Interview with Harold Mercer


Interview with Harold Mercer


Harold Mercer served in the RAF initially as a transport driver and then trained to become an air gunner. He worked as a milkman before being called up in April 1942. Was sent to Weston-super-Mare, where he played in the military band. Was then sent to Blackpool to train as a transport driver. From there he was sent to RAF Bridgnorth for general training. Was then posted to 901 Squadron on barrage balloons at RAF Kidbrooke, London, where as a transport driver he supplied balloon sites with food and equipment. Was then posted to Eglinton, Northern Ireland at 5019 Squadron, where he drove a flight lieutenant to various airfields and maintenance sites. Was then sent to train as an air gunner. He flew on Ansons at RAF Pembrey and on Wellingtons at RAF Lossiemouth. Was then posted to 1663 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Rufforth on Halifax Mark IIIs and from there to 77 Squadron at RAF Full Sutton. By that time, war had ended and so he never got on operations. Was then posted to RAF Beaulieu to the Air Force Experimental Establishment.




Temporal Coverage




01:14:52 audio recording


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AMercerH170519, PMercerH1701


DK: This is David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Harold Mercer at his home on the 19th of May 2017. Get going. Alright, I’ll just make sure that’s working. So, just start, if I could just ask you, what were you doing immediately before the war?
HM: I was working for North Shields corporated society as a milk man, driving horse and cart round the streets, delivering milk
DK: So, what years would that be?
HM: That was 1942
DK: 1942. So, what made you then want to join the RAF? Was that your decision or?
HM: Well, it was, yes, it was my decision, I had volunteered at the beginning of the year 1942, and I have gone up to Edinburgh for an interview, I wanted to be in aircrew then but over to you I wasn’t contemplated for at the time and they sent me on the reserve list so I was called up in April 1942
DK: 1942, yeah
HM: On call up, I suppose you want me to continue,
DK: Yes, please, yeah
HM: On call up, I was posted to Weston-super-Mare for what was generally called square-bashing, so I did two months in Weston-super-Mare, while I was there, I did the usual things, marching up and down the promenade, learning how to the march, how to do the drills and everything
DK: How did you feel about all that, was that something you liked or?
HM: To be quite honest, I quite enjoyed it for one reason, I had a little corporal [unclear] who was determined to be a Sir, so I had to call him sir anyway, but being sort of raw recruits and not used to Air Force or Army life or anything really like that, we just generally called him Sir, behind his back I think he was called other things, but that was the Air Force lads, but we got on very well together, there was, the squadron was about thirty, I would imagine? I’ve got a photograph there actually, about thirty of us in a squad and while I was there, I did the usual square-bashing and the odd sentry duty and only one wood march I ever did anyway, the reason for that was I was a musician and I played the euphonium in a brass band, so once the corporal got to know that, he said, oh, I got a job for you, I went to see the sergeant in charge of the band at the time and he said, welcome, he says, it’s just what we need, so I joined the band. Doing that meant that we didn’t do so many parades or anything other than practice in the Weston-super-Mare pavilion there, so we did a lot of practice and of course the drill sergeant said, you know, he was quite upset because we were missing a lot of parades but on the other hand, we had to give concerts every night in the pavilion, so we did a lot of rehearsals during the day so we couldn’t be drilling and rehearsing as musicians, the musicians apparently had the first choice of our time, so I spent two months [unclear] at Weston-super-Mare and we were billeting in private houses in those days, about three to, three to a room, you know, use your little beds that you have, but I quite enjoyed the time there and then when it came to leaving super-Mare, I was destined to be a [unclear], transport driver, so I eventually arrived up, lasted up in the Blackpool School of Motoring, learning all about the cars and lorries, buses, the whole works and
DK: Had you actually driven before then
HM. Yes, I
DK: Or did they teach you to drive?
HM: I happened, actually I happened to be a driver because my brother had a car
DK: Right
HM: And he taught me to drive and I’ve driven ever since I was seventeen. But anyway, I still had to go through the usual school, learning about the combustion engines, and touring around Blackpool area, learning how to drive these cars, busses, lorries, whatever the corporal wanted that day
DK: So you were taught not only how to drive these vehicles, also how to maintain them, and the engines, and
HM: Yeah, we had to be, I rather was, were mechanics, we had to learn all about the combustion engine and be able to trace faults on the car, on the motor, on the whatever, the transport was the intention, so we had to learn all about that, I think that, I’m not sure if [unclear] but, yes, we had to learn both sides, both driving and positive the engine world, you know, so, I say I was there about two months, as actually there was the British School of Motoring that we were under and I had a lady instructor and she says, oh, you are fine enough, no problem with you, but when it came to passing the test, I couldn’t pass the test first time, you know, and I said to this lady, I’ll never pass the test because I’m far too nervous when it comes to anybody sitting beside me, but I know I can drive perfectly and I won’t hurt anybody, so anyway, after the second test, this lady instructor told the examiner exactly what I was done, he says, this airman is perfectly capable of driving anything you care to put on any he’ll drive properly, so the examiner took notice of this, so I passed.
DK: Right
HM: And that was the end of my time in Blackpool, we had off duty time so we passed most of our time at the YM I think, at the YMCA, playing billiards or whatever, snooker, well, you know anything that was coming up. One thing I do remember, going back to Weston-super-Mare, is every Sunday the Air Force had to attend morning service at the church and of course the job of the band was to lead them to the church so they led us to the church, we led them to the church, but the church wouldn’t let us in with our instruments so the corporal says, come back in an hour’s time, I want you here back in an hour’s time, so what we did, popped down the end of the road, went in a café, had a cup of tea so we missed the church service, so that was, I suppose, that’s one of the advantages of being in the brass, being a musician and then we just marched them back to the quarters again and dismissed for the day, had a day off, you know, that was just a little thing [unclear]
DK: Have you been in the band then?
HM: It was, yeah, if you were a musician, it was pretty good because you, various times you were called away to do a concert for somebody and we did, we did concerts, I would say every night, somewhere in the area, so,
DK: Was it something that you stuck to afterwards? Is it something that you’ve done all your life? Continued to play?
