was repaired and it went off to be used in other missions, and eventually was shot down with the loss of all crew, but that’s not dad’s crew, that was, this was another crew. So the upshot of this was that dad- After the war dad read flight- The pilot’s statement on that, this mission and he found it to be totally inaccurate, there’s no mention of the flak damage, or having to bring the mines back, although it is in the Pocklington station records, and dad believed that Harvey wanted to have an unblemished tour of operations on his record, you know, so dad, dad was very much a man of honesty and everything was meticulous and he was- That’s why he made such a good navigator, but he lived his whole life like that and he didn’t like- It disturbed him to think that other people could, could bend the rules for their own purposes which is what this amounted to. Having had a near miss, the mid-upper gunner reported sick before the next operation, never flew again, and sadly was labelled LMF, lack of moral fibre, reduced to AC2 and posted to Elvington for general duties. So, he said that because the losses were so high at the time this was at the peak really of the dangerous period, one crew hardly got to know each other before- One crew hardly ever got to know another crew at the base before one of the two crews went missing, you know, you’d notice, you get back to the base there’d be a number of empty beds and you’d learn that they’d not come back, and you wouldn’t ever necessarily know what had happened to them. Every mission to Germany, especially to Berlin was like going over the top, in the First World War, according to Dad, that risky. A success- A succession of these raids could bring on exhaustion, nerves, to anybody however strong they were mentally, and the threat of being branded LMF was made to avoid the eventuality where aircrew would just refuse collectively to, to fly. He said only 0.4% of all aircrew were branded LMF but it’s surprising actually, and he, he thought it was a huge injustice when you considered there were many civilians of military age in reserved occupations, who’d never have been exposed to such risks. Anyway, after this, first operation, the squadron navigation officer decided to check my dad’s log and chart, and he found both completely accurate, commended dad on the results, which he knew had been made under testing conditions and subsequently informed dad that he was recommending him for a commission, so it looked like he was going to get his commission after the war. So it made up for having missed it before by a few marks. So, the next operation was supposed to be to Frankfurt but the pilot decided to turn back, less than a hundred miles from target. It, it was frustrating for everybody else, being so near the target, because the raid turned out to be the first serious blow to Frankfurt and, later the flight engineer went sick and did not fly again. The next flight was to Hannover, this one preceded without mishap, and then they thought, okay things are looking up, we’ll- Looks like we’re gonna be successful crew, but then they didn’t fly on any more operations in October, remember that the position of Harvey as a, as a, as a- His promoted position meant that they didn’t fly perhaps as frequently as other crews, and they, in fact they never flew again with him, because he, although officially he did remain the A flight commander until the end of November. So dad got his commission, Gus Walker confirmed that dad was being recommended for it and he was interviewed for it, and during that meeting my father learnt that the pilot Harvey was being withdrawn from operational flying because he’d had enough. But he did get his DFC, and that was described as long overdue for his tours in the Middle East, but dad had a different view. So, now they’ve lost their second pilot and they’re a headless crew again, so during that period they all flew as spares. Dad hated this. Flying as a spare meant you replaced a crew member in another crew who as sick or otherwise unable to fly. It was very demoralising because you didn’t have any of the team spirit and trust in each other that you had when you were flying with a regular crew. You were just a floating part, you had little or no faith in the crew that you were joining for that night and they probably didn’t have any faith in you either, ‘cause they didn’t know you, and it was bad for morale of everybody. So, Laurie, the bomb aimer, John the rear gunner, and Dad, the original three, flew as spares for the next five or so operations and the wireless operator had disappeared. So-



David Meanwell, “Interview with Janet Hughes, One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 16, 2024,

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