Interview with George Thomas Marsh

Title

Interview with George Thomas Marsh

Description

George’s family lived on a farm at Bassingham Fen. His earliest memory of the war was when he was about two and a half, his father pointing out a Lancaster flying over. On 5 November 1944, EH977 Stirling crash-landed nearby and he saw the massive fireball. The horses in the field bolted, one died one survived badly burned. The aircraft was on its way to the Wainfleet site on a bombing practice with the Heavy Conversion Unit. The field adjacent to the crash site was a bombing range in which they practised dropping bombs on a concrete target maintained by George’s father. In 2015, following research, George unveiled a memorial for the crew at the crash site. Excavation by volunteers from Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group gained parts of the aircraft now on display at RAF East Kirkby.

Creator

Date

2018-12-17

Temporal Coverage

Coverage

Language

Type

Format

00:31:11 audio recording

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

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.

Contributor

Identifier

AMarshGT181217, PMarshGT1801

Transcription

MS: So, good morning, my names Mike Sheehan, I’m an interviewer with the IBCC. The time is, ten-to-eleven on Monday the 17th of December 2018. I’m sitting in the home of Mr. George Thomas Marsh, and first of all, how do you like to be called?
GM: George.
MS: George, that’ll suit me, and Michael, and sitting next to me is Anita Sheehan, my wife, who’s also one of the interviewers, she’s a co-interviewer. The purpose of the interview is for the digital archives for the International Bomber Command Centre, and you’ve signed documents saying you consent to the interview and you understand the circumstances.
GM: I have indeed, I know entirely what I’m about.
MS: Good, just have to make arrangements for comfort things, so any phones that are on, can we turn them off please? You’ve done it already? Yep. Are you expecting- Are we expecting any, any-
GM: [Chuckles] We are expecting a phone call but I’ve no idea when.
MS: Don’t worry about it, right when it happens, I’ll just stop this, don’t worry about that.
GM: Yeah ok, ok.
MS: Right, and comfort arrangements, if at any time you want a break or anything like that, just say and we’ll just stop the interview. Are you ok with that?
GM: Yep, I should survive half an hour.
MS: You should survive [chuckles] ok, it’s an age thing. Right, first of all can I just borrow that for a second? You, you were born during the war on the 25th of January 1941?
GM: ’42.
MS: ’42, sorry, I lied, yep, and so, I- You’d be quite young during the war, but certain things have an effect on people where-
GM: That’s right.
MS: - their memories spout up.
GM: Yep.
MS: What’s your earliest memory of the war then?
GM: Well, I can- Obviously I can remember this bombing crash which we’re going to talk about later on, and I was almost three at that time, but my first thing that I remember is- I would think I’d probably be two-and-a-half, something like that, I was out one night with my father, and these aircraft went over, and he point out to me, he says, ‘That’s a Lancaster’, and then a while later he says, ‘That’s Jerry’. You can tell by the action of the engine, which was different. Somebody did tell me, later, the difference between- It’s something to do with the carburettor, and I’m not a mechanic, but the German engine was different in sound. So that was the first thing that I can remember, so I would be probably two-and-a-half.
MS: Where would you be at the time?
GM: I was down at this, this farm which we had at Bassingham Fen, and we used to hear things and see things, and that’s where I’d be, and it was, it was a lonely existence because there was no near neighbours but, it was a happy existence.
MS: I bet you didn’t go short of anything?
GM: No, no, no, I-
MS: [Laughs] Now then, on one particular evening in November 1944, what’s your recollection of that?
GM: Yep, this- Some things of it are what I’ve been told [emphasis] and obviously other things, what I actually saw. I was not quite three, and at 0240 hours when this crash took place, my father and mother obviously heard it, they lifted me out of my bed and took me to the window and I- That was the first thing I remember, was seeing this massive fireball of this aircraft, and so it was a combination of sight, and my mother waking me up, or getting me up and showed me what had happened, and then father said, ‘Oh there’s the fire engines’, and what have you, which came and went diagonally across all fields to the site, and of course there’s nothing they could do.
MS: How long after the crash did they actually attend the scene?
GM: Virtually on impact, they were very, very quick. They obviously knew this aircraft was in distress, so there must’ve been a facility somewhere, either on the aircraft, or on the ground, knowing that the aircraft was in trouble, and where it could possibly come down.
MS: What else do you know about it? What else have you picked up?
