Interview with John Alan Ottewell


Interview with John Alan Ottewell


John Ottewell was a member of the Air Defence Cadet Corps and volunteered for the RAF when he was eighteen. While undertaking initial training he was present when a Fw 190 attacked the town of Babbacombe. He took part in the clean-up at the church where twenty four people had died. After training he flew a tour of operations as a navigator from RAF Witchford before going on to a second tour with Pathfinders from RAF Oakington. Flew twenty nine operations on the same Lancaster, named after a racehorse, and remembers some of them: over Northern France in support of the invasion; a nine hour flight to Stettin; being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Kiel. Recounts being assigned to the Pathfinder force and then joining the Tiger Force. Mentions a Mosquito squadron at Oakington trained to drop bombs inside tunnels. Tells of his life after the war, working in civilian aviation, teaching navigation in flying schools, then developing missile systems and gives a detailed account of an encounter with Howard Hughes. Describes his fellow crew members. After the war he had the opportunity to fly in a number of aircraft including the Britannia and Buckmaster.




Temporal Coverage




00:34:27 audio recording

Conforms To


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DB: This, this is an interview with John Alan Ottewell in Downend Bristol on the 30th of December at 1445 hours. John can you tell me a little about your childhood and why you decided to join the RAF?
JO: Well, I was always interested in aircraft. Built model aeroplanes as a lad and joined the, what was the precursor to the ATC, the Air Defence Cadet Corp. Rose to the dizzy rank of sergeant. And signed on for the air force when I was eighteen. Call up papers at eighteen and went to London to, in the RAF pool which was based in Lord’s Cricket Ground. And next door to Lord’s Cricket was a huge garage which was the equipment centre. And in Regent’s Park are huge blocks of flats which were the, where everybody was sleeping and eating and so on. And I was there for about three weeks under what was called the PNB scheme. I’m sure you’ve heard of that. Pilot, navigator, bomb aimer. And I was then sent, having been kitted out with the uniform and marched about a bit and taught a few things I went to Derby, Burnaston to fly Tiger Moths and be sorted out as to whether I was going to be pilot, navigator or bomb aimer. And while I was there we stayed at Repton School which was pretty sparse there. There was no heating and it was winter. But I didn’t go solo in the twelve hours allocated. Nearly went but not quite and so I was posted as a navigator. And I went then down to Babbacombe for — here’s a picture of it look. You can see where I was. At the, now this was in a, in a hotel. We were stationed in various hotels in Babbacombe and I was in one called The Downs. There’s one. That’s still there today. And the Sefton is still there but it’s completely different. It’s been rebuilt. And while we were there we were doing exercises one Sunday afternoon on Oddicombe Beach and Babbacombe was attacked by a lone raider. Well, there were actually five lone 190s came over in different parts of the south coast and one came over Babbacombe. It let its bomb go as it crossed the coast. One bomb went, the left hand bomb went through our billet, the Downs Hotel and took a lot of my gear away because it was, we were in an upper floor. We were on the, we were on the beach in in PT kit and the other one hit St Mary Church and killed twenty four people of which there was a local orphanage. There were four teachers and twenty children and I’ve got the cuttings in here if they’re of interest to you. You can take a picture of them. So we were marched up. Well, while we were on the beach. It was a lovely day and suddenly paper fluttering down on the beach was pages from bibles and hymnbooks. We were marched back up and then, by which time all the rescue people had been in the church and got the bodies out but we were employed to go through the rubble to see whether there was anything of significance, you know buried or anything. And a couple of pictures of that in there. And strangely enough one of the four teachers had the same name, surname as myself but I’ve never been able to find out whether she was related. Have you Chris? Have you?
CO: No.
JO: No. You haven’t. So, anyway I passed out of there and went up to, we went to Heaton Park in Manchester which was a holding unit. And friends went off to Canada and USA and I happened to go to Bishops Court in Northern Ireland. Did the navigation training there and on the way back there was a huge storm and we were sitting in the boat for forty eight hours because it couldn’t dock in, in Stranraer. And they didn’t have much in the way of food so we were eating ship’s biscuits which were sort of emergency rations. They made plenty of tea though so we were alright there. And then where did I go then? I’ve got to have a think now. From there I went down to one of the, my memory’s going, near Banbury. Old Warden. Is it Old Warden? Oh, is that my phone or yours?
