Interview with James Mulhall. One


Interview with James Mulhall. One


James was born in Gorton, attended Catholic schools, and became an apprentice plumber. In November 1942 he joined the Royal Air Force. He then trained as a mechanic at RAF St Athan before being posted to RAF Henlow to assemble Hurricanes. He then went back to RAF St Athan to re-muster as a flight engineer. His next postings where at RAF Stradishall on Stirlings, which he thought were awful aircraft, and at RAF Feltwell on Lancasters. His crew was posted to 75 Squadron, serving at RAF Mepal where there were sometimes two full crews in a single Nissen hut. The crew’s first operation was a daylight operation to the U-Boat pens at St. Nazaire. On a run to Russelsheim they were coned and blinded by searchlights but managed to escape them with little damage. James said most of the flights were just enduring the cold and getting back as safely as possible. He elaborates on service conditions on board, recollecting instances of incendiaries hitting their aircraft. After completing the thirty operations (among them nine or ten daylight ones) the crew decided to do a final four together which proved to be a fatal decision. Those who bailed out ended up at Dulag Luft for interrogation. James was then moved to Stalag Luft VII in Poland in December 1944. He describes the conditions, food and treatment in the camps. James was in the long march which ended at Luckenwalde when they escaped. Prisoners were taken to Leipzig before being flown to Brussels and then home. James left the RAF in February 1946.




Temporal Coverage




01:04:05 audio recording


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JM1: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslin. The interviewee is James Mulhall. The interview is taking place at Mr Mulhall’s home in Heaton Chapel, Stockport on the 25th of August 2016. Jim, could you tell us a little bit about your life before you joined the RAF and what it was that motivated you to enlist?
JM2: The main thing I should imagine, I was born in Gorton, at 151 Hyde Road, which was my grandmother’s house and subsequent schooling was at Catholic schools, the last one being St Roberts in Longsight. I, er, was tending towards mechanical things at a fairly early age but I was apprenticed as a plumber to a man called Frank Butler for some years before the Blitz became something of a nuisance in Manchester. So, it was while I was in — my sister and mother used to nip down to the Anderson shelter in the garden but I was too lazy to do this and used to stay in bed, until a bomb dropped nearby which decapitated a man in the next street and forced me under the bed, and I didn’t like this idea at all, so I decided when the time was ripe I’d join the Air Force and get a little bit of my own back. So, er, this is how it transpired I became an Air Force [slight cough] member. The — I was inaugurated at Dover Street in Manchester, went to Padgate for initial training, was sent to Skegness for the usual square bashing and then on from there to St Athan to train as a mechanic, and from there back to Henlow to assemble hurricanes as a mechanic. They came over from Canada in boxes and we put them together, put the wings on and flew them off to squadrons. From there on I decided — well, I was able to go into aircrew and I went back to St Athan to train as a flight engineer and that began the system that we’re talking about now.
JM1: Thank you and what year was that please?
JM2: 1942. In November I joined up and I left in February 1946.
JM1: Right. From St Athan did you go straight to an Operational Training Unit?
JM2: We went to, er, RAF Stradishall to con on Stirlings because I was trained on Stirlings. Spent thirteen weeks, believe it or not, in learning every nook and cranny of this aircraft which was a horrible, awful airplane from my point of view, all electrical and a real nuisance to get about because of this. It had four radial engines, twin row, fourteen cylinder, sleeve-valve, air-cooled engines which are a nightmare to maintain. However, while, whilst doing Con Unit we got the opportunity or were offered to change to Lancasters which we did to a place called Feltwell. And while everybody else’s job was the same, mine was totally different. I had four liquid cooled, twelve cylinder, in line engines to cope with as well as completely diff— different systems of doughty and pressure volumes for the various systems in the aircraft. I got a fortnight to do this and I didn’t enjoy it at all I must admit so presumably I learnt as I went along in Con Unit more or less and got away with it fortunately.
JM1: When you were operating Lancasters did you work closely with the ground engineers?
JM2: That was my job entirely [emphasis]. The rest of the crew weren’t interested in the aeroplane as a mechanical object. All they were interested in really was in flying in it. But my liaison with the ground crew was uppermost in this system because I had to go to every morning, well at least after every operation, after I had a sleep to go and run the engines and get the aircraft ready for flight either that afternoon or evening and sign the 700, which I might point out was always the pilot’s duty in the years before, but when it came to four-engine aircraft and the flight engineer being trained to look after these systems he [emphasis] had to sign the 700, which for a nineteen-year-old was quite a, a thing to do because it hands the aircraft over to me, away from the ground crew. They then relinquish all [slight cough] responsibility for it so, yes, I had a great deal to do with the ground crew.
JM1: And when you were posted to 75 Squadron — I’ll go back a bit. When you crewed up with your crew how was that done please?
JM2: [laugh] In the most ambiguous way you can imagine. The crew had been working together as a crew, six members, flying Wimpys, Vickers Wellingtons, and so were well acquainted with one another over a period of two or three months I would imagine. Then one evening, when we’d passed out as engineers, they assembled all these crews that they intended to crew up with the engineers into the theatre at St Athan, which was quite a massive affair, and when they were all seated nattering to themselves us crews were ushered in and said, ‘Go and find yourself a crew.’ [laugh] We were flabbergasted there’s no doubt about it. Literally we were faced with all these pancake faces who we didn’t know from Adam and had to sort ourselves out and I finished up by going up to one chap I fancied the look of and I said, ‘Do you fancy me as an engineer?’ And he turned out to be Hugh Rees and he said, ‘Certainly. What’s your name?’ I said, ‘James Mul—’ ‘No.’ He said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Oh.’ I said, ‘Jim’. He said, ‘Well, I’m Hugh, this is Westie and this is Rees [?].’ And that’s how we went from there on in and it worked.
