Interview with Brian Payne


Interview with Brian Payne


John Payne was born in 1932 and went into the Royal Air Force as part of his National Service, becoming a Navigator on the Canberra aircraft with 15 Squadron. His father went into the combined service in the First World War, and was training to be a pilot when the war ended in 1918. This prompted his desire to fly. John tells of his enjoyment of flying the Tiger Moth aircraft during his training at RAF Digby, and his experiences of his many travels to RAF stations.
He spent some time in Greece, taking part in intruder exercises, and also recalls his time spent near Tobruk and tells of his experiences including visiting a German war memorial. John participated in the Suez Canal crisis, and details his operations in Cyprus and Egypt, and the problems that this created from a navigational point of view. He tells about his meetings with Flight Lieutenant John Garstin and also Wing Commander Nath, the most decorated pilot of the Indian Air Force and the part they played in his life. John flew the T2 Canberra named Willie Howe 725 now on display at Duxford.




Temporal Coverage




01:51:04 audio recording


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MH: Good morning to anybody that’s listening to the recording of this morning. I have the pleasure of interviewing Mr John Payne at his home address xxxx xxxx. The date today is Monday the 8th of June 2015. The time by my watch now is 11:41 and basically, I’ve got the purpose here to interview Mr Payne regarding reflections and memories of his time with the Royal Air Force, dating between 1951 and 1959. He will also be touching on a very interesting subject also about his father, who was potentially one of the first people to join the combined service back in 1918, in the formative year of the Royal Air Force having moved over from the Royal Flying Corps. There may be other points that Mr Payne wishes to touch on. I may or may not be taking notes during this and there may or may not be some direct questions at the end, but I’m now going to hand this recording over to Mr Payne and I’ll get him to run through his story.
JBP: My Christian name is Brian. This was the name of a close friend of my father’s, who was two years older than him. In 1916, he was called up in Bradford to join the Bradford pals, trained as an infantryman, went over to France in January of 1917 and was killed on the 22nd of February 1917, on the Ancre River, which is not far from Rheims. In 1940, things were looking difficult. The evacuation of Dunkirk was taking place, Hitler’s armed forces seemed to look unstoppable, we lost most of our equipment left in France. Churchill had just taken over and formed his first war cabinet and everything looked black, but as a seven year old boy, these things were not in my mind at all. One day, my father left his bureau open and I had a look inside, and I saw the usual kinds of things, and in one corner, there was a little portion set aside for technical notes. I didn’t know what they meant but what I did know was, that there were three photographs, and they were photographs of biplanes in front of a hangar. So that evening when dad came home, I said to him, ‘What are these photographs, Dad?’ And he said, ‘Well, when, in 1918 when the First World War ended, I was flying one of those aeroplanes and I was training to be pilot, but I didn’t finish my training because the armistice stopped all the flying so I never got my wings’. Well, as a little boy going to school with other little boys, this was a goldmine. This was a wonderful thing to find out. That my father had been a pilot in the Air Force, even if he didn’t go flying and dropping bombs and things on Germany. He was there, he did his bit, as far as he could and from then on, I dreamed of going into the Air Force and flying. I didn’t mind whether it was flying as a pilot or a navigator. I just wanted to be able to say, ‘I’m aircrew in the Air Force.’ Times passed. I got myself seven credits at school certificate, which was very unusual because mostly, I just worked for other people I enjoyed and looked forward to having as my teachers. And I got one A level. Not enough to go to university but plenty to go into the Air Force to fly, and I was called up as a national serviceman. Started off by going to Padgate and learned to dislike drill corporals who hazed us from day, dawn to dusk. 6 o’clock in the morning reveille till bed time, and got the uniformity that they wanted in terms of what we were wearing and how we cleaned equipment, and then off to a grey Hornchurch to be graded as a potential aircrew, and when I finished the grading, they said, ‘You’re a grade three pilot, but you’re a grade one navigator’. So I said, ‘I’d like to try being a pilot first’. So that October, I was sent up to RAF Digby, where they had Tiger Moths, and I had a marvellous time. The only snag is, the twelve hours that I flew, I always had an instructor with me. Never went solo. Never, never did landings on my own. And that really meant that I could only look forward to being a navigator, but I consoled myself that if I was a navigator, I might not kill myself as easily as if I was a pilot, and with that thought, I went on. Now, the Air Force was in a phase of expansion when I joined them but the majority of the aircraft were World War Two aircraft, propeller driven, and by that time the speed of aircraft meant that propellers couldn’t be used to power aeroplanes because they couldn’t go fast enough. They came up against a problem called the speed of sound, which didn’t do anything good for propellers, and jet engines were coming in, witness the Meteor and the Vampire, which were our front line defence but when it came to Korea, and the North Koreans invading the South Koreans then the, one of the few occasions when the United Nations Council sent troops somewhere to fight, and we were one of the sixteen nations that answered the call of the UN, sent people out to Korea, but of course, we found that the Koreans had jet aircraft from Russia, MIG15, and these MIG15s could play havoc with our slower piston engine aircraft, the bombers, and the fighters weren’t very good against them either, but I was going in on this wave of enthusiasm about the first jet bomber in the country, which was the Canberra. The B2 Canberra. Oh, and I did want to fly that aeroplane. I was hoping I could get on to that aeroplane, to fly a jet bomber. My father had been enrolled in the Air Force a fortnight after it became the RAF from being the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service, so he started something new and here was I with a chance perhaps of flying in a Canberra. Well off we went for our training. They opened up some temporary camps. First at RAF Usworth near Newcastle, which was a dump. We were in wooden huts. Fortunately, it was February when we went there, when it was bitterly cold, and by the time we finished it was August and it was nice and warm, but we couldn’t get anywhere from the camp very easily, because the buses didn’t run very frequently to Sunderland or Newcastle, and certainly, there was no Sunday morning service to either place from Usworth, so we were out there, trapped on an airfield with nothing to do, but I passed that. Had some adventures, like a compass being wrong in the aircraft and me flying over cloud for an hour, an hour and a quarter and finding us miles away from where we should have been, because the compass was in error by five degrees, which is a lot of miles if you’re flying at two hundred miles an hour. From there, I went down to Lichfield, which again was another temporary, it was a wartime training base where they had Wellington B10s. My course went through successfully, most of them anyway, but a couple of, four of the lads were involved in crashes. The first was a Wellington that was doing a let- down, and the trainee navigator set the coordinates wrong for his Gee set. Instead of letting down to the airfield, he let down in the side of a hill, but they all three survived it because the pilot pulled the nose up as soon as he saw the hillside, and he kind of, was climbing, and the hillside was climbing a bit faster, so eventually, the hillside hit him underneath and he was going on alright until he hit a wall and then it broke into pieces. The other accident happened when they were in the circuit, coming in for final landing. The pilot made an error, the co-pilot was killed, one of the navigators was trapped in the wreckage and the pilot went off to find help and the other navigator stayed with his mate. The fog came down. It took them four hours to find the aircraft. Having got through that, we had a joyful occasion when I got my navigator’s brevvy, and I was confirmed as a pilot officer in the royal service, and incidentally, my initial commission as acting pilot officer was signed on the first day of the current Queens reign. What a long time ago that was. It’s like having a first, first cover stamp isn’t it? Well then, the moment of truth. Hardly anybody from our course at Lichfield went on to jets, just me and two others. We were told we were