Interview with Henry Wolfe Wagner. One


Interview with Henry Wolfe Wagner. One


Henry Wolfe Wagner was born in Ireland. The family moved to England when he was young and settled near Reading. Henry attended Reading University for two years joining the University Air Squadron. He then volunteered for the RAF and began training as a pilot. He went to South Africa for his training. He was put forward to begin training as a navigator when his pilot training was interrupted. After returning to Great Britain and completing his training he was posted to 51 Squadron at RAF Snaith. On their eighth operation his crew were attacked by a night fighter over Duisberg. Henry managed to walk for several days before he was caught and became a prisoner of war. He was sent to Stalag Luft 7 at Bankau before undertaking the Long March.







03:13:51 Audio recording


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AWagnerHW160504, PWagnerHW1701


JH: This is Judy Hodgson and I’m interviewing Henry Wagner today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We are at Mr Wagner’s home and it is the 4th of May 2016. Thank you Henry for agreeing to talk to me today. Also present at the interview are Steve Drawbridge and Tony Hiddle. Friends of Henry. Ok. So, if you’d like to tell us a little bit about yourself. When and where you were born and your early years.
HW: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I was born in 1923 in Ireland but, and for a long time retained Irish citizenship because my mother and father were both Irish. But we came over to England when I was three years old. What the reason for coming over here was I don’t know. My father, my father was a clerk in the Holy Orders. He took a Theology degree at Dublin University. And my mother came from a well-established old Irish family. In fact, she played, played country golf when she was in Ireland. And I and my brothers took up golf, in our, when we were about ten years old. And it’s always been one of my great interests in life. We came over to England and settled down near a little village near Reading where my father set up a dentistry practice and he was always interested in shooting. In game shooting. And he used to gather friends round and with their twelve bores and they would do clay pigeon shooting. And that was one of his great interests. So, he was a dentist and, and a fairly well known game shot because he used to write articles for a magazine at the time called, “The Shooting Times” and “British Sportsman.” Anyway, he deserted the family and again I don’t know the reasons behind it all. I was too small to have any interest in that sort of thing. And left my mother with four boys to look after and no real, not much source of income. My father stumped up a bit from time to time but then packed it in and he had to be chased to carry on. How she did it I don’t know. One mother looking after four boys and a house. Doing all the housework as well. I’ve got to take my hat off to people like that. And we moved to Henley after a time, where they have the regatta and the going wasn’t all that easy financially then. We lived in a council house in not a very salubrious sort of a neighbourhood. But my next brother, there were three brother you see. I was the second one. The third one down, Richard was only a year younger and he and I used to play golf together. In fact, he became quite a good golfer. Handicap down to six eventually and my handicap never came down to lower than twelve. But we played, well certainly twice a week. I went to, was successful in passing the examination to go to Henley Grammar School which was a long established Grammar School. A great tradition behind it. And about a third of children could get Grammar School education. The rest stayed at the, what were called Secondary Modern schools in those days. But at Henley Grammar School I found my main interests were in languages, geography, mathematics. Though I was never any good or much good at. But more about that later. I took school certificate there. Played rugby there. They didn’t play association football it was, Grammar Schools always played rugby and I became a captain of one of the houses. The school was divided into three sections. Three houses which used to compete with each other on the sports fields. And I was captain of Periam House. He rugby team on the rugby fields. We used to play other Grammar Schools around about. So that became my other favourite sport. So we had golf, rugby. By the time I left school — I took the school certificate and then stayed on for the higher school certificate or A level I believe it’s called now and was accepted to go to Reading University. And I would have gone there when I’d be, let’s see, fifteen years, when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. By the time, by the time I went to University the war had already started and it wasn’t going very well. We weren’t prepared for war where the Germans had been preparing for war for years and years. So things were, things were hard. Rationing was hard. Food was scarce. You got — bread was rationed. Jam was rationed. Cooking fats. Butter. Well pretty well everything in fact. Tinned food. Sardines. Pilchards and that sort of thing. They were all in short supply and we used to, in fact our four boys rather we all had our own one jam pot. One pound jam pot a month. And we sort of used to look at this at tea time. Look at the other, the other lad, the other chap’s pots of jam to see how they were getting on with theirs. It was very, things were very, in short supply. There was, soap was rationed. Sweets were rationed. You had to buy sweets which would, you were sure would last for a long time in your mouth. You ate them slowly. You didn’t have chocolate which would be gone in no time. You had the toffees and that sort of thing that would last. So, Reading University now. We were, lived seven miles from Reading University and I didn’t live at the University. I lived at home but we used to go in to Reading every day. I used to go into Reading every day by bicycle. I had to bike into Reading and at the end of the day bike home again. So that was, that was fourteen miles of exercise every day anyway. Sometimes I’d go in on Saturdays because I, for some reason I didn’t play rugby at University. What took my fancy, because this always happened at Henley Grammar School as well, cross-country running was another favourite other sport, other activity at Henley Grammar School. I joined the cross-country club at Reading University and we used to hold triangular matches against other Universities such as Bristol or Southampton or wherever and I mean you didn’t get, you didn’t get, anybody could take part in it. You didn’t get selected. There was, a cross-country team doesn’t have sort of four or six or eight members or whatever there might be. Anybody who’s interested can have a go and of course the better ones were always encouraged. Well, everybody’s encouraged for that matter. So it was mostly cross-country running at University. And also the, so they had the war having started I went to the University in, let’s see 1940. You could, men at the University could either, could join the Cadet Force. They only had an Army Cadet Force. So we, it’s alright, I don’t want to go into the army but every, all the others seemed to be joining the army cadets. I suppose I’d better do the same. No interest in it whatever but after a time, after about a year, the University opened, started Air Training Corps. A Cadet Force. University Air Squadron. That’s what I was trying to think of. And where you could train, anybody from the Army Cadet Force could transfer to the University Air Squadron and so I welcomed that change there. We, it was run as, the squadron commander was appointed. He was the one of the University staff in fact. Professor Miller who was head of geography and also he was Dean of the Faculty of Science. He hadn’t got any Air Force training you understand but he was the, he was in charge. To bring real Air Force personnel into it the Air Force supplied us with a Flight Lieutenant Jordan who was a fighter pilot. Had been a fighter pilot. His flight, he’d been in, his aircraft had caught fire and he was shot down. The aircraft caught fire and he was badly burned about the face. But he was, you looked up to him as one who had been there. He’d been there before you. And also a Sergeant Linton who was an ex-air gunner who’d been shot down in the, in North Africa and he had walked back through the desert back to our own lines. And he was, so he was put in charge of weapons training and that sort of thing in the University Air Squadron. And there were lectures on meteorology which, which Squadron Leader Miller was well trained to do of course being a geographer. And outside lecturers used to come along to talk about Air Force law and organisation and all that sort of the thing and we used to go flying at weekends. Flight Lieutenant Jordan could take us over to Woodley Aerodrome which was about three or four miles away where Miles aircraft were built and he used to take us for a, well we looked on them as joy rides. They were classified as air experiences. So, all in all it was good. The time came for, when I was of an age to be called up and which was at the end of two years at University and I went up to London and, for an interview board and, ‘Why do you want to go into aircrew?’ and so on. I had always been interested in flying. When my brother and I were about ten, what would we be? Ten. Eleven. Twelve. That sort of age. We used to have those, buy those model gliders that you shoot. You had like, they were on a catapult and we used to go to a field near our house. We used to do a lot of kite flying and that sort of thing and always had an interest in flying. Yes. And the, the Air Force accepted me for aircrew training. And as a pilot. I was accepted for pilot training. The system was that some lads being interviewed just chose, well I’d like to be a navigator, or I’d like to be bomb aimer or I’d like to be a gunner or whatever but most put down pilot first of all. And those that failed could either choose one of the other categories. So, it was called the PNB scheme. Pilot, navigator, bomb aimer. And, and those three trades you were trained abroad in those because you needed flying experience. The gunners, air gunners they’d be mostly recruited from, from the ground staff at the various airfields and squadrons and they could be trained there and then because they, it didn’t take an awful lot of training to be a gunner. You had to know how to operate the equipment and services and cure stoppages and how to aim off or deflection shots according to the speed of the other aircraft and so on. They didn’t need very extensive training. They could, that could be carried out by their own squadrons. So, alright. Well, I’m in the PNB scheme then. I’ve been accepted to train abroad as a pilot. But before, before all that I was you got so those who were going to be who were selected to be trained as pilots were sent to different aerodromes around the country where, where flying clubs had been before the war mostly. There were some aircraft manufacturers who had their own aerodromes of course to, you got to fly the stock off when it’s built after all. But the, these were called grading schools and you were, you were taken in charge by a, by a proper Air Force instructor. A very experienced Air Force instructor. And he would teach you the how to fly the, a Tiger Moth. There’s a picture of a Tiger Moth in there in fact and the two seater bi-plane. Not all that easy to fly really but the aim was, or the standard was that you had to have, you had to have gone solo by your ten hours instruction. If you hadn’t gone solo in less than ten hours then you were automatically rejected and put on to your next choice you see. So we used to fly when I was at Brough up near Hull on the, on the Humber Estuary and we used to take off, used to take off and fly over the circuit. Went along beside the Humber then up across the river. Along the south side and back north again across, across the River Humber and a circuit took about a quarter of an hour. So, well it was enjoyable. After, I went solo after a month or so after nine and three quarter hours so I was home and dry there. And I thought, right, that’s all set up now. I’m going to be a pilot. So back on leave after that. And the next call up was for a posting abroad to carry on the, carry on the pilot training. Some people went to Canada where they had the Empire Air Training Scheme. Some went to Rhodesia which is now Tanzania isn’t it? And some went to South Africa and the chap that went solo before me on this particular day he went, he happened, Ron Waters who was at the University Air Squadron with me he went to Canada and completed his training out there. I went to South Africa and did my training down there. So you never knew where you were going to get sent to. Hold on a minute.
