Interview with John Plendeleith


Interview with John Plendeleith


John Plenderleith was in the Air Training Corps before he volunteered to join the RAF. He was posted to 626 Squadron at Wickenby and when the crew were allocated their hut they were surprised to find it was still occupied with another crew’s personal possessions. When they enquired they were told the other crew had failed to return from their last operation. He took part in Operations Manna and Exodus and recalls the appreciation of the Dutch people for receiving the food aid and of the ex-prisoners returning home. After the war he was posted to Transport Command and flew in Greece and also carried the nuclear head for the atomic bomb for testing in Australia. While at RAF Farnborough he took part in testing of new navigational equipment. When he retired from the RAF he became an air traffic controller for the Army Air Corps.




Temporal Coverage




00:42:36 audio recording


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PL: Ok. So, hello. My name is Pam Locker and I’d just like to thank you very much indeed for agreeing to talk to the Bomber Command Memorial Trust. And I’m in the home of Mr John Plenderleith and he’s going to tell us all about some of his experiences through his life. Not just in Bomber Command but through his life. So, John, if you’d like to just to kick off. Perhaps telling us how you, perhaps a little bit about your earlier life and how you came to be involved with Bomber Command.
JP: Thank you. Right. I went through the normal training of an air signaller from 1943 onwards. I did my ITW at Bridgnorth. And Radio School at RAF Madley, in Herefordshire. And OTU, Operational Training Unit in sorry AFU, Advanced Flying Training Unit at Mona in Anglesey. And Operational Training Unit at Husbands Bosworth in Warwickshire. Then I went on to Heavy Conversion Unit at North Luffenham on Lancasters and during that time of training we took part in a diversion raid for a target in Germany. After that I moved on to 626 Squadron at Wickenby in Lincolnshire on, and that was in April and May 1945. During that time I took part in four Operation Mannas which was delivering food to the starving Dutch people in Holland. In enemy occupied Holland. And also at the end of the war I took part in Operation Exodus which was ferrying, flying prisoners of war from Brussels to the UK when the war finished. And also later I took part, part in Operation Dodge which was bringing the 8th Army back from Italy to the United Kingdom. Can we have a break?
PL: Of course. We’re just stopping now.
[recording paused]
PL: Restarting the tape. Ok John.
JP: When the war finished in Europe the RAF asked for volunteers to continue the war in Japan. Well, we had only just started our, our bomber programme and we volunteered for Tiger Force. Now, this was to continue with the Lancasters in the war against Japan. It carried on for quite a while and eventually the, the atomic bomb was dropped and of course the war in Japan ended in August. So we never really reached Japan but eventually ended up in Egypt and replaced 104 Squadron with Liberators to Lancasters. And we joined 104 Squadron for a short time. I was there for only about six months practically and the crew became split up. And I volunteered to carry on flying which I did do and I ended up in Air Headquarters Greece and spent the best part of two years there during the Greek communist civil war. Which was interesting. After that I came back to the UK and various postings. The main one was Transport Command at Lyneham on Hastings. And I did a good few overseas trips there. Including Australia for the testing of the atomic bombs. And after that the main flying I did was at Farnborough where I flew on the experimental side for up to seven years. And that completed my flying in somewhere about six thousand hours. After that I became an air traffic controller. And I was approach and radar controller at Lyneham until I retired in 1968. After retiring I took the Civil Air Traffic Control Licence and became a controller for the Army Air Corps and I spent a further twenty five years with the Army Air Corps which made sixty years service with the military in all.
PL: That’s amazing.
JP: That was a rough account of my service. Service history.
PL: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much. A couple of things I wanted to return to.
JP: Hmmn?
PL: A couple of things I wanted to return to —
JP: Yeah.
PL: Going back to Operation Manna.
JP: Uh huh.
PL: Can you just expand on that and expand —
JP: Sorry?
PL: Could you expand on your experience of Operation Manna and how that all worked, and you know. And your personal experience of that?
