Interview with Robert Lewis


Interview with Robert Lewis


Robert Lewis was hoping to become a teacher before he volunteered for aircrew and began his training as a wireless operator. On returning from an operation one night the navigator lost his nerve and Robert was called upon to send an SOS without which they would have been lost. After his tour Robert joined a Canadian squadron as signals leader. After the war he returned to teaching.







00:17:27 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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JF: I’m John Fisher and I’m with Robert. Known as Taffy Lewis.
RL: Yeah.
JF: And we’re at his home in [buzz] in Burton on Trent near Derby. Bob was a wireless operator on Halifaxes and Lancasters and served in 78 Squadron. He was born in April 1920.
RL: That’s it.
JF: Bob. You, you were sort of twenty one or twenty two when you joined. So what were you doing up to that point? Before you joined the RAF.
RL: I was waiting for teacher training college. Had a little job in an office you know and plodded along until I got called up.
JF: Yeah. And when you were called up was, that was obviously to the RAF.
RL: Yes.
JF: And what were you thinking then when that happened?
RL: I was frightened. I went to Padgate. That was the recruiting centre. I was really frightened there. I was out of my depth, you know. But I soon found some friends and we started training and —
JF: Yeah. And as that training got under way did you start to get more optimistic?
RL: Yes. Yes. Yes. And then there was a long wait. A long waiting period before you got to the wireless school but I got to Yatesbury in Wiltshire. To the wireless school. I started proper training, you know. You know. Although before that I had a few weeks doing Morse code at Blackpool. Coming from a little village in Wales I thought it was heaven. There was Reginald Dixon at the Tower Ballroom dancing and everything. About eight weeks we were there. But you had to get up to twenty one words a minute Morse code I think. And a lot failed that so they reduced it later on. But when you completed the, it’s Morse they wanted, a little technical but mostly Morse and we were posted to Yatesbury in Wiltshire. Which was the aircrew training for wireless operators. Aye.
JF: So you passed all that ok.
RL: I, well I muddled through it. Aye [laughed]
JF: You made a damned good go at it.
RL: Yes. Yeah.
JF: So, you —what? What planes did you, what planes were you on to start with?
RL: Pardon?
JF: What planes were you in to start with?
RL: Oh.
JF: The Halifax?
RL: No. We started. I know I did an air gunnery course in between and we flew in those things. I think the Blackburn Botha. Oh gosh. It was awful. And you flew in the Blackburn Botha over in Scotland. Over the Firth of Forth and you waited until the target tower came. Well, the aircraft towing the target was a Lysander. See. And it [pause] you let it go past you and then you were taught about the angle of incidents and the angle of reflection. You forgot all that if you saw it. If you saw the target you shot at it you know. They couldn’t check on you really I don’t think. But you just shot at the target. Aye.
JF: Were you any good?
RL: I don’t know. Well, they couldn’t check you really but if you fired first you had yellow. Yellow bullets. Yellow capped bullets. And the next some green for after and then when you dropped the targets they’d count the number of marks. But it was very half hearted you know. Very half hearted. Aye. Aye.
JF: So, after that?
RL: Then we went to Operational Training Unit down here at, near Banbury and then that’s when I met my crew you know.
JF: Do you remember their names?
RL: Yes. [pause] Did you want to know them all?
JF: No. We’ll get those later if we may.
RL: Yes. That’s —
[recording paused]
JF: We’re just restarting again and I’m with Bob, in brackets, Taffy, Lewis. Bob, when you eventually went on your first op what were your feelings before that? And when did you know when you were going?
RL: Well, I don’t know. I think it was very foolish but I had great faith in this bloke. I thought he’s my pilot, he’s going to get us through. Aye. Although the chances of getting through were pretty remote weren’t they? But I was never really frightened. Apprehensive but not frightened, you know. Aye.
JF: And when you got to the target area —
RL: Yes.
JF: What were your, what your feelings then? What were you thinking about?
RL: I used to, I used to come on to the flight deck and watch it all. I wasn’t really frightened because I thought well he’s going to get us through. Aye.
