Interview with Geoff Packham

Title

Interview with Geoff Packham

Description

Geoff Packham grew up in Sheffield and worked at the town hall before he volunteered for the air Force. He discusses his father’s service in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. He trained in Canada and completed seven operations as a pilot with 550 Squadron from RAF North Killingholme before being shot down in May 1944. After attempting to evade he became a prisoner of war. He flew as a commercial pilot after the war until he retired in 1982.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2016-08-25

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

01:21:22 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

APackhamGH160825, PPackhamG1610

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

AM: We’ll ignore that then. OK, so today is Thursday 25th of August 2016. I’m in Hersham in Surrey with Geoff Packham. And also with us is Gary Rushbrooke who we’ll also hear on the tape in a bit and I’m just going to talk to Geoff generally about his life and the RAF and Bomber Command in particular. So, what I’d like to start off with, Geoff, if you will, is just a little bit about your childhood and your background and your parents, just to give a bit of context about your early life, if you like. Where were you born?
GP: Well, I was born in Sheffield, which isn’t far from here of course.
AM: No.
GP: And my father was in the RFC. I have his cap badge still. He was a Lieutenant in the RFC and then they became the RAF of course later on and he actually was posted to an airfield near Canterbury on the London defence and he was flying Sopwith Camels and SE5s, that type of thing. And one day, he was up on patrol when he got shot down, well we think he was shot down by the flak because there was activity in the air and he’d been sent up to patrol, and the big guns of Kent there, used to just fire off. Anyway, poor old Pop’s aeroplane was, err, err, his engine was set on fire and of course they didn’t have parachutes in those days, so poor old Pop had to come down with his aeroplane and crashed very, very badly. Unfortunately, they had just one little seat belt in those days and he got — that broke. It was tied to the tail or something. Anyway, he shot out over of the top and hit his head on the Lewis gun, that was on the top, and was unconscious when he hit the ground about forty feet away. Well his aeroplane of course was still blazing, of course, and some villagers from nearby were looking for the pilot and couldn’t find him. Anyway, he was in the bushes and he finished his flying in the hospital for Officers at Blackpool.
AM: Right. What year are we talking about here?
GP: Pardon?
AM: What year are we talking about here?
GP: Oh, that was 1918.
AM: 1918.
GP: Just towards the end of the War. But they had this squadron there. He was in 50 Squadron. So of course, I was brought up in the aviation world and when the War came of course, I was in Sheffield. I left my Grammar School in 1938. Firth Park Grammar School. And I took a job with the Town Hall, in the audit department. Anyway, this lasted for a couple of years and during that time, we had the Blitz and a couple of Blitzes on Sheffield and by this time, my father was an ARP Warden and I went out to help him with the incendiary bombs and things that were running around the place, and of course this decided me that I’d, I was eighteen at the time, I’d join up in the RAF and [coughs] and go and help out with the War.
AM: Just before we get to the RAF bit then. What was it actually like being in the Blitz?
GP: Oh, it was quite amazing ‘cause they used to drop these mines and things and incendiary bombs, and all we had was a stirrup pump and a bucket of water or some sand to get these things out and even in Broomhill, where, at the south west of the city.
AM: I know it, I know it.
GP: It was bad but of course the main part was the factories and the centre which got bombed.
AM: ‘cause it was armaments. Quite a lot of Sheffield was armaments wasn’t it.
GP: Oh yes. And there were quite a lot of casualties and things. So I joined up and just after the Blitz and my first posting was to Cardington for registering and uniform and things and that was the blue sheds at Cardington and from there on they kept posting me to various stations because they were waiting to get me in to the Training Scheme in Canada, for flying.
AM: So what year was this? Forty —
GP: This was nineteen forty —
GR: Early 1941.
GP: One. Yeah. And all 1941 was taken up with ITW, the training section and you see the stations in there [sound of pages turning], and I was posted up to a station in Acklington, just north of Newcastle, to do odd duties, and eventually I got on to a boat which took me to Halifax in Canada and from there —
AM: What was that like? What was it actually like on the boat? Where did you sail from?
GP: Oh, that was a big boat and there were a lot of submarines and things around, so it was zigzagging all the way across the Atlantic and it was bad weather of course. It was —
GR: Of course this would have been August 1941.
GP: Yeah, that was —
GR: Which was the height of the Atlantic U-boat war and everything so —
GP: Right, yeah.
GR: Yes, it would have been a very dangerous crossing.
GP: Yes, anyway we got there and they took us across to Calgary and in Calgary of course, we got a fine reception because a lot of the people out there were English people who’d emigrated after the First World War and they wanted to know what was happening back home etcetera. So I made lots of friends there and eventually passed the — there were two stages – the Tiger Moth stage and the Oxford.
AM: Had it been decided what you were actually going to be, at this point?
GP: Well they put me on the twin engine ones for the second part of the training. So I was obviously going on Bombers.
AM: So had it already been decided you were going to be a pilot at this stage?
GP: Well that's decided after the first stage of training.
AM: Right, OK.
GP: In the Tiger Moths. I was lucky there because I always seemed to be dubbed with difficulties and I went up on my first solo and the — It was a lovely day, no problem, and the instructor just sort of said, ‘Well, off you go then.’ We'd been doing a bit of drill and spinning and things and he said, ‘OK, well, straight out and go around and come in and do a few landings.’ You see. So I did this. Anyway, in between that time — Oh, the last flight, the wind had blown up the Rockies. It used to produce a strange sort of change of winds and things and the wind had changed and I didn't even look at the wind sock [laughs] and I wondered why I was going a bit fast, but fortunately, it was on the approach. It seemed fast, but I couldn't understand why. But there was a nice long concrete runway, because Air Canada used to use it for civil purposes, you see. And so I managed to stop, and then they came out and started grabbing the wings because the wind was blowing up and they were frightened it would turn over.
GR: Terrible, isn't it.