JP: It’s a job remembering now. Well, as with regards to Operation Manna I did [pause] where are we? [pause] I did four trips on Operation Manna. The first one was to the Hague and the second one was to Valkenburg. And the next two were to Rotterdam. As you know this was for dropping food for the starving Dutch people. And we flew out ultra low level. Mainly five hundred feet and below. We flew out and, to the drop zones and we did observe. It was occupied Holland and we did observe military. German military. But there was a truce which was more or less kept over all but occasionally it was broken with small arms fire. And that was really about it. That was the, the four places we dropped on and of course the public were most appreciative of what was happening at the time, dropping the food to them. And they made a great, it became a very important part of the war. Operation Manna. And we returned there four or five times and looked after the Dutch people who were, who really appreciated what was done. And I think it was a good thing to take part in a mercy mission rather than a bombing mission. Much better. Any more?
PL: So when, when you got to the to the sites, the drop sites were the people there? Or what could you see from from the air? Were the people waiting to pick up the food or how did it work?
JP: No. The Germans kept the crowd back, you know, from the drop zone. Because it would have been dangerous, you know. Because we dropped the stuff without parachutes and it would have been rather dangerous if it, if it had fallen on the crowd.
PL: And then they would be allowed to to go forward and —
JP: Well, it was then all collected to a centre and distributed. Yeah.
PL: Right. Ok. Ok . That’s fascinating.
JP: Yeah.
PL: And after the war did you hear any more about that and the affect that it had had? I mean obviously it was of such —
JP: Hmmn?
PL: Did you ever, after the war hear any more about the effect of Operation Manna? Obviously it was —
JP: Oh yes. It was quite often during, over the years it was quite often brought up that this was carried out. I think possibly to give a good name to Bomber Command. Which it did. Yes.
PL: Because it, it was stopped wasn’t it? Do you know anything about that? Why it was stopped.
JP: What?
PL: I think that it didn’t go on right until the end of the war did it? Or did it?
JP: Operation Manna?
PL: Yes.
JP: Yeah. Well, right more or less, up to right to the end of the war. Yeah.
PL: Right.
JP: Until Holland was liberated and there was then freedom of travel and, you know it was delivered by road as well.
PL: Fantastic. So, the crew must, it must have been such a different, a different experience to, to going on the raids. It must have been a wonderful uplifting experience. Did you feel safe?
JP: Well, you felt, I don’t say, I mean on the first one when we went to the briefing and found out what the trip was and we thought well at five hundred feet.
PL: Yes.
JP: We’d be been blown to bits.
PL: Yes. Yes.
JP: If they do, you know. But yeah. We did wonder and the first time really what would happen. Yeah.
PL: So quite nerve wracking.
JP: Hmmn.
PL: Yeah.
JP: But anyway, and then as I say after Manna there was Operation Exodus. That was bringing the POs. That was on the 9th. The 9th of May. The day the war was supposed to have ended. And there we went into Brussels and picked up a lot of the aircrew who had been shot down. And we brought them back alive to, to the UK. And that was —
PL: So was it specifically aircrew then that you brought back?
JP: Mainly. Mainly it was, yeah. Yeah. We brought back, I think it was, yeah it was twenty four. We had twenty four prisoners of war in the Lancaster. And there was never seats of course. They just sat on the floor of the aircraft. And the trip took what? There and back was four hours forty five minutes. But the, it was, you know bringing them back. When we came to the coast of England coming back. Some had been there, prisoners of war, for up to five years. And it really was something, you know. They really did appreciate coming back.
PL: It must have been very emotional for them.
JP: It was. Yeah. It was for us as well. Yeah. So —
PL: Yes. Good. Wonderful. And it must have been a bit tight having twenty four. Was there, was everybody a bit squashed in?
JP: Well, they were mainly, mainly from the crew compartment at the front to the back of the rear turret. And they were all on the floor there. Yeah.
PL: Fantastic. Did you want, did you want to say any more about that before I move on?
JP: Sorry?
PL: Did you want to say anything more about Operation Manna before we move on? Or the, or indeed Operation Exodus.
JP: Not really. The big thing about Manna was how appreciative the Dutch were that it was carried out. I mean, when we were at the Bomber Command Centre this last week a Dutch officer came and presented to the Centre a picture of the Lancasters flying low over Holland and dropping the food. And they want that to be shown you know, in the Centre. As part of the war. Yeah.
PL: It must make you feel very proud.
JP: Yeah.
