Interview with Ernset Townsend


Interview with Ernset Townsend


Ernest was born in Marylebone, London. He tells of his childhood, how he helped his father on his milk round and became a butcher's boy at Shepherds Market before serving in the Air Training Corps. He joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 17 and a half. He tells of his joy at flying Tiger Moths, and his wish to be a pilot, and his posting to 61 Squadron flying in Lancasters. Ernest mentions Lack of Moral Fibre, and recounts the experience of another crewman who bailed out over Berlin, where he was arrested before he could be hanged by the local villagers. Ernest completed 11 operations, including Cologne and Hamburg. He also tells of what preparations were made for bombing runs, and how he did his job as a bomb aimer. Before being demobbed in 1947, Ernest spent time going around all the radar stations, doing rifle training. He then tells of his love of football, including playing opposite a former Dundee United Player and how, after the war, he signed for Fulham, playing only briefly, driving prisoners to court or prison and then working for London Transport for forty years. Ernset Townsend was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2017.

Please note: The veracity of this interview has been called into question. We advise that corroborative research is undertaken to establish the accuracy of some of the details mentioned and events witnessed.




Temporal Coverage




00:42:49 audio recording


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CJ: This is Chris Johnson and I’m interviewing Ernest Townsend today for the International Bomber Command Centres digital archive. We’re at Ernest’s home in Sittingbourne, in Kent and it’s Tuesday the 7th February 2017. Thank you very much, Ernest, for agreeing to talk to me today. Also present at the interview are Ernest’s wife June and daughter June. So thanks very much for chatting to us today, perhaps we could start with your early life, would you like to tell us where and when you were born and what Mum and Dad did?
ET: Yes certainly. I was born in Marylebone, London, er, we lived in Chelsea, and then after a while, we moved to Wandsworth. And then I went to school, er, Eltringham Street School and that was the only school I ever went to.
CJ: And what did your Dad do, was he working?
ET: My Dad was working as a milk roundsman, but he had this – well I admit he was ill – he had this feeling that if he didn’t go to work, if he went sick, he’d get the sack. So what used to happen sometimes, which I used to dread, I wasn’t all that old, I must have been about eleven, twelve, [background noises] my Mum used to wake me up and say ‘your Dad’s ill, er, you’re needed, you’re needed today, would you meet him’, and I – you don’t know in London, I don’t s’pose – ‘meet, meet your Dad, he wants you to help him’. So I used to get up and go all the way over to Everidges, about three miles, on me own, that was about four o’clock in the morning and then we used to, I [emphasis] used to drop the milk off outside the doors and he was a horse and cart job, yeah.
CJ: And didn’t he have some illness because of a problem during the war? First war?
ET: I think he mainly, yeah, his illness was, in the first war he was a Marine, but him and his friend got posted on to er, I think it was a trawler, I think, but he got, he got sunk anyway and he was, he was in the water for three, three days and I think that didn’t do him a lot of good. But I loved me Mum and I loved me Dad.
CJ: And what about school, what did you, what were you good at there?
ET: Oh I was alright at school, yeah, er, but it wasn’t a top-class school. This chap always used to come in front of me first, James his name was and I used to be second and I couldn’t, I could not [emphasis] beat him, don’t matter what I done, so I kept trying but that was how it was. Nah, I thought I was alright, very intelligent. And then the, the war came, and in the end I went and volunteered.
CJ: So did you have a job after leaving school? Before –
ET: Yeah.
CJ: You went to the RAF?
ET: Oh yeah, I had a job as a butcher’s boy and that was up, I don’t, that was in Shepherds Market and that’s got a reputation, nah, better not say what the reputation is, but it’s not very nice, the girls there. Anyway [pause] it was er, I worked there and then I wanted to go in the Air Force so I went and volunteered.
CJ: So why did you volunteer for the Air Force rather than one of the other services?
ET: Because that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to fly. Yeah [pause], I thought it was special really and I got, I got called up and I was asked to attend St John’s Wood, er, you know where that is don’t you?
CJ: Yes.