GM: Well, only since [emphasis] I found out it was a Stirling bomber, very large aircraft, bigger than the Lancaster, and what we were concerned about as farmers was that there were horses in the field, and they bolted, and they took a lot of finding afterward, I remember father saying, and one he nursed, which I can remember, which as badly burnt, and by badly burnt I mean probably at least fifty-percent burns on the animal, and I can remember it being in this shed, and father used to go and feed it, nurse it and what have you, and he got it back to health, but one of them was so badly burned, he said- I didn’t witness it or anything of that nature, but he had to have it destroyed by a vet. But I remember the vet giving him this certain medication to put on the burns, and of course when you get a burn nothing grows through it, the hair never grew through any more, I can remember this with that particular animal because far- We- Farmers at that time, they keep an animal probably ten years or more, during its best working life, and so I would be quite a bit older to remember the horse itself, so I’d probably be five or six.
MS: Yeah, [unclear] what do you know about the crew, of the aircraft? ‘Cause you’ve done some research yourself.
GM: Yeah, I, I did some research on the crew, I found out that two of them were Australian, the pilot and the navigator were Australian and I consequently got some photographs of them and what have ya, and I couldn’t get over the pilot being twenty years old. A massive bomber like that, with six other crew members of which he would be responsible. It’s like a captain on a ship, and he takes over the aircraft, he’s responsible for what’s going on, and as I explained to you Mike in one of the photographs that we looked at, the pilot he looks above his age, so he’d obviously been through things that we would normally not be associated with at that young age, and- So I found out where- How old they all were, where they’re all buried, and some of the facts about their education.
MS: What did you find out?
GM: One- The navigator got some poor reports from his tutors, such as bad writing, couldn’t add up-
MS: [Chuckles] Not good for a navigator.
GM: And yet, yet he came to be a navigator, but looking at his photograph and, and reading his, his facts, he, he came over as a jovial chap, that would laugh, give you a laugh and make a remark about him being, said, a bad student, but he, he made good at the end, and consequently during the last sixty years, and more, I’ve deeply wanted to put a memorial to these lads because we all have a debt of gratitude to these people because they are the only ones that could’ve taken the war to an enemy at the, at the beginning, and, and in 19- 2016- 15, sorry, let me get the dates right. In 2015 I was privileged to have a memorial set up and unveiled at the crash site, and it’s there for everybody to see, the names of the crew are there, and respect can be paid. Every year, I take some flowers, I also- On Armistice day make sure, together with other people, some I don’t know, who bring poppies in remembrance of this crew, I know a poppy defines more the First World War but, it is applicable I’m sure to the Second World War as well.
MS: Yes, where exactly is the memorial located if anyone wants to find it?
GM: The memorial is, is located on a public road, it’s only a single carriage way road but it is down Bassingham Fen, and you can easily get the postcode and where it is online.
MS: What’s the name of the road it’s on?
GM: The road itself is Linga Lane.
MS: Linga?
GM: Linga, L-I-N-G-A Lane, which is a lane that goes from the parish itself, down to the crash site, and it’s at the very bottom of that lane where there is this memorial for everybody to see and have a look at, which I wanted. I want it to be there in perpetuity so that people could see it and pay respects.
MS: Clearly made an impact on you?
GM: It made a big impact because I witnessed it so early in my life, one of the first things I can remember and I always- When I used to go down as a farmer to work the soil, cultivate, drill, where this crash site was (it may sound to some people far-fetched but it’s absolutely true) I used to remember these crew while I was down there, and to say that I had respect, I had more than respect for these lads and with putting up this memorial I’m ensuring that when I’m gone, they are still going to be remembered for what their sacrifice they paid.
MS: Yes, do you know what kind of- What was the operation they were on? Do you know?
GM: [Unclear]
MS: What operation were they actually on? What were they doing?
GM: They were going, I- Practice bombing mission, obviously they were still in training, [unclear] East Wold[?] conversion unit, and that means that they are in training, and so they were going to the Wainfleet site, which is about fifty miles away to do a bombing run and see how good they are, not only at navigating but dropping their ordinance, and then of course they then came back, slight disagreement whether they were coming back or whether they were going but, nevertheless, whichever way it goes, they crashed at this site due to mechanical error, or- No, that’s incorrect, mechanical failure [emphasis].
MS: Engine failure, was it?
GM: Yeah.
MS: Yeah, ok, now I understand that near here on your land, there was a bombing range as well at Bassingham, is that correct?
GM: That is correct, the field adjacent to the crash site was in fact a bombing range in which they could practice dropping bombs on a target. The target, which I’ve been asked many times, what is the target? The target was a ten-metre square concrete area, or ten yards, whichever you want to go- Call it, and that’s what they would be aiming for. At the beginning of the bombing run, there was two watch towers which the aircraft went at the centre of. At the end of the bombing run- And this is still in existence, can be seen but it’s in a ruinous state, but still there that is an underground bunker, in which RAF personnel would be in attendance. What that role was, I don’t know.