[recording paused]
HW: So, after grading school I was posted. I went on leave and then was posted to Liverpool for embarkation for South Africa. We, nobody told us we were going to South Africa but we’d been provided with, with khaki shorts and a pith helmet. A sun helmet and khaki gear so we knew it was going to be somewhere hot. So we embarked on the steamship Strathmore. We set sail from Liverpool around the north of Ireland. We were crowded down below. The accommodation was, there was no room to move about down below. You had a table. Table. Tables for about a dozen people where the food was served up to and that’s where you were fed. You had to sling hammocks for sleeping purposes but they were uncomfortable and most people settled for sleeping just on the floor or on the tables. And we set sail around the north of, of Ireland and the sea was really rough. It was. The boat was swooping. Not just up and down but sideways as well. And most people could be seen hanging over, up on the deck, hanging over the rails and depositing the contents of what they’d had for their last meal. It was uncomfortable until you got your sea legs after a few days. And the weather turned warmer the further you went south. So we went out, out, far out into the Atlantic. We were, the Strathmore was a fast steamship. It wasn’t escorted at all by destroyers to keep away German U-Boats. It just relied on speed. And the first port of call was Freetown in Sierra Leone. As we, as we entered the harbour we heard, we observed destroyers depth charging not far off so the Germans were around about. After a couple of days there we went out into the Atlantic again. Down south, round the south of South Africa and in to the port of Durban. This was, for us this was a real holiday. We’d come away from hard up England and we were, the weather was lovely and warm. We had the access to as much as sweets, chocolates, that sort of thing, as we wanted. And my first purchase was a can of sweetened condensed milk which I consumed in no time flat. Also, being Durban there was, Durban I should say was a transit camp because from there everybody came into Durban but then they were allocated from there to different, different training airfields. So there wasn’t much. It was just, you were it was just a place where you waited for your next posting. We could go down to the down to, down to the sea at Durban and Durban beach. And it was good swimming down there. The Indian ocean. The water was warm. The weather was warm. There was, the food was good. So it was real relaxation until, well I stayed there about what about two or three weeks I should say and then a posting came through to a training aerodrome in the Orange Free State, called Kroonstad. Here the training I should say wasn’t carried out by, by RAF officers or staff. It was carried out by members of the South African Air Force. So, I had a Lieutenant Goddard as my, my tutor. Not one of the easiest of men to get on with but maybe, maybe trainee pilots do get on their instructor’s nerves sometimes. And they’re always quite outspoken. They never, they never console you. They never mince their words. If they mean one thing they say it unmistakably. And so, so after, it didn’t take long before Lieutenant Goddard and Mr [unclear] said, ‘This bloke’s alright for a solo. We can let him get on with it.’ From Kroonstad] we used to fly north for about seven or eight miles. Still in Tiger Moths. They still used Tiger Moths in South Africa. Fly north to an auxiliary airfield called Rietgat which was not much more than the highveld with a barbed wire fence around it and a hut where you could, you could shelter or food. Have your food and, or have a rest. So, after I’d done by the sense of a bit of solo in England and the solos that I went on at Rietgat and Kroonstad I’d done, I’d done ten hours solo on Tiger Moths and it was no, no great hassle at all. It was very enjoyable in fact. The, the Lieutenant Goddard got out one day, oh I should say Kroonstad was a very small area. You could get a Tiger Moth off alright provided, but it was, you had to make sure you only just cleared the fence one end and since the Tiger Moth had no brakes it just ran on and on and on and you would stop not far before you got to the fence the other end. Just enough space to rev the engine up and put full rudder on and turn around and taxi back to where the instructor was. Right. Back to Lieutenant Goddard. He got out, he said, ‘Bring it back down,’ he said, ‘Do your one solo. One solo circuit,’ he said, ‘Don’t hang about. Don’t mess about now,’ he said, ‘I want to get back to Kroonstad because I’ve got another student waiting for me.’ So he got, strapped up his control column so that it couldn’t move and I was, I was in total control. He got out. Oh he took his, no he took he took his control column out with him. You could just unscrew it and he took it out so it didn’t catch on anything, you see. So turned around. Taxied back to the take off point, opened up and off we go. Nice take off. Yes. Up, up, up and away. Around. Around. Around. Cross wind leg. Downwind leg. Cross wind leg. And turn in for the finals. And I thought to myself I’m not going to get over that bloody fence. I said, I’m too low down. So I opened up and took off and went around again. Did another circuit. Coming around the second time I thought to myself I’m going to clear that fence this time alright. And I did clear it by far too great a distance so the aircraft ran on and on and on and on and I thought this isn’t going to stop before it gets to that barbed wire fence. But fortunately it did stop. Just. The propeller still turning. Not enough space in front of me to open up the engine and put full rudder on and turn. So only one thing to do here. I undid my harness, got out, walked around to the back of the Tiger Moth. Caught hold of the, the tail skid. Pulled it backwards by main force until I thought there was enough space to take off. To open up again. Got back in. Strapped in. Back to lieutenant, and as I’d come in the last time I noticed him down in the corner of the field and he’d got his joystick in his hand and he was waving it. I thought I’ve got to get in this time. And when I got back he said, barked like that, he says, ‘Bring it back to Kroonstad,’ he said, ‘Make a good job of it because this is the last time you’re ever going to be at the controls.’ So back I went. The chief flying, I was given the chief flying instructor’s test and he agreed. Well yeah maybe he’s not the man for the job. Of course I was terribly disappointed because, well I’d failed. And I was going to have to do some other sort of job that didn’t really interest me. So, I got posted back to Pretoria which was another sort of a holding unit and they, from there they dispersed people onto navigator’s courses or bomb aimer’s courses. And after a few weeks I got posted to Port Elizabeth for elementary navigational training because navigation was in its infancy in those days. There was no electronics or anything of that sort. It was all done with charts and dividers and rulers and compasses of various sorts. And bearings and radio bearings and you had to learn about all that sort of thing and you got a test at the end. After, oh sort of meteorology that came into it as well and after about what, a month maybe there was a test. Just a theory test of course and, and I passed that all right. And the next step was to go to a South African Air Force aerodrome where you would put it all into practice and show that you could navigate an aircraft. I got posted to Port Alfred. Quite a small place down on the coast. Well as the name suggests of course, down on the coast. Pretty primitive sort of a place. Still, you were still on holiday from the hardships of life in England in wartime conditions and from there they did the training on Ansons. Avro Ansons. A sort of a workhorse of Air Forces all over the world. All over the world in fact. Avro Anson. A very, very stable reliable sort of aircraft. Never heard of any, any one of them suffering from engine failure or, or anything of that sort. You could rely on that. The pilots were South African Air Force pilots. And they took off at a time maybe two navigators and you. One would be for that particular trip the first navigator who would do all the work on the charts with the, with dividers and lines and calculations and time of arrival. And the other one obtained radio bearings for the first navigator to plot. Or with the, or visual bearings by looking out of the window and see, seeing what was down below and checking with a map that he’d got in front of him. He could see what township that was, you were over, for instance. Or using another thing called the astro compass which wasn’t a magnetic compass at all. It was more of a bearing place. He would take bearings on railway junctions and anything that would appear on his map he would keep constant check and pass the bearings to the first navigator to put on to his, on to his chart. And of course everything the first navigator did was in, in his, he had to enter up in his logbook. Without going in to much detail for instance the navigator had to work out the difference between the true airspeed, the airspeed that the pilot had got in front of him on his instrument panel but that was, that’s the higher you go, the lower you go so the air pressure’s different and it registered different. It doesn’t register the speed that you’re were actually going at. It records the speed that you’re going at through the air but not over the ground necessarily so you had to carry out an adjustment to that and tell the pilot what height, what speed you wanted to, him to put to fly at on his, on his air speed indicator. It was, it was a complicated business. It was solid, unremitting brain work. Anyway, there was nothing much to report of the, of the flying training. It was, it was all proceeding. I could cope with all that alright. Didn’t have any great difficulty and passed the, passed the practical tests and log keeping and all that sort of thing and was, by the time you’d done that you were considered qualified. And all the aircrew were guaranteed then to wear a brevet. The one wing brevet with an N in the middle for navigators. So, the picture in there. And the brevets were pinned on to a passing out parade with all due ceremony and you were given sergeant’s stripes. Yeah. That’s a bit of a sore point. Some, some were, some were given sergeant’s stripes and some were granted commissions which I thought, you know, that’s a bit, ‘How? Why didn’t I get a commission? Why do I get a sergeant’s stripes? Why did Walker, get a, why is he a pilot officer and I’m a sergeant?’ And I must have had some sort of a flaw as far as the Air Force was concerned and evidently not considered to be officer material. So it was off to the sergeant’s mess for me and so on. Sew sergeant’s stripes on, and, and sew the brevet on and wait for the next move to take place which would be back to, back to England again. Being, being qualified now and so as a navigator. Of course, back in England things had changed a bit because they were moving into the electronic age then with, with computers and a lot of the work being done by, by means such as that rather than the, rather than taking radio bearings. So it was going to need, further training was going to be needed. But the last, the last few times in the last few weeks at the, at Kroonstad while nobody was, nobody wants to make life awkward for you. You could do more or less as you pleased provided you behaved yourself. So used to go, used to go swimming and used to go to the pubs and the, the various service clubs and always welcomed. Got on very well with the South Africans. There was always a welcome from them. So my time in South Africa was, as far as relations with other people went, except for, except for Lieutenant Goddard of course, were always very cordial. So it was back to England again then on the troopship [pause] oh dear. Athlone. I think I’ve got that right. No. It was the Union Castle boat. Anyway, never mind about that. It was, it went from Durban and it was, by this time the Mediterranean had been opened up a bit. Tunisia had been, the desert had been more or less cleared and we, the ship was going to go up the east coast of Africa and up through the Red Sea and into, up through the Suez Canal. That’s right. What the, oh I was thinking of Panama, yes the Suez Canal and out in to the Mediterranean and we crossed. Went through the Mediterranean. Called in at, after leaving Durban we called in at [pause] at Kenya. What’s the city? What’s the sea port? Mombasa. Yeah. Called in at Mombasa and let off some, some South African Air Force people. Then went on. The next stop was in Tunisia. No. I’m wrong again. The next stop was in Sicily at Syracuse to let South African troops off there. Then through the Mediterranean. Through the straights of Gibraltar. Out into the Atlantic. Up round, up the coast of Portugal. Through, across the Bay of Biscay. Along the English Channel and in to the Thames Estuary and tied up at Tilbury. Yeah. So all very interesting. All very easy going. Nobody making life difficult. And you had to do a bit of duty now and again. For instance sometimes keeping you would be going up on watch and keeping watch for submarine periscopes for instance. That sort of thing. Or, or down in the, in the place where we, oh we had, sergeants had bunks. I think they were four high. Yeah. Yeah. I got the, I was unfortunate in getting the top bunk in a series of four. Which meant clambering up there. But well I didn’t mind that so much but there was a deck head light just above where my head was so the light was on all night long. But just one of those things you might say. And so back to England and on leave. No. Where did we go from England? To [pause] on leave. And I was posted up to oh yes, West Freugh which was up in Scotland. For, to complete, to carry on training in, because while navigating in South Africa being more or less open country with the odd town and village dotted about here and there in England navigating over big industrial area called for a different, different approach to the whole business. So up to West Freugh [pause] which is near the Mull of Kintyre over on the western side of the country. So most of our training flights went out westwards or, or north westwards. Out over the Irish Sea or Northern Ireland but you couldn’t go over southern Ireland of course. They were sort of a neutral country, and if you came down there you’d get interned. So you had to go up over the north of, north of Scotland and over the Ailsa Craig. Isle of Arran and places like that. And used to come back usually to the Isle of Man. And then back up back up to West Freugh again. Still in Ansons so there were still no electronics. It was still basic navigation. But as I said where the basic navigation in South Africa was very easy basic navigation in England in thick cloud or rain storms or the fact that you couldn’t see the ground or industrial areas it took more getting used to. It wasn’t an easy job. You couldn’t just look out of the window and say. ‘Oh yes. I know where we are.’ So, but not bad conditions. Air Force people I always found were inclined to treat you as, as a fellow. They, they weren’t so keen to boss you about. As long as you were carrying on doing your job and they, you let them get on and do their job and as far as training went then they were they were quite happy to accept you on a friendly basis. I lived in the sergeant’s mess and as I say everything went quite, quite nicely. A lot of the navigation was carried out by night time because, because the bomber force, proper bomber force operated mainly by night. So you had to get used to the, in the dark and not being able to see the ground. No lights. No, no street lights or anything of that sort down below. It was become, becoming acclimatised to flying in a different sort of, under different sort of conditions. So this went on ‘til, in the end after this training went on for about [pause] about three months I suppose. Yeah. Somewhere about that and you were qualified to, to proceed to the next stage of training which would be converting to heavier aircraft. The Air Force at the time was, wasn’t very well equipped with heavy aircraft. It’s the, the most reliable of all the bombers, of the bombers was the Wellington. There was, there was another one about the same size. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley which I was unfortunate enough to draw a place where they trained on Whitleys. The Hampden wasn’t really a heavy bomber as such. They couldn’t carry a very big bomb load or go very far for that matter. The Fairey Battle was a light bomber which would only be used for dropping bombs on concentrations of enemy troops or bridges or railway junctions. That sort of thing. So from West Freugh I went on leave and, with the, with the instruction that when my leave was up I was to report to Abingdon near Oxford which was an old established Air Force aerodrome. And it, from there, well in fact there was no flying at all from there when I got there because they were just having runways made but their satellite was called Stanton Harcourt about ten miles away. And the flying took place from Stanton Harcourt in these Whitleys. Dreadful old machines. Ugly to look at. You could, they didn’t inspire you to take any pride. You could imagine men taking a pride in their Spitfires. The appearance of them gave you confidence. The Whitley didn’t give you any confidence at all. It just made you depressed to think what an ugly looking creature it was. No electronics in it of course. You got, you had to climb up but you climbed into the fuselage up a little ladder and then you made your way up a long fuselage. Then you came to the wing route, passed through the fuselage which was about two feet thick I suppose. You had to clamber over that. Work your way through a sort of a tunnel in the, in the structure, wing route structure, to get to the navigation table. And when you got there that was no great shakes because there wasn’t very much room there anyway. And you checked the escape hatches because there was, apart from the door you came in by there was only one other way out and that was a hole in, a trap door in the floor down in the nose. And to get down there you had to clamber down there. It was an awkward journey but you checked, always checked that the escape hatches, everything moved fairly freely and made sure that — no good in an emergency arriving there and you think, I can’t get this so and so handle open. Where do I go from here? So, well in particular it was the slow moving aircraft. It cruised at I suppose maybe a hundred and forty, a hundred and sixty as far as I can remember. I can’t remember exactly. Oh, I’ve missed out one thing. I can’t remember where it comes in. The formation of the crew. It must be when I came back from South Africa. Oh I’ve got to backtrack. Backtrack a little bit and go back to when I arrived at Abingdon in the first place. And there were, at any one time way a new posting when all the last lot were being cleared out all the new intake would consist of twenty pilots, twenty navigators, twenty bomb aimers, twenty radio operators, forty gunners and that was it. So, everybody was put in to one big hangar. All this lot. And the instruction was, ‘Right. We’ve got enough people here to form twenty crews for a heavy bomber.’ Twenty crews. A heavy bomber has a crew of seven, so ‘But you’ll find that you won’t have, be able to form a crew of seven because there will be no flight engineers here yet.’ Because, I’ll come back to that later. So the instruction was right the door was shut. Ok. Get busy. Sort yourselves out into crews. Into a crew. Pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, radio operator and two gunners. That’s six of you. So you sort of looked around and think oh, ‘Yeah well, what do we, where do we go from here?’ And I still can’t explain how it worked. Pilots, and you’d sort of look up and no I don’t like the look of him. Well, I’ll try that, no he’s got already fixed up. He’s got a navigator. Others were bomb aimers and so on were looking around for a likely. And then a pilot and a bomb aimer came over to me and said, ‘Are you fixed up?’ I said, ‘No. In fact, I’m not. They said, ‘Well would you like to join us?’ I said, ‘ Well yes, yes please.’ And so, so that had got one two three of us. Then he looked, or they looked or mainly the pilot doing it of course because it was his responsibility to form his own crew, to fill in the other vacancies. And so we got six of us. There was no flight engineer to make the seventh member for a heavy bomber because we were only training on Whitleys and twin-engined aircraft didn’t need a flight engineer. Four engined did but a twin-engined the pilot could look after the sort of engines himself as well as flying the aircraft. So the flight engineer would join us later. So we started off on these Whitleys. One particular flight I can remember in a Whitley. We set off from — what was the name of the place? Not [pause] what name did I say for the — not Abingdon. Anyway, we set off south westwards. You always flew away from Germany really because there was, the air space was less crowded. Set off down towards, we were routed to go down to Falmouth and over to the Scilly Islands and out into the Atlantic at some latitude and longitude point. Nothing there but just a point on the map and that was where you turned and started coming back again. So we were on our way out into the Atlantic and the weather was getting worse and worse. There was low pressure coming in which meant there was, it was coming from the southwest. Therefore the, the winds would be anti-clockwise and, and the low pressure would mean that the clouds were being forced downwards all the time. It was getting lower and lower. We couldn’t see anything down below and over the land you wouldn’t have been able to see anything else and in a Whitley that was no joke. So the pilot said, ‘I’m not going on in this,’ he says. By the way, about, I’ll come back to where I stopped in a minute. About names. The pilot was a warrant officer who had done some instructional training himself but nothing operational. The rest of us were all sergeants and, but there was never any, warrant officers they were always addressed as sir. The only non-commissioned officers were addressed as sir but he, we never addressed him as sir. Name. Our names fell into place and they were used without any hesitation. So he was, being Wilfred Bates, he wasn’t known as Wilfred. He was. We referred to when we were speaking to him as Wilf. Now, I was for some reason they balked at the Henry. They never called me Henry at all. I was known, always known as Wag. The bomb aimer, Lesley Roberts was known as Robbie. The, the mid-upper gunner was Thomas Worthington but known as Tommy. The rear gunner, Robert Thomas was known as Bob. So, and the flight engineer, when we got him, Eric Berry he was known as Berry but I was always Wag. And I didn’t, and even after that, all through the Air Force career even in, even in Germany I was always known as Waggy or Waggy. Anyway, yes the pilot said, ‘I’m not going along with this Wag,’ he said, this is absolutely pointless.’ He said, ‘I’m turning around. Give me a course back over Cornwall and back to, back to base. We got over Cornwall and the cloud cleared, lifted a little bit and there was a hole in the cloud. And I said to, I said, ‘Wilf, there’s a hole in the cloud down below. If we go down we get underneath I’ll be able to see the ground and establish my position.’ So we went down through the hole in the cloud. I established the position as Falmouth. And he said, he said, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘Now, give me a course to the nearest aerodrome. I’ve had enough of this.’ He said, ‘Where, where can we put down?’ I said, ‘Well, St Eval is the nearest.’ So the bad weather had closed in again and he said, well he said, ‘Are we going to be able to land at St Eval?’ So the radio operator got the ok and, and he got a radio bearing of the St Eval and we homed on the St Eval beam and put down there. And so that was the end of that particular flight. Stayed there and had our dinner there and by the time the afternoon wore on we could get back to, back to Abingdon again. So that was the sort of difficulties you experienced on Whitleys. No other particular Whitley flight stays in my memory. They were all humdrum sort of things but ranging far afield. Ranging far up into the, out in to the northwest. Out in to the Atlantic. Down Cornwall direction. But mostly lasting about, about five, five or six hours and it was a bit of a strain in that I was working for, with solid brain work for five or six hours. Checking temperatures, wind velocities, radio bearings. Working out the distance to the next point or turning point. Time of arrival. It’s, six hours solid brain work is pretty wearing. While the rest of the crew of course having a pretty easy time. The bomb aimer, you’d think to yourself he’d have a particularly easy time because there weren’t any. Anyway, he was, the bomb aimer at all times even operational was an assistant navigator. He could be given pieces of apparatus to work. For instance I could, on Halifaxes I could ask him to take a bearing on the, on the Gee set while I took a bearing on the air position indicator. Or the other way around because the two things needed to be done at the same time. And so while he did, I put him on to the air position indicator mostly because that was, that was the easier thing to operate and I didn’t want to overstress him let’s say [laughs]. But we worked well together. There was never any, any hassle at all. But when the time came for, I forget what took place at the end of the [pause] Abingdon was an OTU or Operational Training Unit. In the early days by the time you’d finished on Whitleys and Wellingtons you were considered to be ready to sent, be sent on operations. But with the advent of heavy bombers and the advent of new radar and radio equipment and techniques and so on it was realised that you needed a further stage to get you ready to operate heavy bombers such as the Stirling, the Halifax and Lancaster. Stirling was a disappointment. It was too heavy. It hadn’t got the weight lifting capacity. It couldn’t get up as high as the Halifaxes and Lancasters. So it didn’t do an awful lot of bombing but it had other uses such as, they could do glider towing, jamming enemy radar and that sort of thing. But you needed, but for operational bombing, bombing just meant dropping bombs and causing as much damage as you could to the German war effort the, the crews needed a further training. So other units, new units were set up called Heavy Conversion Units. HCU. And the one I went to. Oh, I went to was at Snaith up in Yorkshire. Not far from, not far from Doncaster. And [pause] have I got this right? No. No, the squadron was, sorry, the one I went to was at Swanton Morley. No. That’s not correct. That’s down by Abingdon isn’t it? Oh dear. Oh dear. Could you turn it off?
