Interview with Dennis Swains


Interview with Dennis Swains


In 1936, Dennis went to Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, where an Air Training Corps was formed. At seventeen, he got a job with the North British and Mercantile Insurance company. He visited Halton with the Air Training Corps each Sunday, where he learned to fly the Slingsby Primary and the Granau Baby. In 1944, Dennis was called up and trained as an air gunner on Ansons. On the 20th of December 1944, he finished the course and married his fiancée on the 23rd. He then went to the Operational Training Unit at RAF Abingdon, where they crewed up and flew Wellingtons. Dennis describes a three-and-a-half-hour cross-country night run during which they encountered a terrible thunderstorm, and three aircraft were lost. The squadron was then posted to RAF Lindholme to fly Lancasters, but the war ended and they never flew as a crew again. After the war, Dennis went back to his job in insurance.







01:48:46 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is 23rd January 2017. I’m in Aylesbury with Dennis Swains to talk about his experiences in the air force but in life in general. So Dennis, what are the earliest recollections you have of family life?
DS: Um, probably when I was about four, I can’t remember anything prior to that. I remember misbehaving and being told off for whatever I was doing. That’s about my earliest recollection I think. Of course, I started school at what was St Georges or Black Horse Bridge School as we knew it in Amersham. And I was there until taking the 11+, or whatever they called it in those days, and I managed to get a place at Amersham Grammar School, Dr Challoner’s grammar school. But because I only got the scholarship in the second year I was then amongst the older ones in the class and it was twelve when I joined them and that was 1936, September, left in July 1941 when I was seventeen. There were a lot of firms evacuated to the Chilterns area because of wartime bombing and there were several insurance companies. And we had a lodger. He was actually from the railway clearing house, who were also evacuated but through him and sundry others I got a job with an insurance company at Newland Park, Chalfont St Giles. It was an old Scottish company, The North British and Mercantile, and I was with them for three and half years, so until May ’44. My father was a goods clerk on the Met Great Central railway and he looked after the goods work at Great Missenden and Amersham and he was also, of course, a relief booking office clerk and he would work at any of the stations between Rickmansworth and Aylesbury, if someone was away poorly, that sort of thing. And my Mother, who at sixteen I think, no fourteen it would have been, she joined the same railway company and she was a booking office clerk at Little Chalfont station and of course somewhere down the line they met. And they married in 1923, I was born in 1924. When I left school I joined the North British and Mercantile, I was placed in their accounts department and I served in accounts for the rest of my career with various insurance companies. Ones who took us over subsequently and right up until the time when I retired at fifty-nine and three quarters then, because once more there was a takeover bid and they offered full retirement for anyone over fifty-five, so I took it and retired then. Going back to school days, at Challoner’s, in 1941 the Air Training Corps was formed, a squadron was formed at Amersham Grammar School and from there I was recommended to go to Oxford with the possibility of a short term degree course, which would have resulted in me entering the air force a year later as a pilot officer. But unfortunately my mathematics was not of a high enough standard. I’d chosen to take other subjects at ‘O’ Level, and just to do ordinary maths. I didn’t touch trig and I didn’t touch calculus and as such I just returned to ordinary civil occupation again attending the Air Training Corps. During those years, ’41 to ’44 we visited Halton each Sunday and joined the gliding school there each Sunday where I learned to fly the gliders, the Slingsby Primary and the Grunau Baby. We had a German more advanced aircraft, plus the Slingsby dual-controlled glider with a sixty foot wing span. After graduating from the Primary we were allowed to do, only short hops, the width of the aerodrome. The rules were that you weren’t allowed to go outside the aerodrome perimeter. But our gliding instructor who had flown gliders in international competitions before the War, if a sixty foot wing span job could get enough height from its launch he would probably take us across to the hills, above Wendover Woods, and had up to twenty minutes soaring there before we went back and landed. It was quite a game, landing amongst all the other aircraft that were taking off. They had the Cierva autogyros there before the War, and they were practising. Well, it wasn’t quite a vertical take off, it was a short run until they clawed their way into the air. But they could land, of course, almost vertically. And other aircraft there were Ansons, Oxfords, Percival Q6 , Tiger Moths all doing their various circuits and bumps, or going off somewhere else. And it was quite a game getting the gliders along the edge of the aerodrome where we were allowed to take off and land but it was quite often fun if one of the instructors landed the aircraft away from the strip that we were supposed to stay on. That was good fun of course. Then in 1944 I got my call up papers. I was then nineteen and three quarters, somewhere my name had slipped through the net, and instead of being called at eighteen and a quarter it was a year and a half later that I actually joined the air force and found myself one of the oldest recruits joining at the time. During those three years, ’41 to ’44, there was always the thought that one day you were going to get called up and having served in the Air Training Corps and not wishing particularly to go into the navy or the army, to volunteer for the air force was the obvious thing to do. And that must have been noted somewhere in the records because I was called up and went into the air force in the Spring of ’44 and we travelled up to Scarborough to the Initial Training Wing. I met a chap on Kings Cross station with the same looking cardboard suitcase I had. Ernie Smale he was from Tintagel in Cornwall. And we stuck together until the best part of the way through OTU. And as his name began with an ‘S’ as mine did, we seemed to be doing things together in that first stage. We were placed in the Manor Hotel, in St Nicholas Square at Scarborough on the opposite side of the square to the Grand Hotel, which was the RAF headquarters. We fed in the Grand Hotel, the barber’s shop was in the Grand Hotel, so we were continually criss-crossing St Nicholas Square. In entry to St Nicholas Square on our first Friday it was jobs night. I was given a pot of white paint and a one inch brush and shown the stairs for the main entrance and was told to ‘paint the white line’ or ‘renew the white line’ down the side of these stairs. And that was my Friday evening job. And when I’d finished I said to the corporal, ‘I’ve done that now Corp.’ ‘Have you my son?’ He said. And he got out a ruler and he measured the width of the paint. And he said, ‘Two and a half inches, it should only be two inches.’ He said. ‘Here’s a bottle of turps and a rag’ And so my job wasn’t complete I then had to take the width of the paint down to the required two inches. [laughter] I’d straightened it up by eye, and thought it looked better straight ,but the rule was the rule and that was that. On our first night in the Manor Hotel, if you, if the room measured seventy-two square feet there was one person in it. If it measured seventy-five square feet the extra three square feet meant you could have somebody else so there were two in a room that size. And, of course, having dumped our civvy clothes we were handed the papers that we’d got to sign we gathered in one chap’s room. And the windowsills were very recessed and deep and one chap sat well sort of half over the sink on the windowsill. And we chatted and then we decided we’d better fill in the paperwork so bit by bit we got out of the room. And he got down off the windowsill but unfortunately he brought the sink with him. So there we were on our first night in the air force, in someone’s room, with the sink at forty-five degrees to the wall and everyone expecting that we were all going to be on a charge the following morning for damaging Her Majesty’s, His Majesty’s property. But Smithy, Smithy was one of these blokes who took charge straight away. He had us scouring the hotel to see if there was anything we could find that might help. One chap came back with a very ancient broomstick and it was found that with a bit of careful work if it was cut in half it would just prop the sink up again. And so they cut the broomstick in half with a very old penknife. It was a terrible job. But they wedged these two bits of broomstick underneath the sink and it leaned back against the wall to where it was originally. With picking up bits of plaster that had come out and mixing