Interview with Arthur Vickers


Interview with Arthur Vickers


Arthur Vickers worked for the Coop before he volunteered for the Air Force. After training he completed an tour of operations as a flight engineer. He discusses life on the station and on operations including a trip when they though they might have to bale out over the North Sea.



IBCC Digital Archive




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00:33:55 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


GC: Right. This is an interview being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre digital archive. My name’s Gemma Clapton. The interviewee today is, er, Mr Arthur Vickers and its taking place at West Mersea on the 16th of April 2016. First of all I’d like to thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. Tell me a bit about your life before the war if you may please.
AV: I worked in the Co-op for, for six years. Do you hear it? Loud enough?
GC: That’s good.
AV: Until, until I joined up and, er, I joined the Air Training Corps for two years while I was waiting to get, be called up and then when I joined up I went into training as, as flight engineer, not as Halifaxes or on Lancaster bombers, any special bomber. You had to do ground training first, so I done my ground training and I was trained as a flight mechanic engines. Done drill ex—exactly the same as the soldiers. We’d do all firing rifles. Just because you’re in the Air Force you don’t think you’re going to fire a rifle but I fired machine guns and everything, and threw hand grenades and things like that, also assault courses in the Army, exactly the same as the Army blokes, the Air Force. And then I started training as, as flight and I passed out in July 1942, no, 1943 sorry, July 1943 as a sergeant flight engineer on Halifax bombers and I’d never seen an aircraft. I’d never flown and I got, I got my stripes, my badge and then went in there but never been in an aeroplane. Within three weeks later I was over Germany.
GC: What was it like, you say you wasn’t in a — you’d never been in a plane, what was it like the first time you got in the plane?
AV: That was in July 1943. I mean, I’d never been in a motor car let alone an aeroplane [?] because where we lived there was no roads. We lived in a little village and so I’d never, never driven a car or a motorbike. Pushbikes, that’s the only thing I’d ever ridden. I got in a plane and, of course, actually what happened, the rest of the crew had already been flown, flying together and then they come over to us, our station, and picked us up, flight engineers, to join a bank of a seven-man crew. [background noise] So I, when I got up I was as sick as a dog. I had to have a rubber mask on and it was in August, er, July rather, it was red hot and I had this stinking rubber mask on. It was only a bit of bile, I wasn’t sick properly, just bile and I had to swallow it again because I had my mask on. And that was my first trip and after that I was alright. Didn’t mind the mask after that. It didn’t affect me. It was just that initial — I was only up for about an hour and a half, just training, and after that, once they passed the pilot out as a flight — because our pilot had already flown singles and twins and when he, when he picked us up, the rest of the crew there was seven of us all there. So after that we was on our own. So we trained, done local flying, done night flying and things like that and then within three weeks later we was over — our first bomber raid.
GC: Tell me a bit about your crew. Can you remember them?
AV: Oh yeah. Jock, skipper; Sidney Hamilton, bomb aimer; Rogers, navigator; Bill Elsea [?], bomb aimer; Eddie Spinks, wireless operator; Ron Harris, rear gunner; Bruce [?] Wiggins, spare gunner and myself.
GC: Tell me a bit about their characters. What were they like as a crew?
AV: Well, you see, you used to see these films where everybody’s mixing and living together. Well that’s entirely fictitious. We used, we used meet to go on a raid and after we were all separate after that. Never see each other after that. Never go out drinking together oand things like that. It was all individuals.
GC: So what was life like then on the actual station?
AV: Station?
GC: Yeah.
