Interview with Ernest James White


Interview with Ernest James White


James White worked as a wages clerk for the Co-op before volunteering for the Air Force. He had intended to join the navy but he saw some recruits being shouted at so he turned around and crossed the corridor to join the RAF. He had always had an interesting in flying because his uncle lived near Hendon Airfield and he had enjoyed watching the aircraft as well as making models. When he had completed his final operation as a gunner with 97 Squadron his crew still had one to do and so he volunteered to join them. The gunnery leader refused his offer and he went on the operation himself. The crew failed to return from that operation and the surviving members became prisoners of war.




Temporal Coverage




01:42:38 audio recording


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DK: Right. So it’s turned up. So, it’s David Kavanagh on the 27th of October 2016 interviewing Mr James White at his home. I’ll just put that there. If I keep looking over I’m just checking to make sure it’s going.
JW: It’s very neat.
DK: It is isn’t it. Ok.
JW: It’s picking us both up is it?
DK: It should be picking us both up. Yeah.
JW: That’s alright then.
DK: Just to make sure.
JW: Well I want to tell you about, I’m going bang in to the middle. We can go back to the beginning later on.
DK: Yeah. Ok.
JW: This one sets the scene for the whole lot really.
DK: Ok.
JW: Now, how far shall I go back? I’d better give you a run. First of all I was posted to 44 Squadron at Waddington first of all. I was only there four days and they, they posted me to Syerston. 61 Squadron. I was, I did about six ops with them and then they posted me to Woodhall Spa, 97 Squadron. I did a few there. Then I got crewed-up with Bob Fletcher. And then one day sitting in the crew room the squadron commander comes in, got attention, he says, ‘Right. I’ve got an announcement to make. Every one of you have been, have volunteered for Pathfinder duties. We’re going to move down to Bourn in Cambridge.’
DK: Right.
JW: That was great that was. So the thing was as a, as we were now in 8 Group different rules applied apparently. Don Bennett.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Was quite a force to be reckoned with, you know.
DK: Yeah.
JW: He did. He had a hell of a time with Sir Arthur from what I’ve read. Any rate, what happened was I’d done about sixteen operations altogether with odd crews before I was crewed-up. Then we moved down to Cambridge. Now, in Pathfinder force there is the normal tour is thirty operations. Which you know of course don’t you?
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: Well, when I got to my twenty ninth the crew, the target was Hamburg actually, coming back I said to the pilot, I said, ‘Look,’ I said, ‘This is my last trip and it’s your last trip next time.’ He said, ‘Yeah. We’re all going next time.’ I said, ‘Right, I’m going to volunteer to do another one so we all go together.’ This you’ll understand is the spirit of crew.
DK: Yeah.
JW: At that time you see. It’s madness really, you know. It really is madness.
DK: Yeah.
JW: To volunteer for an extra one. It was accepted. So I stayed on. And then they brought out this business of, in 8 Group if you’re in the Pathfinder force every operation you did counted as two. So instead of doing thirty you did, you did fifteen. Ok.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: Right. I’m on my fifteenth now. I’m taking on now. Now this, sorry that was the crews at hand over. Right. Coming back I said to Bob, I said, ‘I’m really due to finish but I’ll stay on. I’ll volunteer.’ He said, ‘You can’t.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because the gunnery leader has taken you off the crew list already.’ Before we’d even, before we took off you’re off. ‘He knew this was your last one and he’s put himself in your place. So he’s going to fly in your place.’ I was only a flight sergeant at that time and you don’t argue with a squadron leader do you?
DK: No.
JW: So off I went. Well, I did go off actually. I went home actually. I came back. The next morning I got to Cambridge station, came out the station and I saw an RAF truck there. I said, ‘That’s funny. What’s he doing there? I’ll get a lift back into camp.’ So I went there. It was our favourite driver there. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’ve come to meet you.’ Well that’s very odd. I don’t get that privilege. That sort of privilege.
DK: No.
JW: I said, ‘Why? He said, ‘Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. The crew didn’t come back last night.’
DK: Oh God.
JW: Because the gunnery leader insisted in flying in my place.
DK: Yeah.
JW: He’s the one who got killed. Not me. Now, that’s very strange.
DK: It is.
JW: Now, I’ve gone over this over and over again. I dream about it sometimes. I fantasise on it. The thing was, you see my position was right on top of the aircraft. Mid-upper gunner there. It so happened that I was the only member of the crew that had an anti-glare panel because I got kitted out somewhere else apart from them. Now, what happened, I saw, I saw the captain afterwards, after the war when he came out of the prisoner of war camp. He survived and he told me exactly what happened. He said they got caught in the master searchlight. You’ve heard of this I expect, have you?
DK: Yeah.
JW: Light blue and, you know and they got coned. Now, he’s, he’s an extraordinary pilot that man was. Extraordinary. And he got out of it. He flew out of it. Right. Quite incredible. Now, the thing is he told me that fighter that got them came down from above because he was going down you see. He’d come down like, which is extraordinary unusual because they usually come from underneath.
DK: Yeah.
JW: We are told that. We are told at the briefing they attack from underneath. They introduced that technique. The Luftwaffe at the time. So I’m sitting there in this. Now, I’ve got the anti-glare so when the searchlight caught us, kept down. I can still see. They can’t.
DK: Yeah.
JW: They were all blinded. They couldn’t see. Couldn’t see a thing. Couldn’t see the dials on the dash board. But the pilot, as I say he was brilliant. A brilliant pilot he was and he got them out of it but when he got to the, he got out of it, the searchlights, right, but when he got to the bottom he’d lost so much height he’s got to get back up again.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So he starts climbing like this and that’s when the fighter pounced on them. Now, I’m sitting on top. Anti-glare. I can see.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Now had I been there instead of this other chap. Would I have seen that fighter?
DK: Yeah.
JW: Because we had quite a good crew. Well, an excellent crew actually and if I’d said to the pilot, ‘Dive to starboard,’ he would have gone down pfft. Down. He wouldn’t have been shot down probably. We don’t know that.
DK: No.
JW: We can’t tell that.
DK: Is it, is it something, were all the crew killed or [pause] yeah.
JW: But it does haunt you. It does. It is. I know just how close I was.
DK: Yeah.