PL: Wonderful. Thank you. So something else that you touched on was your involvement with the civil war in Greece. And you said that was an interesting experience.
JP: Yes. Well I was on the communication flight there for the RAF delegation to the Greek Air Force and we did quite a bit of flying in the operational area where the communists were. And we carried the Greek generals and British generals who observed what was going on. And with the fight against communism. I don’t, I really shouldn’t say this but the Greek Air Force, they awarded us their General Service Medal for what we did. RAF, the Air Ministry turned that down because it would mean that we were showing an active part to the Russians. So, that was cancelled. Yeah. It was amazing really.
PL: It’s all about politics in the end.
JP: Yeah. Yeah.
PL: So how long were you involved there?
JP: What? In Greece? Best part of nearly seven and a half years.
PL: Goodness. A long time.
JP: Yeah.
PL: Goodness.
JP: And during that time I married a lovely Greek girl. The photograph’s there. Do you see it?
PL: I can’t see it.
JP: Well, have a look—
PL: Oh there.
JP: Yeah.
PL: That was my first wife.
JP: She’s gorgeous.
PL: And she died when she was twenty eight years old.
JP: Oh no. Oh, I’m so sorry.
PL: Yeah.
JP: That was Maria. She died of cancer. And then five years later I married again. To Reina. And she died of cancer as well.
PL: Oh dear.
JP: Yeah. Anyway, that’s just bye the bye you know.
PL: So did you have children?
JP: Hmmn?
PL: Did you have children?
JP: Yes. I had three children. I had one by my first. First marriage. Who’s sixty five now [laughs]. And two by my second marriage. Yeah. And they are in their forties.
PL: Right.
JP: And my daughter, she just had breast cancer. So —
PL: You’ve had a tough time of it.
JP: Yeah.
PL: So Greece was a really significant —
JP: Hmmn?
PL: So Greece turned out to be a very significant part of your life.
JP: Oh yes. Yeah.
PL: In all sorts of ways.
JP: It was, flying wise it was interesting working along with the Greek Air Force, you know.
PL: So did you make lots of friends in —
JP: Hmmn?
PL: Did you make lots of friends in the Greek Air Force?
JP: In the Greek Air Force.
PL: Yes.
JP: Well, yes. Not a lot. No. But I met quite a few. I flew the odd trip with the Greek Air Force and just as young and daft [laughs] Yeah.
PL: But that was a very different experience.
JP: Yeah.
PL: Right. Ok.
JP: So, that was my history really in the services.
PL: Well, something else I wanted to ask you about that you mentioned that I thought would be really interesting to talk about is you talked about your involvement with the atomic bomb.
JP: Oh yes.
PL: And you mentioned that a couple of times. Do you want to just expand on that and say —
JP: Well, the one. Oh sorry.
PL: No. No. Don’t worry.
JP: I flew on the trip to Australia. To, it was either Woomera or Maralinga. And we carried the head for the hydrogen bomb. That was some trip because they had the, the head of the bomb in the centre of the aircraft and a yellow circle painted around it. And no way had we to step within that yellow circuit, circle. And an RAF squadron leader sat with it all the time until we got out to Australia. Yeah. That was, that was interesting. But —
PL: Was that, was that just a security procedure then?
JP: Sorry?
PL: Was that just a security procedure that you weren’t allowed to step within the ring?
JP: No. That was because, well the possibility of what do you call it?
PL: Radiation.
JP: Yeah.
PL: Right. Goodness. It just seems so —
JP: Anyway.
PL: Yeah.
JP: We were all —
PL: So how many, how many times did you do that? Was that just the one trip to Australia? Or —
JP: No. I did two, two trips to Australia. To the base in the south of Australia which was Maralinga or Woomera. Yeah. And that was, that was a long trip there and back in those days because it was in a Hastings aircraft which was a piston. And a piston aircraft and rather slow.
PL: Goodness. So how long did it take?
JP: The flying was somewhere over a hundred hours there and back. Yeah. Yeah.
PL: Goodness me. So you stopped off along the way.
JP: Oh yes. Yeah.
PL: Can you, can you remember where you stopped off and what the arrangements were?