going to Bomber Command Bombing School at Lindholme, now notorious as a prison, where we did the practice with the Mark 14 bombsight that the Lancasters and Lincolns used, which was called the T2 bombsight for the Canberra. Unfortunately, the bombsight was only an area bombsight in the Second World War and they could have an accuracy of up to four hundred yards with the bombsight. In jet aircraft, the areas were even bigger. It was not a successful bombsight. The work hadn’t been done sufficiently in advance, but we were grappling with flying near the speed of sound at high altitudes, and the problem with the visual bombsight is, you couldn’t see the target when you want to release the bomb, because it was too far ahead to allow for forward propulsion, before the bomb eventually went down vertically, and our experience with a jet bomber dropping inert bombs, just cast metal with explosive inside and a fuse was never very successful. But the time came when we went to 231 Operational Conversion Unit at Bassingbourne, and this was the big time. I was very lucky because the first pilot that I crewed up with, with a Scottish navigator that we had under, Pilot Officer Ford was sent off one day to do circuits and bumps, part of his training before he could fly with his crew, and he took off and got lost and landed downwind at RAF Duxford, which was an inactive fighter station. We never saw him again. And then we got crewed up with a Flight Lieutenant John Garstin, and he was a major influence in my life. We flew together for two years. He was a career officer on a regular commission, destined to go a long way. He’d already served as a aide-de-camp to the governor of one of the Caribbean islands, and he’d instructed at the Initial Training Unit at RAF Cranwell, which is a prestigious post too, so he’d obviously destined for future roles. Anyway, I got him for two years flying in our Canberra which was Willie Howe 725. We got it brand new from the makers via RAF Binbrook where they fitted the particularly RAF equipment in to the aircraft and made it ready for operational use. As flight commanders Terry Geddoe was A Flight commander and John Garstin was B Flight commanders. Flight commanders had their own aircraft. Terry’s was 724 and ours was 725. 724 ended up in a fire dump and was written off, 725 ended up at RAF Duxford, now the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, where it stands as an example of the B2 bomber. The training was interesting but when we finished the course, I had done roughly two hundred and fifty six hours flying since joining the Air Force and there I was, a navigator observer, in the first jet bomber to be flown by the RAF and was I proud? My word I was. From Bassingbourne it wasn’t a long haul up to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. We got there on the 26th of May 1953. A date engraved in my mind because the first four crews to go to flying on 15 squadron in the Canberra era, or the Canberra chapter as well call it in the [pause], oh never mind. There were five squadrons building up their strength. There was 15, 10, 10, 10 squadron, 15 squadron, 44 squadron, 56 squadron and 149 squadron and we were all training to become operational in the first eighteen months of our stay at Coningsby, but in the following August, we were sent, we’d been there fifteen months or so, we were told we were going to go to Cottesmore, because they wanted to lay a three thousand yard runway at Coningsby for the V force when it finally arrived. So off we went to Cottesmore, which was a very happy time. Nine months there and off we went again. This time to RAF Honington, which had just had a three thousand yard runway installed for the V force, and there we stuck until the Canberra squadron was dissolved in 1957, but a lot went on before then. For example, the first serious detachment that we did from one of these bases, was from Honington to El Adem. This is in North Africa, near Tobruk famous for the battles between Bernard Montgomery and Rommel in the 1941 and ‘42 years of the Second World War. So it was exciting to go to such a historic place. We were there to fly a week’s intruder exercise over Greece, where they had the ancient Meteors and the ancient Vampires, so we had to fly at a low speed so they could catch us. We cruise normally at .72 Mach, but for those exercises, we had to cruise at .66/67 Mach so they could catch us, so that was quite fun. But I remember about that is the gritty wind, all day and all night - blowing, blowing, blowing - and as dusk fell, you could hear the explosions of mines that had been laid in the Second World War and not cleared, just lying there corroding. Expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, until all of a sudden, they went off. We did make one visit, we went forty miles along the road from Tobruk, to a famous area where the forces really clashed. I can’t remember the name of the area but there was a peninsula, and on it was a German war memorial. We went up to this war memorial. Everybody started going quiet and whispering, and we looked at the ages of the people on this war memorial, and it was covered. All the granite was covered with names hundreds of young men, and I guess we all had the same thought. Eh up, this could be us. We were a very subdued bunch going back to the officer’s mess at El Adem that evening. When we got there, the local paper was in. They’d discovered the body of a Second World War soldier who’d died in 1942 in the Africa Korps and they found him, twenty yards off the main highway between Tobruk and Benghazi. Twenty yards, in a bit of a scrub, sitting behind a machine gun. Again, it brought it down to earth. And when we got back to England after our attachment, people were beginning to write about Suez and Egypt, and the possibility of confrontation, because Nasser, in July of ’56, nationalised the Suez Canal. Now it’s perfectly logical why he did it, which I can say now in hindsight, ‘cause I can’t remember very much about my attitude at the time except that, oh dear, this is what I got paid flying pay for. It started off with Nasser wanting to build the Aswan Dam. He wanted to build the Aswan Dam because he wanted to control the waters of the Nile, to make them more useful agriculturally, but also as a source of power to power electricity stations and improve the infrastructure. All very laudable, but for that he needed loans, and at the time that the Aswan Dam was starting, or was waiting looking for funds, first the Americans, then the British said, oh, we’ll lend you some money, but after that, Abdul Gamal Nasser made the mistake of buying his weapons of war from the Russians. Not from America and not from England, which upset the politicians. So they said, ‘Well, if we can’t have your orders for aircraft, you can’t have our, we’re going to nationalise the Suez canal, because if we can’t have your loans, we’ve got to pay for it somehow and we’re ongoing with the work’. Now, Anthony Eden had been one of the leading pacifists in the run up to the First World War, and had accompanied Baldwin when he went with that paper peace in our time. He was a sick man, but he wasn’t going to make the same mistake with a dictator again as he’d made with Herr Hitler, and he decided that the, the legal side of international lawyers should tell him whether the nationalisation of the canal was legal, and much to his chagrin, the lawyers said, providing he pays a reasonable compensation to the shareholders, he’s quite within his rights, and it’s quite legal for him to nationalise the Suez canal. This wasn’t what Anthony Eden wanted to hear, but Mr Anthony Eden decided that he was going to teach this fellow a lesson, and he thought of gunboats, which was his age, and he thought the Canberras would do the job. It just showed how little he knew. We knew what we were being prepared for. We were told not to talk to our wives and girlfriends, which we didn’t. We were confined to camp and it all got very tense. Then we were ordered out to Nicosia in Cyprus. At the time there was the EOKA shooting British officers in the back, so we didn’t fancy really, going to Nicosia but when we got there, we found we were alright, because they wouldn’t let us out of camp anyway. Every square foot of the airfield was occupied. There were no permanent accommodation for junior officers, they just slept in tents. The food, with all the people on board, was atrocious, and to cap it all, it was my twenty fourth birthday, and two days after my twenty fourth birthday, my pilot Dennis Wheatley and I were in the briefing room, preparing for our first raid over Egypt, because war had been declared. When they told us that, I just wanted to get on my own for a bit and think out what it could be like. It was a bit scary, but we’d been sent out there in our lovely Canberras. There’s only two problems. The first problem was, we had no way of navigating the aircraft accurately, because the system that was used over Europe was called the Gee system and this was two, two, a master station, two slave stations and they sent out signals. The master sent it out direct to the aircraft