JW: See. Having volunteered to do the bloody job he took me off. He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t accept my offer. He went on it himself.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And he got, he got immediate. He was killed instantly by the fighter. And the navigator and the other gunner, the rear gunner they were all killed.
DK: Right.
JW: The other four escaped with parachute.
DK: Oh right.
JW: And became prisoners of war.
DK: Right. So, so four survived and three were killed.
JW: And I’ve seen them. Well, I haven’t see Jack Beesley. I’ve got a picture of him there. I’ll show you in a minute. And the engineer. But I’ve been in touch with the wireless operator for a long time but when they were in the prisoner of war camp I knew his wife because I used to visit. They live at Grantham.
DK: Right.
JW: Now, I was in Scotland at the time so I was, I did as many journeys as I could down to London. Getting off at Grantham.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Go and see them. Getting on the train and carrying on you see. That was very handy.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So I kept that up for a long time. in fact, when, after the war when I was stationed in Germany at Munchen Gladbach I invited them out and they came out and spent a fortnight in Germany with me.
DK: Oh right. That’s nice.
JW: With his, with his two children.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So we had a close contact. That was our crew you see. You’ve probably heard stories like this before.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: But this was absolutely true. Hang on a minute. Just a minute.
DK: What I’ll do, I’ll just stop there. I’m —
JW: Ok.
[recording paused]
DK: Put that back up there. Ok.
JW: You’ll be interested in this.
DK: Ok. Ah.
JW: Now, after the war, as soon as the war was over the RAF sent, sent Lancasters over to Germany to bring back the released prisoners of war.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Now, that’s one of our Lancasters at 97 Squadron.
DK: Right.
JW: That, that was our bomb aimer Jack Beesley.
DK: Oh right.
JW: I don’t know who the other chaps are. I don’t remember the other chaps.
DK: Yeah.
JW: But from that picture I personally get a really strong feeling they were the men I knew.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Not the RAF today. These are the ones we knew. That, that encapsulates the spirit.
DK: Right.
JW: You’ve got there.
DK: Just for the benefit of the recording — so this is Lancaster PB422 of 97 Squadron.
JW: That’s right.
DK: And the person there is your —
JW: Jack Beesley.
DK: Jack Beesley. And he was your bomb aimer and that’s when he was returning.
JW: That’s right.
DK: As a POW.
JW: Yes. Yes.
DK: So I see there, the POWs have put various bits of graffiti on the aircraft.
JW: That’s [laughs] very typical I’m afraid. We, we were an irresponsible lot you know. Really.
DK: Did you go on any of the trips to pick up the prisoners?
JW: Sorry?
DK: Did you go on any of the trips to pick up the prisoners of war?
JW: Not me. No. I was out of Bomber Command.
DK: Oh right.
JW: I was in Training Command at the time.
DK: Ok. That’s a great photo isn’t it?
JW: Yeah. It’s a good one that.
DK: I always find photos like this where you see prisoners of war their faces always look very drawn. Very —
JW: Yeah.
DK: You can see he looks very, even there looks a bit tense.
JW: Actually I was told before they came home that he’d got religion while there.
DK: Right.
JW: It was the strain, you know. Things like that.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: But I think, I think he probably got out of it at that time.
DK: That’s alright.
JW: The relief of being released.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Released from prisoner of war camp must have been enormous mustn’t it?
DK: It must have been. Yeah.
JW: Something I never experienced of course.
DK: Yeah.
JW: But they’re the chaps, these here, they’re the typical of what the, what the crews were in in Bomber Command days. In the war you know.
DK: They look so young.
JW: Yeah. Aren’t they? Yeah.
DK: I’m assuming he’s the pilot then who’s flown him back.
JW: Yeah.
DK: He’s shaking hands. That one.
JW: Yeah. It’s amazing isn’t it?
DK: Yeah.
JW: I think that’s a very good picture.
DK: Lovely picture that.
JW: Tells us an awful lot doesn’t it?
DK: Yeah. What, what another thing I wanted to ask just stepping back a bit and that was just for interest what were you actually doing before the war?
JW: What was I doing before the war?
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: Not much. I was a wages clerk with the Co-op.
DK: Oh right. Ok.
JW: CWS Headquarters in London.
DK: Yeah. So what, what made you want you join the Air Force then?
JW: Well, it’s a long long story really. It started way back when I was, when I was a young lad. I had an uncle that lived at Mill Hill which is high ground overlooking Hendon Airfield.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And his house was on a bit there and I used to love going there because I used to see what was going on in the airfield down there. I think that’s where it started. But later on I got around to making models. I made a, I made a flying model of a Hurricane.
DK: Oh right.
JW: Out of balsa wood and things like that, you know.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And it was always with me I think. Going back. Not overwhelming or anything like that at all but an interest. And, as a matter of fact, just after I left school at fifteen [pause] a bit older than that I was working at CWS, that’s right. I was in London. I went, I went to the Air Ministry which those days was down [pause] You don’t — no, you wouldn’t know the Stoll Theatre, would you? It’s gone.
DK: No. No. No.
JW: Demolished. It’s not where it is now. It wasn’t in Whitehall. It was down this road, down there, down the end there. I forget the name of it. I think it was called High Holborn come to think of it.
DK: High Holborn. Right. Yeah. Yeah.
JW: Anyway, I went there and asked about entry into the boy scheme at Halton. Commonly known as the Halton Brats.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: And they gave me some books and papers and things to study for the entrance to them. Took them away. Got home then. Within a week or two war was declared and of course the scheme was stopped.
DK: Oh right.
JW: So I never got to it. The thing is had that not happened, if I’d gone to there and become a wireless operator what would I have been today? [laughs]
DK: Yeah.
JW: The fate plays some funny tricks doesn’t it?
DK: Yes. Yeah. So the war started then and presumably you were then called up. And then —
JW: Well, I didn’t get called up actually.
DK: Oh right. Ok.
JW: What happened was that [pause] I’m trying to think of a reason but there was no reason. I just, I was up in London. I was working in London. So I took the afternoon off and went to the Joint Recruiting Centre at Edgeware.
DK: Right. Yeah.
JW: I went down there to Edgeware. But my people at the Co-op, they were very understanding. In fact I was one of the last of the males in the office left. All been called up, you see. I went up there to join the Navy.
DK: Oh right.
