Interview with Leonard William Sparvell. One


Interview with Leonard William Sparvell. One


Born in Bexley, Leonard Sparvell volunteered for the Air Force. He completed 30 operations in Lancasters as a flight engineer with pilot Bill Capper. He recalls a nine-hour bombing operation and what his role as a Flight Engineer involved. He jokes that his best war experience was getting back to base and enjoying post-operation eggs and bacon. He also served in India and recalls an incident when he safely dispersed an attack on their station by local people who were shouting 'Quit India'. He attended post war reunions at RAF Kirmington and describes a recent visit to see a Lancaster, when staff were, eventually, persuaded to let him climb into the aircraft, which he describes as being cramped. After the war he married and worked in London Stock Exchange.




Temporal Coverage





00:54:26 audio recording


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ASparvellLW150814, PSparvellLW1501


SB: This is Sheila Bibb interviewing Leonard Sparvell on the 14th of August, 2015, at his home in Bexley Heath. Len could you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself, your family background, and how you came to get into Bomber Command?
LS: Yes. Because got a lot of the early things about it you know and we, we were well I was waiting for another, I wasn’t with the thing for a start, I was [coughs] waiting for, wait a minute, it’s very awkward this is actually ‘cos I’ve almost forgotten it.
SB: Tell you what let’s go back to when you were a child.
LS: Yes.
SB: Where were you born?
LS: I was born in Bexley, and that’s about all I remember about that thing, you know.
SB: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
LS: I had a brother who, who died during the war after going out to [pause] he was in a different part of it than I was you know but I used to talk to him over, over the phone sometimes and other things you know. I’m still talking to a lady quite often I just dial one thing over here and she comes on, ‘Is that you Len?’ this is after I’ve dialled 8 in the morning, she’ll say, ‘Hi Len.’ And we have a long chat then sometimes she tells me she’s you know just got up and not properly dressed, [laughs]
Chris: She’s the wife of one of his--
LS: It doesn’t matter, and she’s so far away in any case, and that is in now then —
Chris: New Zealand.
LS: New Zealand. New Zealand a place I really love after going there a really nice place and there we are. The pilot of my plane he, he just died early there as I say I still, still speak to his wife and our other partner who was, oh crumbs it will come to me, Graham, Graham, Graham, oh dear.
Chris: George? George Lockwell, George ?
LS: No.
Chris: He died last year.
LS: He did yes then he died but the other plane, partner. What’s the name.
SB: It doesn’t matter we can come back to that in a minute.
LS: I can’t, I can’t think of his name at the moment, here we are [looking through book], this would be him I think that’s Graham Bell.
Chris: That’s Graham yeah, well done.
LS: That’s Graham Bell, that’s Graham Bell, very nice chap, very nice chap, but he passed away himself, and as the other one did. Er, and it’s a job, it’s really a job to keep up, keep up with it really, I probably know more about the, the people who got up the mountains you know and which I did in some places you know. But and these, these were people who came to Africa with me in the latter part you know just here particular, and but yeah it was all new to us then, by then, and then futurely later later we went up in the mountains and doing things up there you know and before I got down to the place I told you I was going to you know.
SB: Okay so let’s go back to when you joined up can you remember what happened when you joined?
LS: Yes, I think it was, the first thing I did was go to a place in Plumstead I think it was, Plumstead and they all had bits of things to say about it you know before we did anything else, that, it’s I haven’t got all the knowledge I used to have. [laughs].
SB: How old were you then?
LS: Hey?
SB: How old were you then?
LS: Crumbs, I can’t exactly remember, but look at me. [laughs] But there we are. That was my oh yes he played the, oh, I could gradually get, get quite a, a department on this but —
SB: Where was the first place you were sent to?
LS: Now then [pause] I think, I think it was the first place was for really starting the great big thing was when I was there along there, what’s the name? [pause] This seems silly because I know so much but I don’t, I can’t do it just think a minute.
