Interview with Norman William Smith


Interview with Norman William Smith


Norman Smith was a rear gunner on Lancasters operating from RAF Kirmington. His most vivid memory is of the cold of long journeys. On one occasion he blinked and felt ice in his eyes. On one occasion they missed their airfield and went to Elsham Wolds instead. On arrival they nearly collided with another incoming Lancaster.







00:36:40 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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AB: It is on. Sorry.
NS: When I went in the Air Force I was living on the station at the time and I was air gunner in a Lancaster bomber.
GB: Absolutely.
AB: Can you do the introduction?
GB: Yes.
NS: It was very interesting.
GB: I bet.
NS: Being a rear gunner because I could see the world in a different perspective.
GB: You could.
NS: You know.
GB: I’m just going to do the introduction again. We missed —
AB: Because I forgot to turn it on properly.
GB: This is an interview being recorded out for International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Gill Barnes. The interviewee is Norman Smith. It’s being recorded near Northampton in Mr Smith’s nursing home. And it’s Saturday the 25th of June. Present is Patricia, Mr Smith’s daughter. And my husband Andrew.
NS: Yes.
GB: Thank you.
NS: Thank you.
GB: Good. So you were rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber. Flying from Kirmington.
NS: Yes.
GB: And you did a lot of missions.
NS: Yes.
GB: How did you, did you always fly with the same crew?
NS: No. Because if anybody was injured. Injured —
GB: Yes.
NS: We had to change the crew.
GB: Right. And who was the pilot?
NS: He [pause] I think it was a chap named Sissons.
GB: Ah was it?
NS: Yes.
GB: And was he, was he a good pilot?
NS: Yes. Very good.
GB: And what sort of missions did you fly?
NS: Well, it varied because I flew north, south, east and west.
GB: Yes. That’s true. Silly question. Did you —
NS: I went to —
GB: So, you would go, you would be called in for a sortie to the, to the station and then you’d have a briefing session.
NS: Well, you lived on the station.
GB: You lived on the station.
NS: Yes. And you knew the operations were coming up every day.
GB: Yes.
NS: You know. you knew that you were operational. And I went to fly in northern Canada.
GB: Right.
NS: And as far south as the Channel Islands. And different parts of the world eventually, you know.
GB: Yes. And what did you do in Canada?
NS: Air gunnery.
GB: Oh right. You were training there.
NS: No. I’d —
GB: Oh, you actually —
NS: Skilled.
GB: Right.
NS: I was skilled in Canada and Canada was one of the longest trips.
GB: Yes.
NS: I did.
GB: How did you get there?
NS: Flying in a Lancaster.
GB: You flew a Lancaster.
NS: Yes.
GB: All the way to Canada.
NS: Yeah.
GB: My goodness.
AB: Did you change at Greenland?
NS: Yes.
AB: Did you refuel at Greenland?
NS: I wasn’t the pilot.
AB: No.
GB: No.
NS: I was the air gunner when we went to Canada. Because we didn’t know what, to flying into, you know with Canada a long way away from where we lived. So, we alternated the idea of crews. The further north we went the more experienced crew you wanted.
GB: Yes.
NS: So, Canada —
GB: Were you, were you sitting in your turret all the way across the Atlantic?
NS: Yes.
GB: Was it, what was that like?
NS: Well, you got used to it, you know.
GB: Cold.
NS: You didn’t notice it. You know. Part of your job sort of thing.
GB: Right.
NS: You were going out there and you managed until you got there but the further north we went the colder you get. It’s amazing.
GB: Absolutely.
NS: When they briefed us at the briefing we knew what type of weather we were going to get because I went further north to — I went to Greenland.
GB: Yes.
NS: And it’s really, it’s cold. Remember these sort of trips you did as you occupy the aircraft more and more. And it was interesting to see the weather. How low, the weather you expected when you were briefed for op. You knew what you were going in to.
GB: Yes.
NS: I mean I went up to Canada which I wondered if it was the furthest I did. And it very very cold up there. Canada.
GB: How, how long did it take to cross the Atlantic and did you have to refuel?
NS: No. No. No. No, you’d got enough juice on to complete the operation we were briefed for.
GB: Gosh.
NS: They made sure the aircraft was fit enough to fly.
GB: Yes.
