Interview with Harry Inkpen


Interview with Harry Inkpen


Harry Inkpen joined Bomber Command in November 1944 and flew 33 operations on Mosquitoes as a pilot on 162 Squadron. Tells of how, in his view, his squadron had more losses because of bad weather conditions than because of encounters with the enemy. He flew 17 operations to Berlin and talks about the German defences and searchlight organisation. Recounts a harrowing experience of the aircraft’s engines suddenly stopping while returning from Berlin. Tells of aircrew superstitions: he wore his father’s ring as a lucky charm; his navigator carried a silk petticoat. Remembers being caught in fog returning from an operation and managing to land thanks to FIDO. Recounts travelling to Canada and America, where was trained as a pilot. Mentions the sinking of a U-boat on the way back from Canada. Remembers training army officers to fly Horsa gliders.




Temporal Coverage




00:31:54 audio recording


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AB: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Anne Brodie, the interviewee is Harry Inkpen. The interview is taking place at Mr. Inkpen’s home in [file missing] Ryde, Isle of Wight, on the 12th of July 2016.
HI: Thank you. Right.
AB: If you’d like just to tell us a bit about your service in the RAF?
HI: Can I talk now? What do I do, talk now?
AB: Yes, you can talk, and then it’s here [unclear]
HI: It’ll pick it up?
AB: Yeah. It’s picking up. I can see.
HI: Ah yes. I joined Bomber Command in November 1944 and that was one of the headquarters with number 8 group based in Huntington, Cambridgeshire and the commanding officer was group captain Don Bennett, subsequently he was an air vice marshal but he was a remarkable man, not only was he an ace pilot but he was a remarkable navigator in his own right. We started to, the operations with my navigator for our first tour together. The tour was supposed to be thirty five attacks on Germany. In the end, we only did thirty three, because the war ended in April and we were too short of the target, not that that mattered, but we joined 162 Squadron, a Mosquito Squadron for markers for Pathfinders and we operated from Bourne in Lincolnshire, that was the aerodrome, and we shared the aerodrome with 105 Squadron, another Mosquito squadron who were master markers, they marked the target before we went in. The, when we were first into the Mosquito, as a pilot I fell in love with the aircraft because I’d never seen such a beautiful thing in my life. It had two Rolls Royce engines and the body was all wood and it was called the wooden wonder because it was a real wonder. I think the top speed, straight level, was four hundred and fifty miles an hour. In that day, that was very fast and this was how we had no defence against enemy fighters because we relied entirely on our speed and nothing could catch us. The German Air Marshall Goering was our main enemy, he was, they were very, the Luftwaffe were very, very good but our, really our worst enemy was General Winter and that was the weather. Because from 1944 to over onto ‘45 the weather was atrocious, on our operations, the thirty three trips we did we never lost, personally we weren’t even harmed on those trips but we had terrible troubles with the weather. And our number 162 Squadron, if I remember rightly, never lost an aircraft over Germany, but we lost twelve aircraft on take-off and landing because of ice, snow, fog, etcetera and that was our real enemy. The, can I pause there?
[file stopped]
AB: Ok [unclear].
HI: Of the thirty three raids that we did, Joe and I, seventeen of them were onto Berlin and Berlin, we never talked about Berlin, it was called the Big City, we used to say, we are going to the Big City and it was seventeen times we went there. It was very well defended because as the war was drawing to a close, it was the last six months and Germany was being forced back towards Berlin, all of their anti-aircraft guns, all their searchlights, most of their defences were concentrated on Berlin, so when we were told it was a Berlin night, we knew we were in for some fight. They were very clever, the Germans, they had, they could pick us up on radar and on our instrument panel there were three little lights, if one of them, there was two red lights and a white light, if the red light first came on, it means the radar was actually picking us up, if the red light came on, it means the actual guns were firing and within a few seconds there will be a burst and if the white light came on there was a fighter on your tail, which was very, very helpful, now I only had once, when the red light came on, and the immediate action to do was to turn away smartly and drop down and just above you would be the bursts of the anti-aircraft fire, very clever and I only once had the white light came on which was when a fighter was on your tail and the only fighter that could catch us was the new Messerschmitt 262 which was a jet aircraft, now he could catch us easily, he actually had to throttle back so that he could stay on our tail, now he got on the tail, the white light came on and the tracer went over the top, cause immediately I dropped down and the tracer went over the top so that was really the only problem we had with the defences but the, so if you got caught with the searchlight it was rather remarkable, they had four blue searchlights around Berlin, North, South, East and West and the blue