ET: And I was there a few weeks and then I went to, er, where had I gone to [pause], I can’t remember where I went to really.
CJ: So, was St John’s Wood the initial training?
ET: Er, St John’s Wood, not really, they just held you there for a while, while they posted you. And they posted me to, everybody got posted somewhere different, ‘s’, began with ‘s’, it did, it’s [pause] anyway.
CJ: So Ernest, before you joined up, I think you were in the Air Training Corps? Was that correct?
ET: I was in the Air Training Corps, yes. Er, the reason I was in the Air Training Corps, they were having a competition and, what’s his name, Blackwood, he was a Scottish international footballer, he heard of my reputation so he wanted me to play for the team, because they were having a competition in London. And of course, I played and [emphasis] we won. The whole of London! Yeah. Yeah, I s’pose my life was based on bloody football.
CJ: [Laughs] so did the Air Training Corps lead you to joining up in the RAF rather than another service?
ET: Oh yeah, you go up and have your interview up there, where was it, up in Euston I think it was, where I went and, yeah, strict. You have, you have interviews and lot of things you have, but I passed, so it was alright.
CJ: So then you said you went to St John’s Wood
ET: [coughing]
CJ: And then after that, I think you said it was Stratford-on-Avon?
ET: Yeah, I went to er, Stratford-on-Avon ITU. Stratford-on-Avon.
CJ: And so what were you doing there?
ET: Whatever people – it’s like school really, you was tuning yourself up to get better education really, that’s what it was.
CJ: So was this initial training?
ET: Yes
CJ: Umm hmm. So what did that consist of?
ET: Well, Mathematics and English and lots of things, write out something, some type of story or something like that. It was, it was interesting.
CJ: And where were you posted to after that, do you remember?
ET: Yeah, I went to Worcester, I was gonna be a pilot. We went down there and started flying Tiger Moths, but I was unlucky. The bloke who was my test, well I s’pose he was a test pilot, he was like that [pause], but he used to sit in it and just about get in the doing and I couldn’t see nothing! That was the worst of it and when we used to – alright getting up but when I come down to land, I was leaning right over, right out, oh my gawd, right over, leaning right over, yes, so [laughs] that’s what happened.
CJ: So he was so big that he was in the seat in front of you and you couldn’t see past him, is that it?
ET: I’ll prove the point, he went off for a few days and a young bloke who’d been Battle of Britain bloke, really young, small bloke, and he was there, I was right as rain. Yeah, so, we done, you do twelve of those, twelve flights. Anyway, after that I, where’d I go?
CJ: So what, so you weren’t qualified as a pilot, you didn’t pass out as a pilot?
ET: I didn’t pass out as a pilot, no, but then, er, where’d I go? Worcester? [pause] No.
CJ: So you said you were in Worcester, erm, and then were did you go after that? That was after the flying training?
ET: Yeah, I got a feeling I went up to, er, Manchester. Oh no, have I missed one out? Don’t know. No I don’t think so. I went up to Manchester.
CJ: So had you been selected as a bomb aimer then, how did that happen?
ET: Once I got up to, once I got up to there and er, just waiting to be posted somewhere else, and I got posted to the Isle of Man.
CJ: Umm hmm.
ET: That’s where you kind of train, the final training and they judge you then, that’s when I got picked as a bomb aimer there.
CJ: So how did you come to be selected as bomb aimer, did you have a particular skill they were looking for or did they just say you, you and you?
ET: Right, a particular skill. I did, I was really good at things like that, yeah, and you got, you become a sergeant, yeah, and then you came back again and went to OTU. And when you’re in the OTU, you went in a great big hanger, huge, and er, you had pilot, the pilots were in more or less one corner, navigators the other side, bomb aimers there and then they just walk away and say, ‘sort yourselves out and make crews out of you lot, will ya’. And I done well, I had this er, Australian bloke Bluey Lacuda, he was a wonderful bloke, Bluey Lacuda. Why was he Bluey? Because he had ginger hair [laughter], yeah. Yeah, he was a good bloke, he was a good pilot, yeah.
CJ: So how did, Bluey and the rest of you, pick the rest of the crew? You had to make a crew of seven, is that right?
