Interview with John Robert Watson


Interview with John Robert Watson


John Robert Watson joined RAF Bomber Command in 1943, volunteering after he witnessed his next-door neighbour's house being destroyed by a bomb. Against his father's wishes, John joined Bomber Command initially as a wireless operator, before transferring to a flight engineer course. Travelling to RAF Ouston, John flew in Lancasters and Halifaxes. His first operation took place on the 17th of January 1944, which he believed he would not survive. His second operation was to Berlin and featured another close call, in which he almost crashed into another Lancaster. He remembers his crew fondly, stating that they did well throughout the war because they trusted one another so much. Joining the Pathfinders force, John travelled from RAF Wickenby to RAF Warboys, changing crews and being put through extra training. Completing over 40 operations John recalls several operations, including one over Nuremberg which featured another close call. John was then moved again and became a flight instructor for Wellingtons. He also gives information regarding his crew, being a flight instructor, his scariest moment whilst flying, the impact of lack of morale fibre, and master bombers' role. He also gives several humorous stories of his time at RAF stations and his run-ins with higher-ranking service members. During his service as a Pathfinder, John received the Distinguished Flying Medal, the Legion of Honour and the Pathfinder badge. When he was demobilized, he became disillusioned with discipline within the RAF and continued his apprenticeship, meeting and marrying his wife in 1956 and living with her until she passed away in 2013.




Temporal Coverage




02:04:35 audio recording


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AWatsonJR180202, PWatsonJR1501


CB: Right. My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 2nd of February 2018 and we’re in Eastbourne talking with John Watson, Jack Watson DFM about his times in the RAF and before and after. So, Jack what are your earliest recollections of life?
JW: It’s quite a strange one really. I had to go to Great Ormond Street when I was about three years old to have my tonsils out. And my father was in bus work all his life. He, he was in the First World War driving an ambulance. The [pause] I forget the name of the unit now but I’ve got a picture of him somewhere with his, standing by his ambulance. And he was at this time driving for a company called Fairways. They used to drive down to Worthing from London daily. And he came to collect me and my mum in his coach and I can remember the cab was just half the, the bonnet was just outside. He sat me on the bonnet, put his arm around me and drove off [laughs] And in the back of the coach was a little pedal car he’d bought for me. And the other recollection, I can remember that quite plainly the other recollection we were living in Acton although I was born in Putney at my grandmother’s house. All the family were born there except my dad but I can remember the R101. I was out in the street in Brouncker Road in Acton.
CB: The airship.
JW: And watched the R101 go over. And I can still marvel at the size of it because it wasn’t all that high and of course it went on to crash in France didn’t it?
CB: It did. Yeah.
JW: And, but then my father was the manager, manager of a coach company running coaches from High Wycombe to Oxford Circus to High Wycombe and Guildford. And when Mandelson’s grandfather Morrison decided he would nationalise because London was full of one man buses he’d nationalise it all. In those days it was a bit cut throat but they did. They put a coach to Guildford in front of my father’s coach. One behind it. And of course customer loyalty only goes so far. They see a coach comes along. And of course they ran him off the road. But they gave my father a job as a chief inspector at Dorking. We moved down there for two years. And after that we went to, he moved, took him to a bigger garage at Guildford which is where he stayed through the war. And then while we was, it was I’d just left school and I heard about the Air Defence of Great Britain Corps which was the forerunner of the ATC and they were at Brooklands Aerodrome. And I told my father that I wanted to join it and there was, I think that he could see the fact that the war was coming on. I think the war had just started actually. Yeah. And he’d seen what went on in the war, he didn’t want his son — we had arguments galore. Eventually he relented and I used to cycle over to Brooklands, about a twelve mile run on a Sunday morning and joined the ATC , the Air Defence of Great Britain Corps. And it was very much, me a working class boy in amongst, there were a lot of well-educated young men there and I must admit I felt a little bit out of place. But anyhow I stuck it out. But then of course they formed the ATC and I was able to transfer to Guildford. And I wanted to join the Air Force badly. I wanted to fly. I mean I’ve, as I said, I wanted to do my bit and save the world but that’s a lot of nonsense. I [laughs] I wanted to fly. And I, again because I was serving an apprenticeship my father, ‘No. You’re not going to join the Air Force. You’re not going to.’ I kept nagging nagging nagging. In the finish he said, ‘If Mr Biddle,’ who was the one of three brothers who owned the printing company where I was apprenticed, ‘If he says you can break your apprenticeship I’ll agree.’ ‘Fine.’ So immediately I went and saw Mr Biddle. I said, ‘Look, my father has given me permission to break my apprenticeship but I need your authority as well.’ Well, of course I forgot that dad being in charge of transport when his buses were late he used to phone around to the different companies so that the men didn’t lose money and they’d known each for some time. Of course it came that neither of them would give me permission [laughs] So the following Saturday at the top of Guildford High Street was an RAF Recruiting Office. I walked in there and joined up and then went back and said to dad, ‘I’ve joined the Air Force.’ I think if they’d have realised it they could have but I don’t think they, I presented them with a fait accompli. Anyhow, I then got about a week later to go to Abingdon for an interview. And I walked into this office and there was a whole range of high ranking Air Force officers sitting around and in front of them was a huge table with a map on it. They asked me very, and funnily enough they said, ‘Why do you want to? Why do you want to join in the Air Force?’ I said, ‘Well, firstly I want to fly and the other thing is I want to get my own back because in Guildford although it wasn’t badly bombed there was one night a bomber went over. A German bomber and just, I think there was a searchlight at Stag Hill by the Cathedral. He got caught in that and he just dropped his bombs. They came down and one of them hit the house next door. In a terrace. One fell opposite. And I was sleeping in that room downstairs but it was the curtains had been pulled across. It was rather like a bit of a bay and the curtains were back a bit but the bomb going off of course blew all the glass and shattered it and shredded the curtains which saved me. So anyhow I, they started asking questions and then one of them said, ‘Can you find Turkey on that map?’ Well, you know it’s a big place Turkey, isn’t it? And there’s a piece of Turkey below the Dardanelles. That’s the only bit I could find. I suppose it was nerves really. And anyhow, he said, ‘Any more?’ I said, ‘No.’ Anyhow, they said, ‘We think you’ll be better off as ground crew.’ So I went out and I thought, right. Ground crew. Wireless operator. I can transfer straight to air crew. So I went in and I sat in front of this corporal and he asked me some questions. He said, ‘Do you know the Morse Code?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ But the rotten so and so bent down and picked up a Morse Code key and said, ‘Right. Take this down.’ [laughs] And of course the only thing I knew about Morse Code was how to spell it. So he said, ‘I think we’ll put you in as a flight mechanic.’ So which is what I went in to and I was called up in September or August. August of ’42. Went to Blackpool. Oh, Penarth first and although you considered yourself fit they gave us your kit you never had the strength to lift it. You dragged it back to your billet, got changed, put your kit into a little suitcase with your name and address on. Sent it off home. And then we started doing the square bashing in Blackpool. Well, the first morning we all lined up and we started a run to go to from Blackpool north to Bispham. Five mile run. I met them half way back. And I thought this is ridiculous. So the next morning as we used to start off there were some steps up to some public toilets. So the next morning I’d got a penny in my hand. And they all ran and I ran up because I’d sussed this out. You stood on the lavatory seat and looked through the little window and you could see them coming back. As they came back I came down joined then on the back and then I was fit enough to do all the exercises that they were going through. And this, I got away with this morning after morning and, but I just could not see the point. I’ve never been a runner or a sportsman of any kind and I certainly wasn’t at that stage. But the little Irishman sergeant we had in charge of our squad had got his stripe, his third stripe on the strength of the way he’d turned out his previous squad. So he had something to prove and he was a bit of a martinet. But when it was raining, I don’t know whether you know Blackpool.
CB: Yeah.
