Interview with Ronald Last

Title

Interview with Ronald Last

Description

Ronald Last grew up in Dorset and worked as an apprentice for the local Gas and Water company before volunteering for the Air Force. He attended the reception centre at Lord's Cricket Ground and describes the medical tests and inoculations recruits were given. He trained at Newquay and had started his flying training on Tiger Moths when he was posted away to train as a bomb aimer. He discusses his training in Ansons, dropping practice bombs and the duties of a bomb aimer including the bombing run, mine laying and dealing with hang-ups. He flew operations in Wellingtons and Halifaxes with 466 Squadron from RAF Driffield and suggests that his first pilot was taken off flying due to lack of moral fibre. His Halifax was shot down by a fighter over the target 28/29 January 1944 and three of his crew were killed. He baled out and became a prisoner of war. He describes his decent by parachute, his capture, treatment for his injuries and the conditions at prisoner of war camps including Stalag Luft 3. He describes the escape tunnel 'Dick' and hearing the news that 50 officers who escaped as part of the Great Escape had been shot. The camp was evacuated as the Russians advanced, and he took part in the Long March from Poland to Germany. He was eventually liberated by the British Army and returned to England by the RAF as part of Operation Exodus. After the war he worked as a gas fitter.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-11-25

Contributor

Julie Williams

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

03:09:07 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

ALastRR151125

Conforms To

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

AS: This is an interview with Ron Last, a bomb aimer on 466 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. My name is Adam Sutch and the interview is being conducted at Honiton, Devon for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive. Also present is his daughter Sheila. Ron, thanks ever so much for agreeing for this interview. I’d like to set the scene by asking you about your life before the war. Before you joined the air force. Can you tell me a bit about where you were born and your family?
RL: I was born at Wimborne in Dorset. That was where my grandmother lived. My home address was in 2 Waterloo Road, Bournemouth. I was, I left school at fourteen and I joined the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company as an apprentice gas fitter. When I, when I was, war was broke out I volunteered for the Marines. And the recruiting sergeant laughed and told me to go home and grow up. Well, I was only, what? Sixteen or something like that.
AS: Sixteen. What’s your birthday? When’s your birthday?
RL: I went to the army recruiting office and they looked at me and said, well, ‘Go on home and grow up.’ Well, in the end I volunteered for the RAF. Aircrew. They called me up for a couple of days to go to Uxbridge. Uxbridge, where they gave me a medical and it was a rather funny thing. They wanted to know whether my lungs were strong enough and they offered me a U-Gauge. That, yes, they put water in the U-Gauge you see and of course you blew that up and after you’d done that they filled the U-Gauge up with mercury and gave me the tube to blow up. And of course, I can only hold my breath for a few seconds. And then they told me to sit back, you know and take a real blow and I got a good reading on the thing. And they told me I had to hold my breath for a minute. Well, I blew it up, of course and with mercury being a heavy kind of thing — phew. But I passed that. Well, when you think of it mercury is a poison. It’s not exactly the thing to play with. I was sent home with a paper to see a dentist locally. So, I made an appointment with a local dentist, dentist and he gave me some fillings or whatever had to be done. I was then on the sort of a waiting list to be called up. One day I received a notification that I was to report to Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. So, saying difficult goodbyes to my wife and things. I got up to Lords Cricket Ground and I go into a Sector L. I was supposed to be given a uniform there but all I received was a respirator and a forage cap. Well, apparently, they never had the equipment to give us but we all had some indication of uniform. Well, we used to go for our meal to Regent’s Park Zoo. And one day, and we were living in the flat by Regent’s Park, well one day we were told we were going to have inoculations and things like that. That was really something. We were marched there to a big house with iron fire escapes and when we got to this base of this thing we were given a cap. Kit bag. And we were told to strip off all our top clothing. Well, we gradually moved up this stairway and we got to the building. Then we got to a room where there was a doctor and a medical bloke. One, the idea, the medical johnny was filling up with vaccines or whatever it was and passing them to the doctor who would put it in your arm. Well, it was just like a factory. Now, if you didn’t move after you had it just as likely you got another one, see. The best part about it there was a cast iron radiator in this room. Well there was a lot of people passing out kind of thing and of course this cast iron radiator didn’t do any problems. Well, we had two or three inoculations and then we had one on the chest. Well, of course when we finished we all went on the town that night to some, well the first time we’d seen, were the Regent’s Park and the ambulance bells were ringing like mad where people were passing out. Well, when you were on a respirator the straps went across where you’d been vaccinated which didn’t, I didn’t have them to call. No trouble. Well, after two or three days in there we got a bit more kit but not a full uniform, you know. One day we were told we were going to be on the move so we found out we were going to Newquay. So, bright and early on Monday morning we were all paraded up here. And we waited for hours before we moved off. And we no sooner got moving and I’ll never forget it, coming towards us was a platoon of Guardsmen. Guardsmen. Now, of course they were in step but we, we were come clattering along you know and these guardsmen just walked on by. Well, we got on this train and we still waited and waited. Then all of a sudden we go off. We got, we got on this train and we chugged off from the town, and [pause] No. I beg your pardon. That’s not Newquay. We went to Pwllheli in North Wales. That’s a correction. And then when we got there it was a gunnery school but they never knew anything about what I was going to do so we, we spent time. They never had a gunnery course [pause] Maybe I’m getting confused here.
AS: Did you go straight to gunnery training or did you do some flying first?
RL: We didn’t [pause] no that’s not [pause] Can I just — that was where you were going to do your training. How to walk properly, how to turn around, who to salute and all that kind of thing. But they must have had the foundation to be able to do anything. They marched up and down like that. Well, the officers in our, like platoon were school teachers. They didn’t appear to have any training. They were just brought in as school teachers. We did arithmetic and English and, like that. Well, that was alright in some respects but it, we used to feed. Now, in Newquay, as a fishing port, we used to live on fish. I’m sure that if I’d have stayed much longer I’d have got flippers. It used to be very annoying to walk around to these empty hotels which are our class rooms and then to come out and you could smell this fish cooking. Well, we used to go in to, to the dining room. You didn’t sit where you wanted to. You just filed in and sat on the — and I was unfortunate to be at the end of a line. And of course, the duty NCO came in with the officer. ‘Any complaints?’ And I didn’t think about being me but I was on the end of the line so I was, ‘Yes sir. We think this fish is bad.’ So, he says to the NCO, ‘Get me a portion.’ So, a fish portion was given to him on a plate with a fork and he daintily pushed his fork in to this fish and he’d only had a tiny bit like that and he licks it. ‘I don’t think it’s bad.’ Three night’s fire-watch for doing that. I never sat on the end of a line after that. Well, it was the, these officers they have never been through an officer’s course. I reckon they were just given the uniform as they’d retired. I mean church parade. Act your age in front. And instead of walking by the main road to the church they took us down the road a bit, left turn, right turn and we went ziggyzag, you see. Well, by the time they got to church they only had a half a platoon because when they went around the corners the back people skived off. Prior to this when we were announced we had church parade a Cockney recruit said he was an atheist. The sergeant didn’t argue with him or anything like that. We paraded, you see. When we got down to this church all the other people walked into this church and the sergeant said to this bloke, ‘Stand over there.’ By a wooden seat outside. So, as soon as the service started, he said to this man, ‘Attention.’ And the bloke had to stand to attention all the way. All through the service. And of course, the sergeant was sat down on the seat with his newspaper and fag you see. Funny, that bloke had religion the next week.
AS: When was this? When did you join the air force?
[pause]
RL: There are some dates there.
AS: Ok. So, this was in April, 17th of April you went to Uxbridge.
RL: Yeah.
AS: And then you went arsydarsy [ACRC] in London in September ’41.
RL: Yeah.
AS: And Newquay in October ‘41. So, in October ‘41 all this was going on.
RL: Yes.
AS: Yes. Did you —
RL: And —
AS: Did you do exams after these lessons of maths and things?
RL: Did we do what?
AS: Exams. Examinations at Newquay. Tests.