HM: Oh yes, I’d been a musician from eight years old I was taught, all my family are salvationers and I was naturally, we were all brought up to be salvationists of as I moved up in airs I was transferred from a junior band to the senior band and then from there I went to the Air Force, so I had a good solid grounding for playing in the band
DK: So just going back to when you passed your test for the motor transport
HM: Yeah
DK: What could you drive after passing that test? Was it the big trucks or?
HM: Yes, thirty hundred weight trucks
DK: You could drive thirty hundred weight trucks
HM: Yeah
DK: And coaches or anything like that?
HM: Yes, we had coaches as well, you had to be able to drive practically anything really, [unclear], yes, you had to be able to drive any vehicle that was to hand and what job was wanted to be done, so it was very interesting and [unclear] if I would say those two months I had
DK: So after those two months, were you posted to a squadron then or to an airfield?
HM: No, from there I went to Bridgnorth for general training, that was like building all of the Air Force discipline and duties and ranks and you know, the whole works of the Air Force you had to go through the, through a whole book as well as doing various drills, nothing like Weston-super-Mare, just ordinary drills, learning how to behave in public, behave at a table, sort of, was like officer training, you had to be able to do, holding a knife and fork and all the various equipment, depending what meal you were at, so it started from breakfast right away through to being at a dinner, black tie and everything sort of thing
DK: And how did you find all of that, was it interesting or?
HM: Well, it was very, I think, I mean, I wasn’t used to that sort of life, for the low station time was hard before that so I was used to very hard life, bringing up my mother had to go to work at four o’clock in the morning, to make enough money to feed us, perhaps people these days don’t understand what the Twenties and Thirties were like, you see, I’m going back a long way and then of course I was brought up by very disciplined parents, very loving but you did nothing on a Sunday except having your food, you couldn’t read anything, you couldn’t buy anything, you know, days were hard in those, today people haven’t got any idea what those days were like, the Thirties especially were, men were short of money, in fact it was the war that made a big change, a very big change in life, in my life anyway, I got sort of out into the world, I’d never been away from home, till I joined the Air Force, you know, I travelled up to Edinburgh, well, Edinburgh as far as I was concerned was Australia, could’ve been, because of us [unclear] altogether, I was born up in North Shields and I lived there, never went out at all, you know people cannot believe, these days they accept travelling all over the world,
DK: It’s normal, isn’t it, all just popping up all over Europe
HM: Oh, I’m gonna have a holiday, oh, where are we going this year? Oh, we’re going to Spain, we’re going all over, well, at my time you were lucky if you got as far as your own town really, that was as far as you got, anyway, back to Blackpool, and had a load of work [unclear] there, we’re billeted again in private houses, about, usually about three in a room depending from the size of the building and off duty we were going to [unclear] and just to, you know, spare time and of course we went to the Tower Ballroom I’ll come to that part later on but we went to the Tower Ballroom but we couldn’t dance just for the music and get together with the boys, get a little bit chatty, I thoroughly enjoyed learning all about motors and that came in handy in life later on as I advanced over the Air Force actually so from actually I think it was about two months approximately I haven’t got the exact date, well, I have the exact date somewhere, but I would say about two months and then we were posted again now I went to Bridgnorth which I was telling I was saying learning all about the Air Force discipline and ranks and how to behave in public and how to dine out and all this sort of thing as well as, pigeon, clay pigeon shooting,
DK: Oh right.
HM: We did a bit of clay pigeon shooting at Bridgnorth so there again, I think was, I think we were there three months, were quite a long time training at Bridgnorth, from Bridgnorth I was posted to Kidbrooke in London and a balloon barrage squadron where I was
DK: Whereabouts in London, sorry? Kilbourn?
HM: It was Kidbrooke
DK: Kidbrooke, right, Kidbrooke.
HM: Kidbrooke, 901 Squadron
DK: Right
HM: It was Kidbrooke, I was posted there as qualified motor driver and from Kidbrooke, Kidbrooke was the headquarters of the London Balloon Command
DK: Right, ok.
HM: And I was posted to Plumstead, which was a satellite of that squadron and from that site we supplied
DK: So the balloons, this is the barrage balloons,
HM: The big barrage balloons
DK: Yeah, right.
HM: The barrage balloons, with oxygen, you know, hydrogen, and from Plumstead we supplied the balloon sites with food every day and with any equipment we were transported over to they were only on WAAF sites, mostly WAAF sites, around my area anyway, I think I had three sites to go to every day, keep them topped up and most of the sites were WAAF, under the WAAF command, so I was there quite a long time then, while I was there off-duty times, I was stationed at the headquarters at Plumstead, when we were off-duty we used to pop out to Eltham Palace dancing, we couldn’t dance, I couldn’t dance, that’s for sure, we weren’t allowed to do things like that, anyway, funnily enough, we happened to have a corporal instructor, he said, I can dance in Civvy Street, I’ve danced in Civvy Street, I teach dancing, so we said, well, come on, you’ll have to show us what to do, you know, to go to the girls, when were nights off, so he taught us all about dancing,
DK: Oh, right [laughs]
HM: You can imagine, twenty airmen in a barrack room learning how to dance, was a bit of a laugh, but we learned the basics anyway, and then when we went out with the WAAFs, we’d get the tram out to Eltham and go to Eltham Palace to dance and when we were dancing, well, you could call it dancing [laughs], because the WAAFs, you know, and the locals would pick the WAAFs up, and I didn’t, I couldn’t get away with dancing, but never mind, the WAAFs used to come up, he said, Harry, if I don’t like the man I am dancing with, we just buzz him off, cause in those days we had what we called the excuse me dances, the chap and told him he had to move on, so that was my job when I went to the dances with the girls, they was coming on and you know, the girls winked as they went past so I would just get up and tap them on the shoulder away would go and so I had a good job dancing with the WAAFs, I went round once stopped and sat and it would happen again, you know, but it was like entertainment as far as we were concerned, and it got you again from the hard fact that there was the war [unclear] all the time I mean, many a time would have an air raid but would have shut down and such, you know [unclear] we could get but we got plenty of time off there, the only thing that they didn’t have was any place where we could get a shower or a bath or whatever you needed, so we had tickets to go into Woolwich and took the baths in Woolwich, we’d go and have a bath there and we’re taken in and then from there we would go to the pictures and put the night in, so that’s how we did a lot of entertainment down in London apart from the air raid traffic [unclear]. Mind you, the air raids, the weather on London and [unclear] was very foggy, smog
DK: Smog
HM: Absolutely thick, you could hardly see your hand in front of you, and in fact one day I was driving a just this light weight van and I got lost, I couldn’t see where I was going, I ended up on a greens somewhere and had to go in the van, just walk where I though the edge might be, I found the edge and then sort of well [unclear] somewhere I know but I no idea
DK: But the headlights were covered up as well, weren’t they?