JW: But there’s the three promenades. He used to take us on to one of them and he’d lecture us on women. Quite an interesting character. But he didn’t ask us to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. When we went on the, so it was Stanley Park in Blackpool on the assault courses we were all in PT kit. He was in full uniform and he went with us and he ran the whole way there and back. I forget his name now but he was a real character. We went from there. When we left there we were put on a train. We had to go to Manchester and change. We weren’t allowed to take the kit bag and all the back pack off and we were, but when we changed there we then got on another train which took us to Wendover because we were going to Halton. And when they marched us from Wendover up to the camp with a kit bag on the back it was nothing. We were that, it really got us fit. And while we were there the, there was a chap there he’d been a drummer in a band and he said, ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’ve found a set of drums,’ he said ‘We can form a drum corps to march the people down to the workshops and back.’ So he said, ‘You’re excused other duties,’ like Home Guard type duties. So that was it. It was going to be a get out of that. We wouldn’t have to go out at night. So we joined up and we had a practice room in one of the cook houses. And of course you gave a load of seventeen eighteen year olds a set of drums it, it was half an hour before he could make himself heard [laughs] And anyhow, he did. He did make us into a reasonable drum, we used to play these drum tunes. March them down to the workshops. March them back at lunchtime. Of course the advantage was you were at the lead so you were the first one in the cookhouse for your meal. And we used to go to Battle of Britain weeks where they used to go around the towns with an RAF, an RAF band. We weren’t allowed to play with the band. He used to the drumming with the band but we used to do, when they had a break we’d do our bit for the raising money for Spitfires. And while I was on the course for the fitter, for the air training mechanics course suddenly a notice went up on the board they were looking for flight engineers because obviously they were trying to take people off the squadron. They didn’t want to take too many because they were depleting their ground staff but equally the ground crews were watching what was coming back and thought well I don’t want any of that. So they were, except they would lower the standards like they did it didn’t affect me in that way and I applied. Went to Euston. And the night before we went to Euston a crowd of us went out and we went to see Lou Preager at the Hammersmith Palais and we got knocking back beers and stuff. The next morning we go for a young, there was a young flight lieutenant and I stripped off, I got on the scales he said, ‘Get back on them scales.’ I was only nine stone. Then we come to the dreaded holding the mercury up and after, after the night before I was [pause] and suddenly I was halfway through. I suddenly, and he looked around whether by accident or not I don’t know so I was able to take another breath and hold it up again and ‘Alright,’ he said, ‘You’ve passed.’ And I had to go back on the fitter’s course and passed all that before going down to St Athan for the flight engineer’s course and passed that with, with I think about seventy five percent. It was quite a, I was quite pleased with that result. And then we went up to Lindholme. Oh the first thing was the, when we finished our course for a week they sent us up to Ringway. Ringway. Where they were building the Lancs. To show us what was going on. And it was incredible. They took us all to Pointon. We all got off these coaches and we were met by all these girls. We all paired off and I met a fair headed one. I’ll never forget her name. Yvonne. She taught me more in that week about the facts of life and I thought well this is better than sliced bread [laughs] And so yeah the obvious happened. And I should have kept in touch. Her father was a manager of a printing company in Manchester. But I don’t know whether it was we didn’t think it was a proposition for somebody going into aircrew to get involved in a serious relationship. But anyhow we left there and we were sent back to St Athan. Then we, from there a couple of days later we went up to Lindholme and got all our flying kit and everything and then because I was going down to Faldingworth which was south there was only me and another chap going south. The rest, all the other people. So we had to go to Faldingworth with all the kit and then make our way from there back which was a nightmare. But anyhow we had a week’s leave and got back to Faldingworth and all shoved in a big hangar because my crew had been a Wellington crew. They hadn’t been on ops at all but of course they needed a mid-upper gunner and a flight engineer. I walked in and I was just wandering aimlessly about. I hadn’t got a clue what I was looking for and this wireless operator come up and he said to me, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘We’re looking for a flight engineer,’ He said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said ‘John.’ ‘Right, Jack.’ And I became Jack. All the Air Force life and all my working life. And it’s only the family that call me John. And anyhow I was introduced to the crew. And it was, it was quite a strange thing really because we all took to each other straight away. The pilot was, he was a month, he was only nineteen anyway. I mean, we was all only nineteen. He was a month younger than me. And the first thing, we got to Faldingworth was two days later he said to me, ‘We’re going up on fighter affil, on familiarisation tomorrow. Only me and you.’ So we picked up the screened pilot and walked out to the aircraft [pause] and I looked and I said, ‘I’m trained on Lancasters. This is a Halifax.’ I said, ‘Not only don’t I know anything about this it’s the first time I’ve seen one.’ I said, ‘Where’s the screened, the screened engineer?’ ‘Oh, we haven’t got one. You’ll be alright. You’ll be ok. Just the three of us.’ Well, we took off and we were flying at about four thousand feet and he said, he called me up, ‘Engineer, I want you to change the fuel tanks,’ he said, ‘Listen carefully.’ I said, ‘Well, first of all where are they? The controls.’ ‘Under one of the rest beds in the fuselage.’ Because the Lancaster and the Halifax are two totally different aircraft. So he said, ‘Under the rest bed,’ he said, ‘There’s two levers each side,’ he said, ‘Now, listen carefully. Turn off the lever on number one on the port side. Turn off the number one on the starboard side. Turn on the number two on the port side. Turn on the number two on the starboard side.’ Well, something didn’t sound right there. But anyhow I thought well I’d better follow what he says. I don’t know how the system works. So I turned off the number one. By the time I’d got across to the other side the aircraft did a nose dive. I carried on and set the tanks and then it picked it up. Well, of course he told me he should have turned off number one turned on number two. He told me the wrong way. He apologised very profusely. I said, I said, ‘Apology would have been a bit late wouldn’t it if we’d been two thousand feet lower?’ And he couldn’t, he couldn’t have been more contrite. And as I say I cut the fuel but it soon picked up. Anyhow, from then on I never ever had a screened engineer go with me. I was always on, but when we landed I went to stores and got the manual for the Halifax. And I spent the whole, I never even go for any meal. I spent all that afternoon, all night going through that manual. The next morning when we went out to the Halifax again I knew what I wanted to know about it. But it was a stupid thing he did. And I should have had a screened engineer with me. Especially being a, a —
CB: A complete rookie.
JW: Complete. Yeah. I mean to, I can’t imagine what I was thinking to even agree to go. Because in the flight of the Lancaster you sit alongside the pilot. In a Halifax you sit with your back to the pilot. So the whole thing was completely different. But anyhow we got away with it. My guardian angel was sitting on my shoulder. But we, we went from there to, we got a posting to 12 Squadron at Wickenby. And it’s only about five miles so it was a crew bus to go, and as we drove in two Lancs were on the side of the perimeter track. One screwed into the back of the other. As they were taxiing around apparently one stopped, one didn’t. But luckily nobody got hurt from it. And then they took us to our billet. And I can see it now. Walked in the billet and it was as the crew had left. The beds were unmade. Sheets just drawn. And I looked over to the bed that I’d picked and it was the pilot’s name. Sergeant Twitching. And years later a chap, you’ve heard of Currie, the pilot who wrote one of the books, he phoned me up because I’d phoned him up about something else previous and he said, ‘Jack,’ he said, ‘I’ve been asked to write something about strange happenings to people who were flying.’ And I told him how I’d joined and I said to him, I said the, I never forgot the name of that man, Sergeant Twitching. He said, ‘What an unfortunate name for a bomber boy.’ And when I went years after the war, I’m digressing a bit I went to Lincoln Cathedral and saw the volume and I asked them if they could open that book at this man’s name. I said I felt as though I needed to make some sort of tribute to him. And they were all killed. I think it was either Leipzig or Stuttgart. One of those. And anyhow we started off. Went on our first op and when we were, you were convinced that going from what the instructor’s told you that you were never going to make your first op. And it was at Brunswick on the 17th of January ’44. And we took off and as we took off nothing happened. We got our, we were going past I think Hanover and I looked down and the whole of the cloud, it was all cloud but it was all lit up with the searchlights shining through and I called up and I said, ‘Bill there’s a Lanc down on the right hand, on the starboard side there,’ I said, ‘He’s about three thousand feet below us.’ ‘Oh, that’s good,’ He said, ‘They’ll be watching him and they won’t see us.’ And I thought, cor what a man. What a pilot. You know, we’re alright here. We went to Brunswick. Got back without any problems at all. And we did, it was the next thing was on the second trip was to Berlin. An eight and a half hour trip. We called up at Wickenby on the way back when we was coming for to permission to land and they said yeah ok. We were in the circuit and there was low cloud. As we broke cloud, it’s unbelievable to think they talk about near misses, Another Lanc alongside of us on our port side broke cloud at the same time with about six feet between the wing tips. And our pilot, we went that way, he went that way. So, you know. Anyhow, we carried on and landed. And Bill called out, and he said, oh. ‘Clear of runway.’ And there was a few minutes silence and then a voice said, ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ And we had landed at Ludford Magna.
CB: Oh right.
JW: Which was an adjoining. In that sort of taking that evasive action thinking we were joining the circuit again we weren’t. Anyhow, they kept us for about four hours then before the let us fly back to, to Wickenby. And the next thing was that we did a trip to Stuttgart. And we had the most fantastic mid-upper gunner and he didn’t have a brain he had a computer. We were going in to, on the bombing run and he suddenly said , ‘Dive port, Go.’ Bill just went. And as we did I watched tracer go over the top of the aircraft. And we got, we got the, it dipped, it broke away and didn’t make another attack. We got back ok and our wireless operator said, ‘We owe our lives to Appy and Bill.’ And we, because we were so close a crew we didn’t have engineer and pilot it was Bill and Appy and Ollie. I was Watty. That’s how. But it worked for us because we all knew each other’s, as soon as we spoke we knew who it was talking. And we got back and the next thing we had was a raid, we were walking down to briefing and I was on my own and there was a spattering of [pause] this was in February, there was a spattering of snow on the ground. I was walking down to the briefing room on my own funnily enough. I don’t know why but I just, going through some trees and I suddenly stopped in my tracks. And it was the most strange feeling. I knew that if we didn’t leave Wickenby we wouldn’t survive. It was the most strange feeling. We went in and again the target was Stuttgart. And we got there and back without any problems. But two mornings later we were called into the flight commanders office and he’d got us all around standing in a row in front of him. I can see him now. He said, ‘You’ve got two options,’ he said, ‘You’re going to either volunteer for the Pathfinder force or we’ll send you.’ [laughs] Now, having experienced that strange feeling two nights previously that was the answer for me. The two navigators weren’t, the bomb aimer and the navigator weren’t all that keen but they decided to go along with it and we didn’t fly any more ops from there. We were sent down to Warboys for the Pathfinder Training Unit. And it was going to be straight, the bomb aimer was going to become the second navigator. The flight engineer was going to be the bomb aimer and also I had to learn some navigation. So we did all these necessary courses. About nine days I think we were there. Nine, ten days something like that. And we went in to see the navigation officer and he said to me, ‘Ask me some questions.’ I had to learn to take an astro shot with a sextant. I did that. And he said to me, ‘What’s the difference between a planet and a star?’ As, yeah a planet and a star. And I thought I don’t know. All I could think, going through my mind was, “Twinkle twinkle little star,” and I thought what an idiot. And I said to him, and I thought this is going to get [pause] I said, ‘A star twinkles.’ He said, ‘That’s correct. A planet is a steady light.’ And I thought it was [laughs] and I didn’t let him know that it was the nursery rhyme that got me out of trouble but it did. Anyhow, when was, we’d done all the courses we had to do the practice bombing with the triangle and the fuel and and you had to get to within about a yard of that. We did. But of course at two thousand feet having got it and hit it we then, this is, we was doing a bit of low level flying we came across a field and there was a load of sheep. Well they nearly beat us. As the aircraft suddenly came, all these sheep suddenly [unclear] from shock. But one of the instructions when, when they said after we’d finished when I was sitting chatting to one of them and he said what squadron are you going to?’ I said, ‘156.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘The rebel squadron.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘They’ll fly ‘til the cows come home but,’ he said, ‘Lectures or anything like that they can never get them in to them.’ He said, ‘As soon as there’s a stand down they’re off. And it was like that. It was like that. It was. They were all really, years later a friend of mine, I was sitting chatting to him he was, he was the same as the rear gunner. He flew with about ten different crews. One of the bravest men I knew as a rear gunner and I said to him, ‘How did you manage to do all that with all those different — ?’ He said, ‘All the crews on 156 were good.’ And they were. And the number of them who got killed because they didn’t finish when they could have done. Just went on like we did. You know. And but anyhow [pause] he said, ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘They can’t seem to do anything [unclear],’ he said, ‘But they’ll fly night and day,’ he said, ‘All week.’ But anyhow at that point they, because they’d transferred 156 from Warboys to Upwood, and Upwood which was to be a, in to a Warboys and we got to Warboys just as they changed. But we did quite a few. We never did any more Berlin trips. The first one we did from Upwood was to Essen and the next one, our thirteenth trip and it was, it was only a little sometime later that I realised this, we were flying in M-Mother. Thirteenth. That was the alphabet. Our thirteenth trip. It was Nuremberg [pause] and we noticed we were giving off contrails so we decided to lose height until we found a height where it wasn’t affecting us. But a lot of crews just carried on. I mean it’s not surprising that so many of them got caught. Some probably didn’t have a chance to, there was another crew of course Tony Hiscock was the skipper and he was, he was talking to me. He said. ‘Yeah, we had those contrails. We just, when the rear gunner told me we was leaving them,’ he said, ‘We just changed height until we realised we were stopping.’ But we never saw anything on that trip other than other than other aircraft going down which our gunners were reporting to us. But it was — oh, hello love. This is my daughter Suzanne.
