Interview with Roy Saunders


Interview with Roy Saunders


Roy Saunders was a schoolboy in London when the war started. He witnessed the bombing of London and was amazed when he saw the smoke from the docks area when he emerged from a shelter. His school friend and family died in the bombing. Roy was evacuated to the countryside twice to stay with family. He also witnessed the V-1 and V-2 attacks on London. His education was interrupted because of the constant changes to his situation as he moved from one area to another. However, he went on to have an interesting career with ICI and GEC and was involved with the design of airborne radar.




Temporal Coverage

Spatial Coverage





01:45:31 audio recording


This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit and



ASaundersR171003, PSaundersR-H1701


CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Tuesday the 3rd of October 2017 and I’m in Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire with Roy and Honor Saunders who were minors during the war, that is to say small and experienced both the bombing and, of the Luftwaffe and also the rocketing by V-1 and V-2. So Roy, starting with Roy what are your earliest recollections of life, Roy?
RS: I think the first thing that I can vaguely remember is the Jubilee of George the 5th and I, the only thing I remember is the school party. I think the next thing I remember is the school party again for the Coronation of George the 6th. It seemed to me that life was full of parties. The next thing I can remember just, is the Munich Crisis. I remember this for the reason that, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” was about to be released and it was said that if a war started, “Snow White,” would be abandoned. But as the crisis was averted the war didn’t start, “Snow White,” I did get to see, “Snow White.” But I can also remember that I heard a lot of adult conversation. My father was firmly convinced there was going to be a war and I think I’m sure in saying, him saying that there certainly would still be a war in spite of the, the piece of paper that bore Hitler’s signature. I think the next thing I remember is being evacuated two days before the war actually started the following year. I think the war started on a Sunday. I don’t think there would have been in any trains in Cambridgeshire on a Sunday in those days until, I think I was evacuated on the Friday and heard about the war being declared after the chapel service on Sunday morning. I was evacuated with the boy next door and my maternal grandparents. We went to live on a farm owned by my grandmother’s sister, my great Aunt Anne. She was a widow and lived in a farmhouse which was divided into four sections. One down, one up with a scullery lean to. My aunt lived in the end one. The tenant farmers lived at the other end of the building and there was one spare part in the middle which my grandparents lived in. The boy next door and I lived in the same bedroom as my aunt. The boy next door eventually became a brigadier so I have a thought that I’ve slept with a brigadier [laughs] At the age of eight. Well, nothing happened during the first stages of the war and it was called The Phoney War. We had no electricity. Light was provided by oil lamps and there was nothing to do in the evenings. I don’t remember meeting other people during the evenings. I, gas was actually being installed at the time that we arrived but my aunt wouldn’t have it. It was too new-fangled. I had two, I was related to half the village although my name gave nothing away because it was my maternal grandmother who was born in the village and she married out of the village and so my mother also of course married and my name has no relationship with the village. But I was in fact related to the Divers, who seemed every fifth or sixth person in the village seemed to be named Diver. The patriarch of the Divers was old Ebbie or Ebenezer. I had two cousins who lived around the corner. These were a generation ahead of me so I always called them auntie but they were actually second cousins. They had the gas and so I could, if I visited them I could see to read and they also took a newspaper. My aunt, my aunt didn’t approve of newspapers except for the Christian Herald but I got to read my cousin’s newspaper. One of the things I did was to try to follow the war through the newspaper. I specifically remember the Battle of the River Plate. That was about the only thing that did happen. Oh no [pause] the Russians attacked Finland and I remember that and I would always draw a map of wherever anything was going on so this my geography a great deal of good. I knew where the River Plate was and Montevideo and Buenos Aires and I knew the geography around Leningrad and Finland and Lake Ladoga. I don’t [pause] I don’t think I can, oh and I went to Baptist chapel on Sundays. Otherwise, I don’t think anything else happened. [pause] My parents came to see me at Christmas. The boy next door, he went back to live with his parents in London at Christmas. Oh, I’ve just remembered the other thing that happened was the bullying episode at school when we went to school that, it only lasted for about a fortnight when a Jewish school was billeted on the village and we were immediately counted as village boys the moment that happened so our bullying stopped. I think there were enough Jewish boys to stop any real bullying. There was friction but not to any high degree between the Jewish boys and the village boys. One thing that happened that was, seems very strange now, I heard my first swear words in this village. The village boys swore a lot. I didn’t even recognise that they were swear words to start with. Also, I became very friendly with one of the Jewish boys. I had much more in common with them than I did with the village boys. I can remember one boy called Wolf. I presume his real name was Wolfgang. He and I became very friendly. Oh, the other thing I remember was the preaching at the Baptist chapel. My aunt was a very devout Baptist and it was hellfire preaching. I can remember the minister waving his arms about very promptly and I can even remember one of his sermons was based on the word, ‘nevertheless.’ That seems an extraordinary word to base a sermon on. But that’s about all I can remember of the sermonising apart from the waving of arms. I remember they actually got two RAF people to come and preach and to my great surprise, well no, I don’t think I was surprised because I hadn’t thought about it previously but we all have seen films and heard about the drunken thing that RAF had in the local pubs and so on. But these two that came to preach were firmly against dancing and going to the cinema. These were evils to be avoided. The nearest cinema was seven and a half miles away so it didn’t actually matter very much. I saw my first pantomime at Newmarket at Christmas. I’d never seen a pantomime before.