RL: Well, sort of but I mean we, I suppose these school teachers made their reports. We were all trainee air crew in those days. Obviously, we were all, all was going to be pilots. As we thought, you know. Let me just have that back again will you, please.
[pause]
AS: Can we wind back a bit?
RL: Yeah. Well, we got then we went from Newquay we went to Sywell. That was a Tiger Moth flying station.
AS: Ok.
RL: It was a private aerodrome. We were all dressed up as airmen. Our flying kit in those days was a silk undergarment, a capote over garment and a canvas over jacket. Goggles. Helmets. Sea boot stockings and flying boots. That’s the first time I’d worn all this. Now, it was a beautiful day and you sat outside this, like, clubhouse kind of thing and all of a sudden somebody would come up and call your name and, ‘I’m your pilot,’ you see. Now, you wobbled out to one of the aircraft, lath and plaster kind of thing and you climbed in it. You no sooner made yourself comfortable, well, semi comfortable. By that time you were sweating. It was running off you. Oh, you had goggles on then. Well, he takes off, you see and, ‘Ever flown before?’ ‘No. No.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to do a spin.’ And he showed me, you know, you’ll see the artificial horizon come up. You’ll bring that up,’ he said, ‘And you’re going to stall. And you kick the left rudder and you go to the right,’ or something. Yeah. And then he pulled out, you see. Well, all he was doing is looking in his mirror to see whether you were sick or alright. Course no. I was decided. Seeing this spinning around like this. Yeah. Then come back. Then we did it for the next time. And of course, it was lovely seeing the earth spinning around, you know. You didn’t, you didn’t do anything without being told. So, we landed, you know. Well, we were going through our course when we were, one bloke told us to go back to our classroom. And the commanding officer looks up and said, ‘The air force are introducing another crew member.’ So, we said, ‘What is that?’ And he said, ‘Bomb aimer.’ So, we asked a lot a lot of questions, ‘What’s the pay?’ Right. And that kind of thing. And he said, ‘I want volunteers.’ So, nobody volunteered. They all wanted to be brylcreem boys, you know, and that. So, he said, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘Transport will be outside. They’ll take you back to your civilian accommodation.’ He said, ‘You’ll collect your kit and we’ll —
AS: How many hours flying had you done as a, as a pilot. Very few?
RL: Very few. There was, oh apart from going into the classroom. There was one fella that was going on his solo and we were all watching him and he landed after a series of bumps but pulled up. But I think he got, went on with flying duties but that’s, as I say. So, we, he volunteered us all for the [pause] Well we got down to this, excuse me I’ve got a [pause] We got down to Penrhos. That was a gunnery school kind of thing.
AS: Ok.
RL: And they had not heard about a bomb aimer you see and they didn’t know really what to teach us. So, in the end we started flying around and dropping nine pound spent bombs on the bay just outside there. It was daft really. Ansons. We had a sight and we had to clip this sight on to a spigot. Well, the pilot would go towards the target and you had to give the corrections. You know. Well, you never had a Perspex panel. You had a metal panel used there. Well, the idea is you drop this bomb and you had to mark on a chart where it hit, according to the floating target and there was also a bloke on the headland there. Well, it shows how daft it was. We clipped on our bombsight on to this spigot and opened this door. Well, to drop your bomb you had to inch yourself forward to there. That released the bombsight on the spigot and of course we lost a few bombsights. So, in the end they decided to give us a lanyard. So that nearly pulled you out of, out of the bomb place. Well, we, we did a few night flying and things like that and we always used to drop a five hundred sand filled bomb into the sand pits prior to landing. Well, we never had such a record of this but I [pause] I passed out on that. And apparently, to my log book I had above average. So that wasn’t bad. Well —
AS: What else did they teach you? Did they teach you navigation? Or, or gunnery?
RL: Pardon?
AS: Did they teach you any navigation or gunnery?
RL: Well, yes but only, how can I say? Basics, you know. We [pause] not really in as much as when we used to go out on sort of bombing runs. Like we flew around the villages and had to take a photograph of the church which we bombed, kind of thing. That was, that was bloody silly. Well, looking back it was a bloody silly training. And see, when we used to go around to these villages or sights. There was eight of them. Eight sights you’d go around. Well, you’re up at the front of this bloody Anson, kind of thing. No intercom. You would go on to the skipper like that and come straight up and you’d get these where you were going to drop your bombs. Well, you’d perhaps give them, ‘Left. Left. Steady. Steady,’ blah blah. Right.
AS: All hand signals.
RL: Like that. When you wanted to bomb that meant the photograph and you had this bloody great box in front of you and when you’ve got to it, then you’d turn this bloody handle to take the photograph and then when you finished you wanted to say, ‘Bring her around,’ but they wouldn’t come up, you know. No. And of course he’d be bringing it up and the camera would go back into your turret. Well, when you’d done about six of these you weren’t exactly feeling very bright. If you’ve managed to do eight, get out of the craft, out of the aircraft and rest your back up against it and take a breath you were alright. Of course, if you were sick they used to cost you five bob to clean. For somebody else to clean it up or you had to do it yourself. Well, we spent quite a nice time down there. Apart from being in a classroom kind of thing. And at the end of this day we’d missed the transport to send us back to our billets and of course you weren’t exactly feeling like that but we were billeted in garden sheds. The funny thing, it’s a safe bet if you walked down the main street, about the only street there, and you saw a bloke coming towards you it was a safe bet if you said, ‘Good afternoon Mr Jones.’ They were all Jones’ there.
AS: Did you lose any aircraft on training? Crews and aircraft, on training.
RL: No. They were a bit shaky. They had a lot of Polish pilots that were on relief and I think it was an insult to those men to get put back for relief. All they wanted to do was to fly the enemy. They did some crazy things. You’d go out some nights with one man. If we circled around a village and his girlfriend lived in that village there would be a light come up, you know. They were, they were absolutely [pause] well I think they thought of it as an insult to be took out.
AS: Ok.
RL: But —
AS: When you’d finished there did you have a passing out parade and get your brevet? Did you have a big parade when you finished your training and get your brevet?
RL: No. No.
AS: How did that happen?
RL: We went in as LACs one morning and we were just given a brevet and sergeant’s stripes. I know we went up to Harwell next. That was an Operational Training Wing where you were all crewed up. And then [pause] oh you did more flying. Sort of over to the Isle of Man and things like that.
AS: Ok.
RL: That was normal flying.
AS: How, how did you crew up? How did you choose who you were going to fly with?
RL: How did you choose?
AS: Who you were going to fly with. How did you choose your crew?
RL: Well, how can I say? We mucked in together, kind of thing where I’d get in there and you saw different blokes. You mucked in with or, ‘Do you want to be in our crew?’ Kind of thing. It was sort of, well look at the blokes faces and say, ‘Well you’re not a bad chap, are you?’ No. There was no, no official crewing. No. There wasn’t like, well as I said, I was above average. I don’t, I don’t think we looked for above average crew. I mean, we just mucked in. And then we went down to Driffield for a time. That’s where 466 was starting. That, that was a place where well we didn’t do much there and we were moved up to Leconfield. I was in crew number 3.
AS: That was Healy’s crew was it?
RL: No. That was on squadron.
AS: Yeah. Was Healy you pilot? Was that your, your crew? With, with Healy?
[pause]
RL: Yeah.
AS: Ok. Let’s just pause there for a minute and we’ll get your logbook, I think.
[recording paused]
AS: Right. We’re, we’re back after a break and Ron, I’d like to ask you some questions about joining the squadron. What, what was that like when you’d finished OTU and joined the squadron?
RL: Well, we [pause] we all sort of mucked in and did a lot of crewing. I was, a Flight Sergeant Healy was my pilot for a time. But after a time, a very small time, I couldn’t tell you the date, he was taken off flying.
AS: Was he sick?
RL: What is that — Sheila.
Sheila: Yeah.
RL: What was that letters?
Sheila: Lack of moral fibre.
RL: Lack of moral.
AS: Oh. How did that turn up?
RL: Well [pause] we [pause] we flew with him. Well, we did our first op in 466, 13th of January ’43 and he [pause] he put in a rear turret u/s going to Kiel. Then he had a starboard oil pressure return to base. And then he suddenly disappeared. You couldn’t find out what happened to him but lack, lack of fibre we think.
AS: Ok.
RL: I mean he was here one day and gone the next.
AS: He never, he never discussed these things that went wrong with the aeroplane, with the crew.
RL: Well, we wondered whether, well, he faked it or not. And this lack of moral fibre, well you, there wasn’t any information. But we, we wondered whether that was it. It wasn’t, it was as though he was sick. I mean, he would, one, one day he was worse and then the next day he wasn’t. Now, it’s a horrible thing to have been labelled that. But I don’t know whether I had [pause] I’ve got so much bumph here, I don’t —
AS: Did you all live together? Were you all sergeants? Did you all live together as a crew? Were you all sergeants or some officers?