CB: We’ll stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: Getting out of them.
JW: Yeah. And we, we had some [pause] a couple of trips where we were, on one trip we were coned.
CB: With searchlights.
JW: Searchlights. And I was actually on the bombing run. I was, ‘Left. Left. Steady.’ And suddenly the lights caught us. But Bill never hesitated. We were at eighteen thousand feet and he just went down in a dive and of course I shot up into the front turret. I was fixed. I couldn’t move with the gravity. He pulled out at six thousand feet and I come crashing down over the bombsight again. And ten minutes but he got us out of us. He got us out of the, out of the, those searchlights. And we then finished up,. We bombed. We went around again and bombed at twelve thousand feet. But it was another one we did was to Lens, and this was the night when the flying bombs were coming over. The V-1s. We could see all these lights coming below us and hadn’t a clue what they were but it was not ‘til we got back the next day but it was, it was in France. But going down we were going down at, going through at seven thousand feet. We came on the target so quick.
[recording paused]
CB: Right.
JW: As we were going I was giving him the instructions. Suddenly —
CB: As the bomb aimer at that time.
JW: As the bomb aimer.
CB: Yeah.
JW: Suddenly realised that we got on the target before we realised it and I said to him, ‘Dummy run, Bill. Go around again.’ But it was, it was years later before I realised what had happened. Came back. Coming on to the target and I could see all these black shapes going past me in the corner of my eye. Anyhow, that time I got the target on the marker. The target markers. Dropped the bombs and when I looked I thought to myself [unclear] the operational record books, one of the sheets I’ve got and when I looked I realised he didn’t go around again he did a u-turn and we were flying into the bomber stream. And I thought strange. How did we do that? Then I looked. In that turn he lost two thousand feet. We bombed from five thousand feet. Everybody else was coming over at seven but how we flew through all that lot. All the bombs going. I don’t know. But [pause] I’m just trying to find it. As I say it was the number of times. Three times at least on the bomb aiming run I called dummy run.
CB: We’ll just stop again. Hang on.
[recording paused]
CB: You bombed at five thousand feet.
JW: Yeah.
CB: And everybody else did it at seven.
JW: Yeah.
CB: Which was what you were briefed to do.
JW: Yeah.
CB: So this is part of your lucky escape —
JW: It is. Yeah.
CB: Series, isn’t it? Extraordinary.
JW: But, as I say on at least three occasions on the German trips I called dummy run, and not once did I hear one murmur of dissent from any of the crew. You read reports from people, ‘Oh, get rid of it,’ you know. But none of our crew did that. We had complete faith and trust in each other. But, yeah on at least three occasions we did a, we did a dummy run to go around. On one occasion when we were at Wickenby and I think that this is when we came to be on Pathfinders, because Hamish Mahaddie used to go around picking crews and he must have looked at this particular order and it was this. On debriefing it said we were six minutes early so we put the flaps down and did dog legs to lose six minutes. And this was on Stuttgart. I mean [laughs] but it was, we were told to get there and our pilot he always said there was a lot of talk about some of the crews were throwing their bombs in and either banking and then so that they didn’t actually fly over the target. And I know that when that happened Bill said, ‘What the hell’s the point of going all that way without going over and doing it properly?’ But he was, he was a fantastic pilot. He was a fantastic. He was the only man I have ever known apart from people like Alex [pause] Grimshaw? What was his name? The test pilot at Ringway. He did —
CB: Oh, Henshaw.
JW: Henshaw.
CB: Yeah.
JW: Well, I think he did it. He did a rate four turn on a —
CB: On a Lancaster.
JW: On a Lancaster.
CB: Crikey.
JW: And he did it to come up, we were on fighter affiliation and we were being attacked by a Spitfire but instead of doing the normal corkscrew he did this rate four. We came up behind the Spitfire. And unbelievably —
CB: In the Lancaster.
JW: Unbelievably the Spitfire pilot complained and he called, our CO called Bill in and he said, ‘You’ve got to stick to the rules.’ And he had, I think he had a grin on his face as he was saying it. Bill said if that had been a Messerschmitt we could have shot it down. Yeah. But he, and it was the most I can see it now. You’re standing there and you are horizontal but you’re not falling. Yeah. But he was, he was, we loved him. And when, when I looked to see that I think that report as I say going around to Hamish Mahaddie I think that he read that and thought well we need crews who are going to be there on time and this is what, this is what we’ve been looking for.
CB: Yeah. Extraordinary experiences. Yes.
JW: The, but then of course when we got to, I did one spare bod trip. I got caught. I think it was the flight commander. Wing Commander Scott. He was a New Zealander. His engineer went sick and two SPs came down and saw me. Engineer. Right. I had to fly with him. It was to Stuttgart again. But on the run in did the bomb aiming, came out of the target and I looked at the inspections bit and the cookie had held up.
CB: Oh.
JW: So I said to him, ‘Skip, go around again. We’ve got the cookie.’ Well, our own pilot would have been natural enough just to go round but what he called me. He was questioning my sanity as well apart from insulting my mother and father but you didn’t take any notice of that. So I said, ‘I’ll go around and try and release it manually.’ And there used to be a little flap above the cookie that you could pull back. A little slide and release the bolt that held it. And I’d got a, made a little sort of little light there. I was just, I suddenly saw the bolt start to shudder and pulled my hand back just as this thing shot across. He pulled the toggle on the instrument panel and dropped the carrier, the lot. Didn’t look to see where we were. He just opened the bomb doors. And he started weaving as we took off and he was still weaving until we landed. Oh, he was complete nerves. And —
Other 1: Gosh.
JW: Yeah. Wing Commander Scott. He was posted shortly after that. But I made sure I didn’t do any more of those. There was one occasion when they, knew they, what they were looking for a flight engineer. So I went up in the loft and [laughs] ‘Flight Sergeant Watson here?’ ‘No. He’s gone out. He’s gone into Peterborough.’ ‘Oh alright.’ And I was up in the loft like this. I lifted it up just to listen [laughs] because we had arranged we weren’t flying. I was going out. But I wasn’t going to do another, and I’d already done halfway through my third tour so I was well away to saying no. But the other —
CB: Would you class him as a dangerous pilot then?
JW: Who?
CB: Because of his nerves.
JW: Well, I didn’t. I didn’t have any confidence in him. I wasn’t, I wasn’t frightened at all but I thought to myself, no. I didn’t like flying with a strange crew anyway. None of us did. But that’s what made me admire my friend in Southampton. He was, the number of times he went with strange crews. But we’d done that lot and I thought well half way through a third tour because we finished a second tour, we was all in the Red Lion in Ramsey, and we were all celebrating and Bill came in and it was, there were never enough seats and we were all sitting around on the floor with pints of beer. And he said, Bill said, ‘How about carrying on?’ ‘Yes.’ So the next morning he said, ‘Don’t forget,’ he said, ‘We’re going to carry on.’ ‘Oh alright.’ But we wouldn’t have let him flown with anybody else anyway. So that was the mid-upper gunner, the wireless operator, myself and Bill. As I say the two navs packed up and we had a range of rear gunners after he’d done forty one trips. And we finished the third tour and he pulled the same stroke again. So we was in a [laughs] we was on, the last trip was the master bomber trip to [pause] Munster. And it was a day like this. Really beautiful sunshine and we were just lying round and we got, this is a twenty second trip with these two Canadian navigators and there was an anti-aircraft gun. Obviously you could tell who the master bomber gunner was because brilliant daylight. Not a cloud in the sky. And the shell went off alongside of us. And I said to Bill [unclear] we went down five hundred feet and they put a shell in the same place. So when he did that we went back up. And they put one where we were. And this went on. It was [laughs] it was ridiculous really. But anyhow we got away with it but when, when we were sort of circling around doing, Bill was directing the raid one of the navigators came out from behind the curtain. He took one look. We were surrounded by shell bursts. And he said, ‘Jeez, let’s get out of here.’ And Bill said, it was the only time I ever heard him raise his voice, ‘Get back inside.’ And he scuttled back in behind the curtain. I mean, navigators never came out and if you came out like that and you see. Because it is a bit of a shock seeing those shell bursts. The first daylight we did got to the target and you could have walked on the shell bursts there was that many. And I thought we can never fly through that. But we did. Got away with it.
CB: How many times did you actually get hit by flak?
JW: About four times I think. Five times. But none of us ever got a scratch.
CB: What sort of damage did the aircraft —
JW: Holes in the bomb, in the bomb bay doors and some in the fuselage, but not enough to [pause] There was one that we did get hit and I think it took a bit out of the engine. It was on the raid Trossy St Maximin when Bazalgette got his VC. It was on that raid. It was such a heavily defended target. It was a bomb bay, V-1 bomb dump and as we went in we dropped. I think we just dropped the bombs. There was suddenly this hell of a bang. A tremendous noise and we just went into a dive and I thought we’d been hit but anyhow, I looked. We had a clear blister on the nose of our Lancs. You could put you head in and I could look through and I could see that the, both engines, all four engines were still in sync so there was obviously nothing wrong with them. So I called up and said, ‘Engines are ok. I’ll check Bill.’ I went up and he was ok as it turned out but he’d just, when that and they knew they’d got the range he just went into a dive but that took a piece out the side of one of the engines. But the engines still worked.
