Interview with Jack Edward Simmonds


Interview with Jack Edward Simmonds


Jack Simmonds was the son of an RAF serviceman. As a result, his childhood was spent moving around a great deal, including spending a few years in Egypt. He joined the RAF and began training as a pilot and then he joined 51 Squadron as a Whitley pilot at RAF Dishforth, before transferring to 77 Squadron at RAF Topcliffe. Coming under attack, the navigator was injured and so was unable to bail out, forcing Jack to crash land. The surviving crew became Prisoners of War. He was sent to Stalag Luft 3 where he took an active part in the Wooden Horse escape.




Temporal Coverage




00:49:41 audio recording


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CJ: This is Chris Johnson and I’m interviewing Jack Simmonds today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We are at Jack’s home and it is Tuesday the 14th of November 2017. Thank you, Jack for agreeing to talk to me today. Also present at the interview is Jack’s son, Paul. So, Jack, first of all perhaps could you tell us where and when you were born please and what your family background was?
JS: Yes. Yes. Firstly, I was born on the 8th of December 1920 and I was born in Gillingham in Kent and my father was a serving officer in the Royal Air Force. We, he had moved around a great deal and at that particular stage my mother had bought a house in Gillingham and that’s why I was born there. Otherwise we have no connection at all with that particular area. Fairly early on, when I was about five or six my father was posted to Egypt, and we moved out there and I stayed there for six years. I went to school in Victoria College in Alexandria and came back to the UK. As I said I was about six years, and we came back to Gillingham in Kent. I went for a short period to King’s, sorry to the Mathematical School at Rochester and when my father was posted again as also as people do we wondered around the UK following, following the parent. And my father was posted to Halton near Aylesbury and I spent about a year at Aylesbury Grammar School. Subsequently he was posted down to Worthy Down in Hampshire and we moved down to Winchester. I spent really the rest of my schooling at Peter Symonds School in Winchester, and I boarded there for a while when my father was posted away from Winchester to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. I left school at the age of eighteen from, from Winchester and at that time was 1939 and the war was just about to start. After some discussion with my parents, I didn’t want to get conscripted into the Army or the Navy so I went to Oxford and volunteered to become a pilot. Now, it was difficult at that stage to select what category of aircrew you wanted to join but I was fortunate that, presumably because of my connection with the Air Force, they agreed that I should be nominated for pilot. Now, after that very little happened. I spent nearly six months at Selwyn College in Cambridge where they, I suppose tried to indoctrinate us in what the Air Force was about and doing some odd things like stripping down a machine gun and that sort of thing. And after that I was posted to — I can’t remember my number. I think it was 11 Elementary, Elementary Flying Training School at Coventry, and I obviously learned to fly and was taught flying on Tiger Moths. Now, at that stage of the war where the air force was extremely short of pilots, they were being shot down and killed all over the place, and for some reason or other I was not sent from Elementary Flying Training School to Flying Training School. They for some reason decided that they would try and see if they could avoid the elementary, the Flying Training School stage. So we were sent, about six of us from, from Coventry — or not. No. We weren’t all from Coventry. They were from, I think around the country, down to Abingdon. To the, I think it was number 11 Operational Training Unit. I’m not quite sure of the number. And we were taught, we were then presented with the fact that we were going to go straight on to the operational aircraft. the Whitley. From the Tiger Moth straight to Whitley. And we spent, in fact really we were quite an embarrassment because we were just airmen. We weren’t NCOs. We weren’t officers. We couldn’t use the sergeants’ mess, couldn’t use the officers’ mess. So, eventually they cleared a couple of married quarters and gave us those and allocated us a corner of the sergeant’s mess to eat and so on. I stayed there until I was qualified and in that same time I got my wings. And I stayed at Abingdon for probably about four months, I can’t remember exactly until I was qualified as a, as a Whitley pilot and then posted to 51 Squadron in Dishforth. I did my first couple of operations. My first operations were from Dishforth, and after about, I don’t know how many months — probably two or three months, I was commissioned. I was — by the way when I left Abingdon I was then made a sergeant. So I was a sergeant at Dishforth and then suddenly I was commissioned and moved, posted to Topcliffe, 77 Squadron. They also, of course had Whitleys. There was two squadrons there. 