Interview with Jack Pragnell


Interview with Jack Pragnell


Jack Pragnell and his twin brother Thomas volunteered together for the RAF and trained together. Jack flew operations as a bomb aimer with 51 Squadron. His brother joined a Canadian crew. Jack was plagued with health problems and was suddenly told his operation to have his tonsils removed would be taking place the next day. It was only during his convalescence that he realised just how the stress of operations had already affected him. His brother and his crew were shot down and killed which devastated Jack. After his tour he joined Training Command before joining 298 Squadron towing gliders.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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01:02:19 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


DK: So this is David Kavanagh on the 26th of May 2016.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Interviewing Jack Pragnell at his home. Ok. So if I just put that there. So if you just talk normally. If I keep looking over it like this I’m just checking that it’s still working.
JP: Yeah. Ok.
DK: So that’s out there. What, what I wanted to do was really just talk through your experiences before the war maybe.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DK: What you were doing then. Why and how you joined the air force and what you did in the air force.
JP: Yeah.
DK: And then later on afterwards. So, to start with perhaps if you could just say what you were doing before the war.
JP: Well, before the war my twin brother and myself we were together all the time by the way. I’d got an identical twin.
DK: Oh right. Ok.
JP: So we worked at, at Manfield Shoe Factory. In the office. Until, well we had, we were quite poor. We had to leave school at fourteen although we were at grammar school. We caught up on night school and everything so we did all that. And then come the sort of seventeen or so when I was a bit of fed up and wanting to move couldn’t do it because I was coming on to eighteen. And nobody had got a job there.
DK: No. No.
JP: And jobs were scarce for people. So we, we did a lot. Played a lot of sport. Enjoyed life thoroughly. We were both pretty good at sport and did very well at school and we were in the Boy’s Brigade and went to camp with them. And it was a lovely time. And then come the time when conscription was being, when none of us — all I knew of conscription was the First World War.
DK: Yeah.
JP: The filth and the degradation and the death in the, in the trenches. And we sort of wanted the glory boys you know. So we said, ‘Let’s go,’ and four of us got together one afternoon. Packed up our work and went off ostensibly to join the Fleet Air Arm because we liked the uniform.
DK: Right.
JP: When we got to the depot at Dover Hall it was the RAF recruiting place. The Fleet Air Arm was at the Naval place. In a different place. So anyway, we were talked into joining the air force. We had a few tests and we were accepted on the pilot navigator thing. Three of us. One was ill and went away. He came twelve months later and was a W/op AG but he was one out. So the three of us then waited as you did. Signed on. Waited. And we went to the place where they — Cardington.
DK: Cardington.
JP: To be signed up. Funny thing there. We go through. People didn’t know the difference. Absolutely identical. So he goes, my brother goes through and I was taken ill. So I was parked in to sick quarters for a week. When I came out he’d already gone through and been accepted on the pilot navigator thing. So I follow through and did the tests and one of the doctors said, ‘Well, we saw you last week.’ I said, ‘That was my brother.’ ‘Your brother?’ I said, ‘My twin brother.’ He said, ‘What did we do?’ ‘Oh you passed him.’ ‘Alright, you’re through.’ [laughs] So then we waited. This waiting time of several months, you know as everybody had to wait. And we were called up to Babington in London there to be — no. It was in the south. To be kitted and equipped. Near Bournemouth. Equipped and marched and inoculated and equipped and marched and inoculated. Incessantly. And then we went to Stratford on Avon at ITW. My brother and myself shared the Venus Adonis Room in the Shakespeare Hotel. Absolutely stripped clean. You know what I mean. I’ve been since and had a look. It’s a different kettle of fish. So then from there, after a few weeks of this, ‘You’re going.’ Didn’t know where. We were equipped with tropical equipment and, a kit bag full of that. And one night we were, well we were then taken to West Kirby near Manchester there. We were there for, I should think maybe a week or so and suddenly one night we were taken out at night and marched into the Glasgow station and climbed on a train outside the station and straightaway to a boat. The Moortown. The tramp steamer converted. And the filthiest, dirtiest old shabby ship you never saw in your life. It was an army boat and of course we were cadets there with a white flash in our hats oh and they took the mickey out of us left, right and centre. And we had the, under the bottom. Five weeks on that boat. Trudging. We didn’t know where we were going. We set out to the middle of the Atlantic we thought. Then suddenly we turned to port. Half of them sheared off. And with that I understand they finished up in America or Canada. We then went, they said, ‘Oh you’re going to Rhodesia.’ Well, we’d heard of Rhodesia but it was a long way away. Well, we went through. We couldn’t get off the boat. We had salt showers. It was purgatory. So, and the food wasn’t great you know, out of a big cauldron. But we got there. We finished up in, we went around the Cape. We thought where the hell are we going now? Sailed around. Finished up in Durban.
DK: Right.
JP: Lovely place Durban. It was lit. The sea was dark there. All the lights and what not. But there on the sea front was a dance hall and fairy lights. It was like heaven. And we were there a couple of weeks or so and the people were marvellous to us. They were queuing at the gates to take us out. And my brother and myself being identical twins we were snapped up, you know.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And they took us all over the place. And we then got on the train. It took three days. One of these slow moving things with the old wagon at the back. We could get off and walk with it. Finished up in Bulawayo. It’s in Southern Rhodesia. Well after a few weeks there at the ITW again we were marched, we were inoculated. But we had a lovely time. People took us out. They queued at the gates to take people out. But then, being the two of us we got special treatment you know. So we had a lovely time. It was hard work. It was hard work but we still relaxed well and played well.
DK: So what sort of work were you doing in Bulawayo then?
JP: Well, that was a holding camp.
DK: Right.
JP: A sort of ITW.
DK: Right.
JP: It was, actually it was the old cattle market and we slept in the, where the cattle slept. With a blind down the front and —
DK: Yeah.
JP: Wooden sort of flooring. It was a bit primitive. And so were the quarters. But we loved it anyway.
DK: So the training you were doing there. Was that for, as a navigator or pilot?
JP: We were then on the pilots navigator.
DK: Pilot navigator.
JP: It was the top course. Yeah.
DK: Right.
JP: And we were doing navigation. We were doing star recognition. We were doing pilot recognition. We were doing aircraft. The whole gamut of night after night day after day.
