Interview with Frank Tilley


Interview with Frank Tilley


Frank Tilley was a flight engineer with 617 Squadron. He took part in the operation to sink the Tirpitz. He explains his flights and briefings before the operation at RAF Woodhall Spa, RAF Milltown and RAF Lossiemouth. On their return from sinking the Tirpirtz, they had an engine problem affecting the power and fuel consumption. As they were perilously short on fuel they diverted to RAF Sumburgh. There Frank was able to repair the aircraft and they returned to RAF Woodhall Spa. The bomb aimer proudly proclaimed to the crew that, at that point, they had been on their feet for 36 straight hours. Frank was returning from an operation on Pölitz in December 1944 when they were, again, perilously low on fuel but found RAF Woodhall Spa fogged in so they had to try RAF Ludford Magna which had FIDO. While waiting for permission to land, there was a loud bang and one wing collapsed. After the resultant crash, Frank managed to get out of the aircraft, having broken a leg. The navigator was able to rescue the pilot, whose legs were badly damaged. Two of the crew were killed in the crash.




Temporal Coverage




00:36:23 audio recording


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AP: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Andrew Panton. The interviewee is Frank Tilley. The interview is taking place at Mr Tilley’s home in Hitchin, Hertfordshire on the 10th of July 2015. The initial part of this interview covers Mr Tilley’s story of two 617 Squadron attacks on the battleship Tirpitz.
FT: Of the operation beginning we were briefed for some three hours at Woodhall Spa. Followed by a casual flight lasting about two hours to Lossiemouth which would be our advanced base. We, in fact were allocated not Lossiemouth but Milltown which is about ten miles further along the east. The Milltown was a fairly scrappy temporary aerodrome I would imagine. I think it had one runway which headed straight out to the North Sea and actually terminated at the water’s edge. The third attempt, which was our second, took place on the 12th of November. So that once again, the day before — the 11th of November we were awake fairly early. An early morning briefing. Three hours at Woodhall Spa. We again flew to Milltown where we were ensconced and the aircraft were obviously completely re-fuelled and topped everything up to the last gallon sort of thing. And meanwhile we attended the final briefing which took place at Lossiemouth. RAF Lossiemouth. The briefing was exactly similar to all of the other briefings where the target’s identity, the target is identified. There’s maps on the wall. I think the most important part of any briefing is for the navigators. In particular with the Tirpitz problem. The route had to be carefully designed to avoid us getting trapped by the German radar. And the object was to get us as close to the target as possible without being identified. Now, this briefing ended with the, ‘Good luck, chaps,’ as usual. And it was then that they mentioned that the Germans had, since the second attempt, had moved two squadrons of Messerschmitts to Bardufoss which is about forty miles from the Tirpitz. We then had our legendary flying meal of egg, bacon and chips and generally wasted our time I suppose chatting away there until the, gone midnight. Around about 1 o’clock in the morning we were summoned to the coaches to take us the ten miles to Milltown. When we arrived at Milltown it was pitch dark night. Absolutely freezing cold. To the extent that when we arrived at our aircraft it was being sprayed with de-icing fluid along the wings to remove the frost which was rapidly forming. Joppy and I and the rest of the crew boarded the aircraft. There were numerous checks that we had to take before starting the engines as all the other members of the crew did their particular duties as far as preparation were concerned. Now, around about I suppose 2.30 in the morning of the 12th Joppy and I would have started the engines and gradually warmed them up. Meanwhile continuing to do our engine checks and other auxiliary types of checks that we have to do. At 3 o’clock we were ready to take off and taxied our way to the beginning of the runway. Just near the, the colloquially called the caravan. From which one, when they were ready they would give you a green aldis light. Joppy and I would open up the throttles to full power. Three thousand revs per minute. Release the brakes. And this aircraft, now weighing some ten thousand pounds over the, all up weight, trundled down the runway into the North Sea. At about ninety five knots we were running short of runway quite rapidly. Joppy hauled the aircraft into the air and we were airborne. It was a question of wheels up. Later on, flaps up. I adjusted the throttles to the proper cruising level. Maximum fuel economy. And roughly at about six hundred feet over the North Sea we made our way northwards. Heading out over the North Sea, over the Moray Firth and kept the Shetlands on our port side. And some short distance past the Shetlands