RL: At Driffield we lived in the married quarters. Three of us — the rear gunner, a wireless op and me. We lived in, like the master bedroom. Now, we got a ration of coal to light the bedroom fire up.
AS: Yeah.
RL: But it was so bloody cold. The only time I ever wore my Irvin suit. We used to light this fire up and take it in turns to undress and put on our Irvin trousers and jacket and climb into bed. Well, Kurdy was something to do with transport and the food thing. So, we decided one night, as the coal ration wasn’t enough, we would break into the coal thing and get some more coal. So, off we go with the wire cutters. Real, real professional, you know. Cut the wire. Got in. Filled up this sack, you know, with coal, kind of thing. And then we realized we couldn’t carry it. You know [laughs] Well, all of a sudden the tannoy came on. And you’d never seen anything like it. Kurdy was only a little bloke. He gets this sack on to his shoulder and he scarpered with Bob and me, we were following on. When we got back to the house there Kurdy was by the fire [breathing heavily]. But, I mean, we could have got court martialed for that. We were warned. But I don’t know. You see, when we were called up — like, like on a train. Now Bournemouth is a, was a big town. If you went for a, on a train for a journey to go up to Southampton well you couldn’t afford it really. But once you got on the train and you kept along and you came to the another station and a bloke gets on. He’s as bewildered as you are so you talk, don’t you? By the time you get to the next station you’re friends. I mean, but I mean some of the poor blokes got on. They were, well, like farm labourers. They’d never been in a train. Get in to a train and look at everything going by. That’s marvelous. I mean three meals a day they got. They didn’t get three meals a day at home, did they?
AS: No. Not at all. No.
RL: They thought they were in heaven.
AS: So, you’ve done OTU with your crew and then the whole crew get posted to Driffield. To the squadron.
RL: Yeah.
AS: And then, this is September 1942. And then it seems the squadron did a long time training. A lot of training was it?
RL: Oh yes. Yeah. We had lots of training [pause] I wonder where that got to.
AS: What, what was that all about? Was it because you were all new crews that there was so much training going on?
RL: Well, 1942 [pause] Where have I got that from? Oh, I expect when they went to sign it —
AS: Not enough room for the stamp. Yeah.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Ok. Can I borrow that back? So, it took about three months before you went on operations. This was on what? On Wellingtons you had.
RL: Yeah. Well, we had, most of our training was at, flying training was at Leconfield, wasn’t it? [pause] Captain, crew. January.
[pause]
AS: I’ll just pause it there for a second.
[recording paused]
AS: Back after another pause. Ron, I’d like to ask you about being a bomb aimer. What your duties were in the aeroplane on a, on a mission. What —
RL: Well, I used to sit on the right of the pilot. My duties were — I used to keep an eye on the instrument panel for any, well, any sort of [pause] well —
AS: Deficiencies I suppose. Yeah. Anything wrong.
RL: Any sort of fault —
AS: Yeah.
RL: That arises. With the Wimpy I always had to turn on the nacelle fuel tanks. That meant I used to, well if we were on oxygen I’d take a bottle of, a small bottle of oxygen and plug in because I had to go down the aircraft, over the main spar to where these toggles were at the side of the aircraft. Now, these toggles were connected up by wire to the nacelle tanks and it was my duty to, when the fuel tanks were nearing the emptying point the skipper used to tell me to go down the back and I’d sit down at the back by these toggles. Now, when he told me to switch on these toggles I had to pull on the toggle and engage a ball bearing that was welded on them into a keyhole slot. It wasn’t very clever.
AS: How many pairs of gloves were you wearing?
RL: And you’d no sooner, he’d say, ‘Starboard,’ and you’d pull on the starboard and you couldn’t get the ball back enough in there when you were tugging. And he’d say, ‘Port,’ and you’d have to grab the other one and pull. Well, we used to say to the, on the, ‘Slow down skipper. Slow down.’ Thinking that if he didn’t go so fast the wings wouldn’t bow out and after you’ve got them in you were [reading for gas then?]
AS: Yeah. So, the flexing of wing —
RL: Yeah. Well —
AS: Was making the cable tight.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Yeah.
RL: I mean it was straight down and we used to feel we bleeding wanted him to slow down so that the wings would go back. It was [pause] it was a horrible feeling because when you’ve got both of them you were pulling like mad, you know. And of course it was only like a keyhole that took the ball. It was rather frightening. Now, a thing we [pause] we didn’t do according to regulations. Of course, you all know that you, you know better. Well, when he used to say to us, ‘Right. Go on down the back there. Instead of putting our portable air line on we used to go [breathe in deeply] go down the back there, you know. When you got to this main spar you had to put your leg up over and it’s true when you go to put the next leg down you can’t push it down to the ground. And then when you do get down you get down to the port and your fumbling for the air line. That’s like the electro light. The maintenance panel.
AS: Bayonet fitting. Yeah.
RL: You swear that they’re going into each other but they’re not, you know. But we, and I often thought if I’d have passed out nobody would have known.
AS: What else were your duties? Apart from the tanks what else did you have to do?
RL: Well, I went to, going over the North Sea to the target I would switch on the bombing panel and get the bombs off, off safety.
AS: When would you do that?
RL: Pardon?
AS: When do you take the bombs off safe?
RL: Well, they had split pins.
AS: Yeah.
RL: In these things. And if you got back to camp the bomber, bomb aimer mechanic, he would collect these things. There was a gadget used to come down — and pull. Engage on the split pin on the bomb. Pull it out. But that meant when I dropped them, they were live.
AS: Was this gadget electrical?
RL: Yes.
AS: Ok.
RL: As I say if you got back to camp and you never had these split pins you dropped the bombs safe. I don’t mean they wouldn’t go off but quite a possibility that they wouldn’t go off.
AS: So, you, you made the bombs, you armed the bombs over the North Sea.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Ok.
RL: Well, like when we came back, we’d switch on the panel and if we got the lights on one place we’d got a hang up so we had to get rid of that over the North Sea because we didn’t like landing with a bomb on board. Sometimes that used to be just a matter of jigging up the switch or rocking the aircraft. When the light went out you knew you were alright.
AS: So, you’ve switched, you’ve turned on the bomb panel. You’ve set the bombs. You’ve armed the bombs. When did you take control of the aircraft? When was it your aeroplane to steer?
RL: Well, as you approached the target it was the pilot. We used to drop our bombs on a red flare or green. Whatever they told us. So, if the pilot, should I say aims at perhaps this odd one or clutch of red bombs and then you sort of took over. I mean the pilot [pause] the pilot could see the target so I mean he was going, he was going for it all the time. It was only when, as I say you got near enough to, ‘Left. Left.’ The next time you were there it might be oh just about, ‘Right. Right. That’s enough.’ It was only an adjustment.
AS: How, how did your bombsight work? How did you bring it on to the target? What, what were you looking for?
RL: How?
AS: How did the bombsight work? What were you looking for?
RL: Well, we never had these H2S. We just had a sight. As long as you put the wind on to direct and things like that that’s all you could, that’s all you did. I mean, as the war went on it wasn’t just a matter of bombing some guns or searchlights. I mean [pause] well you see it on television and on the pictures where the target was ablaze but when you see this target in front of you and its ablaze. I mean, I might have been a poor bomb aimer and not, and not should I say, knocked over these factories but there was a lot of people that had to change our underwear. You see [pause] it was just destroy the city or a town.
AS: Yeah.
RL: And then [pause] I mean it’s amazing for someone. We were on the second wave.
AS: To Hamburg?
RL: Pardon.
AS: Second wave to where? Hamburg?
RL: Well we used to go like the first wave and then there’s the second wave.
AS: Yeah.
RL: Was there. Well, when you could see, well, miles of flames leaping up it was unbelievable. The night that I was shot down there was the Germans shooting up flares and it was just, well can I just say going through [Exeter?] main road with all the street lamps on and you were going up to it and you’re going to raid, and you’d spend.
AS: These were fighter flares. Yeah.
RL: Yeah. With all this stuff. I mean they, they couldn’t miss us.
AS: When you, because you flew as Bomber Command was getting better and better and better.
RL: Yeah.
AS: And better at its job. So, did you notice the difference in the effect from when you started bombing to, you know, say the Battle of Hamburg, the Battle of Berlin. Were the fires getting bigger?
RL: Yeah. I mean the first time I saw, saw it, when we went back home the rear gunner was talking like you could still see the glow in the sky. Not a, not just a low glow. A big glow. And when I, when I was shot down it was my turn to open the escape hatch and my turn to go out first. You’d jump out of the aircraft but in a way that would be silly. There was an open gap there and I stepped out in it but my back thing gets caught on the —
AS: On the edge.