RS: Really nothing more happened I think until Easter when I went back to London just in time for the Blitzkrieg to start in France. And Dunkirk. But my memories of this are all through the radio which of course we had in London. There was no radio in Isleham.
RS: Where we lived, I was born in Woolwich but I was brought up about five or six miles away in Kent. It was in, it’s the Borough of Bexley which in those days was in Kent. It’s now in London of course. And I just saw a fringe moment in the Battle of Britain I think. We lived only about twenty five miles from Biggin Hill and there was a small amount of activity. I saw once, I was in the High Street and I saw two aircraft wheeling around in the sky and a bomb came out of one of them. There was no way, I was in no danger of this bomb. It wasn’t pointing in my direction or anything and I didn’t hear it land. I think I must have dashed into a [pause] I must have taken cover in some form. Either going into a shop or an air raid shelter although I don’t remember an air raid shelter being available. I wonder. I wonder how I got myself in to that situation. I had been very firmly trained if the air raid warning went off to go straight home. But here I was in the High Street with another boy, and we certainly hadn’t heard an air raid siren. I can’t explain that. The next time I can remember and there must be a firm date for this, it was in the middle of September at the first large scale bombing raid on London in daylight. I spent most of the time in the air raid shelter. We had an Anderson air raid shelter which was dry, unlike some peoples. Ours was well drained. And when we came out of the air raid shelter I was staggered to see the amount of smoke coming from the direction of Woolwich. I later heard that it came from the docks across at the north of the river at Silvertown. Excuse me. I’ve become so dry.
HS: Shall I get you some water?
CB: Have a break for a moment.
[recording paused]
CB: So we talked about the smoke from the fires at Silvertown but when was this? Was it —
RS: I can well remember a Sunday Times photograph after the war showing an American, not an American, a German reconnaissance photograph taken which showed the view of this, the smoke from the docks and you could even see, I could pick out our, the road I was living in from it. You couldn’t see individual houses but you could see houses. I can’t, no this is nonsense isn’t it? I could see the road that I lived in and the smoke. Where the smoke was coming from. So it was a photograph that covered something like five miles.
CB: Yes.
RS: And the detail was such that I could see our road so it was very clear. I meant to keep this photograph but unfortunately I don’t know where it is now. But the date of this air raid was well known.
CB: Yeah.
RS: And all I, but all I can remember now it was around the middle of September.
CB: Ok.
RS: I think what must have happened is we went on holiday [laughs] which seems —
CB: Yes. You went on holiday to Oban didn’t you?
RS: Oban. My father worked on the railway so he got free tickets so he always used to choose one of the furthest parts away to get value. But the thing about Oban was a Sunderland Air Base there and I saw Sunderland Flying Boats moving around the outer harbour and occasionally one would take off, with great difficulty it seemed to me [laughs] I don’t, if you know Oban.
CB: I do.
RS: There’s a, there’s an island beginning with a K. I can’t remember. Kerrera? I don’t know. There’s an island which encloses an outer harbour. The inner harbour being a construction. But when they took off they moved out beyond the island and it’s the Firth of Lorne I think and you would see them taking off or coming in on occasion. We had a good view from our boarding house which was built far enough up the side of the hill to get a very good view of what was going on. Nothing dramatic happened of course but we were, on the radio we were hearing about the start of the night time Blitz in London so we missed that.
CB: How long were you in Oban?
RS: Oh [pause] I would think it was a week. It could have been a fortnight but I don’t really remember.
CB: So then you came back to London in the middle of the Blitz did you?
RS: Yes. The first night would have been an air raid. We lived far enough out of, away from the docks not to be a target but the odd bomb would certainly fall. Yes, and one of them fell into the, the next street and it was a direct hit on a house where one of my schoolmates was living and it killed him and his family. I think that must have been the closest encounter with a bomb. Coincidentally, well no it directly caused my father’s, my father worked on the railway. He was a, before the war he was a clerk in the Continental Department and must have left the Continental Department. And I don’t really know what he was doing in this period between the war starting and the bombing of London only his job was moved to Brighton and we had therefore moved to Three Bridges which is on the main line from London to Brighton and is a junction. So it’s a fairly important junction on the railway line. He worked in Brighton but that was only twenty miles away and the trains, the Brighton line trains were fairly quick so it didn’t take him long to get to work.
CB: Can we just go back to when you were still at your earlier house, southeast London. Then what was there in that locality because the city was defended by anti-aircraft guns.
RS: Oh yes.
CB: And barrage balloons. Did you have those near you?
RS: Yes. The ack ack guns were very close. I first went to school in 1935. Oh, I didn’t mention that in my recollections. I went to school, to a school that was no more than two hundred yards from my house. By going through various back gardens I could get to it. Local government reorganisation took place very shortly afterwards. Then I was within a year moved to another school which was further away from my house and meant crossing a road. The AA guns were built in the field, part of Danson Park in the field immediately adjacent to the school. So my house was two hundred yards from the school and the AA gun started immediately after the school so they were very close. My golly they made a noise too when they went off.
CB: How many of them were there?
RS: Four. It was a shattering noise. I think it must rank as one of the loudest noises I’ve ever heard when they went off and my chief memory of the Blitz to start with was, was the noise. I mean it wasn’t just the noise of the guns from the AA battery they even had, they had mobile guns and can I remember one night one of these was parked outside our front door and that made a pretty good noise. It was only a single gun but it nevertheless added to the orchestra.
CB: Do you know why some of them were mobile and some of them were in fixed positions?