DK: And did it include training as, flying?
JP: Oh that was all training. It was nothing but training with a bit of time off now and again. It was very hard graft. We loved it. We played a bit of football and a bit of, quite a bit of cricket in the spare time. Then we were picked out. ‘Right. You’re going off to pilot training.’ Went to Gwelo which was in the back woods of East London there. Of south, what’s the name? Southern Rhodesia. Well, I promptly had the bane of my life in the air force. Every so often I got tonsillitis. And it got every course I went on I had to have a few of days in dock with this tonsillitis. And I went in dock in the middle of the pilot training.
DK: Right.
JP: It was on Tiger Moths. I’d soloed but I was a bit ham-fisted. We’d only had a bike up until then. That hadn’t even got a three speed. So we trained and then they came along. The CFI came. I was behind because I’d had this week off and you could not get behind. It was push push push. This CFI, the Chief Flying Instructor came and he looked me up and down and said, ‘Well, come on.’ So I took him up. Landed him. Well, of course the tension of him being there and I was a very raw pilot. But he, he would have gone through the ceiling when we landed, you know. In a Tiger Moth on a grass field it was I thought. So I landed him. He looked me up. He said, ‘Well, what’s your navigation like?’ I said, ‘Well, quite good.’ He said, ‘I think you’ll make a better navigator than a pilot. You’ll be alright on these.’ The next step were Harvards of course. The killers.
DK: Yeah.
JP: He said, ‘You’ll kill yourself I think.’ And they were. A lot of people were. These decrepit Harvards. So, my brother got himself taken off and we were allowed to go together. We sat there and waited, oh two or three weeks until a course came and we were taken down, all the way down to East London. On the Cape.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And there we did the full observer course. Navigator, bomb aimer, air gunner. Again played a lot of sport. Again, taken around a bit. Again went out together. It was a lovely life because we did everything. See whereas if I had gone on my own I’d have had to look for a comrades.
DK: Yeah.
JP: I’d have had to look for a mate. There was two of us. We’d always got a mate.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And we were so much alike. We, well we were a part of each other. Absolutely. Dressed the same. Shared our money. Shared our clothes. Shared our uniforms. And got on ever so well together. Bane of the life of the instructors who didn’t know who they were talking to [laughs]
DK: Yeah.
JP: But anyway, we did well. We passed out from there. And then we had about three weeks at Cape Town waiting to come back. And then we came back alone. Not, we went out in convoy for the five weeks. Very slowly. Very tedious. The Prince of Wales and the other one going up and down. Of course they sailed on to the Far East and that was when they were sunk.
DK: Right.
JP: We were the last lot to see them when they went off.
DK: Yeah.
JP: But we came back alone on the Otranto. Which was a, was a merchantmen. In fact on the way back picked a boat load of survivors from [pause] from a boat from Argentina. Something Star. A meat boat.
DK: Right.
JP: And the women and children. We picked them up and brought them back. Then we got back here and due a bit of leave. And then posted to Yorkshire. To Driffield.
DK: Right.
JP: The main place there. And we were crewed up. Well. No. First of all we go on to a Conversion Unit.
DK: So which? Can you remember which Conversion Unit?
JP: In Lincolnshire somewhere.
DK: Right.
JP: It was Norfolk or Lincolnshire and I forget where it was.
DK: This would have been one —
JP: It’s a well-known one.
DK: Right. But this would have been one of the Heavy Conversion Units.
JP: Yeah. They were flying Harvards and the other things. The other four engine jobs. You know. The first ones.
DK: The Stirlings.
JP: The twin engine job. No. Not the — the two engine.
DK: The Anson.
JP: No. No. We’d done our training in Ansons.
DK: Yeah.
JP: No. Bigger ones.
DK: The Wellington.
JP: No. No. Different from them. Wimpy was there.
DK: Yeah.
JP: But the Wellingtons. They were ones that crashed a lot. They put four engines on them in the end and called them the Halifax.
DK: Right. The Manchester?
JP: Yeah. I think it was that.
DK: Manchester. Yeah.
JP: Yeah. So we as we got there we saw one plough in. Yeah. Now, the next morning they said, ‘Now look. We’re looking for bomb aimers. You’re a qualified bomb aimer and a qualified navigator. It’s equal pay. Equal terms.’ But you see then all the crews then were becoming not six crews but seven crews. And there was a great shortage of bomb aimers to add to the crews. So they asked for volunteers to go straight on ops, perhaps with the odd cross country, without doing a con-unit. So about ten of us stepped forward and within a couple of weeks we were crewed up at Driffield in a squadron. And a couple of cross country’s — ready for ops. Well then my pilot, we were the odd one in the crew then but we were in the crew. I was in the crew as a bomb aimer and in charge of the bombing and that. I didn’t have a bloody clue. So anyway the biggest bomb I’d dropped was the sort of five pounder in practice. Anyway, we soon caught up. They put us through the mill and so unfortunately they, the crew went on some operations. And the pilot went on his expertise, expert, expertise trip. You know, with a crew.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JP: And they were missing. So the crew was broken up and I was floating around. I was lucky because looking for a bomb aimer was a crew where four of them were on their second tour. The pilot was a flight lieuy. The navigator was a flying officer. The gunner was warrant officer and a whats-its name. And they were looking for — and there was I, a youngster, shovelled into this lot.
DK: With an experienced crew.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JP: So I was lucky.
DK: Can, can I just check. Which squadron was this with then?
JP: 51 then.
DK: 51. Right.
JP: 51.
DK: Ok.
JP: And my brother, who was with me at the time.
DK: Yeah.
JP: On our, when we got there we had to, we knew we’d got to part. And we got a great pile of kit in the middle of the room and it was one for you, one for me. It broke my heart, you know. The first time we’d been parted or anything like. And we shared it. Now he got into a crew as well but it was a time when the Canadians were breaking away from 4 Group to form 8 Group.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And the rest of his crew were Canadian. Most of them. Four out the six. Or five out the six. And they opted to go Canadian. Well, he went with them. Now, strangely enough they were doing some operations. They were doing minelaying or what have you. And his pilot went on an expertise trip. Was missing. So, they again were crewed up. We stayed in the area and he got most of them together. They still stayed with the Canadian group but he got a bit behind then whereas I was straight on ops. I mean by January I’d done two or three ops to Lorient and places like that.