JW: Because my father was in the Royal Marines you see.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: So it was the natural thing to do. Now, this house was a requisitioned house and I remember it very clearly in my mind now. It was a long, you open the front door and there was a long passage down there. I walked down the passage. On the left hand side was the Navy office. On the right hand side was the RAF. I was just stepping over the threshold of the Navy one to join the Navy and there was this petty officer in front of a group of chaps there. He was bawling his heads off at them. That’s not my scene. So I turned around quickly and went in the other one. So that’s how I came to join the Air Force.
DK: It’s sort of fate again isn’t it? If it hadn’t have been —
JW: And they took my details down, sent me home and said, ‘Well, we’ll get in touch with you,’ and they did. They sent me a railway warrant to go to Oxford and I went, the Oxford Selection Board. I was down as training for a pilot. We all trained, all go for a pilot because nobody ever gets there. But we all go for a pilot. I went there, had a selection and they basically whittled it down, got me down as a wireless operator which was roughly what I was going to do in the original. So they said right, now I’ll give you another paper and said — oh I was sworn in. So I’m now a member. This is June 1941. Sent me home. Said, ‘We’ll call you forward.’ They did. They called me forward to report at Padgate up in Lancashire on December the 24th. Christmas. Christmas Eve [laughs]
DK: Oh dear.
JW: Any rate, I’d got the railway warrant so I got on the train. It was the first time I’d been on one of these trains and, I’d never done this before. In the compartment there was a couple there with their daughter. I remember that girl. Yeah. I never, I can’t remember her name. And of course those days there was no, not much catering on the trains. You took your own with you. They had their parcels and I had my parcel and we the three of us got together there and we, you know had a nice journey up there during which the lady said, said, ‘Are you going to Padgate?’ I said, ‘Yes’ She said, ‘Well, that’s not all that far from where we live.’ What’s the name of the place? It was a double barrelled name. I’ve forgotten it now. It’s quite a big place. She says, she wrote the address down and gave it to me. I put it in my pocket. She said, ‘If you can get off at Christmas come to us and you can come and stay with us over Christmas.’ I said, ‘Oh right,’ I thought. I got to Padgate and went through all the things there. Kit. I drew my uniform the morning, the next morning and then had to go to the tailors for alterations like they do. And then the corporal came out and bawled his head off and said, ‘Any of you chaps here live within fifty miles of here, can get home without using public transport you can have a weekend pass. Put your hands up.’ Up went my hand [laughs] I’m a bugger, you know really [laughs] He said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘Newton le Willows.’ That was it. Newton le Willows. Newton le Willows. ‘Oh yeah, that’s alright.’ He said, ‘Right, he said, ‘Well, go to the guardroom at about 4 o’clock and pick up your pass. You go to, go to the tailors. I’ve given the tailor, I shall be giving the tailor priority for your uniform to be done. So you can go and get that first. When you get the uniform put it on.’ Went to the guardroom. It was dark by this time. Got to the guardroom. Got my pass. I walked out through the gate and there was a bus stop there. I said, ah good. A bus pulled up. He said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said ‘Warrington.’ Warrington. ‘Well you’re going the wrong way. It’s that way. We’re going that way.’ Oh. They put me on the right bus. I got to Warrington. I asked the way. They got me on a bus to Newton le Willows and they said, ‘Where do you want?’ I said, ‘Well I’ve got Newton le Willows.’ There was a woman sitting in front of me. Yeah. She turned around, she said. ‘Let me have a look at that. See if I can find it. Oh I know them.’ she said. ‘I’ll put you off at the right place.’ ‘Oh thank you.’ Got off there. Went to the front door. Knocked on the door. There was a pause. There was lot of furniture being moved around and everything. I wasn’t used to this at all. They said, ‘Come around the other side,’ but they, they entered their house through the side instead of in the front door.
DK: Yeah.
JW: That’s reserved for weddings and funerals. I spent the Christmas, I spent Christmas with them.
DK: Oh right.
JW: They gave me a couple of presents. A jar of Brylcreem.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And a packet of razor blades [laughs]
DK: Wonderful.
JW: [laughs] The great shame is because so many things were happening fast.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It skipped my mind. I should have written and thanked them for the way. I should have done that.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And it’s my sorrow that I didn’t.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I should have done. It’s very sad that was but then people were used to that sort of thing in wartime. And after, I was off to Blackpool in no time at all. Doing drill on the streets. God. [laughs] That’s another, that’s nothing to do with 97 Squadron. Nothing to do with Bomber Command at all. Oh dear.
DK: So at Blackpool then was that all the square bashing going on down there?
JW: That’s right, yeah. Yeah.
DK: Is that something you enjoyed or —
JW: I didn’t mind it at all really.
DK: No.
JW: You know the Air Force fitted around my shoulders like it was made for me. I never had any doubt whatsoever at any time.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And I’ve been very lucky. Well, what is luck and what is otherwise? It’s hard to say sometimes isn’t it?
DK: It certainly is. So from Blackpool then can you remember where you went on to after that?
JW: Well, they sent me down to Bournemouth [laughs]
DK: Oh.
JW: With seven other chaps. A holding unit. Now, at Bournemouth was Number 3 PRC personnel something. Reception. Personnel Reception Committee, Centre. This was, this was formed for the Empire Training Scheme. The chaps that had gone to Canada for training. They came back, a lot of them were already commissioned when they came back. They were commissioned before they came back.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So they sent them to Bournemouth to hold there until they could allocate them to whatever squadron. Where they were going to, you see. But I was there with these other chaps and we were just airman. Erks. I had a great time there actually. Oh yeah. I started life in the Air Force as an officer’s batman would you believe? [laughs]
DK: Really.
JW: It’s a good thing. I saw it from the beginning. I got a lot, a lot of experience I got there. Oh yes I did. Any rate from there they called me up one day on parade and they said report to so and so I went to the clothing section and they kitted me out with all the flying gear but it was all recycled from chaps that had been shot down and their families had sent their uniforms up. There was all stuff there and I got all the old stuff. I had Gosport tubing, you know. Before they had microphones. And, oh dear, and they gave me an extra kit bag. So I’ve got two kit bags now. From there they sent me to London. To a centre. Viceroy Court it was called. It was across the road from the entrance to the London Zoo.
DK: Right.
JW: And the London Zoo Restaurant was requisitioned for the RAF meals there. We were there, I was there for about two, only two, two or three days there. Then I, then they sorted me out and I was off to training at Morpeth.
