Interview with Victor Stapley


Interview with Victor Stapley


Victor Stapley was born in Ilford in Essex, where he was fond of playing cricket. He left school at fifteen and worked at a tobacco company. He then became a shipping manager, a job which involved shipping spaces whilst not having any telephones in his office. He joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the Second World War. After his training, Victor became an engineer and went to work on the Mustangs of 2 Squadron based at RAF Sawbridgeworth. He tells of his first experiences with the Allison engine and Rolls Royce Merlin engines. After completing a flight mechanic course and becoming a fitter, he re-mustered as a flight engineer and crewed up at the Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Lindholme. Victor completed 28 operations, including Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Cologne, Essen and Frankfurt, but he missed out on achieving his 30 operations when he contracted rubella. He tells of his experiences on his operations and supporting the D-Day operations when he and his crew were sent to attack the gun emplacement at Le Havre. He mentions how he saw all the ships heading for the beaches. Victor also recalls being put in charge of training with Lancasters, Halifaxes, Sunderlands and Stirlings, before heading out to Malaya to work on supporting the Army. He served during the Suez Crisis helping with issues concerning radar. Back home, he served at multiple stations before becoming commanding officer at RAF North Luffenham. He mentions an incident at RAF Marham and joining Task Force Grapple, which was involved with nuclear testing. Victor retired in 1977 and then he became a parish councillor for West Norfolk Council, before becoming mayor of West Norfolk from 1990 to 1991. At the local Royal Air Force Association, he takes part in events helping to organise the acts of Remembrance every year.







02:20:10 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Tuesday the 2nd of August 2016. I’m with Wing Commander Victor Stapley in Dersingham near Kings Lynn to talk about his times in the RAF. What are your earliest recollections Victor?
VS: Well I, I was born in Ilford in Essex. And my first recollections would be going to school very close to myself and a very large recreation ground, which I rather liked, and that came into my life very much later on. I was at — my, my father was an accountant with Brettles in London, at Wood Street, next to St Pauls and it was bombed. Fortunately St Pauls escaped, so he left there and went to another firm in East London, Old Street, where he was also an accountant, and I come back to the school days when I remember playing cricket at quite a young age and liking it very much, and all sport, and I ended up as captain of the school, chief, head prefect and playing cricket for the school, and soccer and playing cricket for my town boys, Ilford and Essex and London boys, and being very sad when I left school at fifteen and had no more cricket, because there was a wide gap between schoolboy cricket and professional cricket, and I was just getting involved with Ilford Town cricket when war was declared in 1939 [pause]. I left school at the age of fifteen. I was at a, a central modern school where we left at fifteen, and grammar schools left at fifteen as well, and I joined the [unclear] tobacco company, who marketed [unclear]cigarettes and [unclear] cork tip [unclear] I should think about a hundred different patent names of cigarettes and that’s how I was, I could say weaned on cigarettes, which was a very bad thing, and wasn’t able to throw off cigarettes until about 1965 when I, I took everything off my desk at North Luffenham, when I was CO of the radar station there, and just put them away and stopped smoking there and then. That was the best thing I did, I think, medically for myself. Coming back to [unclear] was a management trainee and went through home orders, home selling, secretaries department, export selling which I loved very much, and as the slightly older chaps left, so I was being trained quickly on this, that and the other as they left, and I then became, I rose to assistant shipping manager and I remember vividly trying, travelling from where my family had moved to. It’s a point I’ve just missed out, come back in a moment. I was at Romford in those days, travelling up to Liverpool Street and of course, we had many raids, air raids and we stopped, the trains stopped and all this sort of thing, and we, we had some near misses. I used to then walk up the back exit of Liverpool Street, over the bridge heading for Moorgate and Finsbury Square, where [unclear] tobacco company had 15-51. Now how the devil I remember that, that was the actual address 15-51. It was a long industrial complex and offices at the end, which were very plush and, and I remember vividly coming across firemen sleeping in doorways, their hoses all over the roads, and brick bat everywhere and quite a calamity, and being shipping, assistant shipping , shipping manager, my task was to marry orders to shipping space I could obtain, and it was very, very difficult to obtain this shipping space, and I found that when I got in the office, all the telephones were out of order so I had to collect lots of coins for the post, the actual boxes on the street. It was a hard job to find one that worked, and I eventually did, and that’s the way I managed to contact shipping brokers, and find out whether I could find space. Dash back to the office, call a meeting with the factory manager in order to say what orders I wanted doing within twenty-four hours, to get them to the docks and off into the shipping space that I’d booked in advance. Yes, I mentioned earlier that I, I travelled from Romford, I say I didn’t really cover the move that we had from Ilford to Romford, and it was most notable because we moved to a bungalow at Romford only a week before war was declared, on the 3rd of September thirty-nine, and I remember laying lino down in, in the bathroom that very morning. I was on my hands and knees when Chamberlain declared war at eleven hundred hours so that’s how I was travelling from Ilford, from Romford instead of Ilford. It was on the same line of course, in, in Essex. The obvious reason why it was shortage of shipping space, was because of the Atlantic convoys, and the submarines having a devastating effect on, on our supplies both ways, exports and imports. So that was a real problem that lasted quite a long time. Well of course, it was five years, wasn’t it, the overall war. It was during this time that I went to the ministry to volunteer for the Royal Air Force as a flyer, and my whole idea was that I think I’d rather prefer to be blown up in the air, and not know much about it, rather than being crippled on the ground. I didn’t fancy infantry work or submarines underwater, although I had a relation that was a, on the single sub, submarines and I thought he was a very brave chap as you can imagine. So that’s the reason I went there and they accepted me as pilot navigator, but then we go on from there. Nothing happened, wasn’t called, wondering what’s going to, happening, why not, and unbeknown to me, and it didn’t come out until I was in the Air Force, I found out what had happened. That my firm, without consulting me, had made me a reserved occupation, applied to retain me beyond my call up time and, so that’s the reason why I was just wondering what the devil was going on. But eventually I got a letter which said that they’d got many people now ready to start training as pilot or navigator, but they had a real urgent need for flight engineers, because the actual problem was to do with the fuel consumption, and management of the fuel consumption, and lots of pilots falling foul of this and running out of fuel. And we lost quite a number and they were thinking, also of the building up, they’d already planned to build up with as many four engine bomber aircraft as possible, like the, not only the Lancaster, the Halifax, the Sterling and so on, the different marks of these. And so I thought, well I’ve been waiting and waiting and I, I volunteered, I said yes. So I think that hastened my being brought, taken in by the Air Force and I had to go, I was one of the early boys, so I had to go through the training of ground mechanic and straight onto a ground fitter and then out, out onto squadrons doing maintenance work in hangars, on Mustangs with 2 Squadron at Sawbridgeworth. The years I’m not too sure about, but on from there to [pause], onto Gravesend and, where we still had Mustangs and the, the engines were American Allison inline engines. Similar design to the Merlin but nowhere near as good. We had so much trouble with those [laughs] because when we did an engine change, that’s obviously what I was on being a fitter, we’d do all the covering up and everything else, and then we’d fire them up, and there was misfiring on this cylinder, that cylinder, you know, and it was a hard job to find out which were misfiring, which cylinder was misfiring. So what we did then was to pack up, have a, and go off for a cup of tea and go back when it was dark and restart, we could see from the exhaust which was misfiring, etcetera. There was all that trouble, and changing the whole magneto, and all the wiring and plugs and so forth. Sometimes that didn’t work. Anyway we managed to get it done in the end. The magneto drop was huge in comparison. The acceptable magneto drop was huge in comparison with the Merlin. Anyway we — after all this, we’d then double check on the oil filter, because so many times we took it off and found white metal in the oil filter. So that meant that we had to change the whole caboodle again, the whole engine and, and restart again so it was a terrible business and their, their supercharger was no good and they, they were good for ground strafing and all that sort of thing, up to about ten thousand feet, but they were no good above that because of supercharger being very, very inefficient. So directly, and that what happened then, of course, was after I’d left them that, they’d fit them with Rolls Royce engines and they made all the difference and turned them into a good aircraft. By then I’d been called on training for a flight mechanic, and also to go straight onto as a fitter. So I was at Blackpool for a time, running up and down the sands at 6am in the morning to get fit, and did a mechanics course, and then short leave and then onto Innsworth for the fitter training. So then, that’s going back up to the running, following that, out into the field to as a fitter. Eventually I go to St Athan for the flight engineers finishing course and passed that, and was recommended for commissioning, straight on from there to a heavy conversion unit, where I linked up with the crew at Lindholme, and because I got married at that stage, I was the last flight engineer to arrive. All the others had been sorted out their crews and there was only one crew left and that was Wiggins, Albert Wiggins, a Royal Australian Air Force ex-farmer from Torquay, near the gold mining area in Victoria and I found him a good stalwart, you couldn’t — he was steady as you would expect with a farmer, nothing would phase him, and we had a, an Australian navigator, Jack Sparks from Melbourne, he may have been from Canberra earlier on because he was a civil servant. So anyway he, he was a great one as well so we had a, a jolly good crew. The mid upper gunner was only just about eighteen, and just beginning to shave. He was a Manchester, very slow talking lad, again didn’t get excited so he was just the right type you wanted for a gunner, but the rear gunner was a chap named Fraser, a Scotsman, and we had a hard job to cool him off all the time, he wanted to jabber, jabber, jabber and he was the complete opposite of the Manchester lad in the mid upper turret and the wireless operator was a chap named Bell, and he was the son of a couple of variety people on the stage in some musical capacity and he was a wonderful pianist, absolutely wonderful and a delight to be with. Well after we’d finished and going on to cover, meanwhile it was the same case, after we’d finished their first eight operations, after that you went on a five days leave, and poor old Bell failed to come back because he was stuck with some disease, and so we never saw him again, and the next thing is, he’s been sent to another squadron as their new wireless operator with some other crew and we, of course had another one given to us who was a very nice fella, and I think he, was Trotter, and I think that later on, he went onto a second tour and unfortunately never came back from one of them, and his name his listed in the Lincoln Cathedral. So now, coming onto the operations, our first operations. Our first two were to Stuttgart and they, we thought they were quite nasty operations. Well of course, we would do, I suppose, being the first ones but they were in essence. Their defences, we decided in the end, overall defences of their major areas in Germany were a jolly sight better than over London. We thought London was pretty good but we were nowhere near. So we always took quite a beating in the sense, in, in the — in the feel that you had for the place, that you would likely get a real big banger on your wings or something. The predicted flak was so very good, directly you, you were coned. You had to dive and climb, and turn yourself upside down, so to speak, in order to get out. You were lucky if you got out. That early part you then had predicted flak, with big red balls coming quite close to your wings and that, so you had to move fast and that was — Stuttgart was one of those where searchlights and defences were very good. So the first two ops were Stuttgart. We didn’t think very much of them and Frankfurt was about the same, we had two operations there, so that was four of them. [pause]
CB: Right.
