Interview with Ronald Needle


Interview with Ronald Needle


Ron Needle, from Birmingham, flew operation as a rear gunner on 106 Squadron Lancasters at Metheringham. Operations included Norway, Dortmund Ems Canal and Munich; he was one of two survivors after his aircraft crashed in France. Ron was aided by local villagers in Choloy and treated by American doctors. Repatriated to England, his lower leg had to be amputated and he was discharged from the RAF. Ron married and had three children. He returned to France, visiting the villagers who helped him and the graves of his crew.




Temporal Coverage




00:30:37 audio recording


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Right, this is Gary Rushbrooke for the Bomber Command Association. I’m with Mr Ron Needle in Bourneville, Birmingham on the 4th of October 2017.
GR: So Ron, you were just telling me you were born in Birmingham.
RN: That’s right, yes, er I had a happy childhood because I was one of eleven children, but at one time there were ten of us living in the slums back to back house in Ladywood, Birmingham, and it was a two-bedroomed house with ten children and a pair of mum and dad. So you can imagine. [laugh]
GR: Where did, where did you come in the eleven, oldest, youngest?
RN: No, the fourth, fourth oldest
GR: Fourth oldest.
RN: Fourth oldest. But um, we, you know, there was no electric, no televisions, no telephones, no fridges, you, you had to go up the back yard to go to the boiler and take your turn to do your washing but then when I was twelve we moved to Northfield and er course it was such a contrast to house nothing but back to back houses and in Northfield there was gardens and a brook, and I called it God’s Country and to this day, and I’ve always lived near here, and luckily in Bourneville which is mainly Cadbury’s er you know I’ve lived here since I was twelve, that eighty year, I’ve lived here.
GR: Eighty years.
RN: Eighty years in this area. And um, luckily I had a damn good father.
GR: I was going to say what did your parents do, I mean.
RN: Well my father was er a postman sorter at Birmingham main post office and he was also President of the Post Office Union. But he was well respected because, unlike, dare I say, unlike today, my father looked after the men who were in the right. If a man was in the wrong whether he was a union member or not, then they had to be responsible. He would not stick up for a man who was in the wrong and I find that very different today.
GR: Yeah.
RN: So, but he was a wonderful father. He worked his damn socks off to keep us, and I’ve got nothing but respect for him. But then when I was fourteen I was staying in the gar, I was in the garden at Northfield during the war, and I saw a German plane climb very low and it was obviously a reconnaissance plane. It didn’t try to shoot at us but I obviously guessed he’d taken photographs of the Austin Aero and the factory there at Longbridge
GR: Yes.
RN: So that made me determined to join aircrew. So when I was
GR: So you was about four-fourteen when war broke out.
RN: War broke out, yes
GR: Ah yeah.
RN: And when I was seventeen I was working on the Stirling bombers and of course it was a
GR: When you say working what did you?
RN: I was a fitter.
GR: Right
RN: I was a fitter on the Stirling bomber, but then they decided it was out of date and we were all made redundant, and I went down to the Labour Exchange because at that time
GR: So when you say, sorry, so when you say
RN: It’s all right, No, on you go
GR: When you was working on the Stirling, was that, you weren’t in the RAF then
RN: Oh no, no, I was a civilian,
GR: Doing
RN: Civilian, helping to fit the sheets around the aircraft, the iron up sheets.
GR: So you was actually working in one of the factories
RN: Oh yes,
GR: Making
RN: Stirling bombers
GR: Stirling bombers.
RN: And then when we was made redundant I went to Selly Oak Labour Exchange and the man said ‘Oh, you’ve got to work down the mines’ and I said, ‘I don’t want that’ [emphasis] and he said, ‘Well it’s that or the Forces’. I said, ‘Well that’s what I want – the Forces’, and lo and behold, he found me a nice little job, in Birmingham. And then when I was seventeen and a half, and had to sign up, my Manager said ‘Ron, we’re doing specialist work, so don’t sign’ he said, ‘and you won’t have to go in the Forces.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. I’ll go sir’. But when I went to the RAF recruiting office I volunteered [laugh] straight away for aircrew and then I became an air gunner and a rear gunner.