it with toothpaste they filled up the gaps around the tiles on the windowsill, they scraped the broomsticks absolutely clean with this penknife and they propped up the sink. And six weeks later when we left Scarborough those two broom handles were still holding up the sink and no-one had ever noticed. We often wonder whether they’re still there today. But that was probably our biggest worry. We then of course, learned to march. We learned PT on the south shore at Scarborough. There was an area that was surrounded by barbed wire entanglements with a gate through the middle and that’s where we did our PT. And although it was wartime there were a lot of Yorkshire people still managed to have holidays. They would come and watch us and stand round the outside of the barbed wire entanglement and they would call out different commands to what the PTI gave us. And if we followed their commands instead of his there was trouble. But it happened every time we were down there. There were always people standing there to watch and to laugh when we did things wrongly. We also had to learn how to march. We got mixed up in a Wings for Victory parade and we had to march with army and navy units right through the town of Scarborough. And we had to cross the bridge over Happy Valley, which is still there. And they insisted that we broke step. And when you’ve spent about three weeks doing nothing but marching, to break step is the hardest thing. But of course the problem was that if everyone marched across the bridge the vibrations would probably have had it down. We did manage to break step but it was probably one of the hardest things we’d done in those days. Then towards the end of the six weeks we had aptitude tests. They were similar to the 11+ but a bit more adult. But it was a question of ticking boxes and we all thought that this was a piece of cake. Some of us had done quite a bit of flying. Some of us had even, you know, flown solo in gliders and things like that. Only low hops admittedly but we all thought we were good for pilot. Or if not pilot, then pilot navigator or bomb aimer. And these tests were run by WAAF officers, with WAAF NCO’s. And after all the results had gone in the chief WAAF saw us in the lecture hall. [telephone ringing] Well the WAAF officer who’d been in charge of all this read out our names and what category we were in. And S for Swains is fairly well down the alphabet so we were all saying ‘Oh well, you know we’ll be alright when we get down there.’ And of course when it was read out ‘Swains, air gunner. Smale, air gunner.’ There were cheers that went up from some of the lads who’d, you know, listen to us saying ‘Well, we’ve done so much, we’re almost certain to be pilots.’ But we weren’t, and it came as a blow, but it was obvious later on that it was service requirements. The losses of aircraft, and this was now, although we didn’t know it then, we were in the last year of the War, just. And when you look at the losses, how they multiplied, year by year, from 1939 through to 1944, and later of course when you see the losses that there were between ’44 and the close of hostilities in ’45. They were losing aircraft at a fantastic rate in that last year, not really knowing that the Germans had perfected upwards firing cannons on their fighters.
CB: Um.
DS: It was a long while before the RAF realised it was not just anti-aircraft fire that was causing these things to explode it was fighter aircraft. So, obviously by that time, and realising that it’s two gunners to every aircraft then I suppose it’s not surprising that eighty of us were considered to be gunners. Of the odd twenty I think six made pilot navigator bomb aimer and the rest were radio operators and we don’t really know how many of the six survived. The eighty of us were sent off to Bridgnorth, I think the RAF were quite clever with their psychology. We wouldn’t, we were only youngsters, just joined the air force. We weren’t going to argue with WAAF officers as to why we’d all been made air gunners, we accepted it. And we accepted it of course with the warning that we could change our category then we could re-muster to a ground crew if we wished. But if we did it from this point forward at any stage our records would be marked ‘lack of moral fibre.’ Cowardice. And we were faced with that. I think, you know, we weren’t terribly happy about going for air gunners but there again we weren’t going to go home and tell our parents and friends ‘Oh well, we’ve chucked it in.’ We’d always said that we were going to fly, so we’d fly. So we stuck it and we went onto Bridgnorth which was Elementary Air Gunner School. And there, of course, it was, we came into contact with the Browning 303 machine gun. And amongst the other things we had to do was to learn to strip it down to its basic parts and to reassemble it. And having done that and learned it in daylight we had to do it in pitch darkness. And it had many, many, intrinsic parts. I remember there was a thing called a rear sear retainer keeper. And if you’ve got a rear sear retainer keeper, you’d got a rear sear retainer and if you’d got a rear sear retainer there must be a rear sear somewhere. And they were all parts of the breech block in a Browning 303. And we learned all about that. We did clay pigeon shooting which taught us trajectory, to aim ahead of the clay so that by the time our shot reached the same spot that the clay was, that was success. If you aimed too far away then you were a miss. And clay pigeon shooting was quite good fun. One of the things you learned very quickly on the first day was that the recoil from a shotgun was worse than a recoil from a 303 rifle. And we all finished up with badly bruised shoulders. We did rifle shooting as well, we did grenade throwing. We were told of the example where a chap had thrown the grenade and he’d not thrown it forwards, it went upwards, hovered above them and then dropped at the feet of the RAF Regiment sergeant. And the other two students in the pit ran along the trench as fast as they could away from where this hand grenade had fallen. And the sergeant from the RAF Regiment grabbed a sandbag off of the bank, put it on the top of the hand grenade and stood on it, and took all the shrapnel in his boots and they got away with it. But we were then taught to make absolutely certain that when we threw a grenade it went forwards over the bank and exploded where there was no problem with the bits hitting us. There was no flying of course at Bridgnorth, so we hadn’t at that time come into contact with the actual turrets. But we had to learn exactly how to manage a machine gun under all climatic conditions. How to clean it, oil it and look after it. And after due time there the next move was to Dalcross, No2 Air Gunnery School, at what is now Inverness Airport. So on the 11th of August 1944, which was my twentieth birthday we travelled up to Dalcross. Now when we arrived at Dalcross the position had been the same as at Elementary Air Gunner School, they weren’t ready for us. And for three weeks at Bridgnorth we’d done navigation walks, or cross country runs and all sorts of things. At Dalcross we were put onto potato picking with the Italian prisoners of war. And we picked potatoes and we followed the action of the Italian prisoners of war in not picking the tiny ones. Until just before we’d finished this three week stand-off they announced that whoever was in charge of the RAF allotments was inspecting the gardens and would be arriving the following day. We were handed buckets and we picked up all the tiny potatoes, took them across the road, tipped them into the Moray Firth and they were going up and down with the tide for days. And from such events as that wars are won. Much to our amusement really. Then we started the actual course. We were taken out on one of the early nights to be shown what pyrotechnics looked like. And we saw single star reds, double star reds and greens and yellows for the colours of the day. And the colours of the day were changed every day and in some cases every twelve hours. And I believe during the Battle of Britain it was as much as every six hours they changed the colours of the day by which an aircraft could identify itself by firing one of these Very cartridges. And we saw a demonstration of each of those and then the sergeant in charge showed us what was the twenty eight star signal rocket. And this was aimed from flying control to explode exactly six hundred feet above the aerodrome and was to guide in aircraft that were coming in, in exceptional weather. They’d stuck this thing in the ground and it was lit with another pyrotechnic called a ‘port fire’. Touched the fuse at the bottom of the rocket and it fizzed. And he said ‘Now this will reach about five hundred feet.’ He said, ‘And burst into twenty eight stars.’ And it was also used as a guide, to get aircraft to see where the aerodrome was if visibility was very bad. And the thing fizzed, and it fizzed, and it fizzed. And he said, ‘It’ll rise to five hundred feet.’ But it exploded on the ground, and there were twenty eight stars all curled up and fell on the crowd that was gathering round, one chap had to get a new overcoat because one of the stars burned its way right the way through his collar. So that was our introduction to pyrotechnics. And we were then taken to [Ardagh?] which is on the Moray Firth, an army place, and they had some turrets on the beach. And the sergeant who took us down there said ‘We’re going to show you what tracer bullets look like.’ He said. ‘First of all they’ll be on in ten will be day tracer, and that’ll be very bright.’ He said, ‘Then we’ll have one in ten night tracer, which is not so bright.’ And he said then ‘Amidst them all there will be other tracer bullets put.’ And he climbed into the turret and he fired this belt of ammunition out into the Moray Firth. And it looked, yes there was the night, the day tracer which was extremely bright and the night tracer went off. And we thought ‘Oh well, he’ll stop in a minute and we shall see another burst of fire.’ The chap suddenly bailed out of the turret backwards and the turret went on firing, and the bullets arced out onto the Moray Firth until the barrels got so hot and the guns stopped firing. And he finished up in trouble because he should have, once he got runaway guns, knocked up the covers on the Browning. And it was an easy thing to do. There was a catch on the side of the lid, you just lifted it up, the lid flew up and the gun stopped firing. But the guns had run on until the barrels bent. And the last two or three bits of ball ammunition came out through the sides of the barrel and there were slits in it about two or three inches long where this hard steel bullet, ball ammunition had come out through the bending of the things and we thought, ‘You know, this is a dangerous business being an air gunner. We haven’t got off the ground yet and we’ve had, been showered with twenty eight star signal rockets and now runaway guns.’ But we were introduced, there were Avro Ansons we were flying and there were Miles Magister which towed a droge about a hundred yards long. And we were sent up three in an aircraft with a pilot, and we took with us two belts of two hundred bullets each which had been dipped onto a coloured paint pad and we then fired, well we had to load the guns in the turret when we were in the air and fire them off at the droges and they would count the paint marks where people had hit the droges once we landed. But the droges were covered in paint smudges anyway. We never knew how they could say accurately how many rounds had actually hit the droges. The pilots were Czechs or Poles and only really knew one word of English and was ‘Why you no fire?’ So whenever we got a jam or a bullet out of the belt not quite in position, ‘Why you no fire?’ And we had to wind the undercarriage up, someone sat beside the pilot on take-off, it was a hundred and twelve turns on that handle between the seats to raise the undercarriage on an Anson. And if you were there fortunately when you were coming down to land, it was still a hundred and twelve turns for the undercarriage came down much easier than when it went up. And that was how we spent our days, we still did quite a bit of clay pigeon shooting. And we were up there when the weather turned bad, there was snow on the ground and we were put out to start clearing the runway and it still went on snowing and we thought ‘Oh this is useless.’ And we heard the sound of an aircraft coming and through the snow there was a little Fairchild Argus came in. And he landed practically without any forward run. It was coming in against the wind and it landed on the grass outside flying control and out of it stepped a lady air transport pilot from the the pilot’s side and from the other side got out her boyfriend, obviously they embraced he went into flying control, she got back in the Fairchild Argus and took off and disappeared into the snowstorm. And when the old man saw what went on there, we were flying within half and hour. He wasn’t going to have some woman fly when he couldn’t. So were soon given up trying to clear snow and the second it was suitable to fly we were flying again. We also had, having met turrets, we had to know all about them. You never knew if you were going to a squadron which had electrically controlled turrets which was the Halifax or whether you would have hydraulic controlled turrets which were the Fraser Nash’s fitted to Lancasters so you had to learn what you could about the turrets. And you weren’t expected to maintain them, that was the ground crews job, but you had to know how to clear stoppages and all sorts of things because once you got into Halifaxes or Lancs the rear turret was fed from sleeves on the side of the fuselage so you could have as much as a thousand pounds, a thousand rounds of ammunition for each gun. On a Lancaster the strips went right the way up past the mid upper turret practically to the wing route so you’d got tons of ammunition. And all these things could jam or go wrong and you had to learn best that you could to clear them. You had your own cocking tool, which was made of aluminium with a T handle at the end of it and a groove that fitted over the bolts on either side of the Browning so that when you got into your aircraft and were ready to fly you could cock the lever so that the guns would then fire when you pressed the trigger. And in fact you can tell the air gunner on the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park in London ‘cause he’s got his cocking tool tucked into his boot, it was the thing you hung onto in grim death because if you lost it well it was a problem to find another. [Exhalation of breath]
CB: Have a break. You had a variety of people clearly different backgrounds but from existing people did you have any people who’d been redirected as a result of LMF?
DS: No, I never knew of anyone who’d been redirected from it. And I didn’t know myself of anyone who ever refused to fly.
CB: How well aware were you as recruits, trainees of the LMF system?
DS: I wouldn’t have known.
CB: What they did to people?
DS: No, I didn’t know. I knew that they were normally stripped of their rank but, and decorations, but I wouldn’t have known what happened to them afterwards, and I never met anyone afterwards who I knew had been reduced to the ranks for that, not at all. So, we’d pretty well finished at Air Gunnery School. We had to do dinghy drill of course which we did in the baths at Inverness. I got caught for going off the highest board. We had to go off the various diving boards and I had a job getting into the Sidcot. It was good if you first of the day, the Sidcots were dry. But once they got soaked they were a job to get into. I missed a bit, there was I faced with the top diving board. I’d never been off the top diving board in my life. It was a case of just shut your eyes and jump. Then we had to turn the dinghy over and climb in, but that was a weekly effort while we were there. Flying was just air flying as we said previously with the Miles Master with its hundred yards of cable weaving above us so we were firing upwards at it. We did some firing at [whaleback?] buoys which were anchored just off the coast so we had a bit of air to, air to ground firing but not much and a lot of it was sitting in turrets in one of the hangars where the walls had been painted white and there were aircraft projected onto them, coming in towards you so you had to aim deflection shots. And there was quite, quite a lot of that too. But we finished the course on the 20th of December and paraded on the 21st having sewn our brand new sergeants stripes on our sleeves and on the greatcoat and set off home on leave. And I travelled down on the only through train to London, the four-twenty out of Inverness, due into Euston about ten o’clock the following morning. From there I journeyed home to Amersham, went down to where my fiancée was living to say hello, and the following morning 23rd of December, we were married in the Free Church at Amersham. I had a fortnights’ leave, we were called back after about ten days, and once again it was catch the only through train from London to Inverness which was the seven-twenty off of Euston, and stopped at most of the main stations on the way north and we picked up people who were coming back off leave and we got into Inverness about ten o’clock, eleven o’clock the following morning and we were told we didn’t have to be back until six-thirty in the evening. And half of [unclear] said ‘Oh, we’ll get on the bus we’ll go back and get a decent billet.’ So we took the bus. Well, a lot of the others stayed on in Inverness. ‘Oh, we’ll have a decent meal and a few beers, we don’t have to be back ‘til six.’ We walked into the guard room, into the, yeah the guard room at Dalcross and the sergeant said ‘Hello, what are you lot doing here?’ We said ‘oh, we’re ninety-four course back sarge from leave.’ ‘Stick around for a bit.’ He said. Disappeared and about twenty minutes later he came back with another fortnights’ leave ticket, a travel voucher and a fortnights’ ration coupons. So we were back on the bus into Inverness and bumped into some of the chaps who’d stayed there. ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ ‘Oh, we’ve got another fortnights leave.’ But they hadn’t got the opportunity then to get back to camp and to get back to Inverness to catch the one and only train, the four-twenty. So, having travelled up in the train from Euston I sat in the same seat, in the same coach, in the same set of rolling stock all the way back from Inverness to Euston once more, with another fortnights’ leave. And that was our goodbye to Scotland. After that we were called to NCOs course at Whitley Bay. And it had been snowing pretty steadily for days, and we arrived at Whitley Bay and there was a foot of snow. We were dumped in houses which had been requisitioned by the air force. We had fifty-six pounds of coal per semi-detached house for a week. It lasted a day. After that everything froze. The pipes froze, the toilets froze. We had to go into the Empress Ballroom, which was our headquarters, if you wanted to use a toilet. Or we were there for meals of course and we were told that we mustn’t use any auxiliary heating. So because we were told we mustn’t everybody did. And we bought little, tiny fire clay discs from Woolworths which had an electric element wound in them. And we had one in the middle of our floor where we were sleeping in one of the rooms in the house plugged in, going merrily all night. But that evening chappie came in with the laundry. And just called out our names and tossed it onto our beds. And one of them was left on someone’s bed and it rolled off during the night and we all woke up choking with smoke. Couldn’t see a thin, flung open the windows and doors. Got the people from upstairs down thinking the place was on fire and it was absolutely freezing within about five minutes. The smoke cleared and we saw that it was one of these little hotplates, the laundry had fallen onto it, half the laundry had gone up in smoke. And we eventually got back to bed, most of us were sleeping in our flying clothing because it was so desperately cold, and in the morning when we woke up to see really what had happened there was a groove in the floorboards where this hotplate had stood and that took a lot of scraping before we got back to what looked like ordinary board again. No-one ever really noticed it at the time but we were there and the weather was so bad that they called the course off and sent us to our next stations which was Operational Training Unit at Abingdon. And I do remember at this NCOs school we were introduced to the pistols. And if you became an officer of course you had a pistol otherwise we were taught how to do pistol shooting. I can remember it was so cold that we were holding the pistols on the range and it was almost impossible to pull the trigger using two fingers while you held, tried to hold the gun steady. It was so desperately cold. Of course, then we moved onto Operational Training Unit and there we were supplied with electrical heated equipment and from that time on we had two kit bags. You could always tell an air gunner ‘cause he had two kit bags. One with his ordinary kit, and one containing his flying clothing, boots, Sidcot, eiderdown suit, long johns, silk underwear and it was a bind having to take two kit bags around with you it really was. One was bad enough but having to take two was tough going. {unclear]
CB: This was the heated clothing?
DS: Heated clothing yes. The jacket which had extensions that came down to your gloves and extensions that ran down your legs. And although your feet could be very hot your knees could be cold because all the clothing was tight by the time you got all your flying clothing on so. They weren’t a hundred per cent effective but.
CB: Um. Just pause there. So when you joined up.
DS: Yes. Only found them of course when we were training. They volunteered and they came in.
CB: Scottish policemen?
DS: Yes. The first time they were allowed. We met them at NCO’s school at Whitley Bay. And the thing I remember about them is we were taken out in a lorry one night, about four miles out of Whitley Bay, given a map and said ‘Now make your way back and capture the Empress Ballroom which was our headquarters. We had a rifle and five rounds of blank ammunition and some of the Scottish policemen had also been sent out on the same thing. Well, they knew more tricks than the criminals I think. They stopped a bus and checked everybody’s identity card on the bus. And if they hadn’t got one they demanded that they appear at the police station within forty-eight hours. They requisitioned the bus and they drove back, dumped the bus in a back street in Whitley Bay, they were back in the billets of course in about half an hour and the rest of us had to struggle through a foot of snow to get back. It was reported in the Newcastle Evening paper the following day that someone had requisitioned a bus, stolen a bus, but I don’t suppose they ever caught up with the ones who had done it. Rogues.
CB: Um. After you finished at Dalcross. I’ll stop now.
DS: Yeah.
CB: What did you do then?
DS: Sorry.
CB: It’s OK.
DS: Well, it was OTU at Abingdon.
CB: Um.
DS: We went to Abingdon. The usual crewing up all brought together in a hangar and told to find yourselves a crew. And my, chap who became my pilot had gathered one or two people around him, he saw me and said ‘Would I like to be his gunner?’ So, I said ‘Yes’ and we formed a crew. He was John Bell, a Scottish baker. The navigator was Geoff Sedgwick, he was a cobbler from Manchester. The bomb aimer was a riveter from Newcastle. The radio operator was Colin Blight, he was a New Zealander who’d trained at Canada and come across the Atlantic. So that was our basic crew. And we stuck like that until we gained a flight engineer later on at heavy con unit. But we were sent to the satellite at Abingdon, Stanton Harcourt, and we did all our flying from there. It was the usual thing once they’d introduced us to the Wellington and our pilot had done sufficient trips on his own, no with a screen pilot rather until he was capable of flying on his own. And then of course all the flights that we did were with him. Cross countries by day and by night. There were also of course separate lectures for whichever category you were in there were things you needed to know. And we did the required series of flights, by day and by night. Until towards the end of the course, which we had had its problems. We lost an engine on a cross country some miles off the tip of Cornwall before we turned north to go up to Chicken Rock and then back to Abingdon. We had coring with oil freezing and stopping lubricating one of the Bristol Hercules properly and we had to feather the propeller because the engine was overheating and was not getting the lubrication. And the operator, wireless operator, sent out a Mayday call which was picked up by rescue people at Plymouth and they directed us back to St Mawgan at Newquay. We had sufficient height, they said that a Wellington would maintain height on one engine, but not a clapped out Operational Training Unit Wellington. We lost height steadily but we still had plenty in hand, landed at St Mawgan. We were met by the little airfield control van, a Hillman, and there was an officer in there who pulled up under the nose of the Wellington and shouted up to Jock, the pilot, who opened his window. ‘Got any bombs on board?’ Jock said ‘Yes.’ So the bloke nearly went mad. ‘Follow me’ he said and drove off across the aerodrome. And we were dumped on the far side of the aerodrome. ‘Open your bomb doors.’ He said. Opened them and we’d got ten twelve and a half pound practice bombs in there of course. So he wasn’t at all happy. But then our Wellington had got all the bombs raised [that it had done?]painted on the pilots window. He didn’t know when we landed that we were only a training aircraft and got these little bombs to drop somewhere. But, we then found that we were on the VIP aerodrome, St Mawgan. It was where the aircraft jumped off for going to Gibraltar and anywhere in the Middle East, and it was all very hush-hush. They tried to keep the aircraft without the engines running before take off as long as possible just start your engines and take off because they never knew if there was anyone watching who would say ‘Well, such and such an aircraft took off at such and such a time’ to someone in France. I mean they did lose aircraft over the Bay of Biscay. They lost the one with Leslie Howard the actor in it coming back from Gibraltar, he was shot down. And they reckon someone saw them taking off at Gibraltar, thought there was someone who looked like Churchill on the aircraft and it was shot out of the sky. So it was a bit hush-hush and it was full of VIP’s and when we had to have lunch in the mess with red tab generals and admirals and goodness knows who having their lunch and one warrant officer and five timid little sergeants sitting there trying to not be seen in the corner you know? So that happened to us there. And having done all that was required at Operational Training Unit we, the CO said ‘I don’t think you’ve got enough night hours in’ he said. ‘You’re going off on a three and a half hour cross country tonight just to make up some hours.’ And we were routed Abingdon, Lands End, Chicken Rock on the Isle of Man and back to Abingdon again. And we took off at dusk. And it had been a very hot day, quite a lot of storm clouds about and we dodged them all the way down to Lands End because flying westwards, although we took off at dusk, the sort of dusk went with us westwards and we could still see pretty well all these clouds built up and avoid them. We turned up the Irish Sea and it was as black as night and just plain, no trouble at all. Turned south eastwards again at Chicken Rock on the Isle of Man crossed the Welsh coast and ran into a belt of electrical storms. And I’d never seen anything like it. I sat in the turret at the back lit up as though I was sitting in a neon sign and St Elmo’s fire was running along the wings, dancing on the propellers, and the noise of thunder and the lightning flashing around us and well there was a lot of prayer went up for that aircraft that night I’m pretty sure about that, certainly from me. And there were five aircraft on this trip and we flew through this most appalling rain. Well, it was drumming on the aircraft. The noise was almost obliterating the thunder and lightning was flashing continuously, and we were in it for about twenty minutes. And then we flew out, no more thunder and lightning but still pouring with rain. And we got back over Stanton Harcourt and conditions were pretty grim. And I remember on the intercom Jock, our pilot said ‘Let’s have the lights on’ he said. And if you called up flying control and said ‘Lights, lights’ there were three searchlights came on that were angled to form a cone over the centre of the aerodrome and to give you enough light to land by. So of course ‘lights, lights’ was a coded signal and you used a code because you didn’t want any Jerry who was hanging about to sort of know what was going on. So, called up flying control and said ‘lights, lights’ and flying control came back and said ‘Do you want the searchlights on?’ [chuckling] ‘Yes, we B well do.’ So they put ‘em on and we landed and we were the first one back and subsequently one other aircraft came back. Three of them were lost that night somewhere over Shropshire and we were all trailing aerials of course, and we didn’t know but obviously something had struck those aircraft and they had just blown up, and we lost fifteen pals that night in training. And we discovered afterwards that we were the only five aircraft flying in the whole of the British Isles. Bomber Command had decided the weather was so bad they wouldn’t fly. But our press on commanding officer sent us off and that was that. Fifteen, three aircraft disappeared and they were buried up in Shropshire. They wouldn’t let us go to the funerals, but then I think that was standard practice, they didn’t let you go to the funerals of people who were lost. And so from there you didn’t know whether you were going onto a Halifax, heavy con unit or Lancaster one. And of course we, Wellingtons had hydraulic turrets so we hoped it would be Lancs, and it was, it was Lindholme just outside Doncaster and we went up there and we went up there. We went up there and we’d done a little bit of flying, only familiarisation, you know with a screen pilot, local flying. And VE Day came along and we then had a rather funny sort of month in which they couldn’t make their minds up what they’d do with the air force. Churchill had promised Roosevelt that Bomber Command would fly to India and fight the Japanese and there were all sorts of rumours went round. ‘Oh they’d going to take the mid upper turrets out.’ And everyone said ‘Why?’ ‘Well, they don’t think you’ll need them out there.’ And I said ‘Well, the Japanese are flying fighters just as much as Jerry did.’ ‘Oh well we don’t know about that.’ And then there was another rumour. ‘They’re going to paint the tops white. You don’t need camouflage, and it gets so hot out there that the white paint will reflect the heat.’ So it was a whole little period of indecision. And then we went on flying exercises, trips with a screen pilot and then eventually Jock on his own. We gained a flight engineer who was a chap who’d trained as a pilot in South Africa, got his wings but there was no aircraft for him when he got back to this country. And we carried on until VJ Day when they dropped the two bombs on Japan and we never flew again as a crew. It was another odd sort of thing. If I remember rightly the Australians and the Kiwis were on a flying contract for hostilities only. So with hostilities over they didn’t fly again and we soon lost him. They were taken down to boarding houses in Brighton and along the south coast and they waited there until there was a troop ship capable of taking them back to Australia or New Zealand. And they took the pilot. They took Jock and our navigator away, they went on flying. They went back to Wellingtons for a time which seemed very strange and then they went into Transport Command I think afterwards and the rest of us were made redundant. I never flew again in the air force. We were sent to Acaster Malbis which was the biggest aerodrome in Yorkshire built especially to take the Vickers Windsor which was a six engine aircraft of which they only ever flew two prototypes I think. But that was just a holding unit, we handed in all our kit there, all our flying clothing and stuff we didn’t want. Then we were sent down to Blyton in Lincolnshire which was another holding unit and there we were re-mustered and offered whatever trade we wanted to go into and I opted for Air Movements Assistant in Transport Command. We were waiting in Blyton and it was really wet, damp weather, sleeping in soaking wet blankets things like that, and I committed the cardinal sin of the crew in that when they asked one morning ‘Anyone who can paint?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can paint sergeant.’ So ‘Right’ he said, ‘Down to flying control.’ I thought ‘Oh well I’ve got a job at least and it’ll probably be warm in flying control.’ And it was. And they were working as the publicity department for the station because as it was a holding unit there were films on all through the evening and halfway into the night for people to go just to occupy them. And they were the publicity department they were designing posters and I produced all my own Christmas cards down there, painting you know, between other odd jobs. And I was there for a week, and it was a very good week, nice and warm and a job to do. And then three of us, two Scottish chaps, I don’t know who they were, well Jock and Matthew I knew them as afterwards. We were told we were going on a posting to Millfield which was a fighter OTU just outside Berwick-on-Tweed. And we became service policemen. Millfield, the living site and the aerodrome, were about a mile apart because of the hills and the land where the airport was, so we were living in the guard room, because they were short of service policemen and every night we had to, Group Captain Donaldson it was, insisted that everyone stood in the cinema for the National Anthem at the end of the film. No-one, I mean there was a tendency as soon as the National Anthem started playing people were up and running out of the exits for dear life. We had to stand there and make sure nobody got out until the National Anthem had finished, that was one of our jobs. And we also had a problem that the short cut from the aerodrome to the living site went through a private estate. And the people who owned the estate were quite happy with that but they had barbed wire entanglements put up on the bit where it went into the estate just to keep people on the road. And a WAAF cycling down there one night back to the camp with the sort of dim headlights that we had rode straight into the, into the barbed wire entanglements. And she was a mess when they got her out of there. And we then had to go down there on a evening when the shifts finished on the station and make sure no-one crashed into the barbed wire entanglement. So we had three weeks of that and at the same time Group Captain Donaldson was the bloke who took the world speed record in a Meteor off Bogner Regis just after the War, and he’d got his Meteor with him. And when he got a bit fed up with it he’d go and get in his Meteor and put on the most amazing flying display over the aerodrome until he’d sort of worn off his mood then he’d just land and carry on again. It was quite odd there. We had one occasion while we were there on a Monday when all the fighters took off. They were Tempests and Tornados and they were firing at turrets, at targets, on the beach at St Abbs Head at Berwick-on-Tweed. And they all took off one Monday morning and they came back within half an hour. And they said the targets hadn’t been moved along the beach. Well they usually sent out a bloke in a Hillman, one of the airmen, and he stayed in a hut if they were going to be firing for two or three days, and moved with a tractor the targets along the beach so that they weren’t firing their rockets at the same bits of cliff. And they found that the targets hadn’t been moved. So they sent someone out to see what was going on. And this chap had been out there for a few days. He’d repainted the tractor and sold it to a farmer and cleared off up to the north of Scotland where he lived. They eventually found him, picked him up in Newcastle, about six weeks later so we heard. Selling the tractor to a farmer. [chuckling] But it was