[recording paused]
The Heavy Conversion I went to was at Marston Moor near York. This was in 4 Group and they would be flying Halifaxes from there because 4 Group flew only Halifaxes. And Lancasters went to 3 Group which was further South Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. So we were converting on to, on to the four-engined Halifax and of course we would need a flight engineer. And that’s where Eric Berry joined us to make up the seven man crew. So the aircraft themselves were, well they were what the Americans referred to as war weary. They’d done their whack. They’d been damaged possibly. Repaired. They’d served their time and they weren’t in the most reliable condition but the ground staff did a wonderful job keeping them flyable and usable anyway. So we got our seven crew now and we’re ready to start genuine bombing, Bomber Command training. This incorporated the use of new equipment as well, because by this time Gee, the Gee set had been fitted into all bomber aircraft. I should explain that the Gee set was, relied on transmissions from the ground from three stations. A slave station, an A station and a B station and these were transmitted and they could be picked up by the Gee set receiver in a bomber and the, which the navigator worked of course and by taking, he could get his bearings off there. He could get his position off there and plot these bearings as he got the information that he got on the Gee set on to a special map that he’d got on his navigation table. And he could establish your position to within a quarter of a mile. Later on, over the Ruhr to within a quarter of a mile. In my estimation, over England it was even better than that. It was spot on to, to within a hundred yards or so. So it was amazing. Night time, thick cloud, no view of the ground, no view of the stars. No view of anything at all in fact. And you could establish your position to within a hundred yards. Marvellous. So I could get my position off the, off the Gee set. At the same time I’d get the air position from the bomb aimer, plot the two of them, join those two up and I’d got the wind direction and speed. So I could look ahead. I could plan my course to the next turning point knowing that the wind velocity would be different because of course as you fly through a weather system whether a cyclone or an anti-cyclone the wind direction and, no not the velocity the wind direction is certainly going to change and you’ve, you can, you need to constantly update your knowledge of what the wind velocity is and maybe even look ahead and in your own brain build in a few degrees extra to compensate for the change that you know is going to carry on happening. It was all, it all sounds a bit vague but it became second nature in time. If I got the bearing that I wanted, that I wanted the aircraft to fly to to get to the next turning point or the target or whatever I’d work out, work it out on the chart and then add on or take off a few degrees as to whether I thought the wind was veering or backing. So a little bit of brain work had to come in extra off the cuff. And there were other things to think of too. When you were approaching a turning point if there was, if it was a sharp, suppose you were coming up and then turning on to making a sort of a sharp turn to the next turning point it was no good telling the pilot there, ‘Turn on to that next course,’ because he would be, he would do that. You had to tell him half a minute before so that he could get the aircraft onto a turn ready to come onto that correct line that you’d got on your chart. So even with all the aids and so on it was still not nothing that you could sit back and leave it to, leave it to the machinery to do. But no. In later days I used to, this is not all that long, well yes it is. It’s maybe ten, maybe twenty years ago now I used to teach navigation at the Wisbech Air Training Corps and we used to go over to get, you used to go over to Marham at times where they had, what was the — ?
Other: Chipmunks or something.
HW: Hmmn?
Other: Chipmunks were they there, Henry. There.
HW: The large aircraft that they had. A Victor.
Other: Oh the Victor or the [unclear]
HW: Yeah. Yeah.
Other: Oh yes the V days.
HW: And to show the lads what the navigational equipment’s like and we had the station navigation officer would conduct us round and show us around the aircraft and then show us the navigation system and he’ll say, he’ll say, ‘You see, you’ve got, in a Victor you’ve got two navigators. One is the navigator radar who takes all the bearings and the other is the navigator plotter who plots it all on the charts and works out the new courses.’ So, you see the equipment changing like that in techniques and tactics have to change to keep up with it. It was, they were always very supportive. I said to the navigator, a plotter and then the navigator radar, I said, How often do you need to take bearings?’ He said, ‘Well about every, about every ten minutes or so. I said, ‘Well what do you do in the meantime then?’ He said, ‘Well. Read a book.’ [laughs] And they, the navigator, these two navigators at their combined navigation table they were facing back into the, towards the tail of the aircraft and right by the side — suppose this is, suppose you are sitting at the navigation table and the door, the entry door is in the fuselage was just to the right of the navigation table. So what happened in an emergency was that the pilot would do whatever’s necessary to get that door open or, or ejected. I don’t know what they did. Whether they, but anyway the two navigators were standing or siting handy and all they had to do was stand up, take a couple of steps to the right and they were out of the door because they were on parachute seats you see. Or they had parachute packs on. But yes. Tactics changed. Now where had we got to? Back to, back to Marston Moor I think. Yes. Well, there’s not much more to say about Marston Moor. Oh well, yeah. The favourite pub. I used to go out for some reason with the mid-upper gunner. I don’t know why I used to go with him in particular. Perhaps he was a good drinker [laughs] perhaps he was the best drinker. We took, got station bikes and we used to bike up to Tockwith. Up near Selby anyway. And I might be — anyway we got the station bicycles and we used to go up to this pub which was in a little village and it wasn’t near an operational Air Force station but used to get quite a few ground staff. It seemed to be a favourite one for ground staff. There was no electricity laid on. The stone flagged floor, the deal tables and the two landladies both, both pretty old, wore clothes entirely of black. Long black dresses and hair done up in buns and so on. They’d bring out, when it got dark bring out Aladdin lamps which worked like primus stoves. You could pump them up and they would provide the illumination. They’d bring those out and put them on the table and a singsong would develop. And the, one of the favourite one I can remember was, “Knees Up Mother Brown.” And one of the landladies, when prompted would always get up on the table and we would all sing, “Knees Up Mother Brown,” and she would caper about on the table. And she must have been in her eighties anyway. So, and but everybody got on well. I mean there were a lot of WAAFs there. There must have been a station where they needed, perhaps a clerical station of some sort. I don’t know but there were a lot of WAAFs there. But there was no standing on ceremony. No ranking or anything of that sort. We were all in there for a booze up so that was it. And then chucking out time. Chucking out time in those days was very rigid.
Other: 10 o’clock.
HW: Yeah. Chucking out time was at 11 o’clock. No. Chucking out time. If you stayed after chucking out time the landlady or landlord could be prosecuted for allowing drinking out of hours. So a quarter of an hour before chucking out time they’d give you, give you a warning. They’d ring a bell like a ships bell. And you knew if you wanted another pint to get one now and drink it in a quarter of an hour. And the police used to hover around outside pubs to check that there wasn’t any drinking after hours. They’d come in and have a look. So anyway.
[recording paused]
HW: So, after Heavy Conversion Unit at Marston Moor we were now a fully qualified operational aircrew. Fit to be set loose against the Germans. So posting took place then to, to individual bomber squadrons. From Marston Moor of course being in 4 Group we knew we were going to be on Halifaxes and our crew under Warrant Officer Bates was posted to Snaith which was near Doncaster. This was only a wartime aerodrome. It wasn’t it, wasn’t a pre-war one like with the, with the big buildings, comfortable buildings. It only had Nissen huts, wartime hangars, runways had been laid of course because heavy bombers heavily loaded needed, they needed a hard surface. They didn’t want, no good having them sinking in to soft mud in the winter time. Heavy Lancaster and a Halifax were almost exactly the same from the performance point of view. So I won’t differentiate between them. The weight of a heavy bomber fully loaded was sort of the aircraft itself, bombs, petrol, the crew and all that. The whole, the whole lot weighed some thirty tons. The take-off weight was about thirty tons so obviously you don’t need you need you don’t need soft earth underneath a thirty tonne weight so Snaith did at least have runways. The buildings themselves were sergeant’s mess, comfortable enough and nobody hassled you at all. Nobody bothered you. If operations weren’t on you were, the navigators used to head for the navigation section really and you could read over there or you could, you could talk to other people over there. You could look up info. Get any new information. You could make yourself a cup of coffee over there. It was it was easy going. You were accepted by the station navigation officer as a fully qualified navigator and from that point of view you were on the same footing as he. Sorry. On the same footing as he was. He was running the place, yes but from the navigational point of view you were on the same level and he accepted you as such. Right. So, to start with we did a few cross-country’s on the, on the Halifaxes at Snaith. You didn’t have our own particular aircraft. You used what aircraft was, that aircraft was available. Some pilots did have their own aircraft but we never got around to that. So we did cross-countrys of about some, about eight hours each. Long, long cross-countrys using new navigational equipment. One, I still used Gee but there had been a new one developed called [pause] oh dear, my memory’s getting something dreadful. Sorry. Maybe it’ll come back to me in a minute or two. Yeah. It’s come back to me now. H2S. H2S. You’ll say well that’s that’s the chemical formula for sulferated hydrogen isn’t it? That smells like, well politeness. Anyway, there you go. And with the people, the person who created, christened it H2S said yes, sulferated hydrogen. This H2S, like the sulferated hydrogen it stinks. So he hadn’t thought much of it. But it worked on a different system. The Germans could jam Gee because it depended on signals being sent out. Being sent out from Britain. H2S depended on signals being sent out by each aircraft itself. It had a revolving scanner underneath which as it went around it projected electronic beams and the Germans could pick those up so if you put the H2S on, if everybody had the H2S on then the Germans would have plenty of bearing. Oh, there’s an aircraft there. Look there’s another. There’s another. And so I preferred to switch, not to use H2S if possible. It was very useful over the coast but because beams projected by the H2S if they, if they came down from the aircraft and hit a building they were reflected back up to the aircraft itself which was acceptable. If they, if they went over and hit the sea they were reflected off that. They just went up and on their way so you could see what was sea clearly and you could see what was buildings clearly. So near coastlines or in estuaries or near big rivers it was useful but another reason why I didn’t leave it on for very long was that the German fighters realising that H2S were, transmissions were being made by bombers they developed a radar for their own fighters. Developed a radar where if you switched on your H2S he could, the German fighter pilot looking at his, looking at his radar would say, ‘There’s one over there. Right,’ And home in on him and creep on him gradually without him being aware of the fact. So, so that’s why I preferred to not to. Anyway, Gee was a better bet. It was a safer bet. But, but so the German pilots started, they started using their, their radar. They’d take a quick look. See an H2S transmission and then head in that direction and switch off. And then they’d take another quick peep. And so they kept, they kept just taking a peep so they knew they were going in the right general direction. So Bomber Command developed a piece of apparatus which overrode the German pilot switch and switched on his radar and left it switched on. He couldn’t switch it off. So, so it was a constant battle back and forth, back and forth. Something was developed, a counter was found. Something else. And so everything that was developed something was developed to, to neutralise it. So, right. The first two, the first two operations I went on. The first one, they were both daylight in fact and the first one was extremely easy. It was to a small town just just over the German border which the Germans at that time, the German border with France that is, the Germans had just been moved back out of France to a town called Soest, S O E — no. I’ve got it wrong. Julich. J U L I C H. And that was, they were using that as a garrison town and a reinforcement town