RS: Well, I presume that if the, if the ack ack guns were attacked by the Germans they had mobile ones which would be a lot more difficult to attack.
CB: As far as the family was concerned while all these guns were going off and the —
[telephone ringing]
CB: I’ll wait for that.
CB: While the guns were being fired and the bombs were dropping where was the family?
RS: In the air raid shelter.
CB: And what was that?
RS: An Anderson.
CB: And who built it?
RS: My father.
CB: But it was, and you said it was dry.
RS: And it was dry. I’m saying this because I know Honor’s shelter was wet and you, you didn’t use it I think.
HS: No.
RS: But ours was perfectly all right. I remember I slept in it.
CB: What sort of size are we talking about?
RS: Well, we were a family of three so it was one of the smallest ones.
CB: And how was it constructed?
RS: There were, I think four sections of corrugated iron which came up and halfway across to meet up with the other ones and the other half. And I should think it was about shoulder, the depth was to our shoulders when standing up inside.
CB: Was it partly dug into the ground?
RS: Oh yes.
CB: So you stepped down.
RS: Yes.
CB: Into it.
RS: Yes.
CB: And then what was on top of the corrugated iron?
RS: Earth. In digging the shelter it, had we had a huge pile of, of clay and dirt and that was put back across the shelter.
CB: Did it have a door or something that would act as a plug to keep it warmer inside?
RS: We must have done. I don’t, yes there was something there. I think. I think that was a sheet of corrugated iron and there was plain sheets of corrugated iron at the further end so that it was surrounded. It was surrounded on all sides.
CB: So what time would you get in because there was, the sirens would go wouldn’t they?
RS: Yes.
CB: When there was an expected attack?
RS: Yes. I think we went in before. Before the sirens went off. Maybe. This didn’t last very long because my father was transferred to Brighton.
CB: Yes.
RS: And we moved fairly quickly. He rented a house in Three Bridges and we moved again with my grandparents. I’d no idea where the boy next door disappeared to at this stage. I can remember the journey across London from we were living in Welling to East Croydon. Normally if you were going to Brighton from London you go in to Central London and leave London and go to Brighton. But because of the daylight bombing was still going on as as well and we caught a bus to take us across, diagonally across the suburbs of London. And several air raids took place during this journey and it was a long journey because as you probably know London buses are not very good for travelling diagonally anywhere in London and I think it took pretty well the whole morning to get from Welling to East Croydon Station. And it was done in different, several different buses because every time the sirens sounded which they did several times the bus stopped and people got off and into a shelter.
CB: So were there shelters dotted around for general public use?
RS: Yes. I don’t have any clear memory of that but there must have been because we did get into a shelter I think each time the warning went off.
CB: Now, we spoke a bit earlier about barrage balloons. How did they work? And where were they?
RS: Well, they were on various spaces. The ack ack battery was in the park. It’s a fairly large park so in another part of the park there was a barrage balloon. It wasn’t very, it was far enough away from the AA guns not to stand much chance of being hit. And anyway, they weren’t at a very great height.
CB: So how did they, did they let them up and down regularly? What did they do?
RS: Yes. Yes. They were. They were. Yes, they weren’t permanently up but I don’t think they waited for a particular air raid. I think they were up a lot of the time. Oh dear. I’m so sorry.
CB: That’s alright.
RS: I need to be excused.
CB: That’s quite alright. I know they feeling myself.
RS: Yes, it happens to all of us.
[recording paused]
CB: Looks like an interesting book that one.
Other: Full of fascinating photographs and the text is brilliant.
CB: Is it?
Other: I just, you know I can’t read it all. It’s —
CB: Does it have a date on the back? What’s it actually called? I’d better write it down hadn’t I?
Other: “Doodlebugs and Rockets.”
CB: “Doodlebugs and Rockets.”
RS: Yeah.
CB: Ok.
Other: By somebody called —
[recording paused]
RS: I think, about the, you asked me about the barrage balloons.
CB: Yes.
RS: I really don’t think I really know. I think they were up all the time.
CB: Were they? Right.
RS: But I’m, I’m hazy about that.
CB: Ok.
RS: I mean it was to stop low flying aircraft wasn’t it?
CB: Absolutely.
RS: The barrage balloon was incidental to the cable that went up.
CB: Yeah. So what about the anti-aircraft guns? What was the effect of them firing?
RS: It was a most shattering noise. A salvo of four guns and they were they were big ones. Not these things that you see sometimes on film popping. They were large guns.
CB: And what came down?
RS: Apart from the shrapnel?
CB: The shells exploded. Then what?
RS: The shrapnel came down. Is there anything else?
CB: Yes. So, the shrapnel was dangerous in itself wasn’t it?
RS: Oh, the shrapnel was certainly. That was, in fact I’d say that was the great, I was never in much danger and shrapnel was the only stuff I think I could conceivably have been injured by. Except I mean this friend of mine was killed. But that was really a random bomb.
CB: Yes. So what happened to the shrapnel?
RS: It got picked up by schoolboys is all that I can remember.
CB: And what did they do with it?
RS: Not much. Showed it to other people.
CB: There wasn’t a pecuniary advantage in doing it? So they couldn’t get money for handing in pieces of metal because that’s what was needed.
RS: Yes. I suppose so. No. I don’t recollect that.
CB: Some people reported a machine gunning of the streets. What do you know about that?