GR: So, obviously, you yeah you signed up, they called you up.
RN: They called me up. I started off at St John’s Wood.
GR: Yeah.
RN: I’d just had my
GR: Lord’s cricket ground.
RN: That’s right. I’d just had my hair cut but the two NCOs said ‘Get your hair cut airman’ [laugh]. So although I’d had my hair cut it didn’t meet the RAF standards. [laugh] I’ll always remember that. What interested me more than anything in the RAF [cough] was there was a Canadian who was, liked to gamble, and I didn’t, I couldn’t afford to gamble to be honest, but I always remember, er he lost a lot of money, and he turned round and said to the lad who owe, who won the money, it’s double or quits, and he kept doing it till he won. And from that moment on, I’ve never [emphasis] bet on cards.
GR: Ah.
RN: Because I thought that was a nasty thing to do. He kept up.
GR: Yeah.
RN: Anyway, um
GR: Having said that, I’m sitting next to a pack of cards!
RN: Yeah, I play crib!
GR: Okay, yes. [laugh]
RN: I play crib [cough]. And then um,
GR: So what was the training like?
RN: The training was good, er,
GR: What did you want to be when you joined?
RN: I wanted to be a rear gunner.
GR: So that was a bit fair
RN: I um, I mentioned it right away, mind you I er, I’d only had an elementary education, but I did well at school to be truthful, erm, but um, no I wanted to be an air gunner. And when I went to Stormy Downs in South Wales on the gunnery course er I met up with a chap who we agreed he would be the mid upper gunner and I would be the rear gunner, but [laugh] when we, er, finished our course, they asked us if we give our names to who we wanted to go with, which we did. But, when we got to the OTU they’d split us all up, and I can understand that now, they split us all up so although you’d put your name down to go with someone, then you wasn’t with him at all it was a stranger. But luckily I was with a chappie who agreed to be the mid upper gunner, I the rear gunner, and we got crewed up ah, and a strange thing happened, we were on training exercises and the navigator would call out, ‘Righto Skipper, change course to 163’, and the pilot would say: ‘I’ll [emphasis] tell you when I’ve to change course’. And then the bomb aimer would say, ‘Righto skipper, ready for bombing’, ‘I’ll [emphasis] tell you when you’re ready for bombing’. So when we landed, the crew
GR: This is, this is all at training
RN: Yes, we decided that we didn’t want to fly with the pilot. So we saw the Squadron Leader and in charge of the camp and we were, we told him our fears, our problem and we had another pilot come, named Jim Scott, from Scotland! Lovely man, and he saved my life, twice. Because once we were training, as funny enough a Stirling bomber, and we flew into cumulus cloud. Well, some clouds have got very strong winds, updrafts of wind, and we got caught in the updraught of wind and the plane went out of control! The pilot managed to regain control but the plane was shaking and I thought it was going to fall to bits. So we managed to land on an emergency landing. But, [emphasis] the next day three of the crew, the mid upper gunner, the wireless operator and the navigator backed out of flying. So we had to have three new members.
GR And how did you feel about that?
RN Well, I told myself, I wasn’t, funny enough, I never ever [emphasis] thought I was going to die, I must have been crazy. But I thought, how can I give up flying and my parents would be ashamed of me and that was I suppose the real reason why I carried on, but I don’t know whether that’s the truth or not because
GR [Cough] So them three that decided they didn’t want to fly were they just taken away from training or what?
RN Yes, I don’t know what happened ‘em,
GR: They just disappeared.
RN: I did find out, and I’m not going to give details because it’s a man.
GR: No, no. Yes,
RN: But my daughter did find out that the mid upper gunner er lived to be in his eighties,
GR: Right.
RN: But I never got in touch with him.
GR: No.