and they were bringing their, back their rear troops up and to that town. That was their focal point and they were dispersing them along to wherever was necessary. So it only meant that we were over German held territory for about ten minutes or so which was, well it was a bonus. And of course the Germans hadn’t got their heavy anti-aircraft fire properly organised because it was too near the battlefront. The heavy anti-aircraft armament was near the big cities. So there was very little flak and we were able to fly in at a low, a low height of twelve thousand feet. We dropped our bombs at twelve thousand feet. The bomb load was normally the same. Normally about, about five tons. Something like that. A mixture. And maybe a two thousand pounder. A couple of thousand pounders, a few five hundred pounders, incendiaries if it was a target that would burn. So we dropped our bombs in. Dropped our bombs in Dropped our bombs, turned around, back home again and it was all over in no time. No hassle. Just across country in effect. Although Lancasters were attacking a town further south called Düren and looking out at the time when we were over our target I saw a Lancaster blow up over there. Just a big explosion. Anyway, the next one was, the next operation was at Munster which is in the north of, well it’s north of the Ruhr anyway. It’s not in a big industrial area. It’s, I don’t know what reason it was being attacked for but also a daylight and the opposition — very little in the way of opposition. Not very much flak. Not very — no fighters seen. It was it was a piece of cake again. I should say for anti-aircraft fire, light anti-aircraft fire was, was something to be reckoned with up to ten thousand feet. From there onwards it went on to 88 millimetre flak where the, with the cells bursting from there. Bursting at whatever height they’d been fused for. At any height up to over twenty thousand feet. So there were those two sorts of flak. They could and the opposition from German fighters, they were armed with cannon which shot, which fired a sort of a pattern. Their, their machine, their cannon belts were made up the same as their machine guns and the same as ours I think. In groups of five. We had in our machine gun bullets belts. We had two ball ammunition. Ordinary bullets. Two ball. One armour piercing, one incendiary and one tracer. So, so those, those groups of five as the gunner was operating his machine guns these, these were passing through in blocks of five. Tracers so as you could see where they were going. Red incendiaries so that they would set the, set the, perforate the petrol tanks, set the aircraft on fire. On fire. Also armour piercing and the two ball for general havoc. Anyway, that was Munster. And as I say then after that the remaining six that I did, I did eight altogether, the remaining six were all on heavy industrial targets. All, all in the Ruhr. Yeah. That vast German industrial complex. And they were at the, it was, it was a complex of so many cities that the whole thing merged together into one sort of a general area. They were cities like Duisburg, Essen, Cologne and so on. They were so much joined together. They were separate cities as well. So the, so much built joined together that bombs could safely be dropped there and they were going to do some damage. We were targeted on factories. Steelworks. Coking plants. Electricity supply places. Aircraft factories. Transport factories. Railway junctions and marshalling yards. That sort of thing. But as I say we were given that. That point. And that’s what we’d set the bomb, the bomb aimer would set his bombsights up according to that information. But even if you missed your target you were still going to, you were still going to bomb out some workers or were going to cause damage, houses. And really the amount of labour that was needed, was caused, with the amount of workers that Germany had to keep in Germany because of the depredations of Bomber Command. That gets entirely overlooked. Because when you come to think of it you’ve got to keep the firemen at home haven’t you? Fire brigades. You’ve got to keep the gunners, the anti-aircraft gunners there. You’ve got to keep the hospitals staffed and working. You’ve got to keep the population fed. You’ve got to, you’ve got to clear all bomb damage. All the rubble and so on. You’ve got to keep the lorries available for doing that. You’ve got, it’s just the amount of labour that Bomber Command caused to be held at home instead of being used in the actual ground fighting. And also, of course their fighters. They needed fighters to attack Bomber Command and so many fighters that could be used on the front line had to be held at home. And it’s generally overlooked what an enormous contribution, apart from the damage to the German factories and so on occasionally the sidelining damage that was done, caused by Bomber Command is, well you just, you see pictures of cities that have been bombed and you don’t realise then the amount of work that has gone to clearing that lot. Of course, as far as bomber crews were concerned the greatest fear was coming down in a parachute over a city that you were in the process and in fact you could get, well, down, well land in the city and be killed by bombs dropping from your own lot. So that was the greatest fear. Bomb. The large cities were covered by mainly by a ring, not a complete ring, by a belt of anti-aircraft fire. They knew that the bombers would be coming from the west so they got there. They had a ring of heavy anti-aircraft guns and, and then if over the target itself they didn’t, not so much heavy anti-aircraft guns the fighters would roam in that area. So they had the bombers had to contend with the anti-aircraft fire, collision with other aircraft because there were so many coming in at any one time. The risk of collision was very great. Bombs dropping from other aircraft flying a bit higher up than you were. The chances of trouble were only all too present. So back to, so you could you got the, you were on the final leg. Imagine now we’re on a final leg to the target of the Krupps Steel Works at Essen. The biggest industrial, the most concentrated industrial area in Germany and obviously of prime importance. So we’re on the run up. About ten minutes before we get there the bomb aimer says to me, ‘I’ll get my bombsights set up and all ready,’ because he guided the pilot in over markers laid by Pathfinder Force just previously. If they were visible. If not he’d have to use his bombsight. The information as he’d already keyed in to his bombsights as to where to drop the bombs. But of course it wouldn’t be so accurate but as I say any damage was beneficial to us, so we’re on the money. So about, so he lies down in front of his bombsight and he’s got, he’ll say to the pilot about a minute before, ‘Bomb doors open.’ And then he’ll guide the pilot up and he’ll be saying to him, ‘Left. Left. Left. Steady. Steady. Steady. Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Steady. Steady. Bombs gone.’ And then he’d have to fly on. We’d have to fly on, on that same course for a half a minute because it took that long for the bombs to get, to get down to the ground because in that half minute, when that half minute was up the cameras in the aircraft would photograph the point of impact. And so when we got back home, I mean you might not be able to see very much, just, just a lot of fires and just a lot of rubble but anyway that was a draw. Fly on half a minute and then after that turn for home. And the route home could be a bit more direct. On the way out it had to be a bit, not straightforward with a good sort of different legs in it so the Germans wouldn’t know, wouldn’t say oh yes he’s heading for Osnabruck. They’d say, well he’s heading towards the Ruhr. Yeah. And then in fact it looks as if it goes to be a bit the northern section of the Ruhr. So they get their fighters up there waiting and then the bomber force would turn and go down. Everything was done to try and confuse them. To catch their forces often by some sort of offbeat move. Army Co-operation Command used to fly Mosquitoes. What was it? Who’s flying Mosquitoes. Bomber Support Group. They used to patrol in Mosquitoes over German airfields, fighter airfields and catch any coming in to land or prevent any taking off and just, just make life impossible for them so they’d hang about. Bomber Support Group they were a great help in that. As I say various, many moves were made to try to, to try to reduce losses as much as possible. Anyway, so we did eight. As I say the eighth trip, all the others had been on the industrial areas of the Ruhr except for one Osnabruck which was nothing special to say about that. The, the eighth trip we were down for, marked down for an attack on Duisburg. Yes. Well ok we’d been there before. No big deal. So all the flight planning was taking place at briefing by the station commander of why we were going there in the first place. The navigation officer, the, the meteorological officer, the bombing leader, and they would all give information as their, the people they were talking to needed to know. So, so and then the station commander comes on, ‘Well, there you are lads. Off you go. Give them a good pasting won’t you?’ Or sometimes he said, ‘Well I shall be coming with you tonight lads so watch out. I’ve got my eye on you.’ That sort of thing. It was all done in a good humoured sort of way. And many a commanding officer failed to return from this. You know, it just, it was the luck of the gods. An anti-aircraft shell could hit him as well as somebody who was on their first trip. So, it was, it was so much was a matter of luck. Some hundred thousand men flew with Bomber Command and of those figures vary a little bit from here and there but some fifty seven thousand were killed. So over half were killed. So the chances of — you had to do thirty trips. That was called a tour. And if you did your thirty trips you got rested for six months and sent to Heavy Conversion Units or something like that to carry on. To give training. And then you come back for another twenty trips. So with fifty trips to do and the loss rate being on average four percent fifty trips tells me that in twenty five you’ve had your lot. If you survived any beyond the twenty five you were lucky. If you, if you get caught in less than twenty five you can’t complain. And of course some figures vary again. Some, I think, I think it was some, no I’m not, I have the figure of four thousand in mind but it must be higher than that were shot down and taken prisoner survived and came down by parachute or crash landed and got taken prisoner. I’m not sure about the figure there. Anyway, to come back to the last trip to Duisburg the weather forecast was supposed to be, oh the meteorological officer said it was reasonable. The forecast wasn’t all that bad. ‘You should be fairly, there will be rain storms at times but it should have cleared over the target by the time you get there. You may have a bit of difficulty with the weather but it’s not enough to, to cancel the operation. So be prepared for a bit of rough weather.’ But the weather, as I said it was part of the navigator’s job to calculate wind velocity and direction and the first, as soon as we were airborne and set course and we were, got up to a reasonable height and I checked the wind velocity I thought this is nowhere near. This is far stronger than, than was forecast. We were forecast for twenty thousand feet somewhere about forty knots. You know the difference between a knot and a [laughs] about forty knots and the further, the one that I calculated at twenty thousand feet was a hundred and two knots. Which would be about a hundred and ten statute miles an hour and so the force became widely scattered. Nobody, I think some navigators thought to themselves, ‘No. A hundred and two? A hundred and two? No. I’ve made a mistake somewhere. Go back. Use the Met forecast.’ Where others would think — ‘Yeah, I made a bit of a mistake. Let’s say, let’s say eight knots.’ So it just caused widespread confusion. So, and by the time we arrived over the target there was no sign of any target marking at all. So the, as we were, as we approached I gave the bomb aimer the aiming point position to put on his bombsight and he dropped his bombs according to that. And, and we turned away and headed, well we did the extra half minute which we were supposed to do and took a photograph of nothing at all in fact. And then turned for home and so we were heading it’s not all that far from the Ruhr to the German border in fact. But that was where the Germans fighters were. They caught on to the fact that the target had been, most aircraft had seemed to drop their bombs over in the Duisburg area and now they’ll be heading roughly north west back for England again. So, and, and one caught us. We turned away and were going quite nicely. Everything seemed to be in order for an orderly return to England. It was the only worry would be with the wind at a hundred and two knots are we going to have the fuel to get there? But anyway you keep going as long as you can. Just bear that one in mind. But so everything seemed to be going alright. Everything was in working order and then a call came through on the intercom, on the intercom [pause] Yeah. Yeah. ‘Corkscrew left. Corkscrew left.’ And you were familiar with the corkscrew of course and it would be going, it would be going and so it meant that one of the gunners. Mid-upper probably. I don’t know. You can’t tell. Had seen a, had spotted a German fighter and he knew he was positioning for an attack. So there was a spiral and, and then and then as the German fighter was manoeuvred further that turned into a diving turn. Diving turn left. Did I say corkscrew right?
Other: No. Corkscrew left.