and sent one to the, same signals at the same time, and then the two slaves retransmitted the signal to the aircraft, so the aircraft had three readings, and from that, could fix their position by use of a special chart overprinted with Gee values, so we could look at the Oscilloscope and take the C readings and plot the aircraft’s, and that was how we were trained. But there was no Gee station over in Cyprus, nor could they build one in time, but we hadn’t any other aids. We hadn’t even got an astro compass or a bubble sextant. That didn’t do, that didn’t work very well in a fast flying aircraft anyway so we were without navigation aids. And the first raid we went on, was at Kibrit airfield, and we had, we couldn’t, the straightforward way, would have been go due south from Cyprus to the mouth of the Suez canal, go up the Suez canal, and bomb Kibrit airfield, but we thought that, or the powers that be thought, well even the Egyptians will have anti-aircraft gun going up the canal, so if we go up the canal, we’re liable to get shot at so we’d be clever, we’ll fly a series of three courses, and come around like a big question mark. Based on Cyprus, we went down the arm, then round, round, round and at the third turning point, the Valiants would come from Malta, and they would drop markers on the turning point, so we would know where to go to start our bombing run, and then some Canberras of 138 Squadron would mark the target with different target indicators so we’d know what to bomb. Well, nobody had thought that flying three legs without any nav aids is easy to do, because a slight mistake in terms of piloting the aircraft could put you miles off course. And so it was. When I came to the time when we should have been at the last turning point, there were no TI’s from the Vulcans that I could see. I couldn’t see anybody attacking any airfields within visual range of our aircraft. I’d not seen the canal, but it should stand out on a, on a dark night. In fact, there we were, with six one thousand pound armed bombs, going back to an airfield we didn’t know, very close to a large mountain. So Dennis said, ‘We’d better jettison our bombs’, so we went out to sea and dropped the bombs in the water, and hope nobody was swimming underneath. So ingloriously, we went back to base, not having even seen the target. The fact of the matter is, that until that flight, I’d never seen TI’s anyway, ‘cause they were economical during peacetime. They didn’t use everything there so TI’s didn’t get dropped. The next airfield to be attacked was Luxor, which is down to the south of Egypt, and the reason we were attacking Luxor was that Nasser had put his IL28 bombers, the Russian jet bombers, down there out of sight, he hoped. They lined them up on a runway and the air, the photo reconnaissance people saw the aircraft, so that was our target. So we were sent there, in the dark again, but that’s a maximum flight for a Canberra. We have one bombing run, one bombing run only. Well, after our first incident, we were very unhappy, me and Dennis, because we’d not even found the target. On this occasion, the TI’s were dropped and we saw them. A lovely sight. It was November the 5th again. But because of the limitations of our bombsight, built as it was during the war for Lancasters and Halifaxes and Stirlings, flying at two hundred knots, the maximum speed you could fly was three fifty knots, which was way below our maximum speed, and the maximum height you could bomb was twenty five thousand feet, because that was all, we liked to fly at forty thousand feet so going, flying over at high level, coming down to a bombing level, dropping the bomb then climbing up again. We did a cruise climb from the Luxor target, on the first occasion, to conserve fuel, it’s a way of flying a long way. We got to forty eight thousand feet and I have never been as cold as I was that day. Neither had Dennis. It was freezing at forty eight thousand feet, but we got back and joined the queue of aircraft waiting to land, but this time, we had dropped our bombs, and you know how big an airfield is. We missed it. So our bombs fell just outside the perimeter, as did a lot of bombs, but the interesting thing about the debriefing was, the intelligence officer debriefing us was trying to put our bomb burst closer to the target than we wanted to, and I said to him, I said, ‘Look’, I said, ‘I dropped the bloody bombs. I know where they went. You put them where I said, not on the runway, I didn’t hit the runway’. Well when we got back home, it was agreed that it had been a failure. It had been a complete waste of time sending the Canberras, because we didn’t have an accurate wind to put on the bombsight, we had blind navigation, just dead reckoning and that’s anybody’s guess, dead reckoning, so they sent us back the next day to the same airfield, but they had us take off half an hour earlier, so we’d have the last of the light to bomb by, which was intelligent, but didn’t help the results much because we still had no accurate wind over the bomb, over the airfield. Nobody transmitted one to us. So we’d flown all that way by dead reckoning and again, this time I could see the bombs drop, and they did drop inside the airfield, but they dropped on a place which was neither good nor useful. It didn’t disable the airfield and it didn’t disable the IL28s. As it happened, the following day, the French sent in a low level attack force and destroyed them all, but what a waste of time. And then the fourth raid I did, at Suez, was with our squadron commander, Squadron Leader Scott, and I was flying as nav plotter instead of single navigator, so the nav observer went down in the nose and he map read from the coast to the target, and from the target back to the coast, so I didn’t have anything to do except sit there and listen to the conversation, but the final attack was a place called El Marsa barracks, and by this stage, we were supporting the Army in, just out of Port Said. But the nice thing was that, a few days later, they sent us back home to England. That was, that was marvellous, that was the good news, because it got us into our own beds, and good meals and things like that, but they wouldn’t let us off camp. We were still restricted and we were told that although we’d come back in early November, that beginning of, end of December, we were going to go out to Malta, Exercise Goldflake was a kind of surveillance from Malta of the area when it had all calmed down and has a wing of Canberras out there, so we had another month to serve so it was coming up to three and a half months before we’d see our loved ones again [pause]. But when I started doing research on the internet, and the National Archives, it was interesting because so much was glossed over, but I understand that Sir Anthony Eden didn’t have a war cabinet for this particular operation, he just worked with one single senior civil servant, but the planning of the whole exercise made you feel that it was a kind of a mismatch. Senior officers were keeping their stiff upper lip type faces, but I think they were fuming inside because of the way that the arms had been used, or not used properly and all the embarrassing things that could be said, perhaps weren’t said by those in authority at the time [pause]. It was strange drawing up all of a sudden. I had a feeling of how people were when they were going to war, in a real war, not an adventure like this one, and I wrote a little song about it. Have you heard that song “Flying In a Jet Plane,” John Denver?
MH: Ahum
JBP: Well, just right on the top. I won’t, that’s it, that’s it. I won’t, I won’t, I’ll just say it to you rather than sing it. I can sing it but I’m all flat. This is, “Flying In a Jet plane” by me. I pay full tribute to, certainly to John Denver, because it was his thing that started it off -
All my kit is packed
I’m ready to go.
The moon is full, the coach is slow.
I’ve a three hour trip to base, my weekend’s done
Tomorrow is a flying day. I’m 536 we’re on our way.
Flying east, towards the rising sun.
So kiss me and smile for me.
Tell me that you’ll wait for me.
Hold me like you’ll never let me go,
Because I’m flying in a jet plane. I don’t know when I’ll be back again.
Oh Anne, I hate to go.
All leave is cancelled. Weekends too.
The future’s bleak, but I love you.
You fill my waking thoughts the livelong day.
Every place I go, I think of you.
In my sleep at night, I dream of you.
Pray for peace to hold. Not all outright war.
So kiss me and smile for me. Tell me that you’ll wait for me.
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
‘Cause I’m flying in a jet plane. I don’t know when I’ll be back again.
Oh Anne, I hate to go.
The die is cast. Now the war’s begun.
We fly by night till the bombings done.
Then we fly back to England once again.
A month in Malta, for our crews,
Then we are told the welcome news, of leave for every other man.
So kiss me and smile for me.
Tell me that you’ll wait for me.
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
‘Cause I’m working in a jet plane. Navigating back to you again.
Landing gently in your arms. Landing gently in your arms.