AV: Well, you used to get up and then report to head, head office to see what they want doing, what you’re doing today and if you’re not flying they’d give you some job to do, find a job for you to do or something but most of the time we just used to sit and read, play cards, or whatever you like. You see once, once you’d got on a squadron and got operational you had no duties. So, really I was a sergeant in name only and get paid as a sergeant, but I had no duties as a sergeant at, at all. And we used to, used to meet — it took me six months to do my thirty ops and after all the time there was just time wasted, nothing, just sit around and read and twiddle your thumbs. They used to about midday 12 o’clock, we used to get called, all crews report to the mess, the in— well, intell— well it was an intelligence place, actually, briefing room they called it so we’d go there and they’d tell us what we’re going to do. And what we’re going to do? Take off about 6 o’clock. This was in, in summertime. So you’d take off at night in dark. I never flew in the day. I was night-time. So, they’d say we’re taking off at 8 o’clock tonight, er, dinner at — of course we used to have a dinner before we went out, egg and bacon, it was one egg and bacon, that was a luxury. So it was a bomber’s dinner. That was a luxury they say. Dining at, er, 4 o’clock. So, this would be at 12, you’d be — until you were going and all that sort of thing, for about half an hour, then you go back and sit down and wait until 12, until dinner time, whenever it was, go and have your dinner, then come back, come back and get ready, change your gear ‘cause we used to have silk underwear because of the cold, change into long johns and silk underwear, and [unclear] we had a single jersey on and thick woollen socks. No flying, no flying suit. This was ordinary battle dress and then, er, we would just wile the time away until it was about an hour before we were due to be taking off. They’d come and collect us in a van and drop us off at various places because the aircraft were dispersed all around and they drop us off and you get ready, ready to go.
GC: We all know from the movies etcetera about Lancasters but you flew Halifax.
AV: Same thing.
GC: Tell me a bit about the Halifax because it is to us —
AV: Well, there was four engines exactly the same, Merlin engines, exactly same as the Halifax, a Lancaster, seven-man crew just the same and they had more guns than us. Now this — you’ll, you’ll never come across this as long as you live. We flew a four-engine bomber with just four guns at the back on the rear turret. On our squadron we didn’t have no other, other turrets. You know, a Lancaster has got three turrets, we only had one.
GC: Did that make you feel more vulnerable?
AV: Of course it did [slight laugh] but we could carry another bomb, another five hundred pound bomb, because a turret weighs four or five hundred pounds. My job — because we could — we had a spare gunner and he used to lie on the floor, look through the little blister and see if there was any fighters coming underneath — my job was looking out of the top of my — because I had a Perspex dome on top — I used to look out for fighters above so most of my time I was looking out for fighters. Fortunately I had my own paddle [?] with about thirty-three gauges on it, petrol gauges. The Lancaster only had six petrol, petrol tanks. Do you know that? Have you been you told that?
GC: No.
AV: We had twelve, we had small, twelve small — six in each wing and the Lancaster had three in each wing and the engineer used to sit next to the pilot, near the pilot, in a Lancaster. In a Halifax he stood behind the pilot.
GC: Oh right. Tell me, um, if you wouldn’t mind about, you know, an op. Is there an op that sticks out in your mind? I mean, you did all of them at night so —
AV: Oh yeah. I could tell you the first one — shooting a line this one. Have you heard the expression?
GC: Yes.
AV: We were going across the North Sea and we picked up an ice cloud. And it, it might have come, it might have come off another aircraft. We don’t know what it was but it was a load of ice and it went into the engine, the port engine, and of course it wasn’t getting no air in, it overheated, so we had to shut it off quick before it burst into flames ‘cause they was very susceptible to — now, I don’t know whether you know, ever seen a Merlin engine or not but it’s got several [?] tanks there, coolant, [unclear] over the top there and they get vibrations sometimes and it was hot and, of course, it was full of glycol antifreeze and that, that flames very quickly, catches fires very quickly, especially if it gets on to the exhaust. So, I said to the skipper, ‘Shut that down quick.’ So he shut it down, shut it off. Well, we’re now going over there on, on three engines. A lot of them used to but it was too dicey, so we shut the engine, shut that down and said we’ll drop our bombs in the sea, jettison the bombs, so we dropped our bombs in the sea and as we, you know when you drop a load of bombs you shoot up about fifty feet in the air, well it shot us fifty feet in the air and the bolt snapped on our aileron on the back. It was a cold winter, frosty, bitterly cold winter and there was a flaw in the bolt, it was only a little bolt, on the elevator, there was flaw in it, the sun [?] jolted us and the cold had snapped so it jammed the elevator and it put it down in the diode and the skipper couldn’t hold it. He said, ‘We’ll have to bail out.’ Well, if we’d bailed out it would have been certain death because North Sea in the, in the winter and it would have been certain — we’d better stay in the plane like, you know, so we all got ready to — open the door, put, get your parachute ready, all ready to bail out. And he said, ‘Hold on a minute.’ He said, ‘We’re levelling out a bit.’ He managed to get a bit of control, so he levelled it out, so he said, ‘We’ll have to ditch in the North Sea.’ So, we shut all the doors, opened that door, opened the door, put a bit of air in the Mae West, grabbed all the gear, [unclear] had the pitching torch, Very pistol, this was all in the dark this is, all in the dark, at 10 o’clock at night. Got it all ready then he said, ‘Oh I can see the sea. We’re going to crash.’ And he got two, about two or three hundred feet off the sea and he levelled out so we went straight back home, straight back home, no messing about, straight back home and, you know, we’d be at Whitby and up that north shore. There’s very high cliffs up there. We just skimmed over the top of them. We couldn’t climb very high. We stayed about two hundred feet more or less and we, we crawled up the drome and they said, ‘What are you doing back here?’ We said, ‘We’re back here so we’re landing.’ And we landed alright. He could control it to land and we got back and, er, we went in the debriefing and then we went — we used to have a lunch afterwards, same thing, and my wife was a cook, be— behind the counter, and she said, ‘What are you doing back here?’ And we was all, faces all black, like a mask and the rest of the face was as white as a ghost [laugh] you could hardly recognise us. But that was our first bit, bit of trouble but we were lucky. I mean we should have died. We should have died. We should have all died, you know. No question of sea rescue, jumping down a — in a parachute. You know, it was in the North Sea. It means that it would have been a quick death. It would have been a quick death. I mean [unclear] that was just, that was our — didn’t, that wasn’t enemy action, that was —
GC: That was just was the first op.
AV: Just our first thing, some way it was just way it happened, the way it happened. I had more trouble on a flight instructor’s job than I did on operations. We did get peppered once by — ‘cause I don’t know whether you know, if anybody’s told you but if you land an aircraft, right, in Germany they used to have a gun that goes shooting off about twelve thousand feet, twelve thousand feet and when that burst they gave you a two thousand area, two thousand burst area. The next one was fourteen thousand feet and the next one was eighteen thousand feet. Well, if you was, if — we used to fly at twenty thousand feet, that’s our height. If you were lucky you, you was above the flak all the time but if you got a bit low, below twenty thousand feet you could, you used to get six inch bits of shrapnel, red hot, pepper— pepper the plane. We had about six holes in our, in our plane. And one piece went right past the bomb aimer into an instrument. He was reading an instrument like that, and it went in there, smashed every valve in it, ‘cause there were all valves in that, smashed every valve but missed him. We had one piece go through the toilet [slight laugh] right through the toilet and out the other side. One piece hit the bomb in the bomb bay but that don’t matter, it’s not — it won’t go off, but I was standing over right, six inches through this side and it would have been right through me. And that’s red hot shrapnel that was, bits six inches, about six inches long, jagged edge shrapnel and we had another piece in the tail unit, didn’t do no damage, never effected any flying so we come back and they just patched it up and that was it, no trouble. But we could have, we could have been killed but we were just lucky. We were dead lucky, ‘cause we was the first crew in six months of finishing our tour. It was just your luck. We were dead lucky, you know. You never made friends of anybody. You never knew where they’d be the next night. They could be gone like, you know —
GC: We assume that because it was a crew it was a unit. Everyone was close.
AV: No. I was friendly with the wireless operator because we shared a room together but the rest of the crew, no. We never used to meet at all, only when we were going on operations.
GC: So, you, you’ve been hit by shrapnel and you’ve almost nearly ditched in the North Sea —
AV: Yeah. Oh yeah. That’s only the start.
GC: That’s just the start.
AV: I’ve been upside down in a Halifax.
GC: Oh, tell us about that.
