Service History of Benny Goodman



Service History of Benny Goodman


Begins with his decision to cease his studies and join the Royal Air Force. Covers recruitment activities and life during initial training including employment as ground gunner while waiting for flying training. Describes basic training on Tiger Moth at 17 E.F.T.S. followed by Anson and Harvard in Canada. Relates being torpedoed on return voyage home and subsequent return to Halifax, train to New York and return to United Kingdom on the Queen Mary. Tells of flying Martinet as targets for air gunners course, crewing up at O.T.U and subsequent training on Stirling at Heavy Bomber Conversion Unit and eventually Lancaster finishing school. Describes selection to go to 617 Squadron and his arrival there. Mentions that he did 30 operations with the squadron and describes some in detail including first sortie to Brest as well as against Tirpitz, one of which involved landing in Russia. Mentions Grand Slam operations as well as one to Hamburg and another where they were formated on by an Me 262. States that his last trip was to the Eagles Nest at Berchtesgaden.


Temporal Coverage



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It was September 1939. A few of us were sitting around the wireless waiting for the Prime Minister to make an announcement. He did so and told us we were now at war with Germany. I was a student, in digs, and a long way from my home in London. I decided to telephone my parents and talk things over with my father. My first instinct was to leave my studies – not a hardship really! – go home and join up. Eventually, my father agreed, much to my mother’s consternation. I discovered later. He had served four years in the 1st World War. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to join up. However, I did not want to join the navy or the army and it was only then I realised I wanted to become a pilot.
I was almost nineteen and had no idea what was entailed, but with the ignorance and cheek of youth I presented myself at the RAF recruiting office and told the officer who interviewed me what I wanted to do. He didn’t say a word, finished filling in the form he had in front of him and told me I would be hearing about my application very soon. Not long afterwards I went for a general medical and when I passed this I was sent to an RAF medical for a more involved air crew medical. Everything went well except when it came to the eye test. My eyesight had never been top class so I went to the back of the queue and learnt the two or three lines each candidate was being asked to read. I passed! After attestation, I went home to await call up. It came a few weeks later and I reported to RAF Cardington, where I was issued with a uniform and all the accoutrements for an AC 2. This is it, I thought. I shall be a pilot in a couple of weeks and will save the world!
Things didn’t quite turn out like that. After about 10 days at Cardington, we were told to pack our kitbags and were marched off to the local railway station. Rumours were rife! And if you listened to everyone, your posting was to anywhere in the world. In fact, we went to RAF Bridgenorth for six weeks square bashing and all that went with it. ‘Bull’ was the order of the day – the camp had four parade grounds) Then I and another chap were posted to RAF Abingdon. When we got there nobody had any idea we were coming and so the Orderly Room Sergeant asked us our trade. We both said ‘U.T. Pilot’ and consequently we were sent the aircrew quarters, which were in fact the married quarters on the station. Abingdon was a straight through course for Whitleys and so, with much justification, we thought we would be on the next course.
However, there was a war on! It was decided that the Whitley course running at the time would be the last one and again, no one knew what to do with us. The next day we were moved from our relatively comfortable billet to a remote part of the airfield. There was a Nissen hut with six beds, no sheets, no pillowcases and a Fairey Battle packing case as a so-called recreation room. The latrines were self-dug, but permanent. We were to be ground gunners!
It was explained to us that this was a temporary move but as such we had to learn, amongst other things, how to strip and re-assemble the C.O.W. gun and the water-cooled Lewis gun. Duties were 4 hours on / 2 hours off in the gun pit. We patrolled the airfield at night and challenged anyone on it for the password of the day. You can imagine the sort of answers we got from aircraft technicians with their bags of tools in the pitch black trying to find the Whitley they were to work on. At dawn every morning we had to march around the perimeter track with our gas masks on in case of a German paratroop invasion from the air.
Our food was brought out to us in hay boxes and so was never very warm! We used to try and sneak in once a week or so to the airmen’s quarters to see if we could get a bath, but if we were caught the airmen billeted there showed no mercy! In our off-duty time, we were sent to the coal dump to load coal bags and to carry out various other domestic duties on the camp. One of these included cleaning out the grate in the Officers’ mess before they came down for breakfast. On many occasions I did this and always had to finish by black-leading the grate and all the surrounds. Some years later I went back to Abingdon as the Adjutant of the Overseas
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Ferry Unit. When I went into the mess, I looked at the grate and the few officers sitting around it in armchairs and thought to myself: “If only you chaps knew how many times I cleaned this thing!”