HW: Corkscrew left. Oh, well there would be a diving turn to the right and so on and the other way round depending which side the German fighter was attacking from. There were two types of German fighter. There was the Junkers 88, a twin-engined one which had a pilot, upward firing cannon which, which of course cannon fired explosive shells. It could. We had no downward looking radar because our downward looking radar was called Monica. The German fighters were homing on to that so that wasn’t used any more. Then he could come along underneath undetected, match his speed with the speed of the bomber fix his, sight his cannon on the precise spot he was going to fire at. And then, as I said the wing tanks were the favourites. Yeah. The other method was by and there were more of these than Junkers 88 was a Messerschmitt 110 which had a crew of three. Which had a crew of two, err a crew of three. The pilot, a radar operator and a gunner. And so the, his method of attack was that he would stand up high up and to one side or another. Usually to the right, to the bomber’s going that way he would be to the bomber’s right hand side and behind because his speed was going to be greater than the one and he was, he could pick his point. If the bomber, if the bomber the bomber was flying sort of straight and level he would come down and aim at the spot that he wanted to set on fire. He could open fire with his cannons and the machine gunner in the turret could use the, could use the machine guns and the, the radar operator of course was carrying out his order. I have in my possession the, the fighter pilot’s report of the aircraft, of three aircraft who, which shot down bombers at that, around about that area and that time. And I’ve got the full report of each pilot and his gunner and his radar operators as well in German and of course I’ve had those, I’ve got photocopies of those and so I know the name of the blighter that shot us down. And I thought, I’ve had them translated into English of course but, but I thought to myself at the time, or well I hope they get those [pause ] and then I thought — no. No. Not fair. They’re only doing their duty the same as we are. You couldn’t, the only thing I’ve got against them is that they succeeded [laughs] So, so, ok our wing tanks were on fire. The engineer standing just behind the pilot says, ‘Wilf, we’re on fire.’ And I looked back up, up the stair from my position down in the nose and I could see a roaring mass of flame just behind the, where the, where the wing root was because burning petrol came swilling into the fuselage. Through the, through the wing root and of course also that was where the oxygen bottles were stored and they got, they’d have gone off like bombs themselves. A nearly the empty petrol tank was going to explode like a bomb and the, oh the burning petrol coming into the fuselage would have so weakened the main spar that it would have just melted. So it was obvious that nothing could be done. The pilot had no hesitation in giving the order and every member of the crew immediately he gave the order, ‘Jump. Jump.’ it was — I was the first one to answer, ‘Navigator jumping.’ And, and then I could get off. Each person had to acknowledge in turn that they’ve heard. That they had heard. If anybody was too, was badly injured and couldn’t move he would say on his intercom and the pilot would, if possible but what can you do if a chap can’t? It was as much as a man could do to look after himself without dealing with other people as well. So, ‘Navigator jumping.’ Off with the helmet and oxygen mask and intercom microphone and kick a leg away, the legs of the navigation table which was on the, on the port wall and it just flopped down against the wall. When I stood up my seat which was attached to the starboard wall was on springs and it just folded itself up when I stood up. So I left a big open space. There was a trap door on the floor. About, about what shall we say? Three feet by two possibly. All I had to do was bend down, turn a handle in that trap door, raise it, when you’ve got it about the vertical you can lift it off its hinges. So I lifted that, lifted it off its hinges, turned it diagonally and dropped it through. Dropped it through the hole and there was a big open space with me [knocking sound] ready to go. So all I had to do was just slip through. And the others, the bomb aimer should have been, why he didn’t come next I just don’t know. But then the radio operator would have been the third out through that hatch. The other crew members would get out where ever they could in fact. So as I stood on the front, on the, on the edge of this hole, the front edge of this hole facing backwards. Not facing into the slipstream you understand. Facing backwards. As I dropped through so my parachute pack which was on my chest caught on the front of the, the exit hatchway. Caught on the front and lifted it up. Up above my head. So I had to reach up behind my back. Try and pull it down. Pull it down a bit. The escape, the handle on the parachute pack was facing backwards of course, it had flopped up. Facing back. Pulled that big metal ring and it, it released the little pilot chute inside. A little parachute which was on springs so that little parachute sprang open and as the air got in it it got into the slipstream so it took, pulled out the main canopy of the parachute and so and then once the, once the air got into that main canopy then, then that was ok. It was opened and you were on the safe side. But, but I thought after, after falling for, well not very long, a few seconds I saw the flashes of lightning, thunder. You don’t get thunderstorms in December. I thought — no. That’s not, it’s not thunderstorms. It’s anti-aircraft shells bursting [laughs] I dropped through that lot fairly quickly. So, but it was an easy enough descent by that time but my main worry was that I knew that the when the air, when I jumped out of the aircraft it was behind British lines in, in Holland. The Germans had just been pushed back across the River Maas and they, the British forces were up to one bank of the Maas and the Germans, well they’d moved back a few miles from the river into, into safe territory. We were going to have to cross the River Maas somehow too if we were ever going to get into Germany. So that was the Germans. So we moved back till so we got a good gunnery range in front of us and if they tried to cross we got them. But I knew quite well that on the average if the wind was a hundred and two knots or a hundred and two miles an hour or down to a hundred and ten miles an hour on the way down —suppose at ground level it’s forty miles an hour so that means, that means sort of, that means that the average wind speeds from my descent is going to take, I’m going to, it’s going to take me from fourteen thousand feet. It’s going to take me about a quarter of an hour to get down. And in a quarter of an hour I’m going to drift fifteen miles anyway. So if I drift fifteen miles I’m going to cross the River Maas and drift about twelve miles into German territory. So if the wind had been an east wind of course, the other way around that would have been me home and dry. But the west northwest wind, it was taking me over fifteen miles on my parachute. I thought that’s a bit much really and, but as I said well I could say to myself this is what’s going to happen. There’s no good whingeing about it so, but I’ve got to be ready. And getting near the ground I couldn’t see because it was raining at the time as well and it’s, there were no lights of any sort. This was about 6 o’clock in the morning and so it wasn’t really light. It was, it was just beginning to get light. And I came down through the branches of an apple tree or it might have been a plum tree for all I know. I wasn’t in any position to assess the fruiting capabilities of the tree. Came down through this tree and hit the ground. Now the instructions were when you hit the ground, when you, when you come down by parachute in enemy territory you’ve got to, the first thing you do is roll your parachute and hide it. Well mine was draped over the top and tangled up in the branches of the tree so I thought well that one’s not on. I couldn’t roll my parachute up and hide it. Furthermore, on looking up at the, it was in the back garden of a house this tree. And looking up at the bedroom windows I saw a curtain apart and a face looked out like that. There was no good hanging around here. I took my Mae West life jacket off and threw that, yeah I still had it on coming down. And threw that down and headed down the side of the house out through the front gate. Realised I was in a little village but with houses well scattered. It wasn’t, it wasn’t packed together. I turned left. Why I turned left. One way’s as good as the other I suppose. And I heard marching feet so I turned the other way [laughs] walked about, oh about a quarter of a mile through the village and out into the open fields. A German soldier was walking down the road towards me and I thought, I just said to him as I went past, ‘Morgen,’ [laughs] and he said, ‘Morgen,’ and he went on his way. He, he was on the same bit as me. If I don’t cause him any trouble he won’t cause me any. So I went on my way and by this time it was almost broad daylight. I kept clear of roads as far as possible and walking across country my plan was to walk. Walk southwards in to occupied France, no France wasn’t occupied then. Walk north westwards, get up behind, because our forces were in Holland. This was about the time of Arnhem. Walk around. If I’m clear around that corner and hide up in, in Holland. Wait till the German advance over, overtook the British sorry the British advance overtakes me and I’ll be free again. So that was the general intention. Walk northwest. Right. So I’ve got his far. Almost broad daylight. It was cold. I was wet. Still suffering I suppose a bit of shock about the turn that events had taken. But in this barn I noticed that there was a ladder leading up to the loft. And I went up. I thought that’s a good place to hide. Walked up the ladder, went up the ladder, found it was full of hay. Oh yes. Comfortable as well. Took off the wet flying suit which was no point in doing really. I thought I’ll stuff that with hay but that wasn’t, looking back I was, that was futile. But anyway I’ll get a bit of sleep. So I managed to drift off. Oh I examined what I had to assist me. I’d got, I’d got what we called a Pandora’s Box. It was a little, a little plastic box. Fairly thin. Maybe, maybe about six inches wide and four inches tall and, and bent around like that so that it would fit nicely inside the, the flying, the thigh pocket on your flying suit. So I had that. I had, and in it there were Horlicks tablets, barley sugars, chewing gum. I don’t know why chewing gum. Energy tablets. Water for your purifying tablets, rubber water bottle like a, like a football bladder in fact. A compass. I don’t remember anything else — oh money. I must admit I can’t remember the other thing. Oh a map. Yeah. A map, printed on silk of the area that we were flying over. And so, so I rationed myself to two barley sugars a day and four Horlicks tablets and I thought that I’d got to make that last a week. If by the end of the week if there’s no hope of anything else I’ll have to chuck it in. So, so, so after that there was, there was nothing else. I had no — oh yes. Yes I did. I had a, always carried inside my flying suit a 38 Webley revolver. Aircrew were allowed to draw revolvers if they wanted them. You didn’t have to but if you wanted one because there were stories about what had happened. I don’t know whether they’re authentic or not but stories about aircrew coming down in areas that had been bombed and getting strung up on lamp posts and shot and beaten with iron bars and so on. I thought to myself if I get a crowd converging on me there’s one in this six shot. One for myself but five of them are coming with me. So, you know, I had that as well. So I used to, I’d walk by night time then to avoid detection and find somewhere to hide up for the day. Sleep for the day. Once I’d dug out the — some straw out of a, like a haystack but it was straw stacks so it was fairly loose. I dug out a hole. Burrowed in there and I was hidden. Well hidden for the day and fairly warm as well. Another time I was approaching a farm house. Well it was open country but as I said I always stuck to open country if possible. In open country, but it looked a bit dilapidated. I thought I don’t know. I thought surely nobody lives there. I thought if there’s nobody lives there it would be a good place to hide up. So I walked up the bit of a path to the door, front door and as I as I got almost to the door the door opened. An old German lady looked out with a little girl standing, standing beside her. The little girl about three years old I suppose. I should think she was the, her husband was probably called up. This was their, their — she would be this child’s grandmother. That’s what I’m trying to, I’m trying to say. And she was white haired and wore glasses and so on. And she looked at me and there’s me standing there with a six shot revolver. I thought [laughs] I thought, poor old soul. I thought put it away again. I felt a real heel threatening an old German lady with a revolver. Anyway, she, sorry, sorry she beckoned me inside and she gave me a slice of bread and an apple and a drink of milk. And so, so then I left her. I went out. She, she said, ‘Herr Paulsen come. Herr Paulsen come.’ I didn’t know who Herr Paulsen was but I thought well I don’t want to know anybody who’s got H E R R in front of their name so I left her to it and, but it was broad daylight then. I walked about. I hid up as soon as I could in a copse full of wet brambles and so on, and blackberry bushes and that sort of thing. And so that’s how I spent the rest of that day. On we walks. Nothing else much too report really. Another time, getting, about four or five days [pause] yeah, yeah about, about four, about five days I was getting lightheaded by that time with nothing. Nothing to eat except these few tablets. There were no crops in the fields. No fruit in the fields or anything of that sort. I was getting lightheaded. Not thinking clearly. I came to a railway embankment and I thought, oh yeah, there was no, no level crossing or anything of that sort but I’ve got to climb over that thing. Up and over and down the other side. I thought — no. No. What am I doing? All I’ve got to do is climb up on to the track, walk along the track until I come to a station, buy a ticket and get back home again. So after about a quarter of a mile or so I must have come to myself. No. What the hell am I doing? Then I got down off the track. I went on my way. So then the night after that, still hungry and not thinking very clearly instead of sticking to the fields, this was night time of course, I always walked at night. Walking I walked down the main road of the village intending to sort of be through and out the other side. But unfortunately as I walked, stumbling along by this time I heard, ‘Halt verdacht.’ Oh blimey. And a click of a rifle bolt. And I thought oh well there you go. I said, I know little bit of German. I don’t know how I come by it but the odd word or two. I got this, ‘Halt,’ and the click of the rifle bolt and I said ‘Ich binn, ich binn ein Englisher flieger’ and that’s, that was enough German. He said, he said, he’d got the rifle bolt, he said, ‘Hände hoch.’ I got that, ‘Put your hands up.’ And then he said, he said get the order right oh yeah he had a dugout nearby with, with a little a fire. A stove, inside. That was his sentry post in fact. He said, ‘Komm.’ And he walked along behind me and he, he said ‘Ein, ein’ I thought or something which obviously meant in. Get inside. So I went inside and there was a bunk in there and floor boards and this sort of wood burning stove. And that was where he, that was his sentry post and, and he didn’t quite know what, sort of, what to do next. I said, I don’t know if my German was correct or not. I said with, one hand like that said, ‘Ich habe hier eine pistole.’ I don’t know what the German is for pistol. Do you?