VS: Yes. The next operation which filled us with dismay because of what we’d heard about the actual target, and that was Berlin, and it was the last of the, the big bangs, you might say, against Berlin because prior to that there had been lots of operations on Berlin, night after night, whenever the weather was suitable, and this to my mind was the last one, we weren’t to know that but it was one of the last of this stretch of operations and that, that was a tough one. Because unfortunately our, our navigator was disconnected from his oxygen supply, unbeknown to us, until he was calling his projector all the names under the sun, ‘where is it, where is it, [banging on table] where is it?’ You heard this on the intercom and, ‘what’s the matter, Jack?’ So I said to the bomb aimer, ‘check his oxygen is connected please, Jack, erm, Pilly’. That’s Ted, Ted Pilly, the bomb aimer, ‘check that he’s connected’. He came back, ‘he is’, twice I asked and in the end, I got fed up with it and went back myself and found it wasn’t connected and that’s why he was all over the place. So we were slightly off track because of that, and we got into a little bit of trouble with the flak, er, in some other area on route, and then we saw the TIs go down and we went heading straight for them. It was like driving into Piccadilly Circus lit up at night. You were completely lit up, that’s how we felt and that’s what it looked like. Whether that was individual coning, I wouldn’t be able to say, because the impression I had with it — my pilot and myself, I was helping him with the actual controls, and we were diving and climbing all over the place. Thinking we were in individual searchlights, but we, we never got out of them but we got away with it, straightened up, levelled up and got on the heading that the bomb aimer wanted. Dropped our bombs on the target and that was when we experienced the [unclear] for the first time, I think it was, as master bomber and, and got away. We had various interludes going there and coming back, of fighters having a go at us, but we managed to dive and get out of that, so we were very lucky. Lucky and well trained, I think, and disciplined. And then, of course, we had the Ruhr, so we had a taste of all these places very quickly, spread over the first seven or eight operations, and that was to Essen, and that was happy valley, and amazing the actual Ack Ack searchlights. Ack Ack in particular and, but there you are we, we got through that and went on the worst one of all and that was Nuremberg, and it was a moonlight night, which we didn’t like as you can imagine. We had nowhere, no cloud to get into and cover ourselves, so we were open targets and unfortunately, in addition to that, apparently the — for some reason or other, luck or intelligence slipup, their fighters rendezvoused in our track. We wondered what was going on because it — reaching German territory, territory it was silent, no guns, nothing, no searchlights and then suddenly - boom, boom - four Lancaster’s around us, our friends [pause]. And we logged at twenty-five, twenty-five in the early part of the run to Nuremberg over Germany [coughs], and we had to give up recording to keep the intercom open. We had one or two advances by fighters, but we managed to get away somehow or other by diving into contrails. We hoped there wasn’t a hard centre, and we had that sort of thing for about two thirds of the run to Nuremberg, and then it’s all quiet, and we got to Dornburg and we bombed and it was all quiet, and came back, two or three fighter episodes and managed to get away with it. And came back and landed, and we were all discussing it with the intelligence boys and that, and debriefing, and they asked me how many I reckoned, and I said, ‘well we saw twenty-five, and on that basis, I think you’ve got to multiply it by four’, and it came out I understand, the following day, ninety-six, ninety-six other aircraft were shot down [long pause]. After that raid on Nuremberg, we were all pleased to go on holiday for about five days and, and come back in the early days of April, where we resumed operations. We then went on Achern, which we had to abandon for some reason or other. I think we were recalled. I’ve got it, mission abandoned and I’ve got no reason, I’m pretty sure that we got recalled on that. Things went on and then we went on Cologne and that was quite a target as well [coughs], all lit up, and we had one or two attacks but not very many. We got away with it again, thank goodness, and the following one was Düsseldorf where, of course, that was back to the Ruhr and that was a shocker and, er, but we managed to bomb our target and come back safely. A few days off and we then went on mining in the Baltic. Where we took off and had to fly, as we got close to Denmark islands, we had to drop down to a hundred feet to go under the radar cover, which was quite a dangerous thing to do because of obstructions that you could hit, so we had to be wide awake. And came out, of course, heading for Sweden and we just touched on the coast of Sweden because navigational point, and they were very unkind by firing up a few tracer, but they were too low. They couldn’t get us and we went, went off from that on a, on a timed course, er, to a point where we dropped our mines and came back in a similar way but avoiding Sweden this time. Coming straight over Denmark and at a very low level still, so that we didn’t disturb anyone, except perhaps a few farmers and villagers and got back but they were rather dangerous. We all had to take our turn at mining and that — quite a number of chaps that didn’t come back from those efforts. We were then again on Essen, in the Ruhr, and that was a similar one, story to the others. You always got fighters and searchlights and Ack Ack and so forth, but never the same as Berlin and the, the Stuttgarts that we had. A few other things and then we had ammunition dump at Rouen, R, O, U, E,N and that was quite an experience. We were told to fly fairly low [coughs] to make sure we got the target but not too low so you got the effects of the actual target blowing up under your belly. So we were about four thousand feet and we got the target all right, because we felt it, and we got the rumbles, but came back safely, thank goodness [pause]. We’re now in the beginning of the bombing of France, so leading up to D-Day on the 6th of June. [bleep]
CB: So, we’re just talking about how, in the early days of the war, a flight engineer wasn’t an established position and how they came to adapt the training from people who were trained as ground engineers, riggers or whatever, to then fly as flight engineers, because the Lancasters and Stirlings and Halifaxes didn’t really come along till forty-two. So you were part of this transition weren’t you?
VS: I was yes. Yes, I was invited to, to join at the early stage. There weren’t all that number of flight engineers like me [coughs], because when I got to St Athan on the flight engineers finishing course, I’m pretty sure the, all ready, we had at St Athan the start of direct entry training which, which was something like eight months.
CB: That means people who hadn’t, that worked on the ground first?
VS: That’s right. They were direct entry and so they had to adapt everything and, and not take things for granted that they had in, in previous training. They weren’t so well trained, there’s no doubt about that, they weren’t so well trained but they filled a, a need and quickly. We, we couldn’t wait for, to go through all the training that we went through. Quite sure of that. Yes, I don’t, I don’t think. I think that my squadron was first formed in the early part of forty-three, maybe late forty-two, I think. Anyway the first Lancs didn’t arrive there until forty-three that’s for sure. They had a few Manchesters [clears throat]. One of the interesting things is, of course, the, the chaps that flew Wellingtons. They, they thought the Wellington was absolutely terrific. It was. It would take a hell of a bat, battering. The, it wasn’t a firm alloy construction and so it was fabric and it could take a lot to shoot it up. Holes didn’t make any difference to it [laughs] [unclear] the, the vital part that was the hit ,you know, of the actual aircraft and I knew two chaps that are now dead, now that died this, this year. One is a fellow at Fakenham, who is in the heavy transport business and got another place up north and he flew Wellingtons, a lovely fellow who has just died, but the other one ,that I, you know, is the, now what’s, oh dear, it’s the fella that flew the ultra giro in the bomb fields.
CB: Oh, Barnes Wallis, Barnes Wallis?
VS: No, no.
CB: No, no, no, Wing Commander Wallis?
VS: No.
CB: Wasn’t it?
VS: It was — no.
CB: Not Barnes Wallis but Wing Commander Wallis?
VS: Yes, yes. What’s his Christian name?
CB: I can’t remember. Barnes Wallis did the —
VS: I entertained him twice.
