Interview with Peter Thompson


Interview with Peter Thompson


Peter Thompson tells of his uncle Fred who joined the RAF and became a navigator on Pathfinders, after meeting Churchill with his father, who was Churchill’s bodyguard. Fred flew one final operation after a full tour and being awarded the DFC, when his aircraft was shot down over France. Peter speaks movingly of his family visit to the crash site and cemetery.



IBCC Digital Archive





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00:32:00 audio recording






This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewee is David Meanwell, the sorry, the interviewer is David Meanwell, the interviewee is Peter Thompson who is going to be talking mainly about his uncle, Fred Thompson, who was in Bomber Command. The interview is taking place at Mr Thompson’s home, in Croydon today, the 22nd of November 2018. Right Peter, perhaps if you could start off just say a bit of introduction about yourself, and then what you, perhaps start off with your personal recollections of Fred and then get on to his career.
PT: Right. That’s right. My name is Peter John Thompson and I am talking really about my uncle, Frederick, or uncle Fred. His full name is [cuckoo clock] Frederick cuckoo [laughter] – sorry about the cuckoo clock! -his full name is Frederick Denzel James Thompson and Fred and, he’s the second son of Walter Henry Thompson. My grandfather was Winston Churchill’s bodyguard throughout the whole of the war, and there were five children, basically. My father was the first one, Harold, Fred was second and Harvey was third, and then there were two sisters, Grace and Cathleen, much younger. Now, I, at the beginning of the war, 1939, I was six years old, but I can remember quite clearly Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred was in the Metropolitan Police, he was CID, Special Branch. And he had really a reserved occupation, and he worked in the East End of London, in the dock area, looking for aliens and spies etc. So he had quite an important job there. Now, my memory of uncle Fred, was when I was about three, Fred would have been about seventeen, he had a cage in the garden, with budgies in it. He used to take me into the cage with him and with all these budgies around, and he was very quiet, serious chap. And anyway, he’s, he was a really nice chap, very reliable. Grandad was a Victorian type of man, very severe, very good at his job as a bodyguard I might say, and quite brave, but very severe, and my dad used to say that he used to be frightened of him, so that gives you the set up. When the, in 1936, Fred decided that he would join the Met and he didn’t want to know, anybody to know that he was the son of Walter, his father, so he made his own way there. Now the thing is that Fred was a very reliable chap. When the war came, my dad joined up or he volunteered, and a little while later, when the war, about 1941 ’42, grandad, who had quite a deep [emphasis] relationship with Churchill, was talking to him about his sons and Churchill said to him, well I’d like to meet them. So my dad said well Harvey was out in South Africa at the time, but Fred came along, and this is a, a defining moment for Fred. When my dad and Fred met Churchill, my dad was in uniform, in a RAF uniform, but Fred was in civvies, and Churchill turned upon Fred and said ‘Why haven’t you signed up? Why aren’t you doing your bit? All the other lads in the front line.’ And this really hurt Fred. My dad said he was really upset and he immediately went and volunteered for aircrew. That was quite an important point for Fred. Anyway, he was trained as an Observer, or navigator and he joined the Pathfinder Group at Oakington, and he was on, flying Short Stirlings. The pilot was Wing Commander Mahaddie, and this chap was very well known, and it’s something unusual about the group: because the whole crew maintained right the way through, they did forty missions, the whole crew just stayed together, very unusual and most of the men were married, with families. Now Fred, he got two DFCs. They, of the forty missions he did, a lot of them were right, er, into far into, deep in Germany, obviously went Cologne, Berlin, but he also flew a lot down to Italy, and they gave this crew some of the most difficult jobs to do. Now the Pathfinders was a very, they, I think they were selected very carefully. The Pathfinder Group was that the aircraft went out first, alone [emphasis] on its own, and it flew somewhere like half an hour, to an hour in front of the main bomber group coming behind and their job obviously was to drop incendiaries and to light up if you like, the target. But they were alone, they didn’t have any cover. So there was a famous, no not, take the word away, one of the times when he got his second DFC, they had, they were, they had a mission to Cologne and on the way back the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The cockpit window was completely smashed, the radio equipment was completely smashed and the radio operator was badly injured. The ailerons on the aircraft were severed and the aircraft basically fell out the sky, and it was going down. Mahaddie, the pilot, managed to get the thing on to a, out of this dive, and the flight sergeant, or flight engineer, he actually crawled in to the aircraft fuselage and repair the ailerons. Now the navigation equipment had completely gone, it’s, of course the Pathfinders would be flying at night, and the flight engineer, having got the aircraft working and they lost a couple of engines as well, he attended to the badly injured radio operator, and Fred navigated the aircraft by navigating with the stars. That’s how he did it. And they, the thing is, they got back to Oakington on time and they got there. And so, the evidence is, of a photograph of the crew outside their aircraft and you