the Gee box navigating equipment no longer functioned because it was designed for the whole of Europe. Thus the navigator’s job began, began to get rather difficult. He had to navigate using what we called dead reckoning by taking astro shots from stars and obtaining wind drift which is a sort of combination between the navigator and the guy in the rear turret. And myself I, I had to go down, open the door at the back of the aircraft and when asked I tossed out a flame float which the rear gunner would then sight his guns on the flame float and he was able to read a protractor reading from the rim of his turret. This would be relayed on the intercom to Basil, the navigator. Thus we were able to keep on track and navigate where exactly we were. At something like sixty four degrees north, we turned to starboard heading straight into Norway. We now had to start climbing to ensure we got over the Norwegian Alps of some five thousand feet. We flew into Norway, over the Alps and continued in that direction until we entered Sweden. Into Sweden we then turned port again and headed north. All the way up Sweden keeping as low as poss, as the territory would enable. Would allow. Thus we eventually reached the rendezvous point which was a long narrow lake in Sweden. When we arrived there we realised that the rest of the eighteen members of the squadron were gathering and circling which was quite remarkable when you think they all arrived there on dead reckoning within about fifteen minutes of each other. At a, a couple of green verey cartridges shot out from the Wing Commander Tait’s aircraft, told us to follow him towards the Tirpitz. The attack was now beginning. He carried on at low level and then at the correct time the navigator would indicate to Joppy, the pilot and we began climbing to our allocated bombing height which in our case was fifteen thousand two hundred feet. Now, at this point we reached our altitude and Lofty, the New Zealand bomb aimer, alerted us that he could see the Tirpitz in the dim distance some thirty odd miles away. And he relished the idea of sighting it and doing a bombing run at that particular angle. The rest of the squadron appeared to be veering off to starboard. They obviously had a different track. Lofty kept us on this track for several minutes as we got closer and closer to the Tirpitz. The indications from his bombsight would tell the pilot whether to move left, right or carry on this particular course. My job was to control the aircraft’s speed as precisely as possible and also make certain that the altitude was steady as well. We were not going down or up but everything had to be made exactly correct. And this carries on until the bomb automatically released. This is the automatic stabilised bombsight. By now the Germans had decided to welcome us. The anti-aircraft guns were busy shooting up anti-aircraft shells to us which were bursting just in front of the aircraft. Or it seemed like just in front but they had our height absolutely dead right. Remarkable really. And, so we had to press on regardless of the flak until the bomb was released. And even then we still have to remain exactly the same level and same speed while the automatic cameras photographed the descent of the bomb. The five and a half tonne Tallboy armour piercing bomb. Eventually we were able to close the bomb doors which switched off the camera and thankfully dived away out of the flak. We dived down and kept diving down to reduce our height. Headed back down south over the North Sea and levelled out at something like six hundred feet again. And I began re-tuning the engines and adjusting the throttles for maximum fuel economy. In other words our maximum cruising levels. At this point I was somewhat perturbed to find that the port outer, the engine was not, not responding to the movements of the throttle. At fifteen thousand three hundred feet it was obviously set at something like plus seven boost which is supercharged effect. There it was down at sea level still running at plus seven boost which would be consuming fuel at a fair, a fair rate. Quite unnecessary for us. And so we had to make our way back to the British Isles using only three engines. This meant the aircraft does not, does not fly quite so efficiently. And when we got near the British Isles, near the Shetlands in fact, I alerted the pilot that we were running very short of fuel and I did not think we would be able to reach Lossiemouth. Not safely anyhow. Thus the pilot, Joppy, he called up the airfield at Sumburgh Head, Shetlands, asking permission to land. Now, the runway there was not designed for four engine bombers. It was just about adequate for the light aircraft that were using it for Fleet Air Arm purposes etcetera. And we made attempt to land on three engines. We overshot for the first one. We came in too high so it was a matter of opening up the throttles to full power again. Flaps half way up. And we regained our height. Soared over some rising ground which is just south of the Sumburgh Head. Did another circuit and this time Joppy made a perfect