CB: Did you?
VS: Yes and his wife was a Stapley.
CB: Oh.
VS: And so we had something in common, but then we didn’t. When we checked on everything, there was no connection at all.
CB: Oh right.
VS: But I think there must be because she, she came from down south in Southampton. Test, test area, Testwood. But Ken Wallis.
CB: Ken Wallis. That’s it.
VS: And I entertained him twice as president of the RAFA, we have two dinners a year and I entertained him this year, I think it was.
CB: Did you?
VS: Yes, or late last year, it was as recent as that. He was a terrific engineer, you know. He brought along, on one occasion, something he’d actually [unclear] made himself. Terrific, absolutely terrific. He was, for a long time [coughs], he was at Boscombe Down on the research side. And I think, I think it’s actually dreadful that he wasn’t acknowledged, wasn’t made a Sir or something like that, cause he was so good for the Air Force and the country. Lovely fella. But he, he’s got a museum at Dereham.
CB: Oh, has he?
VS: Um, um.
CB: My mistake, Barnes Wallis designed the Wellington.
VS: You put me off there. That shot me down, took me a fortnight to get to Kent.
CB: Well you did well, but Barnes Wallis designed the Wellington with its geodetic construction.
VS: Well Barnes Wallis was the one that —
CB: With the bombs.
VS: That’s right and, and there’s — he’s, he’s number two, we had his wife up here, she died. She was, she was a friend of a lot of us. Yeah. Yes. Are you gonna switch off now?
VS: Switch on now something else has come to me.
VS: This springs to mind that on my eightieth birthday, the family were very keen to take me out somewhere. It was going to be a surprise. So I was thinking, where the devil are they going to take me. So we set off in about three cars and we head for Lincolnshire, so directly I was going to Lincolnshire. I thought there’s only one place and that is to the two farmers that have got a Lanc at, at Kirkby.
CB: East Kirkby.
VS: Yes, Kirkby, sorry.
CB: Yes.
VS: East Kirkby. They were both alive then, one’s since died and their brother, there’s another brother who was a flight engineer and died. And they opened specially for my gang on a Sunday afternoon, weekend. It was jolly good.
CB: Fantastic.
VS: And they, the thing that I remember, one of two things, um, was the, they’d still got the control tower and I, I was most amused to find that, that the toilet was still there and it was the most clean toilet I’d ever seen in my life. It was lovely to see. Ought to be on exhibition [laughs] but they do a good job.
CB: Yeah.
VS: But unfortunately, of course, they, they, it was a runway in, in war time but they’d cleared one part of it about a third of it for farming and I think they regretted it when they got this Lanc because then that stopped them taking off.
CB: Um.
VS: They did get eventually a, a certificate of air worthiness from the Civil Aviation Authority which would have allowed them to take off and, er all they could do was taxi and give the people a thrill that way. But it was a lovely little area there.
CB: Yeah. This is the former Scampton Gate Guardian and, um, they were —
VS: Oh, it was that one was it?
CB: They restored the aircraft and they call it “Just Jane”.
VS: Yes.
CB: And there is some film of them doing high speed taxi runs with the tail up for a film, a little while ago.
VS: Yeah, well the runway that’s left must be a fair, fair length.
CB: It is.
VS: For them to get the tail up.
CB: Yeah. But it’s an amazingly restored site.
VS: They want to make sure their breaks are good in order to pull up if short [laughs]
CB: Yeah.
VS: Otherwise they’ll be, be into, into the potato patch [laughs]
CB: Or their chickens [laughs]
VS: Oh dear, dear, dear.
CB: We’re restarting on some of the points from early on. So you’re talking about south of the river?
VS: Yes, I was very friendly with a caretakers son at my old school and we used to go to each other’s houses at weekends [coughs], and this was the early part of the war and at night time, at the weekend, we used to go down to the underground cellars of the school and we used to play bridge, and I shall never forget that when the sirens went, so we had to get up and keep our eyes open outside in case some incendiaries fell, and sure enough they did and one, one or two lodged in the roof of the school. They weren’t causing much damage and [coughs] the caretaker dived for his bucket and Stirrup pump, and there he was trying to get a spurt of water, two storeys up into the roof [laughs], with a Stirrup pump, that’s all he had waiting for the fire service to come. That’s a silly, a silly story really, absolutely barmy, but I enjoyed those times underground and at the weekend, because you felt reasonably safe and we were playing bridge and I love bridge, it was fine, absolutely great. What was the other thing?
CB: So, tell us about the land mines.
VS: Oh yes. So this chaps sisters married this fella, I got to know him quite well and they went to live south, south of the river, and I can’t tell you any more than that, but anyway he was on ARP duty and there, there was a parachute coming down and something dangling on the end, and he was running towards it because he thought it was a chap on the end of the parachute that had bailed out. He suddenly realised that it wasn’t and he ran for his dear life, and this was a land mine, he got away with it. He was quite close really, well, he must have been for him to be able to identify it in darkness. There’s another story about those. The, when I was reminiscing with someone recently, yes, it was my son, he’d gone on the internet and he, you can get a record of all the land mines that were dropped in Barking and Ilford, and a terrific number, so lots of places were absolutely flattened really. There was total destruction within a mile radius and then surface, surface blasts you know these were taking out windows and everything else. Very, very destructive. They were a shocker. People were sometimes the, the youngsters talk about the V Bombs and so forth, what were they?
CB: Well the V-1 was the flying bomb.
VS: Yeah, yeah, yeah and that’s just a bang wasn’t it? That’s all you knew?
CB: Well, the land mine was destructive because it exploded above ground level, so that had a huge blast effect.
VS: That’s right.
CB: The V-1, because it came in at a shallow angle, that also had a big blast effect. The V-2, because it landed vertically, had less blast but a bigger hole.
VS: Um, um. Yes. Lots of people were, were worried about these [coughs] at our cottage we didn’t worry too much about that, we’d seen enough.
CB: Yeah.
VS: We either got it or we didn’t [laughs]
CB: Of that era, because the land mines you are talking about the early part. Which areas were hit most by land mines?
VS: Barking, no doubt. I’ve got the map of the, the landings.
CB: Right.
VS: They, they were definitely hit the most, the second a very close second was Ilford. It just shows you that it wasn’t only us that had a problem of hitting targets from above. The inaccuracy of bombing. They were trying to bomb the docks. There’s no doubt about that. Mind you, I think they didn’t mind them going astray, eventually became a target didn’t it. All built up areas became the target, but in the early days, they were trying to hit the docks and they hit Barking and Ilford.
CB: So going back to Ilford, and the family being there, and the sanitary arrangements.
VS: [laughs] well, that was an outside toilet, it was, that’s — I was brought up in this three bed roomed house with outside toilet, which wasn’t very convenient to say the least, but we, we moved out to Romford on the 3rd September and I think I told this story. And thank goodness we did, because later on we found out that Henley Road at Ilford was bombed, and flattened and so we wouldn’t be here, perhaps but you never know we might have been out shopping and got away with it [laughs] [coughs], they expanded their, their targets.
CB: The Germans did?
VS: Yes, Germans. Expanded their targets to cover well, well populated areas because they’d failed, they’d tried hitting aerodromes and the Air Force generally and they didn’t succeed. They tried hitting the docks accurately and they didn’t really put us out of business, fortunately, and they widened their targets then. Anybody was fair game as far as they were concerned. So they started that in a big way and then later on the, the public started accusing Bomber Harris of doing a deadly thing and killing people, the population, this big town and city, etcetera, etcetera [telephone rings].
CB: Your phones are calling you.
VS: I can hear it. Ok.
CB: So we’ve been talking about a variety of things. One is we’ve covered the Nuremberg raid, which was a very heavy loss rate, but in general, what was the loss rate and how many planes would you put up at a time?
VS: I remember that our maximum we put up was about twenty-two and, like on the Cologne raid and Nuremberg raid and Berlin. But some of the others we dropped, I should say to about fourteen, eighteen something like that. Of course, then they had the individual mining, one aircraft off and or two aircraft off and so forth, the odd little titbit on the side. But the main efforts I should think we averaged something like eighteen, sixteen, eighteen.
CB: And the loss rate?
VS: No more than, I remember, than about four. Which people thought at that time was heavy but it wasn’t really, when you think in terms of Nuremberg, where I think we only had about eight hundred of it, it wasn’t a thousand bomber raid like the Cologne special one, where we put everything in, including the kitchen sink, and Wimpys and so forth, even Ansons I think, in order to make a bit of a publicity stunt out of it, a thousand and no, four was quite good, I reckon.
CB: Right.
VS: Considering what we were doing.
CB: So we’ve just moved a bit earlier on to bombing France in anticipation of D-Day . So after Roeun, where did you go?