RN: Never got in touch with him, but er as I say, I won’t mention names.
GR: No, no, no.
RN: But then as I say, er we did eleven ops, one of which was er Munich.
GR: Tell me about your first op.
RN: Oh, the first op
GR: Cause that was the first, because obviously then you’d you’d done your training and then you were sent to 106 Squadron.
RN: Yes that’s right.
GR: Where were they based?
RN: Er Metheringham in Lincoln
GR: Metheringham, so. Right
RN: Metheringham so,
RN: Metheringham
GR: Tell us how you felt about that, going to Metheringham.
RN: Oh, I felt delighted. In fact when we walked into the Nissen Hut you know there was nice beds there, with sheets and two fires, and Jim, and er, the wireless operator turned round and said “Looks everybody’s flak happy [laugh] one of the crew, one of the crew who was in there, said you’d be bloody flak happy if we’ve been shot at and I always remember that but anyway it was, I was happy, I was doing what I wanted to do. I don’t say I wasn’t frightened, I was scared, because I’m going to be truthful, on one occasion, we were briefed to go to to Berlin and I knew at that time it was a very very bad operation.
GR: Yeah.
RN: Because of the losses that we knew about, but when he turned round, the Squadron Leader turned round, and said we were going to Berlin, a big cheer went up. I didn’t cheer, because I was really afraid. I was, I was frightened. The first time I was ever frightened of going on an operation. But we went out to the planes, ready for take off and then a message came through ‘Return to the briefing room.’ And when we went back to the briefing room, the Squadron Leader said, ‘Sorry chaps the operation is cancelled,’ and the cheer that went up then.
GR: You cheered then.
RN: I did, yes. I did.
GR: [Laugh] So what was your first operation, where can you remember where that was
RN: Yes I think it was the Dortmund Ems canal
GR: Oh right
RN: And er. we went there two or three times because it was obviously a way for the Germans to move the troops and materials.
GR: Yes
RN: Armaments But I always remember it because it was very cloudy, and we had to come under the clouds to bomb, and when we dropped the bombs, a few seconds later when they landed, the aircraft shook [laugh] because we was that low.
GR: You were low down
RN: Low down. But that was the one that er, but as I say I said to my granddaughter oh ‘bout twelve months ago, I know it sounds crazy but never once did I think I was going to die, never. The thought never entered my head. I was afraid, you know. I, whenever the bomb aimer said ‘bombs away’, I was always thinking good, now we can go home!
GR: Let’s go back
RN: Yeah. But um, I went on a few ops, you know, we went to Norway, France marshalling yards, um, Aalburg, just outside of Hamburg, um, Munich twice, but on the second time we went to Munich, er, we dropped our bombs, and I wasn’t too concerned because the first time there wasn’t much flak, no enemy fighters, and er when the bomb aimer said ‘bombs away‘ I thought ‘great we’re going home now,’ but suddenly the plane went out of control and what had happened, we’d nearly collided with one of our own aircraft. The plane went out of control so much so that the crew tried to bail out and ditched the escape hatch. And of course, being January,
GR: So out of the plane was out of control.
RN: Yes. I was
GR: Was it spiralling down or
RN: Spiralling down, well, yes,
GR: Yes.
RN: Spiralling down, but luckily the pilot, a wonderful pilot, managed to regain control. But
GR: But nobody had bailed out?
RN: Nobody had bailed out, but the escape hatch had gone and icy cold air was coming into the aircraft so, he immediately called me up and said would I vacate my turret and give my gloves to the navigator so that he could plot a course, to near Paris, for the emergency aerodrome. But then I was sitting in the back
GR: Was the aircraft flyable then?
RN: Oh yes,
GR: It was okay
RN: Oh yes, the only thing wrong with the aircraft, we were flying blind and the esc and no escape hatch. Because icy air was flying in,
GR: Right
RN: The machine. And then the pilot called up the mid upper gunner and said er ‘Mid upper gunner, can you see the deck yet?’