Other: No [laughs]
HW: Anyway, but he got the meaning meant something. He said, ‘Ah,’ I put my hand back up a bit. He said, ‘Ah,’ he said and he mimed it [pause] and said, ‘Langsam. Langsam,’ which I gathered meant ‘slowly.’ He said, what he was meaning was take it out and put it on the table but slowly. No sudden movement like that or else you get, that’s your lot. So after that was done he gave me some of his bread, some of his rations and some bread and some pate that also went with it and a drink of coffee out of his, acorn coffee it would have been of course, out of his, out of a flask and I had to wait until he said, he motioned that I should take off my wet flying suit and lay it down over in front of the, in front of his heater and that I should lie on the floor and if, he made the sign that people that make when they’re going to sleep. His hand beside the side of his head inviting me to go to sleep in the warmth and that. So I thought what a decent old bloke. He doesn’t want any trouble. I’m in shape to give him any trouble so let’s take it from there. So I went to sleep. Proper sleep I’d had for a long time. And then the next morning his relief arrived from a nearby German aerodrome. There was a German aerodrome I found out later at a town called Alpen. It was a fighter aerodrome. Yeah. A fighter aerodrome. And it was about, poss about three miles. Something like that away. And I was going to get taken by the, by my old, my old friend, he was by that time. I was going to get taken over back to Alpen Aerodrome and handed over in to official German custody. So I was lucky really in because I’ve heard of people since the war. People who’d been handed over to the police, the ordinary civilian police who usually worked hand in glove with the Gestapo. I got, I was going to be handed over to the Service. And not just army but my own type of Service — the Air Service, as well. So I struck it lucky. So when we got [pause]
[recording paused]
HW: Ok. So I walked with this, with this German guard I suppose. He was an old chap really. Like an English home guard. And he took me to Alpen, this German fighter aerodrome. I was taken into the officer’s mess there and was obviously a sort of a curio to them in there for them to see one of the individuals that they had been fighting against. They were interested in my flying clothing in particular. Particular flying boots. A lambswool flying, lined flying boots. And the, well all the flying equipment really. None of them could speak English and I couldn’t speak German but one of them could speak French. And I could. He asked me questions in French. I answered him in French and then he translated it into German for all his mates. So one of the questions he, he said. ‘How many times have you been over Germany?’ I said this was the eighth time. He said, ‘Only eight times?’ He said, ‘I have been over London sixty six times.’ Anyway, they gave me what meal they were having. It was only a sort of spaghetti bolognaise in fact. And then I got shunted off into where I was, the side room where I ate that and then taken down to a cellar and kept there all night with a German just outside the door, well a locked door, with a rifle. And yeah, that was next day I was taken by one of their, one of their police to the railway station and taken to down, down, down Germany to Frankfurt. We went to the Ruhr first. Went to Dusseldorf Railway Station where we had to change trains and, and then we went on down south to Frankfurt. And I was taken, handed over to the reception camp I suppose, well not a camp. It was a sort of a proper building. A reception centre where all crew, air crew went. Were taken for interrogation. Put in a single, taken up, put into a single cell with a little barred window high up and a wooden bunk. And that was it really. There was a blanket. A couple of blankets sort of thing. And my boots, shoes, boots, flying boots were taken away and put outside the door. I wasn’t allowed to keep those. I hadn’t anything else that was of any use. Oh they took my navigationers, navigator’s watch. And the next day I was taken up for interrogation. All aircrew were interrogated separately. Well, pilots, navigators and bomb aimers and radio operators. It’s not much good interrogating gunners because they didn’t know much. Navigators, he wanted, the officer interrogating me wanted to know what height we were flying, what bomb load did you have, what was your exact route into the target and so on and so on. And but there wasn’t much I could, well there wasn’t much I was prepared to. I said, ‘You know sir I’m only obliged to tell you my name, rank and, and’ —
Other: Number.
HW: Name, rank and [pause] Oh well never mind. I was only, with regards information I was only obliged to obey the Geneva Convention. He said, he says, ‘There’s one or two questions about you sergeant, he said, ‘You have been wondering about in Germany you say for six days.’ He said, ‘But we have no aeroplane that you flew in. What aeroplane? Where is your aeroplane that crashed? Where are the other?’ He said, ‘And you have no identity tag.’ He said. I said, ‘No. The string back home broke before I came out that last trip. I was going to put some fresh string on when I got back.’ He said, ‘No disk. No identification. You will not say what squadron you came from. You will not say what your target,’ he said, ‘That was the night of Duisburg raid.’ I said, ‘Well yes it was.’ So, so anyway, he, I got taken back to my cell again. The next day I was called for another. He gave me, he gave me another go and he said, ‘Yes sergeant,’ he said, ‘We have had another crew in from 51 Squadron and they say, they confirm that your aircraft did not come back from Duisburg.’ He said, ‘So I can see how why you cannot identify yourself,’ And he said he accepted the fact that I was telling him the truth. I told him as much as I was going to and he, and he said now about, ‘We have settled that. Now, about your route into the, what other targets have you attacked? What other targets has 51 Squadron?’ I thought well I’ve said quite enough now and I thought, ‘I can’t say any more sir.’ He thought ok. He gave up on that but it was a comfortable office he had with nicely carpeted. A big, big desk, smelling richly of cigar smoke and, oh well. Anyway, went down to this holding unit down at Oberursel where all prisoners are sent. All prisoners. Air Force prisoners went. And I went, I met there a chap called John Trumble who I did training with, navigator as well, training as South Africa and when he saw me he said, ‘Waggy,’ and we stayed together for all the rest of the time. Got sent over by train in cattle trucks. You know, forty men to a truck. That sort of a thing. Six horses or forty men. From there right over to the far side of Germany bordering Poland. Near the Polish border at, near Dresden err Chemnitz no. I’m not sure. Right over the very far corner, southwestern corner of Germany you might say, to a prison camp, Stalag Luft 7 at Bankau. B A N K A U. And this was for air force, Royal Air Force non-commissioned officers. I’d only been there three days, no, four days when, and it was quite established camp. They were the proper bunks and there wasn’t a lot of rubbish about. The food, the food was nicely organised and so on but then the Russians were moving close and the Germans said, ‘We’re going to move you out of here.’ So they marched us out one night. One night the, in fact Russian aircraft were bombing not very far away so we knew the Russians were getting close. But the Germans weren’t going to hand us over to the Russians. They were going to keep us because prisoners were good bargaining counters for them. They wanted to hang on to prisoners because they knew, really they knew how the war was going to finish. So we marched out. They’d given us a little time to get our few possessions together. Our few Red Cross items that we’d acquired. For instance a blanket and pyjamas and shaving kit and a few, a toothbrush and a few, a knife, fork and spoon. A few things like that. And off we went and oh it was hard marching. We used to march. They used to put us up in farmyards. In, in barns. In farmyards where you just lay on the ground in, or on straw if you were lucky. Feeding was by, they had a what sort of a thing, a boiler on wheels that they used to take used to drag round. It was, they used to do soup in it mainly. Cabbage soup or swede soup or something of that sort. Dreadful stuff. Used to issue a bit of bread each day and a bit of margarine. That’s about it I think. Oh a few potatoes. Yeah. Yeah. And so we walked through this bitter winter weather. We were stumbling along. Through thick snow quite often. One particular night there was a blizzard. You could rake your fingernails down your face and you wouldn’t feel anything. It was just numb. So anyway, this marching, well it wasn’t marching it was just staggering along really. And they used to put us up as I say in these barns and the next day we’d be off again. And this went on about six days through terrible winter weather. Until we came to a town called Goldberg where they put us on to, they got rail transport organised to take us to a camp called, to Stalag 3A called Luckenwalde. Near Berlin. Southwest of Berlin. And so we were, things took a turn for the better there. Mind this when we got to Luckenwalde it was an old established camp but proper brick built. It was built as a prison camp but it was, being a proper huts with wooden floors you didn’t have to sleep the earth floors or anything of that sort. And grossly overcrowded because there were other nationalities there. There were, there were Poles, there were Russians, there were Norwegians. Oh, there were all sorts there. And we, there was only room for us. The Germans put straw on the floor and wood. Wood straw. And we used to let, each person had a little area sort of as wide as he was and as long as he was and stretched out on the floor. The barrack blocks were each barrack block used to send up each day well twice, twice a day yeah to the cookhouse. And cookhouse well it was in the morning it was, there was nothing to eat. It was just water. Now, they, they brought they said the man in charge of each hut said, ‘How many men want their coffee made up as coffee, their tea made up as tea and how many want it left dry to smoke?’ [laughs] So through the rest of the day there was nothing to do really but lie on the floor. It was dirty. There was no, you had hang your blankets out on the wire, barbed wire each day to air to get the smell out of them. The wash place was dirty. Later in the day the main meal would consist of potatoes and soup again. A bit of bread. Sometimes a little bit of pate. But, but we made do with the Red Cross parcels. If we hadn’t had the Red Cross parcels I don’t know where we’d have been. The Geneva Convention says that the prisoners must be given the same rations as the home service back area troops. If the back area troops in Germany were living on what we got they must have been pretty hard up. Anyway, there was nothing to do all day. We used to go out, walk around the compound and well that was it. And oh we got the news read every day because, because our, our somebody had got and made a little radio set with bribing the German guards to bring in the odd valve and the battery. Bribing them with cigarettes. That was the general currency. Cigarettes out of Red Cross parcels. So they used to pick up the man who had this little radio set used to pick up the BBC news every day and come around to the huts and read it out loud to each one. So we knew what was happening. That was one thing to look forward to. Otherwise just snooze, slept, talked. There was nothing else to do until the Russians got close and we, the Germans were talking about moving us to some other place to, so they could keep their control of prisoners. But they never, they never made that. The Russians arrived one day and Russian tanks were knocking down the barbed wire. And we were, we were, or our senior British officer said that we were to stay put. We weren’t to go out roaming around the country. We were to stay put because things would get disorganised. Anyway, he said there’s safety in numbers. So we stayed there and after a time the Russians provided us with food of a sort but nothing much. But anyway when we had stayed there I was with this John Trumble. By this time firm friends with him. And we, I said to him, ‘Look John, these Russians aren’t going to let us go. They’ve held on to us. There’s no reason why we can’t go, link up, is there? They’ve linked up with the British. There’s no reason why we can’t go.’ I said, ‘I don’t like the look of it John.’ He said, ‘No,’ he said, ‘Waggy,’ he said, ‘Let’s go.’ So we put the news around amongst sort of a couple of dozen of us around about. ‘Yes. Ok mate. Ok. We got the message. We see what you mean. Yeah. We’re coming with you.’ So we slipped out against the orders of the senior British officer and after we’d walked about four miles or so I suppose we saw a convoy of lorries coming towards us. British lorries. So one of them stopped. We got aboard. He said, ‘I’ll take you lads back,’ he said, ‘The other lorries are going down to the camp to collect the rest of the lads.’ So we got into this lorry and went back. Crossed the River Elbe into British held territory and we were free. So, but those that stayed, those lorries that went to collect the rest of the RAF prisoners, the Russians wouldn’t let them go and they never did. They were never heard of again. I think the Russians thought hello, navigators, engineer, flight engineers, pilots if we got some, a bit top up here we’ll keep them. It’s all, it’s all in it’s all in there. So we stayed at this British Air Force aerodrome. Shönebeck it was called. And after two days the Dakotas came and picked us up, took us back to Brussels. There we were handed over to the, oh they were American Dakotas by the way. Taken back to Brussels. We were handed over and British Dakotas came and took us back to England. We landed at Wing near Aylesbury and we were back. Welcomed back into, into Air Force, Air Force ways again. Given uniforms and sent on leave and so on. So that was that. So that’s Air Force career pretty well finished. We used to get called back now and again for just a couple of weeks. I went back to one, what’s one down there [pause] near Stamford? What’s the?
