Interview with Raymond Isherwood


Interview with Raymond Isherwood


Raymond Isherwood grew up in Watford and when at the grammar school he joined the Air Training Corps. His first job was at a government laboratory, which was a reserved occupation except for air crew. As he had always been interested in aircraft he decided to train with the Royal Air Force. He was sent to Canada and, on completing his training, came back to this country and worked with Transport Command. The Royal Air Force paid for Raymond to attend London University, where he gained a degree in chemistry and physics. He had postings to Cairo, Calcutta and West Africa. He was never on active duty but flew in Dakotas and Wellingtons. When Raymond was demobbed he returned to laboratory work, met his wife and had a daughter.




Temporal Coverage




00:45:06 audio recording


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AH: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Anna Hoyles. The interviewee is Ray Isherwood. The interview is taking place in Mr Isherwood’s house in Laceby on the 1st of April 2016. Could you tell me a bit about you early life?
RI: Oh. I grew up way down south in Watford. My father although he was a northerner had moved down there soon after the First War because things got so bad up north and he found a job. And so I grew up, as I say in Watford. Watford Grammar School. And eventually in the Grammar School they formed a branch of the Air Training Corps. I had been interested in aircraft as long as I can remember and we had been to see the Hendon Air Displays which weren’t far away. Not in the grounds I should say. We could park, my father could park at a nearby layby and we climbed up the hill and could see all that was going on in the airfield below us and that encouraged my interest in aircraft. As school formed a branch of the Air Training Corps when that was formed before the war sometime and I joined that and went along to the parades and lectures. They hosted local people who had any connexion with the Air Force to give talks on their experiences. And then eventually I got a job in a government laboratory which turned out to be a Reserved Occupation which meant that you couldn't be called up. The only exception being for aircrew so I escaped from that and was called up eventually. Went through all the rigmarole of initial training on the South Coast usually in hotels which were commandeered for accommodation. And then I went across to Canada to finish my aircrew training and finished up there a fully fledged pilot officer navigator. I came back to this country and we were crewed up. This, appreciate this was in Transport Command so I was crewed up with, the theory was that the, that all the pilots with assemble and pick up their navigators randomly but in point of fact the pilots had access to your records so each pilot could perhaps pick up one that he thought was suitable. Anyway, I was collared by a pilot who had many many hours already flying and so we got on very well together. I went to Transport Command and we were transported all over the place. Our longest trip was right out to Cairo. To Cairo and beyond to Calcutta which was quite a long trip. Which reminds me that on the way back from Calcutta of course we had to travel by passenger transport and I flew in a Sunderland for a long way, a Flying Boat and it really was the first time I had flown in one and it really was like a Flying Boat which was sort of porpoising along and it was the nearest I've ever felt to being air sick. Anyway, I managed to survive. Of course, it's a bit different when you are just a passenger as opposed to when you’re part of the crew itself. Anyway, it got me back to this country and carried on. But the crew was trans, was posted out to West Africa. West Africa Communications Squadron of all things. It was a sort of a relic of the time when aircraft were ferried across the Atlantic from America and then across to Africa to the South of, from [Kurna?] to, no [Kurna?] to the southern end of the Nile. Up the Nile to Cairo. Anyway, I did a lot, a lot of that before eventually being posted back to this country and I can't really remember much else about it [laughs] Oh yes. We flew, ferried planes as I say ferried the planes as they say from the tip of Devon. Took off across the Bay of Biscay to North Africa. And this went on for some time and eventually the war was finished. We didn't have to go to Japan after all and so I was demobbed and back to civvy duty when I got married and resumed my job. First in the government laboratory where I'd left and so we sort of pottered on and on. Fortunately, I have one beautiful daughter who is still with me. Still looks after me and there we are. I don't know that I can add very much more to that [laughs]
AH: Why did you go to Canada for training?