VS: [shuffling of papers] Oh yes. That was the, the ammunition dump and [pause] we went to Leon, that’s right, which was quite an easy one. The one thing [laughs], we were on fighter affiliation afterwards, none of our operation. just a bit of fun. Then we went to another dump at Aubinges, I don’t remember much about that, except that we had to be very careful we didn’t blow ourselves up by being too low. Nothing in particular. But then we had one which was Margny-lès-Compiègne, and lots been written about that and it’s a bit of a mixture. Because we had, we had Lancs on it, Halifaxes on it, Mosquitos on it, and I think basically there could have been two targets. One was the ammunition dump, and the story goes that the Panzers were there with their tanks and we only had that opportunity that night to try and flatten them, and that’s where the Lancs came in. So we were briefed to orbit a, a marker, and running on that track to the target. We didn’t like that, experienced people like us, by then we were quite experienced, we didn’t like orbiting anything, you were asking for trouble from the fighters to get it, they’re not silly and sure enough they did, and we, we breezed off and orbited elsewhere so we got away with that operation, and we did apparently do a good job, and the locals, later on, after the war, came out loud and clear that they were so glad that we managed to do that. But the other side of it, I think, was another target, and I never got down to the brass tacks of this, maybe all your experiences, you might be able to come up with the answer. But I think that the Mosquitoes were on a separate target, though mighty close in the same town or whatever it was at Margny-lès-Compiègne, and a books been written about this, and I haven’t got that and I don’t know how to go about finding out any more. Martin Cook or something like that I think, has written a book about it [coughs] and that is, it was a prison [coughs] and a lot of our chaps were prisoned there and something was going to happen there and they were likely to be marched off or get shot for some reason or other [coughs]. Pardon me. So it was decided to attack, and they had to be very careful what we were doing with the — what these Mosquitos was doing was to try and break the outside crust of the building to give the prisoners a chance of escaping, and I think a lot had been written about this, which I don’t know.
CB: That’s the Amiens raid.
VS: That’s the Amiens?
CB: Yes, with Pickard. Yes.
VS: Oh, was it?
CB: Yeah. It was a different —
VS: It was a different raid. Right.
CB: Yes.
VS: Oh, oh. I don’t know where I got tied up with that one. But [coughs]
CB: But there might have been something similar.
VS: Um.
CB: What was your next operation?
VS: So where we went from there was off Dunkirk for some reason. All these were fairly easy jobs, and then the next one was Hasselt, how you pronounce that, I don’t know, and then we went mining again in the Ulm, quite a lengthy run. And next one was Aachen, got no recollection for that. So it was reasonably straight forward. So then we, I think we had a rest and then we really got sucked into the real preparation for D-Day [coughs]. We were on Calais, which is just slipping in on the coast, and then Boulogne, and then on the night of the fifth, in other words D-Day, coming up after midnight we were charged with trying to put out of action, the big gun emplacement at Le Havre. And the wonderful thing there to talk about is coming back from Le Havre, the early hours of the morning, and seeing all this flotilla, this mass of shipping and boats and galore all over the channel. I, I only hope that they, they took some aerial views of all this because it was absolutely fantastic [coughs], and we passed Channel Islands on our starboard side, and really could see all this mass heading for the French coast, and you can bet we were wishing them well, and we came home to hear the confirmation, of course, on radio. So we got back onto the mainland that morning, without a shadow of doubt as you all know, and then from then on it was really straight forward as we were concerned. Small little ops. Achery, I’ve got no recollection of anything terrible there. Gelsenkirchen was one [unclear] was another one that was one of the bigger ops, I think. Then there was a place Bernapre - b, e, r, n, a, p, r, e - and Domleger, Domleger, which was the first daylight raid that we did. And then there was another one at, where is it, Gissey, Gissey-le-Vieil, Gissey-le-Vieil a daylight one. And I think that [pause] was the last one that we did. All very quiet been —. Oh there was one more, oh I said that, we went back to Domleger, Domleger. On the 2nd of July and that was our end.
CB: OK. So what did you do after that? So you’ve ended ops but you didn’t do thirty for some reason.
VS: No, no because —
CB: So why didn’t you do thirty?
VS: Well the reason for that was rather funny. You mention people having a hoot because the pilot and myself we, we shared a room, and we’d come back from an op, and the following morning there we are in our, doing our abolitions as they called it in those days, and he said to me, he said ‘you’ve got spots all over your back’, and I said, ‘thank you very much and I’ve got one up on you at last’, and so off, he said, ‘you’d better go and see the docs with that’. Which I did [coughs], and he laughed his head off, the squadron doc, I said, ‘well, what the devil are you laughing about, doc’, ‘you’ve got German measles’, ‘oh my god, all the boys are going to have a laugh about that one’, which they did. So I was packed up, with my small kit, to go to the isolation hospital at Scunthorpe. So along comes a five hundred weight truck, just the ambulance, and a WAAF driver, and I said, ‘have you ever had German measles before’, and she said, ‘no’, and I said, ‘well, I’ve got it, but do you mind taking a chance so I can sit in front, I don’t want to sit in the back there, it’s a bit uncomfortable’, so I sat in front and as we were driving down the main street of Scunthorpe, the crews had been stood down, and I recognised a few and they recognised me, so we were waving to one another as I went to Scunthorpe isolation hospital and when I was there, it was a bit of a hoot. I had ten days there, my crew did two ops. That’s how I lost the two on them. And thankfully, I joined up with them again when I got back. But I was there about ten or eleven days [coughs], and my, I was, I had a room of my own, very nice set up, to the right of the entrance and the, the toilet was to the left of the entrance. So I had to go past the entrance to the toilet, coming back, there’s another room, of course, opposite the toilet, and there was a young lady sitting up in bed, I naturally went there to have a chat, and I was sitting on the corner of the bed chatting, and along came the matron, ‘oh you shouldn’t be here, you should be in isolation in your room’ [laughs], so that was a big hoot. The next thing is, I’m allowed out, of course it was just an infection. So I felt good enough, and they said, ‘if you feel good enough, would you like to come and make four at tennis’. I said ‘yes, fine’. So I went off and played tennis. I’d run out of cigarettes and the matron throws down twenty packet to the court where I was, and we carried on playing and had a good game. I went back, had a shower, sat up in bed and there I was, eating dinner. Very good dinner, and along came the doc, who said ‘I’ve come to see whether you’re fit enough to go back to your squadron’. I said, ‘well, I reckon having played tennis and eaten a good meal and sitting up in bed like this, I should say yes, can I go tomorrow morning?’ ‘Yes’. So off I went, found out the crew were on leave, waiting for me to come back to them and so I went off about two days, came back and we finished our operations. That was the story there.
CB: Amazing how many people actually had their careers disrupted by disease. So, we’ve had a scarlet fever man on the, on the, caught it on a boat going to Canada, somebody else with something similar because, of course, there weren’t the antibiotics or —
VS: No, no.
CB: Or other cleanliness steps.
VS: As a youngster I remember vividly I, I, I got, get fed up with the, the look of anything red. Why? Because my brother caught diphtheria, and in those days, they used to come to your home and pick up all the mattresses and, I don’t know, some, some heat treatment and they came back, but they baked them, that’s right, baked them, the mattresses, they were no good, it wasn’t worthwhile. Hopeless, so that was one lot of red blankets that coming to the door, and the next thing is, he gets, he gets through that, next thing is, he gets scarlet fever, so again, all the blankets and bedding and that were all baked and they were useless when they came back, and then he, he was ill again and he could barely swallow and, I’ve forgotten the term, but it was the throat, it was closing, he could hardly breath and the doctor was still saying, ‘you can’t get, you can’t have diphtheria twice, mum, you can’t’. He was determined to stick to this right to the end, of course, he put scarlet fever, it was diphtheria though, which was the worst of the two things, between that and scarlet fever. He took a long time to recover, he was on the critical list for a long time. So that’s why I don’t like red, red things.
CB: Amazing. Stop there a mo.
VS: Oh, ok, well —
CB: So —
VS: And sorry, then I, I was allowed to go, yes, so now, right.
CB: So recuperating.
VS: Yes, so we’re back now in, in Kirmington, having been released from the isolation hospital, to find the, the crew are on a short leave waiting for me to come back to join them. So I was off for two days, so I came back at the same time as they did, and we were back on operations. So we, we’ve finished the operations now, haven’t we?
CB: Well, we just got to you being German measles, so
VS: Yes I know but we, prior to that —
CB: Did you go back to operations, yes, prior to that.
VS: Prior to that we did finish.
CB: Yeah.
VS: We did finish on the 2nd of July.
CB: Right
VS: It was one, where are we.
CB: That’s because you became ill.
VS: Yes. On the 2nd of July we finished up with a daylight operations for a second time on Domleger.
CB: Yeah.
VS: OK. So that was the end of our tour. So off, off we went and I came back a day later than the crew, only to find to my dismay that the, the crew had left the previous day and they’d had pictures around the aircraft and all this, with the ground crew and so forth, and I was missing and wasn’t in that, so I didn’t see them off, but, of course I, I managed to link up again at the OA, but later on, I linked up with them, but not before staying on, being kept on at, at Kirmington as the flight engineer leader. Attending briefings, main briefings and at night time, on operations, joining up with the ground engineer in the control tower, well before start up time for operations. Start up of the Lanc engines out in dispersals, directly that happened, of course, we got the odd call from dispersal that, one, they were having trouble starting up somewhere or other in this dispersal, that dispersal, so the engineer and myself flew out in the five hundred weight truck and I got in the cockpit and he got on the starter machine, the acc - acc.