JM1: That’s remarkable isn’t it?
JM2: It surprised me I must admit.
JM1: It must have been difficult for you in that, in that atmosphere. It must have been very stressful.
JM2: I was very much the new boy with the cloak of fear, as you might say, surrounding the whole thing, yeah.
JM1: And were you then posted to 75 Squadron?
JM2: No. We had to con from there on in. We went to Stradashall to start flying Stirlings. All of us being strangers to that aeroplane and it was whilst we were there that the offer came. Well, more or less it came nearly as an order to tra— because of the losses in Bomber Command on Lancasters, which had a, a height minimum of five foot six before and I was five foot five and a half and others were small, as small as me, particularly the gunners, and, er, from there on in we transferred to Lancasters at a place called Feltwell and, as I’ve already said, that was the initial inauguration with the aeroplane and we had to come to terms with it from there on in.
JM1: But the posting to the squadron was something that you didn’t have any choice about. You, you were posted to 75?
JM2: No. We didn’t have any choice from that, no. We were posted as a crew to 75 Squadron.
JM1: And of course 75 was unusual because it was a New Zealand Squadron.
JM2: It was but there was a pretty scarcity of New Zealanders on the base, whether from losses or otherwise, I wouldn’t know. We had one New Zealander, New Zealander in our crew, and that was Westie, the bomb aimer. Westie his name was. A pretty ferocious character in his way and he wouldn’t mind me saying this but, er, he was always looking for trouble [laugh]. I never got on with him really because as he was on Stirlings he was second pilot on the Stirling where I was posted way, halfway, down the fuselage with all my gear as the flight engineer, but when we conned on Lancasters I [emphasis] became the second pilot and, unfortunately, Westie was dismissed into the bomb pit and he never got over this, so if he could drop me in the fertiliser he would do [laugh] and on some occasions did.
JM1: In what way?
JM2: Well, we came home one night and it was nearly dark and I was always last out the aeroplane. I had a lot of breakers and stuff to do and gather things up and I was always last out the aeroplane. As everybody else got out as quickly as they could, you know, to breathe the fresh air from the confines of the aeroplane and, er, when I came to get out of the rear door there’s no ladder. There used to be a little short ladder there and it’s about five, six foot to the ground and I said, ‘Where’s the ladder? Well, I don’t know. It must have fell out.’ Colloquial language to that effect and I didn’t get any reply from the darkness and I thought, ‘Somebody’s playing up or what. Come on.’ Anyway, I thought, ‘Oh, never mind.’ And I threw my bag out to one side so I wouldn’t drop on it when I jumped out. Decided to make the jump in the darkness, completely black, and I did so and landed in the largest puddle you’d ever seen in your life, to roars of laughter from everybody roundabout. So that’s one of the instances where Westie set me up and there were others of course along the way.
JM1: Did you get your own back?
JM2: Eventually. Unhappily [laugh] but anyway that’s another story.
JM1: OK. So once you were posted to 75 Squadron. That was at Mepal?
JM2: Meth— Mepal.
JM1: Mepal. Mepal. Could you tell us what it was like serving at Mepal in Cambridgeshire? What sort of a, a base was it?
JM2: It was a bit rough and ready. It’s, er, it was a satellite drome. Witchford was next door and Waterbeach was about ten or fifteen miles away. It was the parent aerodrome at that time. It was a bit uncomfortable in its way. The food was alright but the Nissan huts we were put, billeted in had no heating. We had a little potbellied stove which we used to steal coke to try and get warm and we used to steal it from the cookhouse, which we weren’t very popular with, er, but warmth was always at a premium on the base particularly in the later months, October and November, but the villagers were very good and fortunately I struck up an acquaintance with one of a girls in the village, so that made life a lot more pleasant [laugh] at 75.
JM1: Was it one crew per Nissan hut or more than one crew per Nissan hut?
JM2: We had two and sometimes spare bodies but there was no more than two full crews in a Nissan hut.
JM1: And did you ever have occasions where you had returned but the other crew were lost?
JM2: Unfortunately, yes, on many occasions when they came round, the SPs, Special Police, came round bundling up the kit into bags and emptying the lockers, and we knew then that, er, not only were they missing but they weren’t expected to come back.
JM1: How did you cope with that as a crew and as an individual?
JM2: We were all very young, you see, and you, you tend to adapt. I was only nineteen and I don’t think anybody was older than about twenty-two or twenty-three. In fact, the skipper was a month younger than I was. Fancy being in command of a Lancaster at nineteen years of age. Hugh Rees was his name. In fact, my son-in-law is in contact with his son at this particular time, yeah. So, er, you cope with it. Its empty tables around the mess for, for meals. Empty seats was another thing you learnt to cope with, so — but as I say being young you just adapted. You were thankful to survive.
JM1: Can we turn now to your operations? Could you tell us a bit about your first operation? How you felt and what happened?
