Interview with Eric Peel


Interview with Eric Peel


Eric Peel worked in the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool before he volunteered for the RAF. He trained as an armourer and was initially posted to 56 Squadron at RAF Sutton Bridge where he worked on Hurricanes. He then was posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds and accompanied the squadron when it moved to RAF Kirmington. Eric witnessed a number of cases of loss of life including a glider accident and recalled the sight of a Lancaster coming back with the rear gunner slumped in his turret. Eric loaded Lancasters with food for Operation Manna.




Temporal Coverage




01:08:06 audio recording


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JM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslin. The interviewee is Mr Eric Peel and the interview is taking place in Mr Peel’s home near Chester on the 18th of October 2016. Eric, could I ask you please to tell us a little bit about your life when you were at school, your family background and so forth.
EP: I went to a school in Liverpool called Granby Street School which was a council school. I left school at fourteen. My family, my father was self-employed. He was a tailor. During his time he ran three shops. I’d, as I say left school at fourteen. My father had paid a sum of money for me to be trained on the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. And it was on the Liverpool Cotton Exchange that I worked until — in the meantime the war had been declared. 1939. Which I would have been then seventeen. And I was always interested in aircraft because my grandparents lived not very far from Mildenhall where the England to Australia Air Race started from. And I had been taken there where we could speak to the Meteorological people about the weather which was quite an experience for a boy. And then at Liverpool Speke Airport was founded. And as a twelve year old I can remember walking there to see the opening of Speke Airport when the RAF came in with their flights of Hawker Hinds and all those aircraft. Then of course the war was going on and things were happening in the Cotton Exchange which wouldn’t have happened in peacetime. And one of the partners there was an officer of the Territorial Army and certainly wanted me to join the Liverpool Regiment which was a tank regiment. My father said, ‘Oh no you’re not. You’re not going in tanks.’ And of course I had this interest in aircraft and I was walking through and I saw an advertisement, a recruitment office actually, saying how about joining the RAF. Well that was, oh great. And so I went inside and came out having joined up in the RAF VR — the Voluntary Reserve. And they told me I’d just have to wait until the right time came. And I was actually nineteen when the, I actually got called up in to the RAF. And from there, the day I was called up I was, I went to Padgate and there at Padgate they gave me a number and a uniform. And after a few days off I went to Blackpool. And in Blackpool I had all the injections and those sort of things. But when I first enlisted I thought I was going to be an air gunner. And that’s what I wanted to be. I didn’t. Actually I was glad I was never an air gunner [laughs] but there we are. But I was told that because I wore glasses that I couldn’t be aircrew. And so they said, ‘But you’d do plenty of flying if you became an armourer.’ And so that was what I became. An armourer in the RAF.
JM: Could we just go back a bit because from what you’ve said you must have been growing up in Liverpool during the Liverpool Blitz.
EP: The beginning of the Liverpool Blitz.
JM: Do you have any memories of those Blitz days?
EP: Yes. I can remember as, I can remember I had to do a couple of nights a week on fire watch duty in the office on the Liverpool Exchange. And also I can remember going home and in the back of the shop where we lived there was an air raid shelter. One of the brick built air raid shelters which covered not only our family but members of the other shops around about. And we all went in there and I can hear the bomb, we could hear the bombs going off. I saw the big Customs House in Liverpool burned out and we’d hear shrapnel coming down from the anti-aircraft fire. And most of the damage that I saw in those early days was around the dock area. Although we had a stray bomb in a street not very far from us. It must have been a small one because it completely took out one house out of a row. You see, and that’s —
JM: Were there casualties?
EP: There weren’t in that house. No. But there were many casualties on Merseyside in those first —
JM: Yes.
EP: But I was in the RAF when they had their major raids.
JM: Right. Right. And would you say that those memories of the Liverpool Blitz did they affect your view as to the assistance that you gave to damaging German cities? Was it in your mind?
EP: They probably did at the time but my thoughts have changed a great, great deal since then.
JM: Well, we’ll come to that later on but I’m just interested to know how you felt at the time.
EP: Well, I can’t really recollect how I did. I mean I, I was eager to do my part that everybody else was doing. Which meant that I must have had a feeling against the enemy you see but I don’t really feel that I had any what I’d say bitterness. I thought I was doing what everybody else was doing.
JM: I think that’s quite a common reaction from the gentlemen that I’ve, I’ve met. I do, Yes. Tell us, can you tell us any more about Padgate? This was a major centre wasn’t it?