DK: Right.
JW: Number 4 Gunnery School at Morpeth.
DK: So, at this point it was already, it had already been decided you were training as a gunner then.
JW: Well, when I went, when I was at Padgate we had tests there.
DK: Right.
JW: I got through the written test easy. But when it came to simulation and they give you earphones and they said, ‘We’re going to send a series of Morse signals,’ beep beep and another one beep beep. ‘Now, all you’ve got to do is mark on that sheet there whether they were the same or different.’
DK: Right.
JW: I buggered that one up [laughs] ‘We can’t put you for training for wireless operator because your Morse is not good enough.’ Fair enough. ‘So you’ve got two options. You can either re-muster to an air gunner or you can go home because you’re a volunteer.’
DK: Right.
JW: I hadn’t gone all that way to go home. That was ridiculous.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So I said, ‘Right. I can be an air gunner.’ They said, ‘Righto.’ So off I go to Blackpool with all the other ground staff members to do the initial training which was quite an experience but not something you’d be interested in.
DK: No. Yeah.
JW: It’s not your, I’ll not take your time up. Eventually I went down to Bournemouth as I said and then went up to London. And then I went to Morpeth. Air Gunnery School. It so happened my uncle lived in Morpeth. That was handy [laughs] Anyway, we finished that training.
DK: So, if we just step back a bit. What was your training as a gunner? How did they train gunners?
JW: Well, we had, it was, it was a grass airfield.
DK: Right.
JW: It was a temporary thing there and the aircraft we had there nobody’s ever heard of them. They were called a Blackburn Botha.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It was a swine and in the middle of winter and they, they were started with the, what they called a Coffman cartridge. A cartridge they put in the engine to fire it.
DK: Yeah
JW: And the damn thing wouldn’t start, you know. We had a hell of a bloody time but we got through that all right. And —
DK: So were you actually on, on the aircraft.
JW: Oh yes.
DK: Firing at targets.
JW: Oh yeah. We had target practice.
DK: Right.
JW: We had a Lysander. We were towing a drogue.
DK: Right.
JW: Way back there. And they told you mustn’t touch the guns until that Lysander’s passed. You see, you aim the drogue [laughs] They counted the holes after to see what score you got. So anyway, I got through there quite well apparently. Oh yes. From there along with another, a little cockney chap called George Dillon who we chummed up quite well. He was quite a lad he was. And we, both of us, this is where the strangeness comes in. We were both posted together to 44 Squadron at Waddington but we were given a weekend off. Now, a third chap, he came into this in that he was getting married that weekend. On this weekend leave. He invited us to his wedding. He lived in South London near where George lived. So I said, ‘Oh ok. I’ll come with you.’ I went. We went there. I don’t remember too much about the party. I don’t know. I must have slept, slept in the house there with them. I don’t remember. It was a bit vague. I think, I think I was a bit punch drunk at the time. I was in uniform at the time.
DK: It must have been a good party.
JW: White flash in the. Under training. Anyway, we were both posted to Waddington. We arrived, we got the train up on Monday to Lincoln and, ‘What do we do now? Just a minute.’ So I went to see the station master. ‘Can I use your phone?’ [laughs] Cheeky bugger wasn’t I? I rang the station. ‘I said MT section?’ Oh yes. I said, ‘You’ve got two people here at the station want transport to Waddington.’ ‘Right. We’ll send a truck down for you.’ They sent this little canvas covered 500 weight truck down and we went in there. Now, we got our tapes on now. I was a sergeant now you know. And went to the officer’s err sergeant’s mess. In our innocence and ignorance we both walked in to the sergeant’s mess. It so happened that the station warrant officer whose king on the station. He’s the station commander’s right hand man. He’s a very important man. He was sitting on a chair in the entrance there as we walked in and he bawled us out straight away. ‘Out.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘You don’t go in your sergeant’s mess with your hat on.’ First black [laughs] At any rate, the next morning we were going to see the squadron commander. That’s that chap who was in the daylight raid on [pause] the only daylight raid the Lancasters ever did.
DK: Yeah. Nettleton.
JW: Diesel works. What’s the name of the place?
DK: Yeah. The MAN diesel works.
JW: He got quite famous actually.
DK: Is it Nettleton, wasn’t it?
JW: Nettleton. You’re right. Absolutely. I could never remember his name. Walked into his office and he had his cronies around him there. He had just got the VC. He was as happy in the clouds of course. Walked in. He said, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘New arrivals.’ I said, ‘Yes sir. Could we have some leave please.’ [laughs] That was a thing I should have, ‘We haven’t had any leave since we finished training.’ He said, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ I said, ‘Oh. Oh is that why we’re here.’ He didn’t like me one little bit. Two days later I was posted [laughs] along with George. George, he was with me. We went to Syerston. 61 Squadron. That was a different kettle of fish altogether. Group Captain Walker, Gus Walker, he was the station commander.
DK: Yeah.
JW: He was a splendid chap. He’s what is known as an airman’s officer.
DK: Right.
JW: He’s with the lads. And I was there for a few months. Went there in September and I left there [pause] around about, around about Christmas time to go to Woodhall Spa. But we were wheeled in front of the station commander, Gus Walker. He was a very nice chap. He got off, up from his desk. Walked over to meet us.
DK: That’s nice.
JW: You don’t get that very often.
DK: No.
JW: That’s Gus. That set the scene.
DK: Because he lost an arm later on didn’t he? He was.
JW: I’m coming to that.
DK: Oh right.
JW: I was there.
DK: Oh right. Oh Christ.
JW: Yeah. Yes.
DK: So just stepping back a bit at 44 Squadron you hadn’t flown any operations at this point.
JW: No.
DK: So you’re now at 61.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And is this where your first operations took place?
JW: And I’ll never forget it.
DK: Right. Ok.
JW: It was Munich.
DK: Right.
JW: And I was terrified. Absolutely petrified. You see, try and imagine this you see. I was, I was what was called a spare and it filled any gap in a crew when a chap dropped out for some reason or other.
DK: Oh right. So you weren’t allocated an actual crew at this point.
JW: No.
DK: No.