GR: So where were you, sorry Ron, so where, so you’ve come out your turret
RN: I’d come out my turret
GR: Where were you sat or what were you doing?
RN: That’s it, I was sat on the Elsan! [laugh] OK Margaret.
[Other] – I’ll just put this away [whisper] sorry, sorry see you next week
RN: See you next week.
[Other]: Bye.
GR: Right.
NR: Yes. We were, you know, in the area of [pause] still near the German border.
GR: Yes, er sorry we’ve just interrupted but. So, you’ve come out of the rear turret
RN: Yeah, so I’m sat on the Elsan at the back,
GR: Yes.
RN: Plugged in the intercom and was waiting to hear what was going on, and then the the pilot called up the mid upper gunner and said ‘Mid upper gunner can you see the deck yet?’ And without any panic, the mid upper gunner said ‘Yes skipper, it’s right below us.’ The skipper’s response was, ‘It can’t be, [emphasis] we’re at four thousand feet.’ But we weren’t. The altimeter must have been giving a false reading, because suddenly I felt myself being pushed forward and went unconscious for hours. When I came to, the plane was on fire, and I’d, I’d been unconscious for hours but I managed to, dis - my harness had saved my life so I managed to press the button, release my harness, fell to the floor, but I’d broke my leg, punctured my lung and dislocated my right arm.
GR: So what had happened?
NR: Well I’d obviously it’d I had pull I’d gone forward and hitting the mid upper turret but my harness had got caught on the fuselage and pulled me back.
GR: So I know you told me earlier, but basically the plane, the Lancaster, you all thought you were at four thousand feet, but you were at ground level and it crashed.
NR: It crashed in a forest.
GR: Crashed straight in.
RN: In on a hill in occupied allied occupied France.
GR: Right.
NR: Near the German border.
GR: Yeah.
RN: And er I lay there for hours because this was just turned eight o’clock at night. Day broke the next morning, I was still lying there waiting for people to come, and then I heard bells ringing from a church.
GR: So you’re inside the aircraft.
NR: Yeah.
GR: Yes.
NR: No, managed to get out of the aircraft.
GR: Oh sorry.
NR: I open the door, crawled out of the aircraft.
GR: Was there anybody with you?
NR: No no I was on my own.
GR: Right.
RN: All on my own, because Harry he he was saved because said he had a feeling we were going to crash and he held on to the spar, you know near the Perspex astrodome.
GR: Yes.
RN: And that melted actually melted on to him and he got out, he was badly burnt but luckily only on skin deep and he escaped early because he wasn’t unconscious. So I didn’t know he was alive and he didn’t know I was alive and then,
GR: And at the time, I know you’ve already told me, but the rest of the crew were killed.
RN: Five of the crew were killed.
GR: But you didn’t know this at that time.
RN: No no.
GR: So, you, you’ve come round, you’re in the aircraft, sorry, you’re outside, you didn’t know where you was, what’d happened.
RN: No. And then it, suddenly I heard bells ringing from a church. So I thought, sounds near, so I crawled out of the forest in the direction of the bells, and lay by a tree on a, in a field, and I shouted for help and within minutes I saw three people running towards me, one of who I found out later was the bell ringer. So I was taken to the Mayor’s house, who who looked after me, till the ambulance came and again, luckily for me, there was a hospital three mile away at a place called Commercery in France with American personnel running the hospital. They looked after me, and gave me doses of penicillin but er, because I got gangrene, that’s what, well it turned to gangrene
GR: So your right leg .
RN: Yeah, my right leg.
GR: Which had broke, frostbite, gangrene had set in.
RN: Yeah, so they took half me foot away.
GR: While you were still in at the
RN: Still in France yeah,
GR: Right.
RN: We’d gone. Then we they sent me back to England on a hospital train and then when I got to England I went to a place, RAF Hospital in Swindon and eventually I had to have my leg off below the knee but and it was okay, So luckily. [emphasis] Again, I repeat this word luck, because I think life is all about luck.
