Interview with Lester Simms


Interview with Lester Simms


Lester tells of his tough, early childhood and his first experience of seeing a Heinkel bomber flying over his home in Surrey, to attack the Brooklands Aircraft Factory. He tells of how he worked in the experimental department of Hawker Aircraft Company, a department lead by Sydney Camm, who designed the Hurricane and the Typhoon. Lester also tells of helping to fit cannons under a Hurricane fighter. Lester joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 17 and a half, hoping to become a pilot. He was posted to 106 Squadron at RAF Metheringham, which was a Lancaster station, but he also worked with Halifaxes and Wellington Bombers. Whilst he was waiting for his pilot course - which eventually took place in Africa - he worked with the FIDO system and doing jobs, including filling holes in the runway and painting.




Temporal Coverage




01:00:18 audio recording


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GC: This is an interview being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive, my name is Gemma Clapton, the interviewee today is Lester Simms of 106 Squadron.
LS: Yes.
GC: Er, the interview is being conducted at [place omitted], on the 7th August 2012, 2016. I’d like to say thank you very much for letting me be here today.
LS: Right.
GC: Erm, can you just tell me a bit about life before the war and how you joined up, please?
LS: Er yes, I really had quite an interesting life, before it even started. I had the most terrible childhood, with two parents that should never have had, erm, should never have had children [laughs]. You want this too?
GC: Yes.
LS: With parents who should never have children. My mother was from a Welsh mining family, erm, Neath in Glamorgan, in South Wales, and my father was from a very rich family. He’d had public school education, it was a clash of different — I saw two different sides of life entirely before I even went into the RAF, erm, and one day, my father, who was a born Australian, just disappeared. I didn’t know what had happened, do you know when you’re young, you don’t know what’s going on, you take everything for granted as though this is what happens to everybody, but suddenly, my father disappeared. As it turned out, he upped left my, his wife, my mother and two, two boys and went back to Australia. Now what that period was, I have no idea. All I know is that some years later, we were living at a place called Nailsea in Bristol with my mother, my mother was a nurse, erm, I won’t tell you the bad side of my mother because I don’t think it should go down in writing.
GC: Okay
LS: But she was actually a nurse and an absolutely dreadful mother, erm, my brother and I were left alone at seven, eight or nine years old, I can’t remember how long it was, and we went to the ordinary common or garden, what were in those days known as elementary or council schools and I even can remember being ashamed of my mother, because I didn’t want the other children to see her, that’s how my young life was. But, suddenly [emphasis] one day, it must have been some years after my father had left home and gone back to Australia where he was born, erm, there was a knock on the door where we lived near Bristol, and my father just grabbed me by the collar, chucked me in his car and I never saw my mother again [pause]. In fact, I think ‘til I came out of the Air Force, I never saw my mother at all, so what happened, er, to my brother, I never did know. So what happened then was, I spent — my father was very itinerant, he moved all over the UK doing what he wanted to do, which was buying and selling motor cars, worked for some different companies, but I, I was all over, all over Britain, not going to school properly, with my father. He had a sister who was actually a multi-millionaire. One day I was told that I was going to a different school, so I was taken to Harrods, in London, completely kitted out, with things that I’d never seen in my life before, you know, a big trunk, and everything that, and sent to a public school, erm, Imperial Service College Windsor, which was the most dramatic thing for anybody to experience. There were, in fact, I remember, there were two Russian princes there, the Romanovs, what happened to them, I don’t know but, of course, the Romanovs all got, erm, killed in the revolution, but it was a school for, it was a school for ex-Army officers’ sons, Imperial Service College Windsor, which was next door to Eton in fact. Although it wasn’t Eton, but it was a very, if you like to say, a posh school, erm, this was very difficult for me to, to accept. You can imagine going to a school where they come, people would come from very rich stock and I’ve come from seeing what I saw and what I knew. My father was always, he was always, a sort of influence, influential, affluent sort of person, he was somebody who everybody would look up to, because he, he was six foot four tall, he’d been to two public schools, erm, he was also a, a cricketer, county cricketer and [pause] It was so, I suppose really and truly, I forgot my mother and took my father’s side in it. But anyway, to get on from there, I left that school in 19, in 19, I think I left the school, the war had already started, in 1939, and we moved with my father to a little cottage at Weybridge in Surrey, where funnily enough, Weybridge was, was the home of, erm, one of the aircraft manufacturing companies, and I was, actually on September 3rd 1939, I was at this cottage in Weybridge which was, maybe as the crow flies, or as the ‘plane would fly, maybe just a few minutes from Brooklands, which was an aircraft factory. On that day, it later turned out, I saw this German aircraft come down over my house and heard the machine gun going, and apparently, the aircraft workers, it was lunchtime, were all outside eating their lunches in the sunshine and many of them were shot up by this. It was a Heinkel bomber. I didn’t know anything about this, all I can remember was that aircraft with crosses on it, which I’d seen come right over my house, then heard the machine gun fire that’s why I never knew anything else, but that was at Weybridge. And then, from there onwards, I’d actually gone to school, so I’ve done it a little bit backwards, but sorry. Somehow then my, my brother appeared, I don’t know how, why or from where, I don’t know, my brother appeared on the scene and, erm, we were together for a while. Some of which, what happened, I can’t remember the, what happened in the interim years, to be honest with you, all I know is that when I was exactly 17 years old it went through anyway. I was with my father, I never saw my mother still, erm, it went through those years, and when I was 17 years old, which you can work out from the times there [laughs]
GC: Um