ET: Yeah, first of all what he picked, he picked Jock Simpson, he was a Scotsman come from Dundee, and then those two picked me and then we picked, I think, I forget who we picked then.
CJ: Was it the gunners?
ET: No, before that, they had the –
CJ: Engineer?
ET: Yeah, there was the engineer and then there was also the, the person who was the –
CJ: Wireless operator?
ET: Yes, seven people in the crew, yeah.
CJ: And so did you train as a crew there or did you go somewhere else?
ET: Er, we went, trained, yeah, we did train there I think, yeah. Yeah, we trained there.
CJ: And this was Moreton in the Marsh, you said?
ET: Yeah.
CJ: And how did it come about for you to be posted to a squadron once you’d completed the training?
ET: I don’t know who told, who posted us there, but we went there. We could have gone, nah, I think they gave us the option, you could go to 50 or 61, because there was two of those on that airfield, so we went to 61. No, my pilot was a wonderful bloke. Only a little bloke but he was a good pilot. I mean, he said to me, ‘you’ve got the knack of flying, you better have a few practice flights’, and I did. Wonderful, wonderful. Yeah. I should, I should have been a pilot.
CJ: And what was the Lancaster like to fly?
ET: Er, once you got it in the air [laughter], it was alright, but I took off the first time and I went there, and I went there, and I went there, and old Bluey said, ‘put your foot down, the left foot down on that metal bar will you please and get back’, [laughter] and we got back again and we got in the air and he took over [laughter].
CJ: And how long was it then, before you went on your first operation?
ET: About, oh, about two months I reckon. Yeah, I think the first one we went to was Cologne, but on one occasion, we got a hit coming back and old Bluey said, ‘I don’t know whether we’ll get back to Skellingthorpe, do you?’ I said, ‘I know we won’t, but I do know somewhere we can go’. We went down to Kent, so we landed there. Big, long runway.
CJ: Was that Manston?
ET: Yeah, yes, that was it.
CJ: So what condition was the aircraft in then when you landed?
ET: Er, two engines had gone, well they could repair them I s’pose, but they was gone. He could’ve, I reckon he might’ve got up there, I don’t know, it wasn’t worth taking the chance if we could land there at Manston, yeah.
CJ: And do you remember any other particular raids that you went on?
ET: Er, went to Hamburg – nasty. Alright, we’re saying how we caught it all alight, but er, no they gave us a hammering, they did. No, a lot of them gave us a hammering, and I was in the front.
CJ: So what was it like when you were on an operation then, for a bomb aimer, do you want to talk us through it? From, like, how you found out where you were going and how you prepared for it?
ET: Yeah, we met usually in the morning or afternoon, and they told you where you were gonna go, and er, told you quite a lot about the town you’re gonna go to, or the place you’re gonna go to, and that was it. Then, alright I never went to Berlin, but I know a bloke who did, a crew who did, they bailed out over Berlin, and this one bloke, I knew him, he was in another plane and he bailed out. He got to the ground, he didn’t see his mates in the crew, but they got hold of him, all the people like, people in London, and they were gonna hang him to a lamp-post. And he said a policeman came along with a gun and herded the people out and just arrested me, type of thing, so he saved his life. Yeah, but don’t care what you say, we was all afraid.
CJ: Mm. So then you found out, in the afternoon, where you were going, how was it decided what bomb load you carried?
ET: Er, I used to talk to the person who was the, who did I say, before?
CJ: The armourer?
ET: Yeah. We used to have a chat and we’d decide. Mostly it’s fourteen thousand, yeah, so -
CJ: What, there were different bomb loads, different mixtures of bombs that you carried?
ET: Oh yeah, yeah, there were different types. We used to work it out.
CJ: So you usually carried what, a four thousand pound cookie? A big one?