RS: Not in London. I did later on in Three Bridges encounter that. It wasn’t in the streets but I had a very close encounter, or my grandfather had a very close encounter with a machine gunning in Three Bridges but he wasn’t the target. The railway was the target. Diverting to Three Bridges. One morning I was just looking out of the window for no, any more reason anyone ever looks out of the window. I don’t remember whether there was, we were in an air raid or whether the sirens had gone off. I can’t remember that. But I was just looking out of the window and a Messerschmitt 110, now this time I was two or three years older and I was red hot on identification of aircraft an ME110 came across. I had a fairly narrow field of view. If it had only been there for a fraction of a second, not a full second I actually saw the occupants or their heads and it was gone. My grandfather was working on our allotment in what was the recreation ground but it was really just a field with allotments in it. But that during the war but railway, there was a railway line at the end of the field and there was beyond the branch line to Crawley there were engine sheds and marshalling yards and the Messerschmitt opened fire on those but my grandfather was immediately underneath on the allotment and they must have fired directly over his head. So he knew all about it. This was I think the most exciting thing that happened to him during the war but it was all over in a fraction of a second because people have said, ‘Well, were you frightened?’ I didn’t have time to be frightened. It was less than, much less than a second I think. But I think my grandfather must have been shaken to his roots because the, whatever the cannons or whatever he was firing must have gone over his head. The plane was no more than, I think fifty feet of the ground.
CB: Now you moved to Three Bridges as a family in 1940. How long did you stay there?
RS: Stayed there more than once. In the first instance [pause] it was, yes. 1940. It would have been I took the Scholarship Examination in ‘42 to go to Grammar School and I spent one term and one, no one year and one term at that, at the Grammar School by which time it would be 1943. Not much was happening in 1943 so I went back to London.
CB: To your old house was it?
RS: No. my parents had a mortgage on the house we were living in before the war.
CB: At Welling?
RS: Welling. Yes. But he, he let the house. The house would have otherwise been empty for the three years so he let it and I went to live with my maternal grandparents.
CB: Where was that?
RS: That was in Welling as well.
CB: Right.
RS: My mother, that’s funny. I don’t seem to remember my mother from those days. She must have been with me.
CB: Your father was still working in Brighton was he?
RS: Oh, no. He wasn’t. No. No. In 1941 he, he was called up in 1941 and, but meanwhile he had been offered this job in Nigeria and he never spoke to me about it but he spoke to Honor.
HS: He spoke to me.
RS: I think Honor would tell you about this. He was actually offered the King’s Shilling but he had to return it because the job in Nigeria took precedence over just being called up. He wasn’t, he wasn’t A1 fit though.
CB: So when did he go to Nigeria?
RS: November 1941. The African Campaign was in full swing at that time and he stayed there until 1944 when he got his first leave.
CB: To come back to the UK.
RS: He came back for six months. Yes.
CB: And you were living with your grandparents.
RS: I was living with my grandparents. Yes.
CB: Ok. So fast forward from there. What was the next major event?
RS: D-Day.
CB: Right.
RS: And then within a week or a fortnight of D-Day the V-1s started and I can remember, I think I can remember clearly. It’s one of those things with memory, memorising something you only memorised or memorising the real thing. I think I can remember the first night of the flying bombs. Didn’t know what they were of course. But all of a sudden, you can’t spend all of your time in the air raid shelter. You need food sometimes and so it was normally my parents and even more so my grandparents made sure that I spent most of my time in the air raid shelter. But it wasn’t always so. I have memories of seeing aeroplanes caught in searchlights and I can remember seeing ack ack shells exploding the enemy aircraft. I never saw one shot down but that was probably because I wasn’t given enough time to see one shot down. My parents or grandparents would have hauled me into the shelter very quickly.
CB: Just on that topic you’ve talked about the anti-aircraft guns. Was there a searchlight near the anti-aircraft guns?
RS: No. Not the one [pause] yes, I think there was one stationed.
CB: With the guns.
RS: With the guns. No, they would surely have been gone for part of the day because that would have made the guns a target.
CB: I think you would have remembered because it’s very bright light isn’t it?
RS: Yes. It is. Yes. I don’t have that memory.
CB: Just a curiosity. So fast forward again then to D-Day so you saw the first of the V-1s come over with the flying bomb. The doodlebug.
RS: Yes. My father had come back and was in London or in Welling for both D-Day and the V-1s. but one saw these things going overhead in the dark and there was a bright light associated with them. I thought this is curious they seem to have their cabin lights on. And the other thing was I mean obviously the difference between a gun firing and an aircraft crashing. The noise was quite different. And the thing was we got it seemed that planes were being shot down quite often.
CB: Doodlebugs.
RS: The doodlebugs. Yes.
CB: Yes.
RS: I think we all, interpreted this as shooting down enemy aircraft. We didn’t realise that they were meant to come down no more that they were actually bombs themselves. And the first time they came over they didn’t, the air raid only lasted two or three hours I recollect. It was about two days later that they bombardment started when they flooded over and this to me was one of the worst points of the war. It seemed that there were so many of them coming that if they continued to do so they would destroy London. It was only later that we heard that there was, some of them were stopped by aircraft tipping. Coming alongside tipping them over so they landed before they got to London but I think there were only one or two of those. There was one came down not far from where I lived but I didn’t see the remains to know myself. But it was said that it glided down and got stuck in a stile.
CB: Without exploding.
RS: And didn’t go off.
CB: Without exploding.