CB: Trolley acc.
VS: Trolley acc, that’s right, and most times we succeeded. I gave it a good thorough thumping and tried all sorts of things, and eventually got it going. I found that very, very interesting and rewarding really. I enjoyed that period. How long it lasted, I’m not too sure. I should think, maybe, six weeks, two months, two months I would think, and I found that jolly good because I didn’t get much sleep those nights obviously, it wasn’t worthwhile getting into bed, you know, and so I went to the Mess and had a jug, and then went to my room and just sat in a chair, and then went back to the Mess and sat in the chair, and then I knew it was time to receive them back again. I used to de-brief all the flight engineers, it was very, very interesting indeed. One of the things that had to be watched very closely with new crews, although I’m sure that they had this belted into their brains much earlier, but we didn’t, we couldn’t afford to guess that they had retained the, or realised the importance. We, we went onto from SU carburettors to [pause], oh dear.
CB: Bendix?
VS: You’ve got it, which was jet injection and so you had an idle cut off switch. The American design was a lever [unclear] where you revved up an engine, you tried to start an engine, sorry, and you turned and you had it in cold, cold position, the mixture control, it went up from nil to auto rich, try and catch it and it was that type of idle cut off that was on a switch in a Lanc. It was tied to the pneumatic system, break system and the, these idle cut off switches, they didn’t operate unless you had a minimum of eighty pounds per square inch pressure on, on the gauge, the pneumatic gauge with covered your breaks. So if you, you could start the engines with the idle cut off switches in the off position when the break pressure was less than eighty, and then when you got up to eighty plus, the engines would just stop. The idle cut off switch was off, so we had to make sure that the newcomers had that firmly in their mind, because that was a shocker if that happened. And such things like that, anything I got up in briefing and made sure that they knew.
CB: Now on a raid, the flight engineers had to keep a log, so when you did the de-brief, what did you do with the log?
VS: Well let’s put it this way. We didn’t have to keep a log, not just on the raid. All we had to do was to keep a log of our fuel consumption, that’s all, so that we didn’t get into trouble. So we were no more responsible for the keeping of a log of what happened on the raid than any other member of the crew. So it was general, we didn’t log everything in black and white. The chap that had the option of doing that sort of thing was, of course, the chap sitting at the desk, the navigator, and I remember the navigator thinking he’d come out and have a look at the, what it was like to be over a target on one operation. He came out in the front, behind me and had a look, came out from behind the curtain, had a good look, frightened him to death and he went back again and he never came back again [laughs], he never came out of his curtain on any of the following raids. It was laughable. He saw the funny side of it, of course, but so from then on, he was in his little shroud.
CB: We, we’re talking about what you did after operations, but actually, that’s back on it and another question, what, how often did the gunners have to fire their guns in defence of the aircraft?
VS: Oh, that’s a hard one. Many times, many times they gave a spurt, whether that primed off the fight or not, I don’t know. You, you had to remember that when a fighter gets into a bomber stream, he can have a poop at one, he misses, carries on, he finds somebody else and has a poop at them. In other words, they don’t have to go back on themselves. If you, if you just two or three, then perhaps they do or they think they’ve really got you running, you know, their winning, they’ve got, they’ve maimed you slightly and might comeback. I couldn’t answer it.
CB: How much did you know about scarecrows?
VS: Oh, we didn’t worry about them. We realised that they were scarecrows and not the real thing. I don’t know whether they, a few entangled your props with one, I don’t know. I don’t think they were dangerous at all. Have you got reason to believe they were?
CB: No, no. I’m talking about the, the description of the big explosions that the RAF turned scarecrow.
VS: They, they weren’t big explosions they, they were skeletons to frighten you.
CB: Oh right.
VS: You know, like, like, like just the bones of a human being.
CB: Right.
VS: That type of thing, just floating in, in the air.
CB: Right.
VS: I, I don’t know what happened if you got near them.
CB: Did you see any other bombers exploding?
VS: Oh yes, I already related that in the Nuremberg raid, of course.
CB: So, twenty-five you saw shot down?
VS: Twenty-five we recorded.
CB: But how many ¬–
VS: But we saw others after that.
CB: Yes.
VS: But we didn’t record them, so I, I guess afterwards if we were on a track where only about a quarter or a third of the actual outward bound track and lost – we saw twenty, twenty-five explode, it had to be three or four times that number.
CB: I was differentiating between shot down and actually exploding.
VS: These were exploding, these twenty-five.
CB: Right. So do you know why they exploded rather than just go down?
VS: Well I, I, I’ve got an idea because of what’s been written since in intelligence side that the fighters were colliding with something what they call some music or other.
CB: Schräge Musik.
VS: Yes, which is neither here nor there. It was an upward firing gun and they came underneath the bomber and that’s why we were rocking to and fro, so our mid upper gunner had a chance of seeing underneath. Besides the rear gunner.
CB: Oh right, right. Um. So we’re after the war, back to that and you’re, no sorry, after your operations, still in the war, you’re debriefing the engineers.
VS: Yes, yes.
CB: What sort of things would come up there that would be worthy of note after an operation?
VS: Nothing very much. The real, information that came up was given by the pilot and the, the gunners that were seeing everything. The, it was left to them mainly. The engineer came up with one or two things which, with regard, not regard to the operation itself, it was management of the aircraft that he would deal with and stick to that and only come up and talk about other things that the others hadn’t seen or –
CB: You mentioned earlier that one of the tasks of engineers was to manage the fuel consumption.
VS: Yes.
CB: So how critical was it to rebalance the tanks during a raid?
VS: I don’t think it, it was really critical, I don’t think it was really critical.
CB: Because there was a sequence?
VS: I would call it a routine thing to balance the tanks and to – we took off with all pumps on, on the tanks, so that if there was something wrong with one tank, the other one would still be pressurising the fuel system [clears throat], we started off with number one tanks with all pumps on, the others as well, and then we eventually went over to two, and we started on one, it was rather important because the overloading from the siphoning off and that goes on in the system, went into one of the tanks, number one I think it was. So we went onto that initially, and then went onto two and then from then on, as we got down on, on the two, we brought the others coming in so that they were in the centre of the aircraft more, instead of on the wings.
CB: So number one tank is where?
VS: They’re the two close either side of the fuselage.
CB: Right. So the numbers go up.
VS: No two, and then three.
CB: So the numbers go up as you go further out in the wing?
VS: Yes, that’s right and its two thousand one hundred and fifty-four gallons.
CB: In total?
VS: Maximum.
CB: Right.
VS: So obviously, dependent on your bomb load, so dependent on how much in fuel you had. The – all that weight for take-off initially, was about sixty-three thousand net, including everything, and that went up to about sixty-five with the mark 3s, I think. Eventually of course, we pushed and pushed and went up to about seventy thousand with the big bomb.
CB: How did the calculation for fuel requirements emerge? Who, who did the calculation on the fuel needed for loading for a raid?
VS: That was done by the, by the operations side of your, before take-off. The intelligence came through and they knew where the target was, then they worked out the distance, how long it would take and so forth, and so they knew, and a reserve of about two hundred gallons for diversion or something like that.
VS: That determined the actual – how many gallons.
CB: So as the station flight engineer, did you do the calculation for the crews?
VS: No, no, wasn’t asked to, it was all done through the operations side and the ground engineers.
CB: Right. So after doing that, so you finished operations, you’re the, the man at the station, as the station flight engineer. How long did that go on?
VS: For about two months I should think about two months.
VS: No more, and then I was posted to the heavy conversion, conversion unit at Blyton, where I took up instruction duties which I found not very rewarding, because I didn’t have much to do. The, there were many other instructors there, and as far as I was concerned, they were doing a reasonable job and I was really there to pass the time away, I felt.
CB: Yes.
VS: And it proved that way because they then sent me on a flight engineers leaders course at St Athan, and I found that a very good course because it was bordering on ground engineers training. It was very, very detailed and we, we had physical fitness half way through the, each day and it was about a two month course, and we had to detail, in drawings and words, something like two engines, two carburettors, two cooling systems, two oil systems and all this sort of thing and it was very, very good indeed. And I came out with an A, an A2, not an A1, so I just missed out on eighty percent. I was about seventy-eight point five or something which annoyed me [laughs] intensely, because I always think that I am experienced in marking papers and a lot depends on just how you feel at the time, you know, you, you can’t be accurate.
CB: Right.
VS: It’s impossible.
VS: I think you may be inaccurate by about two or three percent, if not five. Anyway, so then they posted me back there permanently, instructing on the flight engineers course, overall course of training and by then, they were well organised on the type training, it was straight through about eight, eight months.
CB: OK. So after eight months then what did you do?
VS: Well during that eight months what happened was, the war ended.
CB: Um hm.
VS: And the, the squadron leader, the engineer in charge of that training was posted, left the flight lieutenant and the flight lieutenant engineer was posted, and then I was in charge of type training as a flying officer. That lasted about two months but I got the shock of my life when I realised that there I was, in charge of training with Lancs, Halifaxes, Liberators, Sunderlands, Stirlings, at least that number if not more, and I ended up in the hospital with bronchitis because I’d frozen to death in the hangers in winter. This was all after the war and I remember that we were down – people had bread supplies one day because I was in hospital, and it was a time when we were flying – dropping food to the Dutch.