NS: By having the amount of fuel to get, as I say, up to Iceland. And you knew what weather to expect because sometimes they’d sent small planes out.
GB: Yes.
NS: To assess the weather and at briefing we knew what sort of weather we were going to get into.
GB: Yes.
NS: But —
GB: And how did you get on with your crew?
NS: Alright. There was no place for arguments.
GB: No. And —
NS: But it was enjoyable because we kept the same crew all the time.
GB: Brilliant.
NS: Unless, where engines, any injuries they obviously had to drop one or two people.
GB: Yeah.
NS: But I enjoyed it. It’s a funny thing to say but —
GB: Yes.
NS: All the flying I did with the RAF. I enjoyed every minute of it.
GB: Gosh.
NS: Yes.
AB: The injuries. Were they suffered from flak?
NS: No. The injuries were caused by the cold. It was that cold your hands were frozen.
AB: Frostbite.
NS: Yes. In the turret.
Other: You had ice on your eyes, didn’t you? You blinked and you had ice.
GB: Oh my goodness.
NS: Yes.
GB: When you were on your missions in your turret, did you have any exciting moments?
NS: [laughs] Yes.
GB: Is that a silly question?
NS: Quite a few. Quite a few. The Ruhr Valley was one, one of the most where we had flak all the way there.
GB: Yes.
NS: And all the way back.
GB: Right.
NS: And as I say one trip we did up to Canada. In the north.
GB: Yes.
NS: That was a very cold mission. I remember that.
GB: Did your plane ever get hit by flak?
NS: Oh yes. Yes. We had to have it sent to be repaired quite often you know because of the flak.
GB: Yes.
NS: Yeah. You knew if you were going to the Ruhr Valley that’s where you would —
GB: What was your target then?
NS: Well, anything in the Ruhr.
GB: Right.
NS: It’d be —
AB: Mainly factories.
NS: Winston Churchill asked me to flood the Thames. Pump the water from the Thames in the pathway all around the area where —
GB: Right.
NS: We lived and the water soaked in to the ground and that’s where, that was the turning of the war because we got as far as Canada. As I say.
GB: Yes. You did.
NS: Flying.
GB: Yes.
NS: Bareback we used to call it.
GB: Right. Were most of your missions in Germany?
NS: Most. Most of them were.
GB: Yes.
NS: Yes.
GB: And were they at night?
NS: Some days.
GB: Right.
NS: Some days. Depending on the, what they wanted at the time. If they wanted a long trip or a short one it depended on the rest of the crew in the group. Where they were going and where they’d been.
GB: Yes. And what was life like in the mess?
NS: Very good. You know. We were well fed. They looked after us very well, you know.
GB: And what rank were you, Norman?
NS: Flight sergeant. All through.
GB: Right.
NS: Flight sergeant. But I could, could have got higher if I’d wanted to because they usually, your crew, normally, you got the five blokes flying a Lancaster.
GB: Yes.
NS: And you stayed there then. All the time until they was shot down. So, it wasn’t very long because the targets got nearer and nearer to England.
GB: Yes.
NS: And we didn’t go that far out. I mean Canada was one of the longest.
GB: Was the longest.
NS: Yeah.
GB: Yes.
Other: At the end of the war you finished as warrant officer. Didn’t you?
NS: Yes.
Other: And they offered you a commission to stay in the Air Force.
NS: Yes.
GB: But you were interested in getting back.
NS: Yes.
GB: To life in Northampton.
NS: Yes.
GB: Did you keep in touch with your crew after the war?
NS: Most. They stayed in the area. Some moved away. Like, you know.
GB: Yes.
NS: I didn’t keep in touch with too many. Just a note here and there, you know.
Other: Some were Canadian weren’t they? They went back to Canada.
GB: Oh I see.
NS: Yes.
Other: Peter Parnham. He was a good friend. The navigator.
NS: Oh yes. Yes.
Other: Peter Parnham.
NS: Yes.
Other: He stayed in Lincolnshire.
NS: Yes.
Other: Boston.
NS: You’ve got a good memory. Yes.
Other: We used to see him.
NS: Yes.
GB: Oh lovely.
Other: And he sometimes had to navigate by the stars you told me.
NS: That’s right.
GB: Yes.