DK: So which type of aircraft were you on in 51 Squadron then?
JP: A Halifax.
DK: A Halifax. So —
JP: Halifax. It was all Halifax from then on.
DK: So all your operations were Halifax.
JP: And so was he. Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JP: It was Yorkshire.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JP: They were all in Yorkshire. Around about. Well Pocklington actually. Snaith.
DK: Snaith.
JP: Was the one we were at for 51. So we did, I did, we did about half a tour with 51 and we were doing well. We were one of the crack crews and I became, although I say it myself, pretty good. I went to learn. And we did, the farce of, you know observation star sort of things. Astro. Well that was a farce. A complete and utter farce. You couldn’t do it. You know the old joke goes about they were lost and the navigator, the pilot said to the navigator, ‘Go and take an astro fix will you?’ He said. So the pilot comes back, ‘Take off your hats. You’re in St Paul’s Cathedral.’ And it was about like that. That’s the old story that got around, you know. Anyway, half way through the tour we were taken from, our pilot was promoted to squadron leader so we went to Pocklington where he took over a squadron as a squadron leader. And finished my tour there. And I had a very hot tour. We all did in there. I mean I had a very very warm tour in the end of ’42 and ’43. That was the heat of the losses.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And I was one of the lucky ones.
DK: Can you remember the name of your pilot at 51?
JP: Yeah. Squadron Leader Hay.
DK: So he went on to Pocklington then with 102.
JP: Oh yes. And took the crew with him.
DK: And you went with him.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And he then went as an instructor. I understand afterwards he had a bit of a crash and nearly wrote himself off. He was a bit wild. He was a typical, you might say a very early pilot. Mad as a bloody hatter but brilliant pilot. And the navigator then stayed but the chap doing the bomb aiming, no he was doing the navigation. That’s right. And I was then then the bomb aimer. He was a second tour man. He’d done his first flying on single engine stuff in India. He hadn’t got a clue. He had not got a clue. So we got lost on the way back from [unclear] We called Mayday and we were flagged up by searchlights flagging us up to get us home. So after that he was taken out of the crew. They got a pilot, they got an officer who was already a qualified, well-qualified navigator to take over the navigation and I then took over the bomb aiming.
DK: Right.
JP: So, from then on, apart from the fact we had a very very hard tour. And we had the toughest of the tough it was good plain sailing until they finished their, about four of them finished their second tour. I’d still got ten ops on my first tour. So their second tour was twenty, mine was thirty. So I was an odd Joe and I flew with seven different pilots. Sprog pilots, experienced pilots, wing commanders, squadron, to fill the gap. I was lucky. I mean pure luck that that I came through.
DK: So, how many operations did you do all together then?
JP: Well, counting two abortive when we had to go, they counted. And in fact we’d done a bit of operational out in South Africa. Out in South Africa, looking for Jap subs. I did a total of twenty seven full ops but the other two counted and the others patched together so really it counted for the thirty ops. I say it was twenty seven. But it was about, when you take the, what they counted. And I was ill. I’d suffered from the tonsillitis. I’d been in and out of dock. And just until my last op came. My last op was to Berlin. The one before it was Peenemunde. So you can tell it wasn’t easy. So I was taken, I was booked in to go when my tour finished. So I was now, they told me when it would finish and I was ready. Waiting for this last op to come. I was to go in to the hospital the following week to have my tonsils out. They were the bane of my life. So I got to bed. Tannoy. Would I report to sick bay. They’d made a mistake. The hospital was the next day. So I go in and of course I didn’t realise my body was upset. I mean you think the tension and that. You didn’t realise. They nearly killed me. They apologised afterwards. They should not have operated. It wouldn’t stop bleeding and they had to go deep. And afterwards, after a week I was like a wraith. Lost no end of weight and, and I came [laughs] when I went out the doctor said, well he said, would you, I’d been to Berlin the night before. When I got in there it was on the news about the Berlin raid. I said to the bloke, ‘Yeah, it was pretty rough.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I was there.’ ‘He was there. He was there.’ All the nurses gathered around. I was the hero [laughs] So ,so anyway it, I came home on a bit of leave.
DK: So you, so you survived a trip to Berlin and then —
JP: Yeah.
DK: Were in hospital.
JP: The next day I was having my tonsils out.
DK: Oh dear.
JP: Now, my twin brother was on the way and they’d transferred from Halifaxes to Lancs.
DK: Right.
JP: And their first Lanc trip was a Berlin which was the Berlin following the one I went on. The last Berlin in ’43. And I was on the one before when we lost a lot of aircraft. But he was on that one. The first trip in a Lanc. They were shot down and killed over Leeuwarden in Holland.
DK: Oh dear.
JP: So that was it. It broke my heart that did. I didn’t know what to do with myself. And I was shovelled around then.
DK: Can you remember which squadron your brother was with?
JP: It was [pause] an American in the Canadian air force. I did, well names have got me.
DK: Yeah. Ok.
JP: I think it was 425. It was something like that. One of the Canadian squadrons in the north.
DK: Yeah.
JP: Yorkshire. Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JP: We met from time to time. In fact the Canadian uniform was a bit better than ours and he came down one day with a pilot’s uniform on. I said, ‘What —?’ He said, ‘Well my pilot is staying with us but he’s a Yank so he’s transferred to the Yanks. Still as a pilot.’ Getting double pay sort of thing and more comfort, ‘And this is his uniform.’ So he swapped my old one for this and I had a new uniform.
DK: Oh well.
JP: Well, I said at the last thing when we were in East London we were qualified and we got pinned things on. Our things for South African officers to come around, a general or something, and pin them on and a band played. That sort of thing. So the last, we had a course dinner, the menu’s in there. And this flight lieutenant gets up and, words of wisdom, he said, ‘Now, there’s one thing I’d like to say.’ I’ll never forget this. ‘Before we go out tomorrow on parade you’ve got to look your best,’ and he said, ‘And Pragnells get your bloody hair cut.’ [laughs] See we’d both got double crowns. When you cut that short it stands up like a hedgehog [laughs]. And they didn’t know the difference anyway. We got away with blue murder.