CO: Mine.
JO: I went to Old Warden on Wellingtons and we flew around. We, well the first thing we did we were all assembled in one of the large hangars. About twenty pilots and twenty navigators and forty bomb aimers err forty gunners and told to form up into crews. Which somehow we did. I don’t quite know how it worked but eventually we did and then we flew the Wellington as a crew and spent, well a few weeks there and then we went to the Heavy Conversion Unit at Feltwell which flew Stirlings. The Stirling was a very nice aeroplane but it was all electric and if the undercarriage failed, for example it was about six hundred winds of a very short handle to get it down. But the, usually the flight engineer carried a half a penny in his pocket so the copper of the half penny he could put in the fuse slot and it wouldn’t blow [laughs] So then the undercarriage would come down and lock. And the Stirling was a very nice aeroplane. And then eventually I went to Witchford on the Lancaster so you can stop it [laughs]
[recording paused]
JO: Well we started operating at Witchford. Let me just have a look and see. I’ve got my logbook here somewhere.
[recording paused]
JO: Switch it on again. We started ops at, at Witchford, bombing Northern France to help the invasion. Caen and places like that. And then we, after three or four ops we did a very long one to Stettin in Poland. Nine hours forty. Which is the absolute limit of what a Lancaster would do. About ten hours. They had, from memory they had two thousand one hundred and fifty four gallons of fuel and they used a gallon a nautical mile. So it gives you the range. And Stettin was just getting to the limit of that. What else? So then, then after that we began to do support for the invasion. Did a Le Havre. Oh. Wait a minute. Just looking back in my book here we did an op to Kiel when we were hit by flak. Oh yes. Charlie Sergeant was sitting above that and it hit the port side of the aircraft. Got the controls to the elevators and damaged the controls to the elevators and cut the controls to the rudders and cut off all the hydraulics so the, the turrets wouldn’t work because they’re driven off the port inboard. And so that was interesting. But we were able to land by using differential power. And then we went on various ops. And I got the job at Witchford of making a radar map. H2S had, we’d just changed the H2S from ten centimetres which was not, not very clear because it’s the wavelength was ten centimetres so anything smaller wouldn’t show up. We went to three centimetre H2S and a tremendous improvement in the quality of the pictures. And I did a trip out to the Ruhr and took pictures of the cathode ray tube of the H2S outlining, showing where the different things you could take bearings on. Lakes, rivers, things like that. And that was put up in the crew room at Witchford and was there when the station closed I was told. You know, when, at the end of the war. So you might find somebody who remembers that. You may [laughs] It’s possible. Anyway, there we are. So, we did, we did altogether I think twenty nine ops at Witchford and then we went to Warboys. We were asked if we would go to be Pathfinders. And Donald Bennett was after the, what he supposed were the top crews. I suppose we’d survived and qualified for that. And three of the crew left. A Canadian bomb aimer and the flight engineer and, and one of the others went. And we got a new, a new crew or new members and we then went to, from having trained at Warboys we went to Oakington with 7 Squadron. And there we are. Ok. Well, Witchford of course was a temporary wartime station. Nissen huts heated by a single coke stove in the middle and the Nissen hut held two crews normally. And you had to get enough coke and coal to keep the stove going to keep the thing warm because obviously as fast as you put heat in it went out and there was many a night foray to the local coal dump to [laughs] to top up the thing. Hopefully unseen by the guards but I think they turned a blind eye. Whereas when we got to Oakington we had a pre-war modern station. We had a batman. I think I had a batwoman but to look after, she took care of about four officers and it was very very comfortable. And also at Oakington was a Mosquito squadron and they were training. They were an interesting squadron. They were training to toss bombs up tunnels. They’d fly towards the tunnel with the bomb, let the bomb go and go up the side of the mountain. A very dangerous game. And they practiced on Oakington because they put some hoops from the Nissen huts to give them the, where