GP: I got through the test anyway and with a good result and then went on to Oxfords and it got very cold in the winter time and eventually, I think it was January '42 by this time, and I — They gave me a railway ticket and said, ‘You've got a boat going back to England.’ As they did to all the course, and we were one of the first courses out there you see. They said, ‘Go to Halifax and report there.’ And you got three weeks to do it. It takes about four days for the journey and by train, of course, all the way from Medicine Hat there, by that time and to —
AM: Yeah, I'm just visualising.
GP: Nova Scotia, and some of the boys stayed if they had girlfriends. I just went and had a look round Winnipeg and Montreal.
AM: On your own, or with friends?
GP: On the way. Pardon?
AM: Were you on your own or with friends? With other chaps?
GP: No, I was on my own by that time.
AM: Right.
GP: We were allowed to do what we liked so long as we got to Halifax by a certain time, you see.
AM: By the right date.
GP: It was all very informal. So, we — I got across and we went back to the UK where I was shuffled round all over the place. And you'll find most of these stations here and the most I did was as a Staff Pilot at, err, in South Wales. I was flying Whitleys then. I've done most of my time on Whitleys.
GR: Was that while you were still training, or had you done your training?
GP: No, no. I was [pauses] what happened was that they wanted pilots to fly the Whitleys with gunners in the back and we had a Lysander coming upon us with a drogue on the end that they shot at and they did that over the Bristol Channel. So, this was, um, err, let’s see. Porthcawl.
GR: Yeah.
GP: Is the nearest place. Stormy Down was the station and I was there for a year all together because in between, they'd already posted me twice to Brize Norton which had Whitleys towing gliders.
GR: Right.
GP: And for a very short period, I went twice to Brize Norton and came back to my little place in —
GR: So you'd been sent to do, not training, but you were flying as a Pilot Instructor for the other people.
GP: Yes but I didn’t do many hours at all and I don't know why they sent me there. And from there —
GR: 'cause you'd have been expecting to go to an Operational Base.
GP: That's right.
GR: Sure. Yeah.
GP: And at Brize Norton, of course, they were training the Army Pilots to fly the gliders.
AM: Right.
GP: The Horsa gliders. So, um, yeah. I was there for a little while. And then of course, finally to my great pleasure, I got posted to Bomber Command. And I was very lucky because I got the Doncaster set of airfields where I went through the Operational Training Unit. But by this time, I’d got sort of, I should think something like eight hundred hours flying Whitleys.
AM: Flying Whitleys.
GP: And things like that, you know. And it was a piece of cake.
AM: You must have been far more experienced than a lot of the others at that stage.
GP: Yes. I went to one place, by the way, in there and it was on the Wash.
GR: Yeah.
GP: It was an experimental Unit and we had the old Battle of Britain pilots with their Spitfires and we had Wellingtons and we — All fitted with camera guns and it was a station where they were experimenting with tactics to get away from and shoot the other bod down, you know, but I think that’s —
GR: That was Herne, wasn't it?
GP: But — No, no. That's at Bournemouth. It's Kings Lynn, you know.
AM: Yes.
GR: Sutton Bridge.
GP: Sutton Bridge. Yes.
GR: That's it. Yeah. Just before you went to Stormy Down.
GP: Yes. Anyway, yes, it was Finningley, of course, for the Bomber training and I did some time on Wellingtons. In fact, it was a Wellington where we — we used, for dropping. They were dummy raids. When a big wave went out, we went on a decoy and dropped some information, you know, leaflets and things.
AM: Leaflets, yes.
GP: To the French. And also, some, the aluminium foil that we used to use as a diversion to make the Germans think that they were —
GR: Window.
GP: Window. So, there were a few things on the way which were interesting.
GR: Which was quite good because Finningley, Worksop, Windholme.
GP: That's right.
GR: Was all near Sheffield, so you were based near home.
GP: And I was very fortunate because I got a motorbike and my brother and I — I had a brother who also was a pilot. He'd been to America but on the way [telephone rings] he'd burst an eardrum.
AM: OK, we've just paused for the telephone, but we're back. So, we've been talking about the fact that for almost two years, before you went to your Operational Training Unit, you'd been effectively piloting for other trainees learning to shoot and all the rest of it.
GP: Over two years. Yeah.
AM: Yeah.
GP: So, yes, it took a long time to get there but we finally made it and I had this motorcycle of course.
AM: That’s right.
GP: So with my brother who’d been across to America, but because he’d bust his eardrum, he was put back. He was going to be a fighter pilot and he would have made a very good one but he had to come down quickly because there was a tornado coming along and he burst an eardrum and they put him off and he finished up supplying [coughs] food to the Chindits in Burma etcetera, on DC3s. But, so there were three pilots in the family of course. Anyway, he rode motorbikes as well and we did that after the war, but yes, um —
AM: Were you — so all these two years when you were doing piloting, were you anxious to go on Operations? Or were you happy where you were?
GP: Oh yeah. I’d been wanting this right from the very start.
AM: Right.
GP: I was a bit unlucky in that respect. Or lucky.
GR: Or lucky.
GP: But anyway, in the end, I managed it and I got decent reports and I got a crew that selected me actually.
AM: How did that work?
GP: [Laughs].
AM: How did that happen?
GP: And they’d heard that I’d had a lot of experience etcetera and I’ve got the Bomb Aimer’s little letter here that suggested that they chose me because, you know, because of my experience they thought it was better than none. [Laughs]. So, I got a very good crew with me but of course I was spending a lot of my time riding back to Sheffield to see my parents because they’d got two sons, one out in Batavia and places like that. Burma. And me. I’d been out for a year longer of course. Brother Pete was just a little bit younger than I was. So. Anyway we got on well and eventually, I was very fortunate in being just in time to do the first D-Day raid.
GR: ‘Cause you ended up going to 550 Squadron.
GP: Yeah, that’s it.
GR: At Killingholme. And you arrived there on the 24th May 1944.
GP: That’s right.
GR: Yeah.
GP: And it was just in time to — Normally, they gave a couple of flights with the Flight Commander, just to get you experienced on the raid itself but I was lucky that, but unlucky in one way but I went with the Flight Commander. Yeah. And it was the first raid and we raided a coastal battery on the Cherbourg peninsula there.