CB: Operation Manna?
VS: Yes, that’s right. And [coughs] what happened then was a visit, my pilot found out where I was and came to see me in the hospital. And there I was in bed and saying he wanted me to join him, flying to and fro to Australia, taking people back to Australia, would I join him. And I said yes, ‘I’ll, I’ll go with that’, but what happened was, my wife was expecting a child and I had to pull out and so that was me more or less finished, and the training finished. Oh, I remember before the training finished, we had surplus pilots coming through for engineer training, especially Canadians. Canadian pilots came to us for engineer training, and that was the last bit that was going on. The last little do that was going on before we closed down the actual training there. From then on, I was asked if I would like to stay in the Air Force and then I said no, but I knew what would happen if I’d said yes, I would have gone straight onto admin and been a flight commander or something, which didn’t appeal to me one bit. So I just left it and left it and then decided that I’d like to stay on, that was rather too late for the people that really knew me, so it took me some time before I managed to get a PC. But I transferred to the air traffic control branch, aircraft control branch as we called it, GD Aircraft Control, to stay with aircraft, sort of thing, and went out to Singapore and I was a joint sort of worker, operations room for HQ Malaya at Changi, at Block 36, and was in the operations room there and their job was air traffic control centre and operations, and we were briefing on radio as Spitfires and so forth, were flying north attacking [pause] the communists in the jungle. So I went out, first of all, when I went there I went up to north, to Kuala Lumpur, to meet up with the advanced headquarters and I was going to be in touch with telecommunications, getting the information that they required from the actual jungle, from the Army patrols asking for assistance. And that was interesting stuff and learnt a lot on that, and we were, the responsibility, I had a number of aircraft go in the sea. A number, I say, just a few. So we had search and rescue to do as well. We’d get out all the maps so we would see and [unclear] touch for search and rescue, and came away after about three years there, and went onto radar training, ground control approach radar at RAF Whitton and from then on, I really was in my element of, back really, in touch with aircraft and talking them down in bad weather and that was rewarding when you knew that if you didn’t do it, then they would be in real trouble. And [clears throat] from there, I was in charge of the, I was at, sent to Marham, with a new type GCA called CPN4 in, arghh, now, what year? Fifty, fifty-two. About fifty-three I went up to Marham with the new CPN4 GCA, and I was there until late fifty, fifty-six, fifty-six, that’s right. And during that time, we had a, a real terrible tragedy in the Air Force, we had the fighter leaders course at a neighbouring station, just ten miles from us at West Raynham, fighter leaders course and it came out quite clearly, behind the scenes, that their motto was, the last chap in, into dispersals, was the winner. In other words and also, unless you ran out of petrol by the time you got to dispersal, you were a chicken, sort of thing, and that was their motto. The last drop, it was actually crazy and that’s what happened to them one day, when they had, they put up eight aircraft, eight Hunters, and during that time my CPN4 GCA was ordered to go to West Raynham, and for their old, old the original, old fashioned and less efficient radar, GCA MPN1 was ordered back to me, so it was a swap and because the CNC had ordered the – he didn’t want his fighters by the squadrons without the best GCA, never mind about the fact that we, at Marham, were the master diversion airfield and took in, eventually it was turned round and realised what a mistake that was, but it was too late. Because they — what happened was that CPN4 GCA needed a contract with OTA Engineering at Kings Lynn to rebore them and keep them in decent condition. They’re a higher revving diesel electric generator sets because you couldn’t use mains, UK mains. It was American equipment requiring sixty cycles instead of fifty cycles.
CB: Yeah.
VS: And so, you had to run with the diesel electric generator sets until somebody came up with transformers and so they went, the equipment at, was now at Raynham, needed to go in for an overhaul, because they were wearing out again and on that day, they didn’t have a GCA, and they the weather was clamping, said to be clamping, but they still allowed them to go up and actually do their exercise in the water beach area. And then they came back and manning the control tower was acting wing commander flying, wing commander flying proper was out shopping with his wife, and he eventually ordered them to be let down [clears throat], knowing that Marham must be clamping exactly the same as Raynham, they were only ten miles away. Cloud was nearly on the deck and it was by the time the actual happening occurred [clears throat], and so he allowed them to come down, which is absolutely the worst thing you could do, unless you are sure of being able to land them because they didn’t have enough fuel to go anywhere else. So they let down and they were all diverted to Marham, ten miles away, with PEs around the airfield at Marham, going out to ten miles. So we couldn’t see the aircraft, whereas the other air, GCA, he could raise the antenna to get rid of the ground returns and still see the aircraft and we could have done something about it. But even then, it would have been too late, because as these were let down and in touch with Marham, Marham was sending them down wind for the GCA and they were running out of fuel, and four went in. The squadron leader on the course from Hong Kong with thirteen way in, underneath the cloud about twelve miles away on runway 24, and he went in to the deck and four others managed to, well should have been, three others managed to just stick their nose down and hope that they would see the ground before they hit the ground, and they managed to get in, and the others bailed out and that was the calamity of the day. And, of course, the board of enquiry came along very quickly, all group captains and the air vice marshal president [clears throat], I was OC to GCA and fortunately for me, which gave me a freehand, I wasn’t on duty, so I was confronted with this very quickly after it happening, and I was in a married quarter on the station [coughs], and Scottie the SATCO was a good one as well, and we told the truth as we saw it from Marham’s view point, even then. The following morning, I had a group captain come along from the board of enquiry before they actually left, having a look at our radar and that, and wanted to know what I thought of things. Pretty pictures made of the radar to take to the board of enquiry when I was interviewed, and I remember being asked [laughs] the question, and I was in the middle of answering it and one of the group captains didn’t like my answer, he asked the president whether he could change the wording of the question and he allowed him to do so and they said, would you carry on, and I said, ‘no way sir, the question’s been changed, the answer is totally different and so I wish the record to be expunged’, and so he agreed. The group captain said, ‘no, no, no’. Thank goodness the president was can, canny and realised what was happening and it was expunged and the truth was told, and a few people got black marks on that one but it, it was terrible, terrible management, terrible story for the Air Force.
CB: The, the squadron commander, the squadron leader, he stayed in his aircraft did he, he didn’t get out?
VS: Oh no, that’s right he went straight in, ‘cause he was floating underneath and when you make the mistake at that speed, if you touch the deck, you’re in.
CB: But he didn’t bang out, because he didn’t have a zero zero seat?
VS: No.
CB: And what happened to the planes that – where they did eject?
VS: They, they got away with it.
CB: The aircraft didn’t hit anything?
VS: No, fields, that’s right. Funnily enough, it turned out that, sorry, it’s ok, thank you, it turned out as, my pilot, Wiggins, had a daughter, or a sister, no a sister, had a sister who was married to a naval fleet air arm, funnily enough, strangely enough, she was married to the fleet air arm pilot that was on this course, the fighter leaders course and he was one of those that bailed out over Marham, and he told me in this house, when he visited for the first time, that he had no alternative to stick his nose down and hover as much as he could, and being directed to pull up rather sharply, which he did when he could see the ground. He was very nearly going in and he pulled up, screamed up high, ran out of fuel, bailed out, he got away with it.
CB: Amazing.
VS: He’s still alive now, at Chelmsford. Another story.
CB: Yes.
VS: Terrible story for the Air Force. I think it, I don’t think that will be on record [laughs]
CB: What happened in the aftermath of that?
VS: Well, one or two people had black marks, didn’t they?
CB: I was, I was thinking on equipment. Did they get proper equipment for both airfields then?
VS: Sorry.
CB: Did they get proper equipment for both airfields then?
VS: Oh yes.
CB: ‘Cause, if it had, if Marham had still got its CPN4, they could of got in on a GCA.
VS: No.
CB: Oh they couldn’t?
VS: No. The old one might have done, but their fuel was so short that they were running out as they were coming into Marham strip range. As I said to you, one was going down wind and he ran out so maybe the odd one or two on a thimble full of petrol might have been taken in, because with the CPN4, he would raise the antenna and obliterate a lot of the PEs, enough to see the aircraft to be able to take them into your precision talk down.
CB: The PEs being the ground returns?
VS: That right.
CB: Right. OK. We’ll pause there for a mo.
VS: You going to leave that in? Now, where are we?
CB: Right, so we’ve just done about the disaster at Marham. So what happened after that?
VS: Well.
CB: Where did you go?
VS: Soon after that, that’s right, we had, we had the Suez do.
CB: 1956.