HM: The headlights were, yeah, the headlights, you might as well not have them on, because they were shaded with little slots in the front and the light they gave off was minimal, no good enough, and you had, it was all in your head, you knew the route, so
DK: I imagine there must have been a few accidents
HM: Oh, there was a few accidents, but you couldn’t avoid it because you couldn’t see where you were going, cause so thick, mind you, we never moved any heavy equipment through the night
DK: Right
HM: Such as the hydrogen bottles, you know, they had, what you called, Scammells, American things, huge motors, but the length of the [unclear] really, and you had all your bottles on the back and then a trailer behind that, so, you know, you got a good length
DK: Did you drive any of those, the Scammells?
HM: I drove the Scammells, excuse me
DK: I’ll just pause that.
HM: So
DK: So, you actually drove the Scammells, then, did you?
HM: I drove, yeah, I drove the Scammells and with the trailer to the WAAF site
DK: And what would be your loads then, what normally were your loads then that you were carrying?
HM: Well, that I remember, that’d probably be about, about fifteen to twenty hydrogen bottles on the Scammell itself, with the same number on the trailer, and you took those to the site, drop them off as you are going round, I can’t exactly remember how many we dropped off at the time, anyway we would obviously drop them off for the [unclear] and pick up others to take back
DK: The empty ones you’d take back
HM: The empty ones we’d take back and then they would be collected by the foreman who provided them in the first place
DK: And refilled
HM: Refilled and then we would do that every day, really, that was something that we did every day and besides the odd little jobs around the site and we had one motorcyclist at place, like a sort of dispatch, dispatch right I would say, and of course there was
DK: So, did he escort you sometimes then?
HM: Yes, he would try and sort of lead the way but you know, you had to use a lot of your own instinct as well, you know, to keep on top of things, we had one or two WAAF drivers, not so many, had one or two of them, it was mostly men at that time,
DK: And were the women driving the big trucks as well?
HM: They never drove the big trucks, no, that was left to the men, the big trucks and busses, that was for the men there, so anyway I finished my time in Bridgnorth, at Plumstead, I went to Bridgnorth, I told you about Bridgnorth, and from Bridgnorth I was posted to Blackpool
DK: Right, yeah.
HM: I went to Blackpool, and I was only there about a fortnight and I was moved up to Northern Ireland, from there I went to Northern Ireland, to Eglinton
DK: Eglinton
HM: In Northern Ireland, well, actually the headquarters, I was at the headquarters first, actually to be honest, I worked from headquarters all the time, which was 5019 Squadron
DK: 5019
HM: 5019
DK: Alright
HM: Funnily enough, I can’t find it in the books anywhere, but I’ve got a photograph with the, of the group, you know
DK: Oh, right, ok.
HM: With the, with the whole squadron
DK: Right
HM: And we were the ones with peaky cups. You know, everybody else had foddered caps, we had a proper peaky cap. Fortunately when I was at Belfast, I got the one job that was going as driver to the officer in charge of the engineering and electrical works all over Ireland, so my job was to drive him to whatever airfield or maintenance area that needed his attention
DK: And what sort of vehicle were you driving him in then?
HM: A Hillman car
DK: Right
HM: One was one in a Hillman car to wherever was necessary, if so, to be honest I’ve been all over Northern Ireland,
DK: So, was he an officer then?
HM: Flight lieutenant
DK: Flight lieutenant, right
HM: Yes, he was Flight Lieutenant and he was in charge of electrical and mechanical vehicles and sites all over Northern Ireland
DK: Right
HM: So I have been nearly in every town in Northern Ireland you can think of, I spent some time in Ballykelly, the thing was, when I was with him, going around all these places, we’d call it aerodrome and he would say, I’m gonna be here three days, driver, just please yourself of what you do, I’m here and if anybody stops you, just refer them to me,
DK: Right
HM: So, every time I went anywhere, I was just on me own, wandering about, going for a coffee or whatever, for a cup of tea, you know
DK: So you got to know Northern Ireland quite well, then
HM: I got to know Northern Ireland upside down, yeah, went to Belfast, way along the top, Ballykelly was a big aerodrome and further along was Coleraine River Valley and Eglinton, which was also a naval station, they didn’t have any planes of course, it was just the station, but he had to look after the maintenance of the works on every station, you see, so, Eglinton came under his edict [unclear] as well, and I went into Londonderry quite a bit when I was off duty, and we used to go to a Roman Catholic tearoom which they had, you know, for Air Force, well, for forces members, so I often went there and had a cup of tea and a wad as they called it and the made us very welcome, at night [unclear] went to the cinema which was only a tin hut, so you can imagine what it was like when I rained, you couldn’t hear anything on because of the thundering and the rain but it was light entertainment I quite enjoyed it because I was more or less free-lance for nine months in Northern Ireland, the one thing that comes to mind, one night the chef put something on whatever it was, I think it was, I don’t know if it was [unclear] or whatever it was, anyway it was quite hot, and through the night, oh, everybody was ill, everybody on the camp was ill, you just had to go outside, you know, there was nothing else to do for it, you know, everybody was in the same boat, so, but it was a really desperate situation, I can tell you, caused many a laughing once we got over the problem, you know, the whole site, the whole camp, upside down, you know, with people dashing outside,
DK: Did the chef get into trouble over that?