RS: Yes. I don’t know whether I really believed it but it was very widely reported. And then this only lasted a few days. Oh I remember being, because they were coming across all the time I think they stopped setting off the air raid sirens because it was, it had become continuous and you can’t spend all the time in an air raid shelter or even in a house. I remember being out not, not very far from my grandparent’s home but far enough not to be able to get, get back in time. I heard one of them stop and there was nothing to do but lie on the ground and and wait for the explosion.
CB: So what was your perception in those days of how they worked?
RS: We’d been told how they worked very quickly. I mean it’s ludicrous but I mean my first thoughts about it were ludicrous that they were aeroplanes with their cabin lights on. I think it was fairly quickly reported on the radio that they were a jet devices and I mean the other thing there were very quickly photographs taken of their take off ramps because D-Day had happened not that long before and they were beginning to be overrun. But before all this happened I was off to Isleham again. My second spell.
CB: When was that?
RS: Evacuated.
CB: Yes. When was that?
RS: Well it would have been during the flying bomb period.
CB: What? An early part of it.
RS: Sorry?
CB: An early part so we’re talking about June ’44 and July so far so would it be that time?
RS: Yes. I was, it was within a week of them actually starting.
CB: Oh right.
RS: I wasn’t exposed to them for very long but there were so many of them I think I thought one of them is eventually going to get me. It was the only, I mean I found the war time experience exciting. I didn’t think anything could happen. Even the noise of the Blitz you get used to in two or three days. It was the flying bombs that were I found unsettling.
CB: You mentioned earlier about when they stopped. What did you mean about that?
RS: Well, their engine stopped.
CB: Right. So what did that mean?
RS: Well, it was going to explode shortly.
CB: Right.
RS: Although I think some did glide so they took longer.
CB: Well, was there an official statement about the expectation of the aircraft dropping?
RS: There was an expectation of an explosion.
CB: Ok. Because in practical terms what was happening was the plane engine was running and the story I believe was put out that when the engine stopped you knew it was going to crash very shortly.
RS: Yes.
CB: Which was gliding in. It wasn’t supposed to do that. It was just time for the nose to go down at a point.
RS: Oh.
CB: Which cut off the fuel. It wasn’t supposed to but it did.
Other: A remarkable piece of work.
HS: Yes.
RS: I don’t think —
RS: John. John.
Other: Sorry.
CB: Sorry, go on.
RS: I don’t think I knew that.
CB: Right. So, so the message to people that went around was if the engine stopped it was about to crash.
RS: Yes. I remember that.
CB: Ok. So, at Isleham away from these
RS: Yes, it was still as I left it. Gas had been installed but my aunt still wouldn’t take it.
CB: Why was that?
RS: Oh, the radio. The radio was wrong. It upset the [unclear] She was in that mindset. She was a Victorian. A very religious Victorian. Anything that was new-fangled, I mean she might even have used the term new-fangled. I have to say I didn’t really like her but as an adult I can see exactly how she meant in having all these people come to live with her. It must have been a great shock to her.
CB: Well, were there other evacuees in the village?
RS: I don’t think there were any of the Jewish children there.
CB: They’d moved out had they?
RS: Yes. Like I did. I mean most evacuees I think apart from the ones that went to America most of them went home.
CB: Right. And then came back again when the V weapons started.
RS: Yes. In fact, our, my grandparents neighbour, not the boy who lived next door, when we first went away my grandparent’s neighbour had two children and her husband was in the Army. Yes. I think safely in, I can remember now he was based in Oswestry far away from any bombing but his wife and children were in Welling and they got my grandmother to arrange to go to Isleham and be billeted.
CB: What would you say was the reaction of the general population in Isleham to having evacuees? In the school for instance.
RS: Well, yes. It was, it was such a shock to them, I think. I think this village was ninety five percent non-conformist, five percent Church of England and no, nothing else. There was no Catholic church. I can’t think there was a Catholic church within ten or twenty miles. I have read elsewhere since that East Anglia is not noted for a broadness of religious faith but they were, had a very strong faith but they were Methodist or in my aunt’s case Baptists and Primitive Methodists as well. There wasn’t just one Methodist church. Not just one, not just one Baptist church. But there was only one Church of England. When my parents came to visit me earlier, at the Christmas earlier they took me to the Church of England and it seemed there were about four other people there and the vicar.
CB: Amazing.
RS: Whereas all the Baptist, all the non-conformist chapels were full to the brim.
CB: When you returned in June ’44 that was because of the V weapons.
RS: Yes.
CB: How long did you stay in Isleham this time?
RS: Until they stopped. About, about three months. I remember I lost a full term. A full term at school. And that was about all.
CB: So why did your parents get you back again?
RS: They came back with me. Well, it seemed that the invasion was going very well at that time. They were making great strides across France and Holland and Belgium and that seemed to spare us the —
CB: Well, effectively the Germans were running out of rockets, weren’t they? Not rockets. V-1s.
RS: V-1s. Well, I can imagine they were. Yes.
CB: Yes.
RS: But I mean they just stopped coming. They were, they tried releasing them from aircraft I think across the North Sea.
CB: Yeah.
RS: But I don’t think very many. We didn’t encounter anything.
HS: Carry on.
RS: We didn’t encounter anything at Isleham —
CB: No.