MS: Spotters.
GM: Possibly Mike, possibly, but as I say I don’t know a definitive answer, to what it was, but the- But at this site, the bombing range, as I say at the beginning there was two watch towers, which straddled the bombing run, and at the end was this bunker.
MS: Did you witness any bombing runs?
GM: No, is the straight answer to that. Father was heavily involved, he knew a lot of RAF personnel, but I didn’t know any of these [unclear] of that. I remember the, the bombing range being still used after the war because it was Harvard aircraft, which is an American aircraft, yellow, and as a child down there I can remember several of the pilots would be so low after the bombing run, they would wave to me.
MS: [Chuckles] So then, your father had a role, didn’t he? A role to play, what was his role?
GM: Yep, yep, my father had a role to play in so much that, as you can envisage a target as I’ve described in concrete on the ground, if left unchecked would soon be covered by debris, leaves, weeds, brambles, it wouldn’t be able to be seen, so it was father’s duty to maintain the target in a suitable condition for the bombing crew to see it.
MS: Now you did tell me something, you told me that your father had liaised with air force so he wasn’t there when a bombing raid occurred, but you also told me where he would stand if he found himself there.
GM: Yes.
MS: Which is where?
GM: He often dreaded that he’d misread the information that he used to receive from the Royal Air Force, saying when a bombing run was likely to take place, and he said to me- Well he said to several people, but me on several occasions, he said, ‘I often think, where would I of gone if I'd misjudged and found out I was clearing the target and the bombings- The bombers were preparing to test their knowledge’, and he thought well no, I’d probably be better stood in [emphasis] the target, because they’ll not hit it, surely.
MS: [Chuckles] A lot of confidence. Was the target- The target was obviously on your land?
GM: It was in the next field, which wasn’t owned by anybody as far as I know, but with it being close to our farm, within a field distance, father seemed to be the natural one to- Because, whether- I can’t remember but whether it was- ‘Cause it was a military site and so obviously, you know, it did exist but the reason I’m probably doing this interview was, I found out that all the records that I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist, it wasn’t there but, I have proof that it was there and necessary documentation to prove it.
MS: What was it surrounded by? If somebody wants to locate it, could you say where it was in relation to something?
GM: Yes, in- But it is on private land, the target is.
MS: Yep.
GM: As is the- The watch towers have since gone, they were there a long time, but as I indicated earlier, the bunker is still in existence, it’s a ruin but you can still walk down some steps and there are two rooms, underground, as I say it’s still there but it is on private land, so I’m not in a position to say that it’s accessible to the public.
MS: No, yep, ok. Also, when- Something- When you arranged for the memorial to go in, who did you go to? Was there organisation?
GM: Yep, I went to East Kirkby, which is a group of people that are passionate about the bombing campaigns, the two farmers that run it, they had a brother who was in the air force and who was lost on one of the bombing missions. So I contacted East Kirkby, which is a former RAF base in central Lincolnshire, and they were absolutely fantastic, came to see me, dedicated people, volunteers, and we excavated the site, found a lot of, of the aircraft, which is on display at East Kirkby, and I suggested to them that I would like to put up a monument of some sort, and they liaised with me and we came onto- We picked the site, we picked a large stone that we were going to use, and they cemented it into place and I can’t praise them enough.
MS: What was the reference number of the aircraft?
GM: I’ve got that down somewhere, and it’s EH977.
MS: And what airfield did it go- Come from?
GM: It came from Swinderby.
MS: Which is?
GM: Which is a matter of about five miles from the crash site, no more, and then of course as I said earlier, it was going fifty miles to the Wainfleet range on the coast.
MS: And didn’t make it?
GM: And didn’t make it.
MS: Ok. After the war then, what did you- How did the farm develop, and your own life?
GM: Well, I- As I said earlier-
MS: [Coughs] Excuse me.
GM: It- Some people might think, well he’s stupid but no, it’s still the same, this land has been in our possession for seventy- Over seventy years and as I say, when I go down there to the farm it’s lonely down, like all fens, which Lincolnshire has got a lot of fens, it’s a lonely, desolate area, but- So you’re immersed in your own thought, and as I say, I used to think of what happened all those years before, and all those men, and during those periods of cultivations of the land, preparing for drilling, I used to unearth an exploded target bomb, which proved to me that they didn’t always hit the target, it was quite a way away from it, and I used to have a collection of these items, ordinance they were, but they were sort of- Immediately they hit the ground, the emitted a plume of smoke which proved whether you were hitting the target, or whether you were quite a long way from it. I never do know how- What records were kept of how many crews actually [phone rings]-