A posting came through eventually to start pilot training and I was sent to Stratford-upon-Avon, which was a Reception Centre. As I walked into the Orderly Room to report my arrival, a voice shouted “Airman, you’re on a charge”. I looked around and saw no one else -I had the horrible feeling that I was already in trouble, and this was the case. Having spent some months as a ground gunner and living in my uniform it was, to say the least, scruffy, as was the cap. Not very politely I was told I was a disgrace to the service because of the state of my uniform. All the other chaps, of course, were wearing brand new uniforms and I stood out like a sore thumb. I tried to point this out to the Sergeant but he wasn’t interested. Next morning, I appeared before the O.C. unit who was sympathetic but clearly felt he had to back up his Orderly Room Sergeant. Seven days jankers was my reward.
A posting duly came along to Initial Training Wing (I.T.W.) and there we did six weeks of ground school prior to E.F.T.S. Just about everyone passed and I was sent to 17 E.F.T.S. Peterborough for ab initio training on Tiger Moths. The course was about 48-50 hours and to the horror of another chap and myself, we were posted to RAF Woodley for an instructors course. Both of us could just about manage to fly the Tiger Moth and so to be told we were going to be instructors frightened us considerably. Following this, after a couple of weeks at Clyffe Pypard a holding unit, and a spell at a Manchester park, awaiting posting, we were sent to Canada to do a S.F.T.S. on Ansons. Boy! This was living. A twin engine aircraft with retractable undercarriage, even though we had to wind it up! The course included night flying, the first time I had experienced this, and I can truly say that on my so-called first circuit I varied between 600 ft and 1,500 ft AGL and lost site of the airfield completely. I hadn’t got a clue. To my surprise, my instructor didn’t seem at all phased and by the end of the detail I had at least got the circuit and the heights more or less sorted out. What a brave man he was! After another night sortie, I was passed fit to do a solo circuit and I truly believed I was just about to die! However, all went well and I was then sent to Kingston, Ontario, to – believe it or not – instructing on Harvards. This aircraft is still in use to this day.
The thought of flying this monster, let alone instructing on it, made me feel quite sick. Kingston Ontario was an RAF station dedicated to the training of Fleet Air Arm pilots “is everybody mad?” I thought. The other instructors, all of whom had done an operational tour (and one was Fleet Air Arm) readily accepted me – the sprog in every way. The Flight Commander took me up and put me through my paces on the Harvard and pronounced me fit to start instruction. However, he showed me and tested me one lesson at a time, so that I could take up an acting leading naval airman and show him the particular procedure. Nobody else had a clue how inexperienced I was, except the other instructors in the flight who thought it was a great joke. So, I started with one lesson at a time and over a few weeks built up to the whole syllabus. I have to say the Harvard was a wonderful and responsive aircraft to fly and, despite the tales of woe and misery about ground looping, I never saw one instance of it … and that includes me!
By this time I was a Pilot Officer and because there was no room in the Mess I had digs in the town and even bought myself a Chevrolet with a dicky seat. My Canadian driving test consisted of reversing the car about 2 feet, and being told to ‘stop and get out, come into the office’ … and I was presented with my Canadian driving licence. In a short time, I had come from cleaning the grate in the Officers Mess as an AC 2 to a Pilot Officer Instructor, with a car and living in digs! Was I dreaming?
All good things come to an end and I was posted back to the U.K. to prepare to go on ops. We set sail on the Awatea from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and of course nothing ever goes well for long. Twenty-four hours later in the Atlantic, we were torpedoed. Fortunately for us, a US Navy destroyer intercepted the torpedo and took most (90%) of the subsequent explosion and sank, leaving us damaged. We had no rudder and there were several other things wrong with the ship; we went round in circles for some time. Rough repairs were made and we went back to Halifax. We kicked our heels there for a while and then were put on a train journey which lasted for several days, to New York. There we transferred immediately to the Queen Mary. There were huge numbers of American troops and O.C. Troops was an American Officer. He called all the officers together before sailing to tell us that, if we were torpedoed
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We must remember that the officers were last to leave the ship. Bearing in mind our recent experience, this didn’t exactly cheer us up. We did arrive safely in the U.K. and I found myself flying Martinets for a time, carrying out simulated air attacks on Wimpeys and for their air gunners to cine-gun their replies.
At last a posting came through to an O.T.U. at Silverstone. By this time I had already met Tony Hayward, who wore an Observers brevet, and we became good friends. We went to the O.T.U. together and there we picked up our full crew. Crews selected each other in what seemed a very haphazard manner, by talking to those we thought would be suitable, but I can’t remember ever meeting any crew member who was subsequently dissatisfied and wanted to leave his original crew. In the end, everyone was crewed up.