That’s my poem. A better singer than me can sing it to you [laughs]. Well we got back to England, after our stay in Malta, which was quite pleasant, it’s just that we weren’t seeing our girlfriends and wives, you know, but when we got back, we found that the Canberra squadron, 15 Squadron was being disbanded and this would take place on the 17th of April 1957. This would mean that the Canberras would all go back to the maintenance units and be handed out to other squadrons that were being formed. We’d be, we’d all go our different ways, but the squadron would reform with the Handley Page Victor in 1989, so it wasn’t going to be disbanded for very long, and it could become a Victor squadron, but I’d got to decide what to do. I went home for my first leave in February, and I discussed seriously with my father whether to resign my commission immediately and come out of the Air Force, but he said, ‘Don’t be so precipitous, it’s been a big shock and you are a Christian, but let’s look at the options’. So we went through the options. I didn’t want to fly in the V bombers, ‘cause I didn’t, I didn’t want to drop a hydrogen bomb or atom bomb on anybody and we eventually decided that the best use I could make of my time, would be a navigation instructor, so I went back to the squadron and discussed it with our friends, and the CO got me some forms to apply and I was taken in number 46 staff nav course, which was a course designed for two things. The first was to broaden your experience of the way that navigation was conducted in each of the commands flying, you know, Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Transport Command. I think that’s all. If I’ve forgotten one, put it in, and the second purpose is to learn how to write staff papers and appreciations, which was very, very useful in my future life, as an insurance consultant. I enjoyed the course, I came out second, and then a guy called Polly Parrot, who was in the Air Ministry on his ground tour, he rang me up one day. He did junior officer postings. He said, ‘Brian’, he said, ‘I’ve got some good news for you. You’ve got a posting to 231 OCU at Bassingbourne. How does it feel?’ I said, ‘That’s great’. I said, ‘When are you getting out of your ground job?’ He said, ‘Oh next year. I’m coming out and I’m hoping to get on the V force’. I said, ‘I’ve got a girlfriend in Sheffield that I think I want to marry’. But I went off to OCU and I got some very good helping from the chief instructor, who took me under his wing and got me working properly. He gave me confidence, and then the Indian Air Force started coming through Bassingbourne, as part of a deal for them to buy our Canberras, we’d train their pilots, navigators, and I got friendly with a Flight Lieutenant Nath. I couldn’t pronounce his Christian name, so he said, ‘Oh call me Juggy’. So Juggy Nath he was and we got on like a house on fire. He came up one November the 5th to our home at Sheffield and met my parents, met my girlfriend, only she was close to being my fiancé then and my young brother who was setting off fireworks, and he really enjoyed himself, and then years later, I got a telephone call out of the blue and we were in here, about 1985, and he was flying with Indian Airways as a captain, and he’d just got married for the first time. He was in his fifties then, at fifty five then, a wing commander in the Indian Air Force he was, and he phoned on spec, and tried some Payne’s in the address book and got hold of me, so we were delighted, and he brought his wife up and came. The first time he was up, he talked to my parents and enjoyed that, so he talked in the evening to my parents. A thoroughly wonderful occasion. Doing research for this about eighteen months ago, discovered that a Wing Commander Nath, N A T H, was the most decorated Indian Air Force pilot in the history of the Indian Air Force, and my friend Juggy, who was a bit of a playboy. He didn’t like flying desks, he loved flying. He loved anything to do with sport. Very keen sportsman and good fun as well. And then the following, I’d been at Bassingbourne six months and just settled in nicely, I made the one major mistake of my career. Polly Parrot rang up and said, ‘I need a station navigation officer at RAF Finningley’, which is very close to Sheffield. ‘Are you interested?’ Of course I was interested. Oh great. So I went up there and the, not that the group captain I didn’t know, but the wing commander was a navigator in charge of the operations room, and he was security cleared to deal with V bomber crews and his deputy, Pete Harle, squadron leader, he was an H bomb specialist and he was cleared to work with these crews, but I’m a flight lieutenant, station navigation officer, the squadron’s navigation officers outranked me. I was only a flight lieutenant, they were squadron leaders. Wing Commander Dawson kept all the interesting stuff about navigation so I began to wonder why I was there, ‘cause I’d got nothing to do. Nothing to do. No security clearance to help with the V bombers or anything in any shape or form. I once tried marking the log, a chap on the squadrons, and the wing commander came and tore me off a strip, the group captain, no, the squadron leader on the squadron, ‘You shouldn’t be marking my men. Give over’. And then they made the post a squadron leader post. Well, two months before, the corporal in charge of the map store had left after doing two years national service, and the only job I could see I could do was the map store CO. So I was flight lieutenant in charge of the map store for the last four months of my service and then came out in civilian life, where I had a totally different career and married Anne. And that’s the story of my life in the Air fFrce. I rest my case.
MH: You’ve had quite an extended career there. Well, extended in what you’ve done but squeezed into a short period of time with the RAF. I’ll go back, take you all the way back if I may to your father, and what his experience was and the way that, did he infer on you any, any, the way that he was trained or was that something you found out afterwards from him? Did he give you any stories regarding his training in the early, early years of the RAF?
JBP: The most infuriating part about it is, that my father had one photograph of three trainees on his course at Old Sarum airfield, but he’d sent home many letters and many photographs to his parents, and they hadn’t kept any of them. We have one letter dated the 1st, the 2nd of January 1919 when he’s trying to impress his mother by what he’s doing, and he calls himself the second in command of the navigation empire. He says, ‘It’s the officer here’, and he says, ‘ and I’m there to do the odd jobs that need doing when he’s making a presentation, but as we’re not doing presentations at the moment, you can see I’ve not much to do, but we discovered the other day that the coke burning stove in the hut causes an upward draft. We had a brilliant idea that we would make hot air balloons and fly them, but they didn’t work so we made a windmill, and the windmill went round on the current so we painted it in RAF colours and had it suspended, so that it would go around all the time. If brass hats came in we would just say we’re checking that the draft, that the stove doesn’t need filling up at all’, and he went on like this, pulling his mother’s leg and, ‘Look at the headed notepaper’. Old Sarum. It’s embossed, not just your printed stuff, yeah. Because my grandmother was a bit of a social climber. Victorian governess type. No, the research I’d done about my father’s training and the training of pilots in the First World War threw up some very startling facts. Fourteen thousand four hundred aircrew were killed in the First World War. Eight thousand of those aircrew were killed in training accidents before they ever got to the front. In other words, our training system killed more of our aviators than the enemy. After the war, when they looked at the records, the German Air Force had twenty five percent of the casualties as the British Air Force up to 1917. It’s shocking. Ok, it was a new world, aviation. The Germans and the French were the major aviators before the First World War. Our generals were, they could only see as far as the cavalry, and they didn’t show any enthusiasm for anything to do with flying. They found out very quickly in the First World War that flying was very important, because the French and the Germans had them, and the English didn’t, so until they got themselves sorted out, which took a year or so, they were under represented and the reconnaissance done by the British was good. It convinced the commanders in the field that they were worth having. Particularly when they had these big pushes like the Somme, and then the pilots had to fly contact patrols, otherwise they had to keep in contact with the front line to be able to see how close the Germans were and whether they could machine gun them out of their positions, but of course, when you’re flying that close to the front line and somebody’s lobbing shells from your side and from their side, the chances of a shell hitting you is not remote so many of the aviators killed. The figures don’t match up to the Army, but then the number of flyers engaged compared with the number of the Army soldiers engaged was quite different as well, but the losses were very high. And the training of aircrew was a problem, because when the war started, we only had, I think it was a hundred and eighty qualified pilots in the whole of Britain, and training was hit and miss. It started off with, in about 1909 that if you wanted to learn how to be a pilot, you got on to this kind of flimsy box kite thing. There was one seat and that was for the pilot. So, the pilot would sit on the seat with the controls in front of him. No dual controls, just one set of controls. Then the trainee would get in through the barrage of spars and things that are holding the aircraft together, and he would be invited to sit behind the pilot so his knees were touching the pilot’s sides and his hands were touching his shoulders, and then to feel the movements the pilot was making, and then the pilot, the instructor, would get out and say, ‘Now you try. I don’t want you to make any turns. Just go up forwards and down forwards’, and it’s surprising how many people crashed like that. You see, the engines of the aircraft weren’t powerful enough. They just take the aircraft up