landing on the three engines and we stopped just nicely at the end of the runway. We piled out of course. The aircraft was shunted to the fuelling depot where the tanks were topped up for us and the local, local people at the Sumburgh were excellent. They welcomed us with open arms. Told us of the success of the sinking of the Tirpitz and provided us with welcome coffee and sandwiches. While this was going on I decided I’d have a go at repairing the link that was obviously broken to the port outer engine. I referred to the engineering officer for some trestles but trestles did not exist at Lossiemouth. They weren’t designed for four engine bombers. So I borrowed only the next best thing which was a ladder. I removed the engine cowling which is on the port side of the engine and lo and behold there was this link just dangling there. For the life of me, after all these years I cannot remember the detail of how I did it but somehow or other I managed to reconnect the throttle link with Joppy back in the cockpit and responding to my, my calls. We, he exercised the throttle just to test it out and yes it was okay. So, we now had four good Merlin engines once more. I replaced the cowling. We said our goodbyes. We restarted the engines from the internal batteries and, and off we went. And as we had sufficient fuel we decided to fly straight down to our base at Woodhall Spa where we were debriefed and given our legendary returned flying meal of which we were very grateful. We were. We were, the bomb aimer, Lofty, he said, ‘Do you know what lads?’ He said, ‘I’ve just worked it out. We’ve been on our feet non-stop for thirty six hours.’ Well, we were very very tired but quite elated that at last we’d sunk old Churchill’s beast for him. And that’s really the end of my Tirpitz story.
[recording paused]
FT: The problem the squadron had to solve for this attack was one of getting there and back. Now, if you took a straight line from Lossiemouth to the Tirpitz and back you could probably do it. You were just about two thousand one hundred miles. But like I mentioned earlier we had to take careful action to avoid radar which meant an indirect route in fact. As you know which we went into Sweden and then flew north. So, this added quite a few air miles to the problem. And there would be insufficient fuel. When you think a Lancaster basically carries two thousand one hundred and fifty four gallons of fuel and a Lancaster, fully loaded performs about one point one mile per gallon. So, there you have it. We really, the fuel situation basically would be too marginal. Thus we needed to take action. Firstly, extra fuel. They removed the rest bed behind the rear spar. I beg your pardon, behind the front spar. Between the two spars it was. They removed the rest bed which also contained the oxygen bottles. There were twelve oxygen bottles normally. They removed eleven. Left us just one. In that space they installed a Wellington tank of some two hundred gallons. It was a long, rectangular shape. And on top of that a Mosquito tank of fifty gallons. Now, this meant we had added weight. So, you now have to go and start reducing weight. Firstly, they removed the entire mid-upper turret. Guns, turret, the lot and blanked in the space in the roof of the aircraft. They removed the armour plate from behind the pilot’s seat. They took out the guns from the front turret and reduced the ammunition for the rear turret down to some four hundred rounds. Thus the, the sort of equilibrium was kind of re-established. While the aircraft were away at the maintenance unit having these modifications carried out they removed the standard Merlin engines and replaced them with Merlin 24s. The most powerful engine available at the time. They also fitted paddle bladed propellers which theoretically enables the engine power to be used in the form of additional thrust. Now, the, just a word about the added fuel tanks. This entailed quite a lot of what you might call amateur plumbing. You can just imagine connecting two extra tanks and feeding them into the standard fuel system of the Lancaster with various stop cocks available. Thus the job of the flight engineer was somewhat enhanced because we had to juggle with the pumps to pump the fuel around, keep the aircraft balanced and make certain that the engines were not starved of fuel at any point in time. The, I must say that despite the joints being perfectly sound you cannot stop the odour from that hundred octane from leaking out. And the aircraft smelled quite strongly of hundred octane which is rather unpleasant. Especially when you’re living with it for some thirteen hours. And if there was a spark heaven knows what would have happened. Or if we’d been attacked and there was a tracer shell, we’d have gone up in flames in no time at all. But I always felt a bit apprehensive before we, before a trip but I suppose that was just me. Some guys carried it off as if they were going to a Christmas party. I don’t remember us mentioning it on the aircraft. I mean you would have thought we would have been chatting but we weren’t.