MS: It’s ok, don’t worry, I shall just pause this for a second while you take the phone call, it’s not a problem. Right, we, we’ve restarted the interview after a shot interruption to take an important call, and just to remind you George, you were talking about- You were in touch with your own feelings and your emotions and your thoughts for the crew, as you were on the Fens, and over the years you unearthed stuff, wreckage from the aircrafts too.
GM: Yep, yep over the years I’ve looked behind whatever machine that I've been using on the farm, to cultivate the soil and low and behold, there is a practice bomb in the actual equipment I've been using, and over the years I've probably collected a dozen, at least [emphasis] and when these lads from East Kirkby came, they found a lot more in one place, so whether- I don’t know this, but whether the bomber in question dumped the whole lot, or whether they had a single bomb to practice with, that’s a thing I don’t know, similar story, but- However, I saved all these up and got about a dozen, and I put them in my garden shed and rang the police, and they said, ‘Well you’re an idiot’. This is fact [emphasis].
MS: Yep.
GM: This is fact and then I got in touch with the ordinance people at Nottingham and they came out and confirmed what I already knew, that they were basically harmless, they would knock me out if I, if I'd been struck with one, but it wouldn’t’ve exploded. So, they confirmed that I- Although I’d got know official thing to say that I knew what I was talking about, they said, ‘Well your interpretation is absolutely correct, it’s a small practice bomb which emits a plume of smoke for where it actually drops’. So, it was just a bit of fun but I was reprimanded by the police, but they didn’t take any further action.
MS: Right, your house, your farmhouse is reasonably close to the bombing range, wasn’t it?
GM: Very close.
MS: How close?
GM: Very close, about a thousand yards.
MS: Any near misses?
GM: Yes, yes, we were having lunch one ni- One day, in the middle of the day and we heard this explosion, and it was within fifty yards of the house itself, and we all went out and had a look and sure enough- But by the time that we had looked out, the aircraft in question had long gone so no way could I read the number at the side of the fuselage of the aircraft.
MS: Right, and what was your feeling about that? That near miss?
GM: Well, do you know? We laughed it off as a family, we went straight back and had our meal.
MS: What would happen today?
GM: Today? I think there’d have been all sorts of sirens going on, police, fire engine, ambulance, the area would’ve been cordoned off and so- As a- To make it sterile so that people couldn’t go on, but no [emphasis]. We knew where the bomb was, what happened to the bomb I can’t remember, but certainly I can remember it being very, very close.
MS: Actually, you’ve just touched on something I want to go back to. When the aircraft crash landed, it hit a dike I understand?
GM: Yes, it did.
MS: Right and it burned, fireball?
GM: Yep.
MS: What about contamination to your land from aviation fuel and everything else? How was that treated?
GM: Yeah, there would be a lot of fuel. Either way, I thought that with it being a fireball there must have been a lot of fuel on board. I can’t recollect any explosion, but certainly there were some animals, horses, cart horses in the field, most of them bolted out the way but one of them, particular, got very badly burnt.
MS: What about contamination of the land? Did it effect the [unclear]?
GM: The land itself, I don’t- I can’t recollect- There wasn’t as much environmental issues at that time as there are today. It was a large drain, there would’ve been water in it, so today if you contaminated a water supply there would be repercussions, but we were at war and therefore a lot of what we might term today as legally enforceable would not have applied because the government would have war like rules in place and so that sort of thing wouldn’t- As I say would not apply. But, the land itself [emphasis] certainly there was no effect, as I can recollect and I have cultivated the land where the crash site was, there’s certainly no contamination of a permanent nature.
MS: Ok, you also mentioned [unclear] when we had a chat earlier, if the aircraft had avoided the dike, what would its chances have been of landing in a field safely? Possibly?
GM: Well I always live in hope that it may well of survived, it might be wishful thinking, but the drain itself was of the depth and size, there’s no question the aircraft flipped over and any aircraft would’ve flipped over whatever size because of the depth of the ditch. Now the field over- If it had cleared the ditch, the field opposite was about twelve acres which is a reasonably large field in which an aircraft could possibly skid along and come to a halt. Whether that would’ve happened, I like to think it may well have happened, because there weren’t that many large fields, it was before the time of taking hedges out, so there weren’t that many large fields around.