77 and 102 I think. The — I started my operational flying there obviously and on about my seventh or eighth one, I can’t remember, operation I was shot down over the Ruhr and we had a little bit of a problems maintaining our — by the way my navigator was wounded when we were caught by anti-aircraft fire. He got a lump of flak through his chest and so we obviously couldn’t bale out because he was flat out on the floor. And we went on for about half an hour or so on one, on one engine and eventually we, that failed and we crash landed in a sort of a swamp, about, I don’t know how many miles, about, about twenty miles short of Eindhoven I think. The, the swamp itself was not quite deep enough to sink but nearly, and I remember getting out and going around the back, getting the back door open and trying to smash the IFF thing that we were told to try and destroy if we had a chance. And during this period we got the navigator out and sat him on the top of the fuselage. He was still alive, and by that time there were Germans who apparently, we subsequently found had been following us by radar, Germans coming up the road which was about, probably about a couple of hundred metres from where we landed. And they took us to a radar station and then I went off to jail in Rotterdam. And I was there for — I don’t know really, probably three, two or three weeks. And the interesting thing about that was we were, I was interviewed by a so-called Red Cross person who offered me cigarettes and things and then tried to, to find out where I came from and me and my squadron who — you know. Trying to interrogate, and then after about three weeks in jail I was sent down to Frankfurt to the — I think it was a reception camp. And I remember being quite, I suppose shocked by the fact that some of the inmates there had settled into the, to the arrangements in the camp and were apparently cooperating I suppose with the locals. The only chance, the only time they tried then to, to interrogate me was at, for some reason they removed all my clothes and I was in this room and this, this Hauptman, a major [pause] He was a Luftwaffe major, immaculately dressed in white and boots and all that and tried to investigate where I came from and who I was and where, you know what the names of my crew were, and what my, my target for that night was and so on. Just generally tried to, to find out information. The next thing that happened about six or eight of us were shoved on a train and sent down to Salzburg. We were in — I can’t remember the name of the — I think it was Oflag something 6. I don’t know. So, it was army. It was army officers there and they were again a bit settled in their ways. They were a little bit resentful of, of half a dozen young and feisty aircrew coming in. We stayed there for, I can’t remember, say three months. I don’t know. And then we were sent to Leipzig. Now, Salzburg to Leipzig was a long way [laughs] and we went unfortunately by cattle truck, and I think we took seven days, and it wasn’t a very pleasant time as you imagine. When we got to, to the camp at Leipzig it had just been evacuated by Russian prisoners of war and was really derelict. There was nothing there. Virtually. And I know one thing that I had obtained when I was down at Salzburg was that I met a friend of mine who was an army officer who I had known some couple of years before. And he managed to obtain for me a nice blanket. A pale blue blanket which, I enjoyed mine. And I got to Leipzig. The first thing they did, one goon said, ‘That’s mine.’ and whipped it. The only thing that really strikes me about Lubeck was that it was bare. You know, it was very, very austere. We, we were very, very badly treated there. Very poor food. In fact we managed to catch the camp cat and cooked that. We went from there to Warburg to another army camp. That was about, Warburg was about the centre of Germany somewhere. I’m not quite sure. I know a lot of army, army people there. They were all, of course they were all officers and most had been, been there since, since 1939/40. That sort of time. We were there for, I don’t know probably six months at least when we upped again and were sent off to Poland. We went to a place called Posen (Poznan?) I think it was in Poland. Which was not very far from Danzig. About forty miles south of Danzig. The, the terrain there was very, very soft and sandy, and I know that particularly because digging tunnels was very, very difficult. You, you were going through the ground and you had behind you had [unclear] and that was very scary. We stayed there for perhaps [pause] perhaps a year. I don’t know. But we were posted or were posted, sent off to Stalag Luft, Stalag Luft 3. Now, people first, everybody says to me, ‘Did you go to Stalag Luft 3?’, and I said, ‘Yes’, and they said, ‘Were you in the big escape?’ And people didn’t understand that in Stalag Luft 3 there were two camps. The North Camp and the East Camp, and I was in the East Camp, and the big escape took place from the North Camp. The only escape of significant importance I think from our place was the two that got away in the horse. The — we used to take it out every day and pop it in the middle of a field and little did they realise that when we carried it out we had two people in them, and we put it down in the same place and they were digging a tunnel out and —
CJ: This was the wooden exercise horse if I remember.