Other: Wittering? Wyton? Wittering?
HW: Yeah. Went down to Wittering. Yes. And they called us back. Not that they wanted us back but they just wanted to let us know that they, we were still under their control. So after those stages the war finished of course and I went back to University and I’d done two years at University before being called up. So I went back in the January and did two terms to get back into the way of things. Then I had two more years to do my degree. And then I had a year to do for a diploma in education because I was going to be a teacher, you see. So, so and that all went through satisfactorily. The University were very good. The Air Force was very generous. They paid my University fees. All that sort of thing. And it all went nicely. I got a job in, after my teaching training was and so forth I got a job in an independent school. St Johns School in Leatherhead which was a minor public school, teaching French and Latin. Those were my two degree subjects. And I was in charge of rugby there which, and had a jolly good time there in fact. The head master was a very liberal minded man. Prefects were allowed to smoke in their studies. They, they were allowed to have, to brew coffee and to so on in their studies. And they had radio sets in their studies. He treated, he treated them as gentlemen and the one thing that annoyed him more than anything else was if a boy could be accused of ungentlemanly behaviour. Anything else he’d accept. But ungentlemanly behaviour oh. But as I say liberal minded you know. I said to him once about, we used to the crew rugby team used to some of us used to get together now and again. Talk over next Saturdays run and thinking about the captain I said, ‘Would it be alright, sir if I took Warrington down in to, down to the Globe down in Leatherhead. We’ll have a dinner and a couple of pints. A couple of pints.’ He said, ‘Yes. Yes, that would be alright Mr Wagner. Don’t bring him back completely drunk will you?’ So they were happy times. But I moved from there eventually after four years because I wanted to get back into the state system. I was also paying in to the state retirement. The pension system. So I applied for a job in the, at a Grammar. Dear me. Someone gave me a hollow tooth.
HW: Yes. A Grammar School near Reading and where I was second in command of the French Department and I taught Latin as well. Taught French and Latin and took a great interest in their rugby and joined Marlow Rugby Club which played all. All my remaining rugby was played at Marlow Rugby Club. They made me an honorary life member for the rest of my days for services to the club. So well, anyway I’d be in this Grammar School I taught at in Reading. I was standing at the window of my classroom one day looking out over the playing fields and it was raining. It had been raining for quite a few days. I thought in another twenty years I’m going to be standing at the same window at this same blasted rain. I’ve got to have a complete change. So I looked in the “Times Education Supplement” for postings abroad. I was married by this time by the way. Yeah. And we were buying our own house. So I thought do a complete change and found one advertised in Kenya. So, for French and Latin. I thought, well there you go. I thought well they were the wrong sort to be learning Latin for, but anyway [laughs] Because at the station at the Delamere High School there were a third Africans, a third Asians and a third Europeans so there was a good mix. And of course they all had to pay. There was no such thing as free schooling out there. They all had to pay school fees so parents made sure that they didn’t waste their, waste their time in school. You got a child a bad report, a word to their parents and that soon brought about a change. We had a daughter by this time. Helen. She went to Kenya High School which was a girl’s boarding school and she only came home once every other weekend. They were allowed home. Otherwise apart from holidays that was the only time we saw her. Phillip was five years old went to, went to Nairobi Cathedral School which was a sort of an infant school you might say. He wasn’t five years old yet. So, but the wife of the canon at the Nairobi Cathedral, she taught. She ran the little school that they had. As an aside, it’s difficult to know, I don’t want to waste your time on this really, but it was run on traditional lines. She was there to teach. You were there to get taught and you were going to get taught. In the old traditional way. No play way. Anyway, it came around to the time of the Christmas pantomime. Traditional. And the usual Mary in the manger and all the, so Phillip was selected as Joseph. Right. So parents were invited of course into this performance and Joan and I were sitting there knowing that Phillip was a good big part and on he came. On to the stage with, with the usual sort of dishcloth around his head and a nightdress, a white nightdress on. All that sort of thing. And the head mistress had said, told the children, ‘We’ll try a new way this year. We’re not going to have the usual talk. You’ve got to do it like it happens at your house. Like when your mummy — when your daddy comes home what does your mummy say to him? And what does he say to her. And you’ve got to carry on like that.’ So Phillip arrives on. Mary’s there holding a big, a big doll and Phillip says, Mary says, ‘Welcome home Jesus. Nice to see you again.’ And Jesus says, Jesus says, ‘Oh yes, I’m glad to be home again Mary.’ And how’s this no, I’m getting it wrong aren’t I? Joseph. And how’s, Joseph says, ‘How’s little Phillip?’ I’m making a pigs ear of this. ‘How’s little Jesus been?’ And Mary says, ‘He hasn’t been a good boy at all. Yeah. In fact he’s been a right little bugger all day.’ And I can imagine Mary’s face. She’s told them to say things that happen just at home. And all the parents are sitting there [ laughs ] . Anyway, I became deputy head at this Queen’s Girl’s School. The head, when the head mistress was on leave I was a head teacher, principal for a whole term and then it got taken over. The Africans took it back they, we knew they were going to take it back. They took it back. Put their own staff in. Most of the Europeans had gone by then. From the whole country in fact. And so it was time for us to go and we went back to our, the house that we had started buying in Reading and settled down there and things went on from there quite normally. I joined, went back to Marlow Rugby Club. I took up, oh no. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Went back to my old job that I had before and the headmaster said, ‘Yes. We’ll take you back Mr Wagner but would you guarantee to stay for two years? I don’t want somebody coming in and then he’ll settle down for a term and then he’ll start looking for a head of department’s job.’ ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I’ll stay for two years.’ And after two years, when the two years were nearly up I got this job at the Queen’s Girl’s School in Wisbech. Teaching just, of course they don’t do Latin there. And carried on there. I worked there for, until I did nine years there. And when I was eighty, eighty one yeah [pause] Eighty one? Fifty eight. It was 1981 [laughs] when I was fifty eight. My wife had died. Helen had married and left home. Phillip was still at school on, doing A levels. And the house was all paid for and I thought well it was a job I didn’t really like. I was more of a warder than a teacher I thought well if I take it easy I can make do on my on the what I’ve got saved up and the teacher’s pension until I get the old age pension. So it worked. And I took up, I played golf a lot with Steven’s father. With one of the teachers who was at the Queen’s Girl’s School. Norman Davis. Used to go on holiday with them. I took up, I was down on Dartmoor. I used to do a lot of long distance walking on Dartmoor. And down there once I saw a chap, a couple of chaps driving up in a Land Rover and they, I was sitting in my car at the time and they took down from the roof a hang glider, unfurled it, rigged it, took it up one of the tors and I watched them. One of them launched off. I thought, ‘Cor. I’ll have a go at that.’ So when I got back, back home again I got a look, searched around and found that over near [pause] not Thetford. It was near Downham Market there’s a hang gliding school and I thought well, so I went over and enquired and they said, ‘Well yes. If you want to.’ It was a school not a club. You see it was a training school. So I went over there and did my first year I got an elementary certificate. The second year I got club pilot’s certificate so I could join, I was regarded as being a fully trained hang glider and I could fly. I could join a club and fly hang gliders. Which I did and I carried on. I can go back to the same place. They were quite happy for me to go back and fly their gliders but I wasn’t on any training course because I’d, so they thought, knew it all. So I did a lot of hang gliding there. They’re plenty of pictures in there. It was good. And then Phillip who had taken his own private pilot’s licence in powered aircraft and powered gliders and ordinary gliders. He came over. I said I’ll stay, he said, ‘Can I go on one of these hand glider courses if I don’t have a birthday present?’ I said, ‘Never mind about that Phillip I’ll come with you and pay for it.’ And so he got his own hang glider club pilot’s certificate as well. And there we are. That takes me up to the present. Oh went I over when they did the bungee jumping. Yeah. That was one thing I’d always wanted to do. And the, you know when I put the, I signed the you know the.
JH: That happened when you were, when you were ninety. Was that when you were ninety?
HW: Yes. That’s right. Signed the, what is it, what is the permit to fly?
Other: Disclaimer. Disclaimer form.
HW: Just the word.
JH: Disclaimer.
Other: Yeah.
JH: Disclaimer form.
Other: Yeah. It admonishes them from any responsibility.
HW: Yeah. It’s just word has gone. The word when you sign something saying it’s all —
JH: The waiver. Waiver.
HW: Yeah. Disclaimer.
Other: That’s the word.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
HW: Yeah so and that’s taken me out of the thing. I’ve given up the long distance walking because I get back pain. And that’s why Steven is doing so much work in the garden. But up to that everything’s going nicely and I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with health.
JH: Ok. Well, thank you Henry for your time to record this interview today. Thank you very much.



Judy Hodgson, “Interview with Henry Wolfe Wagner. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 7, 2023,

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