Interview with Ken Sleaford


Interview with Ken Sleaford


Ken Sleaford was born and raised near Coningsby on the family farm. Tells of life on the farm before and during the war, when it was handed over to the Air Force, to be converted into an airfield and incorporated into RAF Coningsby. Mentions various episodes: seeing a Spitfire for the first time; Irish labourers working on the site; the friendly relationship with the aircrews; spending nights in the air raid shelters; a flight sergeant lodging at their house; an aircrew bailing out of a Halifax; driving the dumpers; German prisoners of war; watching the bombs being delivered by train. As a little boy, he remembers having a very exciting and eventful time. After the war, he moved with his family to another farm at Gayton le Marsh.








00:30:07 audio recording


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ASleafordK170412, PSleafordK1701


DK: Right, so that’s [unclear], so this is David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Ken Sleaford at his home on the 12th of April? [unclear] today isn’t it? I’ll put that there. If I’m looking down, I’m just making sure it’s still working.
KS: Yeah
DK: I’ll put that there. As I say, what will happen is, these interviews will go into the centre and that will be online as well, cause what we really want is both people who served in the RAF Bomber Command and those who witnessed certain things
KS: Yeah, yeah
DK: And all that but it’s, I mean, a lot of what we are picking up there is a lot of social history between the 1930s up to the 1950s cause always like to talk about what they were doing before the war and after the war
US: Well, that’s it [unclear] like Dad’s disappeared off the planet, all that’s gone [unclear]?
DK: Yeah, yeah. Ok, then, just ask you Ken, what were you doing immediately before the war?
KS: I was farming with my dad,
DK: Alright, and this was
KS: While I was still at school. Yeah.
DK: Alright. So this was on an old Fen farm
KS: This was old Fen farm, yeah
DK: So, how long had the farm been in your family?
KS: Oh, couldn’t tell you, years, years.
DK: Many generations.
KS: Yeah. And my grandad had it before then like
DK: And so, what sort of farm was it then, what was the, what
KS: Korn, [unclear], sugar beet, then kale and this sort of thing with the sheep, we had beef and sheep
DK: Alright. So, what was your average day like working on the farm? Did you have to get up early and
KS: I get up early, yeah
DK: [unclear]
KS: Night and day when it was lambing time. yeah
DK: So, what time would you get up then for the lambing?
KS: Dad [unclear], Dad used to be up in and out bed all night like, I didn’t know a lot because I was still at school and when I left school cause I worked my dad then like and had the same job then
DK: So how old were you when you left school?
KS: Fourteen
DK: And presumably it was expected that you’d go work on the farm
KS: Yeah, yeah
DK: Alright. So, the farm area then, that’s now taken up by the airfield
KS: That’s right
DK: So, you say a little bit about how that came about? Presumably you lost some of your land to the airfield
KS: Yeah, we lost it all [unclear], we left Coningsby in ’49, that was after the war like, but I just [unclear] first come [unclear] and fill things down. Coningsby opened in 1940 but it started in 1937, is that right? When they first started building the aerodrome
DK: So, can you remember what happened then? Was your father approached by officials to say [unclear]?
KS: I can’t remember, I can’t remember that, they just come [unclear] I was working with my father on one of the farms, come all the bulldozers in there then, pushing hedges up, filling dykes in and
DK: So, the bulldozers literally turned up one day
KS: That’s it, yeah
DK: And they would
KS: That was it, yeah, then gradually getting a bit more and a bit more until they got a lot of the [unclear] like
DK: Alright.
KS: Yeah
DK: And how did your family feel about that then? Were you
KS: Well, [unclear], Dad had that one farm and he had another one at Rayden Corner and another one at [unclear], they all averaged about forty acre a piece
DK: Right, ok, so your father, I mean, lost the one
KS: Yeah, but then, been reloading that one then the man that was in the farm at Rayden Corner, his father died so he was moving into his so we decided to sell the other two, had to get a bigger one which we did at Gayton le Marsh then like.