RI: Oh, well there was such, there was a large number of cadets requiring training in the air either as pilots or navigators. And there wasn't sufficient aerodrome space in this country and anyway it would have been quite dangerous having sort of untrained, partially trained pilots and aircraft flying about this country which was so near to Messerschmitts nipping across the Channel to pop them down. So they formed what was called the Empire Air Training Scheme. Which made use of the fast areas in the empire. Some went to Rhodesia, South Africa and I went to Canada. The other side of Winnipeg in the [laughs] in the Prairies. So it was an experience anyway. But as I say there was plenty of safe room and as a navigator I was flown by bush pilots. Bush pilots who could fly with their eyes shut. Anyway, but that went on. We went on and I was qualified then and came back to this country. I was crewed up with a pilot who had a lot of experience flying so we got on very well together actually until eventually the war ended and we were demobbed and went back to civvy duty. Oh, I know as I was in the Air Force I got a grant to go to London University so as I was living in Watford I thought I'd go down and attend London University as a day student. I had to travel down and back. It was a bit of a bind but anyway I did it and there was swatting up in the evenings and weekends. But all this was paid for by virtue of me being in the Air Force and then eventually I did manage to get my degree. And that was it. So back in to Civvy duty.
AH: What was your degree in?
RI: Chemistry. Chemistry and physics. So then I was back to Civvy Street and I got married, had Sarah and sort of, time just went on as normal.
AH: Did you enjoy flying?
RI: Oh, very much. Yes. Yes. I would take it up again if I could but no I enjoyed it very much indeed. I don't know quite why really but mind you I was never involved in any accidents or hazardous times and so if we’d had a crash or something it might have changed my mind but no I enjoyed it very much. And then as I say that all came to an end. Had to get back to Civvy Street and got married and eventually had Sarah who looks after me very well.
AH: What was it like going back to civilian life?
RI: Yes, it was a bit of a bind. It was a bit awkward but in one way you were, you were glad really. I mean it meant the world was over. And although I didn't do any sort of active work in the war I wasn't fighting anyone but even so it was, could have been hazardous at times. And then, yes settled back to Civvy Street. I find it extremely hard to remember what I did actually. I must have got a job and got on with it and there we are and had our usual, you know through the year. Went on holidays and as I say had Sarah. That was an event. She’s done me proud anyway. So, we just, just carried on back to Civvy Street. I don’t know that I can add any more to that really.
AH: Did you, did you choose to go into Transport Command or were you just posted?
RI: No. Just posted there. No. No. As a, as a navigator it was probably the best posting I could have had really. It wasn't a very happy experience really being a navigator in Bomber Command because as I understand it and sort of heard from some of them you know you couldn't do anything. You were just doing your job as navigator and a lot of it you had a lot more, not such a great support from the ground in the way of beacons and all the up to date facilities that weren’t available to people outside. But even so really I was jolly lucky. I might well have been posted to Bomber Command and that may well have been the end of me as it was for a lot of other folk. But anyway, we seem to have won the war [laughs] so they say. And here we are today. But —
AH: What did you do when you were in West Africa?
RI: I find it very difficult to remember. I have to [pause] oh we, yes, we just, we just formed a transport squadron to ferry people about. They were all civilians of course. A considerable civilian population. European civilians besides the natives, I mean who administered the country and it was, before the war it was a very civvy job doing that because you were white men among all the natives and you know your command was law and you just ran the thing like [pause] just off the [unclear]. I know one place, we had to stop in places overnight sometimes the ritual was on getting up you had a large glass of gin [laughs] you know, before you had your bacon and egg. Just these colonial types. I mean they were different. Grew up before the war and they were a different breed really but there we are we anyway got through that lot and got demobbed, came out, came home. As I’d been in the Air Force I got a grant to go to London University. I lived down in Watford so I used to travel down to Kings College, London University, you know, day by day as a day student and got my degree in chemistry. It was a struggle at times. But having been away from sort of academic learning you have to get back to it. Anyway, whether they had pity on me and gave me a degree I don't know. But I got one in the end. So, you know, I find it very difficult to recall what happened really after that. I would have to look up diaries and to be reminded and such like but anyway we had a happily married life. Produced Sarah which was a great boon. That was a great boon. But eventually poor Thelma died. She as I say she went to sleep on a Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night and Wednesday night and she was gone. I don't know whether she died of anything in particular but anyway that was some time ago now. I find it difficult to think. We've got this lovely bungalow. It’s all mine. No [laughs] no mortgage. And the support of Sarah and people around about her very friendly as well. So I could do a lot worse. A lot worse.