RS: With regard to that. But one thing I do remember about before we left Isleham, every evening, there was an airfield at Mildenhall. It was the, it was the airfield that Amy Johnson departed from when she took her flight to Australia but it was taken over of course by the Air Force. And I can remember, yes, I was doing a lot of homework. I was missing school so I was doing quite a lot of work at home under my father’s direction. But I can remember looking out of the window in the evening and seeing the Lancasters coming out of Mildenhall, flying around and it was clear they were flying around to get into formation before they were off and away. They came back during the night. I didn’t have any remembrance of them coming back. I only knew about the coming back when I spoke to this navigator who I worked with after the war. But he like most aircrew rarely spoke about it. I think he was, he’d undergone so many situations where he was scared stiff. He did, the things he did talk about were flying back over the North Sea on a wing and a prayer and that he on two occasions, he did twenty five missions, on two occasions he had to land in a field.
CB: Because the aircraft was damaged.
RS: Because it was so badly damaged. Yes.
CB: Now, we’re talking at this time of you being age thirteen.
RS: Yes.
CB: You said your aircraft recognition had been improving. Did you have aspirations to join the RAF and fly or —
RS: Oh yes. [laughs] Yes.
CB: What did you want to do?
RS: What do you mean?
CB: What did you want to do in the RAF?
RS: Well, fly.
CB: But fighters or bombers or what?
RS: I think fighters.
CB: Yeah.
RS: My last boss actually was a Spitfire pilot but he was only about four or five years older than me so he was right at the end of the war. I don’t think he had any combat experience.
CB: Right.
RS: But he did fly a Spitfire.
CB: Yes. You said after the V-1s abated then you returned to Welling. Then what?
RS: Then the V2s came.
CB: So we’re talking about the later part of ’44.
RS: Yes. I think they started in September didn’t they?
CB: Ok.
RS: I was back at, I kept changing schools. I went I went to six different schools. Three of them twice. And I think as an adult I came to realise that the war effect on my education was the, was the worst thing that happened to me. I didn’t take much notice at the time because I wasn’t alone. There were other children in similar positions and we just had to put up with it. But as I grew older I mean not all children in the country did have to put up. They weren’t all evacuees. I happened to go to school in —
[phone ringing]
RS: My secondary education took place in Kent and Sussex and before the war different counties had different policies on when you started school. You started [interview paused] I remember I started school in Kent and their policy was that you started school on your birthday in the year, in the calendar year that you were born in. So I’d been born in November. I went into a class where there was some people who had started in January and February. But when I went to East Sussex they operated a different policy. They, you started school in the academic year in which you were born and consequently I was always playing catch up. But then so were other people. It didn’t really bother me at the time but I think as an adult and especially as I spent the last part of my career teaching in Oxford I realised that this had had a bad effect.
CB: Lets go back to the V-1s. So the V-1s started September ’44. What was your impression of the V, sorry V-2s I meant to say. V-2s started in September ’44.
RS: Yes.
CB: They were the rockets so what was the reaction to that?
RS: I thought, I mean I did what my parents told me to do. I had the feeling they couldn’t bring themselves to go back to Isleham. We instead went back to Three Bridges in Sussex. And my father had finished his period of leave. I think he left for Nigeria before the rockets came. So it was my mother and I that went back to Three Bridges. My grandparents didn’t come so there was just the two of us and we were, really lived in digs. We made quite a lot of friends in the earlier period at Three Bridges and there was, didn’t seem to be any difficulty in having people who would put us up. But again I’m so sorry.
CB: We’ll stop there for a mo.
RS: Alright.
CB: I think —
[recording paused]
RS: It was excitement rather than fear. I even heard a bomb falling [unclear] and there was only one thing to do. Get under the table or something but I remember when it was coming I convinced myself that you didn’t hear it if it hit you. I don’t think there’s anything in physics to support that. I was only about thirteen at the time.
CB: So what is the sound of a falling bomb.
RS: A whistle. I mean there are many shots of Stuka dive bombers diving and releasing a bomb, mines or whatever.
CB: Well, the Stuka has the siren but the bomb itself has a sound.
RS: I thought it did.
Other: It was a scream. A whistle scream in type wasn’t it?
RS: Yes. Oh yes. But anyway, I had time to think about it.
CB: Yes. Yes. Indeed.
RS: But indeed it makes a different noise.
CB: And when the bomb went off what was the effect of the bomb dropping?
RS: Well, it couldn’t, it wasn’t far away. They don’t just destroy the house that it hit. I don’t really know if they had a direct hit though. I mean these bombs weren’t direct hits.
Other 2: I’m going to go because I’ve got to get ready for school.
RS: Right. Bye.
CB: Thank you very much.
RS: Bye.
CB: Bye. Yeah. So they destroyed to the house.
RS: I’m not sure that it did actually destroy it but it landed not terribly far away.
CB: Can you feel the explosion of the ground shaking or what happens?
RS: No.
CB: Just a matter of —
RS: I was never that close to where that would have happened. The most shattering things were the AA guns. I mean they were so close and they fired four or five together. It was really the only thing that came close to that we went to, when we took our grandsons to the cinema in Swindon for a Pokémon film and I think the noise of that Pokémon film [laughs] was the only thing that competed with the anti-aircraft guns.
CB: So the V-2s. Did you see the result of them coming down? The explosions? Or what did you see?
RS: I don’t think I did. I did see the damage of the V-1 and it did quite a lot of damage. I think it took three or four houses. Not just one. And as I said earlier V-2s didn’t really affect me as badly because it was a question if you heard the explosion it had missed. If you didn’t hear the explosion you may, you may be dead. I noticed it seemed to me that they fell in in a line. Now, if you lived on that line you must be very very worried. As far as I could tell we didn’t live on one of those lines. But I think you would expect that they were ballistic devices and I doubt whether any change was made to the aiming of them while they were firing them off so they all went off at the same angle and so it was depending how far, how much air resistance they met encountered as to what range was.