SB: Well tell us a little bit about some of things you got up to when you were there?
LS: Yeah. Now where are you talking about?
SB: Anything during the —
LS: You said about?
SB: Well anything, any stories from that time when you were in Bomber Command?
LS: Oh yeah, I can remember that yeah, we sent out the person that played the [pause], it’s not coming, it’s not coming, it’s here, one minute, this’ll, this’ll be it.
Chris: You know you were telling me earlier dad about that long flight that you did and how you felt.
LS: Oh yes, oh yes.
Chris: Do you want to talk about that?
LS: Yeah I’ll talk about the long flight we left early one morning and we were told to keep our mouths shut as um, as so we flying so low that we would keeping quiet because of that and we kept, we kept our engines slow right to the near the end of the, the thing when we come to the party of the attack which I, have you got the name of it?
Chris: We couldn’t remember could we which one it was earlier on but you were saying what it felt like when you were going really low and then what you did afterwards. Do you remember that?
LS: Right. Yes okay. We, we come, came, we were coming up to our target, we didn’t want to the enemy to know we really coming so we went very, very low until we got right on the edge of the thing then up we climbed and of course Jerry started doing us as well, I think we lost fifty-five aircraft doing, doing that. And we climbed and climbed and climbed ‘til we got to our target and bombed, we dropped our bombs on there and then turned far away then came back over, over the site and got back into the and started going back to the end to our home base, which was some, like a long way away. I think I told you how long it was.
Chris: Yeah nine hours you said, you were going backwards and forwards.
LS: Nine, nine hours we were floating all in the night and eventually we got did get back with about a quarter of an hour‘s petrol, and so it was a bit of a tough one really.
SB: How did you feel during that journey?
LS: I never had any feeling about at all, we were there to do a job and we did it, that’s the way I felt you know, it didn’t bother me at all, but there we are.
SB: Were you nervous at all?
LS: No, the same applies as what I’ve just said I wasn’t nervous I just did what I was told and the other people did what they were told when I told them as well. So we did have a bit of a weak link in the place at one time but he fell out the aircraft and cracked his wrist and we had to have a new one that was near the end of it you know.
SB: And you were the flight engineer?
LS: Yeah I was the flight engineer yeah.
SB: So what did that involve you doing?
LS: It involved me, interest in, giving notes out to people what, what they would be doing and all that sort of thing in the crew but the main thing about that is that you said, what, would you repeat yourself that one you said just a minute ago.
SB: What was your, what were you doing as flight engineer?
LS: Ah yeah, well I was quite off sending out the, what the thing we called well it was flight throwing out this white stuff that would put the enemies out of they, but it didn’t, and what I used to do the, the one who was laying still making them, he was lying flat on the front that was the bomb aimer, the bomb aimer then, and then he’d throw he was looking out all the time on it and he was waiting to knock the bomb out at the right place which eventually he did and he said, ‘Right.’ He was laying out with his legs like that and eventually his legs had gone past where the bomb had [laughs] nothing happened fortunately for him but there it is and fortunately for the rest of us. So then, then it come, the big thing is coming back, coming back as well you know and so he placed it out there and ‘cos Jerry was still very active, and as I said it was about five hundred and something bombs that they’d done us for as well don’t forget that, and then we started back till we closed keeping very level usually until we got to near, near to home and then as far as I can think and that’s when, that’s when we were feeling lucky really [laughs] But all the way there was something to do, and as I said I didn’t seem to feel anything wrong or anything I always seemed to be dealing with things and I was really right on top, that’s how I felt but I know the skipper was ‘cos he was, he was that type himself you know.
SB: How did you get on with the rest of the crew?
LS: Oh yeah, I did, I did, I did, right from the start really but you know that’s it. I was just trying to get a thing about the pilot, here, yeah. We were sent out. This is before we started doing any bombs, bombs at all, trying to get what he called. We, yeah, we, we sent out, let’s go so I can see this a bit. [looking at photos]
Chris: Where’s the pilot? This is the pilot here. Bill Capper.