LS: I was born in 24, 17 — 1941, I volunteered for, I’d decided I wanted to be a pilot, my ambition, because I’d already got myself a motorcycle and I loved riding motorbikes, which I did up to about ten years ago actually, erm, I decided that I wanted to be a pilot. So I went along to the Air Force volunteer place, volunteered and said I wanted to be a pilot, they said alright, and in, I suppose [coughs], sorry, I suppose at the beginning of 1942, it must have been at the beginning of 1942, erm, they sent me to a place called Cardington in Bedfordshire, which was an RAF, it was the main barrage balloon centre of London, of Britain. It was, erm, I’ve forgotten, it was a Royal Air Force place, it had a certain flight num —squadron number, which I’ve forgotten. But, the RAF were using it as an aircrew recruiting centre for potential, potential pupils for aircrew. That was the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, so I volunteered as a pilot. Everybody volunteers to be a pilot but it’s not so easy to get a pilot grading, you’ve got to, and I know for one thing, you’ll read in all the annals of the Air Force that, er, being a little bit of a snob, going to a public school, going to a university, got you into the flying in the Air Force and they wanted this kind of person in there so they could go and get killed pretty quickly. As it turned out, of course. But you did need to be, and the reason that, I know one of the reasons that I was selected for pilot training was as a result of the interview and the medicals I had. I was sent away, erm, oh sorry I missed a bit at the end of all this, ‘cause I’m going back a long time, so I don’t think I’m doing too badly at the moment [laughs]
GC: [laughs]
LS: [pause] I passed everything, I passed the medical, I passed the IQ test, everything else that you need, and you have to be something a little bit special to be a pilot, you have to have something about you to be a pilot, so, and I passed everything. So suddenly I was called in for the final interview there, at Cardington, I was called into the office, and a group of bigwigs was sat there with the scrambled eggs on the hat, as we use to call it. The top RAF officers had the gold on top of their hat, and they said, ‘Right, well, you have passed, you have passed your flying training, but unfortunately, you’re not old enough. We didn’t properly look at your age and you volunteered when you were 17, and you can’t come in until you’re 17 and a half’, so I had to wait six months. So I said, ‘Oh, what shall I do in six months?’ So they said, ‘Well, we’d recommend that in view of your interest in aircraft and flying, that you find an aircraft factory and see if you can work there’. Well, by strange coincidence, sorry, I’ll just turn this off now, by strange coincidence, I lived at Kingston on Thames. Now Kingston on Thames was the headquarters of Hawker Aircraft Company Limited, and I went along there seeking a job, explained to them who I was, and what I was doing there, and I was waiting to go for my pilot training, and I’d been recommended by the RAF to find someone like them. They welcomed me with open arms and they put me in the experimental department of Hawker Aircraft, and leading that was, leading that department, was a man called Sydney Camm. He’s one of the most famous aircraft designers in Britain, he designed the Hurricane, the Typhoon. I never actually saw Sydney Camm, but his office was there and I just worked under one of the top engineers there, and we did all sorts of interesting things, erm, mostly I was just a ‘gimme’, ‘gimme this’ or ‘gimme that’, and wherever I went [laughs] his name was Wrigglesworth, that’s all I remember about him, but one [bird clock chimes], very interesting thing, which was [bird clock chimes], which was very much, sorry, it’s a bird clock. [bird clock chimes]
GC: [laughs]
LS: [laughs] one very interesting thing that we did [bird clock chimes], which maybe you would like to perhaps record down there [bird clock chimes], is that we fitted the first, we fitted the first, we had the job to fit a Hawker Hurricane, with the first fifty millimetre canons underneath there. I went to a place called Manston, which is another famous bomber command, fighter command station. We went to Manston to do this [background noises], oh he’s ok [laughs], that’s alright, I’ll just have a drink. [pouring drink]
GC: Carry on.
LS: So, erm, I’m not quite sure now where I got to.
GC: The guns.
LS: As I say we, one of the, the most interesting job was — ‘cause the German fighters always had better armament than the British fighters though the Hurricane and the Spitfire only had relatively simple guns, and indeed Lancaster bombers only had the same guns that we used in rifles by the army, 303s. But they needed, they needed canons, which was what the German fighters had, so that we could, so that our aircraft could blow the German aircraft out of the war with canons rather than just bullets and so that’s why we fitted, what happened after that, I don’t know. All I know is underneath this Hurricane, we fitted two fifty millimetre cannons and that was the most important job I did there. But eventually in 1940, in September 1942, funny how I can remember the date, I was called to the Euston House in London and attested there, signed in as aircrew, and that started my career in the Air Force. Now, if you read any books on what happened to aircrew, initially, we all, even, there were grades of aircrew, there was PNBs, that was pilot, navigator, bomb aimer. They were the senior grades, but afterwards came wireless operators, erm, flight engineers, air gunners, all those people who were on a Lancaster, well there was seven on a crew on a Lancaster. So you had wireless operator, flight engineers and two air gunners and navigator. Sorry, the navigators were part of us, PNB was pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, but the rest were all the other grades that we used in flying, that’s, as I say flight engineers, bomb, flight engineers, erm, radio operators and air gunners. Anyway, so [pause] I was attested then we went, all of us, all aircrew, went to St Johns Wood in London, which was Lords cricket ground, and they’d taken over all around Lords cricket ground, some people were actually stationed on Lords cricket ground and were using the facilities there to introduce people, initially introduce people to the Royal Air Force. But I know we stayed in a block of modern flats and we went through absolute hell there. I mean, we were treated more like prisoners of war than people who had volunteered to give our lives, by stupid ex-ground staff training people, to train us in, in all the other things like marching and all stupid things [bell rings]
GS: [chuckles]
LS: Last thing you need when you’re up in the air.