JS: The wooden horse. Yes. And we were fairly, it was fairly easy to dispose of all the tunnels there because when we carried the, the wooden horse out to the playing field the, there were big paths through sort of sacks we’d made of our bed blankets and we could walk around the perimeter track and sort of let this go. So all the rubbish that they had dug from that tunnel was disposed around the camp. These two were successful. They got out and I think both of them made, made it to Sweden, I think. I think, and I think one was Swedish at any rate. We stayed there. I was in Stalag Luft 3 for about two years, and one night they, because by that time the movement of the war the Russians were, were approaching from the east. And incidentally in where I was in the, in Stalag Luft 3 we had what we called JH which stands for Jimmy Higgins. Anybody who’s been in Stalag Luft 3 East camp would know who that is because we’d arranged — we had a boffin who had got, bribed the guard to bring him bits of wireless equipment and we’d built alongside a table a radio. And so we knew exactly what was going on from UK, and every night, at whatever time it was we used to close down the place. Make certain there were no, no ferrets underneath there. People. Ferrets who wandered around looking for tunnels, and they used to give us an update of the UK news. So, although the Germans were, were propagating all the news over the biggest tunnels we actually knew what was really going on. We left there one, I think Friday night in, in February I think it was when the Russians were approaching, and the Germans decided to walk us out and we walked from there to [pause] I’m trying to remember the name of the place. A place called Luckenwalde which was about, I suppose about thirty kilometres south of Berlin. And we hadn’t been there very long and again I don’t know how long that was before a Russian small tank group probably consisting of six Soviet tanks arrived, and we fortunately had a Russian speaker. Somebody within, within our group. No matter what you wanted. Could speak Swahili or whatever. There was always somebody there because you know they gathered the aircrew from quite a wide range of, of population, and he was dealing with the, with the young I suppose. He was a lieutenant and I can remember being very amazed that all the tanks, these six or so tanks covered with people, Russians, and he said half of them were females and you couldn’t tell. And he said, one of the things he said was that he had great trouble in in communicating with his troop because they didn’t all speak the same language. Some came from Uzbekistan or somewhere. They spoke, didn’t speak Russian, and so he had great trouble. I know we had great difficulty with one of their, the Russians who decided he wanted to take watches, and he went around some of the officers and sort of said, ‘Your watch’, and we complained to this young lad, this young officer, and he said [unclear] and so he called this fellow. This fellow had a whole heap of watches at the time. And they took him out and shot him. Bang. One of the things that was extraordinary that happened that one of the tanks decided to go around the camp taking down all the barbed wire. Just tore the lights and the communications, everything with them. The lot. So, we really were, we were really a bit concerned whether the locals were going to be friendly or not, and I can remember one morning when we were sort of, we were free really. We could have gone anywhere. We went off to a building we could see about a half a mile away and it turned out to be one of these army stores and I could have picked up all sorts of gorgeous things there. Like, do you know the lovely, those lovely red flags they had in Germany with the big swastika on the bottom? But they were much too heavy to carry. But I did pick up a few, a few German — not medals but they were, they were campaign things, and I’ve still got those somewhere. We, we stayed there sort of really in limbo for a while. And I was down on the gate. We tried to maintain a semblance of, of a gate when some Americans arrived in a, in a, I think it’s a scout car, you know. One of the things that you drove. You drive one way or the other. And so two of us got on that one and they took us back to their base and then took us up to Brussels, and I flew from Brussels back to the UK. And that was sort of my war.
CJ: Very interesting. Thank you. So, what happened to you when you got home then and what did you do following on from that?