NS: Yes. He was clever. He’d ask me where the North Pole was? [laughs]
GB: That’s reassuring. What was your most memorable mission that you —
NS: I think it was Canada.
GB: Yes.
NS: It was a long way. We got icing problems. The further north you went the colder it got.
GB: Yes.
NS: We knew, when they announced the target. We knew we were in for a cold flight.
GB: Yes.
NS: And that’s the way we used to do it, you know.
Other: Can you tell Gill about the time when you saw Lincoln Cathedral you knew you were home.
NS: Yes.
Other: But you’d missed your airfield at Kirmington and went to Elsham Wold. Do you remember that?
NS: Yes.
Other: Yeah. Can you tell Gill what happened?
GB: Yes, what happened then?
NS: We had icing troubles. And the ice went really thick and sometimes you rattled the aircraft and shook it off. But —
AB: This was ice on the wings was it?
NS: Yes
AB: Building up
NS: Yes
AB: And how thick would it be? An inch. Two inches. Or not as much as that?
NS: I don’t know to be honest because we used to shake the aircraft.
AB: Shake it.
NS: You know to —
AB: Yes.
NS: Shake it off.
AB: To get rid of it. Oh right.
NS: Oh wow.
AB: Gosh. And what height would you be normally cruising at? Ten thousand feet? Twelve thousand feet?
NS: Yes. Yes. But Dr le Maestra, he was the man that asked the Air Force to flood the Channel and he wanted the water rushing up the Thames. And the more water he wanted he got. I had a special Lancaster adapted to scoop the water in the Thames.
AB: Oh right.
NS: And drop it further inland.
AB: What for? Fire-fighting? Or —
NS: Yes. Well, no. Not always. Protecting the aircraft because it, the aircraft would get this water scooped and it, we’d froze. The higher we got —
AB: Oh yes. Of course.
NS: The colder it got. It would freeze the aircraft and made it particularly safe.
Other: Going back to Elsham Wold. As you missed your airfield at Kirmington and heading for Elsham Wolds by mistake another Lancaster was coming to Elsham Wold.
NS: Yes.
Other: Do you remember?
NS: Yes.
Other: And you nearly crashed.
NS: Yes.
Other: And both the pilots were clever enough to avoid each other.
NS: Yes. Yes.
Other: And you’ve met one of the crew on the other Lancaster since. His name is Syd Marshall and he’s still about telling his stories.
GB: Oh Is he?
Other: He’s a member of Bomber Command. Yes.
GB: Oh right.
Other: Yeah. Do you remember? You met him.
NS: Yes.
GB: Yeah.
NS: Yes.
GB: So —
NS: We certainly had some exciting times you know.
GB: I bet you did.
NS: The further north you went the colder.
GB: It was. And how did you become a rear gunner?
NS: It was by choice. They [pause] they wanted somebody small enough to get in to the rear pocket.
GB: Yeah. Yes.
NS: And I was small enough to be in the right place.
GB: And what, what was your view like?
NS: All around the aircraft. From my right side right over to the other side.
GB: Yes. And how —
NS: I could spin it around I could.
GB: You could. You could spin around. All the way around.
NS: No. No. Ninety percent.
GB: Right.
NS: Yes. Ninety percent. That’s right. Ninety percent. The further north you went usually it got, colder it got.
GB: Yes.
NS: So you didn’t swing it back.
GB: How did you talk, how did you communicate with the rest of the crew?
NS: They spoke in the cockpit when I sat.
GB: Yes.
NS: And I could communicate to the rest of the crew by that means.
GB: Right. And did you actually actively engage with your gun?
NS: Oh yes. Yes.
GB: And it hit other aircraft.
NS: Yes. Yes. Yes.
GB: An awful lot depended on you didn’t it?
NS: It did. Yeah.
GB: It was a big responsibility.
NS: Yeah.
Other: You were a target weren’t you?
NS: Yes.
Other: In the rear turret —
NS: Yeah. Yes
Other: For the Germans to try and blow you away.
NS: Yes.
GB: Were there ever, did your cockpit ever get hit?
NS: Not my actual cockpit. I had a flare out. The gun froze.
GB: Right.
NS: And I went and nothing happened.
GB: Oh gosh.
NS: Frozen over. But after a while it, depending on the target and how far we were going I could free it sometimes by rattling the guns.
GB: Yes.