DK: So, what, what was your feelings about flying in the Halifax then? Was it a [unclear]
JP: Well, we worshipped the Halifax. Yeah. See, it’s a lost machine now but it did more. It towed gliders, it did Met, it did bombing, it did transport. It did everything, the Halifax. Whereas the Lanc
DK: Yeah.
JP: Faster, higher, newer, only did bombing. And of course we hadn’t got all the equipment. We had to manage with the old Mark 9 bombsight where we set our own. And it was impossible to take an astrofix because you couldn’t get it steady enough. We set the bombsight ourselves. Well inaccurate because you can’t get the exact speed. Now the Mark 10, the last few I got, the speed, the speed and that was fed in, and the height, was fed in electronically. But we had the, the what’s the name box for a few but they had all the latest equipment. We just had DR and that was it.
DK: Yeah.
JP: So, we, I mean we worshipped the Halifax. It took us there. Got us back. And now mention the Halifax you’re treated with scorn, ‘that bloody thing.’ Yet it did all. It was like the Hurricane and Spitfire. Hurricane did the work. The Spitfire got the credit because of the name.
DK: Yeah.
JP: Hurricane. Lanc got the credit because new aircraft flying higher, faster than anything and got all the credit. But we did a hell of a lot of work. In fact we got to, say about twenty thousand feet. They were above us but below us were the Stirlings and the Wimpies and the Wellingtons. We did our bombing runs on them and they did their bombing runs on us [laughs] yeah.
DK: Could you, could you actually see much at night then? Could you see?
JP: Well, it depended on the cloud.
DK: Yeah.
JP: I mean the Peenemunde raid was a one off. It was absolutely clear moonlight. It was like daylight and we went in at fifteen thousand lower. And it was a must. It frightened the life out of us. They briefed us. They said, they locked the doors and you mustn’t breathe a word. If a word gets out we’re finished. It’s got to be deadly secret to get this place where they’re making the V-2s or V-1s. And so all this. It’s dangerous. And you’re going out at a lower level. And you’ve got to go whatever the weather. If you don’t go tonight you’ve got to go to it and then it will be twice as bad because by then the Germans probably would have known.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And they did a fake run to Berlin. So we got over Denmark and we got to Flensburg and we were coned. Now to get coned was suicide. When you’ve got a bomb load and once they got you in the cone of light you couldn’t see and the only way out was to get down below the angle. So you came down with a loaded bomber and you had a job to pull out. It was almost suicide to get caught. And they either fired up the flak or get the night fighters on you. But of course we were lucky. The night fighters had all gone —
DK: Yeah.
JP: To stop this, what was going to be a trip to Berlin. And they weren’t there. So that was just an incident where I had the luck, you know.
DK: At the briefing for Peenemunde —
JP: Yeah.
DK: Did they tell you what was being made in the factories?
JP: Yes.
DK: They did.
JP: Yes. We knew about this WAAF. WAAF had seen the photograph. And the, and the Poles had already, give them credit, the Poles were the bravest of the brave. They pinched a chunk of wood and they’d got it over through Sweden. So we’d got more idea and also don’t forget our Buckinghamshire team was taking the secret doc, the secret meetings of the Germans.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JP: They could learn. So we knew more than they thought we knew. They told us all about it and said what it was and said we’d got to wipe it out because it was the V-1 then and that was creating havoc. It was frightening. You know, putt putt putt and down it came. And it was creating a bit of panic. And when the V-2 came it didn’t even make that sound. Explode half a town you know. So, they told us we’d got to go and we’d got to get it. Now, the Yanks followed a day or two later. But the Yanks got all the credit. They weren’t even there. On that Peenemunde raid where we dropped people in to sort of stifle it and that, the RAF did it. Yeah. When we got there not a sound. It was way way way into Denmark. Past the Kattegat up in the Baltic and we went on in straight line as if we go up to Sweden or turn starboard to Germany. To Berlin. That was up there. And suddenly we were, we knew we’d got to find this place. They stuck out in the water. This sort of bulbous sort of bit of land. No searchlights. No flak. And as we turned to go in, oh then all hell was let loose. We were on the first wave. So we were through and out. Out the other side before too much trouble. But those that followed got hammered.
DK: Yeah. Could you see much of the target as you dropped your bombs at Peenemunde?
JP: No. You could see the, that raid yeah you could see the huts and the buildings.
DK: Yeah.
JP: But normally when you were at twenty five thousand and don’t forget you’re not going to a flat surface. You’re going to a sea of fire. Flames. Kites going down. Green and red, what’s the name of it on the ground and the searchlights and night fighters. So you, you didn’t see much. And it got all smoky if not cloudy. So, on a good night going in you could pick out the rivers and the main road. The [unclear] were light. They were like big white sort of lights. And the, and the woods. Well later on of course when I then went on to glider, glider towing, paratroop dropping at low level a different kettle of fish. We map read everywhere then on the shape of the woods and the rivers. But you only saw the minor ones up there. You could see enough. Well you could say look there’s a load of flak ahead. That’s probably, you look at your map, that’s probably the town of so and so. Go to starboard to avoid it. And then the pilot would say, ‘How far do you think we are Frank from — ’ and I’d sort of, ‘Ten miles.’ Alright. It was a good crew and they relied on everybody.
DK: Can you, can you still name your crew then?
JP: I can. Yeah. Well. Ron Hay was the pilot. Dougie Henderson was the rear gunner. John Garland was the w/op AG. The rear, the mid-upper gunner was a young lad who lost his life in a car, in a coach accident when we’d only had him a week or two. And then an Aussie joined us, Arthur Evans. And we were friends. And the navigator. I hardly spoke to him because he was in his little enclave and he was an officer. We were all NCOs except Doug. Well, when they finished the tour the pilot he had us in. He said, ‘Well, what can I do? Would you like me to recommend you for a commission?’ The rear gunner said yes. I said, he asked me, I said no because I was not going to get beyond my brother. Imagine. Identical twins. One walking down the street with a commission and one not. I couldn’t do it.
DK: No.
JP: So I said no. I was offered it. Only if I’d taken the chance I’d have done probably a lot better but I wouldn’t take it.
DK: Did you find that a bit difficult that your crew, some of the crew were officers?