the tunnel entrance was. I mean obviously there was no mountain or anything and it was a fairly safe procedure but they did their practice there. And we also while we were there obviously there was the invasion going across the Rhine and gliders were being towed across. And while we were there one of them landed at Oakington and about, the soldiers all dashed out ready with their guns to go into action only to find they were in the middle of an RAF airfield. Which was, we thought was amusing. They did not. Well, then we were posted to St Eval in Cornwall to join the Tiger Force. Now, the Tiger Force was going to help bomb Japan. And the problem is with the two thousand mile range on a Lancaster and Vancouver to Honolulu being two thousand miles we had a problem. How to get the Lancasters into the Japanese war because they couldn’t make it. They didn’t have the Azores and Labrador and things in the way. So we had to wait until they were fitted with a four hundred gallon tank, from memory, in the bomb bay. And that was fitted by people who were flight refuelling. And on Wikipedia there’s something about it said they hoped to use flight refuelling but of course they didn’t. Flight refuelling didn’t exist as a, as a system. It was just that the flight refuelling were the people who supplied the tankage and the pipes and the pumps and fitted them. And as the aircraft were fitted out they took off and went off and we were number ten. During that time I got some leave and got married. So, so anyway eventually of course the atom bomb was dropped and I think it’s possible if it hadn’t been dropped I wouldn’t be here because we would have been bombing Japan. And it, I think it saved a lot of lives. But there was an aircraft got as far as Vancouver. And they were, they were, they were scattered and we were just ready to go and the war stopped. So end of story really.
[recording paused]
JO: A very good friend my mother. And she had a daughter. And her daughter was friends with a, with a girl at where she worked who was, eventually became my wife. I was introduced to her by that.
[recording paused]
JO: I was only in it for a couple of years obviously and I joined Transport Command flying, well we had I did a short bit on Warwicks which was a grown up version of the Wellington. But we flew Yorks on, down to Cairo and Gibraltar and all over the place and I finished on those about two or three months before I was due to be demobbed. I was posted to Lyneham and operated in the control tower for a little while. And then in 1947 I was demobbed and we went up to Warton where of course they make the Typhoons today. They had a big hangar full of suits and shoes and suitcases and hats. All made by Montague Burton who you, you really wouldn’t know about I’m sure but they were the, they were the tailors of the time. And the uniform was put in the suitcase and I left and came home. End of that story.
[recording paused]
Right. As I trained as a navigator in the RAF we automatically got what at that time was called a second class navigator’s licence. A civil licence. Like a driving licence. But in order to work in civil aviation like in BOAC or any of the airlines you had to have a first class navigator’s licence. For that you had to go up to London and sit an exam. And in 1947 the winter was very harsh and so I went up to London and stayed in a grotty hotel and sat the exam in my RAF great coat. In a, you know [laughs] Fortunately passed and got a first class thing. Of course one of the things I was able to do was sort of mental arithmetic and things which helped a lot and I got a job with BOAC as it was then and we were based at Hurn. So you went down to Hurn. You were born that winter.
CO: Yes [unclear] cold.
JO: My son was born that winter. We went down to Hurn and we flew from Hurn which was BOAC’s base. London Heathrow didn’t exist. Although there was an airfield there they were, there was tented accommodation for passengers, looking after the passengers. And the aeroplanes were mostly Yorks or converted Lancasters into Lancastrians. And the Lancastrian was a very nice aeroplane in many ways. It had the odd thing of thirteen passengers sitting sideways. One steward and a crew of four I think it was and we flew down to Sydney stopping in Cairo and Delhi and Karachi and Rangoon and all the places on the way. And there was a film made, and I’ve talked to Chris about this, called, “Seventy two hours to Sydney,” which is what the Lancastrian actually did. Three days to Sydney. And we’ve never been able to find it.
CO: No. I’ve searched online. I can’t find it.