HM: [laughs] I would imagine he did, I’ve never heard the end of the story of that but I imagine he would get a severe tipping off from the officer in charge [laughs], of the camp, you know, but it was just one of those things that all, it’s all in life, isn’t it? You know, so, that was it, Northern Ireland, anyway while I was at Northern Ireland after about nine months, a memo came round to anyone resting becoming an air gunner, you know, so I thought, oh damn, I’d done nine months here, I said, we’d be doing nothing really, you know, I always part of the war, and haven’t had me done, somebody had to do it, so anyway, I volunteered and I was accepted for aircrew
DK: Can you remember which year this would have been or
HM: That would have been 194
DK: 3?
HM: No, no, it was much later than that, was it ’43? That would be ’43, end of ‘43
DK: So, end of ’43, ‘44
HM: Yeah, [unclear] the end of ’43 or begin of ’44, was round that period, yes, we’re in 1944
DK: Right
HM: 1944, I definitely went and as you went on to London in those days and in Lord’s Cricket Ground was the
DK: The aircrew
HM: The aircrew selection so I went to the selection there, passed that, no [unclear] I was accepted to become an air gunner, of course you had a severe medical to become an aircrew, you had to be perfect, you know, eyesight, hearing, you know, there was no, if you had the slightest thing wrong with you, you didn’t pass, so anyway I passed all the tests, then we got about seven jabs for various things in case we were sent abroad, all at once you know [unclear] and the lads were going bang! Bang! [mimics a banging noise] so the tallest fellows it seemed to affect them more than us little fellows, you know, and they, they were going down, flat all with all these jabs, I mean, obviously they came round after a few minutes but they knocked them all out [unclear] so they took them a day so for everybody to get settled in so when I went there we just did the usual sports activities and training you know, what you call it? Physics, physical fitness
DK: Yep, yeah, [unclear]
HM: We did a lot of that, so we were perfectly fit when we left there, funnily enough I was just, I was there three months and I can’t remember, I can’t imagine where, how I was there three months, took my time I suppose
DK: And this was at Lord’s
HM: And this was at Lord’s Cricket Ground
DK: Yeah
HM: At the Long Room, so I can always say I’ve been at Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Long Room as well. Of course, I know it’s this sort of side effect, but you met a lot of ladies or young girls and you had a good time with them, I mean, I reckon all the airmen would tell you that,
DK: Yeah
HM: We’ve all had flings with somebody, you know, I mean, [laughs] I don’t know if this is [unclear], I had a, I met a lovely young lady, and she wanted me, I found out that she was a Jewess, you know, well, I did, that part didn’t bother me at all, you know, I said, I’m only here for a couple of months I said whatever, we’ll have a nice time, take her to the pictures, dances, and what that, which I did and [unclear], me mom and dad would like to see ye, oh no, no, I’m not, no, I’m not, so I said, yeah, well, it’s very kind of them but I’d rather think I’m not ready for that yet, so that passed, that was a little bit of history, some of my family don’t know that, but she was a lovely girl and we got on well together, you know, was just
DK: Well, it wasn’t the time to get serious then, was it?
HM: It wasn’t the time to get serious anyway with anybody, I mean, you could’ve been here one day and [unclear] the next, but it’s not fair to anybody [unclear], anyway that’s fine so I passed all the examinations and then I went to training school, to train as air gunner, but this, sorry, I’ve got mixed up, I put Bridgnorth before, it should be after
DK: Right, ok
HM: Right?
DK: Right, ok
HM: [unclear] by Bridgnorth, kind of when we learned about air gunnery
DK: Right, that was at Bridgnorth
HM: That was at Bridgnorth
Dk: Right, ok
HM: We learned all about Bridgnorth, we didn’t do route marches there, was all air gunnery training
DK: So, what, at Bridgnorth then, what sort of training as a gunner did you do then, was it all on the ground or?
HM: Yes, just to refresh me memory, I went to Pembury for air gunnery training,
DK: Right
HM: First
DK: Right
HM: I’m trying to get where this is in, I should have me book out, then I go to Bridgnorth first, or did I go to Pembrey first?
DK: That doesn’t matter, I mean, you obviously went to both, so,
HM: I went, yes, I went to Pembrey, yes, I think that, I think Pembrey was the first thing
DK: Right
HM: Before that
DK: So, it’s Pembrey then Bridgnorth
HM: Yeah
DK: Yeah
HM: Eh.
DK: So what was
HM: This, when he came flying Bridgnorth, Pembrey could’ve been after Bridgnorth, that’s right, ah, that’s right, I learned all about air gunnery, on the ground
DK: On the ground, so what did the training involve then? Did you have to get to know the wetland and [unclear]
HM: You had to learn all about the Browning 303 guns and you didn’t have to bother about rifles but we did do rifling on a course, firing at targets, you know, our legs spread out and
DK: Lying down
HM: Lying down, yeah, everybody lying down and instructors behind you telling you what to do, so, that was part of the training, firing rifles, we also did clay pigeon
DK: Right
HM: Clay pigeon shooting as well
DK: Is it something you took to? Were you quite?
HM: Yeah, quite happy with, I quite enjoyed clay pigeon shooting but because I mostly hit them, I must have been ok for that, yeah, I quite enjoyed that training
DK: So, was it deflection shooting then?
HM: Yes, deflection, oh no, deflection came at Pembrey
DK: Ah, right, ok.
HM: So, Bridgnorth comes before Pembrey
DK: Yeah
HM: We went to Pembrey, that’s the thing
DK: And that’s where you learned pigeon shooting
HM: That’s where I learned all the, that’s where we were up in Ansons and that’s where we did our air gunnery training, and hit a towing target, you know, a plane would drag a tow and we would have to fire at the tow, which had sunny camera as well, as well as live shooting we did
DK: So you had a trip in the Avro Anson then, would that’d been the first time you’ve flown?
DK: That was the first I’d ever been in the air
HM: Yes, this is the Anson one, this is, that’s, oh no, that’s Lossiemouth, that’s further on now, anyway, I did the, I did Pembrey training on Ansons, and that’s the first time I’ve been flying,
DK: So, was the turret in the Anson
HM: No, I can’t remember, there must have been a turret,
DK: Right
HM: There must have been a turret because we had been to fly, we had to fire at the drove
DK: Right
HM: And according to that, I had four percent so, that’s supposed to be good,
DK: Four percent?