AH: Did you have any siblings?
RI: Any what?
AH: Siblings.
RI: Other children?
AH: Any brothers or sisters?
RI: No. Me? Oh me. Oh gracious. Did I? Yes. I had, I had an elder brother Vincent. That's right. I can't remember really. Yes. He, he went into the Air Force. He went into the ground staff. He worked for the GPO, General Post Office before the war. He was a bit older. He was older than me and when he went into the Air Force he went into the Telecommunications branch but funnily enough he was posted down to Australia. Why, I don't know. But I didn’t see much of him really. Poor chap. Eventually he died so I'm, I'm the one left of that branch. I think I’ve got more cousins up north still. Every now and then I think I must go and try to get in touch with them but I sort of never actually get around to it. But there we are.
AH: Were your parents in the First War?
RI: Not, not actively. Oh, no. My father in fact would have been what is called now a Reserved Occupation. He was an engineer in Coberley Water Company keeping the pumps going and that sort of thing. I'm not quite sure how old he would have been. It’s going back a long way. So —
AH: What planes were you in?
RI: On what?
AH: What planes?
RI: Planes. Oh, I have a job to remember. I think when we were training we were in planes like Ansons. Of course, I wasn't the pilot. They had to be planes which had accommodation for the, for the navigator. Planes like Avro Ansons. And then eventually I was flying with Dakotas. The old favourites. I think the Americans must have churned them out by the millions but yes so, so I was very lucky. I had a pilot I already had hundreds of hours in Training Command and we, as I say flew in Dakota's which were probably the most reliable, or certainly one of the most reliable planes at that time. There are probably still some running somewhere. So —
AH: And you were in Wellingtons as well.
RI: Yes. Yes. That was in Canada. But never, I never went on active duty or anything. I never dropped bombs on anyone. It was, it was only [pause] only through fortunate posting really [pause] because the casualty rate was fairly high actually amongst aircrew.
AH: Do you remember VE Day?
RI: Pardon?
AH: Do you remember VE Day?
RI: Oh. I can't remember VE Day very much but I can remember VJ day because we were in Africa at the time and we had parades and things and I think I’ve got some pictures. I think that was VE Day but —
AH: How did you feel on VJ day?
RI: Oh, very relieved. I thought with VE Day passing we should all be shipped out to Japan you see. But of course, they dropped the bomb on them didn't they and that finished it. So from that point of view I was very relieved.
AH: What's the steam engine?
RI: Oh yes. I don't really know. Must be out in West Africa somewhere [laughs] I’m not [pause] No. I don't really know. It just attracted me so I took a picture of it. Funny have some of these have stayed the same and others have deteriorated haven't they? He was the, in effect the batman. We had a servant a line so the one between four or five of us and he was the one [pause] Oh dear. It seems a long time ago now. Let’s hope it never comes back again too.
AH: What did you think of Bomber Command? I know you weren't in it but —
RI: Oh yes. No. Well, at the time I was all in favour of it. I mean you were getting at the enemy the only way they could because they weren’t, until the time we actually invaded it was the only offence we had. So just rather horrible in retrospect the damage done to, mainly to civilians of course but I’m afraid it was all part and parcel, wasn't it? I think it’s, I think was it Churchill who said they, they started it and they reaped the whirlwind. I think Hitler thought we would be a pushover and get it all over with within a few weeks but, of course it didn't work out that way.
AH: And you saw the Jarrow March.
RI: Yes. Yes. Those were the days. It’s terrible conditions we were to live in. I mean, no work I don’t think there was any old age pension in those days. You know. A pension. Just had to live as best they could. So they all got together up in Jarrow up north and right down to, in to London. It was quite, it wasn't just a few men. It was several hundred marching along. Of course, a couple a lot of them had been in the war of course who were used to that sort of thing but terrible times really.
AH: What did they look like?