JM2: [slight laugh] It was, er, a daylight raid to the U-Boat pens at St Nazaire and as we were under radar, flying at under two thousand feet, and only climbing to the operational height of ten thousand as we approached the target. As we were the third wave in we were startled to see the sky literally black with ak-ak puff smokes and as a green crew this, er, didn’t look very pleasant to us at all but we were to learn of course that these weren’t the things which we were to worry about. It was the ones that we didn’t see that we had to worry about. However, we got through the, the business of dropping the load on the U-Boat pens, notwithstanding seeing a flamer on the left and a flamer on the right, going down both the port and starboard sides, which wasn’t encouraging. However, we got through it and the frightening period [unclear]. We were never ever that frightened again, I don’t think, in targets unless we were coned over search— over on the run in to Rüsselsheim we were coned by searchlights and that was a pretty scary time because we were blinded by the searchlights. We couldn’t see a thing, ducking and weaving and we managed to outfly them with little damage. That was another scary raid but most of them were just enduring the cold and getting through the operation as safely as possible.
JM1: So, when you came back from that first trip to St Nazaire, how long did you have before you had your second operation?
JM2: Oh, I can’t remember that. I think it was about three or four days. The battle order used to be posted up on the, on the mess door, and that was always the thing we looked at first when we got up in the morning before breakfast. Check the battle order, see if you were on it and, er, that’s four or five days I think. Let us settle down before they flung us in again.
JM1: If you, if you were flying that night, if you were on operations, your day would start quite early as the flight engineer presumably, helping getting everything ready?
JM2: Yeah, yeah. Even if I weren’t on battle order I’d still be going up to flights to check the aircraft and see if anything needed rectifying in, in the meantime even if we weren’t. I can only remember two occasions when we weren’t on the battle order, to be quite candid. So, er, we pulled our weight I think.
JM1: I’m sure you did. How many of your operations were daylight operations?
JM2: Oh, I can’t remember that now.
JM1: Roughly.
JM2: I’d say about ten. Nine or ten operations were in daylight, yeah.
JM1: And when you first started to operate at night did that give you as an engineer extra problems in terms of reading the gauges and controlling the engines and the fuel?
JM2: Well, I had to make a log out every twenty minutes and so I had to use a shaded torch to do this. I might have taken my gloves off incidentally which was a dangerous practice. We all had three sets off gloves, silk, cotton and leather and these we kept on all the time until I had to make log out when I had to take the gauntlet and the, er, cotton gloves off so that I could write my log out easily with a pencil and the shaded light. But there was a danger in this, in-as-much-as, the outside temperature of the aircraft round about twenty-two thousand, twenty-four thousand feet was often minus forty degrees, and this meant that the skin of the aircraft and metal things inside it was a similar thing, and if you happened to not use our gloves — and Tee Emm used to report this often enough — and reach for the tank cocks in a rush realising you should have changed cocks before. If you got hold of those with your bare hands that’s where you stayed because the sweat on your hands froze, your fingers, to any metal you touched near the skin of the aircraft. So, I was always careful to keep my gloves on obvious. But some engineers wouldn’t write with cotton gloves on and there were a number of occasions when this happened and was reported in the aircrew magazine of Tee Emm, pointing out the dangers of not doing this.
JM1: So, Tee Emm was an official document or an unofficial?
JM2: It was an official document, a magazine, circulated to aircrew. [laugh] The editor being Pilot Officer Prune who was always subject to these kind of things, yeah.
JM1: And for the record I think it was TEE EMM, wasn’t it? TEE EMM.
JM2: Yes, TEE EMM.
JM1: Thank you. And, in order to do your duties when the aircraft was flying, you wouldn’t be keeping still, you’d be walking up and down the side of the cockpit to the various controls?
JM2: I had a little collapsible seat, which I used I could, but most of the time because I had to reach behind for tank cocks and checking gauges the engineer’s panel was behind the seat on the star— on the starboard side of the aircraft. So it was a nuisance to keep getting up out of the seat. I used to stand most of the time and just lean down with my shaded torch, and flash it slightly, and the luminosity from the gauges would tell me what was going on.
JM1: Did you have any occasions where your aircraft had to return because of mechanical problems so you didn’t complete a sortie?
JM2: No. But we had one occasion I once lost an engine entirely in a Stirling but that’s a different story. The — I once had a CSU go geodetic, which meant that I couldn’t change the pitch, the revs, of the engine concerned, which was the starboard outer, and I reported this. We would take-off roughly at three thousand thousand RPM plus four boost, and we can maintain that for up to nine minutes, but then we have to reduce the revs to take the wear out of the engine, and this was my job to reduce it to climbing power once we’d reached the required height, but I couldn’t shut down the rev counter. I said, ‘This is going to make the engine overtired in its way and become a danger to the aeroplane and I suggest that we return.’ So the pilot said, ‘What can you do about this?’ And I said, ‘Nothing really. I can’t. It’s gone geodetic at the engine end and I can’t pull the lever back so I can’t reduce the revs.’ I said, ‘All I can do is try to keep it cool with a little bit of boost now and then and just hope it doesn’t exceed the limits of heat that it can stand. Because if it does it will cease and the prop will fly off and it will probably come in our direction if this occurs. It might even shake itself out of the bearings. I don’t know. I’ve never had a ceased up engine. I’ve never had a runaway before.’ So he said, ‘Well do the best you can. We’ll press on.’ I thought, ‘This was a rash decision in my opinion but there’s nothing I can do. He’s the captain of the aircraft.’ Fortunately, within half an hour we had an abort. The raid was called off, so we were able to run back to the aerodrome with an emergency and land with the aircraft running at full revs. That engine run for an hour and half at full revs and never missed a beat. Congratulations Rolls Royce. It was changed of course but, er, incredible really for an engine of that size.
JM1: Jim, Jim could I ask you to explain what you mean the word “boost” for those listening?