JW: At any rate I was in the crew room there and my name wasn’t on the list to fly so, fair enough. And this chap came to me, he said, ‘Oh, you’re a spare.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ ‘Well come with us to do a night flying test.’ Oh I don’t mind doing that. So I got my parachute. My parachute and the harness. Went out to the aircraft. We had a little run around Lincoln and that. Lovely. I was getting out the aircraft to get my stuff, he said, ‘I shouldn’t bother taking it out. You’ll be alright for tonight.’ ‘What?’ [laughs] I didn’t know their names. They didn’t know me even. There we are. I’m a stranger sitting there all on my own. My first op. And as far as I was concerned every, every ack-ack gun in Germany was stationed at Munich and firing at me personally. It was murder.
DK: And your position then is as the mid-upper gunner.
JW: Yeah. I did have a spell in the rear turret. I didn’t like it in the rear turret.
DK: No. So as a mid-upper gunner then, just for the tape, what, what’s your actual role there? Are you sort of a spare pair of eyes? Are you there making sure that everything was safe and ok? Looking out for dangers.
JW: Yeah. Well I suppose you could say, as it happened, only because it’s happened that way all I was, was an observer. I didn’t fired a bullet. In forty five operations I never fired a bullet. I never saw a German fighter. I never saw anybody. It’s pitch dark up there you know.
DK: Yeah.
JW: You know, you know. Your only enemy was your fatigue and the thing was trying to keep awake. It was terrible trying to keep awake and I evolved a method where I would count shooting stars. You’d be surprised how many shooting stars you get.
DK: Right.
JW: I used to count them and that kept me awake. Oh dear me. We had a flask of coffee along with our pack there we picked up in the sergeant’s mess. And one night, I remember true as I sit here, it was winter. That was bloody cold. Forty degrees below zero and a bit draughty too. Although I was in a Perspex bowl like thing where the joins are the wind finds it, finds a crack.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And you get this pfft on the back of your neck. It’s not pleasant. Pretty hard. Anyway, I got this flask. We were coming back actually by tradition nobody opened that flask until we were on the way back. I don’t know why. It was one of those things. Took this out, put the cup down like that, got the cork out, picked up the cup, went to pour it out. In that short time it had frozen solid in the flask.
DK: Oh.
JW: Hard to believe isn’t it?
DK: Yeah. That’s how cold it was.
JW: By the same token we were eventually issued with a new flying suit called a [pause] I forget what it was called. It was a Kapot lining and electric wiring all through it and it had a plug on the end. And you plugged it in to a socket in the turret so you’d got electric, heating. Luxury. Oh it was wonderful.
DK: I’ve heard different things about those. Sometimes they didn’t work and sometimes you got too hot.
JW: Ah, you’re right.
DK: Couldn’t get them just right.
JW: Well, course you put that on before you went out to the aircraft.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Now this would cover the whole of your body and at the bottom, on the heel, there were two press studs and you had a slipper that was also electrically heated and it plugged in. Ok. Just the heel there. Now, when you’re walking, you know, you move. You move your heel don’t you?
DK: Yeah.
JW: I found that out afterwards of course. What had happened was by walking with it, it had disturbed the wiring.
DK: Right.
JW: I don’t mean broke it. It shorted out anyway.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And it started burning my heel. I mean, I couldn’t stand that so I had to switch it off. And when I switched it off I froze.
DK: Oh dear.
JW: It wasn’t a pleasant night [laughs]
DK: So at 97 then, can you remember how many operations you did from there?
JW: With 97?
DK: For example.
JW: Well, including the Woodhall Spa one.
DK: Although, oh have I jumped ahead. Hang on. Oh 61 sorry. How many operations did you do at 61? At Syerston.
JW: Oh about six.
DK: Six.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And you were going to mention about Gus and losing his arm.
JW: I did a few more at Woodhall Spa before I joined the crew.
DK: Right.
JW: I was in a crew room one day like you normally do. I hadn’t got a crew. I hadn’t got a job. I was just joined the mob there.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And this flying officer walked up to me. I recognised his name because his name got around. He was on his second tour. He’d already done thirty and got the DFM.
DK: Yeah. Can you remember his name just for the —
JW: Yes. The name Fletcher.
DK: Fletcher.
JW: Bob Fletcher.
DK: Bob Fletcher.
JW: Robert Fletcher. Bob Fletcher.
DK: Right.
JW: He was a brilliant pilot. He really was. He was greatly underrated by the, by the authorities. He should have, he should have made quite advanced steps. He should have done. He was brilliant.
DK: So he, that was your first crew then was it?
JW: My first crew.
DK: You were no longer an extra bod.
JW: Yeah.
DK: Right.
JW: He came over to me and said, ‘I’m forming up a crew here. Would you like, would you like to join me?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, I would.’ With a reputation like he’s got. Dead cert. Ok. But it happens you see I was, once they had to do thirty and I was already one, one ahead of them by doing these other trips you see.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: Not that that mattered at the time. And then one day the squadron commander came into the crew room and said, ‘You chaps are all volunteers for Pathfinders.’ Oh thank you. So off we went to Cambridge. There’s a story about that. But if you want that I’ll give it to you but it’s nothing to do with flying.
DK: Can I, can I just go back one bit.
JW: Yes.
DK: At, I don’t know, I made a note of this. Where were we? [pause] It was at 61. You were at Syerston weren’t you?
JW: Syerston.
DK: And you mentioned about Gus Walker. His accident.
JW: Yes.
DK: And you said you were actually there when he —
JW: Yeah.
DK: What can you just tell us about that?
JW: Oh yes. I was going to tell you about that wasn’t I? I was there at the time. That’s right. Actually I was on leave when it actually happened but I got the full story first hand.
DK: Right.
JW: What happened was — bombing up the aircraft there was a slight hitch. One of the bombs fell off on to the ground. It burst into flames because it was one of those. It was an incendiary. And the word was sent to the flying control tower saying that there were no, there are no explosives on the aircraft. They said, ‘Incendiary.’ So the fire brigade went out there and that sort of thing. And it happened that Gus Walker was up in the tower at the time. The news came through. Straight away he said, ‘They’ve made a mistake. There is explosives on the aircraft.’ He dived down and got in his staff car and tore down to the aircraft and pulling the chaps out, ‘Get out, get out, get out of the way,’ he said, ‘It’s going to go off.’ And it did go off. And that’s when he lost his arm. Now, he went to hospital of course. At Nottingham. And a number of the ground staff were also badly injured. Some were killed, some were injured. They went into another ward of course. Now, the officer’s mess got together and funded a huge basket of fruit and things like that and sent it to him. When he, when he got to the hospital he said, ‘No.’ he said, ‘Take that down to the ward to the airmen.’ He is an airman’s officer. He was.