EP: Yes. No. No. I can’t — Padgate, yes was a major centre. I know I got off the, the train at Warrington. Not Warrington. Padgate Station, the first station out of Warrington and there, there was a lorry waiting because there was a whole group of people like me with a case and all in our civvies you know. I don’t think I’d been out of shorts very long [laughs] But and then we got corralled into the back of this truck you see and we were all taken there. And when we got there we got the first of the sergeant major. Somebody bawling at us to do this, that and the other, you know, and that.
JM: I was going to ask how you adapted to the rigours of service life.
EP: Well, I grew up in just a very, very short time. I’d been very much protected. I had a loving mother and father and very caring. And I think that, well I really I think I was like any schoolboy really that had just starting up in life. I wasn’t used to people swearing. In fact in the RAF was the first, I can remember this quite clearly the first place I ever heard a woman use a swear word. A swear word. You see. And yes within two or three days I was a different person. But we didn’t stay in Padgate many, only two or three days as I can remember it and we were off to Blackpool, you see.
JM: Which was a major centre for RAF training throughout the war.
EP: That’s right. And I went in there and was there not a long time and I was off to Morecambe.
JM: Right.
EP: And in Morecambe I did my square bashing.
JM: Where did you stay when you were in Morecambe?
EP: In digs. A landlady had about four or five of us in her house. And I can remember she, she was a sergeant major [laughs] Kept us in our place and wasn’t going to have us do this that and the other. And we had to be in by a certain time. And —
JM: And what was the food like?
EP: I suppose it must have been acceptable [laughs] I can’t remember much about that you see. But I can remember in the, I was tall, six foot one. That’s what they listed me as and I was always called out in the square bashing as the marker because of my height.
JM: Yes.
EP: My height you see.
JM: Yes.
EP: And then from the right size you know. And they’d go right —
JM: And the marker was the person who stood at one end of a line or one corner —
EP: That’s right.
JM: Of a square.
EP: Yes. That’s right. And so I always got that you know. I wished I hadn’t, you know. It was always nice, particularly a bit later on when I did my armourer’s training.
JM: Did you find the drill easy to learn?
EP: I think so. I mean I always did what I was told and I don’t think I had much difficulty. I wasn’t very athletic and some of the, the tougher stuff I wasn’t very keen on.
JM: I was going to ask you about that. Did you have to do assault courses and —
EP: Not at there.
JM: No.
EP: I did an assault course later on in the RAF which was on the station defence.
JM: Right.
EP: Yeah.
JM: Right.
EP: But that wasn’t in Bomber Command.
JM: Well, let’s, let’s move on then because at the moment you’re at Morecambe and you’re doing what is really basic training I guess.
EP: That’s right. And that was six weeks. I can remember it being six weeks. And in that, you know we did all the drill movements and elementary rifle drill rather than what I think a soldier might have done. And from there then I went to Weeton which was near Blackpool.
JM: Right.
EP: And there I did armourer guns course.
JM: Right. So by that time you’d already been selected for an armourer.
EP: Yes.
JM: Yes.
EP: What I’d signed up for in those early days in Liverpool.
JM: Right.
EP: yeah. And I did the armourer’s gun course.
JM: This is most interesting. Could you tell us please how that course, how that training took place?
EP: Well, it started by a little bit of engineering work in that we were given a piece of metal and tools and we had to make an adjustable spanner. And I mean I’d never done a thing like that in my life. I was only just learning how to use a pen you see and, and we had to make this tool. And I think that took us about a week. And we were instructed in that. And then we came then to actual guns themselves, in taking them to pieces. But we were started with the old Lewis gun.
JM: Right. Yes.
EP: You see, and, and the Lee Enfield rifles. And I can’t remember the name of the, the revolvers and things like that.
JM: Perhaps a Smith and Wesson.
EP: They could, yes, the good names.
JM: Yes.
EP: Smith and Wesson. That’s it.
JM: Yes. Yeah. Yeah .
EP: Yes. Things like that. And taking them to pieces and cleaning them and putting them together again. Looking for faults in them and all that sort of business. We also learned then things like grenade discharges which went on the end of your rifle, you know and all that sort of business. And there you had to get forty percent to pass out. Sixty percent to become a fitter armourer which was one grade up from an ordinary armourer. But that meant that you had to be in training for another ten weeks after that and I didn’t want that so I turned down the opportunity. Which in later life I regretted because that was the only way you get good promotion. You see. But no and I then having done that course I was then posted to 56 OTU. Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge which is in Lincolnshire.
JM: It is.
EP: Yeah. And that was an Operational OTU in Hurricanes. And there I actually worked on the Hurricane aircraft. Loading and reloading both ammunition and the guns you see. And, and having been at Sutton Bridge and then moving about with them a little bit I was sent on a completion course as they called it which was the bombing side of the armourers course where we dealt with bombs and all that goes, that makes up a bomb. And the loading of them in to aircraft and all that sort. And also the, what we called fireworks. The —
JM: Pyrotechnics.