RI: Oh, they were just ordinary chaps you know talking walking about in civilian clothing. You know, I mean but yes I think they thought were doing something anyway. They were so helpless really with conditions as they were. They were sort of trapped in the, in the circumstances. But anyway whether it did any good or not I'm not sure but as I say it had an effect on me all right.
AH: What did you think when you saw it?
RI: Oh, very very sad. Very sad. Well, the school was turned out on to the footpath to watch them go by. It was very sad. But there we are. Got over it I suppose. Time went by. [pause] I keep getting lost I think.
Other: Yes [laughs]
AH: You liked, you liked the Air Force before you joined it. You liked building models.
RI: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, I was, as long as I can remember I was building 1:72nd scale models. Little tiny things and made some flying models out balsa wood and wrapped in tissue and glorified elastic bands which you were, never had. And I did this in Carpenter's Park. I don’t remember any, you probably don't remember that. Nearby in this local park and I’d switched it off and it went sailing across the road into someone’s garden. So I had the experience of knocking on the door and saying, ‘Please can I get my aeroplane from your garden?’ Just thought nothing of it at the time but it must, rather peculiar really. But, yes I’ve been interested in aircraft for as long as I can remember. I suppose it was being near Hendon to do with it. Father being engineer was on the practical side of things as well. So of course, aeroplanes were the new thing when I grew up. It’s a funny life, isn't it?
AH: Did you like the RAF?
RI: Very much, yes. Yes. I did. Yes, I think I [pause] well yes, it’s a, it was a different thing though after the war. It was a different attitude, you know as against life outside sort of thing. You were much more confined and constricted and very much a sort of officer class if you were a flight lieutenant. But [pause] which didn’t suit me. It didn’t. At all. Anyway, no, I was glad to get back to civvy life and married life and all that entailed really.
AH: How did you meet your wife?
RI: Good question.
Other: Was it at work? The building, what was it called? The Building Research Station.
RI: Research.
Other: Building Research.
RI: Yes.
Other: BRS.
RI: Building Research Station. Yes. That’s where I worked for some time. I must have, I must have met her at work I suppose. Yes. This was during the war and I think one of the other chaps and I were leaving and he had this mad idea arrangement. He arranged a dinner in London at one of the posh hotels. So we had to get on the train and go and you were sort of all dressed up and Thelma was one of the party I think. We all trooped down to London and of course we missed the last train back [laughs] I don't know. I don’t, I can’t really remember what we did. We must have got back eventually but [pause] A funny idea. It's funny how these things come back to you isn't it?
Other: Yes.
RI: Yes. It’s sort of buried in the recesses of your brain somewhere.
Other: Yeah [pause] Did you ride bikes to the works? To work.
RI: Yes.
Other: You and mum.
RI: Yeah. Yes, it was bicycles all the time. Yeah. Did we have a car? I can’t, did father have a car? I don’t think he did.
Other: Can you remember when you went on holiday? Did you go on holidays with your mum and dad?
RI: Yes. I must have done.
Other: Did you have a car?
RI: I think, I think we just went by train you know.
Other: Yeah. Yeah. Because he worked, he lived where he worked. Didn’t he?
RI: That’s right. Yes.
Other: So —
RI: Yes, we worked, we lived in the works cottage. The Cottage, Coberley Water Company. That was my address.
Other: So he wouldn't need a car would he?
RI: No.
Other: No. And I don’t think gran drove did —
RI: No.
Other: Well, in those days.
RI: No. I think he had. He had a car.
Other: Oh. Did he?
RI: Yes. Yes.
Other: Oh.
RI: And it was handy for him in that he could have all the maintenance done on company site.
Other: Oh right.
RI: You see. By friends who were in the trade and that sort of thing. I think there are some photographs up there.
Other: They’d be in a different album I think.
RI: Yes.
AH: What was it like being in London during the war?
RI: I don’t know that I was in London a lot.
Other: I, probably mum would have known more wouldn’t she?
RI: Yes.
Other: That side of it. I think you were out of the way weren’t you?
RI: I was out of the way in the forces.
Other: Yes. You didn’t have anything, like the rationing didn’t really affect you, did it?
RI: No.
Other: The food was ok where you —
RI: That’s right. Yes. Yes. Oh dear.