JO: And I’m sure it was made for BOAC. Anyway, somebody might turn it up one day. But they wanted to post me to Sydney on flying boats. I did short trips on flying boats. You had to take a special exam because a flying boat when it lands becomes subject to the Admiralty rules and regulations so you have to learn about lights and buoys and all sorts of things. Anyway, they wouldn’t post me down there permanently so I said rather rashly, oh well, goodbye and left BOAC and took a job with Bristol where the flying schools were continuing after the war. Reserved flying schools that is. For the RAF. I got a job there teaching navigation and we had Ansons and Tiger Moths and various other odd aeroplanes. I think we had an Oxford as well. And one Sunday morning we went into work and they said the flying school is shut. It closed down like that. Without warning. We were given a month’s notice and that was it. Now, you couldn’t imagine that happening today but this is in 1949. And so I thought oh I’d better look for another job. But fortunately they had an order for about a hundred Bristol freighters and they were farming out the delivery of the freighters. And they said well if we’ve got a navigator we’ve got pilots. We’ll deliver them ourselves. And so I sort of fell into a job by sheer luck. And I stayed with them navigating and eventually got a pilot’s licence and flew with them until what was it? 1972, when I sort of retired from flying and took a job as a project manager for developing something called tracked Rapier. The Rapier missile system defends airfields and this was a Rapier missile system developed for Iran on a, an American tank as it were. And unfortunately before it could be properly developed the Shah was deposed and so we had to go and do something else. Anyway, we, I was in, involved in Rapier development until I retired. End of story really.
[recording paused]
JO: I managed to fly in some unusual aircraft. I flew in an aircraft called the Buckmaster which was a two seater trainer for the Brigand. And in the bomb bay of the Buckmaster was fitted a very large combustion heater which was intended to heat the Brabazon. I think it was something, a colossal, like four hundred thousand BTHU. It was a dirty great cylinder. Excuse the word but it was a huge thing and when it lit you heard it. It went vroom. And you know you were sitting with headphones. We did several flights with that because it had to, they didn’t want to start it up on the ground. It had to ignite when you were at altitude to provide heat for the Brabazon which was a vast interior. That was an interesting aeroplane. I had a flight in the Brabazon itself. Took a couple of flights in a Brabazon. We did stalls. It was the most gentle stalling aircraft I ever flew in. It just sort of sighed and went down at about ninety five knots. It just went [unclear] like that. Very gentle. And that was interesting. And then I got involved in delivering freighters. They lost a couple of freighters. The crews did. One was, went down in the Lyme Bay when they were doing single engine climbs and nobody could explain it although there was a sailor on the conning tower of a submarine said he saw something fall off. But that was as much as we had. And then there was a nasty Avro Tudor aircrash at Llandow in Wales. And there was a freighter airborne doing the same thing and the chap went over to have a look at the crash site. And then he did a single engine climb and the tail, the fin collapsed. And of course the thing spins in then and they knew what it was. And they also lost freighters, a couple of freighters when the wing skin fell off. The top, the top wing skin. When they were taken out to Africa to fly, very bumpy conditions and the wings are flexing the rivets fatigued and eventually like undoing a stitch they undid. And then the thing did that. And they lost a couple like that. But all these things are taken care of, hopefully, in modern aeroplanes. We hope.
CO: Yeah.
JO: And then I, we did a lot of work on the Britannia. Chris just reminded me of one we did. We, it had engine trouble because the engines in the Britannia had jet engines, turbo props. But there’s something called reverse flow and the air comes in the wrong end and goes around and comes back out the back. And they used to ice up in certain conditions. If you were flying in cloud like well there wasn’t any and there was some thin cloud earlier. And the Met people, we’d asked the Met office how much water content was for cubic metre so that we could calculate, our boys could calculate how much heat was in the ice to get rid of it. And the Met people said, I’ve forgotten the numbers now but it was something if they might have said say a hundred grams per cubic metre and when we went out there and actually measured it and we had devices for catching the stuff it was nearly four times as much. So the amount of heat you had to put in of course goes up proportionately. And eventually we solved the problem but BOAC by then were concerned with having their 707s and the Britannia never really made it. The air force used it a lot and it was put to very good use for the air force. We, we did all sorts of strange things. We had one in Rangoon which overran the runway and it broke at the front passenger door. A big crack right around. And we took him, a chap out there, what’s the name? King wasn’t it? Harold King. Was it?
CO: I don’t know.
JO: Anyway, we took, we took one of our engineers who was renowned for sort of, what you might call make do and mend jobs and we bolted a lot of dexion. You know what dexion is, you know the punch hole thing around the cockpit to support it? Flew back unpressurised about ten thousand feet using thousands of gallons of fuel. Brought it back to Filton where it was repaired. But interesting.
CO: Yeah.
JO: I think that about the end for me. Any more?
CO: Howard Hughes.