RL: The edge of the, and I can remember, ‘Push me. Push me.’ And they pushed me. Well. Then I dropped. I can’t remember counting three and putting on the, I must have pulled it then. And on this day, ‘Oh bloody hell. I’m going to drop in to that lot.’ The bloody fire is burning isn’t it? Then of course the common sense — oh the wind will blow me off and you gradually saw it was. But I mean.
AS: Yeah. I’ll come to when you were shot down. When, when you were flying over these targets could you feel the heat?
RL: No, I can’t say, I can’t say I ever thought of that. Or what the feelings were.
AS: Did you feel, what did you feel about the bombing? The people underneath. Did it worry you at the time?
RL: Well, they’d bombed London, hadn’t they?
AS: Yeah.
RL: And we were only giving them back what they’d done to London. That’s basically what it was.
AS: Yeah.
RL: You, well when I pulled my parachute and I saw, ‘Oh bloody hell I’m going to drop in that.’ Now, we do know that the firemen, if they saw a parachute coming down in the fire and there was a German raid on they would turn their hoses away from him. I mean they would let them drop in the bloody fire. Well, flying, flying kit you never really wore. How can I say? I never wore my flying trousers on then. I flew, I had my submarine sweater, socks, flying boots, an ordinary uniform and an open neck shirt with a lady’s scarf tied in a knot. And if I had [died from it] they were dress clothes. Now, I can remember floating down on my parachute and untying this knotted scarf because we were told the Germans could catch hold of each end and strangle you. I can remember dropping it and letting it float down. My palm of my hand started itching. Take off my glove. Scratch my palm. Put my glove back on again. Going down. I landed in — there was some wires going along as I got closer to the ground and I surmised these were tram wires. So, I pulled on my chute when I got near straight down. I can’t tell you which hand, you know. I landed in the back garden of this house. Well, to release your parachute you had a buckle. You clamp it and turn it. Well, I was doing this but the wind had got into my parachute and taking me back.
AS: Dragging you down the road.
RL: And a German soldier was there with a long bloody bayonet [laughs] I said all three masses [laughs]. And then he got me there and I put my hands up and he released it. Now, we took, we were took into the house. Obviously a mill had been and there was a man and his wife and this huge German. He had the small, small tin hat on a big head and he had this red and black armband. Like a Home Guard I suppose and he started yanking at me and he slapped me two or three times. There was this man and woman. I think it was a man and wife. And you know the Moses baskets?
AS: Yes.
RL: Where the two halves go together. Well, there was a baby in each and I’d thought he was having a go at me for bombing babies and things like that and I’ve never, so. Oh, one of the babies opened its eyes and let out a yell. Oh, that was a beautiful sound but in the end this soldier seemed to be frightened of this man. Seemed as though I was a spar as far as he was. He’d captured an airmen you know and that. But, oh I never oh that baby crying [crying noises]
AS: And were you, were you still in the middle of this bombing raid? Was it going on around you?
RL: I was on the, I was on the outskirts of the thing.
AS: What did it sound like being underneath it? What did it sound like? The bombing raid. When you were on the ground.
[pause]
RL: [unclear]
AS: Did you hear the vibrations and the noise?
RL: I can’t [pause] I was taken to a, I suppose the picket post.
AS: Were you injured?
RL: Yeah. I was injured but that’s, that’s a funny thing. I was injured. Well, a lot of that there was the bang and there was a hole in the aircraft. I didn’t think any more about it. I went down without feeling any pain. I got to this picket post. I was amazed. There was a German soldier and he talked like an Australian — ‘Hi cobber,’ you know. ‘The war for you is over.’ And he searched me. Well, we’re not supposed to take any documents but I mean I had a wallet. A picture of my wife. A few lucky charms like silver thre’penny bits there. That was the other thing.
AS: They worked.
RL: I don’t know whether this ought to be on tv. He saw a little square envelope and he opened it. He puts it in his pocket kind of thing. Well, then the ambulance is called after he took this — name and number. All that. And I was feeling then my wound. I wasn’t in pain but I, there was something wrong and the blood was trickling down my trousers. Well, when this [unclear] ambulance came, they wanted me to lie down on the stretcher. No. No way was I going to. I wanted to be sat up so I can do something if something comes along. And this flaming soldier drove the ambulance down the main road and he kept on saying, ‘Kaput. Kaput. Kaput.’ And all I could see was the front of a building standing and there was nothing behind it, you know. We drove down this main road and we come to the archway.
AS: Oh, the Brandenburg Gate?
RL: Yeah. Just before we come to that archway we saw FW Woolworth’s and that, but you know on seeing Woolworth’s, well we turned left and we go up the road or we got to a part of it. We stopped at a private hospital. And they didn’t want to know. They didn’t give me any treatment. They had enough of their own I suppose. So, we drove into this hospital and they took me through a line of Luftwaffe people and I couldn’t believe it. There was, well there weren’t soldiers that you could put on a drill squadron. I mean there was one bloke who was a hunchback but I mean he was in the German army. He could do something couldn’t he? And they sat me on the corner of a desk and the doctor put a pad or a dressing on my wound. And in came an immaculately dressed Luftwaffe officer. Dagger, and dirk. Everything. Looked beautiful. He introduced to me as a German master at one of our universities before the war. And he talked to this doctor man and then he talked to me and he said, ‘Your name, number,’ and of course I gave it to him. Well, I didn’t know that leading up. You see the next thing was, ‘What were you flying?’ Now, this doctor, whatever he had to do to my wound he did. I’m not, he didn’t hurt me intentionally. He just did what he had to do and of course instead of saying ooh, you said, ‘Oh Halifax,’ you know. Then I realized what I had to do. Every time he asked me a question I had to say, ‘Oooh.’ And you get this after he gave me a pencil and piece of paper, ‘You have to write home.’ So, what can you do? You can’t put down, “Hello, I’m in Germany. In Berlin. Sincerely, Ron.” You wrote a lot of piffle really. That letter got home.
AS: It did.
RL: Yeah. Then that went through the German postal system. Wasn’t anything to do with the POW form or anything like that. Amazing. They took me on to the hospital and apparently linen bandages were like a gold mine and the outer bandages was crepe paper. Well, they’d fitted me out with a nightie. A long nightie, you see. As I say this crepe paper, I was, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and breathing heavy and of course it just fell on the ground. They cleaned me up again and they gave me a shirtie nightie. Well, you go to bed and you think to yourself I wonder what they’re thinking at home, you know. But it was amazing.
AS: Were you obviously frightened parachuting in to Berlin. When did the fear leave you? When did you think that you’re alright? You’re safe. They’re going to not kill you. When was that?
RL: I think, when I got to the Luftwaffe hospital. Now, in the room with me there was a squadron leader and a flight lieu. The flight lieu was a Aussie. Now, he apparently had got blown out of his aircraft and badly wounded his arm and things like that. Well, the ointment that they had to use, kind of thing, it used to stink. Old Smithy used to, well we used to call him Smithy, but he said, ‘Oh cut it off doc. Cut the bloody thing off.’ I bet if that had been in England I reckon they would have took it off. And the surgeon said, ‘No. No. I’ll send you home with an arm.’ Well, this surgeon came in one night and he was dressed up in his dress uniform. And of course we were all ‘whoo ooh,’ and this kind of thing. Well he came in to see Smithy and Smithy did get repatriated with his arm. He can’t use, well he can use everything but he hasn’t got an empty sleeve. They were marvelous. I mean, I suppose it’s the code. If you need attention you got it. But —
AS: Did all your watch and your clothes disappear?
RL: My flying boots disappeared. My, my sweater. No. That was just all stained in blood. We couldn’t have been treated better in that hospital. And there was a nurse. [unclear] a nurse. She did everything for me and on, at home, there’s a picture of my mum’s mum and if you could just remove the head gear on the painting and put the nurse’s uniform in.
AS: The same. Yeah.
RL: That was my grandmother. But she used to do everything. Like, the other two bods complained. They wanted something to clean their teeth with so she appeared with three toothbrushes. Well, a man who has got it, and I had a kiss. But I think she was great.
AS: This was January 1944.
RL: Yeah.
AS: What was the food like that you were given in Germany?
RL: The food?
AS: Yeah.
RL: Well very sparse. I think we got what the German hospital [pause] I was dead lucky in getting into this Luftwaffe hospital. The food. If you had a soup plate with a pattern on the bottom and you had soup in it if you could see the pattern in the soup. Now for the first day, the first two or three days in hospital I was given white bread as my [unclear] but it turned to the black bread. How can I describe it? The soup was very thin, you know. If you say it was chicken soup it was only like a chicken left the water, running.
AS: How long were you —
RL: Various sorts of sausages. We never, we never had any cooked food. The only one that I could say no to was the blood sausage. I couldn’t. But when you get hungry you eat it. I mean it’s gorgeous.