JM2: Oh, this is a question of pumping more fuel into the cylinders to improve the volume metric efficiency of the engine at that time. Plus four gives us the best we can do. Plus two is what we usually fly at. Our normal air speed is a hundred and eighty, hundred and ninety knots and it depends on height really how much you can boost but plus two is normal at two thousand two hundred revs.
JM1: Your memory, your memory for operating the Lancaster is remarkable.
JM2: Sometimes, in the dark hours [slight laugh], it seems like yesterday.
JM1: Jim, could you tell us a little bit about the atmosphere in the aeroplane when you were operating at night over Germany or enemy occupied Europe. What was it like there?
JM2: Its — you have to remember that there’s literally hundreds of aircraft converging on one target and the risk of collision at night is very, very high and this is one of the things that I think we feared most. In fact, on one occasion, we had on the bomb run, we had six incendiaries from another aeroplane hit our aeroplane because they were above us at a height they shouldn’t have been at, presumably to escape the — most of the flak, which was at operational height, and those incendiaries only failed to ignite because the pins were frozen in. They have a — it’s, about two foot long but hexagonal in shape and the igniter pin sticks out at the side but they’re held in by straps when they’re carried in the canisters that were in the aeroplane, but when they‘re released this little pin springs out so that when they hit the ground the detonator will go off and the magnesium will flare, but because they were frozen in they didn’t ignite when they hit our aircraft. So that was — we, I fished one out from underneath the navigator’s table. One of them knocked my engineer’s pile [?] down on the starboard side and one finished up on the platform of the mid upper gunner’s position. None of them ignited but three others were found by the ground crew piercing each wing and where the tail — the rudder stands up and the tail plane is horizontal — right in that nick there was another incendiary buried in that nick. Why, why the rudder didn’t come off I don’t know [laugh] but that, that was a case of being very close to another aeroplane at night. It was a fear most of us carried I think, collision at night. In fact, er, there’s one instance of we actually saw another plane below us because of the fires on the target. What he was doing down there I don’t know but he was below us. Fortunately he was to one side. But we could see him he was silhouetted against the flare of the fires and we were on the bomb run. What he was doing there I don’t know. I hope he got away with it. Most of it was radio silence because you had to keep intercom clear for emergencies.
JM1: I was just going to ask about that and how did you address one another? Was it pilot to flight engineer or was it first names?
JM2: No, it was always by the designation: pilot, engineer, bomb aimer, mid upper, wireless op, whatever, to make it clear who you were talking to and who was talking to you.
JM1: Yes. Did you have any, um, attacks from night fighters during your operational tour?
JM2: Curiously enough we were flying — when we went to Stettin, we overflew Denmark and Norway and our mid upper who was forty-two years old and well above the age for flying — he should — flying’s limited to people of thirty-five years. How he got away with that I don’t know. He must have been [unclear] somewhere. He had the finest eyesight I ever came across and while we were going over Norway he happened to see a flare path and we what? We were round about ten thousand feet I think. We weren’t too high. And these neutral countries used to fire flak up towards us but always well away from us, never with any no intention of shooting us down, but a token resistance as it were. And he happened to see a flare path at that distance and an aircraft with its nav lights on, going along that flare path, and he warned the skipper of this and he actually, he kept its nav lights on for quite some while, in fact until it was about a thousand feet below us when it switched off. It was obviously being vectored onto us and we watched it rise up along the side of us until our mid upper said to the rear gunner, Charlie, not rear gunner, but Charlie, ‘Let me have the first squirt at it.’ [slight laugh] And it actually rose alongside us about a hundred yards away with the pilot obviously looking upwards to look for our exhaust flames. We’d got eight blue exhaust flames going underneath the aircraft wing which were easily seen at night, particularly from underneath, and he must have been looking for those and not either side of himself. And both gunners had a, what they called, a squirt at it and it fell away but they didn’t, they only claimed a probable. We didn’t know what happen to it but it certainly fell away.
JM1: Had you ever discuss as a crew whether you would [emphasis] open fire because I know some gunners decided not to because they were afraid of drawing attention to themselves?
JM2: Well, funnily enough, we got some tracer coming towards us when we were getting close to the target and we didn’t know what, where it was coming from, but it passed underneath us. But the following day the ground crew dug a 303 bullet out of the tail wheel rims, so it was obviously a friendly aircraft. And the tail wheel had the double rims on it to stop it shimmying and it was that thickness of rubber that caught the, the bullet and they were able to dig it out and prove that it was a 303. So it was a friendly aircraft that had a go at us for some reason.
JM1: How about the weather that you experienced on operations?
JM2: This was always a problem. You’ll get ten tenths cloud over the target. Yeah, tell that to the marines. It was obviously ten tenths all the way, you know. There’s another thing flying in cloud that used to be unnerving to say the least, even in daylight, because you never know — people — we had a direction compass on but you never know when there’s a fault and an aircraft will drift in your path, yeah. In fact, often enough, you would hit the slip stream of an aircraft in front of you and you’d would drop easily four, six hundred feet like a brick because you’ve got no airflow over your wings with the turbulent air that you met in the slip stream, and that used to pin me against the roof of the canopy in no uncertain terms so, er, apart from the cursing [?] we got used to it.
JM1: [slight laugh] Did you ever have to land in very bad conditions?