GS: Yes.
LS: Right, so from there, this is the more interesting part now, I think we are probably coming to, sorry about this, you’ve got to get used to these darn things [background noises], otherwise I’d completely lose my breath through no oxygen [laughs]
GS: It’s alright.
LS: Then you, all you’ve got is a gasp [laughs]
GS: [Laughs]
Unknown: [Laughs]
LS: [Laughs] right, so then we spent, I’m not sure how long, probably a month or something, there being introduced. Right, so then at my time, you’ve then come to 1943. Now at that time, right up to that time, within a short time after that, probably within eighteen months, you’d be trained as a pilot and you’d be actual operational duties against the enemy, flying, flying to Germany and such. Wherever, wherever it was taken. I had actually, I missed a little bit, towards the middle of my flying training, they asked, ‘Did you want to be a fighter pilot or a bomber pilot?’ Well I never wanted aerobatics, I was never very, I didn’t, wasn’t enthusiastic about turning upside down and flying at ten thousand feet into a spin and then recovering. You wouldn’t have to do that with a heavy aircraft. So I choose bombers and that’s why, I went the second part of my flying course was SFTS, which was the senior flying training school. I would have gone on a different aircraft in a different, erm, different squadron if I’d chosen to be fighter command. That was even, in the same place in Rhodesia where I went to. Oh, course we haven’t got to that yet have we.
GC: [laughter]
LS: [laughs] Okay.
GC: He’s just trying to keep me on my toes.
Unknown: Yes [laughs]
LS: You could put this on the comedy hour!
Everyone: [Laughter]
LS: Okay so right. So then they had to know what to do with us, because the courses for pilots, for pilots was probably just, flying alone, was probably a year. But, as I said, the South Africa, Canada, Australia and Rhodesia were the main ones and we all had to wait for a course to be available. So what they did with us then, which happened to most aircrew, there was a place called Heaton Park in Manchester, which is very famous, erm, in the Manchester, it’s still going strong, Heaton Park. But we were sent to Heaton Park in Manchester, it was an aircrew holding centre, so they held us there until we could have a, a position to train as pilots or whatever else we were going to train as. But they couldn’t hold too many of us there, so when, I presume, when it became saturation point, they sent us, groups of us out to operational stations or to training then, you are then away from training aircraft, you’re then fully, fully occupied with operational aircraft. Which as far as I was concerned, would be Stirlings, Halifax, Lancasters or, erm, or those three. So, I dunno, we were there a few weeks at Heaton Park before they sent me out to my first posting, which was a temporary posting, prior to going to my flying training. And that was 106 Squadron, that was the Lancaster squadron at Metheringham. Now 106 Squadron was very closely associated, because it was next door, with 617 Squadron, which everybody knows is the Dambusters [pause], and 9 Squadron, which was another famous RAF, at Bardney they were. And from there, to a certain extent, I learnt what it was all about, although it should have frightened me, but it didn’t. Erm, I saw aircraft coming back being shot up, what I never knew was, I mean, we could lose three or four aircraft, it was only, it was only about twenty-two aircraft on each of these squadrons, but suddenly one or two would be missing. We were never told that, and incidentally neither were the other aircrew members of other aircraft, that their pals had been missed, they would have just missed them in the mess, maybe in the billets where they were staying, not, not see them anymore.