GR: And I’ll just interrupt to say —
GP: So I had a sort of supervision there.
GR: That your first Operation was on the night of D-Day.
GP: It was.
GR: Because on the night of the 5th of June going into the 6th of June — So your first ever Operation was on the eve.
GP: Yeah.
GR: And then your next Operation was you flew to Paris – was actually on the 6th of June.
AM: Was on D-Day.
GP: That’s right. Well we’ve got some information on there [turns pages] Now wait a minute.
AM: I’ll take copies of this after, if I may.
GP: Yes. Oh yes.
AM: Were you aware, then, so it’s the 5th of June – how aware were you of —
GR: D-Day.
AM: What was actually happening? And you know, that it was —
GP: Oh, we saw them going across actually as we crossed our coast. We saw the fleet and yeah, we have actually a certificate here [sound of pages turning].
GR: So what was the first Operation like? Did it all go smoothly?
GP: Err, it was, yes. Oh, here we are.
AM: Here we are.
GP: That was the original copy.
AM: I’ll take a copy of that, if I may, afterwards.
GR: Yeah.
AM: What was it actually like then on — You’re an experienced pilot, but here you are on your first Operation. Describe it to me.
GP: Well. I was under supervision there you see, of course, which was a little bit of bad luck I think. But, no, I was excited. I’ve always liked danger. [sound of pages turning] You know, we used to race motorbikes and things eventually. No problems as far as that is concerned. But that was the first raid. Incidentally, that bloke, eventually, when I got shot down —
AM: When you say ‘that bloke’ you’re talking about the Com—
GP: Yeah. My Squadron Leader.
AM: Yes.
GR: Yep.
AM: Yep.
GP: He gave me his old aeroplane. And he took a new one and it made quite a difference actually. Because we were both shot down on the same raid, ten days later actually. You can’t believe it, can you? There were three of us shot down out of eighteen that took part. But, yes, it was the same Peter that, I got blasted on Sterkrade.
AM: Yes. We’ll come back to that.
GP: Oh yes. Here we are. We’ve got all these. [sound of pages turning] This is the first raid on D-Day.
You can have a look at all these.
AM: OK.
GR: Yes. There’s a certificate’s given to you for —
AM: Yes. So I’m looking here at a Diploma. La Croix de Guerre. A citation certificate. The — a Valeur Militaire, which hopefully I’ll be able to copy afterwards.
Other 1: Certainly.
AM: What was it actually — I need you to describe to me what it actually felt like.
GP: Well that was an easy raid.
AM: Um.
GP: But —
AM: By ‘easy’ —
GP: Very vital.
AM: Why do you say it was easy?
GP: Well there wasn’t too much flak, ‘cause —
AM: OK.
GP: It was in France.
AM: Umm.
GP: Germany was the worst place to go, of course. And I only did two more. The second one I got shot down on Germany, you see, another [unclear].
AM: So how many Operations all together?
GR: There were seven Operations all together and the first [counting] one, two, three, four, were all over the Normandy coast. But within the space of eleven days, after three years of being in the RAF, in the space of eleven days, seven Operations and shot down on your seventh.
GP: That’s it. Yeah.
AM: Tell me about that then.
GP: Well. It was — night flying was very difficult because the Germans by that time had got a very intense flak system going and they had a very good radar system. Not only on the ground, but in the air. And all these night fighters, some of whom got up to two or three hundred victories, because they were guided on to the aircraft, and they were put in a position where they could see us, but we couldn’t see them ‘cause we were just looking out with our eyeballs, of course. So. And this is what happened to me on the way back from this thing. Anyway, the flak hit us on that last raid and we’ve got — There is a description of that.
AM: I’ll find that.
GR: Yeah.
AM: Let’s find that afterwards. You tell me in your words.
GP: OK. That isn’t quite accurate, but —
AM: Put it down for a minute. Tell me in your own words.
GP: Yes. What happened was that, on that raid, again it was night time and it was about 2 o’clock in the morning on Sterkrade and that again was in the Ruhr which is a heavily defended place. And we got hit something like about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour before we actually got to the target. So, one engine went out and then the second one followed it. Both on the same side. And there was a hole in the nose of the aeroplane. There was a little fire started which went out fortunately. And some of my instruments were missing. And all the hydraulics had gone.
AM: Right.
GP: So we — Oh, the first thing was, we were flying at eighteen thousand feet and everybody else was up at twenty, because we were using an old aeroplane. And there again you’ve got the details of that in the papers. But the Squadron Leader had been using previously etcetera and he got the new one. Anyway, we’d been two thousand feet lower than everybody else all the way of course, which is —
AM: Sitting duck.
GP: And I staggered along with the — I had my bomb aimer, the navigator was helping ‘cause by this time we could see markers going down over the target. The navigator and the radio operator. And they’re all working on this problem down below.
AM: On the hydraulics.
GP: On the hydraulics and such like.
AM: What was the flight engineer doing?
GP: The flight engineer was down below.
AM: He was down there as well.
GP: Yeah, there was a crowd down there and I didn’t know what was going to — because I was having to fly the thing manually of course. And keep it in the air on two engines. So, anyway we were flat out on the other two and we got to the target eventually and we’d lost height obviously but when we circled round we couldn’t open the bomb bays. So we’d got six and a half tons, I think it was, on the aircraft and still quite a bit of fuel so it wasn’t a nice situation and after about five minutes we decided we’d better leave the area ‘cause it was getting too hot. And I set course for — tried to miss the big towns in Holland and we’d only just passed over the — oh, we were still in Germany when we had two fighter attacks on us [laughs] which — At least the gunners shouted. And I did my corkscrewing to evade him.
GR: On two engines.
AM: Even though you’ve only got two engines.
GP: Oh yes. And they could see him at two o’clock in the morning so it was obviously fairly close, and yeah, so we lost more height and more height and what I’d intended was to try and get to the English coast, drop the crew off and then head out to sea.
AM: When you say ‘drop the crew off’, you mean —
GP: Do what I could do with my dingy and my —
AM: Abandon.
GP: Mae West and hope somebody would rescue me, but there was no chance of that after the fighter attack, you see. Anyway.