ET: Yeah
CJ: And –
ET: Ten, we used to carry ten. Ten one thousand pounders, yeah. I’ll tell you what I didn’t like though, really, one of the – I did know him – he was flying, I think he was an air gunner, he was flying this other plane and we were going on this raid, I forget which raid it was. And he just said, ‘oh no, I’m not going’, and he just stepped down. He said ‘I’m not going’, I said, ‘you are, get in’, he said ‘I’m not going’, and he wouldn’t go! So I said, ‘fair enough, you can go LMF then’, lack of moral fibre. Yeah, so that’s what happened to him, and I didn’t like that ‘cause they was all volunteers. Yeah.
CJ: So how many operations did you go on?
ET: Eleven. No, it’s a matter of luck. Luck, luck, luck.
CJ: And after the eleventh then, how come you didn’t do any more after that?
ET: Because the war stopped, it stopped. When was it, that it stopped. We was, er, they told old Bluey, ‘you’re gonna go over to Australia, taking your crew with you, because the war is still on out there, against those’. So we was getting all ready to go, and we was all ready to go, and they dropped the atom bomb, didn’t they, and that was the end of that.
CJ: So what was life like on the base, what was the food like and what did you get up to when you were between operations?
ET: Kicking a ball about [laughter], no, I thought I was good at football but I had a rude awakening. Old Jock Simpson, a Scotsman, we were kicking the ball about and he come over, he took over, he was a bloody good player, he was. He said he played for Dundee [laughter], he was good, yeah. Me and him didn’t get on though.
CJ: And did you socialise much with the other crews, or did you –
ET: Oh yeah –
CJ: - keep to yourselves?
ET: Oh no, they had WAAFs there [laughter], yeah, oh yeah.
CJ: So how much time did you have? I suppose it depended on the weather, the time between the operations?
ET: Yeah, that’s how it was really.
CJ: Umm hmm.
ET: Time between the operations, yeah.
CJ: So then the war ended, the bomb was dropped –
ET: When was it, when did the war end, was it the eighth of April, or – yeah, that’s when it stopped.
CJ: So were you demobbed straight after that?
ET: No
CJ: Or did you stay in the Air Force for a while?
ET: No I stayed in the Air Force. I didn’t get demobbed ‘til eighty-seven.
CJ: Forty-seven.
ET: Forty-seven, yeah.
CJ: So what were you doing then after, between the end of the war and up to forty-seven?
ET: I was going round all the radar stations, taking them on the range and showing them how to fire a rifle. Then I went round Norfolk, went all the way round to – first of all to the Isle of Wight, but then I came back to this place down here.
CJ: Somewhere in Kent is it, Lid –
ET: Datling.
CJ: Datling, Maidstone, ok. Sorry, I think I missed a bit out because we went off on another track. Can I just come back to the bit about where you’re going on an operation, and you’ve found out where you’re going, and you’ve been told what your bomb load would be. Can you tell me how you went on from there, to actually going on the raid and how your job, er –
ET: My job –
CJ: – was carried out on the operation.
ET: To check everything, if it was loaded properly but er, always used to be alright.
CJ: So, you checked with the armourers on the ground that the bombs were correctly loaded and shackled.
ET: Yeah [pause], but I’ve got to say, I was scared, no good saying anything different.
CJ: So, once you’d got up in the air then, what was your job before you got to the target?
ET: Map reading, not sitting right in the front of the aircraft, then when we come up, I used to more or less take over. [pause] Sometimes, depends where we was going we used to chuck stuff out of the, you’ve heard of it, window?
CJ: Window, is it the aluminium strips to fool the radar?
ET: Yeah, we had a load of blinds up there. I used to do that, but once we got up near the target I used to take over.
CJ: So can you describe what you actually did then, as you were running up to the target?
ET: I’d say, ‘Skipper, I’ve got the target in sight. Right, steady [pause], steady, left, left, steady’, oh, I forgot to open bomb doors! [laughter]
CJ: So you, yeah, you’ve already got the bomb doors open, hopefully [laughter]
ET: Yeah
CJ: So how did you sight on the target then, you had a bomb sight to work with?
ET: Oh yeah. When you’re training, you’ve got a bomb sight mark nine. When you’re actually flying on operation, you’re at mark fourteen. Very good bomb sight. Yeah, I used to be pretty good really.
CJ: So how did you actually identify the target and then decide when to drop the bombs?