DK: Yeah.
JW: He was a great chap.
DK: Yeah. So you’ve, you’ve then gone to Woodhall Spa. After Syerston was it Woodhall Spa did you say?
JW: Yeah.
DK: And that’s where you met Bob Fletcher.
JW: That’s right.
DK: And so how many operations did you do with Bob and the crew there?
JW: I must check. I’ll look that up.
DK: Ok.
JW: Won’t take a minute.
DK: No worries.
[recording paused]
JW: Let’s see. Where are we? 97 Squadron. Woodhall Spa.
DK: Ok.
JW: One, two, three, four, five, six. No, that wasn’t. No. Five.
DK: Five.
JW: That, that was at Bourn. The last trip I did at Woodhall Spa was to Spezia.
DK: Right.
JW: That was ten and a quarter hours.
DK: Oh. That’s a long time.
JW: Now, I’m going to tell you a story now. Are you ready for this one?
DK: Yeah. Go on then.
JW: Well, this was a long stretch to Spezia. It’s about half way down the west coast of Italy. It was an important submarine base at that time and we were tasked to go down there at the request of the Navy. Obviously, because of the submarine menace.
DK: Can I just close the window because there’s some sound coming?
JW: Of course.
DK: Through there. It might be affecting the, the old recording a bit.
DK: Just that there’s some sound coming through. Sorry.
JW: That’s alright.
DK: You were on your way to Italy.
JW: Yes. We got half way across the alps. In fact I remember seeing Mont Blanc in the distance. Over there. It was still, we were above it so we were alright. And doing my usual searches like what my job was, it was a clear night and I saw this stream coming out of one of the engines there. What the hell is that? So I reported it. I said, ‘This is peculiar.’ There was a pregnant pause then and the engineer, the engineer Joe, he was brilliant too. We were all brilliant. Anyway, he came through to us, ‘I’m sorry lads. I’m sorry. I’ve made a mistake.’ He was then doing his usual converting the [pause] not converting [pause] moving fuel from the outer.
DK: Changing.
JW: To the empty inner.
DK: Right.
JW: Had been used up.
DK: Right.
JW: Unfortunately he picked the wrong one and the one he was putting it in was already full. So the petrol he was pumping in to it was just going straight out the overflow. And that’s what I could see. This stream. All this stream down there.
DK: So it was petrol.
JW: We lost about two hundred gallons of fuel.
DK: Oh no.
JW: Which we could ill afford to lose on a trip to Spezia.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So it was, there was a little bit of, up in the front in what we called the office while they were working out what they’re going to do. And Bob said, Bob made the decision of course, as he should do being the pilot. Carry on. We’ll take our chances. Now, the rest of us knew that we were going to come down in the drink somewhere. We hadn’t got enough to get back home. We came back over the Bay of Biscay actually. We did our job. We bombed the bloody place. Coming back, and old Joe as an engineer he was absolutely brilliant. He was. He was good. A lot older than the rest of us. He was like a grandfather to us. Joe. I can’t think of his other name. Oh wait a minute. I’ve got it here. [pause] He’s not on here. That’s funny. That’s very strange.
DK: There’s some names on the back there. He’s not, not there is he?
JW: Ah.
DK: As the —
JW: No. This is a different crew.
DK: Oh.
JW: I was flying with a different crew there. No. No. I thought he was bound to be on there. No. I’m afraid I don’t remember his name now. I’ve got it somewhere.
DK: Yeah.
JW: But I can’t put my finger on it at the moment. No. Sorry, I can’t help with that.
DK: No. But he was a good flight engineer then was he?
JW: Flight engineer.
DK: Yeah.
JW: But he’d be dead by now. I mean —
DK: Yeah.
JW: I’m ninety four so, and I was only a kid to him. Time has taken its toll. That’s the original logbook.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Which is a disgrace so I copied it into another one.
DK: Ah.
JW: This is cleaned up, this is. I cleaned it up. Oh that’s old Bennett.
DK: Yes. So just going back to your trip to Italy. You’ve lost two hundred gallons.
JW: Yeah.
DK: You’ve obviously made it back to the UK.
JW: We did.
DK: You did. So —
JW: Without getting our feet wet.
DK: Yeah. So that was really down to the flight engineer then. Managing.
JW: Oh absolutely.
DK: Managing the petrol.
JW: He was brilliant.
DK: Down to the last.
JW: How the hell he managed to. He must have been, he must have been feeding petrol vapour into the engines.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I don’t know. He was very good. He saved us all. But that’s our crew you see. We were like that.
DK: So, from, so you’re with 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa and then you said you’d then gone to the Pathfinders.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And you were basically told to go there. You were just ordered there. So no, no volunteering or anything.
JW: That’s right. Yeah.
DK: And you’d gone to Bourn at that point.
JW: Well, yes. The mathematics is a bit hard to explain really but as we were getting towards the end of my time — oh yes. I forgot to mention this. One of the concessions we had in Pathfinder force was we were allowed to count each trip as two . So a full tour would be fifteen and not thirty.
DK: Right.
JW: That saved my life didn’t it? And that’s how I came to finish early.
DK: So you did forty five operations altogether.
JW: Forty five.
DK: Forty five. Yeah.
JW: Yeah. Yeah.
DK: And were you with the same pilot? Fletcher. At Bourn.
JW: Oh yes.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Bob Fletcher. Yeah I picked him up. I’ve got it in here somewhere. I picked him up actually — let’s see now. A lot of rubbish in here. Flying officer. He was a flying officer at the time. Here we are. Oh yes. I had three trips with a crew but they had just about finished. They had, they had done twenty seven. They needed three more to do.
DK: Right.
JW: They did the three and they finished. So once again I was back in the pool.
DK: Right.
JW: Lennox was his name.
DK: And that was 97 again was it?
JW: Yeah. So I picked up Bob Fletcher. The first trip with him was St Nazaire. That was the target.
DK: Have you got a date for that?
JW: On the 2nd of April 1943.
DK: Right.
JW: Yeah. We dropped, we dropped eleven one thousand pound bombs. Eleven. Oh well, that’s what it says there. Who am I to argue? Yeah. And thereafter we were in, in the thick of it with all the others. Bob, quite rightly got promoted to flight lieutenant around about [ pause] let’s have a look. God, they took a long time promoting him didn’t they? He should have got it. Well I’m blowed. I never knew it took that long.