AM: So where did the fighter get you? You’ve already lost two engines, your hydraulics aren’t working, your bomb bay won’t open.
GP: Yeah. That’s it.
AM: And then the fighter, where did the fighter get you?
GP: And actually, the gunners tried to fire but the gun turrets wouldn’t turn ‘cause they’re on the hydraulics.
GR: ‘Cause of the hydraulics.
GP: So everything was against us. I don’t know why they bothered firing. You know. Anyway. The fighter disappeared, fortunately and we were just over the Dutch border by that time so I bailed the crew out. And they went off and the last thing the bomber mentioned as he went, he was the last one out, he should have been the first. But he’d lost a boot. Tried to kick the — There was a little panel down below that they dropped through and I checked them all out through the front, you see, I got time to do that, and then I left of course and I had to close the throttle on the other two engines to keep the aircraft, well, flying really but I had to take off my mask and helmet and all the communication cables and things like that and the seat belt and things. When I left the controls, I’d been fighting those for a long time then, the aircraft started going down in a spin and the tendency is for you to be thrown around and pulled towards the back of the aircraft so I had a job trying to get down into the little hole that they’d left in the bottom. Anyway, eventually I pulled my parachute cord as soon as I got out and I must have been, well, I hadn’t tightened up my straps. I couldn’t do that. They’re uncomfortable to sit at the tension that you’d normally fly, you know, [background aircraft noise] so they were on but they weren’t tight enough and as I fell through this hole, I fell through the harness and I was left sticking head downwards on my parachute when it opened you see. Anyway, all the others got out ok. But, oh, I’ll continue with my story anyway. But, yes, I managed to pull myself, I was very fit in those days, and I managed to pull myself and hold on to the straps which of course swings the parachute, you know, when you’re pulling on one side and that was fortunate because when I hit the ground, it was right on my backside. The old coccyx took it, and of all things, I landed — It was pouring with rain. Absolutely pouring with rain. It was June and it was a wheat field that I landed in and it was June when all the crop was up.
AM: Yep.
GP: And not only that —
AM: Slightly softer landing.
GP: They explained that to me afterwards that I would have killed myself ‘cause it’s like jumping off the ceiling with those sorts of parachutes. It’s quite a hard landing. And as I was on my backside, it must have been on the upswing of the parachute when I touched down, because I didn’t feel any shock.
AM: You didn’t damage your back. You know, so as you’re coming down, you probably had too much to think about but you’ve left the plane, that’s still —
GP: It’s all very dark.
AM: Could you see what happened to the plane, or was it – Had it gone too far by then?
GP: Well no. It landed fairly close to me.
AM: Right.
GP: So I wasn’t very far away from it.
AM: ‘Cause it’s still got a full bomb load on it and lots of fuel.
GP: And it all went up. Yeah.
AM: Right.
GP: And it landed on a farm in [unclear] and killed seven people unfortunately. I’ve got a picture of the memorial there.
AM: But you wouldn’t have known that at the time. You knew that afterwards.
GP: Well I couldn’t do anything about it.
AM: No, no. And you wouldn’t –presumably you wouldn’t have known anyway at the time.
GP: It was an area where there wasn’t any big buildings but there was a village and this was the interesting thing, that as I’d landed, I just screwed up my parachute and it was in the wheat field and nothing else I could do. But I saw by the glow of the fire that — a church steeple and it was the village steeple, so I made my way. I knew that the War would be over fairly shortly after. We thought in about six months. So, I went to the church to find help which was our briefing as Bomber pilots, of course. If you wanted to get help, you normally went to a church. And I went and sat in a graveyard for the rest of the night and it was only about three hours because it was June and it was about two o’clock I think when I got out of the aeroplane.
AM: Can you remember how you actually felt at this point?
GP: Yeah. [laughs]
AM: Are you really scared? Were you —
GP: Well no, no. It all happens very slowly. I think when you race motorbikes, it’s the same sort of thing, you know.
AM: It’s like slow motion.
GP: Everything seems to slow down. Yeah. And your decisions – I’ve had a lot of experiences in civil flying when I’ve had engine troubles and all sorts of things happen. I’ve been flying passengers around with one engine gone on a twin.
AM: But not with a full bomb load.
GP: And I didn’t tell them either. [laughs]
AM: So you’re sat in the graveyard. Then what?
GP: It’s funny but there was no fear at all.
AM: No.
GP: But I was feeling miserable because it was pouring down with rain still and I was sitting on this — somebody’s resting place and it was a bit hard, so in the morning, I peeped over the wall to the vicarage when I heard a noise and it was the vicar’s wife. I’ve even got the name of the vicar who helped me actually. But it was the start of an Underground movement. This is where the story gets interesting because they got me into the Underground movement and —
AM: What did the vicar’s wife say when she saw you?
GP: [laughs] Well, she looked at me, and you know, well I was in uniform of course so she knew what had happened ‘cause —
AM: Seen the plane.
GP: Things going bang just beside of me [laughs] and yes, I was given a civvy suit and a cardboard collar [laughs] as a tie and a little green Carte d’Identité which said I was deaf and dumb, with a picture on. Yeah, a picture of me. Eventually. And, so I started off down the KLM Line. The Dutch KLM Line.
AM: Dutch KLM Line. What does that stand for?
GP: Well, that was the name they gave it.
AM: Ok.
GP: It was —
GR: All the escape lines had different names.
GP: Yeah, they had different names for all these escape routes.
AM: So, like the Comet Line and things like that.
GP: Yeah. Anyway, you went from safe house to safe house etcetera and amazingly enough, at one of them, they said, ‘You’re going to be joined by another aviator.’ And guess who it was. It was my mid- upper gunner, old Jackson. And he was a bus driver from Salford and he’d joined right on the limit for them. He was thirty-four years of age when he joined and I was only twenty-two by that time, you see, and he looked like Methuselah to me because he’d – They’d dressed him up, you know, in civvies and from there on, we went down this Underground line together. Well, we always walked separately, you know, about thirty metres behind each other and we always had a guide. An armed guide. Who would take us to the next place, you see. Anyway, I got some pictures of one of the helpers. ‘Cause a lot of them were shot after the War. Well, during that time of course, when they were caught. But anyway, we went all the way through and we went through Brader which was a Leave Centre for the Germans during that time and it was full of Germans and there was me, you know, fresh-faced little bloke with a thing.