DK: Can you recall if your father was given compensation for the loss of [unclear]
KS: I can’t remember that, no, can’t remember that, he’d be bound to be but had [unclear] like yeah.
DK: So, what do you remember about the buildings that went on then? Was it day and night?
KS: Oh yeah, we had lodgers in right from the start then, Irishmen ran those building and everything
DK: I was gonna ask, actually where the labourers came from, were they basically?
KS: There was Irish and all sorts, we had lodgers right from the beginning, all through the war we had airmen and everything
DK: Right
KS: We had a big house with six, seven bedrooms like, so we used to let them to the workmen then when the Air Force come, they moved in
DK: And can you remember the day the Air Force did move in? Was
KS: The first aeroplane coming in, it was in trouble that was when all the [unclear] up the aerodrome went actually opened then, that was a Spitfire one Saturday afternoon, it come in right through the [unclear] till it got to the other side cause it hit one and that crashed him. That was the first one, then the Hampdens come and there was on a Sunday morning, they all came in on a Sunday morning the Hampdens did, that was the first bombers like
DK: So, what did you think when you saw all these Hampdens landing? I guess you’ve seen them land.
KS: Yeah, I always stood in the yard just behind the yard like, just watching them all land in, I was more or less on the aerodrome all the time opened to it because the crew doors open and everything cause the cows and everything beyond the airfield like
DK: So, the airfield itself wasn’t sort of barbed wired or anything off it you could just wander onto it
KS: Yeah, we used to play on the peri-track and things and the runways when they [unclear] then was a long time before they brought the runways but they say the Hampdens come and then the Manchesters came, then the land was so wet and boggy they couldn’t get off with the bigger planes so they had to move back to Waddington then I think
DK: Right
KS: And then they put the runways in
DK: So, up until that point it would’ve been a grass
KS: Yes, grass, yeah
DK: [unclear] yeah
KS: Yeah, and the planes used to, the Hampdens used to come round over the top of the building taking off and loading up with the bombs and everything, I was right on the aerodrome all the time but while they came over the buildings I don’t know cause the far side was all clear, nothing in the road at all [laughs]
DK: Oh, right, so, you then had the crew billeted, did you, did you have to do that then, was it something you wanted, your family wanted to do or were you asked to take in the various aircrew?
KS: No, just [unclear] like, yeah, [unclear] lodgings and which mother took in same way all the aircrews, they used to call in for a cup of tea in the morning and things and then if they were going on ops, if there was council for an hour they used to come back in the house and sit in the house and have coffee and two [unclear], yeah.
DK: Did you get to know any of the aircrew well?
KS: Oh yeah, I had three sisters not alive then [unclear] well one of my sisters, not the eldest, the next one, she got in the Lancaster and went through fly around Blackpool, one morning Dad says, where’s Lily gone? Nobody said cause they knew where she was and doesn’t tell Dad [laughs]. Yeah. Now we had crews in and well, we got to know a lot of Australians, everything was in there then like, [unclear] Lancasters was parked one there, one there, we was here in the house like, was Lancasters all around
DK: So, that’s a long time ago, can you remember any of their names at all?
KS: No, can’t remember, remember some of the
DK: Ah.
US: [unclear] saying that
DK: Just, this is just for the recording here, so there is a picture of the aircrew there in front of a Lancaster
KS: Yeah, [unclear]
DK: This is
KS: After that with all the signatures behind
DK: And on the back the signatures
KS: That’s it, yeah. [unclear] The flight sergeant
US: In appreciation of many happy mornings spent
KS: A flight sergeant, Flight Sergeant George Cherry, he was lodging with us at the time, he used to develop the fighters when they came back off ops
DK: Alright, so this photo then was given to your family then in appreciation of
KS: Yeah, they used to sign that when is it been in the house like for coffee and things like that
DK: So there’s quite mixes, some, so there’s a Rhodesian
KS: Yeah, oh, there’s all sort
DK: Jamaican, so then you got Judges Johnny’s crew
US2: All the names of the crews
DK: And then the name of the crews, yeah, so Princes Joe’s crew,
US1: [unclear] like them
DK: It’s ok
US1: You’re alright? Yeah?