GC: Um
LS: Then people used to come in and take all their belongings and then they were sent back, all their belongings were sent back to their parents. So, I did learn a lot there. But what I did was, being a bit of a pub lad, erm, I palled up with one of the crews. Now they all went down to the local pub at Martin, which was right next to the airfield at Metheringham where I was, 106 Squadron at Metheringham we’re talking about now, I think you, that’s where I am, but next door was a village called Martin. Now in the normal way the aircraft, the airfield would have been called, it was taken over from farmland, the aircraft would have been called Martin, but it didn’t have a railway station, but Metheringham, which is the next [unclear] village, so they called it RAF Metheringham, but it wasn’t Metheringham at all, of course. But anyway, we come to the pub at Martin, which was The Royal Oak at Martin. I palled up with one of the crews, who’s, it’s a funny thing really, of course, I knew what they were doing, but I never realised that they were out to kill themselves, you know. ‘Cause I would meet up with Vic, his picture’s there actually [background noise], his picture’s there and I finally, because of doing what I was doing with 106 Squadron reunion and with the, erm, dealing with parental enquiries, anything that came to me, which is what I’ve been doing, I managed to find out he came from Barnsley, and I managed to find out actually, I found out his family. One of the, one of the daughters of his aunt sent me that picture and the aunt, who’s now well into her nineties, when she found out, ‘cause they didn’t know what happened. All they got was a letter to say that he’d been killed, erm, and where he was buried. He was buried actually in Durnbach, in a cemetery in Germany, we’ll come to that in a minute. But anyway, erm, I palled up with this crew and the interesting thing was, of course, when you were sent, I think there were six of us, sent out to this, this aircrew, just to get rid of us. Remember Heaton Park wanted us out of the way so they dispatched us, the first place was there, and then, of course, when you arrived there, you never had a job to do. You got no trade, you were waiting to be trained as pilots so they just gave us odd jobs, and some of the jobs were quite interesting. Of course, based at RAF Metheringham, was a system called FIDO, fog intensive dispersal of, which was, because in the winter, an aircraft couldn’t actually land at some of the airfields because fog would prevent the landings. So they, they created this thing, which was the whole length of the runway, the main runway, was a pipe surrounded, big iron, I don’t know exactly what it was, but big iron things like that and when an aircraft was coming in to land, it was petrol, they used ordinary petroleum, ordinary petroleum and they’d set it alight and the fog would go, because this massive, apparently it burned so many gallons of petrol in such a short time, but it would allow the aircraft to see the runway and land, and I can remember so often, so why I’m telling you this was, they said, ‘Well what are we going to do with you people?’ The commanding officer, so they gave us jobs, and one of them was to repair holes in the aircraft, sorry, not in the aircraft, in the runway, erm, and that was an interesting job, all kinds of interesting this time. I was one, the only one of my group ever who could drive, ‘cause I learnt to drive ‘cause my father always had cars and I learnt to drive when I was probably ten or eleven.
GC: [Laughs]
LS: So I could drive, so I was always the driver wherever I was and a driver was needed, I was always the driver. But anyway, so we used to go out to the airfield and we even had a concrete mixer, a mixer so we could fill the holes, we did all that. One or two adventures, I don’t think we need go into stupid things that happened, but, and then one day, this might be of interest ‘cause it’s quite funny, erm, two of us were appointed to paint the inside, which was called distempering in those days, that was the white stuff, it’s called emulsion now, but, but even private houses used, for the ceilings, it was called distemper. And they gave us this distemper and we first had to do the toilet, the men’s toilet and then afterwards we had to do the ceiling in the headquarters. Well the first thing that happened was, I had just finished distempering the men’s toilet, well the most famous, erm, squadron leader at Metheringham was Group Captain McKechnie and I was just finishing off in the men’s toilet, and the group captain walked in for a jimmy riddle, and he looked at me and he said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘Simms, Sir’, he said, ‘Looks a lot better Simms, well done’. And he sat there having a jimmy riddle and in the middle of his jimmy riddle he turned his head round at me, he said, ‘It smells better too Simms.’
GC: [Laughs]
LS: That was the group captain and he’s quite famous, I mean nobody knows[laughter], so anyway, that was the first, well the second thing that happened, the next day two of us were appointed to paint the ceilings, so we had two stepladders and then a plank going across the top. So, erm, we managed this, but one of the lads was at the other end and I was at this end. What I hadn’t realised was, he was on the other side of the ladder, with the distemper.
GC: [laughs]
LS: So I said, ‘I won’t be a minute’. [laughs] I got down, the ladder went up in the air, the whole bucket of distemper went everywhere [emphasis], we had to clear the whole, sorry, I remember it being absolutely hell. He was covered in whitewash ‘cause he’d gone right down in the middle of it [laughter], so that was the most interesting thing that happened there. But, getting to the more interesting points, I was posted away from there and as far as I knew, Vic was still there. I did on one occasion, I said, ‘Vic’, he was the rear gunner by the way, Vic, the one you’ve seen in the photograph, I said, ‘Vic, could you get me on a trip one day?’ I mean of all the stupid things to do, it shows, shows you the people like me didn’t appreciate what we were going to do in the future. I said, ‘Could you get me on one of these trips?’ He said, ‘I’ll ask the captain’. so I met him in the pub some nights afterwards, he said, ‘Oh’, he said, ‘You’re not allowed to come with us, it’s forbidden’. So, of course, I didn’t go and as it so happens he, I’ve worked it out afterwards, he came back off that trip anyway, but I disappeared, suddenly you were told you’re going somewhere else and I was taken away from there, I think probably after three months at Metheringham. But ingrained into my mind was an attachment, because it was the only real operational station I was sent to while I was waiting to go for my flying training, and 106 Squadron means a great deal to me, and that’s why I’ve run the reunions for the last four years, because the man who did it, died suddenly. His wife phoned me up, she said, ‘He just died in a chair’. And he wasn’t very old and he wasn’t ex-RAF, but his brother was and his nephew was, erm, and this is why I’m doing the job that he was, which he’d done for seven or eight years. But suddenly, he died and I sort of took it over, running the reunion, which I did for four years and also, erm, any enquiries that came in from 106 Squadron. We have a publication, Tom, I wonder if you, um, just this pile on the right, there’s some magazines under there, RAF magazines, just one of those. No, not that one, the printed ones [background noises], are they there? There’s a few of them there, just one of those. Yes, thanks. That’s our 106 Squadron publication, which comes out every three months, and you can see I’m there as the contact there.
GC: Yes. Um.
