Interview with Ken Turnham


Interview with Ken Turnham


Ken Turnham was born in St Albans and volunteered for the Air Force on his 18th birthday. After his initial training as a wireless operator he was posted to an Operational Training Unit at Lossiemouth. He and his crew were posted to 115 Squadron at RAF Witchford where he completed 29 operations. On an operation to Cologne his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was wounded. He talks about his Pilot Richard (Dick) Briggs - known as 'First back Briggs'. He also discusses jettisoning their bomb load over the sea and the loss of Glen Miller. After the war, Ken worked with the RAF as a release and resettlement Officer. Whilst in Germany he worked in the research team investigating the scene of crashes. During this time he met his wife. After he left the RAF he worked in engineering.







00:23:09 audio recording


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ATurnhamK171009, PTurnhamK1701


SP: This is Susanne Pescott. I’m interviewing Flight Lieutenant Ken Turnham of 115 Squadron today for the International Bomber Command’s Digital Archive. We’re at Ken’s home and it’s the 9th of October 2017. So, first of all Ken, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me today.
KT: It’s a pleasure.
SP: So, Ken, do you want to tell me a little about your life before the war?
KT: Well, I left school at fourteen on a Friday and started work on a Monday as a trainee draughtsman in the building section, working for the ex-mayor of St Albans. Tackie and Burgess was the firm and Steve, who was the son ran the business and he was a volunteer reserve for the Army and of course at the outbreak of the war he was called up so my position as a draughtsman or a trainee draughtsman was void and null. I was more or less made redundant overnight. So, I then worked at a corn chandler’s, coal merchants until I was, until I joined the RAF. I left. Well, on my sixteenth birthday I went down to try and join the Air Force and I was informed that I was too young, come back when I was eighteen. I went back on my eighteenth birthday, dead on the day and signed up at Oxford attestation and became a trainee crew member. From then onwards life began to be very very happy as far as I was concerned. I joined up and went to St John’s Wood in London where we used to go across to the Zoological Gardens at Regent’s Park for our main meals during the day. Prior to that as a civilian before the war I’d been up to London Zoo and witnessed the chimpanzees having their afternoon tea and I thought it rather strange that we as chimpanzees of the RAF were going across to it. And we also used to, we went there of course at St John’s Wood where we were given all our inoculations and vaccinations as you do when you join and we did all the square bashing at Lords Cricket Ground. From there I was transferred to Bridgnorth where I know that they had forty nine pubs because I tried a few of them out [laughs] And then I went to the Number 2 RAF Radio Station at Yatesbury in [pause] where I trained as a wireless operator. On my very first flight in a Percival Proctor the pilot was flying between two chimney stacks which I thought we wouldn’t make it but he turned it on its side and went through. When we landed he took off his helmet and I’d never seen anything like it in my life obviously at eighteen years old. It was a bit like Simon Weston from the Falklands. He’d, he’d got not ears and all his face was all burned. He’d been one of those and I thought if this is flying I’ll give it up right away. But I carried on obviously. Next training, I went to RAF Valley or Mona on the Isle of Anglesey flying Dominies, Rapides which was quite good. Then I went on to the OTU at Lossiemouth in Scotland where we took up flying on Wellington bombers. Having lost seven in one week that put the living daylights at me. Then I went on to Halifaxes. Training on those ready to go on to a squadron and then we were then selected to go on to Lancaster bombers with only twelve hours flying experience on those before being transferred to a squadron which is 115 Squadron based at Witchford, just outside Ely in Cambridgeshire. And then I did my service on twenty nine operations from there over Germany.
SP: So, Ken, do you want to tell me of any of those operations that particularly stood out to you?
KT: Well, one or two actually. I mean twenty nine of them actually stood out. The first one of course was Siegen which we had a recall back and coming back on where we had a designated area to drop your bombs we were coming back and we dropped the bombs and having seen what we assume was a small like a Cessna aircraft below and then it disappeared and we [pause] we, it was overcast by cloud. We couldn’t see anything. But that was the day that unfortunately Glenn Miller disappeared. It could have been something like that had happened. We don’t know. Something that only history will tell I suppose. The targets of course. One of the worst ones I think, well worst one was Cologne where we had forty seven holes in our fuselage. I got flak in my left shoulder and also in my head. Metal in my, just in the base of my nose. It’s given me, it gave me a bit of problems later on in life with a bit of [pause]
[recording paused]
KT: Yeah. I suffered with sinus and I went to the hospital and they, they just came out with the x-ray results and said, ‘Who’s the fella who’s got metal in his head?’ And that was me obviously. They never removed it because it was imbedded in the base of my nose. As, as far as I know it’s still there. So, I’m lucky [laughs] One of the, one or, one or two of the operations were a bit hazardous. It’s no good saying you were, you were brave. It was you were scared like hell. Everybody. I mean, it’s, it’s just a matter of the adrenalin that was pumping through your veins and you just carried on because you didn’t want to let anyone down because as a member of crew really and truly. When you select a crew the bomber and the pilot are the first two. They start to set, select members of the crew saying, ‘Well, that individual we’ll have as a flight engineer.’ ‘That one we’ll have as a wireless operator.’ Or, ‘That one we’ll have as a rear gunner.’ And then you become a family member. A bond which you could never break. You know that each individual would be quite willing to give up his life up for you and that’s the sort of camaraderie and friendship that you build and strengthen on and that stood you in good stead because you knew you could rely on every individual of that, member of that crew. One or two of the operations were a bit hazardous. Particularly, I know the one we did when we did Dresden which was infamous as far as the results concerned. That Churchill said he would never, he wasn’t responsible but he actually gave the information and the orders to carry out that bombing. It was like, well what can I say? You could see it from about a hundred miles away. This fire. A ball of flaming fire and it was intense heat. It was quite, well after about eight hours flying I mean you feel a bit buggered shall we say. You don’t mind me using that expression but that’s how it was. The following night we did another one very similar to that at Chemnitz. Followed by another one which was Potsdam which is just on the outskirts, outskirts of Berlin.
[recording paused]
KT: I remember when we came back from one operation we’d had this, I think it was Cologne it was we had forty seven holes in the fuselage and when we landed we also had a burst tyre which you can imagine just skidded in to the, the tarmac. And the runway which was a bit hazardous and was just a matter of getting out as quick as you could. That was a write off actually in the end. The aircraft. My, the skipper, Dick, Dick Briggs, Richard Briggs it was, he had a reputation of being, we used to call him First Back Briggs. Normally when you come out of a target you’re flying at eighteen, nineteen and twenty thousand feet on your approach. You come out of the target and you, you descend very slowly towards the coastline. Well, Dick had a different, had a reputation of just coming right down, nose down as fast as he could down to two to three thousand feet and flying very low. That was obviously so that the fighters, the night fighters and that couldn’t get underneath you and shoot you from underneath and it was very difficult for the ack ack to concentrate on an aircraft at that low level. That was so we were, we got this reputation First Back Briggs which was good. [coughs] pardon me.
[recording paused]
KT: The crew was a combination of north, south, east and west personnel. The skipper came from Peterborough. My navigator came from Bethnal Green in London. The bomb aimer, bomb aimer Jeff came from Bournemouth. Andy [Glass] came from the north east and then we had two Scots. Scots lads from north of the border and one of them, Jock Thompson was a real character. Normally at the side of your bed when you’ve been out on a night out, you’ve had a good old booze, booze up, I always had a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar and some raw, some eggs by the side of my bed so that I wouldn’t have a hangover in the morning. I just had a raw egg in some vinegar with a bit of pepper and salt on it just to swill it down. Well, Jock, if we were short of eggs he would go out and get them and one day he came back with the bloody chicken as well [laughs] He was that sort of, type of character. He was a rogue. And it wasn’t until after the war when I met him at one of our reunions that I found out that he’d joined the local police force. I thought what a [laughs] what a character. Of all the people. But I mean, Harry, the navigator, I was his best man at his wedding to Joyce which, which was nice. But when we’d finished our tour of operations we were given the opportunity of going to the Far East to do dropping supplies to our troops and what have you there. And everybody was quite willing without the, with the exception of the two gunners which weren’t required. Everybody else was willing to go except the navigator who had only just got married. So, we said as a crew we would not split up. So we went our various ways. So, I went from flying duties. I went to administration and accountancy course at Creedon Hill, Herefordshire after which I then went on to release and resettlement officer demobbing people that were leaving the Services both in Morecambe, Manchester and also abroad in Germany. And then I transferred to the Missing Research and Enquiry duties in Germany investigating scenes of crashes for war crimes and substitutes for Nuremberg trials and carrying out exhumations of personnel for the reinternment so that their families could be notified where their loved ones were interned. And I did that for about two, two and a half years before I took my retirement from the Services.
[recording paused]
KT: Whilst I was out there in Germany serving on the Missing Research Enquiry I met my next, my wife [coughs] pardon me and I’d got one or two postings. I was one, I was posted to Brussels. Another one I was posted to Paris which I bribed or talked two other officers to take their jobs rather than me go so that I could keep company with Madge. Eventually the squadron leader said to me, he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘But you’ll have to go on this next posting,’ which was at Warsaw. So after a confrontation with Madge we decided that if she packed in her job and I packed in my commission we would return to England and, which we did but the chappie that took my job and went to Warsaw finished up at the OPE. So that’s what they call sod’s law.
[recording paused]
KT: As far as the family’s concerned my two brothers were also in the Forces. One was in the Navy. He was, he joined when he was fourteen and a half and he served twenty two years senior service and the other brother was in the Air Force and he complete forty nine operations. Now, he decided that it would be better for me to join the Army so that we’d have one individual from each Service but I said to him I didn’t want to do footslogging. I’d rather fly. So that’s why I joined the Air Force.
[recording paused]
KT: After that, after I left the Forces I came out to Manchester where my wife lived. I originally came from St Albans in Hertfordshire and I took up employment with Renold Chain manufacturers in Manchester and served about twenty eight years with them as production control in engineering.