JP: I think the first stop was Castel Benito. I’ve got it in my logbook there somewhere. And first stop was in North Africa. And the second was Iraq at Habbaniya. The third was Karachi. The fourth was Ceylon. Ceylon which is now —
PL: Sri Lanka.
JP: Yeah. And then on to Singapore. And then down to Darwin. And then down to Adelaide. And then across to, to Maralinga. Yeah.
PL: Amazing. Amazing.
JP: And then when I was at Farnborough and then the last years of flying I was mainly on the training. The, mainly on the trials of a navigation aid to cover the whole world. So, to do that we had to fly the whole world. Which was great because I went from South Africa to the North Pole to the Far East. To Hong Kong. To Australia. To Canada. What do you call it? The Caribbean. And South America and that. We had to fly world-wide which was very interesting. But of course all that’s been superceded now by what? Sat nav.
PL: Well, it’s everything is part of a process.
JP: That’s it. Yeah.
PL: And without your process then, you know nothing else could have followed.
JP: No.
PL: What an extraordinarily adventurous life you’ve had.
JP: Sorry?
PL: What an adventurous life you’ve had.
JP: Well, yeah. It was. It was. The two sad times was the loss of my wives.
PL: Of course.
JP: But, with regards to the rest of it. As regards to the services I wouldn’t have changed anything. No.
PL: Wonderful.
JP: Yeah.
PL: I I know we’re going right back to the very start but I’m curious to know how you became involved in signals in the first place. What drew you to that particular discipline?
JP: What? Sorry?
PL: I’m curious to know how you became drawn into signals in the first place.
JP: Well, we, it was what, well — you volunteered for aircrew. All the aircrew were volunteers. Nobody was called up to fly. I volunteered in Edinburgh. And at the time it was, what they were after at the time was air gunners and wireless operator air gunners. That’s what they really were after. And I became a w/op AG. What was known as a w/op AG or wireless operator air gunner. Eventually that became a signaller. Yeah. But —
PL: So that side of it appealed to you.
JP: Hmmn?
PL: That, that side of things appealed to you. The wireless operation. Had you had any experience before that? Had you had any interest before that or was it just something that you wanted?
JP: In the Air Force generally —
PL: No. No. In the, to be a wireless operator.
JP: Well, no. I was in the Air Training Corps of course. As a youngster in 1940.
PL: Right.
JP: And I was good at Morse. And of course they gave you, this was part of the selection procedure. I, I was then able to do what? Fifteen words a minutes Morse. Which I’d done and of course that was it.
PL: Fantastic.
JP: Yeah. Because the communications with Bomber Command was all done in Morse in those days. Yeah.
PL: And when you joined your crew were you with the same crew throughout Operation Manna and —
JP: Yeah. Same crew with me. Yeah.
PL: Right. So can you remember how you all came to be together?
JP: How did everybody —
PL: How, how —
JP: How did we come to be together?
PL: Together as a crew.
JP: Well that was at OTU. The Operational Training Unit on Wellingtons. What they did was they put all the aircrew in a hangar and the group captain said, ‘Sort yourselves out into crews [laughs] So it was, you know —
PL: So, how did you do it?
JP: Well, just sort of went around and speaking to each other and — yeah. Our skipper, Flying Officer Hall, he said, ‘Have you got anybody? I said, ‘Not yet.’ He said, ‘Well, you have now. You’re going to be my wireless operator.’ [laughs] You see. And that was how the they selected you. You selected yourselves.
PL: Fantastic.
JP: I had no idea what — really when I think of it now. We all volunteered. We didn’t know what we were volunteering for. My God we didn’t. I mean the losses were something terrible weren’t they? I remember when we went to, went to the squadron. Posted into 626 we were, we went to the picket post and they said that we would be in hut twelve and as a crew. So we went to this hut twelve and there was all the beds there. And you know people that had got up from there and, you know. Haven’t they got rid of them? We went back to the picket post and said, ‘It’s occupied.’ They said, ‘Well, they were shot down last night.’ And that was that. But I thought, well what an introduction to the squadron. Yeah. Yeah.
PL: Terrible.
JP: Still —
PL: And you all, did the whole of your group survive the war?
JP: The whole of — ?
PL: Did your, did your group survive?
JP: My, our crew.
PL: Your crew.
JP: Oh yeah. Yeah. We all survived. Yeah.