LS: So this is what I do, what I still do, although I don’t run the reunion side of it anymore. Running reunions is like trying to herd cats [laughter], it’s impossible. It is. Because you tell them when the reunion is and, ‘Oh, I can’t do that date’. Well I can’t change, so you just have to try to get people early enough, and if you do it too early, of course, they forget [laughter]. Anyway our reunions, which are very interesting, were held at the Petwood Hotel, which was the officer’s mess of the Dambusters, as you probably know, a very famous place, so every year, for the last ten years, we’ve had our reunion at the Petwood, which brings back fantastic memories. We’d go there on the Sunday, always at the beginning of July, and we’d stay there ‘til the Thursday morning, but on the Tuesday, Conningsby is where the Lancaster is, and the Lancaster flew over for us every year. The last two years it hasn’t flown because the engines been, one of the engines has been kaput, so we haven’t had it fly over. This time I wasn’t able to go because of this breathing problem which was in July, and so they had a Spitfire, ‘cause there’s Spitfires and Hurricanes based there, what’s left of them, are based there. As well as the operational crew, if the prime minister presses the button and Air Force are needed, that’s where they are, at Conningsby, you probably know that.
GC: Um
LS: But it’s true, they’re all ready to go if anything happens. But anyway, so, erm, the Lancaster is based there, this is where I’ve [unclear], but most people know that anyway. But it’s still, it’s still kaput. But so that’s it really, so I finished, not saying goodbye to Vic, but while I was out doing my flying training and sometime afterwards, out in, when I was out in Rhodesia, I got a letter to say that the crew had been lost over Stuttgart, erm, the only aircraft of our squadron that was lost that night. It was August the twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth, over Stuttgart and I think, pretty certain it was shot down by German fighters. But the only one of ours, there were actually two hundred and fifty aircraft that took part that night but we had only got, we had nineteen, we had eighteen went out and, er, one didn’t come back and that was Vic’s, so I got that letter when I was out in Rhodesia, erm, to say that they’d been lost. Of course, reading a lot of books on Bomber Command, which I have been doing, in fact I think I am reading too many [laughs], I think I’m reading too many, erm, that I’ve found out a lot more about what happened, and, anyway. So, ok, so I will quickly now go back, then I was sent back to Heaton Park without knowing, Vic was still flying when I left, his crew were going, in fact he was killed, actually, I’m not sure when I actually left there, so I must have left there some, I’ve got a feeling it was September, went back to Heaton Park and then from there I went to a Halifax, the same thing again, they’d take us in there, hold us for a few days then send us out to another, just to get rid of us, while we’re waiting. So I went to another, to a Halifax conversion unit, because probably aircrew, when they change aircraft, they have to go to a conversion unit. So the Halifax was the other big bomber and that was one at Selby in Yorkshire. Nothing particularly interesting happened there, I think I was probably there for the same period as I was at Metheringham, one or two months. We were just there, I can’t even remember what we did, then I came back again, into Heaton Park, for the last time, but then was sent out to a flying boat squadron, in north of Scotland, Mill Town, Sunderland base. When we got there, there was six of us again and they said, ‘Right, we want a volunteer’. So I volunteer for anything. So, ‘We want a volunteer’. So they said, ‘Are any of you drivers?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m a driver’, and they said, ‘Right, we want a volunteer to drive the, to drive the crash, erm, the crash vehicle’. So, well I didn’t realise at the time, of course, what it entailed but so I volunteered to drive this crash vehicle. It was a crash on the airfield or anywhere else in the vicinity, you went out, and tried to help, erm, and that was fine, I can’t remember what else we did, all I know, that I always had this crash thing, the crash vehicle, near me. Fact, we used to take it down the pub at nights [laughter], ‘cause we were on the radio, we used to go down the pub [laughs]. I remember one night, I’m trying to turn round, knocked somebody’s fence down [laughter] in this crash car. You couldn’t see out the back, it was a big thing. But anyway, one night, we’ve been out, we got the message on the radio, there’s been a crash at a place called Lhanbryde in Scotland, and we found it very quickly and they said it was a Wellington and it had crashed, and I saw things there that were absolutely dreadful. Just mangled bodies, and the people had already got there, ambulance people had already got there, erm, and I could see things that I, well, there was a young woman alongside me and I put my arm around her, I said, ‘Are you alright?’ She said, ‘I’m a nurse’, she said [laughs] So, anyway, I saw things there which you would have thought would have put someone like me, there was only two of us on this crash thing by the way, I don’t know what the others were doing, I don’t know I’ve forgotten, but I remember, I couldn’t eat anything for about three or four days after seeing what I saw, what I’d seen, it was pretty dreadful. But anyway, back into Heaton Park and then the next thing, something very interesting happened, really. I was due to go to America, for the flying school in America, I got the most tremendous dose of flu’ and the medical officer, I was due to go to America the next day and he said, ‘You can’t go anywhere, look at you’. I was steaming. He said, ‘Stay here, you can go on the next —’ so I actually went to Rhodesia, which actually was much more easy going than America was. It was much easier for me, for my flying training to go and, I’ve got the flying in my book there, but there’s nothing there that’ll tell you anything. It’s just my log, my hours, there’s no, you know, you’ll come across, you’ve probably already come across, aircrew members that did trips, you see their log books where they flew that night and the results, but I haven’t got any of that, because I didn’t do any operational training. So then, so that’s what actually happened, erm, I went out to Rhodesia, we, I won’t go into that, but there was something like three thousand people killed in flying training accidents, so I had two near squeaks, erm, which I got out of, obviously ‘cause I’m here. But flying things, once the instructor sent me up in an aircraft that had been declared kaput and he’d forgotten to record