VS: Fifty-six. And there I was on duty at night time, on the radar at Marham, got a phone call from Bomber Command, oh dear, great friend of mine, the names gone, anyway, they said ‘Vic, you’re urgently required at Malta, because no one knows quite how to fix the new MPN11 GCA that’s been delivered and been sited, but they’re not too sure about whether it’s been sited correctly and frightened that it might well break down, because its closer to the runway than the minimum distance laid down in the manual’ [coughs]. And so there I am, at one o’clock in the morning, in the married quarter, delving into my camphor chest for my car key and that, at eight o’clock, I was in a dispersal quite close to my married quarter in a Canberra, heading for Malta. Landed there at twelve o’clock, met up with my dear old SATCO, who’d been sent out earlier on, and he showed me around and had a quick, quick half and a sandwich and went out with CO Wright, checking the siting and the reflectors on the touchdown point approach and so on. And so managed to satisfy myself on one or two things, and it was a silly old type of war because civil aircraft was still landing and taking off there. The airlines and I talked a number of those down to prove that everything was ok and was able to report to the, dear old station commander at Marham, who was out there as the, the actual sortie commander, lovely fella, forgotten his name now. Anyway [clears throat], so went back to the Mess and had a meal, and off go seventy, four engine, no seventy aircraft, about forty, forty Avro Canberras and a smaller number of Valiants. Right. Valiants were just coming into use at RAF Marham at that stage. Thank you. And never the twain shall meet on the let down system, one catches up the other because they are not the same speeds for letdown. Anyway –
CB: This is the first of the V Bombers?
VS: Yes. So the seventy came back from a hit on Cairo and there again, Cairo was still open to civil aircraft. What a crazy war that was. Anyway, they came back and there was an absolute terrible thunder storm, and Scottie had devised a scheme, which was good, and he worked it good. He was the actual marshaller on radio and he was on a different frequency to me, on this three position GCA, and so I had two chaps that are detailed for actually marshalling and sequencing them, separating them and feeding into my own talk down, and he was fortunate that the actual returns, cloud returns, on our search part of our radar were in such a position that it helped. It didn’t hinder too much because that one was catching up with another, they went round the cloud and that showing on the search screen and that marshalling and then managed to sequence them very well, it worked very well . Forty went down the chute to me, Scottie put forty down to me and thirty to Hal Far, the naval base there and forty, they had a CPN4 GCA, so they were ok as well, and they all come, got down. But they were jolly lucky because the control tower didn’t see the aircraft until they were, just before landing.
CB: This is at Luqa? This is at Luqa?
VS: At Luqa.
CB: Yes. Right, we’ll pause there for a mo.
VS: [unclear] we were good, and -
CB: At Marham?
VS: Yes, at Marham. We were there, the weather was blooming awful and that night was our ball, the officers Mess ball and so I knew that we wouldn’t be very popular, the situation at Marham wouldn’t be very popular to have to get the admin side and all that all sorted out before two loads of aircraft with passengers, full of passengers.
CB: Civilian aircraft, yeah.
VS: Yes, civilian aircraft. So getting the customs in and that, and transport and all this sort of a thing, with a ball coming up and it was laughable afterwards, but it was serious stuff and the thing I had to impress on both pilots, and they took this very well, was that we were [pause] we, we were aviation red they called it, our airfield was, the — Marham was occupied by the Americans for a time. Then we took it back again and we had a funnel of aviation red lights, a funnel. In the meantime, others had progressed to other approach lighting and that lighting was said to line and bar, so I had to impress on these two airline pilots, if you see a light, don’t dive for it.
CB: When you —
VS: They’re either left of you or right of you, dependent where you are in relation to the centre line. It is not centre line and bar, it’s a funnel, a funnel of lights, they’d be either side of you and that’s where you want them, so don’t start diving for your lights because you’d be going away and in trouble. So follow my instruction, so I did that in the briefing I had before, and they took it and I talked them right down to touch down, but not very popular with the administrators [laughing] and all those, although all had a good laugh in the end. With all the passengers to deal with.
CB: So Marham was actually a master airfield, which it still is.
VS: Definitely, yeah.
CB: Was it used for any other airline emergencies?
VS: Well, yes, no doubt but I don’t recall them, not in my time. That’s the one I recall.
CB: Yes.
VS: Obviously, yes.
CB: When was that? It was in the fifties again?
VS: Yeah.
CB: Before fifty-six?
VS: I, I reckon that was, I had — in a married quarter at Marham and my wife caught TB, and she went into a sanatorium in [pause] fifty-four, fifty-five, she was there for fifteen months and it was quite a, a traumatic fifteen months, because I had two young children. So my mother and father came up from Worthing, who were quite old then, to keep house and I had a batman and given extra help and it worked very well indeed, and so I had worked extra shifts during the week day in order to have weekends off to get to see the wife. Now where is this leading? You asked me what?
CB: No, it was just when that was? So we know that.
VS: When that was, yes.
CB: Yes.
VS: So that was, that must have been around about early part of fifty-six
VS: Because it was soon after that that I was whipped out to Malta.
CB: Because Suez was fifty-six. After that where, where were you posted?
VS: Oh excuse me, I’ve got cramp. Where did I go? I went somewhere that I wasn’t very happy about, but because I was GD, general duties, they’d never had one on, on, the, the calibration flight for radar and they wanted me to be the first one. So I was there for about a year, flying around in [unclear] and Canberra’s and being dropped off and jumping into radar positions and control towers and whatever, checking out their radar efficiency.
CB: Where was your parent unit?
VS: Watton, sorry.
CB: Watton, yes.
VS: Watton and — so I had, I was asked later on by air vice marshal [coughs] in charge of Task Force Grapple in London, how many hours flying I had had in the last year, and when I told him three hundred and seventy hours, he very nearly fell off his chair [laughs], and that was through chasing round in aircraft, calibrating radars and so I was a year on that and I was promoted, and I joined Task Force Grapple as a GATCO SATCO, and I was then in the underground vaults where Churchill was at Whitehall, we didn’t see daylight until we came up again during the day. Ferreting through files and what happened with previous testing , nuclear testing, I forget which went on and mainly in Australia before then, but there was one, one other, one initial operation that on Christmas Island called X-ray, in late, late, late, late, late fifty-seven or was it fifty-eight, I don’t know [pause] no, late fifty-seven because it was January fifty-eight, no hang on, hang on, fifty-six, fifty-seven, yes it was it was January fifty-eight when I joined them, that’s right, when I joined Task Force Grapple in London as SATCO GATCO. And I — going through files and that, and I was there for two or three days and along came the security officer, I think it was more like ten days, and asked if I’d been passed for top secret documents. I said, ‘no, no’, and there I was, with top secret documents in front of me. And so I thought that, that was a terrific check, you know, that says — Have you ever gone through that?
CB: Positive vetting?
VS: Yes, yes.
CB: Yeah.
VS: That, it, it’s just about three, three sheets together isn’t it? Lead to another, now if you’ve said something here and its put in another way, the other side, it shows up that you’ve told an untruth or —
CB: Yeah, yeah that you’re a fraud.
VS: Or a mistake. Yes, that’s right. It’s a very important check, there’s no doubt about that. Of course, there are some tricky people that will get away with it.
CB: Yeah
VS: But that was quite an experience because I had to ferret out what was there, all there on the air traffic control side, and did I need anything else, and if you wanted something to be sent out there for the first operation, which was for me Yankee, which was the first actual H-bomb test.
CB: Right
VS: The others were not H-bomb. And that was called Yankee, the 1st of April, so I had to get out there fairly early, but I had to get myself briefed, self briefed in London headquarters. Once out there, what did I need, and if I needed anything, get it on the ship because it would cost a fortune to send it out by air. It’s halfway round world, ten thousand miles. And so this went on and I, I went out there. I suppose from about February, March, I should think, late Feb, and gave me time to sort it, myself out from then on, on air traffic control before the first big one.
CB: We’re talking about nuclear weapon testing, Operation Grapple.
VS: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah [clears throat]. Oh I call him Dave. Air vice marshal was the chief in charge of that and he was the one that very nearly fell off his seat when he asked me the question, how many miles, how many air miles have you got in, and I said three hundred and seventy odd hours [unclear], three hundred and seventy hours and he fell off his chair. He— later on I met quite briefly at some special event attended by the Queen on parade. At, at Marham, I wasn’t there, I was, I think I was retired. Anyway, yes I was, I was retired but Grandy was there in a wheelchair, poor old chap, yes he was, he wasn’t too good. Anyway coming, coming back now.
CB: So we’ve gone through Grapple, then where did you go?
VS: Grapple, it would be, I, it was then, arghh, came back to London we were asked to say, yes we had Yankee and we had Mike, and Mike had two air drops and two balloon drops and that was the end. We came back, the Prime Minister had said we’re stopping all nuclear testing, that’s from the 1st of April, the 1st of October fifty, fifty-eight, that’s right. And so we came back, we all [unclear] in the specialisation to write a paper saying what should happen to our equipment we left there, bearing in mind, we might go, want to go back later but not at the moment and all that sort of thing. So myself and the group, navigation officer finished that and they were happy for us, just whilst, bide our time till we were posted. So where shall we go, Hank and myself. I said well what about the Parliament, I’ve never been in, in Parliament and I want to see something. So we went in and we asked a policeman what to do to get in, and he said, well you go over there, you fill up a [unclear] chit and if your member of Parliament is in the house, they’ll come out and take you in to the, this thing, the Strangers Gallery. So this we did and I said to Hank,’ I don’t know my MP, for goodness sake, I’ve got a house in [unclear] I don’t know the MP’, I said, ‘well what, what are you going to put down’, he said. Well it was the big chubby lady MP, I’ll think of it in a moment, she was a follower of amateur boxing and that sort of thing, funny remembering that.
PP: Bessie Braddock.