ET: Well they used to give the bomb aimer a little map beforehand and that’s when he sorted it all out. And yeah, it was alright.
CJ: So, did they drop markers ahead of you, on the target for you?
ET: Oh yeah, it was all marked when we saw it, had markers.
CJ: So, then you’re running up to the target, and through the bomb sight, and then how do you decide exactly when you release the bombs?
ET: It is down to the bomb aimer, he decides I should hit it from here and then he releases it, and I believe I hit it on most occasions, yeah.
CJ: So were you able to see the bombs hitting to know where they’d gone?
ET: The rear gunner used to. Used to ask him and he’d tell us.
CJ: And did you have to take photographs?
ET: Oh yeah.
CJ: Umm. So, then what, after you’d dropped bombs, what were you up to before you got back to base?
ET: Well I used to sit there, sit in the front, and just more or less keep an eye on map reading, because I didn’t have confidence in the navigator [laughter], I didn’t. I said, ‘Jock, you know we’re going alright?’ he said, ‘’course we are’, ‘I know we’re not!’ And he oh, he really had the arse on then.
CJ: So, once you got back to base, then what, did you have to have a debriefing?
ET: Oh yeah. Once you got back you had a debriefing and they told you then, they knew more or less, they told you exactly what it was all about. Yeah, so you thought ‘oh, that’s all over’, but it could happen again the next day, it could, but it only happened once. But that’s the thing.
CJ: So, then you said you were demobbed in forty-seven, so what were you doing after that, did you manage to find a job straight away?
ET: Yep, well, butcher’s boy [laughter], that was alright. Nah, I was gonna go and be a postman. I went up there to take this test, I took it, I done alright and then my Dad said, ‘I’ve got a job for you’. Oh yeah, one of his clients you know, he said he reckoned he could do with a boy like me [laughter], I couldn’t say nothing, that was it.
CJ: So, whereabouts was the butcher’s?
ET: Shepherds Market.
CJ: Yes.
ET: Now you musn’t say you ever been to Shepherds Market, people will get the wrong idea. [laughter]
CJ: And did you have anybody well-known that came to the shop?
ET: Oh yeah, she’s told you already.
CJ: Do you want to tell us?
ET: What, come in the shop?
CJ: Any famous people?
ET: David Niven came, he was one of our customers. Er, what’s her name, what’s her name? [whispered]
CJ: I think somebody mentioned Anna Neagle?
ET: Yeah, Anna Neagle, yeah. I used to deliver to her, she lived in Park Lane. I used to deliver, she was on about the third floor and on one of the walls, like, out there she had her picture, yeah.
CJ: So were you still playing football at this time?
ET: Yep.
CJ: Who were you playing for?
ET: Battersea United
CJ: And what league were they in and how well did they get on?
ET: They were a good team. Because I became the captain [laughter] and they had to be a good team. Ask her, June?
CJ: So how long did you go on playing football for?
ET: Oh, [background noise] about a couple of years I s’pose
CJ: And what about the butchering, how long did you stick with that for?
ET: I was there when I was 14, 17, three and a half years, I think.
CJ: And so, what were you doing after that?
ET: Well I went, started going in the Air Force.
CJ: Yeah, sorry, after the war when you, in forty-seven, you said you were demobbed, so were you back to butchering then?
ET: No, I went and worked at London Transport.
CJ: Ok, and what were you doing there?
ET: They was advertising, well you’ve seen them, bills across the track, y’know, and up the escalator, on the trains and all that. And anyway, I always wanted to be the boss so, I became the boss. [laughs]
CJ: And how long did you stay with London Transport?
ET: Only forty years.
CJ: Only forty years.
ET: Yeah.
CJ: So was that up to retirement?
ET: Yes.
CJ: Ok, and what about the rest of the crew that you flew with, did you keep in touch with them after the war?
ET: I did in the beginning. We went to, he become a, a quarter master, yeah, he got made up, old Bluey. He was a flight sergeant but he become a [pause], he was pushed up to the next one anyway. Quarter – what they call them? Was it quarter master?