AS: How long were you at the hospital for?
RL: A couple of months.
AS: Really. So, you were quite badly hurt.
RL: And I — but one thing I never had any dog tags.
AS: No dog tags.
RL: It’s a bloody silly thing. You see, you’re on a squadron. One day you look at the notice board and listed up is R Last is commissioned as a pilot officer.
AS: Yeah.
RL: So, you had to take all your kit back in to the stores. They take your dog tags but they don’t give you the new one. You have to sort of wait about. Well you would have thought they would take the old one, stamp the new ones and that’s that. Well, I never, I never bothered with them. I didn’t think I was going to get shot down.
AS: It’s bloody dangerous though. Flying without them.
RL: Well yeah.
AS: Anyway, you had no dog tags.
RL: But the person in the hospital bed, there was a siren goes off and you see these two other blokes. They can’t move in the daytime but they start moving. And you don’t think anything of it you know. They were directly in the bed. Well, apparently, there was one siren that says planes are coming towards Germany. Then there was another siren that said they are coming in our direction. Then there’s another siren saying, well we’re the target. Well, the Germans naturally take their own staff down to the bombing shelter. And of course, if they can’t get us down we’re left up there. Well, it’s not funny laying on a bed. When you say you can’t move you think you can’t move. Then all of a sudden you hear [bomb noise] and the bed sort of jumps up and down. Then the curtains get blown in. Then the windows. Then a fire seems nearer than it actually is. You think to yourself — crying out loud, there was nine hundred bombers on the night I was shot down.
AS: What was the noise like when you were on the ground with all the aircraft over you?
RL: Well, that was them. It was the ones that you heard. Something like, it was only, a falling [pause] like a huge tree coming down, you know. I mean, I could [pause] we, we back to our beds and our skipper had been brought in.
AS: Your skipper?
RL: Yeah. And he had something wrong with his leg up here. And he had had this leg tied up. This was the second night when I managed to get out to the bomb part. And when we come back we heard, ‘Help. Help.’ He’d had the [pulley?] out the bloody ceiling and he’d gone under the bed. Under the bed. He was going, ‘Help. Help.’
AS: Yeah. So, you saw your skipper again in the hospital.
RL: I only saw him about twice.
AS: Ok. What about the rest of your crew? Tell me what happened when you were shot down. When you had to bale out. What happened that night in the aeroplane?
RL: Well the aeroplane went on for another ten miles before it crashed.
AS: But what got you? Was it flak that got you or a fighter? What got you?
RL: It was a fighter.
AS: Ok.
RL: I’ve got a write up there somewhere but I normally flew, or sat right of the pilot. But the night we were shot down we had a second dickie. Now, that is a pilot of a new crew coming in. He comes, he comes for, more or less, experience. Well, that meant that I was in the bomb aimers place. Now, you can’t see much other than in front of you. So, instead of doing my normal duties I was down in the bombing panel [pause] What was we talking about?
AS: What happened when you were shot down? So, you weren’t the second dickie. You weren’t sitting next to the pilot. You were in the bomb aimer’s position.
RL: Yeah.
AS: What happened then?
RL: Well, I can’t see much. And I’ve not got the tie in with what’s gone on with the skipper. I know I’ve got my intercom but that’s only to, that’s not the chattering. That’s how to, emergency if you are on target. So, I didn’t see any of the journey. By that, he didn’t get injured that sat in my place. So, I was down on the bombing panel. There’s the mid-upper turret gunner there and the rear gunner there. Now, the aircraft must have come up from there.
AS: From underneath. Yeah.
RL: Gone in there and into my back.
AS: Ok.
RL: Now, I didn’t hear what was, any — I didn’t hear anything about that. I mean, as I say your intercom is basically for emergencies and I imagine that the rear gunner saw this plane come in, and he fired and the plane killed the two —
AS: The gunners. Ok.
RL: And then it stopped with me.
AS: So, the two gunners were killed in the attack.
RL: Well, we assume so. The wireless operator was injured. Oh the navigator. I think. The rear gunner. Mid-upper gunner. Navigator. They were killed. So, it must have come up from there.
AS: Yeah.
RL: And I was on the last line.
AS: Yeah. So, he attacked from the underneath on the right hand side.
RL: Yeah. You see, they, they didn’t know at that time that some of the German planes had a gun that pointed upwards.
AS: Schrage musik. Yeah. Yeah.
RL: Now, I don’t think the attack came in from underneath. I think it came in from the, that got, as I say there was three members of the crew that were killed. The wireless op, he was a POW. The engineer was a POW. And the navigator was killed.
AS: Did the aircraft catch fire?
RL: Pardon?
AS: Did the aircraft catch fire?
RL: No. All I’ve got is it crashed.
AS: Ok.
RL: Ten miles.
AS: With the bombs still on board?
RL: I’ve got it all. I’ve got so much.
AS: Don’t worry. Just tell me were the bombs still on the aeroplane when it crashed?
RL: That I can’t tell you.
AS: Ok.
RL: I just had, worried me for a long time. I think they’d gone. They must have gone otherwise it would have been burned to hell wouldn’t it? I mean, no, you see they must have gone because we used to carry a lot of incendiaries. It would have blown up over Berlin.
AS: Yeah.
RL: I must have done but I can’t, you know, I often bring it.
AS: It’s not surprising. There were a lot of other things going on at the time.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Yeah. On, on these big raids could you see a lot of other aircraft around you?
RL: No. It’s amazing but you, until you left England you saw a few but no. I mean, I’ve often wondered and it sounds bloody silly but you got four hundred and fifty planes in the air, over a town at one time. Now, it’s bloody dark and I could never understand this but, ‘Bomb doors open,’ and then, ‘Left. Left. That’s right skip.’ Then go on, ‘You’re alright skip. Left, left.’ We’re doing alright. Bombs gone. Bomb doors closed. And then he turns to the left, doesn’t he? As I say, going for home. But every aircraft has got an altimeter. Now, it was supposed to be flying at twenty thousand feet. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re all twenty thousand feet. There are some lower. There’s some higher isn’t there. According to what you left base with. I’ve often wondered how many planes had been lost. I mean, you would have thought that after they heard, ‘Bombs gone. Bomb doors shut.’ They would have gone on for certain, well a mile or a couple of miles before but you see all the aircraft flying and [unclear] and you — bam. I reckon, I reckon we must have had thirty percent shot down by our own bloody aircraft.
AS: Really.
RL: Yeah. Well. I mean, the sky’s full of it and I’m telling you we’re not all level. It isn’t like we were flying, this one could go under. This one could go over, couldn’t it?
AS: Yeah.
RL: It always seemed to me. It seemed as though it was a ritual. Bomb doors, bombs gone, bomb doors closed. Bam.
AS: Did he wait for the photograph?
RL: Eh?
AS: Did he wait for the photograph?
RL: No.
AS: He didn’t.
RL: I mean that was automatically linked with the bombs gone. And the time that we were going to drop. Oh no. I mean it isn’t as though we had to wait for the photograph. I mean that was automatically tuned in.
AS: Ok. [unclear] When you let the bombs go did you have to let them go in a certain order?
RL: No. No. No, they, all the bombs went as one. The load went.
AS: Just drop the lot at once.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Salvoed the lot. Ok. When you were operating I think the master bomber started.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Could you hear him on your, could you, as the bomb aimer hear him or —?
RL: No.
AS: Who heard him?
RL: Every crew might have been in contact see.
AS: Ok.
RL: But I didn’t hear anything about. And they weren’t so good as they thought they were.
AS: No. I wonder because he’s, the master bomber is circling, talking to the aircraft and I don’t know who heard him. Whether it was the pilot.
RL: The, the master bomber is talking to the bombers where they’re dropping the flares. He’s more, he’s more or less more scientifically geared to make his underlings drop the bombs say, to the left more or to the right. But it was a, it wasn’t exactly all that correct was it? I mean, when the Mossies got in to it there was a great improvement. When the Mosquitoes took over like.
AS: Ok. When you were flying, you started flying Wellingtons to Germany. Were you always at the bottom of the heap? Were all the other aeroplanes above you. What sort of height did you fly?
RL: No. I suppose, the only thing was the Wellington is a beautiful aircraft. It’s, I don’t know, it always seemed to be. It was a lovely aircraft, the Wellington. I enjoyed that more than I did with the Halifax. But no. I think we, we all bombed at the same height.
AS: Ok.
RL: I’m sure we did.
AS: Ok.
RL: The only snag with the Wimpy — when we used to go to briefing you’d see the track and you’d see another pin out in the North Sea and that told you when your petrol was finally out. Now, if the commanding officer went on a raid which he only used to do once in a while but they’d sometimes they’d think, ‘Oh let’s have a go,’ and off they went. When they got back to base, they’d be calling out from the North Sea somewhere. ‘Hello. Charlie one. Come in. When is my turn to land?’ ‘Your turn to land number one,’ you see. And when you get back to base you called the base, they’d say, ‘Oh circle at four thousand feet,’ you know. And you were, the rest of the crew knocked some off. ‘Oh bloody hell. What a load of crap. What a load of crap.’ That meant we’d more or less circle. Now, you’d say, ‘I’m on my emergency fuel. I’ve been on it twenty minutes. I’ve only got ten left.’ See.