JS: Well, the end of the war I was sent up somewhere. I can’t remember where. Up in the Midlands. Really, I suppose to rehabilitate myself. And they put us all around the place like down a coal mine and up a and up a steel mill and those sorts of things. And eventually I decided that I would attempt to stay in the air force. And they sent me to, to Cairo. And I was at the headquarters in Cairo for about six months and that started to fold up and then I was sent to, to Lydda which is now Lod, in Palestine as the station adjutant. And I stayed there for about — oh I don’t know. Six months. Until they decided, the Air Force decided to give me a permanent commission in the Air Force. And I went from there to the army really. I was sent as the adjutant of an army cooperation squadron, air squadron which was flying Oxfords. And so I spent about three — oh more than that I think. Probably a year or more with the army. Flying officers all over Palestine and it was very fortunate really in a way because you had your own private aeroplane really. I used to fly off to Oman for the weekend and down to the Canal Zone for the weekend. You know, that’s as if I had a taxi of my own. Then I was very, very sports minded at the time and I was playing hockey for the squadron against another army unit and the Irish Fusiliers I think it was, and the goalkeeper smashed me across the face and knocked my front teeth out. And they decided to send me home to try and get that fixed up. And so that ended my, my time in the Middle East. And when I got back to the UK having been fixed up with some teeth, they sent me up to somewhere. Wyton or somewhere, to fly Wellington, Wellingtons, Wellingtons. Well, I converted on to Wellingtons then. Having done that they sent me to up, further up to Yorkshire to convert onto the replacement for the Lancaster which was the Lincoln, and of course the Lincoln was never introduced into the Air Force. Although I did about a hundred hours or a hundred and fifty hours on Lincoln. That’s really, they withdrew it for some reason or other. And I was sent down to, to Calshot to convert to flying boats and I flew Sunderlands. I converted on to Sunderlands there. Then after conversion was posted to Pembroke Dock. 201 Squadron. And I stayed there for a couple of years I suppose when we, we did a Cook’s Tour of, of America in the flying boat. We went to Newfoundland and Iceland and Newfoundland and Virginia and Jamaica and so on just going really on a jolly. Whilst I was at Pembroke Dock I was flight commander of the squadron because our squadron commander had had gone a bit — he, taking off one night he hit a, hit something with, with his throat and knocked that off and he went a bit queer so I was flight commander of the squadron and they one day they came in about, about Battle of Britain time asking for an aeroplane to go up to the Thames. So being flight commander I said, ‘That’s mine.’ So, I went up there and met the Port of London Authority and they drove me up and down the Thames awhile on one of their boats and I selected somewhere to land down near Greenwich. And I landed for Battle of Britain weekend at Greenwich and this [unclear] from the Port of London Authority met me and led me all the way up to Tower Bridge and they opened Tower Bridge for me [laughs] And they’d already put a buoy just outside Queen’s Gate and I moored up there and stayed in the Tower of London with the, the commander. I can’t remember what they were. The Scots Guards, I think. I can’t remember. Stayed there for six months. Sorry, six days, and then we, then all we did was return I think. We just about turned and drove back down to Greenwich and took off and straight over Buckingham Palace. Right down the Mall. And then I went back to, to Pembroke Dock. And after Pembroke Dock I was promoted there, and sent to St Mawgan as the chief ground instructor of the Maritime School there. And I stayed there for [pause] I don’t know, six months, a year, and then I was posted to the Navy in Portland. They had what they called an Access B tactical teacher. Which our job, our job was to work out the, the destroyers for the Navy. And we had a large building in which we laid on games and I had a — my colleagues were a submariner and task officer torpedo anti-submarine and myself as the airman. And we used to play games for them and had a great screen and projected all the activities while they were closed up back somewhere in the, in the back of beyond. And then having run games for them we would then give them what’s up, what they should have been doing and that was — I spent again a year, two years at, at Portland doing that job. Then I went to Saffron Walden which was part of the Royal Air Force Technical School. I spent a year there doing a signals course, and the object of the exercise was to, to produce a band of officer who could act as, as a liaison between the technician and the aircrew. And so we went for a year. We wandered all around the country and halfway around the world too looking at radars and communications systems and all that rubbish. And then, then I was posted to, to a job at Northwood in Middlesex, and I stayed there for probably about four months or more. Maybe six months. How long were you, were we at Northwood?
PS: We missed, we missed out Cyprus dad.
JS: Oh God. I went from — no went from —
PS: We went from Medmenham to Cyprus.