JM2: Only once. We were diverted by fog to a fighter aerodrome. I forget what — North Weald I think it was — however, the short runway meant that it was a bit of a hairy do to get, to get it down on a short runway which our skipper was pretty good at and made a good job of it. Unfortunately, their ground crew did not know anything about Lancasters, so it fell to me to climb up the following morning, up into the cells. In each cell there’s a little calor gas pump which you have to prime the engine with before you try and start it, and in full flying gear I had to climb up on the main wheel and operate these things, using the bomb aimer as communication between me and the cockpit, and the ground crew with a starter [unclear] and that was a real sweaty job believe me. Up in the confines pumping this calor gas until we got the engines started. I think that was another time when Westie dropped me in it, maybe did it twice. So I had to do that in both the cells and I was sweating like a pig when I got back into the aircraft. But that was the only problem with landing in a different aerodrome, the short runway and having to do the mechanics myself, yeah.
JM1: As, as the tour progressed did, did you feel that you were more or less likely to complete the tour?
JM2: I don’t think we, I don’t think we thought about it really until the last four. When, when we’d done the thirty we thought, what shall I say? We, we were testing fate there a bit. We were pushing the boat out a bit but we were determined to finish as a crew so we, we carried on with the odd four but as I say which turned out to be a fatal decision.
JM1: Because members of the crew had not been able to do all the flights in sequence. One or two were injured or sick?
JM2: That’s right. As I said before our bomb — our, er, wireless operator picked up some shrapnel over the Walcheren Islands and he was in hospital at the time and we had the signals leader with us. It was his one hundredth operation and you can imagine his mind, mind when he had to bail out at that time, [slight cough] notwithstanding the fact we all had to do.
Jm1: Will you tell us about that last operation please?
Jm2: It’s, er — we were due to pick up which was known as a yellow tail, which had special Oboe equipment for, er, target finding, and this was supposed to be done over Lincoln. We were supposed to be number two in a vic of three with any loose aeroplanes fitting the box afterwards. The box formation was for fighter defence [slight cough] primarily but unfortunately we didn’t pick up a yellow tail over Lincoln and we had to settle for going in the box, which was unpleasant place to be really, and we continued to target in this way until on the run in to target we got [slight cough] caught by what was known as predictive flak. This is four guns controlled by radar, which fired a burst of four shells, and if we’d been able to manoeuvre it was fairly easy to avoid but because we weren’t able to manoeuvre — it’s usually about seven to nine seconds between bursts so if the first burst missed you you’ve got this moment in time to change the aircraft latitude, speed or location so that the next burst doesn’t find you where you should be. So, you get used to this system and its fairly easy to devoid, to avoid predictive flak, but we were stuck in the box and not able to move and it slowly crept up, as reported by the rear gunner, getting close and closer, until one shell went through the back of the aircraft, without exploding, fortunately enough, but took away the bunch of controls that lead to the rudders and elevators and part of the tail plane and made the aircraft virtually uncontrollable. At this point they were — it was decided with the damage so obvious that to turn away out of the stream and, er, as the bomb doors were still closed, the bomb aimer did — went through his jettison programme but it doesn’t matter because until the bomb doors are fully open the bomb aimer’s gear will not work for obvious reasons. If he dropped them with the doors closed it would tear the bottom of the aircraft out [slight cough]. So, it was my job to open the bomb doors and jettison the bomb because Westie already gone. He didn’t hang about. He’d gone.
Jm1: Went out through the front hatch?
JM2: Yes. He jettisoned the hatch and went out there and I went behind the pilot’s seat where my parachute was. We had clip-on parachutes. The, the skipper had a sit on parachute. He had a base parachute and he sits on his. So, as I went to get it out of the rack the, er, the navigator and the wireless operator went past me and out through the hatch and I [unclear] harness pin and I went through the hatch as well. And the skipper had apparently had — I met him later on in Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, in — his fingernails were all torn where he was — the aircraft went into a vicious spin as soon as he let out the ailerons. That was the only control he had, was ailerons, and he went out through the top hatch but he had quite a struggle against the slip stream because it was pinning him to the fuselage with the increased speed. He must have been doing well over two hundred miles an hour, two-fifty miles an hour when he was trying to get out the hatch, which we didn’t have because we went out through the bottom hatch.
JM1: And the gunners went through the rear door didn’t they?
Jm2: Indeed. In fact, I heard them both say, ‘Rear gunner leaving.’ And, ‘Mid upper leaving.’ But funnily enough the mid upper, the, the rear gunner has no memory of leaving and wasn’t completely conscious until about 5 o’clock that night and yet I clearly heard him say, ‘Rear gunner leaving.’
JM1: And what height were you when you bailed out?
Jm2: We were twenty-two thousand [unclear] and I’d say we were between eighteen and twenty thousand or something like. It didn’t take very long.
JM1: No. When you came down tell us what happened when you landed please.
Jm2: I got my rigging lines a little bit crossed and I was trying to untangle the rigging lines and did so, managed to do so, and then I blacked out through lack of oxygen, lack of oxygen. I’d been without the oxygen for quite some time in the manoeuvring inside the aeroplane and I just blacked out through lack of oxygen and I didn’t come to until, oh, about four thousand, three thousand feet or so from the ground and I hit rather hard on a bunch of rubble and the Wehrmacht was waiting for me as a reception committee and I was a bit knocked about a bit and I came too really being frog-marched into a police station in Niebruch [?] and stuffed into an underground cell there.
JM1: Were the other members of your crew there?
JM2: No, on my own. We were widely separated because of the difference in bailing out.
Jm1: Right.
Jm2: [clears throat] I don’t know where the others landed although I must have been told when we met at up Dulag Luft. I can’t remember now.
JM1: How were you treated by the Wehrmacht?