Other 1: Extraordinary.
JW: We didn’t even know there was anything wrong with it. But that was, going back to the Nuremberg raid when we landed we landed at Marham and on the way back as we left the target I noticed one of the oil instruments wasn’t working. Now, that could mean you’ve lost power. Anyhow, the engine, I didn’t say anything because I kept a check on it and noticed that there was no, the engine was not giving any reports of any failures so it was obviously the instrument that was at fault. So when we landed the next morning when we were going to take off again and the number of Lancs at Marham was unbelievable. It was just everywhere and it was a grass drome as well, the [pause] I said to Bill, ‘There’s no point in reporting this fault because they’ll never get anybody to —’ I said, ‘I’ll go out and check the oil to make sure there’s no lost oil.’ Because sitting on the engine that’s been going for eight hours I was covered in oil when I got back. Sitting on the engine dipping the tank. And it was, there was no loss of oil so I said to Bill, ‘No. There’s no point. We can take, we’ll never get away if we report that.’ And we took off. Got back and reported it when we got back. But the other thing was we had to take up on the flight from Upwood, we were going up on a night flying test and we were asked to take up a senior RAF [pause] I forget what rank he was now. Quite a high rank. Anyhow, suddenly one the port inners started. The starboard inner started playing up and I couldn’t control the pitch of the propellers so I said to Bill, ‘We need to feather it.’ He said, ‘Ok.’ When we landed he said, ‘What’s wrong?’ Now, I can’t tell you the name now but it was one of three things it could have been inside the nose, the hub of the propeller and there was one main one and I said, and one thing that they taught you when you went on Pathfinders, you’ve got to think quick and you’ve got to act. You can’t dither. You make a decision. Right or wrong you make a decision. And that way. And I said to Bill, oh it’s the so and so. So when we landed chiefy come around. The sergeant in charge of the ground crew and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Why is the engine feathered, skip?’ Bill said, well because this [laughs] he named the part that was broken. And the chiefy looked at him in amazement and said, ‘With respect, sir,’ he said, ‘How do you know that?’ And I could have wanted the ground to open up. ‘Because my engineer told me.’ But luckily I was right. I got it right. And it was at [pause] we had to abort one. We got they gave us the trip because we got within fifty miles of the target. We had boost surge. We just could not cure it. And when we got back I said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with the camshaft.’ Ha ha ha — that was the laugh I got from the engineering officer. But they couldn’t find it either. So they sent the engine back to Derby and they found a cracked valve which was obviously after the cam shaft.
CB: We’ll stop there for a mo so you can have a bit of your coffee.
JW: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: On the Munster trip. Yeah.
JW: Yeah. We got —
CB: Yeah.
JW: Back from there. Landed. And we were walking back to debriefing and one of the rear gunners saw another crew came running up. He said, A signal’s come through to say that Cleland’s crew are to be taken off operations immediately and not allowed to fly on any more ops.’ We never knew why. Because we didn’t have one abortive trip. We’d always bombed the target. Everything. And yet the only thing I could think was that we’d been flying for fifteen months without any break.
CB: That’s extraordinary.
JW: And I think they thought that we were [pause] and I’ve often thought that they saved our lives. The next trip could have been.
Other 1: Easily.
JW: The one that we would have — [pause]
CB: How did you feel about that?
JW: Well, we were choked because we knew they were going to split the crew up. But we thought we might be able to carry on as a crew for a little while but within a week they posted us all off. They sent me as an instructor to a Wellington OTU. A flight engineer. They don’t fly flight engineers on Wellingtons. And that was really a case of I was there for a little while. Then they decided to post me to a Maintenance Unit. 56 MU. Except it should have been 58 MU. 58 MU was at Coventry. About twenty miles away. 56 MU was at Inverness. So I went all the way up to Inverness and I had an aircrew sergeant with me. He’d never done any ops because the war had finished as he finished training. He was going with me and he lived in Edinburgh and so he said, ‘Right. We can go to Edinburgh.’ We had three days in Edinburgh where he lived. Went off up to Inverness and we got out from the station and I can see it now. As we went through Perth and that area. Beautiful scenery because by this, it was an overnight trip. Anyhow, we found, couldn’t find what we were looking for. We couldn’t find the unit at all. We suddenly spotted an airman and I said to him, called him over and I said, ‘Tell me where — ’ ‘Oh yeah,’ he said, ‘It’s in a garage down here.’ Which is what it was. A garage. And he said, and he said to me, ‘Watch the station warrant officer,’ he said, ‘He’s a bit of a martinet. He’ll find something for you to do.’ Anyway, we had to report to him so he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘We’re closing down.’ He said, ‘I don’t know why they sent you here.’ Somebody had misread [laughs] Anyhow, he said, well he said, ‘I’ll put you in charge of the police for a week.’ Well, they had about a half dozen coppers there. RAF police. And I walked in. I said to them, ‘What are you all doing here?’ Well, they said ‘There’s nothing to do.’ So I said, ‘Right, you three have three days off. You three cover the whole lot. Three days later you go on three days leave.’ They thought I was the best thing since sliced bread [laughs] But we got back from there and as I say I got to this other MU and it was at [pause] on the mainline.
CB: Near Coventry was it?
JW: No. This was, it started with an N. Not Northampton. Anyhow, I called up. Phoned up the unit and said, ‘Is there any transport to, out to unit?’ She said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘On the station.’ She said, ‘On the up or down line?’ She said, ‘Well come out,’ she wouldn’t have known that which part.’ She said, ‘Look to your left. Can you see a black building about four hundred yards?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘That’s us.’ And it was where they made the lawnmowers. They made, well it wasn’t making them then but as we used to have to go in private billets as we were going down to them their lot was coming away and it was just a track. But all on bikes of course. But yeah that was quite a, and what I had to do there it was the Queen Mary’s there. The long low loaders. And I had to work out the next week how many were going to be off and with what fault. And I thought bloody silly. How the hell can anybody work that out? But it quite surprising. It worked. The system they’d got. So that so many would be off with flat tyres. So many would be off with this. And I had all these sheets that I had to fill in with all the, one for each of the loader. A lot of them were a way out in different places on locations. But then from there they sent me to Skellingthorpe and there it was, it was ridiculous. It was as though they’d forgotten you. In fact, you were just milling around. I did take over the, they couldn’t find anybody to take the sergeant’s mess over and I knew that you can’t run a pub which was what it was and lose money. And I discovered that they were getting five pounds to go to the NAAFI at Waddington to stock up from the [pause] So I said to the, saw the officer in charge of the mess and I said to him, ‘Can I have twenty pounds?’ ‘Twenty pound. What do you want twenty pound for?’ I said, ‘Well, people want to buy toothpaste.’ I said, ‘There’s none of that in there or domestic things.’ So got in the van, went over to Waddington and I spent this money and I thought the ration was Players cigarettes and I thought no. They’re going to be Churchills. So I bought a load of Churchill fags. When I got back I said to them, I said, ‘Sorry lads. The ration’s Churchill fags but I have managed to buy some Players. But I had to pay over the odds for them.’ [laughs] I made a fortune. I came home. After a week I came home. I had managed to pay somebody to look after the mess bar for me, and I came home with a suitcase with a little attache̕ case with two bottles of whisky and two bottles of rum in it and, oh yeah I made quite a bit out of that. In fact one night one of the ground staff, he’d been in the Air Force years and years. Before the war. He came in. He’d been in to Lincoln and he was, well he’d had quite a skinful. And he coolly asked for a pint and he held it up. He said, ‘That’s off. That’s cloudy.’ So I said, ‘Oh, ok sir. I’ll get you another one out of a different barrel.’ ‘Ah that’s better.’ So when the, the officer in charge of the mess came in the next morning I said to him, it was the, he was a warrant officer ground staff and I said to him, ‘Warrant officer,’ so and so, ‘He’s complained and said that barrel’s off.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘We can’t have that, he said. We’ll write it off.’ But it was half full. I think there was about nine gallons in it. And the next night I knew there was nothing wrong with it. The same warrant officer came in. He was sober this time. Poured him a pint from the same one. Now, that’s lovely,’ he said, ‘That’s great.’ So I had nine gallons and I had three days of my demob leave on that barrel with some of the mates I’d met. Oh dear. Yes. It was, it was quite a, but because of the way it went I decided to come home on leave. I was milling around. I went and saw my governor and I said to him, ‘Can I come back to work?’ So, ‘Oh yeah,’ he said, ‘You can come back.’ So I went back to work. And got paid for it. Not a lot but it was because it was only apprentice’s wage and, but about a fortnight one of my mates phoned up and he said, ‘Come back quick he said. They’re sending everybody home.’ So I went back, got demobbed to come home. But I had a couple of, a couple of near squeaks with the CO there. But the mess was just a hut and the bar was a cabinet which stood about that high. About that wide. And 12 o’clock at night I’m in there with a couple of other sergeants and we got bass sitting on our knees and the orderly officer walked in. ‘I said, ‘Do you want a drink, sir.’ Silly thing to say wasn’t it? I was under open arrest and in front of the CO the next morning. But I went round and managed to say, ‘You saw the bar was locked, the cupboard was all locked up, didn’t you?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ Well, because it was all locked up I got away with it. But another time I went home on I used to go on the pay parade on Thursday, special pay parade and go home. And I used to catch the quarter past ten from Lincoln because pay parade was about, no it was a bit later than that. The pay parade was at 9 o’clock. I had time to get paid because it was only a short pay parade, walk into Lincoln and get the train down to Kings Cross and then across to Waterloo and home. Now, I did this this particular week and then on this particular Thursday I’d just got in and a telegram arrived at the door. “Report back to base camp immediately.” I thought that’s funny. So I phoned up one of my mates there and I said, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Oh, you’re in dead trouble. You were the witnessing officer at pay parade.’ He said, ‘Half the camp stayed for food that they weren’t prepared for. The other half went home and left the pay, the witnessing the officer with the money with all that money he didn’t know what to do with.’ Anyhow, I got back. I went round and I reported, saw the RTO at Guildford station. Reported to him and told him that I was allowed to go back and I’d, I said, ‘I’ve only just got home.’ This was the Friday of course. The day after. And got —
[doorbell and knocking]
[recording paused]
CB: We’re talking about the pay parade. The fact you’d gone home.