AV: Well, it was while I was an instructor. What you used to do was the crews would come up, six crews, and they’d pick the engineer up so they’d make the seven and then they would fly a Halifax. Up till then they’d been on Wellingtons or two-engine planes, come up and they’d get on. We used to have to take the pilot up. Every time an instructor pilot went up he’d have to have an instructor engineer with him so every time we went up we’d get these newish crew, a new crew come in so we had to take them up and show them how to fly a Halifax for about an hour [background noise]. Well, they’d get so casual these instructors they didn’t bother strapping themselves in and a Halifax, it had a tendency to drop a wing. When you’re doing practice a stall, to stall the only way you can land is to stall an aircraft, cut the power off. And we were doing the practice drop at five thousand feet. We were doing a practice stall and it flipped and it threw the pilot out the seat. He wasn’t strapped in so she went upside down. We went from five thousand feet to eight hundred feet. By luck the trainee had been an instructor in Canada and he, he was strapped in so he managed to pull it back up, up again so we went from five thousand feet to eight hundred feet and all we had was one casualty, one bloke split his head open. We, we landed straight away, like, you know.
GC: As I say, some people would pay to go in a theme park to do a ride like that. [laugh]
AV: Well, yeah. Oh, yeah. Another time we, we used to do air tests, just the pilot and I. Been in the workshops and some would be brought out and before they put it back into service we’d do air tests on it. We done air tests, we took off, done the usual trial, try everything before we gets in, took off, still climbing away and the pilot says, ‘I, I can’t get down. I can’t lower her down. Can’t stop climbing.’ So, I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ What happened, they’d adjusted the controls in the workshop and they hadn’t tightened the nuts up. Of course, it slipped off and so it put the plane so the tail was like that and it was flying all the time and we couldn’t, couldn’t — the only way you can stop climbing was to cut the engines off and drop down. So we phoned up Control and they said, ‘Go to Woodbridge.’ Have you heard of Woodbridge?
GC: Yes I have.
AV: Get to Woodbridge, crash drome. So, I says, ’Well they’ll look at it and we might not make it like that.’ So I said, the pilot said, ‘Shall we jump?’ I said, ‘No. I’ve been flying for nearly two years now and I’m not starting jumping now.’ [slight laugh] So we, we, we were juggling around by — I’ll tell you this, I was flying with a Red Indian. He was a well-educated bloke and very nice chap but Chuckachulla [?] his name, his name’s there Chuckachulla [?] Red Indian. Anyway we throttled back and kept throttling back and managed to get — we landed. Well we landed and normally you land at ninety mile an hour. We landed at a hundred and twenty ‘cause we couldn’t bring our tail down and we used up all the runway, couple of ploughed fields and a couple of hedges. But there was no fences so we was lucky [slight laugh]. Well, we couldn’t stop it, we had to carry on till it stopped itself. We switched all the powers off of course. That was our [unclear] I had three — oh, I had another one. I got a — we trained this crew and the pilot, he used to get out, the instructor [emphasis] used to get out and I used to stay in for a while to train the engineer. And they, they took off and an engine caught fire and instead of turning away from it he turned into it, boom! Straight in the ground and a bloke come along in a truck. He said, ‘Do you want, do you want to go to the fire?’ I said, ‘No thanks. I’ve just got out of it.’ I walked out of it, I’m sure, you know, my time wasn’t, I wasn’t due to go. Anyway I’m talking too much [sniff].
GC: You’re talking perfectly. I mean — my brain’s frozen now. We’ve talked about ops but did you, did you bomb mainly Germany or —
AV: Pardon?
GC: Did you bomb mainly Germany?
AV: Yeah. It wasn’t until after D-Day that we bombed France.
GC: OK. Whereabouts in Germany did you bomb?
AV: All them places. [background noise] Four times to Berlin.
GC: What was bombing Berlin like?
AV: It was a long journey. You see, where we was at a disadvantage, if your base is in Lincolnshhire, when you’re going up to North Yorkshire you’ve got nearly an hour’s flying or more. Its two hundred-odd miles so if you, if you went to Berlin with a Lancaster from Lincoln, it’s probably about six hours. It’d take us eight, eight hours. I’ve done — Munich was the longest one I think, eleven hours. Well one, one once, one, er, Munich, was nine hours and twenty-five minutes I think.