LS: That’s the pilot that’s Bill Capper, but the other chap [pause] I’m having a bit of a job here, anyway, wait a minute, it’ll come. [pause] We sent our pilot over to the NAAFI people to get, [pause] this is awful this is because I know this thing, we sent him over to the WAAFS quarters to get, [pause] to get, oh yeah, Christ what did he get? [laughs] This is so stupid you know really because I’m trying so hard to get these things but I’m not getting them you see. Now then let’s see, where’s his name? Where was the one we sent? [looking at photos]. Who’s this one love I can’t see?
Chris: This one, that’s you.
LS: That’s me.
Chris: Yeah, that’s Graham.
LS: Yeah.
Chris: That’s George, Tom, Tom, and Bill.
LS: Bill?
Chris: Bill Capper.
LS: Bill Capper, yeah well that’s no good, Bill Capper.
Chris: Perhaps it was a different set of people.
LS: Now anyway well we sent the one who was, um, was it this one?
Chris: Well it might have been it doesn’t matter does it?
LS: No. We, we sent him over to get some [tapping] to get these things which we wanted, ah we were getting some trouble with our, our, our [unclear] and we were getting water coming through our things you know so we thought we’d get this girl over and tell her what we wanted but we, we um, we, we told her the trouble that we were having with this department throwing the all the spare stuff into our faces and that sort of thing and so we went over, he went over with the thing, the young lady in that department and he, oh crumbs, [pause] right he got over this and she decided to give, to give him eight things to stop that thing falling onto our eyes you know. And, and she said, ‘Here’s eight of them, seven for you and the crew.’ And he said, ‘Well what’s the other one?’ ‘Oh’ she said, ‘That’s yours only, that’s yours only’ [laughs] Something like that it was and he got landed with the, the, the [unclear] and, and that’s, that’s what happened to that one. Yeah. Some girls were on the job in that and as I say and we didn’t, we didn’t go we sent so [laughs] but there we are, so that’s it come very strangely there to me actually.
SB: So what was your favourite or best experience?
LS: Best experience, I suppose getting home [laughs] and having a meal. [laughs]
Chris: Breakfast.
LS: Yeah, you see all the eggs and bacon laid on the side of the counter but people never got back again, they never got back again, you know, ‘cos they would have got their eggs and bacon if they had got back again but there we are. But it’s things you think of after really which I always keep on thinking you know what’s happening there will be a lot, lot more when I get them probably find in that other book really because it showing some of the people going up the mountain and all that sort of thing, but there we are. There’s a few in there about Christmas Day I believe.
SB: What were some of the places you went to?
LS: Went to when?
SB: When you were flying.
LS: Flying?
SB: When you were in Bomber Command what were some of the places you went to you mentioned Africa.
LS: Yes.
SB: Where else did you go?
LS: Well there was a lot of these things I mean and over there you know, different people, and then I got back to the station which was ooh it’s a job now, the Maharajah of, oh don’t know his name now.
Chris: When you were in India? You’ve got some stories--
LS: Yes. Oh yes then one night, one night we were, there wasn’t many of us left at this particular station that we were on and what happened yeah, the Indians in front of us suddenly thought they ought to have a go at us so they started saying, now what did they say? What they said, they came up from the town and they said, [pause] I’ve got things in here saying all of this at times, but they came up from the town and they shouted, [pause] and they were making an attack on us and they were coming up the road and they were saying, ‘Quit India, quit India, quit India.’ And all that sort of thing you know, and so I said, ‘Right get your guns.’ I said, ‘I don’t want anybody killed.’ ‘Cos I was running this. ‘I don’t want anybody killed I want you to fire and fire right over their heads.’ And they did very well, I said, ‘There’ll be a charge if anybody does anything to them.’ So, so I said, ‘Right okay.’ So they’re coming up the road I left it to about a hundred, and I said, ‘Quick.’ And then they come charge you know and course they just run like hell after that you know, and that was one thing that I did that was useful [laughs], but there you are but I had to take a long time to find it didn’t I really. [laughs]
Chris: Do you remember why you were there dad why you were up that mountain, do you remember what got you up there?