GR: Yes.
RN: I was lucky I was,
GR: When did you actually find out that the rest of the crew hadn’t made it?
RN: Oh at when I was in the American hospital.
GR: Yeah.
RN: And, cause that was when they told me that Harry was safe, he’d, he’d escaped, and er as I say he crawled out on to the aircraft body and er he found his way to a sheep hut in the middle of the village and er someone came with a pitchfork, thought he was a German. But he made them realise he was he was English, and they looked after him, same as me. I was well looked after. The French looked after me. I’ve got nothing but admiration, in fact I became good friends, as I say 43 years afterwards my brother-in-law turned round and said ‘Ron, come on, we’re going to find this village where you crashed.’ And I remember going to the village, asking a young lady who happened to be Andre’s daughter-in-law if she could speak English. She said a little, but she didn’t understand. But again I was lucky, she took me to a hou- bungalow two hundred yards away cause it was only a little village, and the woman there could speak perfect English, in fact she was an interpreter for the American Armed Forces during the war. [laugh] So again became good friends and she sent her husband Guy, er who was a prisoner of war in Germany, to deliver it, who spoke to Andre and a few minutes later Andre came up in his truck and er when he saw me he put his arms round me and hugged me, made a fuss of me, and he when he went up to his house. This is important, he went to his larder and he brought out a cake tin which he’d made from the Lancaster bomber, the salvage, the bomber. So Reg, my brother-in-law had it engraved with 106 Squadron, 5 Group, Metheringham, details of the crash and we took it back to Andre. When Andre saw it he claimed it, went to the larder and brought out another cake tin, and gave me that, so Reg, my brother-in-law, had it engraved in French, so we then we done a swap. So Andre had erm a cake tin which was engraved with the French details and I had a one with in English.
GR: Have you still got it?
RN: Well, my daughter’s got it over in Bedford.
GR: Oh that’s lovely.
RN: O yes, oh yes, she’s got it alright.
GR: So going back to the hospital erm, this would be round about March, April, May 1945?
RN: Correct.
GR: Yeah.
RN: Yeah that’s right.
GR: How long was you in hospital for in England?
RN: Well, on and off um because of the different, the gangrene, taking a long time, er it was about 5 months.
GR: Right.
RN: But it was er way into November [emphasis] before I had an artificial leg. But um, well I was lucky, I managed to run and dance and play golf.
GR: So I, I presume then you were released from the RAF.
RN: Yes, yes.
GR: Yes.
RN: And I did say, I’ve gotta get, one thing about being old you can tell the truth, I do remember telling well the, some of the officers who came to interview, that I didn’t want to fly again, and I didn’t. It was true, I didn’t want to fly again. Erm you know, because of what had happened to me. But er nothing was said or done. I was discharged, on a discharge.
GR: What did you do after the war Ron?
RN: Well I was, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Bendix washing machine?
GR: Yes.
RN: But I the firm I worked for was making washing machines.
GR: As an engineer, or
RN: No I went as a progress clerk.
GR: Right.
RN: And again, it was the happiest days of my life. I can still remember nearly all the part numbers of the panels, the motors and all the integral parts even now, and I loved it and again, I suppose I was lucky because one week we didn’t reach the target and my manager turned round to the superintendent and asked him to fiddle the records to say that we had achieved the target. [Cough] But my superintendent turned round and said ‘Right our Ron, we’ll give him the, what he wants but I’m going to send one to the Chairman and the others with the correct details.’ Now, I know I’m right, I know in my heart I’m right. I didn’t like that, I thought, you know, you can’t, you can’t give the Chairman the correct details and the manager the wrong details. So I did tell the manager and er I wasn’t ashamed of it, I told him what what had happened and he turned round to the super and he says ‘I’m accepting what you said, we’ll just issue the right details.’ So, I was pleased about that. But I tell you that little story because, I’m sure he recommended me to be promoted to the buying office.
GR: Ah right.