JP: Yeah.
DK: And yourself NCO. So you wouldn’t mix socially or —
JP: Yeah. You wouldn’t mix socially unless they would. But they weren’t really allowed to. They did up to a point. We’d go out for a drink now and again but then we’d go our own way.
DK: But you didn’t see that as a problem in the crew itself.
JP: No. No. No. We were all mad and all equally sort of wanted to go. And I never saw, I did with a couple of crews I flew with, saw much panic. You see the bravery was not going on ops where you were shot down. Because you didn’t expect to be. You hoped not to be. The bravery was going the next day and the next day. I mean in successive. In there you’ll see I did four ops in five days. Absolutely tired out. It wasn’t just the op. The next day you had to go to get your aircraft ready. If there was not a malfunction you had to go and do a little flight test. Had to get all the equipment ready and be briefed all day. So you never got any sleep.
DK: No.
JP: And of course when you got to bed you were too tired to sleep and too exhilarated. There was a certain exhilaration when you got back.
DK: I was going to say how did you feel as you got out of the aircraft after, after the mission? After the operation.
JP: Happy. You know. Very contented. Very very pleased with life. And we used to, we didn’t feel boastful or anything like that. We’d got to go to be debriefed of course with the old padre there. And he used to hand out the fags and I didn’t smoke so I used to give mine away. And then we had, always looked forward to egg and chips. Egg and chips. And if any crews were missing we ate their eggs. But you wouldn’t know. See, you only knew your own crew basically. You knew the others in passing but everything was, everything was together. You trained together, you flew together and you went out together. Had a drink together. You see you were right out in the country. Not much you could do. So you got the old bike and went to the nearest pub. And if they hadn’t got any beer we’d go to the next one. And then we’d find a little social dance. That sort of thing.
DK: Yeah.
JP: You couldn’t do anything. Occasionally we got in to York. I went to Leeds a couple of times. And I believe, and I can’t remember how but I went to Sheffield once. Didn’t get on there because we hadn’t got time. We’d just go for the evening and wander around and have a drink and —
DK: And then.
JP: That was it.
DK: As you were then told the next day another operation how did you feel then as you were getting in the aircraft?
JP: Well, quite, quite glad really. You were getting through them. I remember I sort of started putting a number by my ops. And, and so they said, ‘We don’t count. We don’t count the ops. We just do them.’ But you did. In your mind. You knocked another one off. And it got more sort of you know the early, oh yeah but when you got in your twenties and people all around you were missing. You didn’t know whether they’d been shot down, whether they’d finish their tour, whether they’d left. And all this. It was come and go all the time. You couldn’t settle anywhere. Only with your own crew.
DK: Yeah.
JP: Because if you made friends because they were missing the next night. That wasn’t to say they were missing. They were posted away to somewhere else. It was a come and go. So there was that community of crew. They were more or less everything. And you got on well with them. Well most of them. Some, some you didn’t. But you were so closely knit together and there was a camaraderie about it. And I met two crews that panicked a bit. One of them supposed to be one of the, actually I flew with them a couple of times. And they’d done well on the thousand bomber raid and the pilot had got his, had got a gong out of it. So they were supposed to be a good crew. But they got behind somehow and the bomb aimer had gone, I reckon he’d gone to LMF. Lack of moral fibre. They used to take them out and strip them, you know. Lack of moral fibre they call it. Nerves didn’t count. None of this psychology or that sort of thing. You were whipped away. If you were an officer, reduced to, well kept your commission but reduced in rank to the menial jobs. If you were an NCO you lost your rank and everything else.
DK: And this crew. Did you think the bomb aimer then was, had had some problems?
JP: The bomb aimer had a lot. You see, I was the one who, well out of them I’d done a bit of flying on the Tiger and the Anson and whatnot. More than they had, some of them. And I was the one who used to help the pilot at his take off because you needed two. One to help push it up.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And I was the one that helped him on landing. And, and I was the one he referred to. Now, you see if you go to Berlin you’ve got over an eight hour trip. Well the pilot can’t get and have a quick wee. There’s nobody there. Now on one occasion he put it into George which was the automatic pilot, ‘Here you are Prag. Have a go at this.’ And I held this, frightened to death while he went and had a quick wee. But they relied on you so much.
DK: So your job also included flying the aircraft then when he needed a break.
JP: Well, it didn’t really but it depended on the pilot. He used to let me have a go now and again but when he was a, I didn’t, I wasn’t good enough to sort of take it on and like it.
DK: So, on, on a typical operation then as, as you as the bomb aimer.
JP: Yeah. Yeah.
DK: What was your role when you got on the aircraft and you took off? Are you helping the navigator?
JP: Well, the navigator. He was in his little sort of hut thing and I, I didn’t want to be a navigator because you couldn’t see what was going on. You could only hear. Whereas a bomb aimer you had the freedom of the aircraft.
DK: Right.
JP: And you were more or less in charge of that part of the aircraft in many ways.
DK: Did, did your job involve anything to do with the bombs before they went on the aircraft? Would you check them?
JP: No. The armourers did that.
DK: Right.
JP: You saw them and watched them winch them on but it was the armourers that did it. You knew how to, if it didn’t go off they’d was a little pannier thing you could undo and pull a toggle and get it, release it.
DK: Yeah.
JP: You’re not supposed to, you couldn’t bring them back because you couldn’t land with them or they’d have gone up and blown you up. And if you’d still got them when you got back you had to drop them in a dropping zone. Ours was in, in the North Sea. And —
DK: Did you have any that didn’t drop? That you, you had to —
JP: I believe, I didn’t know but the flight engineer, he was often, he was a Scotsman and he was often half drunk. He said there’s a couple of, a couple of bombs there. So I went down to look. I pulled the toggle but whether it released the bomb or not I don’t know. But I think once, yes in the North Sea there. See, you got, what’s-it Glenn Miller lost on a place like that when they came back and dropped their bombs. They reckon that’s where, how he lost his life.
DK: Yeah. As you, as you’re approaching the target then.
JP: Yeah.
DK: You’re in the front. You’re looking down.
JP: Yeah.
DK: And then what’s your role there? Do you arm the bombs and then drop them?