DK: I’m just trying to make out the signatures
KS: Let’s put that light on but
DK: [unclear] crew
US2: There was somebody at Coningsby, at BBMF was trying to research, trying to find out some of them but they haven’t come back to me
DK: There’s here, there’s nothing on here to identify the actual [unclear]
KS: No, can’t remember any, no, [unclear] don’t know
DK: That’s a bit unfortunate that
KS: Yeah
DK: Obviously one of the Coningsby based squadrons
US: I think the squadron number’s on the back in, the squadron number on the back
KS: The squadron is 97
DK: [unclear] 97 Squadron, yeah
KS: 83 and 97 Squadron, yeah
DK: So, this is gonna be either 83, 97 or combination of the two
KS: There’s a Squadron [unclear] Lancasters there to move back into
US1: Get in touch with you Karen tell you what
US2: Yeah, some of them were, Coningsby BBMF were trying to get sorting out
US: Yeah, some people have got in touch with you on Facebook [unclear] seen it and told you what it was
US2: Yeah
US1: No? Sorry
US: Yeah, no, I think you’re right
DK: I’m trying to think, maybe it’s one thing I have seen this before, was it on Facebook?
US2: Facebook
DK: Ah! Speaking of deja vu
US1: Yeah, I’ve seen it before
DK: I recognize it now, yeah
US2: But there were some replies from on that and comments on that on Facebook. You see how close the aerodrome was to the farmhouse
DK: Yes, yeah
US2: And we always sort of laugh and think that the little boy standing there might be this one here [laughs], we never know.
US1: No
KS: No, that was the same photo like
DK: Right, yeah
KS: And that was the squadron over there
DK: That’s [unclear] 54, isn’t it? 54 Squadron?
KS: That’s the farmhouse and there’s the Manchester, as you see, was right on the aerodrome
DK: Alright
KS: [unclear] that one is
DK: So, is the farm building still there?
KS: No, no
US1: Gone now
KS: It’s all gone now, it’s all gone
US: There is still a tree there. There is still a tree there where the farmyard was but up until three or four year ago you could still get to it but the fence off now, you can’t get to it
DK: Just for the recording again, there is a photo of Fen farm,
KS: Yeah
DK: Fen farm, with an Avro Manchester at the back, then a close up of Fen farm
KS: And that was took out the Manchester and the Lancaster cause our flight sergeant what lived with us, he took the photos, had a fly round took the photos
DK: So, you knew who took this then. That’s been taken from one of the aircraft
KS: Yeah
DK: Yeah
KS: Yeah
US: You said that was a chap called Mr Cherry, did you?
KS: Yeah, George Cherry
DK: George Cherry
KS: And flight sergeant, I tell you he did that for photos when he come back from ops like [unclear] but I used to go and watch him
US1: He used to do it in the kitchen at the house [unclear] they developed the film what they took over where they’ve been bombing, you had to develop them in the kitchen when they got back [laughs]
KS: Yeah
US2: [unclear]
US1: Yeah
DK: He must have known where they’d been before it was announced in the, on the radio
KS: Yeah, yeah. Lord Haw Haw, was it? Haw Haw, he used to come on the radio telling us where they were going and what the Germans is doing [clock chimes]
DK: You got to know a lot of the aircrew quite well then?
KS: Yeah.
DK: Yeah
KS: Yeah
DK: So, after the runways were built, presumably that’s when the Lancasters arrived?
KS: That’s right. Yeah, yeah.
DK: And can you remember the first time you saw those?
KS: Yeah, it coming on a Saturday and the first Lancaster, it passed just behind our house, I was playing with my mate, course I couldn’t get home fast enough, and it was a white one. It was a white one, on this book here I’m reading that lady, she used to deliver all these Spitfires and things, don’t know what you call her, oh Mary Ellis, yeah. That’s quite interesting that book is
DK: Cause she’s still alive, isn’t she, Mary Ellis?
KS: Yes, she’s just been having her ninetieth birthday.
DK: A hundred.
KS: A hundred, yeah, a hundred. She went up in a Spitfire as well.