it. I took off, and the next thing, the screen’s gone black in front of me and I realised I had to get down quickly, but I mean on take-off, that’s the worst time for any aircraft to have a problem, because you just go straight in, but luckily the engine kept going, I went round and landed. And another time it was spinning and it wouldn’t come out of the spin. I had to induce the spin and then recover, but luckily on that particular day, erm, instead of flying at night for practice, what they did, so we didn’t, the instructors, the airfield and everybody didn’t have to acclimatise themselves for night flying, erm, what they did with a twin engine trainer, sorry, a twin seat trainer, you would have a hood over you, so you’d go up in daylight but as far as you were concerned, in the back seat, it was night, so they did our night flying training with the hood. So I had to recover from a spin at night, so I had to put it in the spin, which is quite easy to do that, you stall the engines so the aircraft goes like that, and then you have to, and then it goes around and around. So you do this at ten thousand feet, erm, and the instructor sitting in the front said, ‘Right, now put her in a spin’. So I did and it wouldn’t come out, it would not come out. When you’re in a spin, you put the joy stick right forward and full opposite rudder against, if you’re going to the right, you rudder, I’d done all that, it would not come out of a spin. So I was going, I often wondered, would I jump, but I knew then that I would jump, so I’ve put the night flying hood back, and the main hood back, so then out in the open air and we’re still going round, and all of a sudden, the instructor shouted out, I remember so clearly what he shouted, ‘I’ve got her, I’ve got her!’ he shouted out [laughs], and all of a sudden, he only did what I’d done so how he did it, I’ll never know, maybe he put a bit of engine on or something, but it wasn’t going to recover. So that was the only exciting part really, and when I nearly had it. There were other little things happen, but that happens when you’re training to fly an aircraft anyway. So that was it so, at the end of, that was on single engine, you never would go into a spin with twin engine aircraft, because we probably wouldn’t come out. So you just had to learn, it’s all about controls of the aircraft, that’s why you did all these things under any circumstances, really. So that was the end of my flying training there and that’s when, at the end of, we were due to get our wings, now we come to the end bit there [pause], they called us all, there was a hundred and twenty started on the course, there was sixty of us left, they said, ‘Right well, we don’t need pilots anymore, you’ve got a choice. Sign on for three years with four years on the RAF reserve’. So you go back into civvy life, but you’d be available for call up any time. Well I wanted to come back to the UK, which, in a way, was a shame, because at that posh school that I went to, Imperial Service College Windsor, erm, there was another guy, one of the pupils there was a Rhodesian and when we got to Rhodesia, first thing I did was looked in the telephone book and there was a Watman, one only in the telephone book. It was his parents and they looked after us so well. But he, John’s father, was the president of the Royal Tobacco Company of South Africa and he offered me a job with my own aircraft as a site manager, going all round the airfields, all round South Africa, as a manager. I didn’t, I should have done it, but I didn’t. So I would have had the chance to have stayed out there, but I didn’t, anyway, war went on and maybe I would have had to come back. So I just came back and I was demobilised, I came out of the Air Force then, and then, as I said earlier, which is written in that thing that you’ve got, erm I didn’t know what to do with myself. My father was an officer in the Army, he came out of the Army, he’d got, my father had got no sense of economics, in spite of the wealth of his family, he’d got no sense of economics at all. We often never had anything, not even food sometimes when he was around, ‘cause he gambled all his money away, he was a gambler. But he decided, he’d got dreams about when he came out of the Army, he was going to open a filling station and have at the back, chickens and animals and things, this was his sort of dream. But he’d got no sense of economics whatsoever and, luckily for me, I’ve got a pretty good sense of economics, and I could see things were going wrong. I tried working with him, um, but it didn’t work. So I thought, what the hell can I do with myself now, as I never really had a proper home with him, because it was his home, and that wasn’t a home at all. He had a girlfriend who I hated, but anyway [laughs], so I decided maybe I would go back in the Air Force and see. So I went back in the Air Force, I told you earlier, they didn’t want aircrew anymore, so, they offered me motor transport, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll take it’. So I joined on a short term contract of about two years, I think it was, erm, to go back into the Air Force again, I thought, well, then that gives me time, I was still very young, I was only nineteen I think, time to make my mind up and do things properly again in the UK. But erm, so when I was sent to my first MT division, again they said, ‘We’re looking for volunteers’ [laughs], so I said, ‘What for?’ They said, ‘No’. They said to me, ‘Would you volunteer for something?’ I said, ‘What’s it for?’ He said, ‘Bomb disposal’. So I said, ‘OK’. So I volunteered for bomb disposal, and I had that two years that I was in there, on bomb disposal, because the RAF were responsible for all enemy bombs on RAF territory, erm, all enemy bombs on RAF territory and all Allied bombs, jettisoned bombs, as the bomber’s coming in and it’s got to land, it sometimes would jettison it’s bombs on farmland, so, we were responsible for those, getting those up. And also, if the Germans had dropped bombs on our airfield, we were responsible for, and that’s what I did. And there were one or two adventures there which I don’t think I should bore you with [laughs]. What? Yes? Oh. [laughs]
GC: [Laughs]