JP: Well, you do the map reading in. The pilot, the navigator’s supposed to get you within range and then it was yours and you do the, you see the target where the green and red flares were. And the Pathfinders above were saying bomb on the green flares because there had been an accident and the red had drifted away. Or bomb on the red. Or right between the two. So you directed it in between all the flak and the flame to where you think the target was. And you go on, you know, ‘Left. Left.’ You said, ‘Left. Left.’ And ‘Right,’ So if you said the same so you didn’t get the same tone.
DK: Right.
JP: ‘Left. Left. Steady. Steady.’ And when you were approaching you had the bomb doors open. You had to open them ready and you kept them open ‘til after you’d dropped your bomb for the photograph. As you closed the doors so the photograph was cut off. So you had to, as long as you, the time was how long your bombs would take to drop and each bomb had a different timing because they were different. Smooth or whatever. And they were different weights. So they had the speed they entered so all that had to be entered on your bombsight. So it was done automatically later but we had to enter it on a height bar and, and another knob here, another knob there. And then we got the information as we flew. And then you’d drop it as you said, ‘Bombs gone,’ And then you get the panic. ‘Get rid of them. Go.’ And you’d got you had to be cool, calm and collected until that photograph went off. The flash went off. Because that was taking, you see the bombs didn’t go down like that. They go on an arc with the speed and they were there. They’d say, oh bomb here. They’d land over by you, you see. So we had to wait that time. It seemed like an age. And you couldn’t turn around and come back because you were going in to your own people. You had to fly on over Germany and then so many miles they’d either turn. You didn’t know whether you were going to turn port or starboard to find the way out.
DK: As, as the bombs left the aircraft could you feel the aeroplane.
JP: Yeah. You felt it go. Yeah. Yeah.
DK: And what, what was the crews reaction as they’re waiting for you to drop the bombs?
JP: [laughs] Going mad. ‘Close the f’ing doors,’ [laughs] And I used to, I was the youngster you know. They were all older than I was. I was supposed to be cool, calm and collected. The pilot was good. The pilot would do everything you told him to do and yet he was probably the most experienced pilot in the Group. So we got all the big jobs. The Berlins and the Peenemunde and we got the Hamburg raid when we wiped it out with Window. It’s all in there in that book of mine. Yeah.
DK: Can I have a look at the logbook?
JP: Yeah.
JP: Now, that’s precious. If you look in the back there’s all the stations, all stations of it and there’s a picture of myself and my brother there in that envelope.
DK: Can I?
JP: Have a look at that. Yeah.
DK: I’ll be very careful with it.
JP: That’s alright.
DK: You were alike [laughs]
JP: We were nineteen there. That was taken just after we got home from South Africa
DK: I don’t know how people told you —
JP: They didn’t.
DK: Yeah.
JP: They didn’t. You can see. You can see why we were known as, we were known as Prag by the crew.
DK: So are you on the left or the right?
JP: I think on the left.
DK: You think [laughs]
JP: From me it would be the left.
DK: Left. Right.
JP: Yeah. I think so. Yeah.
DK: Yeah. Lovely.
JP: Broke my heart when he was killed. Part of me went. And I had a hell of a time after that. I wasn’t happy.
DK: No. I can understand.
JP: It’s got all my qualifications in there of course.
DK: So I’ll read this out for the recording. So you were on Ansons here. This was in Rhodesia.
JP: Yeah. That was —
DK: East London.
JP: The Navigation.
DK: Yeah. East London.
JP: Yeah. That was South Africa.
DK: South Africa. Yeah. Yeah.
JP: And the Oxfords were bombing.
DK: So you were on Fairey Battles as well.
JP: Pardon?
DK: Battles. Fairey Battles.
JP: Yeah. That was the gunnery.
DK: Yeah.
JP: We used to fire at a drogue being towed by, what have we got here?
DK: And Oxfords.
JP: Oxfords. That was the gunnery.
DK: Yeah.
JP: That was the, you know, the bombing.
DK: That’s South Africa. So it’s 102 Squadron. And then it says 1652 Conversion Unit.
JP: Yeah. That, well we went there for a couple of weeks. That’s all. You see I didn’t get, I didn’t start until late in 1942. Yet I was doing my ops in ’42 and ’43. Yeah.
DK: And then on to 51 Squadron at Snaith.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DK: So that’s Halifaxes.
JP: Yeah. See Pocklington was the holding unit then.
DK: Right.
JP: The head of the Group.
DK: So Lorient, so Cologne.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Wilhelmshaven.
JP: Yeah. Wilhelmshaven. Yeah.
DK: It says here Nuremberg. Engine. Engine u/s. Bombs jettisoned.
JP: Yeah. We had to come back. Yeah. We got there and more or less had to drop the bombs and had to come out. That counted as an op because we’d got more than half way I believe.
DK: So this is February 1943. And then there’s Cologne. And then St Nazaire in France.
JP: Yeah.
DK: So Berlin on the 1st of March.
JP: Yeah. I did three Berlins. And you’ll find there were ten Essens as well.
DK: Right.
JP: Three Essens in there.
DK: So the 1st of March was Berlin.
JP: Yeah.
DK: The 5th of March, Essen.
JP: Yeah.
DK: The 9th of March, Munich.
JP: Yeah.
DK: The 12th of March, Essen.
JP: Well, would you get a harder tour than that anywhere? Suicide.
DK: Well, you had a bit of a break here. It’s the 26th was Duisburg. And then 27th of March, Berlin again.
JP: Yeah.
DK: So then April. 3rd of April, Essen.
JP: Yeah.
DK: April the 4th Kiel. The 8th of April, Duisburg. The 14th of April, Stuttgart. And then they’ve given you another rest here [laughs] May 13th Bochum.
JP: Bochum.
DK: And then?
JP: Dortmund. Bochum.
DK: Yeah.
JP: Dortmund. Dusseldorf.
DK: And then 23rd of May, Dortmund.
JP: Yeah. They were all the Ruhr Valley.
DK: 25th of May, Dusseldorf. Sorry. So July the 24th was Hamburg.
JP: Yeah.
DK: So that would have been the big raid on Hamburg.
JP: That would have been the [pause] when we wiped it out with the firestorm yeah.
DK: And then 25th of July, Essen. August the 2nd , Hamburg. August the 8th Nuremberg. Milan.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Milan, Italy.