searchlight was radar controlled, if it came on, you could look on the end of it and there was an aircraft, it picked it up straight away and then all the other searchlights were white and they were called the slaves, that was the master searchlight and the white lights were the slaves and they then came right onto the plane, now once only we happened not, we weren’t personally caught but one of the slaves caught us in the light, it was a remarkable experience because one moment you’re in total darkness and the next moment you’re in blinding light and is blinding light and the only way out of that is to go down straight down the searchlight so when it, when we were in this terrible light, I went straight down it to about five hundred miles an hour and then pulled up and lost it but quite an unusual experience and the other amazing experience was coming back from Berlin when we had dropped our bombs and we got as far as Hanau, H-A-N-A-U, which was a fairly big German city and they had some, a few good defences but we were roundabout thirty thousand feet, that’s nearly six miles high and quite unknown to us, both of the engines stopped, now if you can imagine, nearly six miles high an engine stopping, that is something very unusual, now not only did the engine stop, but the aircraft flipped over and it dropped from thirty thousand feet to eighteen thousand and not because of me but my hand was on the throttle and actually hoping to God the aircraft would come back again the engines and suddenly they came on and the relief was unbelievable and the power of the engines shot us forward, my navigator had disappeared down at the bomb bay and he came up rather shocked and I said, I can’t believe it, Tom, we’re flying and the aircraft righted itself and flew on and we stayed at eighteen thousand feet and came home. Now, how that happened we checked afterwards to think what could possibly have stopped two Merlin engines and the current thought was that there’d been a burst of enemy anti-aircraft fire, a big burst and it had left a vacuum in the air and we had flown into the vacuum and because the engine could not get oxygen, the engine stopped and that was the technical reason, the explanation but I was only too happy to say we were alive and home. And that was another [unclear] explanation. Now the other, I’m telling you the highlights not the general, just the run of the mill but the other experience we had, we got as far across the North Sea on another occasion and as we’d been two and a half hours away, by the time we got to the English coast, the North Sea fog had slowly crept in and the whole of the east coast, all the aerodromes were blotted out with ground fog which came up to a thousand feet, we went down to a thousand feet and we were completely blotted out in fog, we got through on the radio and from Bourne and they told us we must go to a nearby aerodrome thirty miles away which was not clear but it had FIDO on the aerodrome, F-I-D-O, and that’s Fog Instant Dispersal Operation and it’s, there’s two lines of metal strips running down the airfield perforated with flames coming out and it burned the fog away and it was quite remarkable, they gave us a course to this aerodrome and as we were going through the fog, which was grey and white, ground white colour, as we got nearer to the point where we knew the airport should be, it started to turn yellow and then it turned bright yellow and then we realised we must be right over the aerodrome but we couldn’t see it, but what I did, I did a four minute time course on instruments to go round the airport and I came in on my last leg, I lowered down to five hundred feet and at five hundred feet suddenly the fog stopped just like, as if somebody had lifted a cloud and right in front of you was the airport with these two strips of flames, now these flames were six feet high each side and we landed, you could feel the heat, and there was a few gaps down the side where you get off and Joe said, for God’s sake, don’t swerve because we should be roasted because we’d have gone into the flames so we found a gap and got off and the first time my navigator really any showed any great emotion, he just put his arm on my shoulder, he said, thank God we’re down, I said, Joe, I couldn’t agree with you more. And after that, we went in and saved the night and forgot all about it. Can I stop there for a bit?
[File stopped]
AB: Right.
HI: Aircrew are very suspicious, superstitious people, they’d all have some little gimmick that they carry with them, hoping it might give them some luck, in my case, on my right hand, I always wore my father’s gold ring, and on my left hand, I wore a silver ring which I had made from a silver dollar in America where I was learnt to fly in 1941 I gave an Indian, Navaho Indian a silver dollar and said, would you make me a silver ring?
US: [unclear]
HI: And that he did and that flew with me and my father’s ring all through the, all through the operations against Germany and I think it did me very well. In the case of my navigator, He was a bit of a lad on the ground my navigator but in the air he was a remarkable man and quite so capable that I had fully reliance on him and once he did I saw he had something round his neck when he was flying and when I looked at it I said, what’s your scarf you got on then, no, no, he said, that’s a petticoat, I said, oh yeah? Yes, a silk petticoat, it’s a blue silk petticoat, and it’s from my current girlfriend, and he said, I always fly with that, I said, I’m so pleased you got something to hold onto even if it’s only a petticoat, well, halfway through the tour, I noticed it wasn’t a blue petticoat, but it was a yellow petticoat, and I said, you know, what’s the change of colour? Well, he said, we had a little bit of a tiff, and I’ve moved on. So that was why, that was a little bit of unusual thing,