MS: But what would the impediment have been? You tell me about some anti-invasion?
GM: Yep, it was probably a bit around 1941 when there was a threat of a glider invasion of the UK, and these large fields had poles put in them, eighteen-foot-high posts, telegraph post type things which we- Pit props I think they said origin- Originally came from, were put across to deter these gliders. Whether a large aircraft of that would’ve been broken up by them? Possibly. But you clutch at straws.
MS: Yeah, ok thank you. Let me just check something with Anita. Anita is there anything we need to recover?
AS: Only that you mentioned earlier that you’ve done some research since about the crew, and you’d found out where they were buried?
GM: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. According to the religion of a crew, which they would put down in their details on joining the RAF, whether it would be in their will or what, but some of them didn’t want a religious service, or religious burial, but others did, and so I have researched- I know where they’re all buried, all over the country. Two in Manchester, one local and the ones that I haven’t been to see yet, the pilot and the navigator, Australian, they’re buried in a cemetery, a RAF cemetery in Cambridge, together. As I say, I do have- I like to have projects because if you’ve got projects, you’ve got something to keep living for, and that is one of the things that I’ve got on my agenda.
MS: What to keep living? [Chuckles]
GM: Before too- [Laughs] Keep living and have projects. And so, as I say, I’ve been to three of them, it would be a great honour to go to the burial site and pay my respects to the Australian pilot and navigator.
MS: Have you- Have you or the people of East Kirkby contacted the relatives to tell them where the memorial is?
GM: Yes, they did indeed, and we had one person, from- Who’s the direct relative of one of the crew, I haven’t been- I haven’t been in contact with it, East Kirkby had obviously been in contact with him. Very quiet, reserved man, but he came to the unveiling ceremony of the memorial, and he was very moved, and that’s the only comment I can make about him.
MS: Ok, is there anything else at all you want to tell us about your recollections, or anything as a result of it, or anything interesting that we may want-
GM: Yep, when this became more public knowledge shall we say, there was a gentleman from Peterborough came to see me and he said, ‘I’m a Tail-End Charlie’. I said, ‘Well what is a Tail-End Charlie?’, well he said, ‘I was a rear gunner on a Stirling bomber’, and he said, ‘I’d be grateful if you could take me to the site of this crash’. So, I subtly took him to the site of the crash, and we had a fork with us and we merely chipped the soil and low and behold we found a part of the aircraft which- East Kirkby had taken most of it away, and it is on display at East Kirkby. Interesting, well worth a visit. But we found- And this gentleman recognised where this part came from on a Stirling bomber, and he wrote me a really good letter afterwards, he’d done thirty-two missions over Germany which was the amount that they used to do before they had a break. You could volunteer to go on some more missions if you wanted but usually that was the amount you did, and the percentage who made it to there wasn’t very high. However, he said to me, ‘The Striling aircraft was a good ol’ bird’, but it had its limitations as anybody who’s studied the performance of the aircraft will know.
MS: What were the main- What was the main limitation in your-
GM: Well as I said earlier it’s a huge aircraft, a big aircraft, bigger than the Lancaster, or the Whitley, or the Halifax, a huge bomber. It’s wingspan, somebody was telling me, was not good enough for the body of the aircraft because it had to fit in a certain hammer- Hangar, or a dispersal bay. Consequently, it was underpowered to get off the ground, and its height, the ceiling was about eighteen-thousand feet, I think this chap told me, well todays aircraft are at thirty-seven-thousand feet, and I would’ve thought the Lancaster would probably get to thirty. So, it was so low, it was within the flak range, accuracy of guns, and so at the latter stages of its life, the Stirling bomber went on with inverted commas ‘easier targets’.
MS: Right, not nice to know you sit in a sitting duck.
GM: But, as this Tail-End Charlie told me, a good ol’ bird.
MS: Yeah, right, he would, he survived [chuckles].
GM: Correct.
MS: Is there anything else you want to tell us?
GM: No, I think we’ve been comprehensive. We’ve covered- There’s no doubt, things evolve and we shall learn more, but as things stand at the moment, I think we’ve covered the basic facts.
MS: Thank you. Anything from you Anita?
AS: No.
MS: No, well on behalf of the archive, before I stop the interview, can I thank you very much for taking part and giving your time. The- You- It’s going into the- Onto the internet, all round the world they will hear your voice, anybody who wants to do so. I’m about to now stop the interview, so thank you very much.
GM: Thank you.

Citation

Michael Sheehan, “Interview with George Thomas Marsh,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 9, 2021, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11455.

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