JO: I can’t think of anything else.
CO: You flew with Howard Hughes, I think.
JO: Oh yes. I flew with Howard Hughes. Yes. Yes. That was interesting too. We took a Britannia out to, I think we took it to Ottawa. I’d probably find it in my logbook. And we were told Howard Hughes wanted to fly it because he was looking for it for Transworld Airlines and we were parked on the parking bay in the airport. It was the evening time and suddenly a convoy of very posh American shiny cars comes up to the passenger’s steps and parks there. Nothing much happened and a dirty old Ford came and it was filthy. Came and parked by the crew’s steps. One man got out in a shabby old suit wearing sandals and a hat and came up the front steps and said, ‘I’m Howard Hughes. I’m going to fly this aeroplane.’ And he took his shoes off and he got in the aeroplane and off we went and we flew for, I don’t know, an hour, an hour and a half and came back. He was a very good pilot. He really put it through its paces. And he wanted to buy eighty of these aeroplanes. And since we could only make twelve a year it was a fairly forlorn hope. And of course they then bought the Lockheed Electra. But he tried it twice, the Britannia. And he preferred it but we couldn’t make it. So there you are.
[recording paused]
JO: Yeah. We had our regular crew, regular ground crew and regular aircraft which was in the picture there. KO X. And that year the Derby winner was a horse called Tehran and so we called the Lancaster Tehran. I think we had a, I can’t remember whether we had a horse painted on but it was something like that. But when we were with the Pathfinders we didn’t always get the same aircraft. But at Witchford we, we did most of our ops in that. You got used to it you know. They were, they were assembled in different places and they were all slightly different because they were made of parts which were, came from all over the country. And we certainly liked that one and it was a lucky one for us. Can’t tell you any more really.
[recording paused]
JO: Johnny Boden was the pilot and he was the old man. He was twenty four and he’d been in the air force longer than the rest of us. And he’d been training, flying a Wellington and he’d been not exactly demoted but been prevented from being promoted because he’d done some low flying and he hit a, had hit a telegraph pole with the wing of the Wellington and apparently came back to the station, this is a story we heard, with three feet of telegraph pole embedded in the wing. And for that he was not allowed to be promoted and it set back his, he would have been normally commissioned at that, at that age. And he was a great character. He, at the end of the war he took a civil pilot’s licence and flew for Scandi Scandinavian airlines and I think if you look him up on the internet you’ll find there was an incident in Rome where they had a fire on and he succeeded rather well in looking after the aeroplane. But the rest of the crew we were under twenty. Now, can you imagine today where they keep people in school until their eighteen letting them loose on a multi-million pound aeroplane? You know. It’s very strange. And they all came from different parts of the country. So Tommy Lapin was an Irishman from Belfast. Charlie Shepherd was from London. He’s the, he was the mid-upper gunner. Charlie Sergeant was from Abertillery where he still lives. Ken Ackland was from Bridgwater just down the road and I knew him after the war. And who else have we got? Me. With hair [laughs] And where are we? Just trying to look at the thing. I was, have I said oh Al Gilfoyle was a Canadian, from Toronto. And he came over after the war to visit Ken Ackland and we met. And I think that’s all of us isn’t it? Yes. That’s all of us. Ken Ackland sadly died quite a long time ago. I don’t know what happened to Al Gilfoyle . I’m told Charlie Shepherd died. I only knew recently. Chris found out. Died of cancer shortly after the war.
CO: Not Charlie Shepherd. You’ve got. Oh yes. You’re right. Sorry.
JO: Shepherd. Shepherd.
CO: I’m getting confused.
JO: Yeah. Shepherd.
CO: Yes.
JO: London. Cancer.
CO: He died.
JO: Yeah.
CO: The other one is still with us.
JO: And Charlie Sergeant is still alive and Chris is in contact. And we’re sort of indirectly contact. And Tommy Lapin we’ve, he disappeared. We don’t quite know. It’s possible. He could have survived but we don’t know do we?
CO: No.
JO: And Johnny Boden. Well, we don’t know. He was much older. Of course he was three years older. Which doesn’t sound much today but when you’re old it’s a lot. And so I don’t know what happened to him. So that’s all the crew.



Denise Boneham, “Interview with John Alan Ottewell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

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