AS: Just to jump the queue.
RL: Yeah. But the skipper would always, he would wait in the North Sea and we were dancing around waiting to get down. I think that would be with the Wellingtons.
AS: With the —
RL: You were more or less going to drop out of the sky.
AS: With the Wellingtons you did a lot of mine laying as well.
RL: Yeah.
AS: That must have been bloody dangerous. Low level. What were your, did you, did you map read for the, for the dropping the mines.
RL: Yeah. We, we used to go out to the Frisian Islands. We did the first, the first op I did. The first op that 466 did was to do the Frisian Islands. You used to get a landfall and then go [pause] and at landfall it was like you were so many degrees and one minute to drop your mines.
AS: Time and distance. Yeah.
RL: We had one aircraft that flew in to the building. Well, it was lovely, you see. Mine laying you were low flying. What it said on the panel and we’d been flying over the water and the spray had been hitting the underside of my panel. It’s a lovely feeling but apparently one of our aircraft got off the North Sea and he got to the building and he went into a building. So low.
AS: So, you had to trust your skipper.
RL: Eh?
AS: You had to trust your pilot.
RL: Oh yeah. Well, I mean, when we, we were on a test flight. I suppose the aircraft had been in for its usual maintenance thing and we drove along the cliff. You know. Where the girls were sunbathing. I know they were mined, a lot of the beaches but there was gaps open and we were going at low flying, got it so we were and the skipper for some reason decided to go home. He goes home and then there was a hay making cart. You know the bloke in the hay with the forks putting the hay out with a bloke standing on top. I thought we’d cut his head off. Luckily, being so low and so fast they, they didn’t recognize it but I mean, well, we’d have been in Colditz. Or Colchester rather.
20105
AS: Colchester. Yeah. How long was it before you got a regular pilot and a regular crew after you’d lost your first skipper? ‘Cause you flew with quite a lot of different people. Were you a spare body on the squadron?
[pause]
RL: Well, I became [pause] I flew from quite a different lot of pilots. When [unclear] Healy got off. I, I stepped in to, like if a bomb aimer was sick, I’d step in. That wasn’t very popular. You see, if you flew with any, any established crew they didn’t like it. They didn’t know how you were going to react, I think. And no, I flew with about seven different pilots. I mean, I flew with the commanding officer one night. The flight was, the navigator was a squadron leader. The gunner was a flight lieutenant.
AS: It must have been like flying with God.
RL: Yeah. Even with the commander called me in, ‘Would you fly with me with tonight’s flight?’ ‘Yes sir.’ And he told me all. I thought what, do I stand to attention? And so they would arrive, you know you but —
AS: I, I should imagine that you didn’t like flying with a spare crew.
RL: No. It wasn’t liked. For the simple reason you’d probably not been mentioned with them. You just, you know, knew that you were one of the squadrons crew and that’s that. If you’d have known one of them it would have been different. But there wasn’t. It wasn’t a nice thing to do.
AS: How did you pick up with Coombs, your skipper? How did you meet him and form a crew? ‘Cause you did a lot of your operational flying with him, didn’t you?
RL: Yeah.
AS: How did you meet him?
RL: You don’t half ask awkward questions don’t you?
AS: That’s my job [pause] In July you, July ’43 you started flying with Coombs and then he became your regular skipper.
RL: I don’t know. I don’t know how we met.
AS: It doesn’t really matter but you then became a part of a crew again.
RL: Well, it obviously came with Andy the wireless op. A navigator. And the rear gunner, Butch. Butch was the only married Aussie, and he died. Well, I think, I think we were just detailed.
AS: Yeah. Put together.
RL: The mid-upper gunner, the engineer, me. We were just allocated to that crew coming in. Didn’t know them. I mean, we were really up in arms against the Aussies.
AS: Really?
RL: Well they used to call us, ‘You pommie bastards,’ you know and we didn’t like it. So, we had to teach them.
AS: Some manners.
RL: Yeah. But no. No, I think that we were just allocated.
AS: Was your skipper an Australian? Was Coombs an Australian?
RL: Yeah.
AS: Ok.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Yeah. Back to when you were shot down. You were, what happened after the hospital? Where did they take you after hospital?
RL: Down to Frankfurt on Main.
AS: Ok.
RL: That’s a, that’s a sort of —
Sheila: Interrogation.
AS: Oh, is that Dulag Luft? The interrogation place.
RL: After they had gathered all of them and then allocate them to the different camps.
AS: Ok. How did they treat you there?
RL: Yeah. Well that wasn’t a very comfortable journey. I only had the remains of my kit. The blood stained jersey smelt stinky. But we, we’d gone down there on our first trip to leave hospital. And we all got in this utility ambulance. People lined up in slings and me laid on a stretcher and then we got down to this Berlin Railway Station and the driver opens up the back door and all these walking wounded type of thing got out and he shut the door. And I could hear this train noises and things like that. I waited some time and he came back, opened the door and he said, ‘We go back there.’ Apparently, this nurse said that I wouldn’t last the journey and she had created such a stink that they brought me back. Of course, I was going to be one of the last taken out of the thing. Well, German trains didn’t have upholstery. They had the plywood seats with all those holes driven through. Well, I don’t think I would have lasted. But that night we went down that’s what we were in. There was a coach with these hard wood seats. It was bad enough to sort of try and keep up. But you know what happens. You go to sleep and when you’re [makes snoring noise] it’s all a moment [unclear] Then there was all the language under the sun. You’re taken up to an interrogation centre. You’re in a cell, eight foot by about four. And if you wanted to go to the toilet you released a metal arm that went down the side.
AS: Like a railway signal.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Yeah. Ok.
RL: And the German soldier who was sat at the top he ought to take you but the snag was he never used to worry about you, you know. If he was reading his paper, well he’d read the page. You know. You were interrogated there by the SS. And I think I was dead lucky again. By then I was in Germany for a couple of months so I was old stuff to him.
AS: Yeah.
RL: My wounds were covered and aircrew in those days, we were given an escape kit. Poly [pause] You there Susan?
AS: Polyurethane is it? Like a plastic.
RL: What’s that, Polyanthus? Polyan?
AS: Polyanthus is a plant.
RL: No.
AS: Never mind.
RL: Pandora.
AS: Pandora. Ok. Yeah.
RL: Pandora pack.
AS: What was in Pandora. Yeah. What was in that?
RL: There was a silk map. A compass button. Vitamin tablets. Things like that to help you escape. Well, this officer, SS officer, took off the bandage to see whether I’d got any of these escape things there. And of course, he didn’t stick the bandage back. Well, in this cell you had an ersatz pallias.
AS: Like a mattress. Yeah.
RL: It’s not like an ordinary sack. It’s made up of, like straw. These things. And of course, the pallias got stuffed with sawdust. So, you have a heater in this room up there. And barbed windows. So, you sit on your bunk and it’s cold so you’ve got all your clothes on. You doze off and it’s hot as hell. They’ve got the heater on, see. Well you take off your jumper and of course you dry yourself off like a towel. And then you go to sleep again and it’s off. Well, that doesn’t improve you. But when, and this fellow, he interviewed me and he said, ‘I’ve seen you.’ And that’s that. I didn’t get asked questions which are two months ago. So, I got away with it. Well, you, then you were released. You marched down the road to a reception centre where they give you a kit of clothes. I mean they gave me a, I only had carpet slippers for walking in the snow, you see. So, they give me a leather belt and I had a pair of American trousers given me. The only thing they didn’t, they didn’t give me was underclothes. Funny thing. I can’t understand that because, I mean, well they’re the things that smell don’t they? They want washing.
AS: Yeah,
RL: And if you’ve only got one pair it’s —
AS: Did you meet up with a load of other prisoners then?
RL: Oh yeah. They were, we were given a medical by this German doctor. They asked if anybody wanted medical attention and I said yes. And when he saw my wound he went bloody mad. Picking, picking sawdust.
AS: From the mattress. Yeah.
RL: I think that hurt more than the wound itself. But they sent us up to the camp.
AS: A POW camp.
RL: Yeah.
AS: Yeah.
RL: I’ve seen, I’ve seen a flight lieutenant that was in charge of that. I’ve seen him since.
AS: Did you?
RL: Yeah. In Bournemouth. There’s a municipal college and I was walking past there one day and I saw a bloke and as he passed I turned and he turned. And that was the bloke.
AS: Good lord.
RL: Yeah.
AS: So which prisoner of war camp was this that you went to?
RL: Stalag Luft III.
AS: At Sagan. Ok that’s the Great Escape camp isn’t it?
RL: Well, they, I got there just before they escaped.
AS: But you weren’t a part of that?
RL: No, no. No. No. They were, oh they were clever. I’ve often wondered whether the men are in prison for what they got up to in those days.
AS: What, the Germans?
RL: Yeah. I mean they engraved. They made rubber stamps. In German. After the Great Escape [pause] The Great Escape was run by what they called Big X. Now, I was in the room where Little X was.
AS: His deputy.