off the ground, but the flying speed forwards and the stalling speeds when they dropped out of the ground were probably three or four miles an hour different, and they didn’t have a kind of speedo to see how fast they were flying. They had very primitive instruments. Couldn’t fly in a wind over five miles an hour ‘cause they’d go backwards. It slowly improved but we were totally reliant on the French. We had to buy, for the bulk of the war, we bought French engines, French aircraft until we started developing our own in 1915 but the war had been going on a year then and it was a very slow progress, and there were great periods when the Germans had the upper, they had the control over the air over the front lines and that was horrible for the soldiers, and they, they found a way of firing through the propeller. That was the big thing. So you aimed the aircraft and fire through the propeller and shoot down the enemy aircraft. And the Germans had an aircraft which wasn’t very successful but it was a good gun platform, and it was called an Eindecker, and these Eindeckers used to go up and our pilots didn’t think they could shoot at anybody, you know, nobody couldn’t shoot anybody down, certainly not through the propeller, and then the Eindecker got into the position where it could shoot the British aircraft down and shot them down in droves. We eventually found an aircraft that could fight the Eindecker. It had three guns facing forwards, called a Pusher biplane, and it had three, three guns facing forwards but the observer had to take great risks with his own life to fire one of the guns, ‘cause he had to balance on the edge of the cockpit to stand up to this gun to fire at the back of the aircraft and there were no training manuals. People were posted to be instructors like the Army does, you know. ‘Right boy, you’re not volunteering but you’ll be an instructor now. You’re now posted as an instructor to ‘blah blah blah’. Go and instruct’. You don’t tell them how. So that you’d think you had just come out of flying training. Hopefully, he had a good pilot to instruct him but many of them weren’t. A lot of the pilots came out of the front line with shattered nerves. Do I fly at all? So when they were made into instructors, unfortunately they used to send people off far too early in their training, so many of them got killed because they shouldn’t have been flying alone, but one of the, the reason was that the instructor was trying to avoid flying, and then you got pilots sent back from the front who were a threat to the squadron if they were going out on a reconnaissance, and they got sent back and made into instructors. In fact, they’d make anyone into instructors if they could, and the instructors privately called their pupils Huns, because they were as liable to kill them as much as the Germans. And then, in 1917, a chap who’d been in the, been flying as a pilot and then as a squadron commander, he went to Trenchard and said, ‘I think we can organise flying training so it’s more useful’. The kind of flying training that we were giving to people was basic training, but it had nothing to do with flying in war. So, we didn’t teach people manoeuvres that are dangerous. Many of the instructors wouldn’t know how to do it anyway. The ones who were straight to instructing from training school and this chap had the novel idea of training people to fly and fight at the same time, so all the training was to do that, if there were any risky manoeuvres, then people had to go through these over again and again with the instructor until he had mastered it, because shying away from not mastering something wasn’t on. And fortunately, he’d been in the post a year at Gosport when my father joined the Air Force, and by that time it was organised along the lines that he pioneered. Great man. So my father got proper training. The aircraft were equipped with dual controls. They had a tube that they could blow the whistle by the other pilot’s ear and you could talk through the tube, and that was called a Gosport Tube, and altogether more time was given to training people before they were sent out, because in periods when the Germans had the control of the skies, they were shooting down our aircraft and we were losing pilots like mad, so the front line commanders were asking for more pilots and the training programme couldn’t produce them, and it wasn’t until 1917 that Trenchard wrote a letter, which Haig signed, sent to the cabinet, war cabinet and they increased the aircraft squadrons from forty to a hundred, and specialist units were created. But a lot of the pilots, a lot of the instructors, had to be trained to instruct in this new way. So you started by training, nobody had been training instructors to instruct until that point, and everything happened in the final year, and I was glad that my father went into the Air Force when he did, ‘cause if he hadn’t have done I might not be here. That’s a long answer to a short question.
MH: What did your father do when he came out of the RAF?
JBP: Well the first thing he did was to be diagnosed with tuberculosis in his left leg, and he required six months treatment for that, and fortunately they were able to cure it but he always had a weakness in his left leg. Then he had another eighteen months looking for a job because, when he went, went in the Air Force, he’d been apprenticed to be an engineer, engineering draughtsman but he’d not finished his course, so he applied for something like that, but he’d not finished and other people had and they got the job. But eventually, in 1921, he got a job and he worked for the same firm from the age of twenty one to the age of seventy four. Same firm. It changed ownership three times. Each time the business was failing and somebody bought it out, but it was a good record. He saw good times and bad times. One of the good times was, he went with a friend, Jack Webster, on holiday at Towyn in Wales, and Jack had married a girl called Mary Haye, who was the elder sister of Florence Haye who was a zoology and botany graduate from the Liverpool University, and she was the only female taking that degree, all the rest were fellas. So she was kind of in advance of her time but she’d not had a boyfriend even though she was twenty six by now, because if you got married between the wars, you had to give up teaching and she liked teaching so she gave up men, until she met my father and they got married in 1929, but there were one or two moments. Mother’s family was a working class family. Did all the shopping, Gibbet Street in Halifax, and Florence’s dad who was a thimble maker by trade, but it was mechanised in the war years so they weren’t made by hand any more so he was unemployed at the end of the war, and had a very rich great uncle called Uncle Joe Allen and he had a posh house at Maidenhead, and he had the franchise for importing into Africa the products of a certain Mr Ford for the whole of Africa, and he gave my grandfather a job in the Gold Coast, Lagos, importing Ford vehicles, and my granddad told us of an occasion when the local chieftain decided he wanted a Ford car so he went along and explained it all to him, and couldn’t help noticing that the chief was looking very disappointed and very upset. So he asked him what the matter was and he said, ‘Well you sent me a picture of this car and where’s the lady that goes with it?’[laughs] Anyway, the Haye family didn’t drive cars at all so my mother was out with my father in his Austin 7 and they were having a row as they were driving along. She didn’t, not knowing what she was doing, she switched off the ignition. The only time he hit her.
[Ringtone tune. Reminder for medication]
JBP: My pills. I hope they appreciate the nice music [pause]. There was a pause while he took his pills.
MH: Yeah. Yeah.
JBP: Who has not put his pills out this morning?
MH: What we’ll do is, we’ll temporary pause the interview at this time so Mr Payne can have his pills because they’re more important to be honest. So we’ll pause this for a second.
[machine paused]
MH: Welcome back, this is a continuation of the interview with Mr Payne. The time now is 13:04. Mr Payne had some medication to take so we decided to pause at that time to give him due time to do that and he’s happy to continue, which I’m very grateful to him for. We were just finding out about your father and what he had done after his days with the newly combined Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps, a bit about his training that he’d done and then subsequent to that that he’d stayed with the same company for a phenomenal amount of time. What was it that he was doing for that company?
JBP: He was an engineering draughtsman, which was what he was being trained for, been training, but he was joining a company called Hall and Sons in Rotherham who were struggling with the changing conditions in industry and commerce, because it was about that time that the big recession started in about 1925 or so and they were having to multitask, so my father found himself the only draughtsman but also expected to go out and make calls on people as a salesman, but in doing that he found he’d got a capacity for being a salesman and by the time the company, Hall’s, was sold to British Automatic Refrigerators Limited, my father was a full time salesman in Bradford for them, and as the recession deepened, so he had to give up his car, and he was walking around selling freezer units to butchers because they had to install freezer equipment in their shops in order to keep the meat fresh. About 1932, 1929 they got married, in 1930, my mother gave birth to a still born child at six months, simply because of an infection she caught, and in 1932 I came along and brightened their lives and my father sent a card to my mother a month before I was born, ‘Whoops mum, soon be hitting the high spots with you. John Payne’, with a little ditty on the back of it as well. He’d got a nice quiet sense of humour. My mother was one of six girls and they all liked Raymond, as he was called, and he got on well with his mother-in-law as well. In fact, he got on with most people, he was very even tempered. He’d got a nice sense of humour and was very reliable. Everybody found him very reliable which was one of the reasons for his success as a salesman because as I found it certain, if you were honest with people, it’s very highly valued and so it should be.
MH: So you come along in 1932.