DK: That long. Longer than you thought.
JW: He’s still flying officer.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Yeah. He’s still flying officer. Well I’m blowed. Yeah. I don’t understand this.
DK: It’s a bit later on than you thought.
JW: Unless I missed it. Ah I’ve got it. The first time he flew as a flight lieutenant was the 27th of August ’43.
DK: Right.
JW: That’s right. And the target was Nuremberg. We dropped one four thousand pound bomb, three one thousand pound bombs and five target indicator marks. Markers. A little story about that really. PFF wasn’t the original title promoted. When [pause] who was promoting it? I think Sir Arthur Harris. That’s right. Or was it? No. it was Churchill I think. Churchill promoted the idea. Sir Arthur was against it because he didn’t want to have an elite corps. He said, ‘No. They’re all good. It’s not right.’ But he did give in and they formed the new group called 8 Group. And then the controversy got worse when Donald whats-his-name.
DK: Bennet.
JW: Yeah. He was a brilliant navigator. He had it in his fingertips there. And the Air Ministry promoted him above all the other air marshalls. Made him an air vice marshall in one leap like that and it upset the apple cart quite a bit you know. He wasn’t popular by any means. They all, they all admit he was brilliant. He was very clever. But they couldn’t get along with him at all.
DK: No. No.
JW: But that’s how the story goes. A bit beyond me of course.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Yeah.
DK: As, in the Pathfinder force then what was the, just for this really, what was the sort of role of the Pathfinders as opposed to the main force? What did they —
JW: Ah yes. Yeah. Well the evolution of this was quite interesting. They, the original title was Target Finding Force. They didn’t like that. They said, ‘No. No. The others are just as good. So then they accepted they marked the route to get there.
DK: Right.
JW: Which was just as important as actually getting, I mean if you could find the place in the first place, you know. So it was named Pathfinder force. We were doing the course out. We dropped the markers along like.
DK: Right.
JW: And it was arranged by careful timing that the whole of the force doing target finding, there was our squadron and 35 squadron at Graveley and there was another squadron at Wyton who timed. Each aircraft had a specific time to be there.
DK: Right.
JW: So that he dropped his target and it burned for a few minutes but it’s going to go out. So the next one that comes along he tops it up.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So that. Very clever.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It worked.
DK: Did your aircraft then act as an initial marker? Or were you backing up or dropping the flares along the route?
JW: Well, we were all backers up really.
DK: Right.
JW: I suppose. But I mean it varied. It depended on the plans. The plans were all worked out at headquarters.
DK: Right.
JW: We were just given the orders you see.
DK: Right.
JW: We didn’t actually have to find the target. We didn’t need to look far. You could see the bloody thing there. I mean, the Mosquitoes in Pathfinder force, they were using a new secret arrangement called Oboe. Two transmitting stations sent out a beam like that. Right. Ok. And the aircraft followed it in. If they veered too much to one side they got a beep. And another one. They kept on track there. And then they gave a signal. This one here would be to keep them on track. This one here would tell him when to drop the bombs.
DK: Right.
JW: And it was extremely successful but of course they’re just flares went down. Parachute flares. Things like that. Then the rest would come along in an orderly way as far as we could make it. Just kept it going. In fact quite often when we, when we arrived there they’d been bombing for the last half hour. I mean it was well ablaze you know. There it is. But then of course the defences were alerted by that time. Oh dear it would get hot some times. Bloody Hell it did.
DK: So you never got attacked by a fighter then at any time.
JW: No.
DK: But was your aircraft hit by flak?
JW: I would have welcomed one because I was so bloody bored sitting there.
DK: Was your aircraft hit by flak at all on occasion?
JW: We got away with it.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It was bloody amazing how we got away with it but we did until that last trip when I wasn’t on it.
DK: And was that Fletcher’s crew that went?
JW: It’s, it’s an incredible story really when you think about it. When you leave here and you’re going home think about it.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I mean, the chances of that happening were so remote. I shall never forget it of course. Where are we now?
DK: Where are we now? That’s straightforward. So —
JW: Do you want some amusing stories now do you?
DK: Just one other question before we move on.
JW: Yes. Go ahead.
DK: It’s as you’ve landed and you’ve come back and the operations finished. How did you feel as you landed on the way back?
JW: How did we feel? We were bloody pleased. I’ll tell you one thing to correct. There’s a very good film. Commercial film. What’s it called? “Night Bombers,” I think it’s called.
DK: Oh yes. Yes. Yes.
JW: And at the end, at the tail end of that film the crew landed and they’re getting out of the aircraft and the voiceover said the first thing they do is to light up a cigarette.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Balls. The first thing you did was go down to the back end of the aircraft and pee up against the tail wheel. You’ve had nine hours without going to the [laughs] I don’t know if anybody’s ever told you this but there is a chemical toilet, elsan toilet.
DK: Elsan.
JW: In the aircraft.
DK: Yeah. Yeah. You never used that then?
JW: Of course not. It’s bloody silly. Can you imagine? There we are. Pitch dark. We had to have our oxygen mask on. Full clothing on.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Fumbling around trying to get — oh it’s ridiculous. They even had a separate can of fluid to top it up, there was.
DK: No.
JW: And after the war when they used the Lancasters to take the ground crew out to, on a sightseeing] to see what we’d done during the war.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Including taking the WAAFs as well. Because the WAAFs were there they put a screen around the [knocking on door] Come in. [pause] They put a screen around the toilet.
Other: Sorry to disturb you. Are you keeping an eye on the time?
DK: Oh. Alright we’ll come down. Ok.
Other: No problem. See you in a few minutes.
JW: I’ve told them to come. You’re having lunch.
DK: Yeah. Oh excellent. Oh great.
JW: I’ve forgotten what it is. Mine is pork bake. I don’t know what the bake is but I know what the pork is. I don’t know what the bake is though. And what’s the other one? I’ve taken the one anyway.
DK: Yeah. Ok. Shall, shall we pause there then?
[recording paused]
DK: I’ll tell you why. Because that was going to be my next, next question really was —
JW: Yes ok. You go ahead. Fire away.
DK: How you look back on that now and what do you miss about that period?