RL: Now Little X coming up and he said to me, there was also in my room a bloke from Bournemouth. Ron. So, I was called Junior. And Little X said to me one day, he said, ‘Can I interest you in helping us with the escape system?’ ‘Well, yeah.’ So, he took me to another hut and I couldn’t help noticing after passing a certain bloke he started going to me like that and pointed here. Sort of strange but of course they was also, they were looking for the German guards, you see. They, they had one type of guard, he was called a ferret and he would go under buildings and all that. So, they were watching him. They were. We got into the bathroom. They had a bathroom in every block with a concrete floor, a soakaway and a shower which was a bit of a pipe up with a tin on the top, you know. All calmly walked in here and there was a bloke in his birthday suit in there. And all of a sudden they lifted up this drain cover and they started baling the water into the bath. Yeah. And of course, I didn’t know. I was watching and all of a sudden they drained off the water in to the bath, dirty water and they pulled up a concrete slab and I could get down there. And when I get down there there was a store room. It was a tunnel, it started off as a tunnel but the Germans built another compound on so that was a waste of time. There was three rifles in there. How did they get rifles down there? And I had to get some ink and I got this thing up and all of a sudden, the slab goes into position see, and the water from the bath is bunged in it. Now, I’m in this place with the candle. Well, one of the goons got a bit near it, you see but then they get rid of him by offering him a cigarette around the corner out of the way or something. And then they pull up the slab and I’m still there, you know. And you see them so they dropped the slab down and the bath that had the dirty water was pulled in. Sealed up. Well I mean —
AS: Can you —?
RL: They made clothes out of, out of blankets and things like that. Made rubber stamps. Documents with a sort of German old markers they’d got. I reckoned if they’d have started up back when they got home they’d be inside.
AS: Can you remember, because you were, you were in the camp when the news came about what happened to the fifty officers —?
RL: Yeah.
AS: Can you remember what happened then? What it was like?
RL: Well, we were all called into the camps and told this. It was unbelievable. I mean they would, we all said what the group captain said, ‘How many wounded?’ So, you know, we were shocked. They said fifty officers were shot. And so, we wanted to know what happened to the other twenty six, seven. Were they wounded? But there was no wounded people. When that, the morning of that escape we were all brought out of our huts and opposite there was this hut where it all happened, and over here kind of thing they set up a German machine gun — pointed. I didn’t like that. They could have, I would have been one of the first to get it. But I mean we were dumbstruck. How could fifty get shot trying to escape?
AS: What was the attitude of the German Luftwaffe officers in the camp?
RL: Well, you see, every camp, that was one of the biggest camps of Germany. They were always escape proof but I mean I think it was only quite bad luck that the tunnel was found. I’ve got an idea it was like a German soldier wanting to take a leak, it was found, you know. I mean, but you wanted guts to escape. I mean here we were in Poland. It’s alright if you were fluent in German language. But if you only knew the basic German you wouldn’t, couldn’t get away. Not from Poland. I mean, they wouldn’t have had a chance. I mean all I knew about was ‘Kaput.’ ‘Ser kaput’ [unclear] I would have been buggered wouldn’t I?
AS: Yeah. Did that stop escaping when that happened?
RL: Well, afterwards, yes. It sort of put the, I think the people regarded it as dangerous. I mean, all you can see, I mean all around Sagan all leave was cancelled wasn’t it? They were all looking for the prisoners of war camp. I know it’s a simple thing but a soldier who’s lost his leave he’d get quite angry wouldn’t he? I mean, I would have in this country.
AS: What was life like in the camp? Was there any homosexuality for instance?
RL: Well there was, they had a theatre. That was marvelous. They had instruments, band instruments. In the cold weather they used to flood the football pitch. I mean the football pitch was only a bit of ground. No grass on it. But they used to flood the place. They had skates and, you know, they played basket, base —
AS: Baseball.
RL: Baseball.
AS: Yeah.
RL: They founded, like different teams like East Canada against West Canada. You know, all that kind of thing. They had, I was in there one Christmas and somebody in the room said, ‘Have you seen the cake they were demonstrating? No, it’s all kind of - height. Thing is beautiful. Cake decorations, you know, cor bloody marvellous. A wooden cake. It was corrugated cardboard down. And they had a wonderful [pause] from the American [pause]
AS: The Red Cross.
RL: American boxes.
AS: Oh yeah, parcels. Yeah. Ok.
RL: They, there was klim powdered milk and they’d, how can I say it — iced a cardboard and the decoration was all in colour. Do you want a colour to be, have a kid’s paint box?
AS: Fantastic.
RL: Yeah. And they’d take some of the blue kind of thing and mix it with this thing. And it bloody marvelous. I’m not a cake [unclear] But you see, I didn’t know until after the war but you could take an OU course there. And one, for some unknown reason if you want to go on exercise around the camp you went anti-clockwise.
AS: Yeah.
RL: Well, when I came out, back out of the service and was a gas fitter I was going up Atkinson Avenue and I had to go into a certain number in this street but I wasn’t sure. So, I pulled up against the curb. Sat on me bicycle. So he locked up the car, you know. He turned like that. I thought bloody hell. I know that ass. So, the bloke mowing his lawn and he was going up that way, you see. So, I waited for him to turn and come back. Yeah, I’d seen him. So, I got off me bike and went up to him, ‘Morning sir. You were a wing commander, were you?’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I don’t remember your name.’ But I think he mentioned it. I said, ‘You were in Stalag Luft III.’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I think I walked behind you many times, sir.’ I told him. I, as you were like [unclear] we would come out of our hut and we’d join in the, you’d be talking to somebody or walking on your own. I said, ‘Well I recognized your backside sir.’ And I told him and he said do you want to come in here and he called his wife. I don’t know but he didn’t have a peculiar walk or anything but it was just the thing.
AS: Just something that stuck with you. Yeah. So, you were there for over a year in the camp.
RL: Yeah.
AS: What happened at the end of the war? How were you liberated?
RL: Well we were, knowing we were, the Russians were near us. So, we were told that we were leaving the camp. And of course, like everything else, things get altered, don’t you. We’re moving soon. Somewhere. Then another hour. Well we moved out in the morning. Apparently, we were all given a Red Cross parcel. I didn’t get that. I don’t remember that but you see we all went out with what we could carry.
AS: And this was winter time was it?
RL: Yeah. It was snowing outside.
AS: God.
RL: Bloody cold. But we never had plastic sheeting or anything like that. I mean I was in the normal uniform. A sweater and battle dress and a coat, overcoat and a pair of boots. Or socks and boots. Well and we went out in the early hours of the morning and we walked in this slashing snow. I mean the cold, you know. And we stopped on the edge of a moor. And they crowded us into a barn. And somebody said well no lights to be shown, you know because there is straw in there and we could have knocked off quite a few. And I always remember a flight lieutenant gunner. He said, ‘Come on,’ he said. Cuddle up with me.’ And we cuddled up together.
AS: Share warmth. Yeah.
RL: Just to share warmth. And of course, when daylight came we started to get the doors open. Of course, they wouldn’t. But all we wanted to do was get out of the barn and light up for a brew and just to get warm. Had those moments.
AS: So, can you remember what month this was? Was it early 1945 or [pause] It doesn’t matter. It’s just interesting. It was snow on the ground and really cold.
RL: Yeah. Late ’44 or early ’45.
AS: Ok. And how long did this go on for? On the move all the time.
RL: Well, the next day we stopped at a village. I remember, like a corral.
AS: Yeah.
RL: And there was, and there was this bloody horse blanket all made up of all different materials, you know that. There was all these village policemen and, I don’t know — I’m going to grab that blanket, you see. And I got it. You know, I mean, when he wasn’t looking I’d swiped it. I smelled like a horse but I was warmer. Then we, well I’ve got it in a write up there. We went on to another place. They turned out a cinema, and they bundled us in there. Well that was out of the wind but then the toilet facilities was a bit overdone. Then we made it down to a station where they put us on a train. In the cattle trucks. That wasn’t fun. You only had room to sort of sit down. Somebody’s legs would be up the side of you. If you wanted to go to the toilet that was horrible. You see you had to step over bodies and you could, well there wasn’t a place where you could put your foot down. That was, you moaned and groaned. Then the outer, they could open a shuttered door but there was a feeling you shouldn’t pee in the wind.
AS: You get it back. Yeah.
RL: But the poor blokes that were by that door. They were in trouble. No, but you see I’ve heard, like when we were in that barn or when we were in German hospital, people were crying out for their mums. And you can’t do anything can you?
AS: No. And people who were sick and couldn’t keep up. What happened to them?