JF: So, was that because perhaps it was all remote from you?
RL: Yes.
JF: And when you got back off your first op —
RL: Relief.
JF: Did you all celebrate?
RL: Yes. Yes.
JF: Yeah. What would you do between ops? What sort of things did you get up to?
RL: When? You mean —?
JF: What did you [pause] what did you do? Did you go to the pubs or —
RL: Yeah. We enjoyed ourselves you know. Sometimes. But I was never a great drinker.
JF: No.
RL: So, when they went out to a famous place in York — Betty’s Bar. It was a basement there during the war. It was full of air force. But I’d go and have a half a pint and I’d go to the pictures or something and clear off. You know. I was never a big drinker. No.
JF: Had you by then a girlfriend?
RL: No. Not regular. No. Not a regular girlfriend. Used to go dancing a lot. Aye.
JF: And where was that?
RL: The dancing. The De Grey Rooms I think they were called in York. It was a big manor house and he’d take it over as dance halls. Some man. A well-known man. Well-known local business man but he wouldn’t let anyone in after 9 o’clock. They kept the rabble out. It was a bit of an upmarket. The De Grey Rooms in York. Aye.
JF: And now, how, how many ops did you eventually do?
RL: Thirty. About thirty seven I think altogether. With the Canadian squadron as well. Aye.
JF: What were they like?
RL: I didn’t, well [pause] I didn’t enjoy not being with the skipper and the rest of the crew. I was the signals leader and I had to fly with anybody you see if they needed you. I could fly when I wanted to. If anybody was short you know. So if you look at the logbook you’ll find I flew with a variety of pilots. And they were alright. I got along alright with them. Yeah.
JF: When, when —you couldn’t actually give any signalling for a lot of time during the flight.
RL: Pardon?
JF: Were you? You had to be silent didn’t you?
RL: Yes. Oh yes.
JF: So what did you do?
RL: Yes.
JF: How did you pass the time?
RL: In the air you mean? I used to go and stand up on the flight deck.
JF: Yeah.
RL: Aye. When we were out of range. Aye. But once I sent an SOS. We were in real trouble. Sent up an SOS and I got a quick reply too. I don’t know if it’s mentioned in there. Aye.
JF: Yeah. Did your plane ever get hit or anything or —
RL: Yeah. We got, we exchanged fire with a JU88 and that. Together. But we never got seriously hit. We were very very lucky. More than lucky weren’t we? Aye.
JF: Halfway through your period there did you go on to do anything else or you converted onto Lancasters didn’t you?
RL: No. It was the Canadian squadron on the Lancs. We finished on Halifaxes. Aye. Aye.
JF: Yes. Because they, they fitted them all.
RL: The skipper used to get annoyed you see. The BBC news would say operations on Mannheim last night. Ninety eight aircraft were employed. Many of them Lancasters. And the poor old Halifaxes were doing the same job but they got [pause] aye. So, they used to call it the bloody Daily Mirror bomber [laughs] But it was a beautiful aircraft the Lanc. Aye.
JF: The Halifaxes. They actually fitted them with different engines after a while didn’t they?
RL: They went on to Transport Command. Aye.
JF: So, as the war was coming to an end were your operations intensified? Or what was happening then?
RL: When the war ended I was with a Canadian squadron. No. They didn’t intensify. No. No.
JF: So what did —
RL: In fact they was grounded when the war finished. Aye. Aye. The Canadian squadron were gradually sent home. They whittled down and that. I was left more or less on the station on my own at one time [laughs] Aye.
JF: What did you do?
RL: And then I got my discharge.
JF: And —
RL: When I came out the forces they said, ‘You were a potential teacher weren’t you?’ Well, I hadn’t finished training or anything. ‘Well, never mind that. Plenty of that. Into the classroom.’
JF: Oh. And where was that?
RL: In Whitmore Reans.
JF: Yeah. And now eventually you moved to —
RL: St Andrews School, Whitmore Reans. Aye.
JF: Yeah. And you moved to Wolverhampton eventually didn’t you?
RL: Aye. And my wife lived at Stoke on Trent. Well, she came out of the staff and we married you see. Yeah.
JF: And what was your wife’s name?
RL: Mary.
JF: And where did you meet?
RL: At the school. She came on to the staff. Yeah.
JF: What did, what did she do?
RL: When was that John? When were you born?
JL: ’53. So you’d have met in ’51.
RL: ’51 I think. Something like that I think. Aye. Aye.
JF: I have with me Bob’s son John whose learning into this and learning some stuff as well I think.
RL: Yeah.
JF: Yeah. Now did you stay in teaching?