From Silverstone we went to the Heavy Bomber Conversion Unit at Swinderby flying Stirlings, and then to the Lancaster finishing school at Syerston. At the end of my course, the Flight Commander sent for me and my crew said: “What the hell have you done, Benny?” I protested my innocence but everybody laughed. When I entered the Flight Commander’s office I felt sure I had done something terribly wrong because there, facing me, were the Flight Commander, O.C. Flying and two or three other officers. My heart sank into my boots and the only thing I could think of was a ‘court martial’. I felt slightly cheered when the Flight Commander seemed quite friendly as he spoke to me and one or two of the other officers questioned me about my flying and the practise bombing results that we had obtained. I felt further heartened and, knowing the results, couldn’t believe that was what I was being called in about. After a couple more questions, one of the officers said to me: “How would you like to join 617 Squadron?” I truly didn’t believe that I had heard correctly and said: “Excuse me, sir. Did you say 617 Squadron?” He answered: “Yes”. I felt a heavy weight suddenly had been lifted from my shoulders and said that I and my crew would be delighted to do so.’ At that time the only other crew which had been invited to join the squadron had come and had come directly from training was headed by Tony Iveson, and he had been a Battle of Britain pilot. He had been on the Lancaster course immediately before me.
I was told that we had been selected for 617 and to report for duty within 48 hours. When I got back to the crew and told them the news, at first they didn’t believe me. Eventually, I convinced them and we all packed up and got transport to Woodhall Spa.
On arrival and after checking in at the Mess and going through the usual procedures, I reported to the Squadron Adjutant. I waited a few minutes and was ushered into Wing Commander Tait’s office, who was O.C 617 Squadron. We had a chat, or more accurately – he spoke to me and allocated me to a flight. I reported to the Flight Commander Jonny Cockshott. He welcomed me and told me that the crew would have to go on a short training course devised by the squadron and, importantly, to get used to the S.A.B.S. bombsight and to obtain bombing results within the limits prescribed by 617 Squadron. We did this and found ourselves accepted as fully operational on the squadron.
My first trip was with Flight Lieutenant Bob Knights … without my crew but with his. I sat in the dicky seat where the Flight Engineer usually sat. I couldn’t have been luckier in the choice of captain I was to fly with. Not only was Bob an extremely nice chap but he was most helpful as well. To give you an idea of his value, he was a Flight Lieutenant with a D.S.O. and I think you know there aren’t many of those to the pound.
I did a full tour of thirty trips with the Squadron. The first trip as a crew was to Brest and, of course, being a sprog crew things had to happen, didn’t they? Over the sea, I suddenly found the cockpit full of smoke and the wireless operator telling me his radios were on fire. He and the navigator were trying to make sure the fire didn’t spread. Just the sort of confidence booster you need on your first sortie on a new squadron! I opened the D.V. panel and fortunately the combined efforts of the wireless operator and navigator dealt with the fire … we carried on. One thing was certain: none of us could have faced a return to the squadron without completing the trip saying: “We couldn’t do it. We had a fire on board.” How’s that for luck?
Some of the trips we did were quite well known. There was the Tirpitz trip (13 1/4 hours) and a 9 hour 25 minute night trip to Politz-Stettin. That was the first time I could truthfully say that, at 18,000 ft with
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oxygen masks on, I can remember smelling cordite from the flak that was thrown at us. That may sound like a line shoot, but it certainly wasn’t at the time. A further notable op was against the Arnsberg viaduct, when we were selected to drop the 22,000 lb Grand Slam on the viaduct.
We received Grand Slam in March 1945. To carry this a number of modifications were made to the Lancaster – a Lincoln undercarriage was fitted to allow for the increase in weight; mid-upper and front turret were removed, along with the wireless operator’s equipment and the W/Op himself. Other armour plate was taken out and the ammunition load reduced, all to save weight. The bomb doors were removed and replaced by fairings and a chain link strop with electro-mechanical release was fitted to hold Grand Slam in place.
As I recall it I was number three to release a Grand Slam, Jock Calder was the first, and Johnny Cockshott the second. This was in March – yes we are still in March, and Arnsberg Viaduct was the target. On release I remember the aircraft went up vertically about 100 – 200 feet. My flight engineer recalls hearing a loud bang at the same time, as the release slip parted.
In all 617 dropped 41 Grand Slams before the end of the war in Europe. I like to think Grand Slam punched its weight. We were the only squadron to have this bomb.