EP: That’s it. That and with things like gun carting and all those things. And I went to Kirkham for that.
JM: Right.
EP: And at Kirkham I was then, I had my first bomber station and that was at 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds.
JM: I wonder, before we go on to that could we just go back to your, your time at Sutton Bridge because I’m interested to know were the Hurricanes and their guns were they easy to maintain? Did you have any regular problems with them?
EP: No. I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I mean the guns came out regularly because it was an OTU.
JM: Yes.
EP: On operational charge.
JM: Yes.
EP: But so guns were firing every day so they were coming out every day and being cleaned every day. We were getting, we were mounting, the gun mounts were wearing. Of course that brought riggers in and working on that sort of thing. So guns were jumping the mounts and firing through their own wings.
JM: Yeah.
EP: You see and —
JM: I wondered because I associate Sutton Bridge with armament school. I wondered whether the guns were using incendiary rounds for marking and whether they actually affected the barrels of the guns.
EP: They were. Yes. There were incendiary bullets used in them because of — but we, we did fire on drogues.
JM: Right.
EP: And we did have a flight of Lysanders there that towed the drogues.
JM: Right. And I believe they painted the bullets so that when they went in —
EP: The bullets were dipped.
JM: Dipped.
EP: Yeah. They had a tray of paint and they coiled them and just —
JM: Oh I see —
EP: Dipped them in like that but —
JM: I often wondered about that. I imagined armourers painting the tip of each bullet but they just dipped it in.
EP: No. No. No. No. No. They just had a tray with usually red paint as I can remember it.
JM: Yes.
EP: Like that.
JM: Yeah.
EP: And as I say they drove all these up and just home, and you know, like that.
JM: And did you ever discuss it with the pilots there? Did they —
EP: No. No. No.
JM: You never saw them.
EP: No. With the Hurricane, in the Hurricane it was better because they were men who were coming to the end of their training. They were going straight from there to operational squadrons. And also we had the pilots who had been in the Battle of Britain and I actually flew with one that wore a leather mask his face had been so badly damaged. But he was flying again. And I can remember his name was Flight Lieutenant Gray and he, I was working on a, or had just worked on a Hurricane along with, I mean there were lots of us doing it. Don’t think it’s me. It’s a gang of us doing all this. And he just happened, said, ‘Do you want a flight boy?’ And he took me up in a Miles Master Mark 1 which had a Kestrel engine in it. Not the American engine. And that was my first aerial flight.
JM: To fly with a pilot with that background that must have stayed with you.
EP: Yes. And I never saw him again.
JM: Really.
EP: Never saw him again. He just, just, why he just put his hand on my shoulder, you know and I went in the back seat with him. I flew with Tiger Moths again but always in the front seat of a Tiger Moth.
JM: Right. Right. But fascinating. Now, can we go on now to the bombing aspect? Tell us please about the training you received in bombs and munitions.
EP: Well, we were, we first of all we were told the, what the bomb was made up of. I can’t remember now all the chemical names that went into it. And then we were told what exploded the bomb. Where we had the [pause] oh my mind’s gone. The thing that ignites it which was a tube of — well it was rather like a little pillbox and it had a tube and in the tube was the —
JM: Be an acid?
EP: The word would come to me. No. I can’t remember now. But yeah, the fulminated mercury. This was the, the, would be, go inside the bomb. Could either go in the nose or the tail. And we were trained on all that sort of business you see. We didn’t, didn’t actually handle it there. But what we did have was an all brass tool which was exactly the same as this thing that you ignited the bomb with. And every bomb, every bomb you had to put that in first because where they’d been manufactured they’d be greased and they could build up what was like very coarse Vaseline. And this was to protect them. But you had to get that out because if I mean you would get it so as it needed cleaning but if it hadn’t this fulminated mercury would have exploded in there. But if you put pressure on it.
JM: Right.
EP: You see and, and so that had to be done, and they’d, they’d teach, taught us how to do that. Then how to actually load it and then how to fix the tail. And then how that was attached the bomb carrier. The bomb carrier went in to the aircraft. And the only aircraft I ever worked on there was a Hampden. They never had a Wellington or a Lancaster in that course. And there, having trained with all that and a little bit on the pyrotechnics you went out to the squadron. And my first squadron was 103 Elsham Wolds.
JM: And when was it you arrived there?