HM: Supposed to be good,
DK: Right
HM: Out of a hundred rounds, yes, [unclear]
DK: A hundred rounds, four hit and that was quite good
HM: Yeah, pretty good, must have been, I passed. So, I did me Anson training down there and air gunnery and learning all about deflection
DK: Yeah
HM: Find the speed of your aircraft, find the speed of their aircraft, you find the width, the length and the distance between and fire a head of it, so many yards ahead so that the bullet was collided at the same time with the aircraft, hopefully, anyway I must admit when I hit, well, I did hit it a few times, so that’s gone down there so, so I passed out as an air gunner down in Anson, down in Pembrey on Ansons. From there I went to Lossiemouth
DK: Right, so [unclear] the logbook
HM: That’s where the logbook comes in
DK: Can I have a look?
HM: Yeah, have a look at there first.
DK: So, it’s, I’ve got here, just for this, it’s number 1 AGS, is that
HM: Yeah, 1 AGS
DK: It’s that Air Gunnery School?
HM: That’s Air Gunnery School
DK: And that’s at Pembrey
HM: Yeah, at Pembrey at that time
DK: So, that’s on the Avro Ansons
HM: Yeah. That’s on the Ansons.
DK: That tells you here how many rounds you fired. Say, three hundred rounds?
HM: Yeah
DK: So, three hundred rounds score, for example thirty-one?
HM: Thirty-one, yeah
DK: Three hundred rounds splashed, so you were [unclear] into the sea
HM: Yeah
DK: Yeah
HM: We had tiny cameras as well
DK: The steady cameras, yeah. Oh I see, it actually says sindy cameras, isn’t it?
HM: It says sindy camera, yeah
DK: So, total flying then was twenty-four hours, fifteen minutes
HM: Of training
DK: Yeah,
HM: Yeah
DK: Training at Pembrey, so,
HM: At Pembrey
DK: So, the flights itself weren’t very long, were they?
HM: Oh no
DK: About thirty minutes, thirty, forty minutes
HM: Yeah. No, the flights themselves weren’t very long, you were up
DK: Can you remember how many of you were in the Anson?
HM: There’d be about five of us, ex air gunners
DK: And you’d all take it in turns
HM: We’d all take it in turns
DK: To shoot
HM: Yeah
DK: So, then it tells you how many rounds you fired
HM: It tells how many rounds you fired there and if you were
DK: How many hits?
HM: There is one thing about all this training. If you failed on one subject, you were out
DK: You were out, yeah
HM: You didn’t get a second chance you know
DK: So, it says here beam
HM: Beams
DK: Beam, 7.83 percent. And then Beam RS
HM: Don’t remember what RS stands for
DK: That’s 5.66 percent hits. And then quarter
HM: Oh, that’s, ah, that’s if you draw [unclear], yeah, beam is stale across
DK: Beam across, yeah and quarter is 3.24 percent
HM: Yeah, it would be probably diving, and you’d have to follow it down
DK: So the quarter then, total was four thousand eight hundred rounds so you [unclear] corner
HM: In total
DK: In total, in total
HM: Oh yes, you done a lot of firing altogether but
DK: And they were all with the Browning 303s
HM: All with 303s
DK: Yeah
HM: Yeah
DK: So, after Pembrey then, you’ve gone to Lossiemouth
HM: I went to Lossiemouth
DK: And that’s with 20 OTU, 20 Operational Training Unit
HM: Yeah, Operational Training Unit
DK: So, I’m just reading your logbook here, it’s just for the benefit of the recording,
HM: Yeah
DK: So, you went to Lossiemouth in September 1944
HM: Yeah
DK: And you were training on Wellingtons
HM: Wellingtons, yeah, lovely aircraft
DK: So, what do you, you liked the Wellingtons
HM: Lovely aircraft
DK: Yeah
HM: Yes, I liked the Wellington, was a really good, it seemed to be, what shall we say
DK: Stable?
HM: Very stable and, you know, it seemed you could do anything with it, and it would answer the call, whatever you wanted to do with it. You know, if you would tell the skipper to corkscrew, you know,
DK: Yeah. So, they were very agile
HM: Yeah, very agile aircraft, very manoeuvrable
DK: Very manoeuvrable.
HM: Manoeuvrable
DK: So, when you were training on the Wellingtons then, did you go? You were training in the turrets,
HM: Oh yes, we in the turrets, yeah
DK: So, you were in the rear turret
HM: Rear turret
DK: The front turret? Or the rear turret?
HM: I was never in the mid upper gunner
DK: Right
HM: I was always in the rear turret and I followed, you’re sort of on your own at the back, yeah, everybody else is in the front, and you are the full length of the aircraft at the other end, you felt on your own but you didn’t feel lonely, shall I say, you felt on your own but not lonely
DK: So, by the time you got to 20 OTU, have you met up with your crew now then or kind of [unclear]?
HM: That’s where you meet your crew
DK: Right
HM: All except the engineer
DK: Right.
HM: Yeah
DK: And how did your crew come together then?
HM: Well, you’re all sort of, shall I say, in a big room, and air gunners, you know, you’re only a little groups of navigators, air gunners and what, and then you sort of just wander about and you find this, well, you usually find the skipper and then sort of go round with him, having a chat with everybody and then see who liked to join us and you know, was, it wasn’t sort of you go there and you go there, you know, you had one and talked to everybody
DK: Did you think that was a good idea that you kind of found your own crews, you weren’t ordered to?
HM: Well, I think so because you thought, well, I could get on with that chap, and you know, if he’s willing to join us, well, what do you say? Well, they told their friend, so what do you think?
DK: Cause it’s quite
HM: [unclear] quite like him
DK: It’s quite unusual, isn’t it, because normally in the military, in the RAF, you’re told where to go and do this, do this
HM: [unclear]
DK: But the crewing up was very much
HM: Very much a disorganised organised
DK: Yeah
HM: You know, organised disorder, so they say
DK: And can you remember the name of the pilot that you ended up with?