PL: Fantastic. Fantastic. And have you, did you keep in touch at all?
JP: Yeah. Kept in touch with the, with the bomb aimer. The two gunners were Canadians. Of course they went back to Canada when the war finished. And I kept in touch with the bomb aimer right until he died. What? A couple of years ago now and we used to go together to Holland for the Operation Manna. We went together on that. And, you know we were good friends right until he died. Yeah. Arthur. He’s up there on that photograph. That’s 626 Squadron.
PL: Fantastic. Fantastic.
JP: Yeah. That was taken in May ’45 when the war ended. These were all aircrew. It just shows. You know. I think the, those killed in 626 was somewhere about a thousand two hundred. Something like that. Yeah. Yeah. Right then.
PL: Well, there’s one more thing I want to ask you and that is about your feelings about how Bomber Command were treated after the war? What did you think about that? Do you have any comment that you’d like to be recorded?
JP: Well, there’s no doubt that the bombing of Germany [pause] was it right? Was it wrong? It’s difficult to say. I think, I think it was a means for the ending of the war but of course they always bring up Dresden don’t they? And Hanover. But I’m convinced that if the Luftwaffe had had an aircraft equivalent to the Lancaster we would have been bombed off the face off this earth as well. But they didn’t have a an aircraft that carried the load that we did. I mean they were mainly twin-engined in the, in their bomber force. Heinkels. But the Lancaster was a marvellous aircraft. And, was it right? Was it wrong? Difficult to say. I’m glad I ended up on Operation Manna. That was the, the saving grace wasn’t it? But no. It was wrong in a way and of course it was right in another way.
PL: Of course. Do you think that Bomber Command should have had more recognition for their contribution to the end of the war?
JP: Oh yes. Yeah. Yeah. I mean it’s funny. Last week we had a picture taken against The Spire. And I don’t know how many of us were on the picture but there was quite a few. And there was one chap who said that. Why have they never given a — what do you call it, a campaign medal for operations in Bomber Command? It’s true. Why they didn’t I don’t know. They wanted to keep it quiet I think. But now. Now, they talk about it don’t they? Yeah. I mean the Memorial down at, in London. That came, what a couple of years later on. No. Two years ago or something like that isn’t it? And now the Spire. They’ve shown. Yeah. Because when you think of it fifty five thousand five hundred and seventy three. God almighty. Imagine a football ground full of fifty five and a half thousand airmen. That was the amount of aircrew that were lost. And they were all volunteers. Yeah. Well, anything else you would like to know? There’s nothing much more I can say.
PL: Well, unless there’s anything else you’d like to tell me then I guess the most important thing for me to say is to thank you very very much indeed on behalf of the Bomber Memorial [coughs] Bomber Command Memorial Trust.
JP: Yeah.
PL: For sharing your experiences with us. So thank you very much indeed.
JP: That’s alright I’m sure.
[recording paused]
PL: So, there was just another operation that you didn’t have a chance to talk about. Do you want to just tell me a little bit about that?
JP: Well, Operation Dodge was bringing the troops back from the end of the war in Africa and that. And we, we flew back. I think it was twenty four on each trip. That was much the same as Exodus. They were seated in the fuselage. And it was a longer trip of course. It was over six hours from, from Pomigliano and Rome to the United Kingdom. And I did that trip twice. So, we, we flew out there. Spent one night and then back the next day to the United Kingdom. This was to speed up the evacuation and the return of the troops. There’s nothing much more to say really. That, again that was they all looked forward to home coming and it was a quick way to, for them all to return home.
PL: Wonderful.
JP: Yeah.
[recording paused]
PL: So you were just telling me John about the cathedral.
JP: Yeah.
PL: So you set off and then you circled around.
PL: Well, how shall I put it? We, we often passed close to it you know. After leaving. Yeah. And of course it was always, I mean all those airfields were all, a lot of them were in sight of the cathedral, you know. It was a point that —
JP: A landmark.
PL: As I said it was a point that some of the, a lot of the crews never saw again and that was it. You know. They didn’t come back. But yeah. Anyway, that Spire. The height of it is the wingspan of a Lancaster. Yeah.



Pam Locker, “Interview with John Plendeleith,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024,

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