JP: We didn’t get there. We got, we couldn’t get over the, had engine trouble so we got as far as the Alps. Had to turn around and come back.
DK: So that, it actually says engine u/s. Bombs jettisoned.
JP: Yeah. Yeah.
DK: And then August the 17th Peenemunde.
JP: Yeah.
DK: And it says you landed back at Middleton St George.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. We couldn’t get in. We were fog bound. Our place.
DK: Right. And then August 22nd Leverkusen. 23rd of August, Berlin again. So that, that presumably would have been, oh it says you were then screened from operations.
JP: Yeah.
DK: September 1943.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Wow.
JP: In the further ops you will see, if you turn over, on the, when I re-mustered. I couldn’t stand Training Command after my brother was missing. And I had a row with the wing commander. So I volunteered for another thing and found out it was glider towing.
DK: That was with 298 Squadron.
JP: Yeah.
DK: Tarrant Rushton. So, you were, you were towing the gliders then.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. We took a Hamilcar in the big bugger.
DK: Hamilcars. Yeah.
JP: Then I did an instructors course at Number 1 Air Armament School, Manby. Which was, by then, by that time the war was, we weren’t needed after that. They didn’t know what to do with us.
DK: Yeah. So, so, that’s May 1945. You’re on Wellingtons then.
JP: Yeah.
DK: What was that like? Flying Wellingtons after the Halifax.
JP: Wellington was probably the best aircraft of the war. It did everything.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And it was still going strong at the end of the war.
DK: And that was —
JP: Very strong. You know the geodetic construction.
DK: Yeah.
JP: And it stood up to any. It burned because it was fabric. You could reckon if a Wellington crashed it was going to burn. We did crash in it. Is it there we crashed? A ten minute trip.
DK: Was that at Manby?
JP: No. That was later on. During that time. So, when I was in Training Command. On one of the odd trips.
DK: Yeah. So [pause] so when, when did you leave the air force then?
JP: When? It’s in my book. My service book there.
DK: So would it have been about that time?
JP: No. It was —
Other: ’46 I think.
DK: ’46. Ok.
JP: It was a bit later. 1946 I think. Yeah.
Other: Yeah. May. May ’46.
JP: Yeah. I did just over five years.
DK: Yeah. And what did you do after that? When you —
JP: Well, I didn’t know what. I wasn’t going back to my job. I couldn’t stand the thought of a tin pot office job. And I had straight, I had a couple of months leave and about two hundred quid to spend. You know, as the generous air force. And I was walking home one day having told Manfields. They offered me a job. Offered me a good job. I couldn’t go back. Couldn’t go back indoors. So, I was walking home along St George’s Avenue which was by the technical college and out shot one of the teachers who was my old teacher when I was at school. And he’d been an officer in the cadets. So I used to meet him at the odd dance at the Salon and whatnot. And he used to speak. So he said, ‘Hello,’ he said. Well I was demobbed. He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of hundred quid in the bank. I’ve got a couple of months leave and I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I said, ‘I’m not going back to my old job although they said I could. It’s a waste of time. I’m not going back there.’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you take up teaching?’ I said, ‘Well can I?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re a qualified instructor to start with.’ Which was better than a teaching diploma. He said, ‘And furthermore you were one of my bright lads,’ he said, ‘Yeah,’ he said. I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll get the papers and I’ll sign. I’ll recommend you. You’ll have to get another recommendation and get the papers filled in and then wait.’ Well, I did this. Within about a fortnight I was accepted. And they sat down, ‘You don’t need to be qualified. You can start straight away.’ I was teaching within a month. A class of my own in a school. Well, I had that for about eighteen months. Then I went to college then and then after a few years I got a headship. Then a bigger headship. And that was it. Twenty odd years ahead. I was a magistrate for twenty seven years in addition.
DK: Oh right.
JP: And all sorts of other things.
DK: So how, how do you look back on your time in Bomber Command now? How do you feel about it after seventy odd years?
JP: A bit of a joke. And, you know, the bombastic sort of people there. Well one wing commander. I was introduced. When we went back for my second tour they were crewing up from all over. And I was the one who had done most. I’d done a tour of ops. None of the others had. So, we went through, ‘Now, what have you done?’ I said, ‘Well, you can ask the others. Well, I’ve done a tour of ops.’ ‘You did what?’ I said, ‘A tour of ops.’ ‘On what aircraft?’ ‘Halifaxes.’ I learned afterwards he’d flown Halifaxes. And he tapped his chest, the bombastic bugger and said, ‘And didn’t you get one of these?’ I said, ‘No. My name didn’t come with a NAAFI ration.’ He went mad. ‘These have to be earned,’ he said [laughs] He didn’t like that and I didn’t like him. I had a big row with him later though. You see I missed out through being ill. Immediately afterwards for two to three weeks I wasn’t there and that was when things were being disposed of. I was told I was getting a gong. I didn’t get it.
DK: Oh really.
JP: I was also told, I went up for commission but didn’t get it. I think it had gone before that I’d had a row. When my brother was finally reported killed my mother was suicidal. And we were on then glider towing. Now, that half of England nothing was allowed out. No phone call. No letters. No anything. You were not allowed out if you were in that, in the forces because of the secrecy of it for D-Day. This went on for several weeks. Well, my father sent a pre-paid telegram. And mum, they knew I was back on ops because his friend in the Bournemouth had told him. He’d got a friend there. But didn’t know what ops. And of course she got the wind up. Thought it was like my brother. And then she was suicidal. And I didn’t know what to do. So he wrote and said, ‘Look, you must come home.’ So, I went to the wing commander. This bombastic devil. He didn’t think much of me and I didn’t think much of him anyway. I let it be known. So I sat I’m on my own [laughs] frequently. So anyway, he, he was there in the crew room surrounded by people. I said, ‘Look, it’s important. Could I have a forty eight hour pass?’ ‘Forty eight hour pass. Why?’ I said, ‘Well, my twin brother has finally been reported killed and my mother’s suicidal.’ ‘Well, what good can you do?’ I looked him up and down. I said, ‘I’ll bloody soon show you what good I can do,’ I said, ‘For one thing my MP will know. Another thing the Daily Mirror, which was the forces favourite, that will know. And another thing you will be on the bloody grass.’ He looked at me and I turned around and walked away. I took the forty eight hour pass. And when I was home my mother made me promise not to fly again. I was heartbroken. I didn’t know what to do. I mean I was on my own. I was no longer had to, got a mate. I’d been a loner. When he was missing I became a loner because I couldn’t, couldn’t gel.