AM: Deaf and dumb.
GP: And if anybody had asked me for my passport, or even shouted, I would’ve turned round, you know. [laughs]
AM: You couldn’t speak. You were dumb. Or supposed to be.
GP: [laughs] I’d have said I was Russian or — it wouldn’t matter, you know. But, I was deaf and dumb. It was as sophisticated as that. And I’ve got a full report on the KLM line until it got to the border in there, which is interesting. Anyway, we finally came to Antwerp in Belgium and we were put in a flat with — And I’ve got a picture of the lady who was there, and the rest of it. We stayed for three days and we ate beautifully.
AM: Still just the two of you or had other people —
GP: There were two of us, yeah.
AM: Still just the two of you.
GP: Oh, all the rest had been picked up except for the bomb aimer who went a different route down the escape things. He was caught eventually. But they were sent off to the NCO Camps and I was an Officer of course, so I got sent to a different camp.
AM: Oh, hang on. You’d not been caught yet.
GP: Yes, so we finished up in this flat and we were fed well and a very nice woman there and of course we chatted and the Front was advancing, of course, towards Belgium by that time. And then they said, ‘Well, we’re going to go and try and get through to the lines,’ you know, ‘We’re going West.’ And they were going to put us in an ambulance and bandage us up and take us. [laughs] Anyway, we went out to this place and we got into a car to take us out to the ambulance and all of a sudden — Oh, we were being escorted by a great big bloke who was supposed to be the girlfriend of this, the one in the flat, you see. Er, sorry, her boyfriend.
AM: Her boyfriend.
GP: And yeah, we thought we were on the way and all of a sudden he pulls out a gun and said, ‘OK. So for you, the War is over.’ And this is the fascinating thing, he turned out to be — [laughs] It’s all in here and it really should be read because it’s a lovely, lovely story. [sound of pages being turned]
GR: Which we will do, but tell us who he was.
AM: We will do. Carry on telling me. We’ll come to the [unclear]
GP: A character called René Van Muylem. And he was a Belgian who had Nazi sympathies.
AM: Right.
GP: And what had happened was that he’d got hold of the papers from one of our SOE agents who were being landed in France to help set up these lines, you see. And they’d captured this bloke, taken his papers off. Oh, René had them. And then he started organising the thing. Of course, instead of running up the line and picking everybody up, he just stayed there.
AM: Waited at the end of it.
GP: And a hundred and seventy-seven airmen were caught with the same system. And they used a flat, the flat that I was in, and a café for the two places in Antwerp were —
AM: They were all picked up.
GP: They were put. Yeah.
AM: It’s like drawing you to the centre of a spider’s web.
GP: Yeah.
AM: Just drawing you in.
GP: That’s right.
AM: Did the woman in the flat know about — Was she an infiltrator as well or was she a goodie?
GP: This is what worried me, because I didn’t know whether she was one of them or one of us. So, nothing happened actually because the papers weren’t allowed to be released until fifty years afterwards. And that was to avoid —
AM: Reprisals.
GP: Revenge attacks and things like that. So it wasn’t until 1995 that they were released and I’ve got a picture of, I’ve got another paper from the Escapers Society which explains all this, about it.
AM: Right. In the meanwhile, so for you, the War is over, then what happened?
GP: Oh, that was it. Well of course we went off to the place where they interrogated us. Still in Belgium. And then we were taken to Frankfurt.
AM: What was interrogation like?
GP: Well it wasn’t tough. I think the Germans were beginning to realise that they were losing the War and they were afraid of, you know, retribution afterwards, of course. So, they interrogated. It wasn’t pleasant. They threatened you, but, that sort of thing, but they obviously weren’t going to beat you up and things, so it wasn’t bad. And while I was in Frankfurt, this is another interesting thing, we had an air raid and it was night time of course. Another RAF one. And we were all sent down to an enormous underground shelter and there were all these Germans in there and there was thirty of us.
AM: Were you still in uniform? No, you weren’t in uniform by this time, were you? ‘Cause you were in disguises.
GP: No, I’d got civvies. And old Jack had too. Anyway they, yeah, they put us down there and put us in a little corner but I expected to be, you know, strung up from the roof because Frankfurt had been absolutely battered for a long time and in the morning, we came out and all I could remember seeing was the cathedral spire. Everything was as flat as a pancake, you know, it had all been bombed. I’m amazed that the Germans were so, you know, controlled. You know. Yes. Anyway, so there we were. Oh, I missed out just one little bit. We were put into Antwerp prison first and waited until there was thirty people there and then they took them all down for interrogation together.
AM: Together.
GP: Frankfurt thing. So. And we were the first ones in, so they were picking out one a day, I calculate, because it took about a month before we were shifted from Antwerp jail. From where we watched the fighter bombers attacking the local airfield at Evère. And it was — it wasn’t a very pleasant place. We used to have to amuse ourselves by killing the bugs, you know. They were full of blood and things. [laughs]
AM: What about food? Did they feed you ok?
GP: Yeah, oh, the — In Frankfurt, that was the second time I’d been Blitzed, you see. A third time. We’d had two by the Luftwaffe and then this one by the [unclear]. You can’t believe it can you? Anyway, from there I was taken up to Bath. It was an Officers’ place. So we didn’t have to work or anything like that. And the others were taken over to — I don’t know whether it was Sagen [?] or — but anyway, they had one of these — that was the navigator and well, all the rest had these marches when the Germans —
AM: Long march, yes.
GP: Were trying to get them West to keep them out of the Russians’ way.
GR: Just backtracking, did all the crew get out? Did all —
GP: They all got out, yes. And we met again at the squadron afterwards. You know, after the War. But they had this long walk to do and — nasty for them. And I was all the way up near Lübeck and it was so far that they decided that they’d send us Flying Fortresses to get back home. Which was rather nice. We were right by a Luftwaffe airfield. A fighter airfield which had been mined etcetera so we were delayed while the —
AM: How long were you there though, before the end of the War? How long were you there when —
GP: Well I wasn’t long there. I was in the prison camp by August and we came out in May.