JBP: Yeah. My sister Anne came along in 1935. my sister Margaret in ’38, but my brother Robert decided to wait out the festivities of the war and came along when peace was declared. The only trouble was that my mother, who had gone back to teaching during the war as her war work on the Monday, she had an interview with the headmaster who said, ‘I’m delighted to tell you, Mrs Payne, that the teacher who went to the war from here, the biology teacher, is not coming back to Sheffield, so you can work full time at the job you love’. She was very pleased, went out and rang my father to tell him the news, went to the doctor’s on Friday and guess what. ‘We’ve done some tests Mrs Payne, and you’re having a baby in August’. So she, you know, she’d done her bit and my father called the baby ARP, because he didn’t taken any air raid precautions. So he was called Anthony Robert Payne [laughs]. Now Robert was a common name in the family, Robert. But like my father, another thing about my father, he couldn’t go into military service because of his deafness and his TB hip so he joined the air raid wardens, known as the ARP, and he went to the first meeting with the group. What do we call you? Now my dad hated Raymond, because it was a family name, and he hated Henry which was his other name, so he says, ‘Call me George’, so ever after, whenever it suited dad, ‘Hello George,’ we knew he was an air raid warden in the war. He also, not a religious man but a very, very sincere Christian. In the time when the evacuation of Dunkirk was taking place, he was in hospital having been diagnosed with having gallstones, and in those days, it meant an operation and the aftercare was botched and he got an abscess on his wound, and the surgeon came in and told mum and dad that if it burst inwards, that was it. End of story. If it burst outwards, there was a good chance of recovery, so they had three weeks with this hanging over their head, and dad, being a regular church goer anyway, he and mum were praying about it, and so was the extended family on both sides, and one day dad was by himself in the, in his cubicle in the ward and he had a sense of a presence with him, and he got the sense of words kind of appearing in his mind, ‘You’re going to be alright. Don’t worry’. And he didn’t, but the impact it had on him afterwards, he started regular bible study, he became a preacher in the Plymouth Brethren, and he was a very popular preacher. He did an awful lot of appointments by request. Took a number of weddings in their tradition and funerals. He preferred the weddings. They had adult baptisms, you had to be converted and then baptised, so as a sixteen year old, I had to get into this water with this old man. The only consolation was the girls had to do that and they looked lovely with their dresses clinging to them [laughs]. But he used to bring people home from the morning service, and he’d bring people home who were on their own and he called the lame ducks. And my mother had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in her fifties and she went to Middlewood, and she met a couple of ladies there and there were nothing wrong with them. They’d just been put in a mental hospital and left and become institutionalised. So my mum, when she got discharged from hospital, she said to the psychiatrist, would it be possible to take these two ladies out occasionally. Just they seem very subdued. So he said yeah, and later, about four months later, he said, ‘Mrs Payne you’ve made a tremendous difference to these ladies. They’re coming alive’, and mother always said, they kept coming to her house till they died, but she said isn’t it awful that people can be locked away in our civilised society and, of course, after that the legislation they brought in to close mental hospitals, because so many people were put in there, you know, put in there for having a baby out of wedlock, or because their father was wealthy and didn’t want them around. Shocking it was. So he really lived out his life of faith and I wouldn’t say there were any of us who are as good as he was. I’d like to be but I wouldn’t, I’m not.
MH: Did he, or did he carry on any sort of passion towards flying? Did he fly much after?
JBP: On the -
MH: Did he have the opportunity to?
JBP: On his eightieth birthday I took him down to Old Sarum airfield where the Shuttleworth Collection is based. Have you heard of them? Of course you have, yeah. And they were flying the Avro 504K which was the training aircraft he used, and I took him down there because that was the day when the flying displays were being done by the Avro, and he really liked that. And then we saw an oil painting in the shop, and I bought it, and he had it in his bedroom till he died and then it went to my grandson, who has got it over his bed now. So the link’s being continued although Nicholas has just got a degree in geology, so I can’t see him going to fly.
MH: But your passion came alive when you went into your father’s bureau.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: It touched you then.
JBP: That’s right.
MH: The bug, as such. As some people call it.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: From a photograph.
JBP: We all get touched by bugs, don’t we?
MH: We do.
JBP: Passion.
MH: Passions.
JBP: Passion. Yes.
MH: But your passion, then, continued through.
JBP: Yes. I didn’t, my long term aim was to fly. I tell you what were a hell of a culture shock and that was going on my honeymoon. Not, not the interesting bit, but the first time that Anne had flown, and we were taking off at three in the morning, in the pitch dark, and we came across the Mediterranean coast on our way to Rome. at first light, and that was magic. The only thing that wasn’t magic was buying some bloody tickets when I’d been paid for flying [unclear]. I did feel that. [laughs]
MH: So you joined the RAF in ‘51.
JBP: Yeah. National serviceman. The number of 2530371, and I was an aircrew Cadet.
MH: Just to make sure that I’ve written that, 2530371.
JBP: Yes.
MH: And that service number made -
JBP: National service number.
MH: National service.
JBP: The regulars were 414, first three letters.
MH: Ok. Did that then go, that also then picked up your national service number or did it become completely different? Your regular service number.
JBP: No. I kept the national service number.
MH: But it had a prefix then of 414.
JBP: No 414 was the one that was issued at Padgate.
MH: Ok.
JBP: Other access camps might have had different numbers, I don’t know, I only know Padgate. I was a national service man until the 14th of November 1951 when I applied for a permanent commission, a four year commission with four years on the reserve, which I extended when the direct commission system came in which, I think, they extended to a twelve year commission with an option of coming out after eight years. I went on to the direct commission before Suez and I took the four, the eight year option after Suez.
MH: What recollections, or what impressions when you were at RAF Digby learning first, learning first how to fly on Tiger Moths?
JBP: Oh, that was magic. Without a doubt the best flights I ever did, even though I was a Canberra navigator, the most exciting flights were Tiger Moth flights. There was the Chipmunk came in to replace the Tiger Moth. I used to love flying the Chipmunk, but flying in an open cockpit is something, something else. Something completely wonderful. And you can do so much over a small area because you’re flying quite slow relative to jets. You can hover almost. You can keep inside the airfield perimeter and just do your -
MH: Yeah.
JBP: Your stuff. I liked everything about the Air Force till Suez.
MH: Suez was the turning point.
JBP: Yeah [pause]. It was the start of this book I suppose. If I go back I could, I could tenuously link it to get it out of my system. By the time it was happening I wanted to go, and if we’re going to, I didn’t want the war to start. I wanted it to be done diplomatically like I said in the song, but I was quite committed to go into action if necessary. I wasn’t suddenly questioning whether I should go or not. My attitude was, well I’ve been paid flying pay for five years, they’re entitled to my service up front, and once it started, you just wanted to get it finished as soon as possible [laughs]. But I think there is a report on the bombing. I’ve been trying to get to the National Archives, I’ve been trying to get a report on the, there was a survey done of the bombing results on the airfields, and I’ve read fragments of other people’s books on the subject, which makes me believe that this does exist, but I couldn’t find a way of getting to it ‘cause I’m not very good at those websites. I’m sure there was a report done and they took nine major airfields and we didn’t close one of them. In all the bombs, we dropped and we didn’t close one of them. An enormous number of bombs and a lot of them dropped outside the airfield perimeter and that’s the shocking thing.
MH: You can reflect in some ways looking back just over a decade back to when Bomber Command first started out. The bombing missions to Germany and such like.
JBP: Yes.
MH: The accuracy there that was portrayed.
JBP: In 1941 a report came out and it showed that aircraft bombing with direct reckoning and star sights, which were the only two things they had at night, nine out of ten bombs dropped were more than five miles away from their target. Only one bomb out of ten was within five miles of the target and these were five hundred pound bombs. They weren’t a thousand pounders. And the area of devastation was only about a hundred yards. So the safest place to be was the target.
MH: Yeah. It’s strange to think of it like that, but that is, that’s a correct statement.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: Yeah. But it’s interesting, though, that, as you said in part one, that the bombsight that was used by the World War Two Bomber Command bomb aimers was the same then, just over a decade later, in the jet era, in the Canberra.