US: [unclear]
HI: About superstitious [file missing]
HI: When I think that there was, in Bomber Command, those terrible losses, all of those fellows on average would have been carrying something and all those little gifts and [unclear] had gone forever and never been recorded but in my case they did me a favour,
[file missing]
HI: As far as I can remember, because security was so great in the war, nobody said anything about anything but as far as I know 162 Squadron was, the Mosquito Squadron that I was on was the only one that never actually suffered a loss through the enemy, we suffered a twelve, a loss of twelve crews through bad weather, fog, ice, snow and crashes, particularly running short of fuel and going into the North Sea and but we only lost through, purely through weather, bad weather and the weather was so bad, up to nowadays people wouldn’t be flying in it, they wouldn’t be allowed to fly in it but in the war, you didn’t question it, if you flew, you went and that was it, that was, that’s and therefore I can’t remember hearing of any other Mosquito, Pathfinder Squadron who actually lost a plane over Germany, they all lost through bad weather.
[File missing]
HI: Ok, we are now talking about the last leg into the target, which had to be very accurately flown because the bombsight in the nose of the aircraft was pre-set before the actual aircraft took off, so in the, on the bombsight, if it was Berlin, let’s say it was set at thirty thousand feet and the speed had to be four hundred and fifty miles an hour, the wind had to be, already been calculated, that was put into the bombsight and heading for the last leg, say had to be three hundred and sixty degrees, now all that was actually put into the bomb site before we took off but on the last leg into the target, when the navigator went down to drop the four bombs, which incidentally were four five hundred pound bombs, he had to know bomb is watch, exactly the time when he pressed the button and said, bomb’s gone, because it was dictated by the bombsight, we were, we were doing exactly what the bombsight told us to do and that was the most important, we actually dropped four five hundred pound bombs, three of them were instantaneous and the fourth was had a twenty four hour delay on it, which was a hope to confuse the enemy when they were trying to clear up where another bomb went off but when they were released and you lost a thousand pounds worth of bombs, the aircraft would jump quite visibly and it was a very pleasing sight.
[File missing]
HI: To qualify for Mosquitos, certainly for Bomber Command, you had to, a pilot had to have a minimum of a thousand hours flying experience and also had a very high instrument rating because as everything was at night you’d require, you relied entirely on instruments, you must have an absolute trust in instruments to qualify for this and that’s why it was very difficult to get on to a Mosquito squadron but I was very, very happy that I did because it was an experience I’ll never forget and those qualifications came in very useful in the end, also my lucky rings were a bit of a charm,
[File missing]
HI: In the Air Force were really going back to school because you were always in class, always learning navigation, mathematics were very high on that and aircraft recognition, firing guns, all ground work and studies took quite a year on the ground and then suddenly you were selected for, to be a pilot, which was the what you were trying to get to and been aiming all the time, when you became selected to be a pilot, you, they put a white flash in your helmet to designate that you were a pilot and not anybody else and then of course we were sent over to Canada and we went from Gourock on the Clyde out into a troop ship, which was SS Louis Pasteur, which was commandeered from the French, we pinched one of their liners, and we probated it into a troop ship, we went up by via Greenland to try and avoid the submarines and then ended up in Halifax near Brunswick
US: Nova Scotia.
HI: As a gathering point and from then on we moved into New Brunswick to Moncton, New Brunswick which was for pilots only, selected for pilots only and the destination from there could only be Florida, South Africa or America. Now, everybody wanted America because, number one, America hadn’t actually entered the war, we were still at war with Germany but, they had never declared war on America so we were sent down by train right down the Saint Lawrence to Toronto, then on to The East Coast line, the West Coast line to Texas, through Texas to Arizona to the little town of Mesa, Arizona, which is an offshoot of Phoenix and Mesa was where the aerodrome was. And of course, we were, there was only fifty of us, fifty English boys, all in civilian clothes because we weren’t allowed to wear a uniform, we were entered as visitors and treated as visitors so to get us a training at that time they wanted fighter pilots because it was 1941 and we were seconded to the American Army Air Force as a fighter pilot under training