Another op that had high squitter value was against Hamburg. We had the misfortune to have a hang-up and the bomb dropped a few seconds late, which meant that it didn’t fall on the target but into the residential area beyond the target. We didn’t feel good about this, but there was nothing we could do. We set course for home. About fifteen minutes later my flight engineer nudged me and nodded his head toward what I thought was the instrument panel. I looked but could see nothing wrong, so went on flying. He nudged me even harder and moved his head rather more urgently towards the starboard side. I looked out and to my horror saw the latest German twin engine jet fighter, a Messerschmitt Me262, in formation with us on our starboard wing. I thought I must be dreaming but I knew very well I wasn’t, and thought: “This is it.” It seemed to me that if I tried a 5 Group corkscrew we wouldn’t have a chance against the German aircraft. We had no mid-upper turret and clearly the rear gunner was completely unable to train his guns on him. So, there we were at the mercy of the Luftwaffe. The flight engineer and I looked at each other again and then I looked at the German pilot, but there was no friendly wave from him – so much for fellowship of the air! Suddenly the Me262 disappeared as quickly as it had appeared and I wondered if we had all been smoking opium the night before! It was only some years later when I was talking to Air Commodore John Langston, who at the time was a Flying Officer navigator, that what appeared to be the same aircraft had attacked and shot at John’s aircraft. The German pilot must have just left training school because, although he clearly used all his ammo on John’s aircraft, he hadn’t shot him down. I thought later how fortunate we both were.
Three more incidents out of a number of lucky escapes makes one ask the question. Did Lady Luck really play a part?
On one raid during the bombing run the nose section of the fuselage was hit. Everyone seemed okay, but after landing back at base the bomb aimer discovered that both heels of his flying boots were pitted with shrapnel. An inch or two either way?
On another raid the wireless operator was tuning his radio and leaned a little closer to the set. As he did so, a large projectile or piece of flak entered one side of the fuselage and exited the other. After we landed, the wireless operator sat normally in his seat and we measured the two holes and the position of his head. If he had been sitting in this position at the time of the attack, the projectile/flak would have pierced one side of his head and exited the other. An inch or two either way?
There were three Tirpitz sorties. The first trip involved a direct flight from the U.K. to Yagodnik, Russia, land there, refuel and stay the night. From thereon the next day, the first Tirpitz attack was attempted. This was a hazardous plan as it included flying over Europe both ways and in the end the attack was not successful. However, we unfortunately lost one aircraft.
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For the second and third Tirpitz trips, amongst the modifications, two large fuel tanks were fitted inside the fuselage. Health and safety, eat your heart out! The flight engineers had to master the new fuel system very quickly, and indeed they did. Both these trips were made from an advanced base at Lossiemouth. On both occasions the squadron flew up to Lossiemouth with Tallboys already on board, refuelled and attended final briefing. On the second trip, at midnight, we lined up around the perimeter track, taking off in turn at a green signal from the control tower. The weather was unkind – low cloud and rain – just the job for a night low level trip across the sea! Our turn was approaching and I was having a last look around the cockpit when the flight engineer poked me in the ribs, pointing at the canopy. I looked up and saw a massive pair of main undercarriage wheels heading straight for us. There was nothing I could do as there were aircraft either side of me. We both sat there, like rabbits caught in the headlights, and waited for the inevitable. At the last moment, the wheels cleared our canopy and all was normal again. Just the sort of experience you need before take-off on a foul night!
Later we discovered the errant aircraft was flown by Tony Iveson. He had suffered engine surge on the point of leaving the ground. By a masterful piece of crew co-operation and training he and his flight engineer finally kept the aircraft straight and it just cleared the top of our canopy. But we were all young and I suppose took it in our stride. Now, I’d have the vapours. Lady Luck again.
Due to cloud and an efficient smokescreen, it was not possible to bomb the Tirpitz with any accuracy and we returned to Lossiemouth. However, on the third trip – a replica of the second – 617 Squadron finally sank the Tirpitz.
My last trip was to Berchtesgaden, the Eagle’s Nest, and I understand we were followed by Main Force. We, 617, certainly made a mess of the Waffen SS barracks. This was my last trip with the squadron although we were already made aware of a possible raid, I believe to Denmark. However, a truce was declared before this. After the war, I went into Transport Command but everything seemed so tame after 617 Squadron.
Finally, but certainly not least, I pay tribute to the ground crews. Working out in all weathers, often in wind snow and rain-swept dispersals they were always there to ensure the serviceability of our aircraft. Despite working long hours, they were always there to see us depart, and waited in uncertainty, eager to witness our return… …and woe betide us if we damaged [underlined]their [/underlined] aircraft! For 365 days and nights they made it possible for us to do our job. All of us who flew knew their worth, but why were they never publicly recognised? We would have been wingless wonders without them.



B Goodman, “Service History of Benny Goodman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 21, 2024,

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