LS: That wasn’t a mountain.
Chris: No at that station where you were stationed?
LS: That station I got posted to it and I rather liked the place because it the old Maharajah of Baroda was used to be there, but he wasn’t there when we were there, but you come to the water at the beginning of the town then you go along there and there’s the Maharajah standing in front of you and there again there it was and all that but eventually being out there at that part I got to know a lot of the Indian people, I did get to know a lot of the people, and we got on very well with them and like them. I managed to get them a part to go up in a plane you know and that sort of thing which they probably would never have before you know, and they were quite nice and weren’t up to what some of the other places where they were having trouble with foot diseases and things like that and try to do a bit of help in your spare time as well yeah.
Chris: You were ill yourself weren’t you when you went to India?
LS: Yes.
Chris: Septic prickly heat.
LS: Yeah that was it septic prickly heat I had yes yes that was nasty, that’s what you get when you start feeling and it comes all up over you you know, and then I went up to another town then I think.
Chris: To get better didn’t you because you were ill they sent you up into the mountains.
LS: Yeah, soon got over it and got back to there, yes.
SB: How long were you actually in Bomber Command?
LS: Oh Bomber Command [pause] I’ve got to try and think, can’t think.
SB: When did you enter Bomber Command?
LS: Yes, I don’t know, Bomber Command. [pause] I’ll tell you that by the time I was entering Bomber Command I think, I’m not telling you a great big lie and that, but I used to I was getting quite good money when I was getting on there quite good money really and I used to give my mother in the post so much money a month you know and told her to have a good time you know [laughs] that sort of thing and she used to thank me and this went on for some time, some time, almost till the time when I got home and married. Well on the day we got married, my, my wife and I went and sat out at the place we were going to go to, I’ve got photograph at home where we’ve got photographs of the family and that sort of thing, and we were waiting to go into the church I think and all the other things that were going on with, and mum came up with a load of money and she said, ‘Here I never spent all that money you gave me here you are I’ve saved it for you for your wedding.’ Now that’s just like a mum, isn’t it, it is just like a mum, so that was one nice thing I did then I think I always think that, was that all right?
SB: Yes.
LS: Good. I’m having a job with the bits and pieces because my eyes are bad for a start and that sort of thing and they’re watery and that all the time but I like to do all I possibly can and when you see that blokes there and myself you know after we’d done quite a lot of ops and things like that before we, you know before we went off to something else.
SB: Can you think of any other ops that you went on?
LS: Well what is the number that I did?
Chris: Thirty.
LS: Aye?
Chris: You did thirty sorties.
LS: I did bombing [laughs].
Chris: I remember you telling me about going round and round sometimes in the plane.
LS: I didn’t know, cor dear that’s a lot isn’t it, it is I mean lots of my friends one went out one night and they were shot down and they killed probably you know and oh it’s terrible that business, I was one of the lucky ones and so was my crew you know.
SB: Once the war was over what did you do?
LS: I’m just trying to think now what I did, um, oh dear—
Chris: Well later you worked for the Stock Exchange.
LS: Stock Exchange that’s it that’s right.
Chris: Up in London.
LS: Yeah I went on I couldn’t even think of that now you see.
Chris: It’s a long time since you spoke about it.
LS: Went there and crumbs, sometimes I used to carry some thousand pounds in a bottle, a, sorry, an old bag so nobody would know it was full of money I’d got [laughs] and give it to a chap who was going to have to go to some statement for the money you know, and ‘Money’ he’d say. Sometimes I used to go with somebody else, sometimes I went on my own but not often I went on my own because it was a bit dicey really there we are [laughs] yeah that was further up the place where I went I remember that yeah.