AM: So, for nine months.
GP: ’45.
AM: Nine months.
GP: Nine months, yeah.
AM: What was that like?
GP: The prison camp, it was fine and it was run by an ex Luftwaffe pilot from the First World War so he was very good and he was very strictly according to the rules and things. The only trouble was, of course, that we’d bombed all the railway lines and all the junctions and things and they couldn’t get Red Cross parcels through, except on a very small scale and so we got very thin and also of course, we were writing letters but they never got home.
AM: No way of getting them.
GP: Because there was no, even the Red Cross couldn’t get them through, so my parents of course, all this time, had got the message that I was missing but no news, and of course, as time went on, with brother Pete still fighting the Japanese, it wasn’t a happy position.
AM: No.
GP: And this is another thing, of course, that very fortunately, one of those letters that I wrote home, which didn’t get there, was read out by Lord Haw-Haw. The whole thing. I’ve got a copy there. Over the radio. Well my parents didn’t listen to the broadcast, but we got letters. Well, Mum and Pop got letters from all over the place.
AM: We’ve heard —
GP: ‘Did you hear that your son was alive?’ You know. ‘He’s in the prison camp.’ You know, sort of thing. And I was asking them if my motorbike had been sent back from the squadron, and things like that. You know, [laughs] so, yeah, old Haw-Haw.
AM: Fame.
GP: He was a friend to me.
[laughter]
GP: I’ve got a wonderful, wonderful thing here. You must reproduce that.
AM: I will do.
GR: Oh, we will do.
GP: It’s an explanation of why he was actually — It’s a whole thing of why he was hung.
GR: Hung. Yeah.
GP: Hanged.
GR: Hanged after the war.
AM: Yes.
GP: But that is a real gem of a thing because — I think it’s written by the son of the lawyer who actually was taking the trials at Nuremberg.
AM: Right.
GP: But yes, so, you can photograph all these things, yeah.
AM: I will do. I’ll look at that after. So you’ve been there nine months. Were you able to — Did you know how the war was progressing? Had you got any news of that?
GP: Oh yeah, well, a little bit, yeah. We had a radio etcetera in the thing. And in fact, apart from getting very thin, we used to entertain ourselves. And one of the big entertainments was the arrival weekly — Our toilet facilities were very basic there. It was a long trench with a pole and you sat on the pole and that was it. But they had to empty it you see. Every week.
AM: When you say ‘they’, who’s ‘they’?
[laughter]
GR: The prisoners.
AM: The prisoners had to empty it?
GP: Yeah. [laughs loudly] Anyway, there’s six horses pulling a tank, you see, with a cap on it. A sprung cap. And what they used to do, oh, and a pipe which used to down into the Mess. And we’d all stand around. There was about two thousand of us in this camp. We’d all stand around and the bloke would throw in some petrol or something, and it lit. And it blew the top off and of course all the air went out and produced suction in the pipe. [laughs] And the old six horses would go off and that was the job done. It used to amuse us, you know. We had little — We had, from the Red Cross, who’d been able to operate previously, we had twelve chess sets and the, er, we had the Canadian champion chess set man and he used to lie on a bunk. We used to have bunks, three deep, you see, in these wooden huts with about a hundred and forty people in them. The huts were built off the ground so you couldn’t dig a tunnel or anything. And in any case, it was so far from anywhere, it wasn’t worth trying, you know. But he used to lie on his thing and he’d say, ‘OK, well, you move your things and tell me what you’ve done on your chess sets.’ And he’d play eleven people and he’d win every time. And he’d got a memory of everybody’s move.
GR: So he was playing eleven different people at once.
GP: And we used to have little shows and things, but time went very quickly because we knew the War was finishing. And then the Russians came, of course. And that was a tricky moment because we were let out of the camp. Well, the Germans disappeared.
AM: So the Germans just went.
GP: And we got out of the camp. And then the Russian — It was the people behind the front, they weren’t the actual soldiers, came charging in and we’d commandeered bicycles [aircraft noise] from anybody we saw, and things like that, and we were killing anything we could find to eat, you know, and things like that. Anyway, the Germans had let us keep our ordinary watches on. Our private watches. Perhaps somebody was riding a bicycle, or they’d got a watch on and these Russians would just, you know, say, ‘I want that.’ Sort of business. And if anybody refused, they shot them. Or killed them. You know. We had three or four people actually killed. So what we did was, to lock everybody back into the [unclear] camp again. It was an amazing situation. Only for a short while. But it also took in the time when we were de-mining the airfield of booby traps and things like that.
AM: Again, when you say ‘we’.
GP: Well, I was one of the bods who was given — about a hundred of us, you know, stayed out. Well, we had our bunks still. And we got out of the place.
AM: Okay. But who did the de-mining?
GP: Pardon?
AM: Who did the de-mining? Who actually did it?
GP: De-mining, yeah. And booby trap, looking for, you see and things like that.
AM: But who?
GP: And that took — No, I didn’t do that.
AM: No, ok.
GP: But anyway, yeah, after about, oh, it’d be a couple of weeks, in which time, I’d already sat in a Focke- Wulf 190, one of their airplanes! And been hauled out by a Russian actually. Yeah. Because he thought it was going to be mined and if I touched anything it might blow up, you know. But anyway, it was all good fun and eventually we were taken off by Flying Fortress and flew back into England. Yeah. So it was quite a trip and all very exciting, but when you go through a place like Breda, and you’re sitting in a tram or a bus, we used to use bicycles and all sorts of things to travel, and people are looking, you know, opposite you, and looking at you and you wonder whether they’re German, or, you know, ‘cause there was a lot of [unclear] intelligence people floating round, Gestapo and things. And even the bods with tin helmets on and things, you wonder whether they’re going to stop you, and things. And with this little green pass it would have been hopeless. If they’d talked to me, I would have involuntarily, sort of, [laughs] responded to them and turned my head or something like that.
