Interview with Horace Robertson


Interview with Horace Robertson


Horace Robertson was working with his father as a shoe repairer in Edinburgh before he joined the RAF. He trained as an electrician and his first posting was at RAF Finningley where he worked on Hampdens. He was then posted to a salvage unit and travelled around the country to collect crashed aircraft. He was based with 617 Squadron and discusses the security on the station before the Dams operation. He was eventually posted to the Bomber Command Film Unit before being posted overseas.




Temporal Coverage




00:24:30 audio recording


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ARobertsonH170823, PRobertsonH1701


JS: That’s good. This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jim Sheach. The interviewee is Horace Robertson. The interview is taking place at Horace’s home in [buzz] Edinburgh on the 23rd of August 2017. Could you tell me a little bit about your life before you joined the RAF?
HR: From when?
JS: From, from school?
HR: From school?
JS: Yeah.
HR: Well, I went to Broughton School. Yeah. Then I left at fourteen and joined my father who had a shoe repairing business and I worked for him until I was called up at nineteen and that was me in.
JS: And were you, when you were called up were you sent to the RAF or did you have a choice on where you went?
HR: We had a, had a wee exam which was really just adding. Could you add up this and add up that? It was more like the Air Force recruiting place and that was it. So just joined up then. That’s it, because at that time they didn’t call the night, when we were called up there was something about they didn’t want to cause any bother in Germany so they weren’t called soldiers, airmen or anything they were called, I can’t remember, a funny name. A very political sort of thing. You know. But we weren’t, weren’t called up as the Air Force or anything like that so I don’t know why. I read in the paper the other day about it and they had a fancy name for us and it wasn’t until the war was declared that’s when we came under the name like the Air Force. That’s right. Yeah.
JS: So where did you go first?
HR: Cardington. Basic training. Cardington. Yeah. Very good. There’s a photo there somewhere of me at Cardington. That’s right. So that, I went there for I can’t remember how long. We weren’t allowed out you know until we had done the basic training and we were called up. Sorry. Yeah. Then after that I went to Henlow on an electrician’s course. So that was going to be, of course the war wasn’t on then so it was supposed to be a three year course but of course, as soon as the war was declared that was scrapped and we were hustled right through, you know. So I become an electrician then after that and I mean there was no electricians at that time. They were all wireless or electric mechanics so we were the first lot of electricians to come out you know. That was it. Yeah.
JS: So, so what was expected that your role was going to be? What?
HR: Just electrician. That was all. We did, we did a course on electrics, motors and then you know wiring and it was like a college. We were at a college. That’s right. Yeah.
JS: So, which, which squadron did you go to first?
HR: I can’t remember the number but it was at Finningley at Doncaster. It was Hampdens there you know. Twin engine Hampden bombers. I think we had two. I think we had two bombers. I think that’s all we had. Yeah. And my job was to make sure the batteries were always charged up for the aircrew. They had an individual one for their stuff and they all had to have them always charged up every day. So that’s all I was there. For that. And my uniform lasted just a few months and it just crumbled away with the acid. Fumes off the acid you know. So I was only there a few months and then I was posted to Hereford on another course. Electrician 2s course. So that was that. So I went there and I passed out there. Got my electrician 2 and then I was posted to Newcastle and it was a wee bit of grass and a wooden hut and that’s all it was there. So it was 83 MU and it was a Salvage Unit so we used to go around picking up salvage from crashes and that was, that was a good job. And there was no billets so the police just came along and went, knocked on the door, ‘Right. I’ve got somebody. You’ll have to put this lad up.’ And all the crew and everything all went into private houses. So we just lived with the people. So that was good. Yeah. And that were extended from the top of Scotland right down to Darlington and everything that crashed that was to be picked up you know. So I was there for a long time. Yeah. Yeah. So that was a good, that was a good job. Yeah. Picking up aircraft and we were, we’d be away in Durham, we were over in the, over west and all over the place so it was a good. That was a good one. Yeah. Yeah. So I remember we were down at Whitley Bay. There was a, I can’t remember the name of the place but a big house there and a Spitfire had crashed so we were down there and we picked it up. So we drove along the front at Whitley Bay and I can’t remember the name of the hotel but anyway they were all recruits and they were being drilled and we come along with an old wagon and all the, all the muck and everything and the flight sergeant came out. ‘Get them out of there. Get them out of there.’ That lot, you know and I can remember you’d never seen such a, I mean we’d been working up to the ears in mud all day and that’s right. So that was quite funny that. Yeah. So I was there for a while and then I got posted down to [pause] I can’t remember where now. Anyway, we were working on Lockheed Hudsons this time you know. That’s right. And [pause] what happened was they used to land badly and the undercarriage went upwards and both petrol tanks were split. So that was and that was this crowd here by the phone. Civvies. So we worked with civilians working on these Lockheed Hudsons you know. So that was quite a good thing. I was there for ages and ages and ages there and then from there we went to 57. I was there a wee while and then was transferred to 617. That was it. Yeah. And then I went on as I say the unit and we went on this taking the engine out and putting them in and you could see the [unclear] when they did the Tirpitz. You know when they bombed the Tirpitz they changed all the engine on that. That’s right. I can’t remember that but I remember working on the engines you know. That’s right. And then after that I got moved again on to this new unit, Bomber Command Film Unit and that was the where two thingumyjigs there. And the war was to finish then so we were on Tiger Force. Yeah. Was on Tiger Force for that one. Yeah. And then I got posted to Gib and went on a troop ship. I mean why didn’t they fly me there? Went on a troop ship. Full of soldiers they were. They were saying all these ha ha you know. So we had a bit of a [unclear] getting out and then I was only there three months. Flew home, was demobbed and that was it. You know. Simple as that. Yeah.
JS: How did you, when you moved around as on ground crew did you tend to move around with the same people all the time or were you working with [unclear]
HR: Not really. We just seemed to be, you just, I mean we just got posted somehow. One minute they said, ‘Right. You’re off.’ And that was it, you know. That’s right.
JS: How, how, what was the relationship like between ground crew and aircrew?
HR: Didn’t do anything with them. Never saw them really. I mean you, you were on ground crew all the day you know. You never saw the ground, you didn’t see the aircrew until they came out at night, you know. That’s right. Yeah. You didn’t. I can’t remember ever seeing any. Being with them you know because we were so busy. I mean that when we went to East Kirkby it was such a huge ‘drome by the time we got out in the morning and walked over to dispersal, did our job it was time to come home for lunch. So in the end they had to get bikes. Everybody got a bike there because that was the only way they could do it. It was such a huge place. I’ve never seen such a place so big, you know. That’s right. But never, didn’t have anything to do with the aircrew at all. The only time we were coming away with aircrew was when we used to repair Ronson lighters. That was a good job. You know when they used to break we used to make the spring and there was always some aircrew that wanted that. That was the only time you saw them you know. But otherwise, no. Yeah.
JS: So did you work on, if you were at that aerodrome like East Kirkby you would work on lots of different aircraft. You wouldn’t just work on the same one.
HR: No. It was only on Lancasters. That’s right. Yeah. That’s the only ones we had. That’s right. Yeah. I remember flying to Derby I think it was to pick up a plane. One had landed and we saw planes there with two engines and they were doing experimental with jets you know. That’s right. And we couldn’t believe it. We thought, ‘They’ve got no propellers.’ You know. That’s right. So that was that. That was the only time I flew was when we flew down there to pick it up. One up. That’s right. Yeah. So, but nothing very exciting I’m afraid. But I mean that night with the Dambuster’s now we worked on there and we hadn’t a clue. I mean the planes were blacked out during the day and they were flying about and we were putting extra stuff in, electrical stuff but we had no bombs. And it was just about a day I think before the raid the bombs arrived and everybody looked at them and the armourer said, ‘I haven’t a clue. What are they going to use them for.’ So everybody got the idea they were going to be used against the Tirpitz. They were going to drop them and they were going to roll along and hit the Tirpitz. And that’s, that was the story. Yeah. I mean we hadn’t a clue that night. I was on duty that night and all I know. Yeah. So, and then I went to Gib and this, it was a lifeboat thing and it was underneath a Warwick plane and it was built by a guy called Uffa Fox. He was a famous boat guy. And there was an inboard motor and a twelve volt battery and that’s what I had to do was to make sure the battery was ok. So we got out this day, sailed around a bit and then what did they call it? A York was it? The civilian Lancaster. This arrived this day and this lady got out and she was the something of education, the Ministry of Education and she was going to fly from Gib to Malta. So this boat had to be got ready for her and put in to make sure that she had something. If anything happened on the way out she would have this boat you know. But I never heard any more about that, you know. That’s right. Yeah. But so I was at, I forget. Hendon I think I went. Anyway, and I went around with the guys and I said, ‘Now, you don’t have a lifeboat here?’ And the boatmen went, ‘Eh?’ They didn’t know. They didn’t know about an airborne lifeboat. That’s right. Yeah. And I see it was up in north, up in the north of Scotland. They had the, after the war they had the unit up there. That’s right. So, but that was it, that finished me off then. I just flew back to Manchester and was demobbed and that was it. So it was nothing special you know. Yeah.