can see the holes right across the fuselage where all the German canons’ bullets had gone through. And these men were awarded their DFCs, or equivalent ‘cause the lower ranks didn’t get DFCs, so he was awarded his second, his second DFC. So. After the mission to Cologne all the crew were awarded their medals and they were going to go to the palace to meet the King and get their awards, but before they could go, two weeks later a special mission came up to Stuttgart. They, they volunteered, because, for many of them had, were past their operational times, and they all volunteered, but there were two exceptions. The pilot Mahaddie, Group Captain, Wing Commander Mahaddie for some reason couldn’t fly so they had a replacement pilot, and of course the radio operator had been injured was replaced, so they did have two new crew members. [Cough] So anyway they took off this mission. On the way over France, the German radio, radar group picked up the aircraft and they radioed to the German night fighter group and their, this particular German pilot took off. Now the RAF didn’t know a particular thing, that the Germans had discovered some of the secret equipment on the aircraft, on the bombers. The bomber, the aircraft had this equipment called H2S, which was really a ground radar and it was really what we have now, mapping out the underneath, so they could, they could actually fly higher to the target and the bomb aimer could see where the target was whereas previously they would have to be visual. But the only thing is when you put H2S on, it gives out frequencies which is used to get the display up, and the Germans had found a way of locking on to the H2S so they knew that, where the aircraft was to some extent by the signal coming from the H2S. What the Germans also had put in was a special gun in the nose of the aircraft, and the, in front of the pilot and it pointed up, and they had, the Germans had nicknamed it Jazzmusik, jazzmusiker, and what the Germans, night fighter pilots did, they used to fly underneath the bomber and gradually come up underneath. Of course nobody in the aircraft, the air gunner wouldn’t see it, and it’s night time, nobody would, there was nothing to detect anything underneath and they used to fly right underneath and fire straight into the bomb area, bomb area. The aircraft caught fire and it started to come down in flames. The strange thing was, that it was coming down in this little tiny village way out in the French countryside, and the village has high hills round it, and on the top of the hill was the actual radar unit that had picked up the aircraft. The aircraft came in, and I’ve got witness statements here written by people that saw it at the time, it was aflame, and the people at the radar unit fled because they thought the aircraft was going to hit their radar unit and them, but in fact it came down just over. And in this village they had a swamp area, it’s a lake, swampy and they used to use it for people, used to come to fishing. The aircraft exploded and broke up in two parts. The tail end landed one part of the village, with the air gunner still in it. The aircraft hit the water and it exploded and obviously all the crew were killed. Can I stop there for a. Many of the villagers saw this aircraft coming down all on fire, at night. The aircraft nearly missed, only just missed the actual radar unit, German radar unit, that was stationed at, on the top of the hill. Now this unit was the one that detected the aircraft earlier on. It missed the radar unit, the huts, by a few hundred feet or so, and it crashed into a swamp. Now this swamp was a man-made area, loads of reeds and things like that and it was used by people to do fishing. The aircraft literally broke up into bits: a mangled mess of just of metal and four of the member of the crew bodies were floating on the lake. The German Army came and secured the area and wouldn’t allow any of the villagers to come nearby, but the French resistance was very strong in the area, and at night, three chaps went out with shepherds’ hooks and went in to the lake and hooked the bodies out. One of the bodies was Fred’s. They said that they were, the bodies were very, very badly mangled. The Germans’ commander, I think did a, a very unusual thing, I think. He then stated that these men should have a proper military funeral. They wouldn’t allow any of the villagers to come, but they selected some young men to carry the bodies up to this little tiny cemetery. And they dug one grave and they put the four bodies in there. A few days later another body came up and this chap was buried, and then many weeks later the pilot’s body surfaced, and he was buried. So there were three graves really, and that’s the situation. They just put little wooden crosses up with the peoples’ names on. At that time, my grandfather had heard via the Red Cross grapevine that Fred had been killed, and he sent my father a telegram, which I have, saying that Fred had been killed. Now Fred’s wife, who was in the WRNS, then had the job a few weeks’ later of going up to Buckingham Palace to receive her husband’s DFC, his second one, a Bar. When I seen this young girl, in her WRN uniform and she was only about twenty, going up to receive this award, this medal, it must have been heart-breaking. An interesting thing, occurred here, because my grandfather had a very close relationship - it’s an unusual relationship - with Churchill. Churchill valued him tremendously. They had lots of scrapes and he valued grandad because he was very good as a bodyguard, very professional. It’s not the same as you have today. He was the traditional bodyguard where he had a trilby hat a long black coat, and he always had his hand in his right hand pocket with his gun there and all the photographs during the war, wherever they went, you always saw grandad about four paces behind Churchill and he was always, pictures of him looking left right all the time. And he had been Churchill’s bodyguard before the war, when Churchill was in government positions, and they built up this unusual relationship of, of trusting each other. But when grandad heard the news about Fred’s death, he went in to Churchill and he had words with him, and he blamed Churchill for the way he had treated Fred at that meeting years ago, where Fred was so cut to the wick and he gave his job up as a Special Branch detective, to join the RAF. And he said to Churchill, ‘I blame you for my son’s death.’ That’s a funny thing to say to Churchill. Strange thing is, that Churchill said, ‘I accept that.’ And he said Churchill was very, very upset: I’ll face death. Anyway, that day seven men died. The interesting thing when you look at the records, there were eleven other aircraft that night on those, who were all shot down. So for me it’s all about Fred, but that night there were at least eleven, I think it’s eleven [emphasis] aircraft, so if you think about seven men in each aircraft, that was seventy seven men either prisoners of war or killed, all lost their life on that one night. And when you look at Bomber Command, the death rate was very, very high and most [emphasis] of them didn’t do very many missions before they died. So Fred’s group were very unusual having forty missions before they got killed. Anyway, after the war the Commonwealth Graves Commission came into being and they went to this little village and the village is Minacour les menis les halous and it’s a little tiny place, so tiny, only a few hundred people. They went to the village cemetery, which we’ve, I’ve visited; it’s so small, it’s about a hundred yards square and they said these men must have proper graves, and with proper memorials. Then all the bodies were exhumed and each man was put into their own grave. A few years ago my son, sorry my daughter and my son-in-law very kindly said they would take us out to this little village, and they took us out. It’s so quiet, the cemetery’s just on a hill and you go in there, and I stood in front of Fred’s grave, and I just thought, ‘what a mess! What an utter mess this, all these men killed.’ Anyway, the interesting thing is, that there’s a group of people that really wanted to know all about the men that died in Bomber Command, and they did some very interesting work and they found out who the German pilot was, somehow. [Cough] A few years ago, about 2009, my daughter and my son-in-law, Tim, and Sally, asked me would I, we like to go and visit the cemetery where Fred is buried, and we did. They took us out there. And this little tiny village, with just oh, a few houses, and while we were there we – nobody was around - we parked outside, wondering what to do, outside a little farmhouse. A dog started to bark, and a young lad came out, who was about sixteen. Now my French is almost non-existent, and this young lad, his English was also non-existent, so I got out a photograph out of Fred, of young Fred and the site where the crash occurred. This young lad pointed and said, basically wait and he came back, got on his bicycle, and beckoned to us to follow, and we followed for a good half mile, and then he, we got to this area which was swampy, he goes up to a garden gate, big iron gate and unlocks it, it appears his family have owned this area of the swamp for years, went in and we walked around in, on the swamp: it’s almost the same as it was and I just could picture the devastation of this aircraft which was just a mangled mess, looking at the, the lake, looking at the water and realising that all those years ago Fred was floating with his other mates on there, completely dead. It was quite a strange feeling. And then the young lad beckons, and says follow me and we go back to the village and he points up this hill and we realise that is where the cemetery was, and the cemetery really is tiny and we went up, found the graves. My son-in-law had made a special plaque, with Fred’s details on it, and my, he had put my email address at the bottom. A few weeks later I had an email from a group of people who were researching the aircraft and all his, all his crew. I found this very interesting because they came up with some information that they sent me, of the German pilot that had shot the aircraft down. And this was again, a young, German pilot, his name was Hans Karl Kemp, Kamp. He was one of their top fighter pilots and the information we’ve got here he had shot down at least twenty one aircraft and found out that later, a couple of years later he was shot down again, not again, he’s shot down over Germany and was killed himself. They also show, got a picture of the Messerschmitt, Bf110 and you can see clearly [emphasis] this jazzmusiker gun, there, pointing up, and this photograph is actually showing the pilot, Oberleutnant Hans Karl Kamp, and the information down here identifies him as the pilot that shot down Fred’s aircraft, it’s down here from the German records. It’s got all of them here, and Hans Karl Kamp and you can check them all the way down, so that was quite interesting really. But my impression now as an older man, looking at it, and I thought: all these men German and English, just are called up and they do their duty for their country so there was no real difference between Hans Karl Kamp and Fred Denzel James Thompson, except that they must have left a lot of hurt. Kamp’s wife eventually married a, an American airman and then went to America. It’s odd that she marries the enemy. And that’s that. So that is my investigation and journey with my uncle Fred.
DM: Thank you very much Peter. Thank you.


David Meanwell, “Interview with Peter Thompson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 15, 2021,

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