RN: So er and then I was asked to take over the stores which I did. And I enjoyed it, but er the happiest job I ever had without a doubt was as progress clerk. It wasn’t you know, was well paid, but um I was just happy doing it.
GR: Yes. And I, I have to ask because you were waiting for me at the door when I came up and I didn’t know you had a, obviously a false leg, it’s not been a hindrance to you, or?
RN: Well, only in later life
GR: Yeah.
RN: Only twelve months ago.
GR: Well you look well when I came, Ron. [laugh]
RN: Well, that’s the medication
GR: Yeah
NR: The medication is great oh its er
GR: But since the war, the last sixty seventy years it’s not stopped you doing anything?
RN: No, no.
GR No.
RN It’s only in the last couple of three years
GR Yeah
RN But er I started to lose me balance which you do when you’re old.
GR: Which you do as you get older.
RN: when you get old.
GR: Yeah.
RN: But other than that, great.
GR: Oh that’s good, that’s good. And I know you mentioned Harry, who was the other survivor.
RN: Yes.
GR: And I know he passed away a few years ago.
RN: Well, Harry er he married a girl from Barrow-in-Furness. He came from Brighton and er they decided to emigrate, so they adopted a child and went to New Zealand. Unfortunately his wife, Winnie died, in New Zealand, so he came back, to England. So I, I met him at Southampton, and er driving back to Birmingham and then I drove him to Barrow to er see his sister-in-law, but then the next thing I knew, a few months later, he married a girl in Sheffield and er I was in we was we was in touch all the while and er eventually unfortunately, his wife died and then um because of our age, Harry died.
GR: Yeah. What was Harry’s surname?
RN: Stunnell, Harry Stunnell.
GR: Stunnell.
RN: Yeah, he’s mentioned in the book of course, but er we were good friends, We were obviously we got something special happen to us, which bonded us together.
GE: Were the crew, were the other five members of the crew buried in France?
RN: Yes indeed.
GR: Yes.
RN: In fact I’ve been to the cemetery.
GR: That I was going to ask if you’d been.
RN: Yeah, oh yes, I’m glad you asked that Gary because the name of the cemetery was C H O L O Y and in fact I though it was [sounded] shaloy but in French it’s [sounded] Shalois. Shalois. But, er yes. Andre the er bell ringer, two or three times, he took me to the cemetery and I saw all the graves of the crew and others, and I even met the gardener who’s main job was to look after the cemetery and er you know yes, it was nice, it was nice to er, to see it.
GR: Like you’ve said, you’ve said a couple of times I think, because you didn’t know you were going to crash, cause obviously crews er the pilot said get ready to crash land.
RN: That’s right.
GR: Brace yourself.
RN: That’s right
GR: The pilots looking for somewhere to land, this came completely out the blue.
RN: Oh yes,
GR: You knew you were in a bit of trouble but didn’t realise you were that low.
RN: And of course, the pilot was going by his instruments.
GR: Yeah, And he wouldn’t have known nothing.
RN: Yeah so at least on my consolation is, that they died within seconds.
GR: Yeah.
RN No Didn’t suffer no, so, that I know that sounds bad.
GR Suffer. No, no it’s not bad at all it’s erm.
RN Well that’s briefly the life I had. I was married er I had a lovely wife.
GR: Married after the war I presume?
RN: Yes um, I was married at the end of er November in 45 and I had two daughters and a son and the two daughters even today spoil me rotten.
GR: And so they should [laugh]
RN: Well, [laugh] unfortunately my son died with cancer, but um no, I’ve had a good life, I’ve keep using this word lucky, but well I have been a lucky person, I have been a lucky person, and still am.
GR: Yeah. Lucky, but good. Good yeah. Ron has kindly donated his book “Saved by the Bell”, erm, which the the University can use to take bits out etc, I’ll just switch off. That was lovely thank you Ron.
RN: I have sent one to the University of Lincoln.



Gary Rushbrooke, “Interview with Ronald Needle,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 7, 2023,

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