CJ: So what, he stayed in the Air Force, or he was –
ET: He went back to, he went back to, er, Australia. But we went to Australia, didn’t we June? [background noise]
CJ: So, this work at London Transport, I think there was some link with football, is that right?
ET: Correct, yes. Yep.
CJ: And what was it?
ET: Well, they wanted you to play football, and you kind of get a bit of a reputation in front of you, and people come, come after you, they do.
CJ: But I think you were working nights at London Transport, is that right? Was there a link with the football?
ET: No, that was alright. It wasn’t really but, I thought, if you’re on nights, you get more money.
CJ: And you said you’d been playing for a local team, did you have any trials with any big teams?
ET: Yep. Fulham.
CJ: And how did that work out?
ET: They wanted me, they signed me on.
CJ: So, you were playing for Fulham?
ET: I played for Fulham for a while, yeah, yep, but I realised I wasn’t as good as I thought I was when I got mixed up with them. They were really good, yeah.
CJ: And, er, how old were you when you stopped playing football, do you remember?
ET: Thirty, yeah.
CJ: So, after all these years at London Transport, did you retire after that or did you go to another job?
ET: No, I went part-time job, didn’t I? I was looking for, I was still looking for work, yeah, driver.
CJ: And what company were you driving for, what were you driving?
ET: I went and got a job, you told me, didn’t you? She said, ‘Dad, I’ve seen an advert in the paper, they want a taxi driver down at [pause], down at Eastchurch. So, I went down there and the bloke, it was only a small place, he said, ‘oh yeah’, he said, ‘do you know London?’ I said, ‘yeah, of course I do’. He said, ‘well I don’t like it, I don’t like going to London’, he said, ‘you’ll be ideal then for it’. He said, ‘and also, we’ve got a contract to take these naughty people up to the prison, or up to the court’. Used to take them, well they’ve got three prisons down there now, but they had two then. But yeah, it was alright. [pause] I know – [background noise]
CJ: So how did you come to meet your lovely wife, Ernest, was that through football as well?
ET: No, this time it was through cricket. I didn’t realise she was, took a liking to me, so she decided she liked me so, er, that’s how it happened.
CJ: And how long have you been married now?
ET: Sixty-two years. Yeah.
CJ: And –
ET: It don’t seem a day too long.
CJ: [laughs] As the song goes. So, coming back to Bomber Command, how do you think you, and other people who were in Bomber Command, were treated after the war?
ET: Not very good [pause] no, not very good
CJ: Do you want to expand on that?
ET: Well, we was all made more or less redundant and then, er, they gave – you’ve got to do something while you’re in the RAF and I thought this is a chance for me, I couldn’t drive and I thought this is a chance, I’ll get to learn to drive. When I got there, being interviewed, they said what would you like to do. ‘I’d like to be a driver’, they said, ‘sorry, all those places are taken, you can be a –‘ [pause], [laughs], I forget what they said after I got back. But, er –
CJ: And what about recognition of Bomber Command now, I think you said that you’d been up to the new memorial in London?
ET: Yeah, I think more of it now. Oh yeah.
CJ: And did you just visit the memorial, or were you there for the opening?
ET: We was there for the opening.
CJ: So I gather you had a presentation yesterday, of the Légion d’Honneur. Can you tell me about how you were picked for that, and how you were told about it, and where the presentation was?
ET: We had the presentation in Sittingbourne, in a great big hall down there and it was very enjoyable. The person who, er, gave me it was the mayor, the mayoress really, and yeah it was alright. Lot of people, a lot of people, I was surprised. A lot of people went there who, well I don’t know, I’m more popular than I thought! [laughs] Yeah, so I don’t know why they picked me out, I don’t know, but they did pick me out, so I must have been doing alright [background noise] Pardon?
CJ: So, who do you think nominated you then for this, this award?
ET: Well I assume it was the British Legion. I was surprised.
CJ: And were any other people being given the same award or was it just for you, yesterday?
ET: Just for me yesterday.
CJ: Well, congratulations on that. Ok, well thank you very much for talking to us today Ernest, it’s been a real pleasure.



Chris Johnson, “Interview with Ernset Townsend,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 27, 2024,

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