LS: Well, erm, funnily enough the most interesting thing that happened at a place called Farnham, erm, yes I think it was called Farnham, place called Warren Wood, which was near Elsingham, I think it’s called, it’s on the road to Norwich, was a huge American Army bomb disposal dump there. The Americans had gone and left all their equipment there. Well, there was a lot of stuff left there, and we had to dispose of all that. The only danger, gosh it was dangerous, digging up bombs, when we got down to a bomb, the local press would come and look at us, down the hole with this bloody great bomb, standing there [laughs], but there was no danger really [laughter]. The danger was, was that the Americans used a bomb called a composition B bomb, which went off without a fuse, erm, and we had to deal with those. And what was done with bomb disposal, you would get the bombs, you would find, when I was based at Waterbeach near Cambridge, erm, we had Lakenheath nearby, which was a big area, so we could take these bombs up to the airfield there and instead of blowing them up, what you did was, you put like a metal saw on the top, which circulated, so you strapped it down and then from a remote control, you drilled a hole in this bomb and if it went off, it just blew the equipment away, erm, but then once the hole is there and the adhesive was inside, we just steamed it out. It was, we were at some very interesting places and it was the one place again where I was very lucky not to be killed, er, because, I’m not too sure this should be written, but amongst the bomb disposal people that was with us, there was about ten of us I think, now again, I could drive, so I was the driver, so I was always flicking around getting the food and stuff, but I also had to do the bomb, I had to do the bomb duties as well. Just because you were the driver meant you had an extra job, you didn’t get extra pay for that, but you had the extra job of being the driver, so I had time to walk around this site, and it was a big, it was a big wooded area. Well one day, I’m walking around, and funnily enough, a dog had befriended us, so I got very pally with this dog and I used to take it for walks. Where it came from, I never did know [laughter], and I was walking this dog one day in a direction which I think I’d never been before, and all of a sudden, I came across this big metal hut, which was called a nissen hut, they were round things, and I opened the door and it was full of stuff in there, all cases and cases of ammunition [pause]. Well now I’m coming to the bit which I shouldn’t tell you about, but we had one of our members, he was a cockney from Walthamstow, and during that time, women couldn’t get nylon, but a lot of the parachutes were made of nylon and we had these cases of these, they were called fragmentation bombs, they were about that size and when they hit the ground they fragmentated, the pieces went all everywhere and killed everybody but they came down slowly on these ‘chutes and they were nylon. So this cockney bloke, he’d learnt how to pull these ‘chutes out and cut them off [laughs], without them going off. So he got me cutting, pulling them out [laughter], and then he went off to London with boxes full of these bloody ‘chutes and sold them and came back with some money [laughter].
GC: [laughs]
LS: Well one day, this is where it happened, when I was walking the dog and I came across this building, I went inside there and there were these big [emphasis] things stacked up in one of the racks at the bottom, well, they were about that length and about that round and hanging out of one was part of a huge parachute. I thought, my God, I’m in here.
GC: [laughs]
LS: So of course, I pulled it out, and as I pulled it out, I heard the fuse go. So I ran like hell [emphasis] outside and the next thing, the bloody thing exploded, and the fire inside was just, all bullets were going off everywhere and we got a crash crew, two, and they were both bloody Irishmen [laughs], they were both Irishmen they were running this thing, and I ran all the way to this crash crew and got them out, and I said ‘Quick, there’s been an explosion’. They wouldn’t go anywhere near it. Well of course, I was the guilty party, so [laughs], so I grabbed the hose off them, went right up to the door with all these bullets, I didn’t feel anything, I didn’t feel fright, and I’m trying to squirt the hose in there, and there’s all these bullets going off. Had it been, what it was, there were two, when you, when the Lancasters went in, but these would have been from American Flying Fortresses, ‘cause it was an American base, you illuminate the target at night, A, if it’s a photograph that you wanted, it was the photo flash bomb that went off instantly, and the cameras were already aligned in the aircraft, so it took a picture either of the target or the damage that you’d done. That was the photo flash bomb, that was a big flash. But the photo flood bomb was on a parachute and that went off, but all it did was shoot the parachute out so that the bomb came down and was taking pictures on the way down. So they actually could take the, still, you know, it would be, sorry [unclear], otherwise my voice goes, might be a good thing [laughter]. So luckily for me, well, these two Irishmen, they still wouldn’t come anywhere near it, they were in the truck and I pulled the lead from the truck, anyway I went back to base, I never did see that spot again. But one day, two very official gentlemen came down to us while we were in Bomb Disposal, they were from the Air Ministry, they wanted to interview me. So, of course, I couldn’t tell them the true story, that I was helping this bloke go to London with this–– [laughter], I couldn’t tell them, so I denied it. Do you know, they interviewed me for two or three days, they came back and they said ‘Do you know why we’re back? Because we don’t think, we don’t know why, but we think you’re not telling the truth. Because there was no lives involved, and yet why did you risk your life to go and put the fire out?’ And they said ‘Why did you do it?’ And, in the end they, do you know, they came back two or three times, can’t remember how many times, but in the end, I said ‘Look, ok, there’s this guy here who’s got a market in London––’ and I told them the story [laughs]. No! No, I didn’t, no, I didn’t! Sorry [laughter], I never told them that, I couldn’t tell them that. I said ‘What had happened was I’d actually pulled the, I’d set it off accidentally’. I said ‘I did, I set it off accidentally’. So I was severely admonished, I never got any punishment at all, it would just go down as a severe admonishment, but, of course, had I told them the truth, which is wrong, I didn’t tell them the truth, it’s out there now [laughter], if two people arrive tomorrow, I’m going [laughter]. No, they really had a go at me, but anyway. Funny how Bomb Disposal was fun because you’re always on your own, you never, we had one officer and one sergeant, they promoted me to corporal because I was, had done what I’d done anyway, so I got some promotion, finished up as a corporal, at my second stage in the RAF. Erm, and there was probably six of us, I can’t remember how many, but certainly one of them was this guy from Walthamstow [laughs], was a right cockney. We used to come back with a few bob [laughter], and that was it really, I was eventually demobbed and that was the end of it.