EP: It must have been the winter of ’42 ’43. Yeah. But I wasn’t at Elsham Wolds very long before 3 flights — there weren’t many squadrons had three flights but 103 Squadron had three flights and we were moved to Kirmington. And Kirmington, when they moved they formed 166 Squadron of — 166 Squadron had been Wellingtons and the Lancasters of 3 Flight of C flight of 103 went there to form 166 Squadron then. And I went with it. But didn’t go with the aircraft. When I got there I was put in the bomb dump. And it was in the bomb dump I spent all my days after that. We’d sneak a go at the aircraft if we could but I mean we were always then — and all this business you see of what I didn’t say about the training we also there did the incendiary bombs.
JM: I was going to ask.
EP: And there, how they were packed and how we would pack them into containers and how they’d go into the bomb carriers as the bombs had done. And so we, we did incendiaries there.
JM: Could you just describe the incendiary bombs?
EP: If I [pause] yes. I would say they were eighteen inches long or something like that. Twelve — eighteen inches long. If my memory’s right they were eight and a half pounds in weight. And I think we had forty in a container.
JM: So they were like gigantic candles.
EP: That’s right. Is that, is that is that about eighteen inches? They were about like that. And like this but they weren’t round. They were — eights. Eights.
JM: Hexagonal.
EP: Is that, is that eight? [laughs] I don’t know. They were like that so one would pack against the other close up, you see, like that. And I think, I might be wrong here but I think there were forty in a container and I know that during my time working with them they were increased to a bigger size and a half. If they were that deep they went up and the container, we got bigger containers. So we were dropping more of them. And I spent a lot, I would say I spent two thirds of my time in bomb dumps on incendiaries. Loading and getting them ready for the aircraft.
JM: How were the incendiaries detonated?
EP: On impact.
JM: Right.
EP: Yeah. Because I have seen them go off where we are but they were also and these were introduced more I think in my time explosive incendiaries which did have an explosion in them but the explosion was ignited by the primitive compact. You see. Like that. That’s as I remember them now. I mean you’re drawing on things I’ve forgotten years ago.
JM: You’re doing well.
EP: Wanted. Wanted to forget as well.
JM: I’m sure.
EP: And, but as I say about, I would think three quarters of my Bomber Command bomb dump work was with the incendiaries. Packing and getting those. And as you said how did they go off? The bomb carriers we had weren’t always in perfect condition and if you turned them over you get one of those open on the floor. But fortunately that coming from eighteen thousand feet is a bit different from coming from five feet you see. Or bits like that. They were, [pause] they — I never knew one to go off having a container like that. I did know one go off to blow a man’s arm off but that was his own fault.
JM: Why do you say that?
EP: Because they were, the explosive part would break and they were, we were sitting out there in the — operations had either finished or weren’t on and there was one of these broken ones and he put the end of his cigarette light and it just went up. And I can remember I hadn’t been there very long. That was at Elsham Wolds. I hadn’t been there very long and it made me feel I had to go outside and be sick, and. Yeah. And like that. So they were very destructive.
JM: You sometimes see photographs of weapons, bombs being taken out to an aircraft and somebody has written something in chalk. Did that actually happen?
EP: Oh yes. Probably done it myself because other people were doing it.
JM: And what sort of things were written on the bomb?
EP: Nasty things. You know. And people would write a sort of from their girlfriends or something like that, you see. This is what you’d get in a, you know, on a —
JM: So there was a sense of revenge.
EP: Oh yes. There was there. Oh yes. That was quite common. I mean as I say the, the big, the thousand pounders and the five hundred pounders I had a, I’d say a third of my bombing was with them. And on those you that’s where you’d get them. Some of them had been written on them where they had been manufactured. I mean they’d come with it on. You see most of it that was done in the squadron was done with chalk. But you would get it done with paint. And that would be some that had come in, you see. And you’d also get messages on the tails done with some sort of pen or something of that sort. You know. But there we are.
JM: So, you, you were at Kirmington with 166.
EP: At Kirmington. Yes.
JM: And tell us a little bit about life at Kirmington. What was your accommodation like and when you were off duty what did you do?
EP: Don’t know. I don’t know. I know we drove out on our bikes if we got a standoff. Go out on our bikes to Grimsby. I can remember going like that. Of course that was another thing, the bike. We had bikes to go from our digs because we weren’t on the airfield. We didn’t live on the airfield. We lived in Nissen huts. Well, I would say quite a mile or so away from the airfield. But you’d go out on your bike and when you went to get your bike again it had been pinched.
JM: So you pinched somebody else’s then.
EP: Well that’s what went on.
JM: Yes. Yes.
EP: That’s what went on.
JM: ‘Cause Lincolnshire had quite a reputation for being a bleak place to serve. Was that your experience?
EP: It was bleak. Oh yes. And it were a place where the east wind and the snow could come down. And I mean they could be very, very hard and very, very cold. Yeah. And I spent quite a long time there. Yes.