JS: You, you mentioned being on duty on the night of the Dambuster’s raid.
HR: Yeah. Yeah.
JS: So if, if it was secrecy beforehand and nobody knew what was happening and whatever what was the, what was the feeling like on the base after?
HR: Well, we knew there was something on because the Red Caps were on the front door, the phones were all cut off and nobody was allowed out for ages. Now, we knew there was something but when you’re inside you just didn’t know. We were just, you were just keeping, getting on with the jobs you see and that was that. It was the same at night. It was just like an ordinary flying off at night. That was it. That’s right. And we didn’t know when they came back what was. We never knew then. It wasn’t until we heard about it the next day. That’s right. It was very, it was very secret. Yeah.
JS: And what was, what was the feeling like on the base when the news came out the next day?
HR: I think they were more surprised than anything you know. It, I mean then it suddenly dawned that, was that what the motor was underneath? Was that what that was? But I mean it wasn’t until we saw the actual films and that we knew what had happened. Yeah. Because, I mean they used to, you’d be working away beforehand and I mean you’d see the plane coming but the side windows were glazed over and things like that and the guys were flying blind. Well, not blind but flying in dark. In daylight darkness. That’s correct. Yeah. But I can’t remember much about it really. I mean it was just, you were just doing your normal jobs. You didn’t know anything special was going on. You just got on with what you were doing you know. You got a paper and you had to do something on, put something in and that was it. Yeah.
JS: But there must have been special visitors to the base after with the, like now.
HR: Well, once again we were put back behind bars, not bars but you were back on, on the old duty going to, you were just working away, you know. That’s right. It was over and it was over you know.
JS: So what, so what did you do after the war?
HR: What I’m doing now.
JS: The time when you were demobbed.
HR: What I’m doing now. Shoe repairer. Yeah. [unclear] Avenue and I’ve been there from 1946 when I come out. I’ve been there and I’m still there. So nothing happening [laughs] no.
JS: There’s nothing wrong with that.
HR: No.
JS: With, with as a Bomber Command veteran how do you think you and Bomber Command were treated after the war?
HR: Blooming rotten. I think so. I mean I read in the paper every day somebody saying that. [Dresden] of course that killed it dead that did. But I mean there were one on here the other night on about saying we should never have bombed Germany. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t this. But I mean it didn’t say about London and Coventry and you know everything else did it? No. And they’re still, still on. People. I know. Yeah.
JS: Do you think it’s, it’s changed at all?
HR: I don’t think that. Well, there still must be. Maybe. Maybe this lot. But even the younger ones. I’ve been reading about it and they’re on about it and saying it shouldn’t have been done. And I mean I can show you on here some Berlin at the back end you know. That’s what. That’s what I get when they see people running about in and they get but of course that bit was the Russians so that had nothing to do with us. You know. That’s right. I don’t get it. But there’s so many. Even the ones in parliament are still nagging on. Yeah.
JS: How, how do you think what was the feeling about Churchill at the time do you think?
HR: Didn’t have any. Never used to worry about me or any other and we just got on with the, you just got on with the job. You didn’t worry about them. It was like when I was at [pause] I can’t remember the place now but we were in bed on the Sunday morning when war was declared you know and somebody said, ‘Are you going over there for breakfast? Will you bring me a mug of tea back?’ And that was all that was mentioned. The war was on and they were talking about bringing a mug of tea back. You know what I mean. You couldn’t believe it. And that day the war was declared we got a gas mask, a gas cape, a tin hat and we had to go on patrol up in the hills there to guard the water tower with a pickaxe handle against the IRA. Now, I mean that’s what we were fighting. Against the IRA when war was declared. I mean you couldn’t believe it. It’s just unbelievable. This was with a pickaxe handle. I mean it’s crazy. And then, then one of the guys got smallpox so we were all confined to barracks. Nobody could go out so they used to bring the meals, put them in the door and they used to bring the morning papers and jigsaw puzzles and things. We were there a fortnight. Couldn’t go out with smallpox you know. That could be dangerous so the Red Caps used to come down and used to walk you up in the hills and then bring you back. That was it. But I mean that was the day they declared war and that’s all. That was it, you know. Still can’t believe it. Yeah. But I ended up, you know in doing the two courses. That took quite a while you know. That’s right. Yeah. And then of course you went up a scale. That meant an extra few pennies. A few pennies a week. Yeah. I know. So funny. Yeah. So —
JS: That’s great.
HR: Nothing very much I’m afraid.
JS: No. That’s been really really good. I’ll just stop this.
HR: I beg your pardon?
JS: I’ll just stop this.



James Sheach, “Interview with Horace Robertson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

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