JW: Yeah. I got back. I got back on Friday night. Reported to the orderly officer and was put under open arrest. The next morning we went in to see the CO and he said, ‘You went home on Thursday, Watson.’ And he was a wing commander ground staff. Been in the Air Force about forty years. I said, ‘No sir,’ I said, ‘I went home on Friday morning.’ ‘Why did you go on the pay parade on Thursday then?’ I said, ‘Well, I knew that I wanted to get away on Friday, sir.’ He said, ‘But didn’t you read the DROs?’ Well, I knew that it was a crime not to read them but looking through the King’s Rules and Regulations the night before I discovered that it’s not a crime if you read them and forget them. So I said, ‘I did read them, sir.’ I said, ‘And it went right out of my mind.’ I said, ‘I just forgot it completely.’ And of course he went through and he said, ‘Watson, I know you went home on Thursday.’ ‘No. Sir.’ I said, ‘I left here and,’ I told him the times. ‘I caught the train down to — ’ and because I was in a billet which was just on the edge of camp, had my own room there nobody could see me leave. And I said, ‘I caught that train just after ten. I got to Guildford,’ I said, ‘And the telegram arrived as I got home,’ I said, ‘I turned straight around and came back,’ I said. ‘In fact, I reported to the — ’ Anyhow, we went on and he said, asked me another. In the finish he said, ‘Right. Watson, you stay here. Everybody else go out.’ And he said to me, ‘Watson, I know you’re lying.’ He said, ‘I know you went home on Thursday but,’ he said, ‘I can’t prove it.’ He said, ‘But you’re not going to get away with it.’ He said, ‘You’re going to do three weeks of orderly officer.’ He said, ‘If you go out of camp I will know.’ And I knew he would do as well. I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry sir but,’ I said, ‘You’re wrong. I did go home on Friday.’ [laughs] But it was complete bluff. If he’d have said to me, ‘Swear on the bible,’ I don’t know what I would have done. But, yeah. I did discover that, you know. You can read. If you can’t, if you don’t read them it’s a crime. But read —
Other 1: And forget.
JW: And forget. You can’t, you know the loss of memory, it’s [laughs] but, and I got away with it. But he never held it against me because he gave me quite a good report when I left. He signed my release book. The next —
CB: But you did have to do the orderly officer.
JW: I did, yeah. Religiously did and the funny, it was quite funny really because I went in the mess one night and they’d just had a delivery come in. I said, ‘You got any Guinness?’ They said, ‘Yeah. We got a crate in today.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘I’ll buy the lot.’ ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Yes I can.’ And of course as a warrant officer and he’s a sergeant he’s not going to argue is he? I bought the lot. And then a chap came in. He played football for one of the Division One teams. Blackburn Rovers was it? And he sat down. I said to him, ‘Do you want a Guinness?’ ‘Oh yes please.’ So we sat there and but he was as wide a boys as me. He had got hold of you know the Lindholme dinghies that they used to drop the crew in? They had, they had the big main dinghy and then either side you had four flotation units. Two that side. They used to drop it so that it would spread and drift down to the crews that were ditched. He’d got hold of one of these and we sold it off. We even had the dinghy. I don’t know where he got it from but he got the dinghy. But our nerve failed us when we tried to get rid of that because we didn’t realise that all the surplus was going to be sold off after the war otherwise we’d have sold that and all. But —
CB: Who were the people who wanted to buy these things?
JW: All people in the camp.
CB: Oh right.
JW: Yeah. Other sergeants and other aircrew. And there I finished up there with twenty three German prisoners of war under my charge.
CB: On the airfield.
JW: Yeah. And they were quite clever. They used to make light bulbs and put ships and, and cliffs and lights inside the bulb. I don’t know how they did it. Built it up with the cliffs and the lighthouses in there and a little ship. Fantastic. And one of them made it, I bought it off him. It was a crocodile and in front was a little bird. And as you pulled it along the crocodile opens up and came like that and as it did the bird shot forward. I should have had enough sense to realise it was a money maker. I bought it for one of my friend’s little kiddies.
Other 1: Dear.
CB: What was their role? What did they do as prisoners?
JW: Cleaning and doing odd jobs you know around the camp. The American. The, their sergeant in charge of them he’d been, spent time in America and he spoke, spoke like an American. And I shall never forget he said to me we were talking one day and he was quite an educated chap and he must have been about a year or so older than me and he said, ‘I can’t understand the swear words,’ He said, ‘You talk about using the F word. F table,’ he said, ‘You know. It’s ridiculous.’ And I said to him, ‘Yeah. I agree with you.’ You know. He was always saying about language. The way it’s used. But, but he was, he was quite educated and he spoke without any German accent at all, and he was a [pause] I know that one of them one night somebody had taken some stuff out of the mess. And I just warned them. I said, ‘I don’t know which one of you it is but you’re in dead trouble if it happens again.’ It didn’t happen again. They did, they learned their lesson. But no it’s, as I say when it came to getting demobbed I was so disillusioned with the discipline and everything else that, and I knew I’d got an apprenticeship when we were on the, at Faldingworth taxiing round. Because aircraft were going off the end Faldingworth was a mud bath. If an aircraft went off the edge it would go down in to the mud to its axles and it would take days to get it out. So what they did they were fining crews a half a crown each which was half a day’s pay. So as we were taxiing around on the perimeter track I’m watching the wheel. I suddenly looked up and we were coming up against, it was, it turned out to be the engineering officer. He’d parked on the perimeter track and gone into one of the huts. And of course by then I said to Bill, but you can’t stop a thirty ton aircraft and the outside prop and it was one of those Hillman Tilts with the framework and the canvas and the outside was going over. It went right through all the canvas and ripped it and I thought I hope no one is in there. There wasn’t fortunately but Bill was on, he was pulled up for it. And I said to him, I said, ‘Tell them I was the one that was at fault,’ I said, ‘You couldn’t see from your side anyway and he shouldn’t have been parked there.’ ‘No.’ he said, ‘I’m the skipper. It’s my fault.’ And he got a mild reprimand. But that was the sort of bloke he was, you know. And as I say but it was [pause] we would have, well we’d have done anything for him really. We certainly wouldn’t have let him fly with anybody else if it had meant we had to carry on flying. Which is the reason we carried on. And it was years that we couldn’t find him after the war. Years later we tried to find him. And then my Appy, the mid-upper gunner phoned me up one day and he said, ‘Jack,’ he said, ‘I’ve been told that Bill lives at a place called Hilmarton near Calne in Wiltshire. So I said, ‘Well, the next time I go down to see my sister I’ll go down that way. Well, Hilmarton is, it’s, it’s a funny little place. You go through and there’s just a little turning to the church. I didn’t realise we go down that turning. There’s a school and then houses, part of the village. I went into the pub and I said, ‘Do you know anybody called Cleland?’ I said, ‘He was, he was with BOAC.’ ‘No.’ Turns out, Bill said, ‘I don’t know how they didn’t know that,’ he said, because Frances, his daughter used to go and help out in the bar.’ Anyhow, I went into the little garage on the main road and they didn’t know. But they said, ‘I’ll tell you what, he said. In the little bungalow next door but one there’s a chap there. He knows everybody in the village,’ he said, ‘He can probably tell you.’ Knocked on his door. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said, ‘He lives just around the back here. The other side of the church.’ So we drove around and I knocked on the door and Bill’s wife answered and I said, ‘Does Bill Cleland live here?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Is he in?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘I said will you tell him his flight engineer’s here.’ She went in. He was, he was going, supposed to be going out to a meeting. But he said we’ll go and have some lunch. He was so pleased. And of course from then on we kept in touch and, but he’d gone on to, he’d been seconded. In fact we were both demobbed the same day. I met up at Uxbridge. And he’d been seconded to BOAC. He’d actually, he got the King’s, yeah the Kings Commendation while he was with, or the Queen I can’t remember which one it was. He got it for his efforts in flying. Because I know he said to me, he said, ‘You just sit there. Press the button. It takes you to that point. Press another button it takes you to the next point. ‘He said. Oh that’s when he told me he met the wing commander that I flew with as he was. He met him in Canada. He said, ‘We were both going through,’ He said, ‘I know that he recognised me. ‘He said he was a, he wasn’t a nice bloke at all. When they were on the squadron when you looked to see in 156 there was a little number of people who were doing all the master bomber trips. Who had been the master bombers and the, we eventually got on to them but, and Bill went in one day and he said they were all pilots because you had a room each of pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, engineers, wireless operators, air gunners and he said to this wing commander, he said ‘Is it fair that Cocky’s doing all the master bombing?’ He said, ‘Can somebody else take a turn?’ And I think he thought Bill was saying he ought to do it. He wasn’t. He was saying look, you know, some of the others can do it because it’s amazing that the same few were doing them and a lot of them were on dodgy mostly French trips. And anyhow he said, ‘Everybody out.’ He said, ‘Bill, not you.’ He said, ‘I’ll decide who does the master bombers, and their deputies not you.’ and Bill, ‘I wasn’t suggesting that.’ ‘Shut up. Get out.’ He said, ‘I know he recognised me but,’ he said, ‘He completely ignored me.’ And he didn’t do any master bombers himself because it wasn’t a very nice job to do. You know. You’re putting yourself, sticking your head over the parapet. But if you were briefed to do it. We did a couple of deputies and I know one of them we was doing it was on Frankfurt, we was the deputy master bomber. Daylight raid. And our mid-upper gunner suddenly spotted an aircraft in trouble above us. He called up to our skipper and we went up alongside of him. It used to be, it turned out to be one of our own. And they’d been hit by flak in the bomb bay and the engineer’s leg was hanging off and [unclear] hole in the bottom of the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner got out of his turret and stepped straight through the hole. They found his parachute, handed it in when they landed back so obviously, he was, he was obviously killed. The mid-upper err the engineer had been a medical orderly in the previous so he was able to show them to put morphine into him to stop the pain. He got the CGM for that. And after the war another one of the, of our Association lives in Southampton his father was killed on 156 but he collided with another aircraft. And he went, this pilot was in a home alongside them and they came in, knew him. They went to see him and he mentioned that and he said, ‘Yeah. I remember that when he came up alongside of us.’ He mentioned the fact that our, we went up alongside of him. We were the master, deputy master bombers.