and that was only for a few days and in December, the 8th my birthday, Pearl Harbour happened, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and America, and then Germany declared war on America, and at that point we were allowed to have uniforms flown down from Canada and suddenly we became air force people and not civilians and then we went to the English British Flying Training School at Mesa, Falcon Field and we were trained there as fighter, to be fighter pilots and my instructor was a civilian, American civilian, he’d been a crop-duster, he’d been an aerobatic pilot in air shows and he’d signed on with the Americans to train pilots and my fortune was that he trained me and he was old enough to be my father and to me, I respected him as my father, and that man taught me to fly and he did me the biggest favour anybody can ever do, and he got me solo in six hours, which was almost a record, but he’s taught me always, because I taught thousands of people to fly after that, and he always taught me to tell them, when you step into an aircraft, you become part of the aircraft, you are not an alien, you are part of it, do exactly what you do with it and from then on I used to tell everybody the same story, and that man taught me to fly, now when I eventually went solo in six hours, we passed on to advanced training to really high quality [unclear] and then that was the end and we were told we had our wings, we were made sergeants and we, they pinned the wings on our chest and we were on our way to go home to England. And of course I went back to Canada and this time still to Halifax and this time we got on the troop ship called the Duchess of Atholl, and she was nicknamed the Drunken Duchess because she was a pretty bad ride, she was a luxury liner commandeered as a troop ship but she was am pretty rough and we had a very rough passage going over, we went as far as we could up to Greenland and back to Europe but on the way back, we sunk the, had four destroyers as escorts personally for our boat and they left us and went off to laying minefield, depth charges in a circle, and I witnessed the most amazing thing because all these depth charges exploded and suddenly a submarine appeared in the middle, they’d actually got him and when he, when the submarine appeared, every gun from every ship fired at this because they were so delighted and they sank the submarine and after that, we went on quite peacefully to Gourock and from then on we went to Bournemouth, you know that was another point, and there we were sorted out into groups, they’d suddenly realised in 1942, they didn’t want fighter pilots, so we’d been trained as fighter pilots, so here we go, what are we gonna do? So they selected, were you good at instrument flying? Yes, ok. So then, I then went on a course on twin engines because they wanted bomber pilots, so when I did the course on twin engine Oxfords they realised, I did a lot of night flying, and they realised I was fairly good on instruments and also they thought, I could well teach people to actually fly at night so then I went to Upavon on Salisbury Plain which was the Central Flying School of the RAF and that dated back to the First World War and the mess there had a big fire in it, in the fireplace and over it was a vast propeller and it was from a Zeppelin [unclear] shot down at the First World War, so that was the Central Flying School of the RAF and I had to pass through that to become a flying instructor. When I became a flying instructor, I was sent to Flying Training Command which was at South Cerney in Oxfordshire and South Cerney was the base but they had many satellite aerodromes which were all training aircraft for Oxfords, twin engine aircraft and from then on I trained people on twin engine Oxfords at night flying so I gathered a hell of a lot of night flying hours and hence a lot of night instrument flying and in that time I was quite a few years with Flying Training Command doing just that, I had one slight respite when I was taken away to train people to fly Horsa gliders, for God’s sake, and they were army officers or army sergeants drafted from the army to just learn to land an aircraft, that’s all, you had to take them up, show them how to take off, but they wanted to know when you cut the engine, how to glide because they were going to be glider pilots and for about two months I trained people to fly, just fly the Tiger Moth and glide till they knew the angle and from then on I moved on from there back to Flying Training Command and then to twin engines but for me in that little period they took me to Brize Norton and let me actually get in a glider, a Horsa glider so I had the experience of being co-pilot in a Horsa glider with thirty five men in the fully armed back on the landing jeep and a machine gun at the back of me and I remember being towed up by a Lancaster and then at the point of return everything suddenly went silent, the nose dipped and the aircraft took a very steep dive, I reached about a hundred miles an hour and all I could think of was thirty five men in a jeep and a gun in my back and how are we gonna land alright and he made a perfect landing and that’s the first time I’ve ever been in a glider but I had the experience, I think that was it. So, you see, it varied.



Anne Brodie, “Interview with Harry Inkpen,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 5, 2023,

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