RL: Well, they had some German party picking them up. I think we had [pause] I think our guards were friendly. I mean even on the march if somebody had a cart there were a half dozen on the other cart and there was a German soldier whose rifle and pack had been put up and he’d be pushed with us. I mean, it got, I think it got to that stage that they really knew they’d lost the war. And I mean we were on a farm when we were released to the British army and these German guards had given themselves up, you know. I mean, I think they only took away their guns and said, ‘Well, muck in,’ you know. I mean, one or two were quite slobs. Friendly enough. They were seen to.
AS: So, you were, you were liberated by the British army.
RL: Yeah. Well, not the British army. A motorbike and sidecar, you know. No fighting. Just come out. It was an ideal farm or an estate. You know. The Russians were all the working labour you know, but [pause] no.
AS: How did you get back to England? Did you fly or go on a ship or what?
RL: Well, you will, you were told you would go on a lorry, you know. Convoy. You were going to. Well at the end of the day you stopped and you were put in a field. British army gave my mum and my wife enough sheets, enough towels and soap. We got a town so that every time we stopped, no food.
AS: Yeah. It sounds like the army. Sounds like them.
RL: We never, we got to Lunenburg and then there was like a big barn sort of with the army. We were told to put down all your gear you don’t want. Go over there and get a meal. A meal. So, people just dropped their bag and when we got over there it was a white bread sandwich. And it was horrid. We’d been used to this black bread which filled you up. When we got back to the shed all our kit had gone. British army stole it. So we formed a band and we went out looking for them.
AS: Did you find it?
RL: We found it.
AS: Yeah.
RL: We were absolutely starving. A lump of black bread would have been a treat, you know. In the end they took us by Lancaster.
AS: Oh wow.
RL: Over to an aerodrome in England and of course put the usual spray up [unclear] and they’d laid on tea, you know. Afternoon tea. Well, little cakes. But I mean while we were waiting for the planes to come there was a British airman there who gave me a tin of peaches. Well, I got the tin open. You know what peaches was like, don’t you? Went in your hand.
AS: It’s all the syrup isn’t it and the juice. Yeah.
RL: [laughs] It’s greasy, you know. You wanted something to anchor it down. And of course, it had gone on the ground. I picked it up slid it up. It was lovely peaches after you’d eaten them but —
AS: Yeah. So, you flew back to England. What happened next? Did you go back to your family or did the air force take you somewhere?
RL: They took us down to the railway station. Where ever it was. And I always remember when the Dunkirk came they put all these soldiers into schools and they had our soldiers around the outside. So that they were, until they’d been processed they were. They didn’t have to do that. We got sent down and surrounded by British soldiers.
AS: Wow.
RL: We couldn’t talk to the natives.
AS: Extraordinary.
RL: They took us on then up to Cosford aerodrome. Oh God. They gave us a meal and rice pudding afterwards and given a bath and hospital clothes, you know. Dressing gown. And we went to bed. Oh, a proper meal we had. We woke, we woke up the following morning. Now, in the RAF or any service if you move from one station to another you had to get a clearance chit. Well, when we woke up all our, all our dirty clothes had gone, you know. So, you walked around with this sheet of paper. You were warned somewhere along the line you’d have to give a sample. Well you walk around. I imagine they got every service doctor within a certain radius of the thing. So, we walked around. He looked in your right ear. Of yeah, that’ll be alright. Then somebody would look in your left ear. And you were marched into a hut, pay hut. You know, how much do you earn? You know. Well you go on through. You had to give a sample. Well you walked through the hut, wooden floorboards and there’s a huge kitchen table. And there’s jam jars, sauce bottles, any jar, but the snag is they’re all full, you see. So you want to pee and you can’t find an empty one. So, what happened? This is absolutely brilliant. They pour out in there. Pour some there. Some bloke came out and he said, ‘That looks a nice colour,’ and he takes that out as a the sample, see. There was ever so much pee floating off the table on to the floor. Stood up in it. I mean they only wanted an eggcup full. But you couldn’t find one. Then you’d go on and in a hut with blankets held up. A B C D and that. [unclear] stools and the idea was to come out of B. The next one would go into B. And I don’t understand some people were coming out of one hut and [unclear] and he would pass it on down. I didn’t take on. I got back to the mess and a bloke came up to me and he said, ‘Is she in there?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean is she in there?’’ Oh, the WAAF officer.’ I looked. ‘No. I couldn’t see her. No.’ I couldn’t see her. He said, ‘Oh, I’ll come in then.’ Apparently this strip room, where you drop them. And you know what happened there. A bloke hadn’t seen a woman for years and he dropped them and [unclear] a strip through, it perks up on it’s own doesn’t it? You know when I was demobbed you get your kit. You had a brown pinstriped suit or a blue pin striped suit. So, I got a blue pin striped one. So I, when it come to the shorts well I want a white or a blue, you know. It’s either a red or a green, you know. I’d think to myself, well got to take something, you know. We got on this train after about [pause] and there was all this changing out of our uniform into civvies. Well, when we got off in London we looked like gangsters, kind of thing. I mean nothing matched. I mean my trilby was brown, you know. I only, I took what was on offer. I didn’t go in and say bugger it, you know. But nothing, nothing matched. We were going, people were going to the train. ‘Got a new, got green shirt?’ You know, just to, but when we got off it was horrible.
AS: So, you were demobbed very quickly after coming back to England.
RL: Oh yeah.
AS: Did you get a pension because of your injuries?
RL: No. Not then.
AS: Oh ok.
RL: I did it later.
AS: Ok.
RL: A colleague at work, my supervisor but he was a good friend too, he had got a pension. ‘Why don’t you put in for it?’ I didn’t think I’d get it but I put in the forms. The doctor came home to see me. He gave me a medical examination, asked me about my hearing. Well, I lost my hearing in the war. And he looked at my bony knee. I can use it but I can’t throw a cricket ball. I could no more, well I’d collapse if I pick up a ball and throw it. And I got a pension.
AS: Excellent.
RL: And it’s very good.
AS: Did you ever keep up with your squadron colleagues or go to reunions or anything like that?
RL: No. No. Well, I think the attitude I won’t even go on a Christmas one. That was the, I’m back in civvy now and that. I often wish I had but it’s only through my daughter what’s got on to this you know.
AS: When you look back now at that time how do you regard it and the air force? Was it something you’re glad to have done or did it steal your youth or how do you feel about, about that period of time?
RL: Well, I regret sometimes. You see, the war took apart my youth.
AS: Yeah.
RL: I was a boy. I didn’t become a young man. I got thrown into the service. I’ve often wondered what it would be like. I mean, I was what? Twenty I suppose. Twenty to twenty six. That’s sort of lost years isn’t it?
AS: And you married during the war didn’t you?
RL: Hmnn.
AS: Yeah.
RL: Yeah. Well, you see they used to say if you get married you’d go for a burton.
AS: Yeah.
RL: Comes to a hard [pause] well, decision. Yeah. We wanted to get married. I didn’t think about prisoner of war. I suppose I thought I could get killed. But in, you see a lot of us kids got married. Well, we were only kids. Well, the husband can say, ‘Well, I’m flying tonight.’ Didn’t tell her when. Probably didn’t know at that time. And then he’s flying as far as, let’s say, Berlin. Now, those girls that were in digs they would count the number of aircraft that goes off and they would count the number of aircraft that land.
AS: Yeah.
RL: But their first worry is oh perhaps he’s landed but he’s not landed here. He’s landed somewhere else. I mean they’re, they’re only babies really.
AS: There’s a wonderful play by Terence Rattigan called “Flare Path.” Have you seen it?
RL: No.
AS: That’s, that’s about the wives waiting at a hotel near, it’s a Wellington squadron actually. It speaks to that very much.
RL: You see, they’d count the aircraft come back. But then get somebody — is flight lieutenant so and so? ‘We haven’t heard anything at the moment.’ Well that’s just a put off isn’t it. And the you see this young girl, she’s miles away from home. The landlady is perhaps not, not helpful. No. It’s not —
AS: And she has nothing to do all day except wait and worry. Yeah.
RL: Yeah.
AS: How soon did your wife know that you were safe after you were shot down?
RL: A chimney sweep came and told her.
AS: A chimney sweep?
RL: Yeah. He tuned into the [unclear] news and apparently they used to give petty officer so and so was washed up ashore. On the —
AS: On the German radio?
RL: On the Thames Estuary. And they gave out that PO Last was a prisoner of war. And this chimney sweep apparently told my mum.
AS: Wow.
RL: It’s [pause] —
AS: I think we’ll stop there Ron. It’s been amazing talking to you. I’d like to come back and talk again someday but we’ve been going for four hours.
RL: Have we?
AS: Yeah. I think we’ll, I’ll thank you very much.
RL: Bloody hell.
AS: We’ll pause there.

Collection

Citation

Adam Sutch, “Interview with Ronald Last,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 18, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11164.

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