CB: Could you describe what, how the master bomber, what his role is and how it works please?
JW: He, he was very often either he or the deputy would do the marking. They’d decide that first. Usually the master bomber would do the, he had a special like we did. You had an eight man crew if you were a deputy or a master. He would then go and mark the target having originally, you would have supporters dropping flares to illuminate the target providing of course down to the weather. And then that would light up, the master bomber would then go in low and find out the target, mark the target and then he’d circle around and he’d watch the way the bombs were falling. And if they were falling short he’d tell them to overshoot the markers and he’d call in the deputy visual centrerers which were following through the raid to keep those markers backed up. And we had backers up and visual centrerers, and he’d call them up and tell them where to drop the, if his markers were a bit off and then he’d direct the raid and tell main force. He called main force up, overshoot to the markers by two seconds to stop the creep back because you always got creep back. People always dropped their bombs short. As one, as Bill used to say, ‘If you’re going over for God’s sake do it properly.’ And you were there the whole of the raid.
[doorbell and knocking]
CB: Just stopping a mo.
[recording paused]
JW: He could, the bomb aimers were pretty good at it and the bombsight we had was really good. And he would then call up [pause] We had backers up, visual centrerers, backers up that would drop flares too because obviously they would gradually go out.
Other 1: Yes.
JW: You know, so he’d call up these people. Their bomb aimers were also good and they would be then bombing on, dropping their flares on the original flares. But if they were slightly off the master bomber would then tell main force. Sometimes they’d put a dummy one up about ten miles away but he’d tell them to ignore that and then he would call them up and say, ‘Overshoot by two seconds,’ to stop as I said the creep back. You always got the creep back. The newer crews used to be at the back of the [unclear] through the raid.
CB: Of the stream. The back of the stream.
JW: Always dropped their bombs short and you could see. You could see that by the way they were falling. So he would tell and they would adjust that and keep the raid going. When we went to the one at Munster, when we got there they was bombing and Bill really called it up and really coated the life out of them. Called them all sorts of things. Concentrate on where the bombers were going and brought the raid back to make it a successful raid.
CB: Why was there bombing creep?
JW: Probably inexperience of the bomb aimers. Nervousness. Perhaps when they were coming along they suddenly, I think it was a natural reaction that they dropped. They got the bombsight coming up to the target and if they think that it’s there but you had to get that, it was a [pause] The gradual was like a red cross on plastic about four inches by two inches that looked.
CB: On the bomb sight.
JW: On the bomb sight as you looked through that and that arrow had to go straight the way through and if it was, this was why sometimes you get thrown off course by slipstream or different things and if, if that happened I used to call dummy run. And then go around the target and come back again. As I say I think that happened about three times and this was on German raids but it was so concentrated and you were oblivious of everything that was going.
Other 1: Yes.
JW: It was quite incredible really. You know. But if you’re not concentrating that much it’s easy enough to press the bomb tit.
CB: So as the bomb aimer you effectively are in control in the last how long? Two minutes or —
JW: Yeah.
CB: Something like that.
JW: Yeah.
CB: And the master bomber you said goes down to make his mark.
JW: Sometimes they would go down. Sometimes they would bomb from the same height.
CB: Right. But then to control the raid.
JW: They’d fly around.
CB: They’d fly above it, would they?
JW: Yeah.
CB: Fly over above everybody else.
JW: They’d fly, they’re coming back at the same height, and they’re usually on the edge of the target and circling around.
CB: Right.
JW: And I mean it was a pretty dangerous job because there was quite a lot of master bombers got shot down because obviously they could pick them up on radar. They’ve got one aircraft going around and around and around.
Other 1: Yes.
CB: Now the master bomber marked in red did he?
JW: It depended. Mainly in red.
CB: And the follow ups would mark in green.
JW: Green. Yeah.
CB: Any other colours?
JW: Yeah. The reds and greens. Sometimes red and greens. Reds. But I don’t think there was any other colours.
CB: So how far back would the green be for doing the marking because this was for the re-energising of the marking wasn’t it?
JW: Well, the master bomber would call that up when he see the, if he sees his flares beginning to fade.
CB: Yeah.
JW: He’d call up and some of them were briefed to go in anyway.
CB: Yeah.
JW: But he would, he would control it from that.
CB: Now, when you did call dummy run what was the actual procedure for getting out and then rejoining the bomber stream?
JW: You just went. We just carried on. Bill, Bill would pull the, close the bomb bay doors. Go on, circle around and come back and join the bomber stream and then do another run on the —
CB: Would it be a standard procedure? You’d always turn left or always turn right or what would it be?
JW: I don’t know. I think we always turn left.
CB: Right. And you’d go out how far because the bomber stream’s quite wide?
JW: I couldn’t tell you that. I don’t know. That would be up to the pilot.
CB: I’m thinking on seconds. So, a minute or — to get out of the stream.
JW: Well, it’s difficult to measure or think about the time. We’d just do it until we get back in.
CB: Yeah.
JW: I don’t think it took that long.
CB: Because you can’t see the other aircraft.
JW: Oh no. occasionally you would see them if you come up. On one occasion I I looked out. I was down in the nose of the aircraft looking and I suddenly see this face in front of me. And I was looking at the rear gunner of another Lancaster. I called Bill up and we were so close to him it was, I could see him. See his face.
CB: What was his reaction?
JW: I don’t know.
CB: He didn’t wave?
JW: No [laughs]
CB: Hello mum.
JW: I think he was clenching his buttocks [laughs]
CB: Can we just go back to, because you’re a flight engineer but you’re effectively changed to do bombing.
JW: Yes.
CB: Because you’re trained as supplementary.
JW: Yeah.
CB: To a bomber, bomb aimer. Your lying prone and you’ve got your head straight down effectively with the bomb sight and the the —
JW: You’re oblivious to everything else.
CB: Yes. And you’ve got the blister that you’re lying in effectively. You’ve got your head in.
JW: Yeah. No. You only put that in afterwards.
CB: Right. So what is, what’s the pattern and what are you seeing and how do you react to what you see because you’re looking at the inferno?
JW: Yeah. You’re looking at, you’re looking at the marker, the indicators, target indicators.
CB: Right.
JW: And you’re getting your cross going through that, those markers and you’re concentrating on that, ‘Left. Left. Steady. Steady. Right. Steady,’ until you get that cross on there and then you press the button. Bombs gone.
CB: So, on your run in you’ve got two minutes effectively when you’re as it were in charge. The navigator is giving you the drift is he? How do you, how do you —
JW: It’s purely and simply, you either, the way the aircraft’s flying. The pilot is just keeping it if he knows you’re steady he’s going to keep that line.
CB: He knows what the drift is.
JW: Yeah.
CB: So —
JW: But you’re telling him that.
CB: Right.
JW: But when we went to, we went and did a raid on Nantes in France we did five. Five dummy runs.
CB: Did you really?
JW: Yeah. Because it was so difficult to see with cloud and everything else. And I think that’s in there.
CB: Is this daylight? Or —
JW: Night flight. Night.
CB: Night. Yeah.
JW: It would be.
CB: What I was trying to get at was there’s the, what you might call the professional aspect of this, of lining up and then calling, ‘Bombs gone.’
JW: Yeah.
CB: But what’s your feeling as you look down into this. Are you busy concentrating on the markers —
JW: You’re oblivious of everything else. I used to be concentrating so much that I didn’t even realise what was going on outside.
CB: So in practical terms there’s a huge barrage of flak bursting all around. Above, below and the side. You’re oblivious to that are you?
JW: Yeah. Yeah. If you’re doing your job properly. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
JW: Yes. And this is my, perhaps the feedback if suddenly a shell bursts near somebody and get rid of the bombs but —
CB: Because the navigators are actually sitting in a cubicle with a blanket hanging down so they can’t see anything.
JW: No.
CB: That’s what you meant earlier isn’t it?
JW: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So it’s a bit of a shock to them to see what’s happening around them.
JW: Our other two navigators never came out. And it was the last trip that we were fated to do although we didn’t know it at the time when this, this Canadian navigator came out. I mean it’s a bit of a shock if you’ve not seen anything and then you see the shell bursts around you and know that one of those too close is curtains. I suppose yeah it did shake you.
CB: What was the main difference between flying daylight and flying in the night?
JW: Well, flying at night you couldn’t see other aircraft normally. Daylight you can see what’s going on. You can see the shell bursts. You can see fighters coming in. I know that my friend in, on his, it was on his last raid at Hamburg and he watched one of our aircraft go down. Funnily enough his brother lives in, when he’d seen that picture in the paper he got in touch with the paper and said, ‘My brother was on 156.’
CB: Really?
JW: ‘Can you give me that man’s name?’
CB: Yeah.
JW: They said no. They gave me his number. But he watched him go down and they were then attacked by a German jet fighter. And he said he watched it come in. He’d never seen anything move so quick in all his life. He was, the jet fighter opened up with cannons, It shot bits of the tailplane off and never touched Rupert.
CB: That’s the tail gunner.
JW: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Extraordinary. So you had a huge variety of raids that you went on. The normal standard was thirty ops and then when you get on to Pathfinders what is the, what is a tour?
JW: When you went on Pathfinders, because of the extended training that you’d had you had to do two tours straight off.
CB: Right.
JW: And because on main force it was thirty trips then you had six months rest and sometimes they called you back sometimes they didn’t. You did another twenty. But on Pathfinders you had to do forty five. But like all of it they were the goalposts. You see I did fifty [pause] fifty two I think to do my two tours because they suddenly brought in a points system. You got five points for a German trip, three points for a French trip and then you had to do [pause] you had to get a hundred and fifty points to finish your first tour. So if it was all French trips it would be more than if it was all French err all German trips. But the, yeah it was, I know there was joke going around about it. If you get shot down over France is it only three fifths dead? Which is, some wag came out with that.