DK: Yeah
KS: Yeah
DK: So, you can remember the women flyers delivery?
KS: Yeah, we had the WAAFs, someone airmen was married to the WAAFs, there was transport [unclear] brought crews round in like a minibus like, yeah and one of the chap [unclear] was these Air Force place he was married a WAAF remember him [unclear] used to call him [unclear] was, yeah, but I think [unclear] they’ve gone like and that, that’s what we did,
DK: [aircraft droning sound] I haven’t lived in Lincolnshire for very long, [unclear] seven years, still getting used to this
US1: [laughs] [unclear]
KS: Frank [unclear], he was another, I’m not sure whether he was a crew member or not but he got very [unclear] with me sister and we kept in touch with him after he retired and he went to live in Scotland then I think, or Wales was it? He still kept in touch but he died about two years ago he did yeah.
DK: So your family then did stay in touch with some of the
KS: Yeah, we got a friend Will [unclear] and [unclear] kept in touch with my sister right up to his death now
DK: Ok, can you remember the actual raids themselves, the aircraft going out and coming back?
KS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember one coming in one night and he parked [unclear] in front of the house and there’s nearly all night, [unclear] there’s all shut up, yeah, I remember that and one night one of the Hampdens was there, one crashed behind the yard and it had a land mine on and we had to move out that night and had to go round Raydhan Corner so we had to move out and but while we had to move out which’d been alright as long as it didn’t rain, I never got over that, is it rain with that landmine went off or not.
DK: So I suppose you know it was defused then, it didn’t, it never exploded.
KS: It could’ve been, no, it was alright but, we’d come back next day, it was Manchester, they had quite a lot of trouble with them
DK: Yeah
KS: [unclear] In that book, on that book I think, where I was coming out from school and seeing going round and round, just one wheel down, just got home as it landed, cause [unclear] the ground and that was it, I remember him coming in
DS: So, he spun on the ground then, did he?
KS: That’s it, yeah, so was it, ground it spun like
DK: And can you remember the aircraft coming back damaged at all?
KS: Yeah, yeah, there used to be some little aeroplanes [unclear] the WAAFs used to drive them all out, used to be an Avro Anson, Airspeed Oxford and the Lysander. And the Lysander it used to pull [unclear] behind for shooting at us and one of them come back and they shot at the plane and this air Flight Sergeant what lodge with us, he had to go and chalk all round the [unclear] and take photos of us, I can remember that,
DK: Find out who did it.
KS: Yeah
DK: [unclear] a good shot
KS: Yeah
DK: So how did you sort of look back on that time know and?
KS: Oh, I can remember quite a lot about that life, yeah, used to let us, we could go across the aerodrome, before they really fenced it all, got corner of before they fenced it off, they never bothered at all, we used our proper bikes up Lancaster while we was attending the cows in the fields, it was like that, no, it never bothered at all, we used to bike about and play on the runways
DK: So, how old would you’ve been then? You’re a teenager then or?
KS: Yeah, I’d be, ten, eleven or somewhere on there, I think. I remember playing on there one Saturday afternoon and seeing this plane come over, these black objects came out and went on as crows, these bombs Gerry had come, so, Mum, come and [unclear], Granny, come and see this, this plane about on the runway on the trike
DK: While the Germans were bombing it
KS: Yeah, you had to go in the house quick and of course all around the aerodrome they’d built air raid shelters for us and nights and nights we more or less lived in the air raid shelters cause when the airplanes came back, Germans used to come with them, was going round and round all night, we had to spend the biggest part of the nights in the air raid shelters. We got incendiary cases, all sorts, in the yard, incendiaries, never set a yard of fire out and bombs went right across to neighbours one night and I remember Dad going to see if the neighbours were all right [unclear]
DK: So, by, war’s end then and it’s all a bit quieter now, so you’ve actually lost the farm completely in 1949?
KS: That’s it, yeah
DK: Right. And it’s that when it was demolished or
KS: Yeah, soon after, yeah.
DK: Was that because the airfield was extending or?