JM: And what contact did you have, again with the Lancasters and the crews?
EP: There we didn’t have very much contact at all with the crews. We’d go along to see them taking off and in [pause] I think it would be Kirmington the entrance to the bomb dump, we had a big wooden hut and in there we had a fire and things there. And that’s where if we had a sergeant that’s where he’d spend his time. He’d walk around and see we were doing our stuff or if we were in a muddle he’d come and sort things out. Some of them were very good. Excellent. But we’d have in the, the fusing sheds we’d have, well I can only remember one corporal but a senior LAC would be there you see. And particularly in the fusing the time I spent in fusing you know you always had somebody there to see that you weren’t, you couldn’t be careless.
JM: No. You had to be very strict I imagine.
EP: Yes. We were. Very strict. And the detonators. Not fuses. The detonators. It’s just come to me. That’s right. And, and there they came. That was another job we had in the bomb dump was to examine all these things. They were, when the stocks came in you — that was set at a little building set apart which was for things like the detonators and those sort of things. And those detonators had to be handled very, very carefully. And we had a pair of tweezers but instead of the points going the other way because on the rim of this pill box which was in the detonator you put them in. They were made of brass. You couldn’t have anything that could had a spark in it. And your screwdrivers and everything else were brass. But you would put them in and that’s the way you would hold your detonator. Put it like that and you’d hold the thing, that would be and that’s how you put it into the back of the bomb you see. And then you had your pistol. I don’t know whether — yeah. They had the pistol, and amongst the pistols we had the straightforward ones but we had the time delay and we had the anti-handling pistols. There’s a story of an anti-handling pistol. Shall I tell you that?
JM: We ought to make it clear that a pistol isn’t a gun.
EP: No.
JM: It’s a component of the fuse.
EP: No. The pistol. The pistol is what fires the bomb. And it screws, and can screw in the nose of the bomb although very very seldom. In 1 Group and 3 Group it was nearly always in the back of the bomb. And that screws in the back. You’ve, you’ve put your detonator in. Then you screw that in. Then the tail goes in the end and in the tail there’s a pair of fingers which join up with the fingers which are in the back of the — and the wind, going down spins the firing needle right out. So when it hits the ground it goes forward and that hits the cap on the back of the detonator which fires the, the fulminated mercury which fires the bomb.
JM: That’s very clear. Thank you.
EP: Yeah.
JM: So tell us the story that you were going to.
EP: Yes. Well, you would get what were known as hang-ups and I was called one time by the sergeant, ‘Peel, come with me.’ And there’d been a hang up come back with an anti-handling device on it. So an anti-handling device you’d never touch. It was the only one I ever had any real sort of, real knowledge of. Anyway, we went out to this aircraft where this anti-handling, where this bomb was. A five hundred pounder. And it had been hung up in the aircraft. When the bomb doors opened it fell and it was on the ground you see. The aircraft was moved away from it and he said, ‘Come on. We’ve got to get rid of this,’ and he’d already got a hole, rather like a saucer. Not very big you see. And he said I want you to pack this — ’ and he had a, these days it would be a plastic bag but we had a sack if you like of gun cotton in it. And he had a discharger and a coil of cable. And anyway he’d arranged for this tractor and a trailer and between us we got, the three of us, we got this on the back of the bomb carrier. A bomb carrier. Not a trailer. And took it up to this hole that they had dug which was in the extreme part of the airfield. And we then rolled it off the carrier, rolled it down in to the pit. He sent me to pack it around with this gun cotton. And packed it all around the tail area you see where this anti-handling pistol was. Oh and the bomb and which it was there. And when we packed that around he then came and when he — I’d never done it before. I mean he said he couldn’t do it. He didn’t know how to do it. Nor did I. But he made this, and said, ‘Well, you do it.’ So I did it in the way we’d been told in training. Or as I remembered it being told in training. And he came and gave me the ends of the cable to put on the detonator. And then both of us went back and got down on the ground quite a long, long way from where it was. And he had the discharger and blew the thing up.
JM: I bet it went with a very big bang.
EP: It went with a very big bang [laughs] even though it was a five hundred pounder we could feel a tremble. Yeah. But that was my experience of an anti-handling device.
JM: Fascinating story.
EP: Yeah.
JM: Let’s have a pause there.
[recording paused]
JM: Eric, I must ask you were you ever scared?
EP: Yes. I was scared many times. I don’t think I was scared with the job I was doing. But I can remember laying, lying at night in bed when we’d finished duty and a Lancaster coming over and crashing on some other hut quite near to us. And I can remember being terrified that night. And I remember praying, ‘Oh Lord, get me out of this.’ I really was frightened that night because I could hear the screaming of the people. Not only the aircraft crew but the people in the hut. And if I remember rightly there were women involved as well. But that was nasty. And yes [pause] scared. It’s hard to say. I don’t know whether frightened and scared are the same. I was sometimes frightened of the orders that came and the people that gave them. Frightened that I might be on jankers for something or other. But I think yes I was scared. Many times. We’d get, we’d get incidents happen and I can’t really put my finger on them and say they were. I can tell you something which is in the RAF. Just a little while after this I’m talking about three of us in the bomb dump. We didn’t know at the time but three of us were called in to the armament office which was in headquarters on the station. Told to pack up and go. And we had to. We had to go, and we didn’t know what it meant. And anyway we had to just go back to the billet, get our kit, go to the station headquarters, get our pass and I went to RAF Locking. A hospital in, well Weston Super Mare. As I got to the station I met another one. One of my buddies. He’d been done the same. Going to RAF Hospital Ely. And why I can remember, I wanted to go to Ely because that was near my grandmother’s house in Suffolk you see. But he was there. And he told me that the third one had got, he hadn’t seen the third one had got a similar thing. And he, I don’t think he knew where he’d been sent to. And I went to Locking. When we got there they weren’t very pleased to have us there. It was the hospital and the officer commanding that station wasn’t very happy with us, with people like me being sent which was a rehabilitation. And there I was put in the station armoury who had a virtually retired flight sergeant. Lovely old man. Could well have been my grandfather. And a lady armament assistant. And I went as the armourer there. And on the station they had three sandbagged gun emplacement. And that was all I did for three months. Walked around these three sandbagged emplacements. Looked after this flight sergeant. Half a dozen or maybe more than that sten guns which were on the station. And that was all. And why I did that I don’t know. But while I was there a Stirling carrying a glider had to cast off the glider and the glider smashed in to the ground and it had twenty odd troops on board. Royal Engineers. And they were all killed. And on this Sunday afternoon it was going to the bridge over —
JM: Arnhem.
EP: Arnhem. Going to Arnhem. And on this Sunday afternoon I was called out. They brought all the bodies into Locking. And it was an old store. An old Nissen store and they were all laid out in that. And a RAF regiment had just started and the RAF regiment was, a RAF regiment officer, flight lieutenant. Hotel owner of the Isle of Man was there. And he, he called me and I was in the, in the billet. And he called me and he said that, ‘They’ve got a job for you.’ And he went with me and he’d got somebody, he’d got another sergeant from, I think a medic sergeant. And we had to go through because they were carrying all ammunition of various sorts. Hand grenades, stuff for blowing up bridges and they were Royal Engineers and had to go through all these bodies and there were bits of bodies and bodies with no heads. And I don’t want to go on really but it’s, that’s something that stuck with me all these years. And, but we had to get that before the people who were going to put the bodies in coffins could do it you see because there were all these explosives and they had to come out. And I will say that this flight lieutenant, he was lovely. He was like a father figure. And the sergeant was. And I can’t remember much about him but, but that was one of the worst incidents in my RAF career.
JM: You’ve told it with great sensitivity and respect. If something like that happened today people doing your job would have been offered counselling. Were you offered anything of that sort?
EP: No [laughs] No. And not long afterwards I was sent back to Bomber Command. This, this time to Scampton. And about four days in Scampton and they didn’t know what to do with me and sent me to Hemswell.
JM: Just up the road.
EP: Yes. Well, yes it was the satellite to Scampton in those days. Yeah. And there I was back in the bomb dump again. Yeah.
JM: But it is interesting that you saw such terrible things. And I want to ask you how did you get over that? How did you come to terms with what you’d seen?
EP: I don’t know. I don’t know. Joan would tell you that my first two or three years in the RAF she’d hear me talking and shouting in the night. But I don’t know whether it was that or just the whole of the other but even now occasionally I’ll get a smell. A smell of burnt flesh and that. Because I’d already seen the damage that, seen a tail gunner shot up. And you know the guns going out there. But I did, the few months that I was with 103 Squadron when I first went there I was with the aircraft there you see. With the Lancasters. And you would see, you know a plane like that come in with the tail shot up and a man just slumped there and then have to get him out you know. Then us have to get the guns and clean it all up.
JM: I’ve heard about that. It’s a grim story and you were involved in that.
EP: For the, yeah. And as I say when we, that was in C Flight of 103 Squadron. When we went to Kirmington I was pushed in to the bomb dump. Yes.
JM: Yes.
EP: Yeah.
JM: The other question that I would like to ask you, also a difficult one, did you think much about the effect of the bombs you were preparing on the enemy?
EP: I don’t think I did then. I’ve done many times since. In fact I still do. If, if I’ve got a, probably after this for several nights now I will think. But I, I think in the way, almost the way we almost rejoiced if it was a good raid. If we heard that all our planes returned or I mean we knew the planes of our own squadron stations didn’t return because I mean some of the stations had two and three. I don’t know if they had three squadrons but they’d have two squadrons on them. Yeah. But I don’t, I don’t think we gave it much thought really.
JM: It was a job you had to do.
EP: A job we did. And I mean when Alex told me you were coming all that went through my mind, ‘Well all I can tell this gentleman is that I did as I was told.’ And that I think is what we did really. We did as we were told. Did as we were commanded. Yeah. We met all sorts of people. Very nice people. Very nasty people.
JM: Tell us a bit more about that.
EP: Well, I don’t really know what to say. I mean — anyway.
JM: Would you like to stop for a moment?
EP: Well, yes. If you don’t mind. And then —
[recording paused]
EP: Great chaps that I worked with. The chaps that would help you. There were other chaps that — I don’t, I don’t think it came anybody that would be nasty in that way. I mean we held our own to one another. You’d make very good friends and you did miss them when you were posted to another place. What I haven’t mentioned and I think I ought to mention this, I went on another course as an armourer and I don’t think many armourers ever went on this course. I went on a course preparing to store chemical weapons. And I have on my arm here though it’s very, very pale now the mark of a gas burn which I went to a, on a course where there were about no more than about ten or a dozen of us on this course. In a little place near from Boscombe Down. In between Salisbury and Boscombe Down. I can’t tell you the name of the place. I can’t think I ever wanted to remember it. I don’t think it was anything that stuck because I went on this course and when I got back to the station and that would have been the last station I was on, that would have been on Hemswell we never had any facility for storing chemical weapons. Particularly mustard gas which were just in a, like a biscuit tin. A sealed biscuit tin. And the, to drop them they went in these containers. The same as what the incendiary bomb would go into. Go into that. And just impact on the ground would have burst the biscuit tin open. It was only just light, very light metal. And this was because it was believed that as the war was drawing towards an end the enemy could have used chemical weapons. And it was chlorine and mustard. And on this course which as I say was near, somewhere near Boscombe Down because they took us down to Boscombe Down RAF station which was an experimental station. And we went there and I think we just about sat in the truck all the time we were there waiting for something to happen which never did. But we used to go each day to this place there and have lectures on these bombs and how to handle them in there.
JM: Did you actually see the gas at all?
EP: I, we saw the mustard gas. That’s how I come to have.
JM: Right.
EP: This here. Because they showed us the effects of it and we were each supposed to put this on and then show the whatever the anti-gas was to be able to wipe it up. If in handling them you know you had one burst open and how to protect yourself from them, and we had to wear the actual suits that you had to wear which we’d say were like a plastic raincoat these day. You know, you’d have to wear one of those. But as I say when I went back to the station they didn’t know anything about it although they’d sent me on it.
JM: Yeah. Did you wear respirators when you were working with these?
EP: Not with the mustard gas we didn’t. But we did wear the chlorine but the chlorine were in like you’d see in a hospital with oxygen.
JM: Yes.
EP: Like that.
JM: Yes.
EP: And, but they never, they never released any of that. I mean when we, when we wore gas masks there only in gas mask training and we went through one of these places where you lifted the back up and took a whiff of it and that sort of business. Yes. But —
JM: Quite a frightening experience.
EP: That was all Bomber Command.
JM: Yes.
EP: And that was because, as I say it was thought that it might have to be used.
JM: So you went back to Hemswell where you saw out your war service.
EP: No. I was in, no sooner, I can’t remember VE day in the RAF. I think it was just an ordinary day. But not many days after that I went on two parades where squadrons were being disbanded. The two squadrons on. I think one of them was 150 Squadron. I can’t remember the other one. And they were disbanded. And then I was sent off to [pause] where did they send, was sent to dear? You do out here. Oh they were recruiting, recruiting RAF and WAAFs and I was made an acting sergeant to march these people around. And all I was doing was marching them to the square for the drill sergeants to take over and drill them. And do town patrols when people went out at night you had to — like Redcaps really but we weren’t Redcaps. We were acting. Acting unpaid. And there we did and also there I took WAAFs to Gaskell Street’s baths in Manchester. What’s the name of the place that’s just out here? Footballers buy their houses out there.
Other: Alderley Edge.
EP: No. No. No.
JM: Prestwich.
EP: No. Oh dear.
JM: So tell us please Eric about your demob from the Royal Air Force.