CB: In your case you got the DFM. When did you get that?
JW: It was first promulgated I think in November ’44. I got it in February. 1st of February when I was first noticed it, first notified.
CB: Yeah. ’45. And what about the rest of the crew? What did they get?
JW: The pilot got the DSO and the DFC.
CB: The DSO. At the same time?
JW: No. Different times. DSO, DFC. The two navigators both got the DFC. [pause] The mid-upper gunner got the DFM and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
CB: Yeah.
JW: I got the DFM and the Croix de Guerre err the Legion of Honour.
CB: Did you get the Croix de Guerre as well?
JW: No.
CB: Oh, right.
JW: And, and of course the Pathfinder award. We all got the Pathfinder award.
CB: Yes. When did that come out?
JW: After you had, when we finished on the squadron.
CB: Right. And as well as getting the scroll what did you get as far as the medal part? There is, there is a, you get a separate badge for Pathfinder.
JW: Yeah. You got that. When you’d done six marker trips you got the temporary award of the Pathfinder badge. You were allowed to wear it on your, you weren’t allowed to wear it on your battledress.
CB: No.
JW: Because if you got shot down and they could see even the holes where [pause] that was your lot.
CB: Yeah.
JW: So, but that’s, as I say that’s the Pathfinder badge. That’s, after the war people were wearing it and some of the jumped up people in the offices said in the higher ranks, ‘You can’t wear that. You can’t wear that anymore.’ But Bennett was a lot cleverer than they thought because when he promulgated it it was promulgated as an award. Not as a badge. It’s an actual award. So they couldn’t stop them wearing it.
CB: This is Air Marshall Bennett.
JW: Yeah.
CB: The CO CNC Pathfinders.
JW: Yeah.
CB: Did you meet him many times?
JW: I never met him. You met him if you went, if you applied for a commission. Then you met him. But I wasn’t interested in a commission. A, it meant a drop in pay for six months and I didn’t fancy that [laughs]
CB: And then you changed messes.
JW: Yeah.
CB: You had to change messes.
JW: Yeah.
CB: We’ve talked a lot about the action but what about in the time off? What did you do then? Did you, did you go out as a crew?
JW: With the —
CB: Socially.
JW: The mid-upper gunner, the wireless operator, myself from the time we met we used to go. We were never out of each other’s company. We even arranged our leave passes. They lived in Newcastle. I lived in Guildford. But we managed to get our leave passes that worked when you, when you looked at it it went from Burradon which was just outside Newcastle to Guildford. So we’d get, when we had leave every six weeks we’d go to Newcastle for three days. We’d get out at Newcastle and say, ‘Oh, we’re going on to Burradon later.’ So you kept your ticket. When we got to, going back there after three days we’d go back to Guildford. We’d get down to Kings Cross and of course you’ve got, you’ve got to go over to Waterloo to get to Guildford. But we used to buy a ticket from Waterloo. It was only about a shilling. Something like that. And so we used to be able to go three days in one place. Three days in the other and —
CB: Overnight travel.
JW: Yeah [laughs] it was, but we used to, all used to go and so our leave was together. Going out we’d be out as a crew. We’d usually meet girls as well. So the only time we were apart is when you were in one corner they were in another [laughs] But we used to go out. We used to go out and drink. You never used, sometimes you did get a bit tipsy. You never went out to get drunk which is what seems to be the norm today. But you went out, you got drunk but because of what you were drinking. You didn’t sit there swilling it to get as much down you as you could.
CB: No. But was the social aspect of life on a squadron partly an antidote to the experiences of raids?
JW: Well, it’s, it’s like I say you used to go out every night you could. We were getting around about seven guineas a week I think at that time which was a lot of money. Beer at a penny err a shilling a pint you know. And —
Other 1: Chris.
CB: Right. We’ll turn off a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: Seven guineas a week.
JW: Yeah. That’s what I was getting then.
CB: And beer was a shilling a pint.
JW: A shilling a pint. Yeah. But it was, some days you’d have do in the mess. Perhaps a dance or something like that but mainly we used to go out if we could. I know when I spoke about the discipline on 156, they decided, they had a group captain Airey there who was a station commander and he’d lost three court martials in a row. So that meant he had to be posted but they put in charge a man for discip. A disciplinarian. A man called Menaul. Menaul. And group captain Airey, he was an elderly man but he used to go out on ops occasionally and, but Menaul, I don’t think he ever did. One thing he did do I found out afterwards was when they were bringing prisoners of war back he’d do those trips all right. But on one occasion there was the mid-upper, Bert, Appy, Bert and myself and the rear gunner of another squadron, another crew. A chap called Ron Smith and we going up to Ramsey. To the camp. To the aerodrome. The first entrance you got to was the officer’s entrance what went past the station commanders house. And then you went on another couple of hundred yards to come to the main gate. But this particular night we’d been down, we weren’t drunk we’d been and had a couple of pints each. We decided to go in through the officer’s entrance and we were quite a way along it and suddenly a car pulled up behind us and a voice yelled out, ‘Airmen.’ We knew at once who it was so we scarpered. I went over a fence. The other, I don’t know where the other two went. And then the car, he was looking around. He couldn’t see anybody because it was dark. And the car drove off and then I heard a voice say, ‘Where the bloody hell has he gone to?’ And of course I was on the other side of the fence and walked up and frightened the life out of them. But then we carried on walking and we had to go past the airmen’s billets because this was a peacetime ‘drome so it was all brick buildings. But every time a car came in the main gate we were in open ground. So we had to go down on the flat. We knew what was going to happen. The next morning he had all the squadron into this room and bearing in mind his, his war record was I think one tour as a fighter pilot towards the end of the war and he insulted, he called us all the names under the sun. Now, at this time we’d got something like sixty trips in between each. Appy was fuming. But everybody on the unit knew who the people were except him. Even the adjutant knew. And two of Appy’s mates are sitting on either side of him holding him down. And if we’d have owned up God knows what he would have done. But he couldn’t do the whole squadron so, but do you know what? After the war that man, somebody was writing a book about [pause] I’ve not been able to find a copy of it. I had a copy but I leant it to somebody and I never had it back. It was, they were talking about the airfields in Lincolnshire and round in Cambridgeshire and he had, they’d, they’d interviewed him and he said in there that on that occasion we had gone up to his front door, frightened his wife, urinated against his front door. I wanted the book back because I was going to take the author something about, for libel. Slander. Whatever it is. But anyhow I never got the book back so I could never see it. But they’d actually quoted him verbatim in there. Saying that we’d frightened the wife, his wife and daughter and urinated against his front door. Now, what idiot could do that sort of thing? But that’s in the book. So if he had known who we were, this was written after the war our names would have been there.
CB: Extraordinary.
JW: But funnily enough a friend of mine who was on the squadron with me he lived in Brighton and he lived near Hamish Mahaddie and he went to see Hamish and he was talking about Menaul to Hamish. ‘Don’t talk to me about that — ’ so and so, he said. So he was not only liked, disliked by the rank and file he was utterly disliked by his peers.
CB: There are occasions when very, when senior officers, group captains did fly.
JW: Yeah.
CB: And that’s how they got them in the prison camps.
JW: Yeah.
CB: In some cases. So under what circumstances would they do it, and what would they do?
JW: It was up to them. They decided what they’d do, where they’d go and what they —
CB: And would they be the pilot, the captain or would they just be there for the ride?
JW: If they took over the crew they were the captain. But if they went as the supernumery the pilot is always the captain.
CB: Yes.
JW: Even if he’s a sergeant and he’s got flight lieutenants in his crew he is still the captain.
CB: Yeah. So these people would be flying as the pilot normally would they? The group captains.
JW: No. Not necessarily. They’d go along, you know.
CB: Just to get the experience.
JW: Yeah. Just to get to [pause] but I know that Group Captain Airey went on at least two or three. They weren’t supposed to so it was done surreptitiously.
CB: Might have been a good defence in the court martial.
JW: Yeah [laughs]
CB: What would you say was your most memorable recollection of being in the RAF in the war?
JW: Just the odd occasion when, to get away with as many trips as we did you had to fly a lot of trips where there was nothing happening. There was no, you know, you got away with it. You dropped your bombs you got back, and [pause] But of the probably eight or nine instances when we were attacked by fighters or got hit by flak [unclear] [pause] Probably the time when I looked up and see that bloody aircraft above us with his bomb doors open.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. You talked about the Nuremberg raid a lot of which was in bright moonlight. What did you see in terms of aircraft exploding?
JW: Well, we were, it was our second trip on the Pathfinder squadron so we were acting as supporters, which meant we were right at the front of the — with the master bomber.
CB: Right.
JW: And we were following three Mosquitoes that were doing a spoof raid up to Hamburg I think. Somewhere up there. And we were right behind them so we think we got that through before they realised where the raid was going to go. So what was happening was behind us. I mean the gunners were calling out and saying that they could see aircraft going down but where we were we, we thought it was dangerous because I think the last two hundred miles was a straight leg, straight down to Nuremberg and there were searchlights nearly all the way down there, but so, from our point of view being at the front of the wave of bombers meant that the fighters only took off when they were behind us before they realised where we were going.
CB: Yeah.
JW: And when we got down to come back, lower down in Germany by that time they were down on the floor refuelling. So probably that’s the reason why we got through again.
CB: What was your understanding of the term scarecrow?
JW: Well, they said they were sending up these huge it was like a big dustbin if you like coming up, and they were explaining but in actual fact what they never told us was though they must have known about it was upward firing, the up firing guns and we didn’t know about them. they weren’t, we weren’t told about it.
CB: The Schrage Musik.
JW: Yeah. It was [pause] I know on one occasion on, it was, I think it was on the Nuremberg raid, our mid-upper gunner told me this there was a, the wireless operator had Fishpond. What was called Fishpond. It was an offshoot of H2S and it would pick up fighters.
CB: Trailing behind you.