JBP: Yeah. And the forces against, the forces acting on the bomb and on the aircraft had greater, one of the examples is astral, astral navigation, using the stars. Now it all started with ships at ground level or at sea level, and bringing down the star sight on to the horizon to get the elevation of the star, to then be able to draw a great circle line, which on a short distance is a straight line to get a fix but you don’t have an actual horizon in an aircraft so you’ve got to put something in, so they found with low speeds, you could put a bubble in, and the bubble is acted on by the forces of gravity and where as a sea, seafarers could take two or three sights and that would be enough, we used the bubble sextant we had to take sixty sights, all automatic and they averaged out sixty sights of this star and then you got on the tables, and plotted this on your chart and you looked for three stars so that they crossed at a hundred and twenty degrees, a hundred and twenty degrees, a hundred and twenty degrees and your probable position was inside this ‘cocked hat’ as they called it. I was taught that in basic air navigation training. I used it once when I was at Lichfield on a night exercise, and I used it once on the staff navigator’s course when we were looking at Coastal Command and Transport Command and the way they navigated. Never used it otherwise. And I went to, from St Mawgan to Gibraltar on a staff nav course and I was navigating by lines of pressure, with the aircraft being steered by the gyro not a compass. I tried to understand that because I’ve got the notes down there and I tried to understand it now, and at eighty three, I just can’t understand it [laughs], at twenty four I was navigating by it and got there. Yes. The equipment lagged way behind the aircraft. That was the problem we had, we always had. Nowadays, the way they take modern star sights I’ve not been trained so I don’t know them, but the early ‘50s was, 1952 was the biggest size of the Air Force in war or in peace. That was the most resources there but a lot of those the jet engines made everything redundant, and we had a lot of other aircraft.
MH: It’s my understanding that, yeah, because I think Bomber Command still had things like the, well the Americans called the Superfortress, but we called it the Washington.
JBP: Yeah. That’s right.
MH: Which was still around -
JBP: Well 15 Squadron had Washingtons before it had Canberras.
MH: So, I mean, if you think of the size of the Superfortress, you know, the Washington compared with the Canberra, quite a fundamental change.
JBP: It is.
MH: In aircraft type, etcetera.
JBP: And when the yfirst displayed at Farnborough by Beamont, on behalf of English Electric, the way that he flew it was like a fighter, and some old fuddy duddies in the air ministry said, ‘You don’t fly a bomber like that. It’s a light bomber not a heavy bomber’, and of course, the heavy bombers did spectacularly well. The Vulcan, the Valiant and the Victor. They really were agile aircraft, but when you got to those speeds, the G forces that you can vector a G force into the horizontal and vertical. The G forces were far greater on equipment in the aircraft, and the T2 bombsight we used in the Canberra was a modification of the Mark 14, which as you rightly said was designed and built in 1940, after the Bomber Command said you don’t want to lose any more crews, but if you wanted an accurate bombsight, you had to fly straight and level for so long and you can get shot down while you’re doing it. You go for a bit of evasion and then you accept an average error of four hundred yards, so what blanket bombing was, was seeking to knock out the factories, seeking to kill the workers who worked in those factories, because they were in the zone. Just pass the zone with enough bombers to allow for breakages on the way there and a certain number of bombs, the probability is, you covered every point of the carpet, but you kill civilians and that was a deliberate policy before Bomber Harris took charge of Bomber Command. He just carried it out. He gets blamed for it but it was Churchill that was the prime instigator.
MH: I’ll step you back in time if I may.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: Back to your favourite aircraft being the Canberra. Could you take me through, or take the people that are going to listen to this later on, through right the way from mission start to mission end? What would have been your role and what you did, what you wore, because I remember you saying when you got up to a very high level of forty eight thousand feet, you found yourself very cold.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: And reflecting upon that bombers during the World War Two, of course, had problems with freezing guns and that sort of thing, that they couldn’t then operate to defend themselves, so it’s the similar sort of scenario there, with the freezing element.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: But then the crews in World War Two, of course, wore the sheepskin clothing, etcetera, that was designed to keep them warm and the leather helmet, etcetera. If you could take us through what your, how you, your day would have gone from mission start to mission end.
JBP: Right. Yes, I can do that. I’ll think of a particular mission. I was flying an exercise, a Bomber Command exercise, testing out capabilities of ships at sea and aircraft finding them. I’m stationed at Honington, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, a member of 15 Squadron. My pilot is Flight Lieutenant John Garstin. The nav plotter is Flying Officer Jock Logan and the navigator observer is myself [pause]. We have a meal and then we’re taken by RAF vehicle lorry or bus or Land Rover to the briefing room, collecting on our way, the parachutes which are the type which you sit on [pause]. We go to the, entering the briefing room we go to get our equipment out of the store, which is where we keep it. The first thing that I put on is some thermal underpants, stretching down to just below my knee and a thermal top. The next item of clothing I put on, if its winter, it’s a woollen cover for the body and the arms. If it’s summer, probably nothing particularly special. A thick pair of socks, because it’s amazing how cold you get in your feet and extremities, so you need a thick pair of socks, woolly socks and flying boots which are designed so that if you get shot down over enemy territory you can cut off the, the bit of a boot that looks like a flying boot and you’re left with a pair of reasonably serviceable shoes, which look a bit like shoes for escape and evasion. Having got yourself dressed in that gear, you then put on your flying overall. In my day they weren’t the colours they are today, it was a kind of grey blue with the squadron badge on the pocket and the rank on the shoulders, on little bits of material that can be slid on and off and used elsewhere. The next item of clothing is a pressure vest. Now a pressure vest, the function of the pressure vest is if the, what do they call it, we were pressurised down to a certain level for operational work. If we were flying at forty thousand feet, then the cabin pressure is pressurised to make the inside of the cabin twenty five thousand feet, so flying at twenty five thousand feet, if you’ve got an explosive decompression at that artificial height, you quickly go to forty thousand and this is where the pressure vest kicks in. The moment there’s any change of pressure, the pressure vest inflates and the inflation is to guard against damage being done to your breathing. It’s connected up with the oxygen system which is fed to you under pressure anyway, and there’s a clip on here, the oxygen mask attaches it to there, attaches to your helmet. Your helmet, strangely enough is not made of thick material, it’s made of a cotton. It’s washable cotton with the earpieces in and the, the nose I say, the nose of the thing fitting over you like that. You couldn’t operate at high levels without oxygen. You’re flying at forty thousand feet, there’s no way you can do without your oxygen. You’ve got to be taking your oxygen in otherwise you will start hallucinating, and as an observer, I had a little bottle of oxygen for when I went forward to the nose, or came back from the nose, I wasn’t on the mains supply system I had my own bottle, so I had to make sure I got that. Over the pressure vest I’d got what is popularly known as the Mae West, which is the bright yellow jacket with inflatable front like the famous actress. When you’re flying, you fly encased in your pressure vest, and on top of the pressure vest, no, your flying suit is underneath your pressure vest. That’s right. Switch on to the oxygen. I’ve got to look at the bomb bay and check that the bombs that we are going to drop are the ones that have been specified at the briefing, and I check that any settings that have to be made before take-off are made. I can set the bomb pattern inside the aircraft. It’s next to where I sit. It’s just here. And if you’re down in the nose, and you’ve got to suddenly set a pattern to come back, crawl back, set it, crawl forward. In other words, the aircraft was very cluttered as you saw. Because of the extra navigator and the extra bank seat on the original plans, all the space that would be available to a single nav isn’t available, because that’s put aside for the observer, and because of the observer the pilot seat instead of being centred under that plastic dome is to one side, so tall pilots kind of get a bit bent. They’re flying this way and this is crushing their head over like that, and they often have a bone dome on up on their helmet, so that the result is flying like that and not being able to see very well that way, and you can’t see behind anyway. No mirrors. There should have been a radar called yellow putter, but yellow putter proved to be unworkable in anything like operational conditions. It