AM: When the Flying Fort— There were two thousand, did you say, there? Did you say there were two thousand of you in the camp?
GP: Yes, yeah.
AM: So when the Flying Fortresses turned up, how long did that take then to actually get you all out?
GP: Oh, I don’t know, but, oh, and I went in the hangar you see, and pinched a whole load of tools, ‘cause I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to get something out of these bods.’ [laughs] And I got this little bag of tools, well it was quite a heavy one, and tried to get on the Fortress and they said, ‘We won’t get airborne with that lot.’ And I had to throw half of them away and I’ve still got some millimetre spanners in there. And I had an electric drill and all sorts of things.
GR: Oh God.
GP: That I’d pinched from the Luftwaffe.
[laughter]
AM: So where did you — What was it like when you landed back then? Where did you land back in the Flying Fortress?
GP: Well, um, I don’t know where we landed actually.
AM: In England or —
GP: Then, what happened was that Princess Elizabeth, before she was Queen, had a house in Ascot.
AM: Yes.
GP: And the first thing they did was send the Officers, some of the Officers, there to just generally feed them up and get them back to a decent weight and things and give them time. They could go to lectures if the wanted to and we had a little WAAF to look after us and things like that.
AM: Did you have to be de-loused?
GP: Yeah. And we used her house in Ascot there. It’s now a big administrative building, but, in Sunning—
AM: Sunningdale?
GP: Not in Ascot. It was Sunning—. Sunningdale. Sunningdale. Yeah. So. And we had a little time there and then I was posted off to Ely as an Assistant Air Traffic Controller.
AM: At what point did you get to go home and see your parents?
GP: Oh, I was able to go home.
AM: More or less straight away.
GP: Yep. So, but, yeah. So that was a little bonus. But I stayed in the RAFVR because they weren’t quite sure about whether we were going to fight the Russians and things like that, so I stayed there and eventually I got my green ticket, you know, that allowed me the commercial pilot’s licence and then started looking for a job. But I didn’t get a job for six years. Yes, BEA, of course what had happened was that I’d been in the prison camp without flying for, you know, um —
AM: Nine months.
GP: Nine months at least, so — And all the jobs had gone by that time and they were mostly transport aircraft pilots who were given the jobs, so — And it wasn’t until 1952 and I was on my honeymoon.
Other 1: Yes.
AM: I was going to ask you where you met your wife.
[unclear background conversation]
GP: Taken there. She’s sixty years of age there, do you know.
AM: Gosh.
GP: We were retired and that’s just at the bottom of the road there.
AM: Yeah.
GP: Anyway.
GR: Did you meet your wife after the war? Or had you already known her?
GP: No, I met her after the war because what I’d done was to go back to my audit department, you see.
AM: I was going to ask what you did in those years before you actually got your job in flying again then.
GP: Yes, so, it was a good time because brother Pete came back from Japan and we raced motorbikes. These sort of things.
AM: When you say you raced motorbikes. What level? [sound of aircraft]
[sound of pages being turned]
AM: What? Where? Gosh.
GP: That’s us. [laughs]
AM: I’ve got some wonderful pictures here, for the tape.
GP: Oh, yeah, but I —
AM: Of Geoff and his brother on motorbikes.
GP: Don’t take that. This sepia, I tried to wipe something off and it’s —
AM: And it’s —
GP: Those are my nephews and things.
AM: Gosh.
GP: But there’s some lovely pictures there.
AM: I’m sure I can scan one of them.
GP: Yeah.
GR: So would that have been speedway? Was that —
AM: With motorbikes.
GP: We used to do grass tracks, trials, hill climbs and even the road racing at Cadwell Park and things.
GR: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Cadwell.
AM: Yeah. So, but, so —
GP: Those were in Belgium, I took those.
AM: So you went back to the audit department at the town hall.
GP: So I went back to the audit department.
AM: But had the time of your life on motorbikes.
GP: And there, I met my fate, you see because I was an auditor and my wife was a cashier in the education department and by chance, I happened to be given that. We used to swap over these departments to audit, you see. I was given the education and there was a great big conference room with a mahogany table and a whole load of busts and things around the side looking at you. And I used to sit there and the cashiers’ office was right by. There was Stella and a good friend. She’s still living. As two little girls in the cashiers’ office, you see, and she used to bring me ledgers and journals and things to look at, you see. So, we had a six — we had a five-year courtship because she was looking out for an old Mum who had a very violent husband and she wasn’t in a hurry to get married and of course I was racing motorbikes with my brother, so we were both in the same boat really.
AM: Well, not quite.
[laughter]
AM: You were enjoying yourself on motorbikes.
GP: [laughs] That’s right, yeah. Well eventually, yeah, we decided that this was it and by sheer chance I met — oh, no, an advert came up from Sabena and they were short of pilots, you see, and they wanted a dozen to make up their fleet and I wrote in to them and I’d got my commercial by this [unclear] from the RAF really. Anyway, yeah, I was one of those selected, so I threw up my job and it was a bit of a gamble because I had to go over there and my English licence wasn’t good enough for the Belgians.
AM: ‘Cause what was — I was going to say, what was Sabena? That was Belgian.
GP: Commercial, yeah. So I had to take all my exams. There were about twelve different subjects and things in it and I also had to pass a medical every six months and things and flying tests and the rest of it. So I took a chance and they put me in Brussels of course. Well, you know, Brussels, and I could have gone and seen this woman of course but I didn’t because I still wasn’t sure.
AM: Still wasn’t sure whether she was a goodie or a baddie.
GP: Anyway, I passed the exam. I think partly because I took one or two of them in French which I could speak anyway and they were laughing at my accent [laughs]. Always used to do that. Yes. And from there on, I did ten years with them and then Stella had little chicos and we had to evacuate the Congo. And that was quite a thing. It was war-time footing and I was without sleep for two consecutive nights occasionally and still flying the aeroplane.
AM: Was this commercial aircraft then or passenger or —
GP: Sabena did it, yeah. We had our internal lines in the Congo.