KS: That’s right, yeah. Had the jets coming, they want extended and they closed that Boston [unclear] from Rayden Corner to Coningsby closed that road completely, now you gotta go right round [unclear] now like so they extended well, I think the Americans come after that then the Vulcans, they come after that
DK: So, where were you, which farm were on at this point then when?
KS: When we left?
DK: Yeah
KS: We lived at Fen Farm.
DK: Fen Farm. Yeah
KS: Yeah
DK: And but when that was knocked down, which farm did you go to then?
KS: Well, [unclear] Near Louth, Gayton Le Marsh, Dad bought another farm up there, hundred and ninety-seven acres, so we moved up there then like
DK: So then you, for the rest of the time then you’ve worked farms from then on.
KS: That’s right, yeah. I never come back for years then like, never come back we nearly lost that like, but we still go down [unclear] where it is, get to [unclear] just see this poplar tree still there where the farm was
DK: Yeah. Ok, I’ll just pause there.
KS: Yeah
DK: I’ll just put that back on again, sorry you were saying
US: There are some parachutes coming down here, didn’t know what they was
KS: No. The Halifax was coming back, he was in trouble and they wouldn’t let him land at Coningsby so they bailed out over Coningsby which turned in chaos, they thought it was Gerry come, run the cows in the field and jumped over this train and hid in the bushes while things settled down, anyway the Halifax, it landed at Woodhall, it got down alright but there’s only the crew, biggest part of the crew bailed out at Coningsby like, that put the wind up [unclear] always [unclear] Gerry had come
DK: Did you actually see the Halifax or just
KS: Yeah
DK: Yeah
KS: Yeah, yeah, it just come flying over the train why they wouldn’t let him land at Coningsby I don’t know that’s what the, that’s flight sergeant told us anyway
US1: And then when they’re building the runway and things you used to play on the dumpers at night
KS: Yeah, I [unclear] got the dumper there, started this dumper up we couldn’t just start it and went for a ride, course it stopped, didn’t it? Then we had to wind it back, put in gear and wind it back, couldn’t just started them all. Now the Air Force used to come down with the cows and things used parking for a coffee or anything, we used to try most of them out as when they come and to have a ride, didn’t bother at all, you scam right round the yard and bring them back where we started from
DK: Can you remember back at some of the aircrew who you [unclear] on ops that you didn’t see again?
KS: No, I can’t remember the names, I can remember the one, one the field just get in the house, they didn’t come back one night, just asked the aircrew, the ground staff like was it coming back, no, it’s gone, they said, that was it like
US1: You used to have a few prisoners of war working on the farm, didn’t you?
KS: Oh, we had the Germans [unclear] working for us at Coningsby like, yeah
DK: Was that during the war itself or start,
KS: Yeah
DK: During the war itself.
KS: Yeah
DK: Yeah. Were they good workers, the German POWs?
KS: The Germans were not [unclear] [laughs]
DK: A bit lazy, were they?
KS: Yeah. They weren’t very good, most of them wanted to get [unclear], yeah
DK: And did you get to know any of the POWs at all?
KS: Yeah, one, well, was a real old chap and he was about to come to live in, Dad’s got him to come to live in with us, like he just [unclear] wanted to go back but he didn’t want to go back, he was going back to the Russian zone and something and he didn’t want to go back [unclear] was when he got back, well, I’ve still a letter somewhere and when he got back, poor chap, the wife had divorced him and his [unclear] nobody wanted to know him, he died soon after then like but he was [unclear] he was, a real good worker, he used to come in the mornings start work without being told what to do or anything
DK: So, you quite liked the Germans you met then.
KS: Yes, we got on well with them, yeah. There was one man, he was only eighteen, he did live next door, next farm like, he used to come to us lads and play about [unclear] a nice lad, yeah
DK: So, they had quite a bit of freedom then, POWs
KS: Yeah, yeah
DK: Cause they didn’t have anywhere to go really, did they?
KS: No, I mean, lived at [unclear] far away like. I used to come off and Dad used to fetch him on a Sunday for dinner and on a Sunday with us as well, this old man, he was really a nice chap, he was
DK: And did they speak English?
KS: Yeah. Not too bad at all, no.