JM2: The, er, the ordinary soldiers I think, I think they were a blessing in disguise because they kept the civilians away from us who were naturally a bit unchuffed about all this business. And, er, but I was put in a cell. They took my flying boots off me and put me in this bare board cell which was underground and, er, I didn’t have anything to eat for, er, quite some while. The following day the, er, sergeant of the police elected to interrogate me, by the simple means of sitting me in front of him at his desk, un-holstering his luger, sliding the [clears throat] breech back, pushing the safety catch off and pointing the barrel at me as he laid it on his desk, which felt a bit uncomfortable because I’ve fired a luger and know how hair trigger they are. So with him speaking German and me speaking English we didn’t get very far I must admit so we gave it up as a bad job and I went back in the cell. But, er, the following night I was moved from there to a Luftwaffe aerodrome on the back of a lorry and in the darkness [laugh] a voice said, ‘Have you got a fag, mate.’ Which I didn’t. The soldiers that picked me up took my wristwatch off me and pinched my cigarettes. I had a pack of cigarettes. They took the cigarettes out and put the cigarette case back in my pocket, surprisingly, but they pinched my cigarettes. I said, ‘No, I haven’t mate, sorry.’ But it turned out to be a Canadian gunner who’d gone down presumably nearby in the same raid. I said, ‘No I haven’t mate. I’m sorry.’ Anyway after a short journey through the all the rubble in the city. [unclear] used to clear a road through cities just to get transport through and they put me in this Luftwaffe transport base in a cell in, er, this ready room and whilst I was in there — I hadn’t had anything to eat for two days by then or drink — and one of the, er, Luftwaffe members, one of the ground crew saw me eyeing up his meal, er, two slices of bread and butter with molasses in. He saw me eyeing this up and he came over and give me [clears throat] half of it and this turned me really. It was the only kindness I ever saw off a German throughout me — in fact, it made me quite emotional, as I am now. He gave half his lunch to an enemy you might say, mm.
JM1: That’s quite something isn’t it?
JM2: It was for me, mm.
JM1: Yes and from there you went to Dulag Luft?
JM2: Yes. Frankfurt am Main for interrogation, er, ten days isolation, solitary confinement, in a ten by eight foot cell, which had a little window barred up, high up, and the only communication was a lever you had inside the inside wall which, when you turned it, dropped a signal out on the outside in the corridor to let the guard know that you wanted to come out for some reason or other. That’s the only communication you had with the outside world for ten days, apart from meals that were brought to you.
JM1: And you were interrogated again at Dulag Luft?
Jm2: Yeah. [slight laugh] The — I think there was a bit of smartness there because the — while I was being interrogated, the usual rank, name and number, and trying invoke information off you which I didn’t have much of any way. I didn’t have much to tell but what there was wasn’t worth telling so I didn’t bother. But during this, imagine I’m quite scruffy and dirty and unshaven and they brought in a young woman, a stenographer of some kind, to jot down the answers, all glammed up to the eyebrows, to make me feel as uncomfortable as possible, which it certainly did. [laugh] I felt a real scruffy object in front of this glamorous female. Yeah, a bit of psychological warfare there.
JM1: I, I’ve read that sometimes the interviewers, the interrogators, knew more about the squadron than you did. Did you get that?
JM2: They did. They told me who my flight was and who my flight commander was. Another psychological trick I would imagine but I was aware enough by then. I’d had a few meals and I didn’t respond to it. There’s no point. If you respond to it they pump you harder. You were told about this. The more you give away, the more they pump you, so you keep your mouth shut.
JM1: And where did you go from Dulag Luft please?
JM2: Stalag Luft VII in Upper Silesia, Poland. Quite chilly and that. It was December by then.
JM1: This was December 1944?
JM2: Yes.
JM1: Yes and what was it like in that camp?
JM2: A bit rough and ready. Food was the real problem. Food was always the main topic t of conversation in captivity because you never got enough of it and what the Germans doled out was pretty rough. Their sauerkraut was — I wouldn’t have give it to a dog but we’d have it. We ate it in most cases. We had what was known as pea soup and we used to separate the peas, and inside each pea there used to be a little tiny beetle, and we used to split the pea open and open the people [?] and get a little row of tiny beetles and we would save them while we scoffed the peas. Believe me this is quite true.
JM1: I believe you.
JM2: It’s hardly credible from a civilian point of view but beetle soup it became known as, yeah. Hunger was always the problem.
JM1: And Red Cross parcels?
JM2: Infrequent and, er, often we had to share one parcel between four or two and not, not, not — very few of them. In fact, there’s a record of them in here that, er, of the people who kept diaries. David’s done a log of the times that we’d done but it’s hardly worth bothering with now.
JM1: David is your son-in-law?
JM2: Yes. He is indeed. He’s the instigator of all this stuff except for the models. I brought the models in.
JM1: Were you concerned that your family should know that you were still alive?
JM2: That was another thing. They were allowed to write one letter, for the Red Cross gave us one air mail letter to write to our families, which I understand my mother never got for some reason or other, and from the telegram she got when I was posted missing she heard nothing from, for six months, almost the entire captivity period, except for a couple in Scotland, who had a, a fairly powerful short wave radio and they used to listen to the prisoners recorded by the Red Cross as being prisoners of war and my name was mentioned on one of these broadcasts, and they took the trouble to find out from the Air Force where my mother lived and informed her I was alive and well at that time, but for all that period she didn’t know whether I was alive or dead.
JM1: And what about camp entertainment? How did you spend your time?