SB: Do you think your experience in the war affected your life afterwards?
LS: Expect it did, well I think it did I think it must do, it didn’t do it in a nasty way but it did it in the fact that I was thinking about it quite often all the time and I always kept, tried to keep the thing in perspective well ‘cos I didn’t have any other crew did I really by then sort of thing they’re all gone away, but you’re a long fit lot really.
SB: You have lots of pictures, lots of photos, did you have those all the time or is that something that’s come more recently?
LS: Oh no we’ve had them quite a while haven’t we really, I mean all four, this is the latest one you see we put that up a few days ago, your, I didn’t put them up I’m too awkward [laughs].
Chris: That was a birthday present from your friend wasn’t it?
LS: That’s right yes, that’s right, of course it’s one of the Lancasters, the other with two, they’re all local places, they’re all local sort of things, yes it’s nice to have these things now I will say that you know, sitting up there and the boys that’s come along they like to be with them.
Chris: Yeah the grandkids.
LS: Yes.
SB: Can I ask you a question Chris?
Chris: Yes.
SB: How much or in what ways did your father’s involvement impact your childhood do you think?
Chris: Always used to be able to talk about it not in great depth more so as he’s got older, as a younger woman I wasn’t too keen but as I’ve got older I understood more what it meant and I think the camaraderie he shared with his team and the fact that he still kept in contact with them every year you’d go back to the reunions these men are all the same as the old pictures, yeah the loyalty, the commitment all those kind of things I think he gave me as well. I’m an extremely loyal person, hardworking, he was I think he got a lot of that from his days in the war, duty, the huge sense of duty I think and responsibility I think I grew up with that definitely, which I think are good things to have, yeah good things to have. And you know he’s told me over the years many, many stories I wish I could remember them all as well ‘cos I’m starting to forget [laughs] I knew that story that you were telling me about the WAAFS but I couldn’t remember either what it was they were going to get which is pretty infuriating. But yes I think it has and as I’ve got older I’ve learnt to empathise more and appreciate more what you went through where as a young woman I think I was more I’m a pacifist so it’s quite difficult for me, but I can understand what it was all about and what it meant for him and how important it was so yes it has affected me quite a lot, I think it has affected my siblings as well, I’ve got two sisters and a brother. We all you know, I’m the youngest, we all grew up with the stories, wonderful stories about what happened in India you know, and monkeys, monkeys do you remember the monkeys story?
LS: Yeah, which one?
Chris: Monkey story you told us about all the monkeys there were all the creatures —
LS: Oh yeah.
Chris: Yeah, all the pictures, yeah, I think it —
LS: They used to fight as well.
Chris: Lots and lots of stories, you know now as the memory is getting a bit thinner it’s more difficult to —
LS: Yes in the albums you’ve got the pictures in that local one, can you just turn it over.
Chris: This one? Oh sorry.
LS: No, no, they’ll be in there I think.
Chris: They’re the family ones in there. They’re the family ones in there.

LS: Isn’t there one underneath?
Chris: I don’t think so, is it this one?
LS: Yeah is that the one.
Chris: I think this is the one you’re talking about.
LS: Oh yeah that’s it yeah.
Chris: There’s lots of little pictures aren’t there as well floating around, that’s my mum. Going back every year you used to go to Kirmington didn’t you for reunions and now there’s only my dad left of the crew the rest have gone now, that’s really sad.
LS: Yeah I’m the only one of our crew.
Chris: And I think that’s had a huge effect on you hasn’t it, last year you realised that.
LS: Yes. I did.
Chris: Last year when you realised that. [looking through photos] They’re more recent ones. You went to New Zealand for a reunion as well, so you really did keep in contact.
LS: That’s one of our own, there is we went, I took our pilot up to the erm, London.
Chris: Hendon wasn’t it?
LS: Aye?