GC: I’ve got Munich at eleven hours and ten.
AV: Yeah, well. Actually what happened we, we were coming back and they called us up and said, ‘We’re fog bound.’ So we can’t land in our aerodrome so they sent us back to Oxford so that was nine hours and twenty-five minutes on that raid and the extra was to go back to where our base was so it was nine hours and twenty-five minutes from take-off to landing. Not a drink, smoke, drink or nothing, not even go to the toilet.
GC: I don’t know how you did it.
AV: Well, we were young then weren’t we [slight laugh]. We never used the toilet. It was an Elsan, you know, an Elsan. We never used it. Because you had to take all your parachute off, your harness and then unzip everything and so you didn’t do that [slight laugh]. You had to keep at the ready, ready. It was a bit cold, freezing cold. And I used to carry, I had a carrier pigeon. We used to carry a pigeon with us in case you went down in the sea. You’re supposed to put a message to its leg and it would fly back with a message, like, you know. And the cold never effected them and we used to scrape the ice off the inside. Often I’d have to scrape the condensation that had turned to ice. Freezing cold.
GC: I don’t think people appreciate that now ‘cause everything’s got heating and everything and all the safety suits and back then it was just —
AV: I know [unclear] that’s what’s holding my legs up and I’ve had thrombosis in the right leg from standing all the time. ‘Cause I used to stand. Never sat down. But I had — I was the only one who could move around. I used to have to clip portable oxygen bottle on, little oxygen bottle on, a portable one, and clip it on because they had to have oxygen from fourteen thousand feet and you had to put an oxygen mask on [unclear].
GC: You said that, um, you flew at twenty thousand. Was all your ops at twenty thousand? Did you ever go —
AV: Lower? Yeah. Yeah, when — you’ll see we did done mines in there to drop sea mines, ten thousand mines there, we dropped two sea mines by parachute. You used to go down to the water, jettison the parachute, sink both ten foot or twenty foot, whatever they’d been set at, below the water and they’d stay there. That’s when we done mining. Then once we did a sea search. That’s a bit interesting that one ‘cause I never found out this one. There was, we was five, five of our crew, er, planes, ‘cause we had no, we had no mid-upper turret but we had this bloke who laid on the floor and looked through the bottom. Well, they sent us on a sea search. Somebody important went missing off the coast of Denmark. Five of us, daylight, sea-level all the way and they never told us who it was.
GC: Who do you think it was?
AV: I’ve got no idea. We had no — not a clue. Not a clue.
GC: I take it from that you didn’t find him.
AV: We didn’t see anybody but that was a daylight one and if there had been one fighter up he would have got us. We had no protection.
GC: Did — you say you had no protection there but when you did the raids, like the bombing raids, did you have fighter protection then?
AV: Oh no, no, no, not likely. Not at night-time [background noise] not at night-time, no. We wasn’t like the Americans. We were entirely different to the Americans because Americans formation flying. They all stick together and they had one master pilot and one master navigator. We were on our own. We were ind— individual. Once you took off you were on your own. You never saw a soul.
GC: So you, so you was reliant on your navigator?
AV: Oh yeah. Oh yeah and we got radar. After a while they equipped, equipped us with radar. And we was the only one on the station with radar ‘cause we were RAF crew you see. All the others were Canadians. They trained us on radar so, so we was spot on. We bombed, after D-Day we bombed a place called Amiens in France. Have you heard of it?
GC: Yes.
AV: And we hit the target, bullseye, and we got a letter and a photograph from the Air Ministry. It’s disappeared. I don’t know where it’s gone to. The bomb target, the bombing target, bullseye, and it give us a seventy-two hour pass.
GC: What was it you actually bombed? Was it a —
AV: Oh, it was mostly factories, mostly factories but I believe Amiens was a race track and we believe it was, they was, had all these tanks there and they didn’t tell us what it was but, er, it was a bullseye as far as they was concerned. It was un— unusual.