GR: Because the Congo at the time was Belgian wasn’t it.
AM: Oh, of course, Belgian Congo. Of course.
GR: And that’s why the Belgians would have used their civil aircraft to evacuate.
GP: That’s right.
AM: I understand. I’m with you.
GP: There was two blacks fighting it out too. Tshombe and Lumumba. And they were trying to get the Belgians out. There were a lot of Belgians used to work down there, of course. It was a very good place. Especially Katanga, the — And Elizabeth. They were very, very wealthy places ‘cause they had the gold mines, the copper mines and all that sort of thing and Léopoldville was the centre of the place. Anyway, we had to go and get all these people out from their places and it was a question of twice as many people, on occasions, than there were seats for them. And they were sitting in the aisle and in the toilet and they were in the cockpit with us and everything. And the aircraft were overloaded and things and we were having to — on the return journey, and we were so overloaded that we could only take a little bit of fuel so we’d have to land in all these odd places in Africa on the way back. My job was the captain, you see, was in those days, getting the women and children out first, was to put on — there wasn’t a lot of steps to our aircraft and stand at the top and stop anybody else coming in. We used to get some people saying, ‘I’m the Ambassador to so-and-so. And I need to get —’ [laughs] And you’d say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t get on here.’ And while the First Officer used to — the only people who were left in the Congo really were the Air Traffic Controllers who were usually English. Amazing isn’t it. But it was a time when my wife had just had the babies and of course I could get home and sleep for twenty-four hours, take her out to lunch and back on the job.
AM: Where was she —? Where were you living? Where was she living?
GP: We were in — She was in Brussels.
AM: In Brussels.
GP: We used to live just outside and we had this little — a dozen of us. The other pilots and their wives, if they weren’t flying, would look after the one whose wasn’t there. But we used to fly — one of the reasons why Sabena was good was because they used to pay twice as much as BOAC but of course we used to work twice as hard, you see, so, but in the end, it was the children that decided me to pack up the flying and by sheer chance, here again you know, someone’s looked after me, they were starting up the Flight Ops Inspectorate in the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. They’d had an accident at Hounslow, where an aircraft had piled in to a load of council houses and killed a few people and they found out it was overloaded and under-serviced and things for repairs and things and they needed some check and they were looking for airline pilots of course, because when you check a company out, you’ve got to check the pilots as well. As the cruises will. So, we used to look at the ops manuals and training manuals, look at the standard of things and then give a certificate to fly certain type of aircraft in a certain part of the world depending at the facilities at the — you know, what sort of training they have and that. And it turned out then the most interesting job I’ve ever had because they gave me all-weather operations so I flew the Trident, before the pilots did of course, with the manufacturer, and I flew that right to the very end of my career, in 1982. There’s a lovely picture I think of my last — [pages turning] oh, that was the one with the Concorde and that’s before there was a Concorde aircraft available. They hadn’t got one then.
AM: So you flew — Did you fly Concorde?
GP: And that’s a mock-up for the —
AM: Did you fly Concorde?
GP: No, no, I — Unfortunately. That’s a bloke from Stansted, our —
AM: We’re looking at a photo in the album now.
GP: And that’s me at the other end.
AM: Right.
GP: And I’m with the Inspector you see.
AM: Got you.
GP: And they made him into — When I retired, this is —
AM: He became you, yeah.
GP: I only did about five years on this. So I used to do the simulator. Oh that’s old [unclear].
AM: No, I’ll look at that. I’ll look at these afterwards. Can I ask you one last, one last thing. So the — going back to the escape line, and the flats and the lady who you didn’t know whether she was a goodie or a baddie, but you eventually did find out.
GP: Yeah.
AM: So how did you find out? When the papers were released, I think you said.
GP: Um, well, it was, hang on.
AM: Did she turn out to be a goodie or a baddie? A goodie I assume.
GP: She was a goodie.
AM: Good.
GP: Yeah. And yes, she was clean and I felt so sad but by this time it was fifty years later.
AM: Did you meet her? Did you go and meet her?
GP: No, I didn’t, no.
AM: No.
GP: I don’t know whether she was alive or not. But anyway, we can — whatever you want to talk about.
AM: OK. I’ll —
GP: We’ll go through these in a bit.
AM: We’ve got lots of papers to look at, so I’m going to switch off now and start looking at these.
GP: Ok.
AM: And get my scanner out.
GP: Well there we are. That’s the hill where my aircraft was —
AM: OK. Who put the memorial up?
GP: Well, now of course, the whole place is built up.
AM: Yes.
GP: And by sheer chance, my mid-upper gunner, old Jack Jackson has a daughter who’s married a Dutchman and they took these pictures.
AM: Who actually erected the memorial though?
GP: Um?
AM: Who actually erected it? The Dutch people?
GP: Oh yeah. And that’s the — the thing on there, that’s part of the aircraft. That’s the aluminium that’s come off the aircraft.
GR: Just before you go on, that Dutch escape line was actually — The whole thing was turned by the Germans in 1942. From 1942 onwards, the Germans controlled all the SOE coming into Holland. They knew what was happening and everything.
GP: Yeah.
GR: And, as I understand it, ‘cos I spoke to a couple of other chaps who were turned over, exactly the same as you. And I believe after the war, the big bloke who got his gun out to you, he was hung.
GP: He was. No, he was shot.
GR: Shot. Yeah, I know he was —
GP: In a baker’s yard. And the story is here.
AM: We’ve got the story of that as well.
GP: Oh, I see.
AM: Ok.
GR: But I do believe all —
AM: So the bloke who actually turned Geoff in, [reading aloud] ‘Robert René Van Muylem is a very interesting and complex character. He was finally arrested in Paris in 1945 whilst working as a bartender at Camp Lucky Strike. It was one of the US Army Air Force Repatriation Centres and was where, unfortunately for him, he was recognised by Second Lieutenant Robert Hoke of the 388 BG, one of the airmen he betrayed. He was sent back to Belgium and thoroughly de-briefed and he was executed in 1947.’

Collection

Citation

Annie Moody, “Interview with Geoff Packham,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 21, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11437.

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