Other: They fed the troops alright. Yeah. And your mum didn’t take any children in or anything like that? I don’t know Watford, whether Watford was bombed. I don’t know.
RI: I don’t think so. There might have been some. I think the zeppelins flew over once or twice.
Other: Oh right. [pause] But London would have been bombed.
RI: Oh yes.
Other: A lot, wasn’t it?
RI: Yes. Yes. You could see the flashes.
Other: Oh.
RI: From a nearby hill you could look over. Right over to, to London and you could see the flashes going off.
Other: Did you have an air raid shelter? Or —
RI: I think so. I think so. I don’t think we ever actually used it, you know. It was one of these Anderson things in the garden.
Other: Oh right. Yes.
RI: Oh dear. It’s ancient history, isn’t it?
Other: Because when did you sign up then? How old were you? I mean were you —
RI: Eighteen.
Other: Eighteen.
RI: Something like that. ’23. ’33. ’41.
Other: So, the war had been going on for two years then.
RI: Oh yes. Oh yes. Yes.
Other: Oh. Had you been at school then dad? Were you still at school?
RI: No. I had this job, didn’t I?
Other: Did you?
RI: I think so. Yes.
Other: Oh. What doing then? Oh, at this BRS. Yeah.
RI: Building Research Station.
Other: Oh, right. Yeah. So you would have been there two years when there was bombing then.
RI: Yes. Yes. That’s true.
Other: Yeah. And rationing.
RI: I’m afraid that was someone else’s trouble [laughs]
Other: Yes.
Other: I think I was more concerned with the rationing of chocolate and such like.
Other: Yes [laughs] You couldn’t get the sweets quite the same. Yeah.
RI: Oh dear. It all seems like ancient history, doesn't it? Now.
Other: Yeah. Would, where grandad worked would it be a target or not particularly? A water company.
RI: Not really.
Other: No.
RI: I don't think they came out as far as Watford anyway. The bombing was more in Central London.
Other: Oh right. Yeah. Of course, you lived a long time, I know it was after the war but near Bletchley, didn’t you? Where the [pause] at Bletchley where the, I can’t remember what it was called.
AH: The Enigma.
Other: Yeah. The Enigma.
RI: Yes.
Other: Well, I suppose it’s only now really it’s coming out.
RI: That’s right. Yes.
Other: All about it isn’t it?
RI: Didn’t know anything about it.
Other: No. No.
RI: No. I’d like to go there sometime. But it’s a, it’s a tourist attraction now, isn’t it?
Other: Films have been made about it.
RI: Yes. That’s right. Yes.
Other: Yeah. Yes. I don’t know whether they used it after the war, you know. Carried on.
RI: Might have carried on a bit I suppose.
Other: Yeah.
RI: Not for much.
AH: And you went to the Hendon Air Displays in the ‘30s.
RI: Oh yes. Yes. Yes, it was the —
Other: I think. Your father was quite interested as well, wasn’t he?
RI: Yes. Yes. He was quite interested more perhaps in the engineering side of it. As I say he couldn’t afford actually to go into the aerodrome itself so there was a convenient by-road where you could park the car down there and walk up the hill and look over. Look over Hendon.
Other: See the —
RI: See all the flying going on.
Other: Yeah. The early aeroplanes.
RI: Yes. The old biplanes and things and they had simulated bombing attacks. They had sort of rough huts put up in the middle of the airfield and these, the aircraft would fly over. I’m pretty sure they had the bombs inside them.
Other: Do you think?
RI: They’d got the bombs inside the hut so at the appropriate moment set them off. I’m sure they would have had a hut.
Other: It would have been a bit close [laughs]
RI: Yes.
Other: In case they dropped them at the wrong place.
RI: That’s right. Exactly. Yes. But funny days [pause] No. They rather frown on displays now, don’t they?
Other: Well, they’ve had a couple of accidents haven’t they?
RI: They have had accidents. Yes.
Other: Yes. They get so complicated don’t they?
RI: Yes.
Other: The area aerobatics.
RI: Right.
AH: Thank you.
RI: I think we’ve —



Anna Hoyles, “Interview with Raymond Isherwood,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 28, 2024,

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