JM2: [Laugh] Oh, er, we rigged up what was known as a, a pantomime for Christmas and called it “Pantomania” because we were all blokes in it and one amusing incident came out of that. We had a pirate scene and we organised a cannon, er, that was all papier-mâché and tubes of all sorts of things and at the back an elastic flap, which would propel a, a black ball of paper out the muzzle and this was coordinated with a flash of, um, magnesium. I don’t know where the hell they got the magnesium from. I’ve no idea. But they had it anyway. We used to get people working out. They used to pinch things all over the place. However, during the pantomime we turned this, the — they allowed us to run this pantomime provided a number of German officers could watch what was going on and, er, not allow anything what they didn’t like. [slight cough] However, we managed to turn this cannon in this scene, fire the ball of — black ball towards the audience with the flash, and this made the German officers jump up and quickly snatch their lugers out and start waving them about, wondering what the heck was going on. And it was only a black ball of paper but they stopped the show and it as quite some time until we persuaded them to let us get on with it. So that was an amusing incident that came out of it [slight laugh].
JM1: Was there any talk of escape at this stage in the war?
JM2: Well, they found a tunnel under the, er, under the stage where we were. It wasn’t much of a tunnel but they found it under the stage and there was a number of organisations in the camp, which I was never part of, that leant themselves towards this idea but nobody — it was too near the end of the war to chance anything particularly dangerous. I admired one chap, one particular at Colditz. They used to — they organised a playing field away from the castle, down below the castle heights. They managed to persuade the Germans to let them have a game of football because the quadrangle was too small at Colditz and they did this a number of times until somebody had the bright idea of pole vaulting over the wire fence that they surrounded this playing field with. And he took the sections of the pole vault down his trousers, assembled it on the playing field, and pole vaulted over the wire and made a home run home from that daring escape so late in the war, yeah. Incredible that, weren’t it? That was a record by the way.
JM1: Incredible. I get the impression the morale of RAF personnel was quite high in the camp?
Jm2: Yes, yes it was pretty good, yeah, I would, I would say so. The [laugh] one amusing incident came when we first went there, at Stalag Luft VII, we were on the same level as the sentries patrolling outside the wire but the various tunnels or starting tunnels that they did, we used to have to drop the soil out through our trouser legs on the walk around the edge of the camp, the periphery we had to, used to, walk round for exercise. They used to allow us so far away from the goon boxes, about fifty yards or so away, and the number — they, they took so much earth and we dropped so much earth through the bags in our trousers, walking round, that we found ourselves above the level of the sentries outside the wire. [laugh] Would you believe? [slight laugh]
JM1: Incredible.
JM2: Incredible. We didn’t realise this at first until we found ourselves looking down on the sentries walking round the wire.
JM1: Just before we move on, you’ve, you’ve mention a couple of phrases I think need clarifying. Goon boxes?
JM2: Ah, these were stationed every, I would say hundred yards or so, round the perimeter wire of the yard [?] and they stood up on stilts, about roughly fifteen feet or so above ground level, on a, on a narrowing tower. Each contained a searchlight and a machine gun and two serving officers, Wehrmacht officers, er, Wehrmacht personnel. So that, er, if you — there was a, a trip wire about fifty yards inside the main wire which you must not [emphasis] step over on fear of being shot at, night or day, and this searchlight was used at night to patrol this area at night, and you certainly would be shot at. In fact one person was shot at while I was there and he was killed. I think he went a bit mental and went scrambling up the wire and they shot him.
JM1: Now that’s different from the box that you were describing when you flew to the target. That’s a formation? An aircraft formation?
JM2: Yes. A vic, a three vic, an aircraft of three in a vic and the box at the back that we were in for the fighter protection.
JM1: So it’s an aircraft formation?
JM2: Yes.
JM1: And the yellow tail I think. Can you just explain that for the record please?
JM2: It was known as G-H bars [?]. Why? I have no idea. I don’t know what the latter stands for but the aircraft that carried yellow stripes on the rudder had this Oboe equipment which guided them to the target more accurately than anything up to that day.
JM1: So we’re dealing with navigation and target finding electronic equipment?
JM2: Yes.
JM1: So, can we turn now to the fact that you were one of those who was released and were on the Long March?
JM2: Yes. That was — we warned about this for some while, er, when we were doing the pantomime which was just before Christmas, but the Russians were, er, getting fairly close to the camp at this stage. By close I mean about fifty miles or so and the Germans were getting a bit edgy and it came out later that Hitler was pulling all POWs back towards Berlin, presumably to use them as some kind of hostages. But however, we were turned out once and then sent back into the billets, er, in January but then on, I think it was the 19th of January, at half past three in the morning, to start the march which was, turned out to be two hundred and ninety-seven kilometres in a snow bound country in Upper Silesia in Poland when Poland was experiencing the worst winter it had ever known. It was just a wasteland wherever you looked. The only indication of road that we were on was the telegraph wires that were on poles alongside the road to indicate where the road was that we were supposed to be on, often trudging through quite deep snow, which was trodden down by — I think there was about two thousand-odd of us on the march — but two thousand, two hundred and ninety-seven kilometres in twenty-one days, a hundred and eighty miles, which was quite a feat by people who were half-starved. In fact a lot of men died on that particular march.
Jm1: And where did you end up at?
Jm2: A place called Luckenwalde about fifteen kilometres south of Berlin and, er, we, we became in the middle of a shell swap between the Germans and the Russians at one time. In fact one, one Russian shell, presumably it was Russian, landed in our compound and exploded harmlessly, as it happened, but by this time the German guards had gone away from the camp and left the camp to us. They had retreated to their own lines, or whatever, and we were running the camp ourselves at that particular time. And, er, eventually these Russians came and mowed down the wire and said, ‘You’re free now.’ And liberated us and the following day put the wire up again and contained us, which was a bit of a [unclear] at the time as we had no contract, transport and we had nowhere to go so we just had to stay in camp until eventually the Americans stopped the Russians from crossing the Elbe back into their territory until the Russians allowed us [emphasis] to cross the Elbe back into American territory. Then the Americans sent lorries and picked us up and took us back to their territory.