VS: That’s right, Bessie Braddock. You, we give him a clue and he comes up with the answers, there you are. And so Bessie Braddock came out and took us into this thing. I’m in Committee I’ve got to go, all of us are in Committee I’ve got to go an I’ll come back later on. And she did, dear old soul, anyway whilst we were there, in came Churchill, chubby faced, red complexion and of course, it was his latter few years, near his death really.
CB: Um.
VS: It was lovely to see. Lovely to see. And so what happened then? Yes. So then, ‘cause I was well known as being the radar boy I was posted to [pause] posted to the CNATS, National Air Traffic Services which was combined joint civil military headquarters for the whole base.
CB: West Drayton?
VS: No, no at [pause] London, London, Shell House at The Strand, just at the back near Charing Cross Station.
VS: And I was [clears throat] C Ops 4, one down from a group captain, in charge of all the radar, area radar organisations. Now I think I’ve got that wrong. I knew there was something wrong. Before I went there, that, that comes out that later on. From the Task Force Grapple, I went on the area radar trials at London Airport, which was pre setting up an area radar service for air traffic control right across the whole of the UK, and it was radar that was used by 11 Group to control the aircraft on flights, flight paths over London for the Queen and various special occasions, and we, we took [coughs] this radar and did trials to, the whole essence behind it was that Group Captain Robinson, who was one of the leading lights of the air traffic control, managed to get a D Pack agreement with civil aviation that we could take aircraft through airways structure in this county on radar, maintaining a certain separation, without reference to civil controllers and that was a break through because that was essential, because at that time, the airways structure dropped, it increased their top limit of an airway became twenty-five thousand instead of eleven thousand and it was due to the introduction of the Comet. They raised the height of the airways.
CB: Right.
VS: And so our fighters couldn’t get through quickly unless something was done and done quickly. Because my experience showed that the GCI controllers were jolly good at looking, bringing two aircraft together, but they weren’t at separating them, they weren’t very good at that and they, they didn’t really keep an accurate line, on a, of the whereabouts of airways, they were very rough on radar on that one, between you and I.
CB: Um.
VS: Anyway that’s what proved that my trials. I was then sent down to Sopley to set up a radar service, that’s near Christchurch in Bournemouth, and the old GCI station which was still operating, so I had to pinch radar consoles from the GCI, they were all very reasonable about it and eventually took over the whole station and modified it to my requirements, and at the same time one was being, had been taken over at Hack Green near, in Cheshire and, of course, the, the [unclear] of radar on London airport, which was the start of things trials that was Heathrow, so we had three area radars covering the Southern part of the airways structures.
CB: Um.
VS: As good start. And I was taking aircraft off from [pause], what was the beacon and, in France and the French coast and was taking them off Comets, taking them off from there and straightening and aligning them. That was one of the first indications of, to our people that it was worthwhile. And taking the aircraft through airways and they could see how good that was.
CB: And the airways were amber 1 and amber 25?
VS: That right, green 1, amber 1.
CB: Amber 25?
VS: Yeah.
VS: So that expanded all over the country.
CB: Right. Then what?
VS: So I left, I left, left there, I was posted to Heckle at NATO, which was field headquarters for the area radar field system at Stanmore, and a big country house outside Stanmore, RAF Stanmore [coughs], and there I was, the operations man and planning, helping to plan radar units throughout the country. In other words, taking old GCI sites or getting in on the sites already there whilst they were still operating and we took over three type eighty-two radar stations at Lindholme, Watton and North Luffenham.
CB: North Luffenham.
VS: Yeah. And so that was the situation. It was then that no one had my experience, so I was goaded to going to Singapore in Christmas of [coughs]of sixty-three and — to the, as CO of the air traffic control centre and building into that an 80CRU, in other words a radar unit, area radar unit and helping the civil aviation authority, the chief to set up and join me, in the radar consoles and set up in an operations, joint operations room. That took me something like eighteen months, and I came back as a wing commander and posted to take over one of the units I’d planned, mainly at North Luffenham.
CB: That was your last posting was it?
VS: No [laughs] then [coughs] I was posted to national air traffic services, that I went into too early with you, at Shell, Shell House, Shell Mex House no Shell House, The Strand and I was there as the C Ops 4 in charge of the military side of area radar and, and then I was posted back to NATO for a short period and then back again to C Ops 4 at, that’s now retired.
CB: When did you retire?
VS: It was really, well officially, early seventy-seven.
CB: OK. I think we’ve done really well. Thank you very much.
VS: [laughs]
CB: That’s really good, getting up to your retirement, but when was it first possible to keep tabs on the movements of aircraft over the whole of the UK on radar?
VS: Radar in a limited form was just a matter of thrashing on a screen to the layman. That was what [unclear] had in wartime during the Battle of Britain. It then became a precision, a cathode ray tube on which targets were shown, as blips that moved. And, so you can say that the first time that came in wasn’t for air traffic control it was for GCI, Ground Control approach.
CB: Interception.
VS: Interception rather. So it wasn’t until around about [long pause] the seventies, sixty-eight onwards or something like that.
CB: Um.
VS: That we, at ATCR, ATCRU, air traffic control side had access to some of the GCI radars for air traffic control purposes. It was only then that we really had, say three quarters of cover of the, the UK.
CB: I was thinking of when was it possible from the military perspective?
VS: Um.
CB: To watch the whole of the country?
VS: Never, never. And we’ve never had that and it’s possible we’re not completely covered now, we’re not far off it, we’re not far off it. We, we set up, set up a unit at Bishops Court in Northern Ireland, to try and cover over that side, the western side, but there’s always an area where you can’t see much.
CB: Um.
VS: There always is, there always will be with radar.
CB: OK. [bleep] We’re just going to do a few extra items for Wing Commander Stapley of Dersingham about his civilian activities after leaving the RAF.
VS: Quickly, I hope.
CB: So after you retired, Victor, from the Royal Air Force, you’ve done a lot of other things so what are they?
VS: Well I was taking stock to see the best thing for me to do and I thought in terms of, do I stay at Penn where I was living, which was a nice village but if I do, what do I do and I thought I’d be living on the golf course. And I thought that’s no good, I’d just taken up golf and I didn’t like it all very much and I always said I wouldn’t take up golf until I’d stopped playing cricket and of course, it was too late to take up golf. So I decided to move away, and we had the daughter down in Colchester and the son up at Newcastle, so we worked our way north from Colchester and came up with a house at the village of Ringstead, and that was in mid seventy-seven. And took over this old house and I was working on it when the, I was approached by the local representative of the council, would I put up at the next election of April seventy-nine for the District Council, not the Parish Council but that it included to be on the Parish Council as well, but the main thing was the West Norfolk Council was a District Council. And I thought, well that’s interesting because basically, I’d been a bit of a politician for a long, long time now, I’d been on NATs twice and having to go to see the Secretary of State for different things to do with military money, and I thought, well, yes, I think that’s a good thing, I’ll have a go. I was in the middle of replenishing, renewing various things on this country mansion, but I still took it up and I won and I, it was in the days of Thatcher taking office as well on the, in April seventy-nine and within a couple of years, I was chairman of housing, I was chairman of housing for about eight years out of the twelve years I was on the Council. I ended up as mayor of West Norfolk in my last year of 1990 to ninety-one, April to April, and retired as West Norfolk, West Norfolk mayor, mayor of West Norfolk. I then left the Council within months they made me a, an honorary alderman of the borough and here I have and had another decoration to a certain extent, I’m allowed to do different things within the borough, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Like a freedom of the borough. The aldermen were extinct, made extinct a long time ago. It’s just an honorary rank of appreciation. Now where did we go? From there, during my period on the Council, I had a doctor approach me from Heacham, I was councillor voted in, in the Heacham District here in Norfolk, and he approached me with regard to setting up a hospice. That was in 1983, whilst I was still on the council, he wanted my help. What I could do for him on the council. This I did, I joined him and I worked from eighty-three to ninety, no 2004, twenty-one years or something like that, as a Director of the hospice and Vice Chairman, I couldn’t take on the chairmanship because I had too much on my plate with other work things. I managed to get somebody to take over as chairman and we worked well together. Then I, when I left the council, also I had one or two organisations coming to me for, would I take over as this or that and the other, and one of course, that was dear to my heart was the chair, President of the local RAF Association, RAFA, Royal Air Force Association and I still am President and every year, I lay on a dinner in April and another dinner in September, and preside over the Battle of Britain memorial services at Tower Gardens in Kings Lynn, and various other aspects like that. The one for the [pause] Burma Star Association, they became extinct here as a branch and we took over that responsibility from them. We promised to do that, we still do that and of course, remembrance services and everything remembrance and such like. In addition being an honorary alderman, I get invited to all functions on the civic side, which are very nice to attend and see everybody again at each year and that is just about it, other than the RAFA. I preside over two dinners a year and also every other year, I lay on a big band concert, RAF the big band at the Corn Exchange at Kings Lynn. And that’s just about it.
CB: I don’t know how you have time to have your meals.
VS: I’ve finished [laughs]
CB: [laughs] Thank you very much indeed.
VS: You’ve, you’ve taken it all way.
CB: Wing Commander Stapley.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Victor Stapley,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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