NS: Depending where you were, you know.
GB: How did you feel about the Lancaster?
NS: It was very, very good.
GB: There is still one left flying.
NS: Yes.
GB: Well, two. One in Canada. One here.
NS: Yes. Yes. It’s a good aircraft. I enjoyed it. Particularly the one we had. We always got back.
GB: Yes.
NS: Heavily damaged sometimes but very often we made it back. With luck.
GB: With luck. Absolutely.
NS: Yes.
GB: Yes. And you enjoyed that time very much, didn’t you?
NS: I did. I did. The different parts of the world I saw. Canada.
GB: Yes.
NS: Up the north and various places.
GB: And then towards 1945 and the end of the war. Did you fly right up to the very end?
NS: Yes.
GB: How did it finish for you?
NS: Finished? I was not fed up with flying. I was enjoying it but I’d had enough war work. As far north as you can get.
GB: Yes.
NS: And as far south as you can get and I’d seen it from all different aspects and I thought enough is enough.
GB: So when you were discharged?
NS: I wasn’t discharged. They said, ‘It’s time you moved on Smithy.’ I said, ‘Yes.’
AB: How many enemy aircraft did you manage to shoot down? Do you have a score chart as to how many you shot down?
NS: No.
AB: Were you firing at Messerschmitts or other bombers or what were you firing at?
NS: Firing at anything.
AB: Anything moving.
NS: Yes. Yes.
AB: With a German sign on the side.
NS: Yes.
AB: Gosh.
NS: But we knew what type of flight we were going to have at briefing before you took off.
AB: You knew what to expect did you?
NS: Yes. We used to be raised. Perhaps up to Iceland and you knew you were going to have a cold flight.
AB: Yes.
NS: All the way.
AB: Yeah.
NS: There and back.
AB: Yeah.
NS: But the rear turret was the place I liked best because of my size. I was small enough to get in to a rear turret. I had plenty of room to move about if necessary.
AB: It was only really suitable for small people really. Yes. I can see that.
NS: Yes.
GB: So, you think back very fondly to that time, Norman?
NS: I do. And I feel proud that I did it.
GB: Yes.
NS: Because other chaps weren’t lucky enough to survive.
GB: No.
NS: And I had various friends getting lost, you know. On raids.
GB: Yes.
NS: But I was lucky enough to survive it. Apart from night fright — [unclear]
AB: You mention Iceland and Canada a lot but looking at your logbook you flew mainly over Germany. So Stuttgart, Essen, Cologne.
NS: Yes.
AB: And also France. Le Havre.
NS: Yes.
AB: Remy. Where ever Remy. I don’t know where Remy is. Oil storage. And Stettin. Well Stettin’s Poland isn’t it?
NS: Yes
GB: Yeah.
NS: Stettin. Yes.
AB: So were they interesting flights? Did you get shot at a lot over Germany and —
NS: Yes. Yes.
AB: Did you get shot at more over Germany or more over France? Because you have le Havre here.
NS: Yes. Le Havre was a dicey trip.
AB: It was was it?
NS: Yeah.
AB: What were you aiming at? Was it the docks in Le Havre. The port?
NS: Yes.
AB: Yes.
NS: The [pause] You knew what to expect. The type of target was on the board, you know. At briefing.
AB: Yes.
NS: And if it was France you knew you were going to have a difficult flight because France was a dicey target.
AB: Well defended.
NS: Yes. Absolutely.
AB: Yes.
NS: They had targets on the ground.
AB: Yes.
NS: Big guns as well.
AB: Oh yes.
NS: You know.
AB: Yes. Yes.
NS: You knew you were in for a dicey flight.
AB: Yeah.
NS: But otherwise, but Canada you were going to get cold.
AB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a long flight.
NS: Very cold.
GB: How many missions in all did you fly?
NS: I couldn’t say off-hand.
GB: Usually you did thirty and then had a break didn’t you?
NS: Yes. It depended what type of flying you did.
GB: Yes.
NS: Because some went further north and it counted as a double.
GB: Oh did it?
NS: Yes, because if you went, Canada for instance.
GB: Yes.
NS: It was such a long flight there and a long flight back because there and back you logged on in one position.
GB: Yes.
NS: All the time.
GB: Yes.