SP: And when did you retire?
KT: I retired when I was sixty three.
SP: Yeah.
KT: Thirty years ago.
SP: And what did, what have you done since then? Was it your hobbies? Your interests?
KT: Golf. We all play golf. My wife was off seventeen, I was off ten and my son was off eleven and we travelled the world playing. Canada, America, New Zealand, Tunisia, Portugal and we used, I think we did about a hundred countries, a hundred clubs in this country. We had a real good success at golf which was very very good. Yeah.
[recording paused]
SP: So, Ken, you mentioned that you trained on Halifaxes up at Lossiemouth but then you actually got posted and were posted on to Lancasters.
KT: That’s —
SP: Do you want to tell me about that transition?
KT: Yes. Certainly, I mean we, moving over from Halifax to a Lancaster flight we had twelve hours conversion from Halifaxes to Lancasters. Now, as far as that transitional period the crew members, most of us were very similar or very similar type of job. Other than the pilot. He was the main one that had to be converted. As far as I was concerned as the wireless operator the only additional thing that I found out was the Fishpond H2S which was a type of radar which recorded or showed you the type of terrain or country or coastline that you were passing over. Giving you like a radar picture of where you were. That was an additional thing that we found in Lancasters as against Halifaxes. So that was the only thing that I found difficult or different should I say, not difficult whereas all the rest of the crew members I think well it was immaterial to them because as a bomb aimer or a gunner or a flight engineer had very similar work to do. It was only the pilot and, I think the radio operator that found that was difficult or different changes [coughs] Pardon me.
[recording paused]
SP: Ken, obviously you were based at Witchford for 115 Squadron. Do you want to let me know a little about that? A little bit about life at the base.
KT: Well, life on the base, it was just hectic shall we say. You lived day to day not knowing whether you’d be back coming from one, an operation. You’d get up and do your flight, come back, and you’d look around and you’d see three crew, three aircraft would be missing from your squadron. That meant twenty one people were missing at your breakfast. And then you think oh God we’ve got three more crews coming in so a new, a lot of strangers. So, the turnover was quite, well horrendous shall we say but normally life on the squadron as I say you lived day by day. You used to drink and enjoy life as much as you could as, as, oh I don’t —
[recording paused]
KT: I was just thinking that when we came back from an operation were, the first thing you come in you come in for debriefing and there you were issued with coffee, rum, and cigarettes whether you smoked or not. You soon took it up I’ll tell you just to cool your nerves and what have you. And after debriefing of course you went, went for your eggs and bacon which we were privileged to have in those days. A great thing. But what used to shake you sometimes is when you were missing your friends that you’d made association with over the weeks or months of flying with them and you look around and you think where are they? Where have they gone?
[recording paused]
KT: Yeah. After the, after having your breakfast and what have you go back to your mess and you just sit there waiting and waiting for your information for the next operation the following night which you’d have to then be called in for briefing. Your target and take off time and then all your preparation that had to be done. So, it was on the go twenty four hours a day. It’s not a case of, I can relax. You couldn’t relax. You lived on your nerves and you were pumping of adrenalin through your veins. It was quite hazardous and frightening. I don’t care who knows that.
SP: So, when you were called up for your operations and your briefing how did you then, did you all go to your planes straight from the briefing? What happened?
KT: No. After your briefing you went and got kitted up with all the equipment. I mean, in certain cases like when we were doing the long distance, what I would call the long distance, Dresden, Chemnitz, Potsdam, on the borders of Czechoslovakia and what have you would be issued with additional information written in either Russian so that if you were, you had to bale out to go over that side over to the Russian front rather than back into Germany. And you would have this information so that you would [pause] they would know that you were an airman from the RAF rather than, you know. So, that sort of thing you would pick up. You go and get your parachute and all your equipment, all your flying gear, get ready and kitted out ready to go and board the aircraft.
[recording paused]
KT: As far as our flying kit’s concerned we were issued with silk gloves and silk, rather strangely stockings underneath our flying boots and equipment so that we got warm because flying in those aircraft is not like modern things today where you get air conditioning and heating. These were just old tin cans and you used to, well obviously you’d get frost bite if you take your gloves off. You used to have these silk ones and then big thick gloves as well which were sometimes very difficult to manipulate and do your jobs. But they had to be that way because it was such a cold climate that you were in. An old tin can as they called them but that was a part of it. But flying, I mean, you used to have the big flying jackets and the helmets and you were kitted out quite well. Under those conditions anyway.
SP: Right.
[recording paused]
SP: So, Ken, is there anything else that you’ve not had a chance to mention or you’d like to?
KT: I can’t think of anything at the present moment. That’s with age [laughs]
SP: Ok, Ken. Well, thank you very much for giving your time for the recording. On behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre I’d like to thank you for your time today. So, thank you.
KT: Thank you very much. Thank you.



Susanne Pescott, “Interview with Ken Turnham,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 20, 2024,

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