CB: The V-2s?
RS: Yes.
CB: Or the V-1s.
RS: No. The V-2s.
CB: Right.
RS: The V-2s were ballistic. The V-1s were jet propelled or, not jet propelled but —
CB: Yeah.
RS: Well, it was a ground jet was it?
CB: Fast jet.
RS: Yes.
CB: Fast jet, yes. Now what about friends of yours who were in the area at the time? What of their experiences with the V weapons?
RS: With the V weapons?
CB: So, the V-1 and V-2.
RS: Really I have to say that I was there when both weapons were first fired off but I didn’t stay very long. My parents whisked me off to Isleham within a day or two.
I was thinking of when the V-2s came. Then you were back.
RS: Yes. But again —
CB: Then down to Three Bridges.
RS: Yes. We went to Three Bridges. I welcomed this because I had a, Three Bridges for me was one of, was the best time of my schooldays. I liked everything about Three Bridges. People have said to me you came from Sussex. You said wherebouts.
CB: Yes.
RS: Whereabouts?
CB: Uckfield.
RS: Oh yeah.
CB: So we were evacuated to Yorkshire.
RS: Right. Oh yes. You said.
CB: So, in Three Bridges you completed your education. What did you end up with in qualifications? School qualifications.
RS: No, I didn’t finish.
CB: Oh.
RS: After the V, yes the V-2s didn’t go on for that long but I was in digs with my mother and we were staying with a newsagent to start with. And I learned something about delivering newspapers because whenever a postboy didn’t turn up his daughter and I went out and delivered them as a replacement. I was in the Boy Scouts in Three Bridges and that gave me opportunities. It’s right on the edge of forest and so all our [unclear] games were held in the forest.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Worth Forest and Tilgate and I enjoyed this vastly.
CB: Of course, the war finished when you were fifteen. Or fourteen and a half.
RS: Fourteen. Yes.
CB: Yes. So —
RS: But my mother decided that the war so nearly over by Christmas. Obviously, that’s not true in the sense of people involved especially the Russian front but as far as England was concerned the war was really over by Christmas of ’44. But she decided that it would be better for me to, I’d had many changes of school up to that date. It would be better if I finished the war in, I was at school in East Grinstead. I stayed on to go for the summer term and made my way back to Kent for the Michaelmas Term and I left school in 1949 when I was eighteen and I finished up with a Higher School Certificate. The forerunner of A levels. I think I was in the last cohort but one to take Higher School Certificate.
CB: Then what?
RS: Sorry?
CB: Then what did you do?
RS: I went to Woolwich Polytechnic
CB: Right.
RS: To read physics.
CB: So, when you left school had you decided what you were going to do in the future?
RS: No. That’s one of the things of my memories my father came home every other year for many years so he was home on the 1944, ‘46, ‘48, ‘50, ‘52 and every time he came home he asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I never knew what I was going to do. And this was one of the effects of my interrupted schooling. I could go, I could never have taken an exam in history because I just didn’t do any history from the Romans to the Duke of Wellington’s political career. Absolutely nothing. So I couldn’t possibly have taken the exam. Chemistry wasn’t quite as bad but it was nearly as bad and the only reason I got anywhere in chemistry was because I took physics with chemistry and physics I was ok with. But I knew very little chemistry and I went to work for ICI. But I admitted [laughs] to them that I didn’t know any chemistry because I was frightened of the first answer. Or the first question. So I graduated in ’52.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Not very well. I got a lower second and I still think this was a consequence of what had gone on before.
CB: But to what extent did that have an effect on your career though? The fact that you got a lower second. I mean it hurt your pride but what did it do to your career?
RS: Well, not much. I got a job with GEC on airborne radar trying to shoot down Russian bombers. I don’t think my finger was anywhere near the trigger but I was on the design team of the aircraft radar. The idea was to lock on to a target, then let off a missile which also had radar. Not as, as good as the radar on the aircraft but good enough to do the last bit. But unfortunately, our aircraft didn’t fly high enough and you can’t attack a plane from underneath. So, the RAF abandoned that but the Fleet Air Arm didn’t so all our, once we’d written off the RAF version we switched to the Fleet Air Arm and then we were faced with a different set of problems. Certainly as far as maintenance was concerned. You can’t. You can’t —
CB: The sea air —
RS: Sorry?
CB: The sea air. The effect of the sea air was it?
RS: No. I don’t think so. It was the thing had to operate between minus forty and plus seventy.
CB: God.
RS: It was the plus seventy that was the most difficult and you had to assume that your aircraft carrier may be in the Tropics and so its surprising how much junk can grow on an electronic piece of equipment under tropical conditions of high humidity coupled with high temperature. This coupled with [pause] I’ve lost the word. Funghi.
CB: Oh yeah.
RS: Not funghi but that kind of stuff. I did that for four years and that, this is the reason I didn’t do National Service. But at the end of those four years I switched to, I applied for a job with ICI in Manchester with practically no back up in my chemical work but after ten years I described myself as a chemical physicist rather than just a physicist. I learned a good deal about organic chemistry. And it was my electronics. Yes, when you apply for a job you never exact reasons why they picture you but I quickly found that the boss that I was going to work for had fallen out with the electronic engineer [laughs] that I was replacing. I think it was purely temperamental. I can, the fact that the person was pretty well qualified I got on with him quite well and actually applied some of the work that he’d done. But the boss found he could manipulate me more easily than he could work with the other one. That was really the high point of my career. The first ten years with ICI. We were working on the edge of the subject and the boss although he had some, he was very curious person to work for. He was a near genius and by the time we’d finished he had been elected as a Fellow of The Royal Society and I’d been elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Physics by which time it made no difference that my degree wasn’t very good.