AP: Right.
FT: It was very quiet. It’s like that really. You get on with your own job and concentrate like hell on what you’re supposed to be doing and there was no loose chat or anything like that. But, well that’s the way we were anyway. So, we did our, you’d think it would have been the obvious thing to do to turn right but we turned left. We went to port and swung right around in an arc and that’s when I was able to look out when we completed the arc, to the port side. And I just caught the last glimpse of the Tirpitz and she seemed to be starting to list. And then it was full power and dive down and get the hell out of here because, well naturally, we thought the fighters were waiting for us. But that’s a miracle. How we, how we’re still here I don’t know. I don’t think many of us would have got back.
AP: No.
FT: Remember this is daylight. And if a Lancaster gets attacked by a Messerschmitt in daylight there’s only one winner and it’s not the Lancaster. I mean, our guns were .303. They were like peashooters and the range was about a hundred yards. Well, the Germans had cannons. And their range was three hundred yards. It’s a well-known fact. I mean we were outgunned right, all the time. We had, we had no real defences. Not the Lancaster.
AP: So —
FT: I think really, now I’m at this age I think about how lucky we were. Perhaps more often than we did when I was twenty one. We never even mentioned it really. We just did our job. We landed back in, eventually at Woodhall Spa. Got debriefed. And then, as you probably heard we got thirty six hours leave and Sir Archibald Sinclair turned up and did his stuff. And Basil and I went to my place, I lived in North London and spent the night with me and we went to the theatre in the evening.
AP: Did you —
[recording paused]
AP: Ok. So, we’re ready to go. This is coming back.
FT: Ok.
AP: Yeah. This is the raid on Pölitz on the way back.
FT: 21st of December.
AP: 21st of December 1944.
FT: That’s it. Well, the weather. You couldn’t design worse weather. Lincolnshire, 21st of December 1944. We were briefed to go to Pölitz which is near Stettin and bomb the oil refineries. And our bomb aimer, Lofty Hebbard was off sick but there was a flight lieutenant bomb aimer who needed one more operation to complete his double tour. Forty five trips. And he, he asked Joppy if he would be, he could be Joppy’s bomb aimer. Well we were quite honoured to be, Skip- if you like, accompanied by such a veteran bomb aimer. But the thing, the briefing was done, we boarded the aircraft. I think it was drizzling with rain and very, very limited visibility and I think we spent about two hours in the aircraft waiting for the signal to taxi out to take off and it was cancelled. We went back to the flights, what we called the flights, again. De-kitted ourselves. A couple of hours later it was back on. So, out we trooped again on to the buses to our aircraft. Got everything revved up. This time away we went. We took off in almost blackness. It was filthy weather and visibility was really down but we took off and the journey to Pölitz was virtually uneventful. We did our bombing run, as far as I’m aware quite satisfactorily and headed for home. Now, I believe that on the way home some of the aircraft could pick up radio messages to say that if there were any doubts in their minds they could divert to Prestwick in Scotland if they had sufficient fuel. I didn’t think we did have enough fuel so we headed back to Lincolnshire. We looked at Woodhall Spa and the fog was absolutely dense and thick. So we headed for Ludford Magna nearby. There was what they called a FIDO installation whereby the runways are transversed with burning fuel which lifts the fog and you fly into a sort of tunnel of clear air. Unfortunately, when we called up for permission to land so were dozens of others doing the same thing. We were not even sure whether our, our message had been received. There was certainly no response. We, we were zooming around. Just cruising around waiting to make some progress towards a landing when there was a tremendous bang on the left hand side of the aircraft. I looked out to port side and in time to see the port wing just outside of the port outer folding up to a vertical position. Meanwhile the gauges, engine gauges were dancing around. The needles were dancing around and the skipper was saying, ‘Full power.’ He didn’t need to say it either. I’d already tried it and we were quite unable to get any response from the aircraft at all. So Joppy started calling base saying, ‘T Tare crashing. T Tare crashing.’ And Joppy said to all of us, the crew, ‘Ditching stations. Ditching stations.’ Now, ditching station means that you then leave your position you’re normally at. You dive over the front spar and take up what they call a crash position. Well, the thing happened such a long while ago and it was so horrible that I can only remember unplugging my headset and presumably diving over the front spar. I don’t even remember that. Soon after that, or it must have been almost immediately we, we hit the ground and the aircraft going from, what shall we say a hundred and eighty knots down to zero certainly puts a bit of a strain on things. And when I came around I found I was fastened to the floor. And I realised that my parachute harness somehow had got wedged into something on the floor. But I was able to release myself by turning the release mechanism on the parachute harness and punch the big disk and got free. I sort of dragged myself to my feet and then sort of fell back down again. I realised that my right leg was broken. I saw Basil to the left of me. I must, there must have been some light. I think what it was, the fuel, the fuel lines which ran across, laterally across the front, rear of the front spar had obviously been fractured or made to leak and they’d ignited. So there was burning fuel across the floor which made us, if you like, need to get out of the wretched place. And I said, I saw Basil holding his head and shouted to him, ‘Wake up Basil. Let’s get the hell out of here.’ And that was the last time I saw him for a while because I then, somehow or other, hopped, and it’s funny really. In the training, my escape, my escape hatch was just above the wireless operator’s position. Just to the rear of the astrodome. And when I think of it now I must have been daft because I could have easily dived over the rear spar, made my way backwards to the main door. Instead of which I reached up, released this hatch and hauled myself up on my arms and then extricated myself from the aircraft by falling over backwards down to the ground. Now, imagining that the aircraft was about to blow up with all these fuel, fuel leaks all blazing away there like blow lamps and I crawled away to a sort of safe distance on this muddy field. Well, after a while Basil, who’d got out okay from the rear door, he had, bless his heart, rushed around to the front and extricated Joppy, the pilot who was, whose legs were badly injured. They’d been caught up in the rudder pedals and he had multiple fractures of both legs. So, Basil did a stirling job in carrying Joppy to a safe place. Now, a little while later the wireless operator, how, that was Cookie, Gordon Cooke, how he got out I shall never know but I presume he just did what was sensible. Went over the rear spar and out through the door. Now, the mid-upper gunner was Bob Yates but since he had no turret because the aircraft was still in the same uniform as when we did the Tirpitz there was no mid-upper turret for him but I suppose Bob wanted to clock up another operation on his logbook so he just came as a passenger. And I never did see him. I don’t know what happened to him but he was dead I’m afraid. And then, I think I mentioned about Cookie. Cookie found me lying on the ground. Cookie was able to walk but he’d got a rather nasty burn on his back of his hand and he’d also bruised his innards from when he’d impacted on his radio set. So, he was a little bit incoherent. That accounted for us two anyway. The dreadful tragedy is that this long-serving, two tour Flight Lieutenant Arthur Walker was killed instantly I should think because he was down in the bomb bay in the bomb aimers compartment unfortunately. He should not have been there. He should have taken up ditching station. The rear gunner, Tommy Thompson survived with a fractured back. And we then found ourselves eventually in hospital. And by the time I recovered from my injuries and went to convalescent the war in Europe was over. I went back to the squadron and was told that I could be made redundant because they didn’t need me anymore. And I then went into the waiting for discharge syndrome. Which was pretty boring. And there ends my career. Well I, my RAF career was fairly short and the operational career was even shorter. So I’ve got nothing to be very proud of but when I look back I must say I, I feel so thankful that I got through the war. There was several, several times when we could have got, got killed and, but we didn’t and we got through it. And for that I’m very very thankful but also quite glad that I only did a little bit but what I did they’re welcome.



Andrew Panton, “Interview with Frank Tilley,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 12, 2024,

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