JS: Medmenham. We went — just a minute. We went from Portland to, no we went we went from Debden the school, Technical College, to Medmenham and then Medmenham we went to, to Northwood.
PS: Cyprus. Medmenham to Cyprus.
JS: Cyprus. Cyprus. We stayed there for what, two years?
PS: Two and a half years. Yeah.
JS: Yeah. And I came back from there, and —
PS: Did six months in West Malling.
JS: Yeah. Well, I wasn’t posted there.
PS: No. It was just a stopover.
JS: I was only there for accommodation because we got a married quarter there. And then from there I went to, to Northwood. Stayed in Northwood for a while.
PS: That was two years.
JS: Was it two years? Yeah. And then I was posted to the Air Ministry to, to be sort of a PA to the, he was an army general who was head of the Joint Services Communications.
PS: We went from Northwood to Lindholme.
JS: No. I didn’t. No. I didn’t. I went to this job in the, in the, in the Air Ministry which was, really it was a [unclear] I didn’t like at all and I got, I got on to the, to the Air Ministry, the people in the in P staff in the Air Ministry and said, ‘I want out’, and they said, ‘You can, if you wish to, retire.’ So, I said, ‘Right. I’m going.’ And I retired from my job in the Air Ministry and I came, we bought this house. I came down here. I got a job. Incidentally, before I decided to leave the Air Force I decided to find out a little bit about business and, you know trying to get a job. And so I went to, I think it was the South West College to do an HNC in Business Studies and just after that the, I think it was Wilson started the Open University and I joined that as well and got a Bachelor of Arts and that in Sociology and Economics. And later on when I was again working down in Maidstone I joined Kent University and got a Masters in Management. But I jump from leaving the Air Force to getting a job. I joined a management consultancy in London and spent probably nearly six months or more than that. More like three years wandering around the country doing jobs for them. All sorts of investigatory things like, for instance I went to, to a, an architect in London and they said to me we want to set up a new salary scheme. And so I spend my time, you know interviewing all the locals and deciding what I think [unclear] I did some work in local authorities. I worked in a number of, of — I worked down in Brecon. I worked in many of the London boroughs and after I’d been there for a while I was getting a bit fed up with moving around again like I’d done in the Air Force and I found a job in Maidstone as the personnel manager of the Borough Council down there. I stayed there for five years I think and I retired completely from there.
CJ: Very good.
JS: Then I played golf for a while.
PS: For a long time.
JS: For a few years. And then I became too old to play golf.
CJ: One question about aircraft. Coming back to your RAF times, given the experience you had on the later types, how did they compare with the Whitley that you were flying during the war?
JS: Oh. The Whitley was antediluvian. I mean it was so slow. It had no, no navigation device at all. No Gee. No H2S. Nothing like that. So, you were relying on DR really. Dropping a flare out and taking a drift and trying to calculate where you were on your course and speed calculator. You could carry a four thousand pound bomb. With that on board you could get to probably ten thousand feet. Twelve thousand feet perhaps if you were lucky. You could get about a hundred knots out of it [pause] downwind. No. It was, it was a terrible aeroplane. Awful. And it was so vulnerable you had a, you had a rear gunner, you had an upper gunner but night-time you couldn’t see a night fighter, you know. The, the defence. You were absolutely defenceless really and the attrition rate was very high.
CJ: And after the war were you able to keep in touch with people you knew from your squadron?
JS: No.
CJ: Or from the prisoner of war camps?
JS: No. No. I tried once to go to a Prisoner of War dinner in London. And it was really a failure because they’d all dispersed to other things and you had nothing in common anymore.
CJ: Was there a Squadron Association?
JS: I didn’t follow it up at all.
CJ: And how do you think Bomber Command were treated after the war for those — ?
JS: I never had a problem personally but I think that one of the things that one understood about Bomber Command was that they felt that they were sort of aggressive rather than, rather than defensive. But I mean Fighter Command are completely different or Bomber Command were. Well they’re not — I don’t think they appreciated what we were trying to do. Anybody. I never had any trouble personally.
CJ: Well, thank you very much for speaking to us today.
JS: That’s alright.


Chris Johnson, “Interview with Jack Edward Simmonds,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 22, 2024,

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