JW: But the fighter, the fighter disappeared when it got within a hundred and fifty feet, and the wireless operator and the mid-upper gunner were, he was telling him where it was. That he could see it. And then suddenly it disappeared and then Appy said that as we were flying along another Lanc alongside of us, and it used to go over about that sort of speed as you were going over. As it got underneath us it suddenly blew up. And what we think was that that fighter was beneath us firing at us and this other Lanc came in underneath and got blown up instead of us. That’s what, that’s what our mid-upper was thinking, you know. That’s what he thought. He said, it was the fact it disappeared from the Fishpond meant it was within a closer range to come off where it wasn’t showing up and he said this other Lanc, it was, it used to be ok, you used to see it going very slowly underneath you but as it did, as it went underneath suddenly it went up.
CB: Did you feel the blast?
JW: No. No. I don’t know what sort of, you know, I didn’t see the aircraft going under us.
CB: No.
JW: But him being the mid-upper gunner he was, he was up at the top. He could see quite a lot.
CB: You talked about the wing commander who flew in a weave. To what extent were you aware of LMF?
JW: I don’t know of anybody who was accused of it. All I know is that any aircrew never condemned anybody as LMF. It was only some little jumped up merchant in an office sitting behind a desk who’d never even seen a gun let along had one fired who decided this. But I can understand at the top stating it, because they said that if it was easy enough to just pack up the threat of LMF was [pause] but the way they treated them when they were. I mean people had done two or three trips. But not everybody’s the same, and some people just couldn’t. You know, it’s quite, it was quite terrifying really at times. Obviously. I don’t know what we’d have done if it, we were lucky enough not to get hit but, but even so you were quite aware of the fact that you could easily get killed if, you know. You put it out of your mind but you knew really deep down that that was, that was an option. You’ll have to excuse me.
CB: Yeah. We’ll stop for a mo.
[recording paused]
JW: Well —
CB: Now, you you also relied on the ground crew and you talked about the chiefy earlier. What was the relationship between the aircrew and the groundcrew?
JW: Well, that was, well funnily enough I don’t know any of their names. because we had [pages turning]
CB: The ground crew would often look after two aircraft.
JW: That is in, that picture is in quite a few places. And that’s the ground crew. I tried to find out the names of them and I couldn’t. I hoped somebody would be able to find them by publishing it but they couldn’t.
CB: And how did the, how did you get on or did you not talk to them much?
JW: Oh you, we didn’t socialise with them. As I said we didn’t socialise with anybody except our own crew.
CB: Quite.
JW: And it was only the three of us.
CB: Who did it. Yes. But the officers would tend to socialise separately from the airmen wouldn’t they?
JW: Yeah.
CB: Anyway.
JW: Anyhow, there’s [pause] When we were getting dressed we’d get our flying kit on.
CB: Yeah.
JW: We used to sing [pause] it was, I forget the artist who sing it. “My mother done told me when I was in knee pants.” [laughs] We used to sing that as we were getting ready.
CB: And then when you got to the aircraft what rituals were there there? Like watering the rear wheel.
JW: No. We never did that. I don’t think there were any. We used to, I know that with all the checks that we used to have to make, about seventy checks but all the ones outside I never used to let the ground crew see me doing them because I always thought they would think I wasn’t trusting them. So I used to walk round and you could, you could check them yourself without which let them see that you trusted them to do their checks as well. The ones inside the aircraft of course were ok.
Other 1: Was there a very close relationship between the ground crew and the flying crew?
JW: Not as close as you would think.
Other 1: Because there’s a huge amount of reliance or —
JW: Oh yeah. You trusted them completely.
Other 1: You’d have to.
JW: Yeah. I’ll tell you what though. One thing that was happening when we, we were going. A we were taking, got around, suddenly Bill said, ‘We’ve got no brake pressure.’ So he said, ‘Do we need it in the air?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well we can carry on then.’ I said, ‘Yeah’ You don’t use your brakes in the air do you? So the only thing we had to be careful of was taxiing around behind other aircraft. And we took off and when was it that [pause] it meant that when we got back they wouldn’t let us land there. They sent us over to Woodbridge. But on another occasion we were on the short runway and this is when I, you heard say, Bill flew the aircraft by feel as well. On the short runway and there was something wrong with the speed.
CB: Airspeed indicator. Yeah.
JW: Because it was showing a completely different reading on the, on the instrument to what was and he could feel that according to the reading you could take but he didn’t, he flew it without and by the feel and when he felt it could take off on the short runway and I knew that the airspeed cover had been taken off because I’d checked that myself.
CB: Yeah.
JW: And I said to him, ‘There might be an insect in there or something.’ Anyhow, I said, ‘Right. We’ll go through all the checks. Every check that we normally do inside.’ And one of them just in front of the door at the back was it was about that size. A rubber thing with a hole in and there used to be plugs put in that. So you had to check to make sure the plugs were out and I knew that if one was out they’d both be out. The only way I could check it was to sit with the door open and reach along the side of the fuselage and I could just reach it. I knew I could. So what I did I put my parachute on because I realised I could get sucked out. I had Bert hanging on my legs in the fuselage. Opened the door. And when I told Ed Straw who used to fly the Lanc that we’ve got now he said, ‘You bloody idiot,’ he said, ‘You could have been killed. If you’d have got sucked out,’ he said, ‘The tailplane would have hit you.’ I said, ‘I know. That’s why I — ’ Anyhow, I did try that and went on and did all the rest but I couldn’t see the other side. I said to Bill. I don’t know what I was going to do. He didn’t say anything so I thought good. But yeah it was quite funny really.
CB: And the result was?
JW: It was, it was, it was as I knew it would be. The plug wasn’t in there. But this was at ten thousand feet over Guildford.
CB: Oh right [laughs]
JW: And I thought if I fall out I could go home.
CB: Go home. Yeah. Ideal. Yeah. Did people fly with lucky charms?
JW: Yeah. I think they did. I used to have a white scarf I used to carry with me. A silk scarf. Because you couldn’t wear your tie because if you came down in the water it could shrink and choke you. But —
Other 1: Yes.
CB: And did you have any weapon on you?
JW: They issued us just after D-Day. They issued us all with revolvers.
CB: 38s.
JW: Yeah. The aircrew NCOs could only wear, they had to carry them in camp. But officers had to carry them at all times because they thought that the Germans might drop parachutists on to the aerodromes
CB: Oh.
JW: And, but the other thing that I had was a six inch bowie knife. I had them both tucked in me, in me flying boots because I always thought, it never occurred to me if we got shot down that I’d get killed. Didn’t occur to me that. And I thought, and afterwards we used to go on these three day weeks and I thought, I looked, we went out on a trip on the Rhine and I thought, you thought you were going to get across. You can’t bloody swim and you were going to get across there. What sort of daydream were you in? I mean it goes on forever. The width of it. Doesn’t it?
CB: Yeah.
Other 1: It does.
CB: When the war finished did you do any Cook’s Tours?
JW: No. No. We’d been slung off. We were taken off. In April posted away from the unit and never got near an aircraft after that. Oh. I went up. I went up once with, when I was posted, first posted to the Wellington OTU. And they wanted you to go up and they wanted somebody, you need somebody sitting in the tail of a Wellington. I said, ‘I’ll go with you.’ With the pilot and the navigator. We came down and had a look around over where I lived. But —
CB: Not in Germany.
JW: No.
CB: Where did you meet your wife?
JW: Oh, this was, we were working. Both working in the same firm. Works outing actually. We went. They took us all down for Brighton for the day. Two coaches. And we went in to, I didn’t even know she was working there, went in to lunch and suddenly this girl looked around and she had the most beautiful blue eyes. And I thought cor, you lovely blue eyes. Anyhow, I didn’t expect to ever see her again. But in those days the coaches used to go and park somewhere, then they’d come along the front, creep along very slowly and you picked your bus, your coach out and got on as it was going along. And when I got on she was sitting on the front seat. I said, ‘Anybody sitting with you?’ ‘No.’ It was a right curt. I thought I’ll sit down anyway. Got chatting and halfway back we stopped at a pub and had a drink. A couple of drinks. And we got the bottom of Waterloo Road, the factory was. We stopped outside there. We all got off the coach. And she said, ‘You’re not leaving me here on my own are you?’ I said, ‘No. Where do you live?’ She lived just around the corner from the Elephant and Castle. Anyhow, she said, ‘Come and have a cup of tea.’ So I was in there when all the family came back. They’d all been at the pub at the top of the road. Met the family. That was quite strange because when it comes time to say cheerio she went down and presented her sister and her husband had the bottom flat and they had the flat above. And I shall never forget, I said to her, ‘Can I kiss you goodnight?’ She said, ‘I’d have hit you if you hadn’t.’ [laughs] By this time although she was very curt to start with by this time we’d sort of got some rapport and I arranged to meet her again in a week. But when I got outside there was a rail strike on and so I couldn’t get back to Guildford but I was staying with my grandmother at Putney. I got outside and I thought bloody hell how the hell do I get to Putney? All I’d got in my pocket was a half a crown. And I hadn’t got a clue where I was. Anyhow, I walked up to the main road and I see a taxi. I hailed him. He said, ‘I’ve finished mate.’ I said, ‘Oh I’m in trouble, trouble here,’ I said, ‘I’m trying to get back to Putney and I don’t know where it is,’ I said, ‘I’ve only got a half — ’ ‘Get in,’ he said, ‘I’ll take you to Putney Bridge which was, I knew where I was then. And he did. And it was ever so good of him. But then we went out and then later on we decided to get married.
CB: When did you get married?
JW: In September the 1st on 1956.
CB: What was the company you were working for then?
JW: It was Cockayne and Company.
CB: Who?
JW: Cockayne’s.
CB: Oh Cockayne.
JW: C O C K A Y N E. The chap who owned it used to drive around. He used to have a chauffeur with a Rolls Royce and his chauffeur wore a peak cap, gaters, polished gaters. And occasionally he would come around. At Christmas usually he would come around and say hello to everybody. I forget his name now. But they had a factory in Eastleigh in Southampton. And we went down once to play football with them. A football match. Clever they were. Treated us all to a bloody great lunch. And then their team arrived didn’t it? We were playing football on a full stomach.
CB: Different people. Yes. Gamesmanship they call it.
JW: Yeah. Yeah. We were married for [pause] She died in 2013.
CB: Oh dear. Was she younger than you or —
JW: She was five years younger than me.
CB: Well, Jack Watson. A really interesting conversation. Thank you so much.
JW: I’m glad you enjoyed it.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with John Robert Watson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2024,

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