quite interesting of course for the three or four weeks we were up there. And then after that it was Bramcote which is near Nuneaton. And this was a royal naval air station in the middle of England. It was a grass aerodrome, and no runways, no aircraft and no royal naval when we there. We just took it over and it was the training unit for Air Movements Assistants. And there we were taught load control. How you loaded an aircraft so that the centre of gravity was within the required limits and it would fly straight and level. And oh, wonderful things like knots and ropes that had special colours, special strengths and special lengths and all sorts of things. And then we were told we could put in a request for which station we wanted to go to. And everybody found that number nine was Palm Beach, Florida. So we all put down number nine. None of us got it of course. Although there were stations for Transport Command across the Caribbean to north of South America. Then there was the hop to Dakar in West Africa, and the route went on across Africa then where they’d supplied American aircraft and Transport Command kept those routes running for a time but we weren’t allowed to go to Florida, Miami Beach it was, not Palm Beach. So we finished our course there and they thought we were all going abroad to, ‘cause our demob numbers still hadn’t come up. And we went to Heaton Park in Manchester which was the jumping off points for troop ships from Liverpool to take us to the Middle East or wherever they finally posted us to. And there was absolutely nothing to do at Heaton Park most people put their beds, two legs of their bed out, into the little miniature lake in the middle of Heaton Park and fish for minnows with bits of string and cotton and bent pins. But it was really just waiting and demob numbers began to come up and in the end after three week or so there, there were very few people with demob numbers that would allow them to go overseas. And we were told ‘No, not sending you out, if you go to the Far East, you’ll be there in time to come back.’ Sort of thing. I was sent to Merryfield, just outside Taunton, where we handled Yorks coming from the Far East. And we had a commanding officer there who’d been a prisoner of war in Germany. And he’d got no time for the army. He said that they’d heard the guns from the army for weeks and said if the army had really pushed on they’d have relieved these prisoner of war camps much sooner. And he was a very bitter man about it. And we used to have to go out to the Yorks when they landed and picked up the manifest for their passengers and cargo. Take the passengers into the office and give them ration cards and travel warrants and dispatch them wherever they wanted to go. And one day he said to me ‘Your turn Dennis, and there was a York that had come in that wasn’t on schedule. So I walked out with the Customs Officer, the naval officer, and before we got to the York the door was flung open, steps dropped, about three steps to the ground, and down it came a red tab general, following by about ten high ranking army officers. He took one look at me and turned to the naval officer. ‘Where’s your boss?’ So the naval officer ‘Well in headquarters sir.’ And pointed to the door. And this crowd followed this red tab general. And what had happened we found when one of the members of the crew got off the ‘plane was that the aircraft had come from Singapore. And when it got to Karachi they had Rolls Royce Merlin which had come off a York and had got to come back to this country for repair. And that became what was known as AOG trans, which is aircraft on the ground transport, and that had priority over everyone but the Royal Family. So they put this Merlin on the York, removed half the seats and told the officer half his entourage would have to wait in Karachi for the next aircraft available. And he was mad at it ‘cause he’d had to sit and look at this vast crate underneath the wing of the York and it was covered in orange and purple striped labels which gave it the priority. And funnily enough British Airways used those same labels for AOG trans up until a year or so back. They took it on from Transport Command and this bloke was going to say his piece as to why he’d been taken off the aircraft you know? And I can imagine our commanding officer, having been a creaky, was quite happy to tell this bloke that he hadn’t got a leg to stand on you know? That Merlin engines were a top priority and he’d have to wait his turn. So I never really knew what he said to him. We always thought it was quite good that day for this chap to be told off. Anyway Merryfield closed and I went to Blackbushe. And the interesting part of Blackbushe was the Nuremburg Trials were on. And evidence for the trials was flown to Blackbushe every day in a Mosquito. And it was then taken in two lumps to the War Office and the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. And that had to go officer only escort in a little Hillman truck and they hadn’t got enough officers who wanted to do the job so we NCO’s had to take it sometimes. And it was the first place I ever came across self-heating tins of soup and cocoa which were kept just for the crews of the Mosquito because they only stayed on the ground about forty minutes and took back other papers that were coming from the Courts of Justice and the War Office. They flew them back to Nuremburg. And that was six days a week these Mossies flew and we used to feed them a quick bowl of soup and some cocoa from these self-heating tins. And that was quite interesting of course taking some of the evidence up to London. And then of course Blackbushe closed. And I went back to Abingdon. And there we had two Dakotas flying, eight o’clock each morning to, one to Buckeburg and one to [Fallsbuttel?] at Hamburg. They went every day and others went extra occasionally down to Vienna or Lubiana in the top of Yugoslavia. Trieste or Italy and they were flying mostly newspaper and mail. So I had to, someone had to go down to the office at half past five in the morning, and ‘phone up WH Smith at Blackfriars to learn the weight of newspapers going to Germany. And you ‘phoned the army post office at Nottingham to find out the weight of the mail. Then you sat down and worked out the weights and balances of two Dakotas. Took about forty minutes each, because you had to take the fuel load, the weight of the passengers if any, the crew. Passengers you gave them two hundred pounds each for them and their luggage. And any freight that was going with the mail. And the result had to be that the centre of gravity was within certain limits so the pilot could trim the aircraft and fly it as he wanted. And that had to be done between half past five and about half past seven when the trucks arrived. You then went out to the aircraft with a list and a pen and as the men threw the mail into the aircraft you had to keep a running total as to how much they could put in, a, b, c, d, e, which are the imaginary compartments within the aircraft. And the same thing with the mailbags when they arrived and then you got rid of the two aircraft about eight o’clock in the morning. And if there was nothing doing in the day you sat there like lemons until about six thirty in the evening when the aircraft came back and you got to unload them. And if there were passengers, give them a fortnights’ ration card and a first class ticket to Paddington. And that was that. We had one old lady came back from Vienna, she’d been a nursemaid to a family and got caught by the War and stayed out there. And she asked us whether ten shilling notes were still valid. She’d got some ten shilling notes left from when she went to Austria in 1939. And she said she was going up to London so we said ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ ‘I’m going to stay with friends.’ And she had an address but we didn’t know whether the place was still there or whether it had been bombed flat. And she’d got nowhere else to go, and she insisted that no, she was alright, she would find her way around. And in the end Chief said ‘There’s nothing you can do, give her a first class ticket and a fortnights’ ration card.’ And she was as happy as a sandboy to be taken in one of the lorries to Oxford Station, put on the train and off she went. And we never, of course, knew what had happened to her. And then just at that stage there were three of us, flight sergeants, running the section in Abingdon, and my demob number came up. The other two said ‘Oh, we’re going to try and get our stripes confirmed and stay on in the air force.’ Well I was married and I said ‘Oh no, I’m off.’ And demobbed I went up to Blackpool, picked up my civilian suit and suitcase and said goodbye to the air force. And I had a postcard about a month later from these two chaps that had stayed on and it came from Blackpool and said ‘No, they wouldn’t confirm our stripes so we left the air force as well.’ And that was the end, well the end of my RAF career as, finished there and then, that was August 1947. So, it had been not quite three and a half years, I’d been to fifteen different stations in that time. Some of them twice, well Abingdon was twice, but that’s it I’m afraid.