HM: Oh yes, W. B. Holmes
DK: W. B. Holmes
HM: Yeah. Don’t ask me the names, I can tell you the, probably tell you the first name, the, he was called, W. B. Holmes, Basil, we called him Basil, anyway and we had a navigator who was called Jock, he was the bomb aimer, he was a Scot, he came from Scotland. Navigator, we had, he was from London, Ken, Ken, had another air gunner called, the mid upper gunner was called Colman, I forgot his name there, what was his name again? Oh! It’s gone, it’s gone over the head, he was one, he was the grandson of the mustard people, you know, Colman’s mustard
DK: Oh, right, oh right, yeah
HM: Was the grandson of the custard, people, the navigator was called Ken, he came from London. I’ve already given you the bomb aimer. Well, the flight
DK: Flight engineer
HM: Flight engineer, I don’t know if his name’s in the book
DK: We’ll have a look in a minute
HM: It might be
DK: So you were always the rear gunner then
HM: I was always the rear gunner, I operated in that position all the time, all the time I was at Lossiemouth
DK: Cause I noticed towards the end of the time at Lossiemouth, your pilot all the time was Holmes,
HM: Yeah, yeah
DK: So, you’ve crewed up by this point.
HM: Yeah, he’s
DK: So, you had another, other pilots then by
HM: We had another pilots but he was still with us on the pilot, the pilot was still with us every time,
DK: Oh, ok.
HM: The instructor would be with him
DK: Oh, ok, so, you’ve crewed up and where it mentions another pilot, your pilot’s there but he is the instructor,
HM: Yeah
DK: Yes, I’ve [unclear] with you
HM: He’s the instructor as well, you see. It was a nice aircraft, the Wellington, mine was very cold, and we had, fortunately we had heat suits, you know, but once I climbed from the rear turret into the middle over the spire and of course I didn’t have me, me heat on then, I mean, me feet were absolutely frozen, I couldn’t feel them, couldn’t move them, so the lads had to drag us over the top and to plug in to bring the circulus back and
DK: So, did you have a heated suit then?
HM: Oh yeah, I had a heated suit which just [unclear] various points of the aircraft because at fifteen thousand feet, you know, it’s very cold and you could feel it, I mean, as you know, we had silk, wool and silk underwear, as well as ordinary suit, the flying suit on top of that, we had plenty of [unclear], plenty of [unclear], as far as the heat was concerned, the temperature at fifteen is pretty low and I lost the use of my legs cause so cold, as soon as I plugged in warm,
DK: Warmed up again
HM: So, ok, no problem at all. So that was Lossiemouth, I spent quite, I think I told you
DK: Yeah, you, it says here you were at Lossiemouth until the end of November 1944
HM: Yeah, about three months I think there
DK: Yeah. And then, going on for the benefit of the recording here, you then gone to 1663 Heavy Conversion Unit
HM: Heavy Conversion Unit, Rufforth
DK: Rufforth
HM: Just outside York
DK: Right. So then, that’s March 1945,
HM: Yeah
DK: So that’s in Halifax IIIs?
HM: Halifax IIIs. Yeah, that was a different one to that one there, that’s the two,
DK: Yeah
HM: Yeah, Halifax Mark IIIs.
DK: So, what did you think of the Halifaxes then?
HM: Well, I find them fine, they seemed to me to be a solid aircraft, you know, was heavily, was, apparently it was, the engine was underpowered, should’ve had stronger engines, they had the Merlins, Merlin engines but apparently was underpowered, the Halifaxes but also workhorse of the Air Force, no doubt about it
DK: Cause the Halifax III had the Bristol Her, Bristol engines, didn’t they?
HM: The
DK: Bristol [unclear]
HM: They had, they changed to Bristol engines, but the first ones, the Merlins were underpowered,
DK: Underpowered, yeah
HM: But I found it, the skipper seemed to like it, he, there is one thing about him he would let us have a go at flying it as well
DK: Oh, right
HM: Of course, I mean, he was here all the time, so he said, well, if anything happens to me, at least somebody will do, sort of take over and manage to get home sort of thing
DK: So, how often did you take control then?
HM: More or less every time we were up, just for a five minutes maybe, just get a go at it and feel
DK: Really?
HM: Feel it, you know, but nearly every time up, without the instructor
DK: Yeah, without the instructor looking [laughs]
HM: He wouldn’t let, but the skipper did, especially if we were on a long flight,
DK: Yeah. Do you
HM: Three hours up, three hours up to five I was
DK: Do you think that might have given your pilot a bit of confidence, knowing that if something happened to him, somebody would step in?
HM: Yeah. Well, I think that’s what he wanted us to do, I think that it gave him, as he was saying, probably gave him confidence if anything happened to him we could, at least one of us could probably manage to get us home sort of thing. But that’s where I finished, that’s where I finished me time, Rufforth. [unclear] I got to a squadron first, I got to a squadron after that but you [unclear] any about the squadron
DK: Alright, ok, so at the Heavy Conversion Unit, that’s where the flight engineer would have joined you, wouldn’t
HM: That’s where he joined, at [unclear], that’s the first time we’d met him
DK: So you are now a crew of seven at that point
HM: We’re a crew of seven at that point
DK: Yeah
HM: Yeah
DK: Right, so that’s it for the logbook then
HM: That’s it for the logbook, yeah. The reason for that was the war ended
DK: Alright
HM: We just got into Full Sutton, 77 Squadron, got booked in and had a chat there, got me leader, met everybody we had to meet and of course the war finished
DK: Yeah
HM: So, I never got on operations
DK: Never got on operations
HM: So, and then
DK: So, after all that training
HM: [laughs] after years training,
DK: Yeah
HM: You know,
DK: So it says here, the last flight here is 4th of May 1945
HM: That’s it
DK: As a rear gunner
HM: And I trained, I started
DK: Holmes’s again the pilot
HM: Yeah
DK: In the Halifax III
HM: Yeah
DK: So that’s just before you went to 77 Squadron at Full Sutton
HM: Yeah, went to Full Sutton and they had Halifaxes of course, booked in and did everything we had to do, we stayed about a month I think,
DK: Yeah, so
HM: And then I got
DK: The war’s ended
HM: The war ended, so there was no use for air gunners
DK: Yeah
HM: So, then I got posted down to RAF Beaulieu. From Beaulieu, cause if you knew you moved through the rank of sergeant by then
DK: Yeah
HM: You know, when I was sergeant at Rufforth, well, I was sergeant at Lossiemouth. Then I transferred from there down to Beaulieu, A-F-E-E Squadron, which was Air Force Experimental Establishment, so they were expecting on, they were practicing jeeps, and dropping jeeps
DK: Oh, right, ok, from
HM: Parachuting jeeps
DK: From Halifaxes again
HM: No, no, from, what aircraft did they get there? I can’t remember what aircraft we had, was it the Dakota? Could’ve been a Dakota.