just didn’t work, so they scrapped it. We never had it on my squadron. We weren’t experimental, we were just routine main force. Dogsbodies. Having got all our equipment and our helmets, making sure that we have the right oxygen mask because we fly T2 bombers, we fly T4 dual control training aircraft and they provide one T4 training aircraft per squadron, so that we always have something to do CO’s checks and things like that in. But when you fly in the T4, you don’t have a pressure vest ‘cause the aircraft doesn’t go to that height. It only goes to twenty five thousand. You don’t do long trips so there’s only room for one navigator, because the two pilots have to have got to have bank seats. You’re mainly flying local simulations so you don’t have wing tip tanks, so you can do high speed runs in one of those, which is rather fun. Go to maximum four hundred and fifty knots, liked doing those, and occasionally we’d do full load take off, when we’d put six one thousand pound bombs on board and the pilot could feel the change in the trim, both taking off and landing. That was important that we did those regularly, ‘cause you’d be flying with twenty five pound practice bombs, they don’t make much difference to the handling of the aircraft, but six thousand pounds of bombs makes a big difference. You don’t do fancy aerobatics with six thousand pounds bombs on either. We then go into briefing. The briefing would be in terms of first of all, telling us what our target is and how we are to approach the target, what formation we are going to fly, the turning points and the times we’ve got to be at the various turning points. The emergency alternatives to our own airfield if we come back and we’re clamped up with fog or things like that. They would tell us where the enemy, for the purpose of the exercise, where the enemy are. That’s reported. Where they were steaming, which part of the North Sea we should be looking for and generally giving us data about the meteorological conditions, both on the way to the target and at the target. We always treat winds given to us by Met offices as a bit sceptical because they were seldom rarely right, and one of the jobs of the plotter is the navigator observer, he works the radar and gets the fixes every four minutes and then the plotter takes those fixes off my chart, and puts it on his chart and uses it to calculate variations in wind, which would call for a variation in course, and then you [unclear] travel at that time, at the back point, the pin point. You’ve got to hit it at the right time and we prided ourselves of getting there within six seconds, whereas the standard that was set which was easy with Gee. Now, when it came to dropping bombs, there were two briefings. The first briefing is if we were dropping twenty five pound practice bombs, one at a time, on the target. We could drop eight of those in two hours. The reason being that there is more than one aircraft using the bombing range at the same time. People on the ground have receivers so they can hear what the pilot says, so if you’re on your bombing run, your pilot switched on to transmit at the end of the bombing run, and you can hear the nav observer saying, ‘Steady. Steady. Steady Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Steady. Steady. Bombs gone’. And the pilot would echo, ‘Bombs gone’. And the people on the ground would then know, in so many seconds, a puff of smoke would show and we’d know where the bomb landed, and it was up to the people in the bomb proof shelters to get these bearings, pass them to a central control point by telephone. They would plot the three positions and get the fix of where the bomb actually hit and its relation to the target, so it could be 2 o’clock, a hundred yards. Mine laying was five hundred yards. That was visual bombing. GH bombing. I told you about Gee to get fixes, say where the aircraft position is, well GH uses the same equipment and the oscilloscope in the aircraft, but in this case, the master station, not the one that transmits the original signal, it’s the aircraft that puts the signal and it gets two replies and one gives you a course to steer to go over the target, pre-computers on the ground and the other gives you four points that you would check off one, two, three, four and when you tick off number four, you drop your bomb, so flying along in an arc, like that, and these lines have changed at right angles to that line, so you can navigate saying, ‘Right. Steady. Steady. Steady’, like you can with a visual bombing, but radar bombing at forty thousand feet is a lot more accurate, because with radar, you don’t have to see the target with your eyes. Visual bombing you’ve got to see the target with your eyes and often, if you are that high, the target is over the hill so you can’t see it. There are practical limitations with the visual bombsights.
MH: You mentioned Gee.
JBP: Yeah.
MH: Was it the same sort of Gee system that the navigators would have had to rely on during Bomber Command in World War Two?
JBP: Definitely.
MH: The same, the same system, it hadn’t changed or had it been -
JBP: No, Gee had had its life, because the nice thing about Gee was that you kept the security of the aircraft, your own aircraft. An aircraft that transmits signals can be homed on to. The Germans could create a radar which could home on to the transmitters from, say, with aircraft with H2S, H2S bombing system was a radar bombing system where the sea was black, the land was light green and built up areas are bottle green. Now that was transmitting a signal ever millisecond or so and an enemy fighter could home in on that signal and blast it. And missiles, of course, are even more effective at homing into signals like that. So what was nice about Gee was that it was a passive system. The aircraft didn’t transmit anything. It just took a signal from a master station and then when they came in, two signals from the slave station and with the oscilloscope it could be a calculated reading, and you go to the chart, plot those two readings and that gives the position of the aircraft. Now you could, we practiced a thing called GH homings, Gee homings [unclear], and that was used extensively in Bomber Command when we were using the Gee systems in the mid-40s, because you could pre-determine from your chart what signals you needed to see to be in a certain position at a certain time.
MH: Right.
JBP: So you’d put these points that you wanted to put down and then you’d go back on the arc of the signals to where you wanted to start tracking on to that. So say you were, went to Berlin, massive big target so it doesn’t really matter where you hit, but if you got a line going through the target, another line telling you when you got to the target, like a homing back to base, you can actually fly a course using Gee, a bit more complicated than GH but you could do that from 1942 onwards, ‘cause GH came in in 1944 and there was no doubt that, by the time I joined the Air Force, visual bombing was in decline, except for the Canberra, because they couldn’t miniaturise the H2S radar enough to fit into the Canberras size of aircraft, and what advantage we had and this, for many years, people don’t realise this the Canberra was a wonderful high altitude aircraft. You’re talking about it going, it had world records for fifty seven thousand feet at one stage, but an aircraft that could fly at that height and manoeuvre is very rare and the fighters with swept back wings couldn’t do that. The MIG15s found, always found Canberras a headache because when you tried to formate on it, you couldn’t get near it and if you tried to outmanoeuvre it, the Canberra was far better because of the big wing section between the engines but I felt very happy flying in Canberras. It was a good aircraft, just as the Mosquito had been before it because it was a replacement for the Mosquito.
MH: And did as many roles.
JBP: Yeah. And it was the only aircraft that served fifty six years operationally in the RAF. No other aircraft has gone beyond fifty years. I’d like to say it was because of myself you know [laughs]
MH: What would you say was your happiest time or your happiest moment or your happiest reflection in the RAF?
JBP: It sounds silly. We were only at Cottesmore for nine months, but there was a couple from Sheffield who joined the squadron two months after I did, and the husband was called Alf. Alf Bentley and his wife was Joan Bentley and they were quite a bit younger than me. In fact, they were the youngest married couple on the squadron. I think he was just, Alf was just on his twenty, just over twenty when he came to the squadron, and they had a son in ‘54 and twins in 1956. No. They were both born the same. Yes, Steve was born in January and the twins came in Christmas of the following year. They had three in ten months and I’m godfather to the eldest, and at the time that Steven was born, they had a sixteen foot caravan on the caravan site, and we had the main gate for RAF Cottesmore and next to that was the wooden huts for junior officers, ‘cause they didn’t have a properly built mess and we were all close together and the station similar, so there’s three groups. So the pattern we got into was that myself and Harry Tomkinson and Bob Haines, Bob flew as a navigation plotter in Pete Dyson and Alf Bentley’s crew, and we’d go up in the evenings to their caravan, and sometimes we go to the station cinema, and sometimes just play card games and board games, and of all my moments in the Air Force, the best moments were eating soft biscuits that Joan were trying to get rid of, and playing, playing monopoly and laughing like anything with Steven sleeping away. The day I came out of the cinema, I got a post here playing cricket at Usworth, and knocked a tooth out -



Mark Hunt, “Interview with Brian Payne,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 29, 2023,

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