JW: Yeah. Well it’s, it’s very difficult to answer because it’s, there are so many aspects involved you see. I had two [pause] three, three separate careers really. First of all aircrew which was one life. Then when I finished, when they took me off aircrew I was on Training Command. That’s another life. And then eventually I was made redundant from supply because they were running down. And, being interviewed by a squadron leader I was, I don’t know if it’s got it on there but I was sent to an RAF station. We didn’t have any aircraft. What was the name? Somewhere in Leicestershire. Oh God what was the name of it?
DK: Bruntingthorpe.
JW: That’s it.
DK: Yeah.
JW: That’s where the jet engine was developed.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: That’s right. I was sent there as another holding unit and in the interview he said, ‘What skills have you got?’ I said, ‘Nothing really. I never got around to doing skills.’ So he said what is your hobbies and things?’ I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m very keen on, on the railway organisation.’ He said, ‘Are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I’ve got a copy of the Bradshaws timetable. The old original one.’ You know, a big one like this. The chaps knew I had this and if they had wanted to go somewhere they used to come to me and say, ‘Would you plot the route for me?’ And I used to go through it. It is a work of art going through that book. It was.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And later LNER, LMS, Great Western.
DK: Yeah.
JW: That sort of thing, you know. He said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Well look, I’ll tell you what. I’m going down to London this weekend and I’ll pop into the Air Ministry and speak to the Movements chaps there and see if they can find you a slot.’ Now, I took that with a pinch of salt. I mean how am I going to? How shall I be that lucky? So, I said, ‘All right.’ And nothing happened for about a month and then I was called forward, out again. The chap said I’d got to report to the order room. I went, ‘Alright.’ And he said, ‘You’re posted to Euston Station.’ ‘To Euston?’ ‘Yeah.’ He gave me all the documents and off I went. Got to Euston station there and I asked to speak to the chap in charge. He didn’t know anything about this posting at all. He said, ‘I don’t know anything about it, at all. Maybe it’s our admin people over the road. I did. They didn’t know anything either so they rang up the movers in the Air Ministry. They said, ‘We’ve got this guy here,’ and I heard one side of the conversation. They must have said, ‘What’s he like?’ He said, ‘Oh, he looks alright.’ Oh thank you. They said, ‘Right, tell him, tell him to go to Victoria station. Report to flight lieutenant,’ what was his name, Orange. ‘Flight Lieutenant Orange.’ Ok. I went there and he was a nice chap. He was auxiliary.
DK: Right.
JW: Not in the full RAF.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And he had a lot of experience just lately of young officers, young aircrew officers no more use for them.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Because they were running down and they went there and just sort of abused the situation. Did nothing, you know. Sort of went off and things like that. And he said and he was quite amazed when I asked him, ‘Can I do this?’ Can I do the other? I said, ‘I’d better go and see the station master, hadn’t I?’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s normal isn’t it?’ I was treating it as an RAF station. I went to see him. I wish I could remember his name. He was a typical, typical station manager. Pin striped trousers.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Bowler hat and [laughs] and we got on famously because we were chatting about things a bit, you know. At any rate a few days later I met him on the forecourt. I was wandering around. I did a lot of wandering around picking up information you know.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: He said, ‘I’m coming down. I’m going to see off the Golden Arrow,’ he said, as his job, a Prestige. Two. There were two Prestige trains in Victoria. One was the Golden Arrow. It went to Dover and then across to Paris. And the other one was the night sleeper. It went and left about 7 o’clock and the whole train was shipped across.
DK: Right.
JW: It was. So you, and it was all first class, Pullman and that.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Now both trains because they were Prestige trains he thought it was his business to go and see them off and he took me along with him. And I thought that was lovely. A very nice gesture. I enjoyed that. He said, ‘What are you doing here any rate at 7 o’clock in the evening?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing better to do.’ He said, ok. ‘Cause I, I was living with my family. My mother’s family.
DK: Yeah.
JW: At Enfield which is about twelve miles north of London. Yeah. There was nothing for me to do. So he said, ‘That’s great,’ and we got talking about things. One thing and another. We got along famously and then one day I do my usual walking over the concourse there and there was a hell of a bloody great queue to get tickets from the ticket office there and I spotted an RAF uniform in there. He had a collar on. A white collar on. I thought I’d better have a look at this. So I went across, and I said, ‘Excuse me sir.’ And I introduced myself. I had a red armband on you know. ‘Can I help you?’ He said, ‘Well I think you can,’ he said, ‘I’m the chaplain to the senior chaplain of the RAF and he’s going on a, he wants to go on a tour of Europe to visit all the RAF stations in the occupation zone.’ The occupation days that was you see.
DK: Yeah.
JW: He said, I’ve got, I’ve, got to get, ‘I’ve got to get — he sent me to do all the bookings. Get all the tickets and that sort of thing,’ he said. I said, ‘Well you’re in the wrong bloody queue aren’t you at any rate? That’s for inland routes. Come with me.’ I took him around to the other station where the continental booking office was. I don’t know if you remember this in Victoria. They had two different booking offices.
DK: I do actually. Yes. Yes.
JW: Yeah.
DK: Yes.
JW: Well we were in the original one. Our office. RTO’s office. And they had been moved to the back of the refreshment bar there at the end of the concourse. And I took him around the back, knocked on the door and who should open the door but this ex-ATS girl who was on the staff with us there. And she got a job with the railway in the booking office. That was jolly nice. And we had a little chat and I said, ‘Look I’ve got a padre here who wants this, that and the other,’ I said, ‘Can I leave him with you?’ She said, ‘Oh leave him with me.’ So he left and I walked on. Some little while later. I think a month later or something, I think I had a call from this, his name was Dagger, Reverend Dagger.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: And he said, he wanted to thank me very much. ‘You saved my bacon,’ or whatever he was saying. He said, ‘It all went swimmingly. That girl was wonderful. She knew her onions. She knew her railways anyway.’ She fixed him up with everything. The lot. He went off with a bundle and off he went. The chief had a lovely tour around there and that was that. That was fine. A good job. A good job I had done. It had its ramifications later on. I’d met my wife in the meantime in Jersey.
DK: Yeah.
JW: At the West Park Pavilion dance place there. It so happened by sheer coincidence she, my wife had previously been in hospital with some fever. What’s it called?
DK: Scarlet fever or, scarlet fever.
JW: You’re right. