Interview with Susanne Pescott
Interview with Susanne Pescott
Susanne Pescott talks about her father, Flight Lieutenant Harold Arthur Lawson DFC, who worked as an engineer before joining the RAF in 1941, where he served as a navigator. After completing his training, he was posted to RAF Rufforth and from there to RAF Melbourne on 10 Squadron, with which he flew 38 operations. His first operation was to Berlin on the 29th of December 1943 where they shot down a Junkers 88, for which he was awarded a DFC in November 1944. Among his various operations, particular relevance is given to the ones in June 1944, when they targeted a gun battery in Northern France in preparation of the D-Day landings and shot down two enemy aircraft. At the time, he was flying on a Halifax III, known as the Ol’ Ram for its particular nose art. In May 1945 he was posted to 77 Squadron at RAF Full Sutton, where he trained on Dakotas in preparation to fly to the Far East. In October 1945 he was then posted to India to drop supplies and bring back troops. She recounts her efforts made to find her father’s pilot, Johnny Hewitt, and getting in touch with his daughter.
00:22:23 audio recording
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SP: This is Susanne Pescott of International Bomber Command Centre, talking today about my own father, Flight Lieutenant Harold Homer Lawson DFC. Today is the 18th of October 2017. My father, Harold Arthur Lawson was born 24th of August 1921 in Salford, Manchester. His parents were Arthur and Emilia Lawson and Arthur was a piano teacher. He also had two brothers, Arthur and Stanley. He went to Gresham Street School and was an altar boy at the Church of Ascension in Salford. After school, he went to Grammar School and worked for Acme Welders as an engineer before he signed up in 1941. He was aged twenty and he signed up at the recruitment centre in Padgate. I’ve actually got the letter that was sent from the Air Ministry, I think it’s really interesting that in this letter dated 22nd of September 1941, in the end paragraph it says, in wishing you success in the service of your choice, I would like to add this, the honour of the Royal Air Force is in your hands, our country’s safety and the final overthrow of the powers of evil now arrayed against us depend upon you and your comrades. You will be given the best aircraft and armament that the factories of America and Britain can produce, equip yourself with knowledge and how to use them. I can’t imagine what a twenty-year-old, his reaction would be to that, but I should imagine it’s quite daunting to have all that pressure suddenly seen. So, he started his training around the end of 1941 and he was trained to be a navigator and the training was at Scarborough, many crews were based at hotels in around Scarborough at this time, the Grand Hotel, which is still there today, was where a lot of the exams were carried out, not sure the exact hotel my father stayed at, but it would’ve been around that area. His nickname, as I said in the entry, was Harold Homer Lawson, he was nicknamed Homer and that links in to his role as navigator, as he was always seen as bringing the crew home. After his initial training, he moved to number 9 AFU in January 1943 to start training on Ansons and this was at Llandwrog in North Wales, which is now Caernarfon Airport. I think he did well to survive the initial training there as there were very high losses during this time on the Ansons due to its close proximity to the Snowdonian mountains. After there, he moved up to Scotland to 19 OTU which was Forres in Kinloss and here he met up with his Canadian pilot who was Johnny Hewitt who actually ended up being a lifelong friend as they kept in contact after the war as well. While he was here, they practiced lots of things, like cross country training, fight affiliation, high- and low-level bombing missions and foundation flying and formation flying and on here he was on both Ansons and Whitleys. In 1943 they were moved to a conversion unit, it was number 1663 and this was based at RAF Rufforth in Yorkshire and Yorkshire was where he was going to remain to carry out all his operations. Here he met his magnificent Halifax bombers, this is the plane he would complete all his operational tours on. And finally, in November ’43 he was posted to 10 Squadron and this was at RAF Melbourne in Yorkshire. 10 Squadron known as Shiny Ten, and completed quite a huge number of operations from there. His crew whom he met and crewed up with were Johnny, who I mentioned, Johnny Hewitt, he was Canadian, he was the pilot, my dad was the navigator, the bomb aimer was Erwin Bayne, known as Paddy, and he was from Ireland and, F Wheaton, I don’t know his first name, was the wireless op, Sam Smith was the mid upper gunner, and known as Titch to the crew, S Leonard, again I don’t know his first name, was the flight engineer, and M Grey, another Canadian, was the tail gunner and he was nicknamed Blondie. So, it was a bit of a baptism of fire for the very first ops, I can only imagine how the crew felt when they were told it was going to be Berlin, so the 29th of December they at 5.10 set off and that is 1943 to complete the first operation and it is part of the Battle for Berlin. So during this operation, they encountered and shot down a Junkers 88 and then returned to Melbourne 7 hours and twenty minutes later and found that the tail plane had a lot of flak holes in it. This was really to set the tone really for most of their tour of ops as they had several more encounters with German planes and shot down a further two during the thirty-eight ops. So, after the initial baptism of fire, it went a little quite during January and February but again started to get busy in March with several night operations over France, the crew also started to do a lot of minelaying operations, a very different role and quite a challenge for navigators because there weren’t any landmarks and talking to many navigators that have done from around that time, they tended to pick out the navigators who were good because of getting the exact location, so really proud that he was picked out for that. Moved on into April ’44, lots of missions over both Germany and France and that included missions to Essen and Dusseldorf and both of those missions, they were actually caught in searchlights and following an electrical storm on another trip to Karlsruhe they had to land at the emergency airfield at Manston as the engine cut out as they were flying over the east coast. In May the crew were attacked by a fighter over Mantes-Gassicourt so quite a lot of interaction with enemy fighters. But the busiest month [unclear] was June 1944. A lot of mining to start with when, throughout the Hague and then on D-Day, my dad and his crew took off at 2.55am to part, take part on the gun batteries at Mont Fleury, these were overlooking Gold Beach, and this was in preparation for the D-Day landings, his logbooks actually says, the second front started on that actual article. So talking to another veteran, Ken Beard, who was from 10 Squadron, and he set off from Melbourne only three minutes before my dad, so he’s seen exactly the same things, and he said, they weren’t told any details, other than to ensure that they didn’t drop their bombs early, and when they got over the Channel they could see exactly why and that’s because there were hundreds of ships sailing across the Channel at that time. It didn’t stop there on D-Day, they had another operation later that day, and they took off at 22.30 and flew to Saint-Lo where the Germans were based, they had to fly very low at two thousand feet. The rest of the month kept busy, very high activity with a lot more minelaying and started to get some day as well as night operations as well. On the 15th of June, on a trip to [unclear], the plane was once again in combat with the enemy, another Junkers 88, they managed to set his port engine on fire, but the plane cylinder head broke on the return journey making the starboard outer US as it says in my dad’s logbook. It’s worth noting here that the plane they were flying on at this time was a Halifax III, it was known as the Ol’ Ram, it had a fantastic nose art painted on it, which was a picture of a ram smashing three swastikas and painted by one of the groundcrew whilst it was at 10 Squadron. So, the plane was seen as lucky cause it was ZAJ with J for Johnny as the pilot, so they were quite pleased to get that on the majority of their operations. On another raid, on a daylight ops to Noyales on Chausseur, the starboard engine again had problems on the way down in but they carried on on their mission and feathered on return to make it home. You would have thought that might have been enough activity in June but then again, 28th of June, on ops to Blainville the crew had actually three combats on that trip and destroyed one Messerschmitt 210, the logbook actually reads, it hit the deck three minutes after the starboard wing was set on fire, so, a very eventful June which continued into July, at the beginning of July doing three trips over to the V bomb bases at Saint-Martin-L’Hortier, two of these night raids and one day, flak particularly heavy around this installation, the Ol’ Ram, the plane came back from one trip with flak holes in the port tail. I think it must have been quite difficult going on the, on these V bomb trips to Saint-Martin-L’Hortier on one of the flights I know that it’s reported that one plane dropped its bombs on another Halifax squadron and it actually crashed and killed all the crew and on another trip one of 10 Squadron’s own planes was actually shot down, so I can’t imagine having seen that on one trip, the courage they would have to have to go back day after day to the same destination is a very special sort of courage. The Ol’ Ram was hit more by flak on trips to the various railyards and then on the 20th of July the very last ops for the crew was a trip to Blowtrop and here they had a petrol leak on the port inner and the port was US again referred to in my dad’s logbook and the ammo tracks caught fire so a very eventful last trip. So, the crew completed thirty-eight operations and my father, I am very proud to say, was awarded the DFC in November 1944, I’ve got the original press article and that reads, it was given for gallantry and devotion to duty in air operations and actually refers to throughout an exact, throughout an exacting tour of duty, this officer has displayed exceptional ability as a navigator, and cool courage in the face of the enemy, on four occasions his aircraft has been engaged by enemy fighters and in the ensuing air combat three hostile aircraft have been destroyed. So, after they’d finished their operations at Melbourne, they went back to Forres, did more training and flying, this time on Wellingtons, and then ended up back in Yorkshire, at RAF Rufforth at a Conversion Unit. In May ’45 my dad was moved to 77 Squadron and at this point they were based at Full Sutton and he had a new pilot, Flight Officer Pickin and they were on Halifax VIs and then started training on Dakotas and this was ready for preparation to fly them to the Far East to support the Burma campaign. Lots of practice of supply dropping and glider towing and this was done at Broadwell and they finally set off on the 22nd of September 1945 on route to India. The route took them via Libya, Sedam and Yemen into India and then took them from the 22nd of September until they finally arrived at their destination on the 1st of October. October ’45 shows that the main trips they did were around India and the Khyber Pass and supply dropping and bringing troops back. I have a copy of a letter that my dad sent to his pilot, Johnny Hewitt, when he got the, the information that he was going to be sent over to helping the Burma campaign, so I’ll read a little bit out of this, so it just says, I left Rufforth and was posted here, 77 Squadron, ex Elvington, remember the time we all went to Elvington, and that will refer to a time when 10 Squadron had to pick up some planes for an operation and borrowed the ones from 77 Squadron and he also says that he was here on V E Day, didn’t even get one op from here where we are now on transport and I am converting to Dakotas in a couple of months. Talks about training and constantly lectures with the Far East and Burma and tropical diseases and learning about different forms of navigation again on the stars. It says as well to help with being able to navigate by the stars, they’ve wired off the Gee and H2S so that they can only use the stars to navigate. One of the comments he’s put in his letter, says, well, it looks very much that I shall end my life in Burma or some place, you can imagine me under a mosquito net, scratching elephant bites and sweating horse feathers beneath some tropical sun. So, I don’t think he was particularly looking forward to that tour. The logbook continues with lots of daily activities but then on the 22nd of November 1945, the logbook just stops, no idea why cause not like my father [unclear] to leave things unfinished but he has, I know he returned home and was demobbed in late ’46 but no more detail at all. After the war, I know he was taken back by his old employers and worked in engineering all his life, becoming a chief estimate with a company called Acro that then became known as Thomas Store. 1950s he met my mom, Maureen Chilton at Belle Vue Dances which is in Manchester. My father was strict Church of England and my mom came from a Roman Catholic family so you can imagine that wasn’t an easy ride, both sides of the families refused to accept the relationship, so on New Year’s Eve in 1955, my mom slipped out, carrying her wedding shoes and they got married at Manchester Registry Office with one friend and getting a member of public off the street to sign there as witness. And mom and dad went on to become great ballroom dancers winning many medals, so they early started at Belle Vue Dances [unclear] through the rest of their dancing years. Unfortunately on the 12th of September 1975, my dad died very early of a heart attack and he never actually spoken of his war years and the remarkable feats of bravery that he’d shown and really wish we could turn the clock back and hear those stories direct from him and actually you know, let him know how proud I was of him and what he did. I think in a way this is why I’m so privileged to be an oral interviewer for Bomber Command’s Digital Archive, I can hear these stories it makes me realise the sort of activities my dad would’ve been involved in but also to keep them for future generations and let them have the opportunity of listening to a family member recount those stories that I never heard. My research into my dad started about three years ago when I was looking into family history after about a year of research and talked to my brother he asked, would the logbook help? [laughs] Well, clearly that opened up a whole new avenue and it helped immensely. Unfortunately none of his crew was still alive by the time I was researching but I did manage to track down the daughter of his pilot in Canada, Johnny Hewitt, my mom had pulled out some old photos and there was a letter in there from Johnny from 1975 and it had arrived with my mom just after my father had died so really just being put to one side and it was saying that Johnny’s daughter, Pam, and a friend were going to be coming to Europe on a trip of a lifetime and could they met up with my dad and stay with them whilst they were over here. I don’t think the letter was ever replied to unfortunately because of the timing, so I started to look into the letter and try to find a phone number and but I couldn’t, I saw an address so I wrote to this address, didn’t get any information back after a couple of months, so I decided to phone all the J Hewitts I could find around Ontario [clears throat] just to see if I could find, if Johnny was still around, the pilot but again no joy. Think I must’ve been searching a few months each night and just looking on the internet, doing little searches with different names and I finally came across an article in a small Canadian paper, the Aurelian Times, it was talking about a Johnny Hewitt in the cross hall of fame and it had a little quote from his daughter saying that she hadn’t realised how important he was to the cross or how good he was because he didn’t shout about those things that he did, just like he didn’t shout about his time in World War Two and then I see that the daughter is called Pam, and I think, could this be the link that I was looking for? So, I emailed the editor of the paper and asked him to pass my details on to Pam, a week went by and then one night suddenly an email popped through, just saying, I am the Pam you are looking for, still gives me goose bumps now talking about it, but that started up a great correspondence with Pam. I sent her a copy of the letter her father had written, she’d never seen any of his letters so it was quiet precious to her and she let me know that she actually did come across and do the tour of Europe and she actually stayed with my grandparents, my dad’s father and mother who a lot of the crew went to stay with when they were up in Manchester anyway so they were all well known to them and Pam did a little bit searching and to my surprise she found three letters that my dad had sent in 1945 and 1946 and gave a real insight into his life and the sort of things that they were doing during the war. I think one of the things that quite surprised me from it was almost desperation from my father wanting to do another tour with Johnny and the rest of crew and said he got the crew together and could they all do another tour together, and the thing that just clearly showed the bond that they had and how difficult that must have been breaking up after all they’d been through and you know, despite the risks, they would still want to get together just so that they could keep that, you know, comrade and friendship going and on that. So I think whilst nothing can replace talking to my father about his time in the war, the letters, you know, filled such a void there and also talking to the veterans from 10 Squadron where I’m a member of the association and they can really bring it to life with several of the veterans being also on the same trips that my dad did. So, I hope that one day, you know, maybe I’ll come across a recording of his crew and until then I’ll keep my search continuing, so I’m hoping that people will find this of interest and useful and that maybe one of the relatives of my dad’s crew and the crew of the Halifax III ZAJ the Ol’ Ram will be able to find out a little bit more about their families, thank you.
Susanne Pescott, “Interview with Susanne Pescott,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 1, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11529.
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