CB: So, what were you actually working on in those ten years?
RS: Mass spectrometry if that means anything.
CB: It does. Yeah.
RS: Yeah. And organic analysis. We were the experts in the field in the 1960s. The 1960s was the decade of university expansion and every university started out by building a Chemistry Department and that Chemistry Department the first two things it had to have was a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and a mass spectrometer and so everybody was beating a path to our doorstep. And of course, my boss had made a very significant advance in the technique and we published a book and about twenty papers in the literature.
CB: And your name was on it.
RS: Yes. And so was the navigator that I spoke of. There were three of us.
CB: So then what?
RS: With ICI.
CB: You carried on with ICI.
RS: Oh yes. Then I became an engineer didn’t I? Yes. I was promoted because I had electronic engineering experience. They put me into the engineering department. I was promoted to, it was good from that way but it wasn’t anything like as interesting as the earlier work and that was really trying to automate organic research laboratories. But really they only wanted to do quite easy things like control the temperatures of the PH of the reaction which had previously meant somebody, an assistant sitting at a bench twiddling a knob trying to hold the temperature constant. If the temperature goes up he reduces it and so on. I mean that’s a sheer waste of one person’s salary because it can be done automatically.
CB: Yeah.
RS: So it was things like that. Trying, yes and we weren’t very popular of course. We were doing people out of work.
CB: When did you meet Honor?
RS: Honor? At Teacher Training College in Bromley. Quite by chance. As I said I was at Woolwich Polytechnic and there were a number of women’s colleges around Southeast London. Hers being in Bromley was really too far away to contemplate going there then. I went to much nearer ones where I could within one bus ride. Bromley was two quite long bus rides but they advertised at Woolwich and other places their dances which were usually held once a fortnight so you could go to one college one week, a different college the next one and then back to the first or the third. But for some reason the only one that advertised one week was Honor’s college in Bromley and somebody that, when I went to one of these I’d usually go with somebody else and a friend said, ‘Let’s go to Bromley.’ And I thought Bromley is much to far away but at the last moment I decided I’d go. I met Honor and that was it.
CB: You never looked back.
RS: Hmmn?
CB: Never looked back.
RS: Well, if only for a detail the first dance that I danced with her was one of these dances where when the music stops you change partners. So I danced with Honor and I noticed that she backed away and didn’t dance again and I thought that’s very unsocial. I won’t ask her to dance again. But somehow I did dance with a girl, keeping track of her. I did dance with her again and I stayed with her the rest of the evening and the next week and the week after. And I did it because she just, it seemed to me she was the only intelligent girl that I met at these dances.
CB: Yeah. How many children have you got?
RS: Two.
CB: There’s Claire.
RS: Twin girls.
CB: Oh, they’re twins.
RS: Yes. One of them, the other one is called Mary.
CB: Right. Right. I can stop there a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: What age did you retire then in the end?
RS: Well, you will be aware that ICI had commercial problems and doesn’t exist anymore.
CB: No.
RS: In fact, GEC doesn’t exist anymore.
CB: No.
RS: But the part that I worked for does still operate. Being a defence part of the world it’s now part of British Aerospace.
CB: Oh right.
RS: And the laboratories are still in Stanmore.
CB: Are they?
RS: Where I left them.
CB: Yeah.
RS: But yes, ICI split into two parts. A part called ICI and a part called Zeneca and my part of the company went to Zeneca. But I retired at the same, at that time. I didn’t retire. I was told that I was redundant. Or I was eligible for early retirement so I took early. It didn’t make much difference whether they made you redundant or you took early retirement but it sounds better I think to take early.
CB: To take retirement.
RS: And I, the terms were very good. I was on a fifteen month contract which helped considerably. And they offered to if you wanted to undertake retraining they would finance it. And this was an offer taken up by many people and some of the retraining was quite varied. I can remember one of my friends became a vicar. Another learned Mandarin because he thought the Chinese are coming and he was right. But I took a teacher’s training.
CB: Oh.
RS: Course. A Post Graduate Certificate of Education and I got a job in Nottingham at a Sixth Form College. I enjoyed that. But domestic problems were arising. My parents were getting pretty aged and then one week [pause] I was, we couldn’t sell our house easily in the Manchester area so we got, I was going to Nottingham for the week and coming back home to Rochdale. But one week I came home and found Honor had had a heart attack and was in hospital.
CB: Gosh.
RS: So that caused me to really think things and we decided to retire to Devon. We took my parents with us. We did that for about two years and I got jobs, I didn’t get a full time, I never got a full time job so I suppose from that point I was semi-retired. And it’s a complicated set up, domestic arrangements which caused us including the fact that Mary had got married and was living in [Manton] and Claire was living near Reading. We decided to come back so that we had backup with my parents. Came here.
CB: Brilliant.
RS: And I worked in Oxford at several of the tutorial colleges.
CB: Oh right. Well, Roy Saunders thank you very much for a very interesting conversation.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Roy Saunders,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

Item Relations

This item has no relations.