DK: Yeah
HM: But I, you see, I wasn’t flying then
DK: Alright
HM: I’ve been moved back to my MT, I was NCO in charge of the MT at Beaulieu, cause I was gone up the rank again, I was Flight Sergeant by then,
DK: Looking back now, how do you feel that, after all that training, you didn’t do any operations? Do you feel that’s a good thing or?
HM: Well
DK: Relieved?
HM: Oh, I didn’t, to be honest, I didn’t feel, I didn’t feel anything
DK: No
HM: I just felt I’d done all that work for nothing. I mean, of course they didn’t know when the war was going to end,
DK: No
HM: You know, they got no idea so I could well have been in operations
DK: Was there any suggestion about you going to the Far East?
HM: Never any [unclear], just, no, I was never at any time moved out of the UK, the only time I went was Northern Ireland, it’s as far as I got across the water, but, no, I never, they didn’t, I don’t know, it just didn’t seem to bother me at the time, I mean, you’re young, you know, you’re twenty years old so, and you don’t sort of care what happens, you just get on with life as it comes,
DK: So how did you, after all these years, how do you look back at your time in the RAF then? Was it?
HM: I enjoyed my time in the RAF
DK: Yeah
HM: In fact so much so I wanted to stay on
DK: Right, so
HM: I wanted it to become a career
DK: Right
HM: But
DK: So you left in ’47.
HM: So I left in ’47. I did five full years in the RAF, I went in April and I think I came out in April approximately anyway
DK: And what was your career after that?
HM: Well, I had to go back to civvy life and I mean, already most of the jobs had been taken up because I’d been out for two years, most of them had been out for forty five, you know, out of forty five alot, I still [unclear] went after that but for two years the jobs were getting filled up
DK: Yeah
HM: So
DK: So, there’s few opportunities for you by now
HM: There was fewer opportunities really, there was very little to pick on, so I had to go sort of, I did, I joined, a [unclear] worked as a [unclear] so he got me a job at the, [unclear] shop, was a big concern, [unclear] called it, he had about six shops spread over here and there and I used to drive the van there delivering the goods round the shop for customers you know and then from there, I didn’t like that job at all, well, I had, it was just to get money, really, you had to have something to live on, so from there I went to insurance, I did two years in insurance and then a job came up at Hoover Limited were applying for a man so I applied there and I got a job there and that was the best thing that I’ve done in my life, working for Hoover
DK: So you were there a number of years then
HM: I was there for, oh, ten years, something like that
DK: You say you wanted to stay on in the Air Force. Did, was there a reason why?
HM: The reason was why, my wife
DK: Ah, ok [laughs]
HM: She wanted a home
DK: Right, ok
HM: Cause I said, you know, I’m, I’d like to stay on but she said, well, I’m not very happy about that, so I said, well, fair right enough, fair enough, I’ll, I could have made a lovely career cause I’d been put forward to become an officer, you know and the squadron leader, I can see him now, engineering officer, I wonder whether actually he’d come and think of it because I was in the charge of the MT section and I had WAAFs as well and the young, the young WAAFs were devils, they’re always late in turning up for work, you know, [unclear] started at eight o’clock, there’s one in particular, [unclear], nice girl, always a half an hour late, you know, and I used to warn her, [unclear] if you keep going on like this, so I did fancy but I got kind of fed up, so I said, look, I’m going to show my authority in here instead of being nice to you all, I’m gonna be a sergeant, so I put her on a fizzer and I’ll tell you another one, I went, [unclear], report order and all so I saw the WAAF, Flight Lieutenant she was, had a word with her, you know, she was a nice girl, I said, you know, a WAAF, you see, putting on a WAAF in charge is different than putting a man in charge, when you want a man in charge, you stand beside him,
DK: Right
HM: If you put a WAAF on charge, you stand beside the officer,
DK: Right
HM: And she asks the other questions, you know, and the reason why I brought her [unclear] and of course there’s a WAAF sergeant with the girl so anyway she got seven days [unclear], I said, there you are, that’ll have to keep you, she said, well, I wasn’t going to go out anyway [laughs], oh well, that’s a good excuse, but I wasn’t that type of NCO, you know, I was very lenient with them, as long as they did their job I was quite happy, there’s only I got tired of them, not turn up with the others, which was like school, and that was another [unclear], the squadron leader and engineering officer who M T [unclear], he, I put one of the lads on a fizzer, he’d been abroad and he only had shoes, well he [unclear] so he had to wear boots you know, well, aircrew always wore shoes but ordinary airmen wore boots
DK: Yeah
HM: And he was an ordinary airman and he just had shoes on this day, officer happened to come along, Squadron Leader [unclear], can picture him, and he says, he came into the office and he says, Mercer, says, I saw an airman over there and he’s got shoes on, he’s not allowed to wear shoes, so I said, well, I’m sorry sir but that airman has just come from abroad and he hasn’t been issued with shoes, boots, never mind that, you’ve got to put him on a charge, so I put him on a charge, and then a flight lieutenant took the [unclear] that day to say I got this lad, this airman, what you’re here for, you know, oh, you’ve been wearing shoes, you’re not allowed to wear shoes. So he said he hadn’t any boots, he said, I haven’t any boots, he says, well, the [unclear] chaps in charge of the distribution of clothing
DK: Yeah,
HM: Yeah
DK: The quartermaster
HM: Well, sort of a quartermaster, yeah, airman in the forces
DK: Yeah, yeah
HM: Clothing whatever, anyway, he hadn’t boots to fit in so well, he said, that’s tough, he says, you should be wearing boots, he said, I had them before now, so I said, I’m sorry sir, you can’t charge him because this airman has just come from abroad and there’s no way if the stores, the main stores haven’t got boots in, there’s some over there the equipment, I’ll talk to the equipment officers
DK: The equipment officer, yeah
HM: So, he was just a flight lieutenant, so he said, righto, I’ll take you [unclear], discharged, so obviously phoned squadron leader [unclear] here, is Mercer there? oh yes, speaking sir, I want to see you, ok, so I went to see him, he said, you did the wrong thing, you know, I said, why, sir? He said, well, you got this airman off his charge, I said, well, I believe in equality as well and I’m right, right decisions to be made, sir, well, I says, this airman had no chance to get shoes, the boots, I said, all he could bare were shoes, at least he turned up properly
DK: Yeah, yeah
HM: Did his duties properly. Oh right, well, I’ll let you off this time, I says, ok, sir. Anyway, the next [unclear] rings me up again, I want a word with you, so I said, yeah, that’s fine. He said, let’s forget about that situation, he said, would you not like to join full time, and be make of your career, I said, to be quite honest, sir, I would love to, but you’d have to have two words with my wife if you wanted to get me here. So, you know, there’s a camaraderie in the Air Force as well, you can talk, at one I suppose I can talk [unclear] me, but I think the discipline is not quite so strict as the other forces, there’s a little bit of leniency, in my opinion, because it was the same on nearly every camp I went to, I used to get on well with all the officers and all the fellows around about, [unclear] a different atmosphere amongst the
DK: Is it something you missed then over the years?