JM1: And how did you get home from Germany?
JM2: We were flown from, er, Leipzig. They took us by lorry to Leipzig, to a German wireless school at the time, and then they flew us to Brussels in the courses [?] and then from there flew us home in Lancasters, eight at a time, back to England.
JM1: And that was your last flight in a Lancaster was it?
JM2: It was indeed, yes [slight laugh]. Not a very comfortable one on my side because I knew there was a little — we were strung along the aircraft, nose to tail, eight of us, to try a keep the centre of gravity in the aircraft, and I got myself near the wireless ops’ window because I knew there was a little window there I could look out. I was a crafty arse. And I was looking through this, timing the crossing and more or less from anybody who had a watch and I thought we should be seeing — and I saw the Seven Sisters in the distance and I said, a pal [?] said, ‘Pass it along. We can see Seven Sisters. We’re almost there.’ With that everyone had to have a look [slight laugh] and then about five minutes later the pilot sent the wireless operator back and said, ‘Tell the lads we can see Seven Sisters.’ [laugh] Oh, dear. This isn’t the end of the tale. When we came to Cosford we realised from the engine, well, all of us realised from the engine notes that we were in finals and the silence from the engine cooked, not knowing we were near touchdown, and we bounced along the runway like a ping pong ball. Oh lordie me, I forgot what — g-doing, g-doing, g-doing. I thought, ‘When are we going to finish this lot.’ You know. I don’t know how long but it seemed forever to me and finally we were rolling along comfortably [laugh] and the wireless op said, ‘I’ve come to tell you we’ve landed lads.’ Dear, oh dear. I don’t know who the pilot was, bless him.
Jm1: [laugh] So, once you got back you had some survivor’s leave?
JM2: Yes. Well, we had to go through all the uniform delousing and stuff like this that was going on and, er, what were we doing? We got a fortnights’ leave, yeah, and sent home. [laugh] I remember coming home with the kit on my back, a kit bag full of gear, all brand new gear, and it was night and I got home, knocked on my front door and my sister, pardon the — my sister came to the door and it was completely dark. It was still black at that time. It was about 9 o’clock at night. I said, ‘Have you got anything for the Red Cross?’ And she shouted back to my mother, ‘Have you anything?’ And my mother rushed out, pushed her to one side and grabbed hold of me [laugh]. She’d heard my voice. That was enough.
JM1: Did you stay in the RAF?
JM2: I was in till the following February. I was posted to the Isle of Man because I got married whilst I was in the Air Force and it was a compassionate posting, to, to Calvary at first and then finally to Jurby on the Isle of Man.
JM1: And did, did you maintain contact with your crew members in peacetime?
JM2: No. The only one I — well, two actually I saw. I was — we went from Calvary to Newcastle. They were changing the, er, position of the squadron, turning it into a teaching squadron, up at on the other side Newcastle and whilst we were up there they said to, to complete the complement they needed a fire engine for the aerodrome up at Newcastle and it was to be collected from a place called Witchord, Witchford. ‘Does anyone know where Witchford was?’ I said, ‘I know it. It was the next aerodrome to me in Mepal when I was operating there.’ And the flight said, ‘It would be you. Clever arse again.’ He said, ‘Well you’d better collect it.’ So I got the job of collecting it and it was a six wheel Fordson, painted in drab colours, and a water tank on the back and various things. Not a red fire engine but a Fordson and I went down and collected this thing and stayed with the family of the girl in Mepal overnight and ferried it up to Newcastle. But while I was on the way I somehow remembered the address of the navigator and I said —while I was on the way I stopped in Darlington and asked directions to this address. Unfortunately I didn’t know the number. I knew the road but I didn’t know the number and I knocked on a house and asked if anybody knew the Air Force officer and they did and gave me the number. I knocked at the door and Ray came to the door [laugh]. Oh, that was a good reunion, yeah. That was the first I’d seen him since Dulag Luft in Frankfurt and we had a good natter there and I carried on up to Newcastle. The other time was when I was working for Cravens in Civvy Street and I went back to Mepal. I hired a car and I wanted to, er, see if the rear gunner still lived in Thatchford, so I went to Thatchford with this hired car and called in the local pub and asked, ‘Does anyone know Charlie Anderton. He was my rear?’ He said, ‘If you’re lucky you might catch him. He’s just left.’ And I saw the back of him disappearing on a bike over a field so that’s all I saw of Charlie Anderton, yeah. I did see him but I didn’t meet him, no.
JM1: When you look back on those times how, how do you feel about what you went through and how Bomber Command was treated politically?
JM2: I think you tend to forget the nasty times. You seem to get a mental block at them. As I say, sometimes during the dark hours it seems like yesterday and then it gets a bit hairy. But, um, you tend to block this out I think during normal life. We were only very young, as I say, and the young are adaptable and, er, it’s over seventy years ago. It’s a long while ago.
JM1: Jim, thank you so much. You’ve given a marvellous interview. Thank you for your detail and clarity and information and emotion.
JM2: Thank you for listening. It’s a very ordinary tale I feel.
JM1: Not at all.



Julian Maslin, “Interview with James Mulhall. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024,

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