CB: Thank you very much.
DS: Rambled on.
CB: Thinking about that though, what was the real highlight of your RAF career?
DS: Well, I enjoyed the flying with the crew very much, I did enjoy flying generally.
CB: You did target practice when you were in the Gunnery Schools but what did you do about fighter affiliation, did you get much of that?
DS: Well we did at OTU, at OTU we did our air firing to a droge towed by another Wellington. Not by a Miles Master or anything like that. It was the bomb aimer’s job, there was a winch in the fuselage of each Wellington and we streamed the droge from there you see? And then one Wellington would zig zag across and we would fire upwards at it you know, hoping we’d got the right trajectory at the droge. . But they used to put up aircraft for fighter affiliation but one of the amazing things it always seemed to me is, we fired over Salisbury Plain. I mean Abingdon is pretty much the centre of England, it’s a long way to go to the sea, quite a while. You can go down the Bristol Channel, that takes twenty minutes from Abingdon, and you’re over Bristol. But to go to the other coast it’s probably three quarters of an hour or getting on for that. And I can remember flying over Salisbury Plain and they’d be a bloke down there with a tractor ploughing a field. And I’m pooping off, you know, couple of hundred rounds of ball ammunition, it’s got to fall somewhere. And our firing ranges were anywhere over Salisbury Plain. I suppose by the time the shot got to the ground it wasn’t harmful or anything like that, but that always surprised me that we did that but then of course they put up aircraft when we were using camera guns instead of Brownings and curling round behind us and attacking us from all sort of angles, and particularly so at heavy con units, we had Hurricanes there and it was very hard to see them at night. The Hurricanes had ultraviolet or infrared cameras on their wingtips which they switched on. We couldn’t see them but it registered on the film. So when you looked at the film you could tell, could see them coming round or wherever they were coming from. But so, and bombing ranges, I think the Wash was the one where we did most of our bombing because that was from Abingdon. And from Lindholme ‘cause we were a lot nearer at Lindholme to the coast than Abingdon. But there were inland bombing ranges but I can’t remember, probably in Wales I suspect where there’s plenty of uninhabited territory. I can’t remember really whether we dropped bombs on the landlocked ranges but they were only those little twelve and a half pound practice bombs which.
CB: Um. The fighter affiliation one involved Hurricanes and others also stationed on your airfield were they?
DS: Oh yes.
CB: And to what extent did the pilots engage with the gunners in briefings, of the pilots of the fighters? Did you talk to them directly?
DS: No.
CB: You never spoke to them at all?
DS: We did talk in the air, particularly at night. You know, you’d be on the, he’d have his radio on. He’d tell you when he’d attacked and say ‘Didn’t see you.’ Sort of thing. And quite often that was the case, very hard to see.
CB: Yes.
DS: See them at night.
CB: The instructors that you had from a gunnery point of view were people who had done a tour were they?
DS: Yes, yes.
CB: And to what extent did they tell you tales of the unexpected?
DS: Well, they were very good at telling you what had gone on. Up until that time, as far as, air gunnery school at Dalcross the people who were instructing you there, in many cases, were chaps who had been through previous course and someone had decided, you know, that they were worth hanging onto as an instructor, particularly the blokes who did aircraft recognition and things like that. They were rogues too really, they used to build kits in their spare time, and they had plenty of spare time. Plastic aircraft, and then they’d raffle them. [chuckling] And I used to make aircraft before I joined the air force. I had about thirty-six different ones. I sold them to a toy shop in Amersham when I joined the air force. And I used to fiddle about with bits of, bits of wood and a craft knife and they realised that, you know, I was making stuff myself and didn’t really trouble me about getting into the raffles. Because I mean they probably only charged about six pence each ticket for a raffle, and they’d have the boxes ready, which they got from stores, empty boxes. And I used to think by the time those aircraft got home I wondered if any of them were ever complete.
CB: Um.
DS: But er.
CB: Right we’ll stop for a bit. So the aircraft in the gunnery schools what were they?
DS: At Dalcross it was Ansons, and Wellingtons of course at operational training unit and then Lancs at heavy conversion.
CB: Yeah.
DS: So, they were the only aircraft that I flew in in the air force.
CB: Were the turrets all the same?
DS: No.
CB: Or did they have different turrets in.
DS: There were Bristol turrets in the Ansons.
CB: With how many guns?
DS: Two guns. They were Fraser Nash four gun turrets at the rear turret, and two guns on the rear turret on the Wellingtons. On the Lanc it was Fraser Nash again, two guns on the front, two guns on the upper, four on the rear turret.
CB: How did, did you have a choice, initially which gunner you were going to be, or did they say ‘You’re a rear gunner, and that’s it?’
DS: You trained as a rear gunner in the Wellingtons you see? They hadn’t got a mid-upper.
CB: No.
DS: So, I think that I just automatically went to the rear turret I suppose, and went to heavy conversion unit. I mean we picked up a young chap for mid upper at heavy con unit, but he only stayed with us a week or two because after VE Day we had this odd sort of period and there was this talk of taking the mid uppers out. And they were short of gunners anyway so we lost our mid upper and I suppose he must have gone to another crew ‘cause he wasn’t with us for any length at all, when they were considering, you know, are we going East or are we not? And we didn’t of course.
CB: So you flew without a mid upper gunner for a while?
DS: Yes, if I felt like it I might go and sit in his seat, see a different view for a change.
CB: What was the, what was the general operation of the crew? Did it work well? Well co-ordinated?
DS: Oh, I think so. Yes, yes. We got on fairly well. Yeah.
CB: And in the social context?
DS: Well, we were all NCO’s you see until Bill arrived who was the flight engineer. And he was a flying officer. And er.
CB: He’s the ex-pilot?
DS: Yes. So, you know, soon as a trip was over six or seven of us were off to the sergeants’ mess and Bill was off to the officers’ mess. I mean he was alright, no complaint about his efficiency as a flight engineer but he wasn’t a mixer you see? Got his own companions. I think that, well it was circumstances and probably nothing you could do about it. But you see it was rather funny, when Tom, Tom Paine.
CB: Who was the pilot?
DS: Became a pilot, some of his crew were officers, Tom was a flight sergeant you know? When he got onto a squadron the commanding officer said ‘All captains of aircraft squadrons are commissioned.’ and commissioned him on the spot.
CB: Um.
DS: So then he was with his fellows who were also officers.
CB: Yes.
DS: I mean that was an odd situation I think. But I mean you could be commissioned in the field as it were.
CB: Yes.
DS: With well probably this chap was allowed to do it with the agreement of the Air Commodore at Group I imagine.
CB: And as the captain of the aircraft then it would.
DS: The pilot effective of what his rank was.
CB: Yes.
DS: Yes. And I think that was probably recognised 99.9%.
CB: Um.
DS: You accepted that straight away.
CB: So you went through all this training having started late in practical terms.
DS: Yes.
CB: The War was progressing all the time, what was your attitude and the attitude of the crew towards getting into action?
DS: Well, if we’d got from heavy con unit to squadron it was a sort of natural progression.
CB: I wondered if you were anxious to get there?
DS: Probably not.
CB: Or you just assumed you would did you?
DS: Probably not in the last year of the War with the losses going up and up and up as they were.
CB: Um.
DS: You know, you’re always a bit apprehensive. My pilot was engaged to a girl in North Wales. He was a screen pilot at Valley before he was transferred to OTU and I think old Jock was always hoping that things would be OK. I was of course having married.