DK: You weren’t speaking German to them?
KS: No, never [laughs]
DK: So, you were able to communicate
KS: Yeah, yeah
DK: Ok, that’s,
KS: Yeah
DK: [unclear] alright. So how do you look back on those times now? It must have been, for a child I guess, quite an adventurous childhood but
KS: Yeah, it was, yeah
DK: Did you realize the whole of what was going on, that it was a war and [unclear]?
KS: That’s right, yeah, yeah, I remember most of it like. Remember
US1: Did you realize how big a thing it was, what was happening or not? Or was it just?
KS: Oh yeah, I remember. I can remember the first bomb coming over, had it did go whistling past the house and it dropped at the public school [unclear], right in front of the house, blew all the windows and doors and everything [unclear]
Dk: So you knew the dangers of what was going on?
KS: Yeah, yeah.
US1: And then all the bombs were parked down the roadside, wouldn’t they?
KS: Well, the bomb dump was just behind the yard, where that Manchester stood, there’s one bomb dump there
DK: The bomb dump, yeah.
KS: Just behind there, the bomb dump was just behind there somewhere, [unclear] the bomb dump was just behind us like and there is another big bomb dump at near [unclear] in the wood there like and down the road down there from New York, the bombs were all stacked down the roadside there then nearly on a Sunday morning, me and my cousin used to go at [unclear] station on the side line watching them taking bombs, used to bring them to Coningsby up the rail, then on a Sunday morning we used to go and watch them like
DK: As they came off the railway line
KS: That’s right, yeah
DK: And then onto the trucks [unclear]
KS: That’s right, yeah, I remember that. Never bothered about us being about at all like
DK: I think the health and safety would have something to say about that now, wouldn’t it? Kids at home [unclear]
KS: [unclear] near Coningsby now, it’s all fenced all round like
DK: Yes, yeah, yeah
KS: I keep trying to get a ride on the Lancaster, but I can’t get one
DK: But you said your sister did that
KS: Yes, my sister went, yeah, she went
DK: Did she ever say what it was like [unclear]?
KS: No, she liked it, yeah, she liked it, yeah. I went, I had a look round it, yeah, used to take them in, look round one, yeah, I’ve been in one. I can remember [unclear] in the wintertime they used to grease the wings or something, stopping from freezing up and when the years come used to wash them in petrol, petrol was running [unclear] in gallons, wasted gallons on gallons, [unclear] about these airliners still freeze up the same cause [unclear]
DK: Yeah. The antifreeze on the wings now wasn’t petrol I think
US2: Probably slightly better
DK: So, after the war then, do you remember much about Coningsby then and?
KS: No, after the war we soon left then like, can’t remember what come after but said the Vulcan and the Hurricanes come but, yeah, now I can’t remember what happened to the airplane during [clock chimes], well, that one there at East Kirkby, it was stationed at Coningsby one time cuas Squadron, [unclear] Squadron
US1: But you still [unclear] at the park is it at the end of the war, wouldn’t you?
KS: Yeah, oh yeah. We used to go on camp to the pictures and things, me sister used to take us to the pictures and things, I never bothered about anything in the war, airmen was lodging was never short of cake or anything used to bring from the NAAFI, yeah, no, well, we only kids is all excited about everything then like
DK: [unclear] Yeah, yeah. Ok then
US2: [unclear] she remembers cause she’s my younger sister making her toys
DK: Right
KS: That was the Germans, they could make anything, couldn’t they? and [unclear] made my brother, he’s a lot younger, they made him German caps same as [unclear] Lily lived in
DK: You have still got them then?
KS: No.
DK: No.
KS: No.
DK: This was the German prisoners making them?
KS: That’s it, yeah
DK: Yeah
US1: Got anything in the cupboard there that the Germans made?
KS: No
US1: [unclear], didn’t they?
KS: No, nothing they made
US1: That brass bolt, didn’t the Germans make it?
KS: No
US1: No, I thought they did.
KS: No. I don’t think so.
US2: You’re ok?
DK: Yeah. Just



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Ken Sleaford,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

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