NS: But you can more or less tell what sort of flight you were going on. You know, it’s —
AB: So, when, when you were going to Canada what were your targets? Was it shipping or what were you targeting?
NS: When we were —
AB: When you were going to Canada —
NS: Canada.
AB: What were your targets?
NS: Canada.
AB: Or was it just, just training flights to Canada?
GB: Training.
NS: No. No. It wouldn’t be training. Not Canada. Canada’s a long way. It’s, it would be specifically a target for Canada.
AB: Yeah. Yes.
NS: Because you know, you never knew what type of target you would have.
AB: There’s an entry in your book here. Your logbook. “Air to, local, air to air firing.” Was that training or what would that be? It says, “Local. Air to air firing.”
NS: Yeah. Local was probably over the Thames.
AB: So that would be training would it? Because you —
NS: On that occasion the, Dr le Maestra he was intent on closing the Thames. He wanted the Thames flooding from London up the way
AB: Right.
NS: All the way up and he got me scooping water out. Yeah.
AB: Right.
NS: With a special scoop.
AB: Right.
NS: Underneath the aircraft.
AB: Right.
NS: And I had to fly up and down the Thames and I had to keep flooding water water, water up the Thames.
AB: Why would they need a rear gunner for that?
NS: Well, I could sit, see when the rear gunner — I could see how the ground was going.
AB: Oh I see. You could judge the height.
NS: Yes. And the aircraft go lower and low because of the weight of the —
AB: Right. Of the water.
NS: Water. And I had to [unclear] the Thames from London right up to the north. And the more water I got he kept saying, ‘I want more water,’ but it was, seemed a silly action at the time because the water was handy.
AB: There’s another entry here, “Bombs brought back.”
NS: Yes.
AB: “On orders from Calais.”
NS: Yes.
AB: What’s happened there?
NS: We got over Calais and we had, ”Returned from ops,” recorded because Calais was a special target that night and they had already destroyed it when they give it us.
AB: So, it had been destroyed and so therefore you came back.
NS: Yes.
AB: Did you land with your bombs or did you drop them in England over a woodland somewhere? Or over fields?
NS: No. We always landed.
AB: You landed with your bombs did you?
NS: Yes.
AB: Gosh. Sounds dangerous.
NS: Yes.
AB: Gosh.
NS: But not many times we brought back bombs. We nearly always had the target and we bombed the target. We were lucky in that respect, you know.
GB: Yes.
NS: But some days it was harder than others. As I say Canada was far up north and you knew you were going to be frozen.
GB: Yes.
AB: Yes.
NS: But we did it and blessed the ground when we got back.
GB: So, your time finished at Kirmington and you came back home.
NS: Yes. Yes.
GB: And you, did you ever go in aeroplanes after that?
NS: No. As I say I lived in Northampton.
GB: Yes.
NS: And the local aerodrome.
GB: Sywell.
NS: Yes. Is my back yard
GB: Yes. So, you’ve maintained an interest in aircraft at Sywell.
NS: Yes. Yes. Yes. I did.
GB: The Gypsy Moths.
NS: Yes.
Other: You had your air gunners meetings there. The Air Gunner’s Association met there.
NS: Yes. Yes.
Other: They’ve finished now haven’t they?
NS: Yes.
Other: Nobody left hardly.
GB: No.
NS: Well, aircrew got shorter and shorter as the war carried on, you know.
Other: This is after the war isn’t it?
NS: Yes.
Other: The Air Gunner’s Association.
NS: Yes. The air gunners. They finished about, as the war had finished you get air gunners packed up as well. There’s no point, you know carrying on. But —
GB: But all in all you enjoyed your time.
NS: Yes. Yes. Because I was lucky in it. In as much as I wasn’t injured in any way or shape, I mean.
GB: That’s very lucky.
NS: Yes. Lucky to survive the flights north, south, east and west, you know. You knew what the type of appointment you were going to have if as I say going north to Canada.
GB: Yes.
NS: A long long flight. You got a lot of icing like problems usually you had to waggle your wings and shake.
GB: I bet you had to hold tight in your turret when they did that.
NS: Well it’s a small place, the turret. The rear turret you know.
GB: Yes.
NS: I could fit comfortably.
GB: Yes.
NS: In that. But we were lucky.


Gill Barnes, “Interview with Norman William Smith,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 26, 2023,

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