RL: Yes. I retired. How old is Paul, John?
JL: He’s thirty. Thirty one now.
RL: Thirty one. Well, I retired thirty years ago then. I retired when —
JF: So where was most of your teaching at Bob?
RL: Wolverhampton.
JF: And what schools were you at?
RL: St Andrews. Where did I go from there?
JL: Christ Church.
RL: Christ Church. Then back to St Andrews. And I was deputy headmaster at Brickkiln Street. Do you know Brickkiln Street? That old school there. It was. Aye.
JF: Yeah. And you were a football fan, I think.
RL: Pardon?
JF: You were a football fan weren’t you?
RL: Yes. A football fan. Oh aye. I was a Wolves supporter. Aye.
JF: Were those in the days when —
RL: I always took the school’s football teams.
JF: Were they any good?
RL: Well no. Yes. The smaller school. We never did very, very well you know. But one year I had eleven boys and I had one boy who could have become a professional footballer. He was great. And the rest of them were good. We won the cup. The Cork Cup it was called for junior schools. Remember John?
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
RL: Aye.
JF: And of course Wolves were doing well I suppose when you were supporting them.
RL: Oh, they were top of league. Top of the world weren’t they John?
JL: Yeah.
RL: Bert Williams and, you know. Billy Wright, Hancocks and Mullen and, aye.
JF: Of course it was tradition then wasn’t it? The first —
RL: Did you go to school, did you go to school in Wolverhampton?
JF: Hmm.
RL: Well, which school were you at?
JF: Oh sorry. No —
RL: Pardon?
JF: Oops.
[recording paused]
JF: I’m still talking with Bob Lewis. We had to digress a little while because we were talking about my school days which you wouldn’t want to hear. So I’m John Fisher talking to Bob Lewis and we’re at Barton under Needwood which is near Burton on Trent. Bob. Overall what do you think of your days in the RAF? What would you describe it as?
RL: Oh I enjoyed it. I felt, you know I’d been on operations. Now that it is all over I look on it with pleasure you know. And with this chap who was the pilot. Aye.
JF: Now —
RL: I thought we did a good job. Yeah.
JF: Yeah. You’ve got a lovely shiny medal there haven’t you? What’s that for?
RL: Pardon?
JF: You’ve got —
RL: The DFM. Yeah.
JF: And how did you get that?
RL: For, on completion of a tour of operations.
JF: That was quite a lot of operations wasn’t it?
RL: Pardon?
JF: That was quite a lot of operations for —
RL: Yes. You had to do thirty of course and then you were what they called screened. You were sent as an instructor somewhere.
JF: So you did more than most.
RL: I liked being an instructor
JF: You did more than you had to.
RL: At Topcliffe in Yorkshire. And then I went back on the Canadian squadron as a flight lieutenant then.
JF: Yeah.
RL: Temporary [laughs]
JF: What was your favourite plane?
RL: Oh the Halifax.
JF: Yeah.
RL: I liked the old Halifax. There’s one up there look. The chap was telling me that for me.
JF: And what was good about the Halifax?
RL: Familiarity. That’s all. The Lancaster was the better aircraft I must admit but I felt happier in that thing you know. Aye.
JF: Lovely. Thank you very much Bob. Thank you.
RL: Is that enough?
[recording paused]
JF: Bob, I need to talk to you about any sort of near scrapes you had in the war.
RL: Yes. The pilot, he got us back but one night he was entirely lost. Unfortunately the navigator lost his nerve and couldn’t work the Gee box or anything. So the skipper said to me, ‘For God’s sake Taff get an SOS.’ I sent it out on the right frequency and by a miracle I got a reply straight away. He knew where we were exactly then but we were way off course. We wouldn’t have made it you know without the SOS. Aye.
JF: And where were you then? Did you know? Do you know?
RL: I don’t know exactly. It’s in my logbook somewhere.
JF: We’ll get —
RL: Yeah.
JF: So —
RL: I think we were returning from Stuttgart or somewhere. Only the pilot, he knew his way about Germany at night pretty well but he was going around in circles, you know. And the navigator lost his nerve. He had.
JF: Did you ever encounter any night fighters?
RL: Yes. We [pause] well, plenty of night fighters about.
JF: And did your plane, your gunners down any of them?
RL: We exchanged fire with them but the gunner, they cleared off. And we, we’d had that and they’d be in that way. I had two good gunners. If you turn that off I’ll tell you something.
[recording paused]
JF: Playing back ok.



John Fisher, “Interview with Robert Lewis,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed January 22, 2022,

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