HM: Yeah, I miss, I do, I miss the camaraderie as I would call it, the get togetherness, you know
DK: Did you manage to stay in touch with any of your crew at all?
HM: No, unfortunately we only had one get together, down in London in the Cumberland Hotel, and I never couldn’t get in touch with anybody anymore after that, nobody seemed to bother, you know, but we’d be together quite long to nearly a year nearly from the think of it, when you think of it
DK: There’s a lot of training you went through together, wasn’t it?
HM: A lot of training we went through together, many good nights we had together, and that, the last one the squadron leader I was talking about, the last engineering officer, one night I was finishing the last week actually and it was a terrific storm that night, he says, come on, we’ll have to go out and check all the aircraft, so I went round with him and all the time he says, [unclear] you could make a lovely career, he says, there’s good things ahead for you if you want to stay in, he says, I’ll speak for you, so, but he tried all that, all that night and it was a really horrible night, wind howling and we just checked the aircraft and then that was it but he was, he’d been in the Air Force a long time, he was engineer, squadron leader and he was engineering officer, and I got on very well with him and wanted him just things going through my head sometimes, we had to lift a huge pile about the height of this room round, out of a Nissen hut, you know, was the height of the Nissen hut, I think it was the dining section so it might have been a bigger hut, anyway it had to be lifted this boiler had to be lifted out
DK: So it was a boiler you were lifting out
HM: It was a boiler I was lifting out, one of these huge things and so I said, one of the drivers, he says, look, will you take the trawls crane, to lift this boiler up, for we want to get to disposal, oh, I can’t, I can’t do that, I say, yes, pushed an empty [unclear], yeah but, he said, but I have never lifted a boiler and I have never driven a trawls crane, says, some driver you are, so anyway, I couldn’t get any of them, anyone, I said, it’s slightly the worst thing, do it yourself if you want to do it, if you want don’t, do it yourself, so I had to, I had never drove a [unclear] crane to be quite truthful, so anyway I had a run, just did what I had to do and give it a few works to see how it lifted and dropped and I lifted it up, put it up, and the lad said, gave us a clap [laughs] after at first, I said, you lot should have been doing this, not me
DK: So, can I just go back to something, I just noticed on here, 1663 Heavy Conversion Unit
HM: Yeah
DK: It says, you did twenty-eight hours twenty-four minutes daily and seven hours five minutes flying at night, so that was all training
HM: That’s all training, yeah
DK: So, what was the night-time flying like, was that hazardous or?
HM: Well, it was hazardous in a way, because although the war had finished, you never knew if there was gonna be a stray around so you had to still keep on your guard, you know, I’d rather think you were so tensed really but you had to still keep your way as you were flying and we were flying right down to the coast, you know, the full length of England and just to the coast and back and [unclear] and the skipper says, we better turn back or they think we are going to drop a bomb on them and we were going over Bristol Channel, just around about that area, he says, the rear gunner, you can have test your guns here if you wish, I said, ok, so I prepared everything and had a few bursts, he said, I think, I think that’s enough, they might think we are firing at them and they will be firing back at us, yeah, these are just little things that, you know, people think, well you wouldn’t do, but you do
DK: Cause some of these training flights they are quite long, are they? There is one here is three hours and three minutes
HM: Three hours, yeah
DK: And others are quite short, aren’t they? About forty minutes, fifteen minutes
HM: Yeah, you’ll find the one, three hours and I think there’s one a bit longer than that
DK: I got three twenty-five and three fifteen
HM: Yeah
DK: It looks like that
HM: That’s when we went down the coast, right to the bottom and back
DK: Ok then, I’ll probably stop you there, I think, that’s marvellous that is
HM: Yeah
DK: Thanks very much for your time
HM: Yeah, well
DK: I’ll stop that now
HM: We did our work and I never used it
DK: Yeah
HM: You know, we put a lot of time and thought into it, sort of thing
DK: So, you put a lot of time and effort into the training and then never did any operations
HM: No, we never did the finishing work, but I enjoyed me time in the Air Force anyway, you know, the five years that I had, I’ve got, you know, some nice memories
DK: Memories, yeah
HM: Memories of it
DK: Yeah
HM: And that’s as you say, the only thing that I didn’t do an operation [unclear] after training, you know, but
DK: [unclear]
HM: That’s a luck of the draw,
DK: Yeah



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Harold Mercer,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2024,

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