DK: No.
JP: So I went back and I said, ‘Look. I’m not flying anymore.’ Well, the crew couldn’t understand it. They could understand but they knew why. The CO, well the CO was the one I’d had the row with. But the one below him, the squadron leader, he was a lovely bloke. He was a bit older and a bit more understanding. And he had a bit more authority really. He was long established. And so I used to have to report to him every day. He said, ‘Will you fly?’ ‘No.’ He said, ‘Now look,’ he said, ‘Normally if they can’t fly they are stripped of their rank and that,’ he said, ‘Because you’ve done a tour of ops we feel we can’t do that to you but,’ he said, ‘Your crew is standing by.’ And D-Day was, turned out to be about a fortnight later. ‘Is waiting. And you’re one of the leading crews. But the crew can’t fly without you. So, at the moment the wing commander realises that he should not have said what he said. He hasn’t reported it. But Group want to know and they’ll have to.’ So anyway I was standing on my own in the navigator’s room just looking around. And nobody wanted to know me. I was a bloody pariah you know. And in comes this wing commander. And he looks me up and down. ‘Pragnell.’ ‘Yeah.’ No sir. I never called him sir again in my life. He said, ‘Well, I want to fly up to Wing.’ We thought he had a lady friend at Wing. Near Leighton Buzzard there. He used to go frequently. Perhaps it was a Group meeting. I don’t know. He says, ‘I want a crew.’ He said, ‘Will you fly?’ I looked him up and down. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Right,’ he said , ‘We’ll get a crew together,’ and so and so. So, I had to go round and get a gunner and a what’s the name and we flew him up there. I flew him up there. Got him there. I didn’t bother to navigate. I map read him up because I was good at that by then. I’d map read over France and very good at it. So anyway I got off for the sake of the other lad I got a proper course. Flew him back. We got back to Brize Norton. That was our headquarters. And he said, ‘I know where I am.’ So, ‘Right.’ So he flew back and dropped us off and I then went back in to my crew. And then came D-Day of course. So then very shortly after D-Day, now whether it was because I was more experienced as I was or whether he didn’t like me as I think it was I was taken out of my crew within, with several others. But whole crews. To form a new Conversion Unit up near Nottingham somewhere. To train for the Far East.
DK: Right.
JP: And we, well as soon as we got there the war virtually finished so we weren’t, we were posted all over the place then. So I was taken out. Not, with this other crew and flown up to this place to help form this unit. Well, we got together, did a bit of instructing but then the runways apparently wouldn’t take the weight of the bigger aircraft. So we moved to Saltby, which you probably know. Lincolnshire way.
DK: Yeah.
JP: We went there in convoy and I was given charge of a couple of lorries. A handful of erks and a lorry load of stuff to go down and went through Burton on Trent and through there. And I got relatives in Burton on Trent so, ‘We’ll have an hour here lads.’ So we stayed there and I went and saw my relatives and had a cup of tea with them and we went back in to Saltby. And I got the best billet. Well, that didn’t last long. We moved on again. We went to Marston Moor. We went somewhere else. That’s all in there where we went to. And we weren’t wanted. Because they’d got so many like us that had finished their ops they didn’t know what to do with them.
DK: No.
JP: They made lorry drivers and engine drivers out off of lots of them. And I got a lovely little number myself. I I got in to a department. Only a flight lieutenant and he was in charge of the bombing equipment and the distribution of it. And the bomb dump was absolutely full. Old wings, parts of engines, mechanical stuff. And it was brimming over. And he gave me the job with a lorry and a couple of erks who knew what they were doing, and a driver to go out each day. And they sorted out the pick of the stuff. Expensive metals. And we’d go to York every day. We’d drop this off. And go back there the next day. Marvellous time I had. And I, and there’s all sorts of things going. You know you couldn’t get coat hangers for love or money. Now, there was, hanging all around this room where the gas capes had been there were three coat hangers on each peg. Little did the flight lieutenant know. A bit later there were only two of these coat hangers on each peg. When he came to me one day, he said, ‘Oh, you can have a coat hanger.’ ‘Oh, thank you very much.’ All my mates had got coat hangers. Another time he came and said, ‘Well we’ve got so much stuff.’ They’d got farming equipment, barbed wire, these stakes that went in and the farmers were crying out for stuff. He said, ‘We’ve invited some of the local farmers to come and have some. So,’ he said, ‘Go and see to it.’ So I went up there and there were these farmers with their tractors. ‘Well, what can I have?’ ‘I don’t know. Have what you like.’ They were loading on the barbed wire and I came in for a lot of eggs that day. It was a lovely time. I was completely in charge of myself and nobody bothered me.
DK: But the stuff was being used. It was being used usefully on the farms though wasn’t it?
JP: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JP: Yeah. They were very friendly actually. The farmers. It was back up in Yorkshire of course see. Where I knew. All my flying. That was Linton on Ouse this was.
DK: Right.
JP: Yeah. Yeah. At the big one up there. But the rest of it was Pocklington and Elvington and Snaith. And my twin brother was Holme on Spalding Moor and Northallerton and around there. Yeah. It was in Northallerton that one of them took my tonsils out. That was a joke. He said, ‘Well, come on. You’ve got to go.’ So I had to get up and get dressed and I got an ambulance to take me. And it was the old ambulances. No sirens. It was ring bells. And everywhere we went for a bit of fun he rang the bell. And the people were lining the street. And when we got there he rang the bell. Pulled up. People were watching. And I climbed out [laughs] I saw life.
DK: Oh dear. Ok. Well that, that —
JP: Sorry to bore you but —
DK: No. That’s, that’s great. I’ll stop it there.
JP: Yeah.
DK: That’s been marvellous. Thanks, thanks very much for your time.
Other: When you’ve stopped it —
DK: Still going.
JP: Well, if you want to —



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Jack Pragnell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed January 20, 2020,

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