Chris: Hendon
LS: Hendon that’s right, see I can’t even remember that.
Chris: That’s alright, I only know it ‘cos it’s written down there —
LS: And there was we came to this one of our —
Chris: Lancasters.
LS: Lancers and they wouldn’t let us go in it you see although we’d sent a notice to them and I said ‘We sent a letter.’ He said, ‘Can’t help it, can’t help it you see.’ So we spent about two hours walking around this thing like that, because we wouldn’t be allowed into it and anyway in the end he said, he came over and he said, ‘Right I’ve got it.’ He said, he said, ‘You can go in’ he said, ‘And I’ll take photographs of it.’ [laughs] And he said ‘I’ll come right away.’ He said, ‘ Right, okay then’, he said ‘I’ll take your clothing.’ And all that sort of thing and so then he said, ‘Right you can go up through there now.’ Which we did, here we go going up, up there —
Chris: There was a picture I don’t know where it is?
LS: Aye?
Chris: There we are there we go.
LS: And then oh that’s the Auckland one.
Chris: That’s the Auckland one.
LS: There is —
Chris: There is a picture of you in the aircraft.
LS: It’s like this one, and we both went in and we climbed up through the back just about managed to get in and it was so cramped up there, but we did we got up the top you see, and I looked out and the pilot looked over the side he took photographs then of us all up there didn’t he and the other one you know and he, he was quite all right but he took a nice donation to make it so. [laughs]
Chris: Got there in the end.
LS: Yes that’s it there we are yeah. Oh this was taken down the right out of this place down what’s the station here?
Chris: Says Plymouth.
LS: Plymouth that’s right, down at Plymouth they they put that up and you know didn’t have anything to do with that I just had the photograph and put it in there that’s all, but it’s still there.
Chris: That’s always been very important lots of books, lots of memories, lots of pictures.
LS: There’ll be more, there’ll be more, if I can get down to it I will get down to it but there we are, oh, look, ‘cos they are all my crew, that was my crew, no it’s not, anyway they were nice my crew, there was the odd one but still never mind.
SB: You mentioned your brother who was killed.
LS: Yes he was.
SB: What happened with him?
LS: Yes. Hmm?
SB: What happened with him?
LS: He was, now then, he used to, he got ill, in, in the head you know, they were they said that they out in there with you know they’d been talking looking the wrong ways and that there —
Chris: [unclear] the tests.
LS: Yes, yes and I continued to talk to him every day, every so often saw him and until he really passed away and that was about it you know.
Chris: He got cancer.
LS: Yes and he’s got had two brothers is it we got?
Chris: No there’s three, three sons.
LS: Three brothers.
Chris: They’re all in Australia.
LS: Yeah, that’s it.
Chris: They came over sometimes and we met them a couple of times.
LS: Of course I had to split all the money up and send it out, out to them most of it.
Chris: When your mum and dad died wasn’t it.
LS: Mmm, yeah, when my mum died. And there we are, all these things have to be done, so there we are.
SB: Very sad.
Chris: It’s very sad.
LS: And that’s they’re laying out in the fields and all that sort of thing, yeah had it rough.
SB: Okay well thank you —
LS: I’m the lucky one.
SB: You’re the lucky one, yes.
Chris: You’re a survivor aren’t you?
LS: Yes.
SB: Well thanks very much Len for sharing those—
LS: Well I hope there’ll be more, I’m certain there will because I’m not with it like I used to be.
SB: If you think of some more write them down.
LS: Yeah.
Chris: Would that be helpful? Because he probably will.
SB: I can come back.
LS: Yes, yes.
SB: I can do another interview as well.
LS: Yes. And where do you live now?
SB: I live up in Gainsborough but I come down regularly.
LS: Do you, where it’s not long from where I —
SB: Okay the third voice on here is Len’s daughter Chris.


Sheila Bibb, “Interview with Leonard William Sparvell. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 14, 2024,

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