GC: Yeah. So after D-Day, you’d done all the bombing raids before, but after D-Day then were you laying a path for the Army or were you taking out —
AV: No. No. After D-Day I was to become an instructor. Before D-Day actually, about March ’44, we finished our tour and they wanted our skipper as an instructor somewhere else so they took him and broke us all up and we all went to different places after that. We was only together for six months. Then after that I become an instructor so I was a flight instructor for eighteen months.
GC: OK. Tell me a bit about becoming an instructor because obviously you had the experience of the thirty ops. Was it all technical experience or was it personal experience as well you could —
AV: No, it was you see, this business of the crew, there was a six-man crew until they come up to us to get an engineer to make them a seven. They’d already all done flying in their training, in their training so when they come up to us they was altogether and they all had flying experience. Then when we broke up as a crew we all went into ind— individual stations. We didn’t stay together. Only, only the wireless operator stayed with me but they none, none of the other crew were flying. They all went as instructors somewhere else and there was just me and, and the pilot used to do — take these new crews up to show them whatever. They’d already flown when [unclear] it’s just that they’d never been in a four-engine aircraft before. All I used to do was stand by and say things to the engineer, ‘Watch that gauge, switch that one on and switch that one on.’ Just there, I was standing there with the trainee engineer and I done that for eighteen months.
GC: OK, I must take a pause for a moment. OK. I can see a picture on the wall of you wife. Tell me how you met, met your lady.
AV: Well, my, me and the wireless operator had been at the pictures in Darlington. We came back on the train back to the station where we were stationed and we met these four WAAFs walking along so we walked along with them, just me and we just got chatting, as you do like, you know, and we walked back to the camp, walked back to the camp I said, ‘I’ll see you again,’ like, you know. They don’t often make friends because they know that — well, what used to happen, there was a civilian workman on, on the aerodrome. He used to do all the maintenance and he had his own secretary and she was a beautiful, beautiful girl, civilian, she was a civilian and of course she was much admired on the camp. There was a thousand, two thousand blokes and just this one girl, like, and she had several boyfriends and they all got the chop, all got killed so we called her the ‘kiss of death’. Nobody would go out with her after that. Anyway, so about this WAAF, I was talking to her so I said, ‘Want go to the pictures one night?’ And she said, ‘We’ll see.’ And so I didn’t see her for about, oh, several weeks because she used to do shift work in the, in the canteen like, and I met her one night and I said, ‘Fancy going to the pictures?’ So we went to the pictures and that was it. She was posted to Scotland. Posted to Scotland because they didn’t like us I expect [unclear] so they posted her to Scotland. So I used to have to go up to Scotland ‘cause where, where we was flying as an instructor you got leave every six weeks, six days off, and we used to work six days, full, full seven days a week, never a day off, you were on duty twenty-four hours for seven days a week and then you used to get six days leave every so often. So I used to, so I went up to Scotland and met her up there. We got friendly and so I came back and I went back again to see her and about three months later then she got posted down to Blandford in Dorset. They kept us apart.
GC: They were determined.
AV: They were determined but we were determined to get together and of course she, she come from a place in Durham about thirty miles from where I was stationed. That’s how I met her. She, she got a posting to her station when they first — and so I used to go there, have a tea and things like that, you know. When she was in Scotland I used to go round her mum and have my tea till we got really friendly. Then we got engaged in, in the March ’44 and we got married in December ’44.
GC: How old, how old were you?
AV: I was twenty, twenty-one. I was twenty-one.
GC: And how old was she.
AV: She had to get her father’s permission because she was twenty. She had to get her father’s permission.
GC: What was her name, sorry?
AV: Harriet.
GC: Oh, that’s lovely.
AV: Just the one name Harriet.
GC: That’s lovely.
AV: Harriet Godhard, yeah.
GC: So, once you were married were you allowed to be stationed together or were you still —
AV: No, I told you she was posted to Scotland and down to Bournemouth. We never, never — we didn’t have married quarters anyway. You had to live out. If you were married you had to live out in the local village or wherever it is. We never had any married quarters not, not in the Air, not in the Air Force.
GC: I’ll pause it again.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Arthur Vickers,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed August 6, 2020,

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