EP: My demob from the Royal Air Force. I went to Cardington. I went to RAF Cardington where the airships had been built and there they gave me a suit and a raincoat and sent me on my way. But I came home and I had my battle, I didn’t have my number one, I had my battle dress on as we were, just went as we were working. Came home. Went straight up to my girlfriend’s house. Came home you see and that was that. And when I look back on it well I made some good friends there but they weren’t friends that kept on. Perhaps that’s me. I, I’m not one for sort of joining old comrade’s associations and things like that. I was always a member of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. And I think when I got back my job at the Cotton Exchange had closed. All that had gone like the wind. And I did go to the RAF VR place in Liverpool when I got back and they weren’t very helpful. They didn’t really want to know. I think that the top of the matter was that there were too many of us that were just coming out and got no work to go to and were looking for help. And anyway, I just went the once and I felt that I was given the cold shoulder. You know, I said to you know to myself I wasn’t the right rank or all these sort of things you know. But there are times I feel that if I hadn’t had to go through those five and a half years in the RAF, six years, that life would have been somewhat different. I mean I’d have probably have gone straight through the cotton market. But as cotton went out to India perhaps I wouldn’t. You see. But as I look back now it’s given me a lot to think about over the years and a lot to, I think my own conscience. I couldn’t have been a conscientious objector. I know between right and wrong. And I think I would have had to. I don’t regret what I did. No. I don’t regret what I did and I think it helped me grow up. And I think it also made me so as I couldn’t just depend on other people all the time. I had to make decisions myself. And at ninety four I think it’s worked out all right and — yeah.
JM: Do you have any views on the way that Bomber Command was treated politically after the war?
EP: I did do. Oh, I still do now. I mean I, I told you we had our hut at the entrance of the, to the bomb dump. Right beside it we had a stand with a Lancaster in it and I mean I saw that change crews many times. Change aircraft many times where it would be our turn. He was one that didn’t come back. And people who, I mean some would just ignore you. Others would put their hand up to you or, or even shout a word to you and you’d that was perhaps the last word they ever shouted to an airman, you know. To another airman. So, I mean when I think of those sort of people I still do sometimes. Especially as my daughter, and daughter’s father in law is a man who did a couple of tours. You see, so I think of those as the heroes. And this is why when Alex said you know about coming to this. I thought I’ve got nothing to say, you see. They, they to me were the heroes and I mean for those people I shall always have the greatest admiration. I know there were some rogues amongst them but generally speaking, particularly after they’d done their first couple. And I think that, I think when they first came they were a little bit happy you know. You know. Thought it was going to be marvellous until they’d done one. Two. Yeah. But there we are.
JM: I’ve tried to take you through your service career. Are there any incidents or stories that I haven’t touched on that you’d like to record?
EP: I don’t think so. No. I don’t think so. I enjoyed the bit of flying that I had with them. But —
JM: Did you ever get to fly in a Lancaster?
EP: Yes. I did a trip in a Lancaster once. That was, and I worked on that as well. Not with bombs. With food. Err, oh hanna.
JM: Manna.
EP: Manna. Operation Manna. Hemswell didn’t fly from there but we were taken out from there to another, and I can’t remember the name of that station. In that area right close nearby. And we used to go there and bomb up with food. And one or two of us got the opportunity to go with them and we went on that. And —
JM: So you were sitting in the fuselage of a Lancaster —
EP: Sitting there. Sitting on an ammunition box by the wireless operator but was able to go back and stand under the astro and hold on to the, there. I’m sure the pilots did it on purpose to get us so that we’d fall down [laughs] They’d scoot. Yeah.
JM: What did you think of a Lancaster to fly in?
EP: Oh marvellous. Yeah. Marvellous. Yeah. Yeah. I always stand in awe if I see one go across.
JM: Yeah.
EP: You know. Yeah.
JM: Lovely.
EP: Yeah. Wonderful things.
JM: Were you offered the opportunity to go on what were called Cook’s Tours after the war?
EP: No.
JM: To see the bombed cities. I know some ground crews did that.
EP: No.
JM: I wondered whether you’d had that chance.
EP: No. No. I don’t know. Well, I think Hemswell, I don’t think any squadrons ever went back there.
JM: Right.
EP: I know, I mean I told you I was on the two that were disbanded from there.
JM: Yes. Yes.
EP: We did a big parade. A big military parade for that. But I don’t think because the last I heard of it was many years ago and it was a, they had these rockets there. Yeah.
JM: Eric, I think we’re bringing this interview to a close now. I want to thank you for giving me such a very detailed, balanced and very, very important interview. You’ve shown us a lot of the life of armourers and ground crew. Thank you very much indeed.
EP: Thank you.



Julian Maslin, “Interview with Eric Peel,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 21, 2024,

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