CB: Yeah. How many?
DS: If things had been different whether I’d be sitting here or not would be questionable. You see I had that year and a half later than anybody else being called up.
CB: Yeah.
DS: And I have no idea what the reason was. I wasn’t in a reserved occupation, used to ring up RAF records at Gloucester. ‘Oh no, no, your turn will come.’ You know ‘Don’t bother us.’ So I was a year and a half late there. So when we went from ITW to Elementary Gunner School we were three weeks just doing cross country runs, navigation hikes, talks nothing. And three weeks occurred again when I was potato picking. So that was six weeks wasted there. Then the NCO school, of course we was called off that because the weather was so atrocious and when I went back to Dalcross and got an extra fortnight’s leave, that’s two full months that I did nothing really.
CB: Um.
DS: And add that to a year and a half, if I’d have gone in at eighteen and a quarter the story would have been so different.
CB: Um.
DS: And I don’t understand why.
CB: Two other things. To what extent were the crews, particularly the gunners, aware of gunners on bombers?
DS: Um, I don’t think that it was. Well, there was always the thought that there’s two gunners and one of every, you know, every other category. But if you look at the graph of losses there was what twenty five thousand? I think that in the first four years of the War there’s probably not as many killed as in the last year and a bit.
CB: Um.
DS: So I don’t really know what effect that would have had on people at the time. I mean we certainly heard how many aircraft were missing and that sort of thing. I can’t say, I expect it bothered us, but I don’t suppose anyone was prepared to show it really.
CB: No.
DS: I mean for a long while in the last eighteen months when Jerry had got those twin engine fighters with the upward firing cannon, it was a long while before the RAF really knew that they’d got them and that was what was causing the trouble because using tracer you see? They were underneath an aircraft and they said they were accurate enough to even aim at a particular part of the aircraft.
CB: Um.
DS: They’d aim for the wing, ‘cause the fuel was in there and they were using what thirty millimetre cannons. Thirty mil, that’s an inch and a half, inch and a quarter, and how long is the shell? There’s enough explosive in there to do a lot of damage. And not using any tracer, I don’t think the air force knew for a long while what was causing this sudden explosion of aircraft or why they were suddenly bursting into flames. So it was, it was right towards the very end I think, well I don’t really know how they would have thought then. Going off on these raids in the last few days of the War was a very risky business. They were losing a lot.
CB: Going before you joined the RAF.
DS: Yeah.
CB: People who were still in civilian life were really in the focus of the public if they weren’t in uniform. So what did you do? Did you tend to wear your ATC uniform or did they give you a badge that identified you as a waiting person?
DS: No. I didn’t have a badge that would point out I’d been, you know, waiting call up. I never had any, any trouble that way. I know, well I mean we were at Air Training Corps several nights a week and weekends.
CB: Um.
DS: So we’d be in uniform quite a while. But no never, never found anyone antagonistic or anything like that as to why we were still there.
CB: And your workmates, what sort of ages were they? Did they tend to be older people?
DS: Yes, oh yes. And there were quite a lot of jobs going for people in our area. There was, insurance companies were dotted about the place. The railway clearing house were in Great Missenden. I suppose when I joined the company there were probably three others from the school joined with me, and others did in subsequent years. And, of course, we were the younger people who most of the people who were called up had gone by the time we got there.
CB: Yeah.
DS: They were um, yes they were quite a bit older most of them. I know I joined the spotters group at Newland Park, where they had a post on the roof where they watched for aircraft to warn people if anything was very close, sort of get under your desk or whatever you did in those days. They were quite independent those groups. After the War I joined the Royal Observer Corps. I found some of my friends who’d not been called you know in the Royal Observer Corps, younger than me. And I was in that for twenty-five years. We had a post at Missenden, group headquarters were in Watford and we had a post at Chorley Wood, Beaconsfield, Great Missenden and Princes Risborough. And we were linked by telephone to Watford, and to the other posts we could hear what they were reporting. And at the end of it when we were reporting radio active fallout and had stopped aircraft reporting all together, some of us were invited to go down to the underground command room at Naphill, Bomber Command’s headquarters. And we all had to have a special interview, I was alright I’d already signed the Official Secrets Act, and we did shifts in the underground control room at Naphill. But that was only reporting radio active fallout and you were given readings on automatic machines because there wasn’t any fallout to speak off. Nothing that was really measurable. So you had gadgets which, the tape which produced figures which you then report. And we had a separate map, beside the working map, at Naphill. But periodically if you were on shift when the Russians sent a couple of bears down the North Sea, and Leuchars put a Lightning, two or three Lightning’s up to turn them around then probably at Wycombe they would consider it was an alarm and the map they worked on by day disappeared and the War map came down in it’s place.
CB: Oh did it, right?
DS: And the control room was locked and you were in there, you couldn’t get out until they thought the problem was over. That was quite interesting but it got so boring just doing radioactivity that in the end they, they gave up and the Royal Observer Corps was disbanded completely. So I imagine there’s a few holes in the ground. They built a hole for us, when we went to occupy it, it was full of water. So they had to then drain it out and put another fresh lining inside but it used to be freezing cold down there.
CB: Yeah.
DS: Only about twenty foot down on a farm up at Hide End.
CB: Really? Just stop there for a mo’. The War finishes, you’re demobbed?
DS: Yes.
CB: Then what options were you and what did you choose?
DS: Well, I had my leave but of course having been employed, employers had to offer you a job back. And I went back. They had an office in Rickmansworth, the main office was back in London of course, so I travelled to Rickmansworth which was very easy for me and eventually when that closed and went back to London I had to go back to London to do insurance accounts again. But I finished up doing re-insurance accounting which was interesting because this was big sums, multi-millionaire figures. Things like we insured the Beatles for goodness knows how many million pounds when they made their first film. If one of the Beatles had fallen ill and they had to scrub the whole film this would have cost millions, so they insured on short term things but of course no company could keep the whole of the business. So, it was shared. And you shared it with companies around the world. And you had treaties with these companies. It was a bit like, ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.’ We would take two and a half per cent of a risk from a certain company, anywhere in the world. They would take two and a half per cent of big risks that came our way. But so big were some of the risk that you didn’t insure, or you’d re-insure everything except the thing maybe a quarter of a per cent because you couldn’t take the lot, it would have.
CB: Um. Bankrupt the company.
DS: But because I was mixed up in that I got to speak to people, or write to them all over the world. And to countries in Europe and here you were talking to people and got to know them very well. I mean the Beatles was just one example . We had, there was a flush of American golfers, who fly their own aircraft. And that’s a risk. Even if they don’t make it to a golf tournament. Because the stars aren’t there, the public aren’t there and you’ve got a loss on your hands so all these sorts of things. It was quite an interesting change from ordinary accounting.
CB: Yeah.
DS: You know contacting all these people as to what they would take and, as I say I knew many people from all around the world. It was quite interesting.
CB: And you said you retired at fifty-nine and a half?
DS: Yeah, almost sixty. Um, but there was the offer, we were taken over and, for the second time actually, and they made that offer because they were then overloaded with staff.
CB: Um.
DS: And I had to stay on for six months to train up someone for my particular job and then it was goodbye.
CB: Yes. And that made you, you fully retired then did you?
DS: Yeah. Been retired for thirty-three years now. Nearly as long as I worked. [laughter]
CB: That’s very good. Dennis Swains thank you very much indeed.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Dennis Swains,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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