GC: As I say, can you tell us a bit about Rhodesia, I know you trained out there. What was Rhodesia like at that time?
LS: Well, of course, Rhodesia in those days was very British. I mean, our nearest town was Bulawayo, we called it Bullafoo, I forgot my tea [sound of drinking]
GC: We’re alright as long as the house doesn’t fall down
LS: Um?
Unknown: What’s going on?
LS: I don’t know. I thought she was after Bailey. Oh, is it on?
GC: It’s alright
LS: Oh. So very British there, so Bulawayo, there were mostly black people, the local people in Bulawayo. But the first place I was at was Bulawayo, and then, when I changed onto the second grade of flying, it was called Salisbury, which was the capital of Rhodesia at that time. It’s now called Cranbourne, sorry, here comes my whistle in my chest––
GC: We’ll stop soon.
LS: Erm, it was called Salisbury. So I was actually stationed there. Would you pass me those, those, no the older books, next, no next one, yes both of them will do, Tom, thanks. So I was actually out in Rhodesia [book pages turning] when, these are personal photographs as well as the RAF photographs, I don’t think there’s anything to interest you. But look, there’s Salisbury on VE Day where I was. I’m told these photographs are worth a lot of money because nobody would have got those.
GC: Um
LS: So I was actually there when VE was declared, victory was declared, so we got involved in the celebrations in Salisbury, erm, and I remember buying those from somewhere or other.
GC: They look like, erm, they look really Colonial don’t they ‘cause––
LS: Yes.
GC: ––They are really.
LS: Oh, very much so.
GC: Yeah
LS: Well Rhodesia was very British, the whole of South Africa was, apart from the Dutch, the Dutch side of South Africa. There was the Dutch side, and then the British side, and the Dutch were very strong, of course, in South Africa and they still are. Lot of the South African people have got Dutch sounding names, but there were a lot of British, erm, British people there.
GC: Right.
LS: Erm, there were Dutch communities and British communities. But really, so it was mostly black people, the man who, the black man who looked after me was actually a Zulu, of course, they’re just a tribe, the Zulus, but he was a lovely man. He was a man who I could ask to do things when I was doing my flying at EFTS, which is the first one. erm, and he was, as I say, a Zulu, but I can’t really tell you a lot else about Rhodesia. It was very wild. You know, an amazing thing happened, I’m in hospital, about last Tuesday, and suddenly one of these black nurses came, she did something, I can’t remember, because I’ve got injections all over me where they were sticking these needles all over me, and all of a sudden, I saw Mombai written on her thing. I said ‘Are you from Mombai?’ so she said, ‘Yes’, I said ‘In Rhodesia?’ she said ‘Yes’. Now Mombai wasn’t even a village. Was there a problem?
GC: No.
LS: Oh, oh, this is while I was in hospital. I said, ‘I can’t believe this’, I said, ‘Are you from Mombai?’ she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, before your time, probably your parents’ time, there was an airfield very near to Mombai and we used to take off the aircraft and at night, when I took off, you could see the native fires burning, ‘cause they lived in huts. You know, you could actually see the fires burning, but incredibly, the chances of me meeting somebody from Mombai was incredible, wasn’t even a village there, it was just called Mombai.
GC: Wow.
LS: The nearest place we used to go to was Bulawayo, which was seventeen miles away. I used to walk that a few times too, I never had a bike, we used to walk it at night.
GC: Is there anything else you can think about, erm, when you was back in England at Metherington, any other stories of your crew or your ground crew, or…
LS: Well, erm, probably is, it’s just a question of remembering, because my time was so varied, more than most people. Erm, I didn’t know many of the ground crew, erm, I think most I know, I mean Bomber Command, they had their own ground crew for each aircraft, you know, and at our reunion we used to have some ground crew members came back, but I think the last one died last year. He was a very interesting man, he was an armourer and he would arm the planes. I used to hear stories from him, but I never met any, even when I was on the operational stations, I didn’t meet any ground crew really. They were probably there, I was only interested in other aircrew and so there’s not really a lot I can tell you, erm, I’d have to go deep into my deep down brain [laughs]
GC: Well I’ll tell you what, I’d like to say thank you very much
LS: Alright
GC: I’d like to say thank you to Lester, to Holly, to Tom and to Bailey, erm, and it’s been a pleasure to meet you this morning. Thank you very much.
LS: OK, you’re very welcome.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Lester Simms,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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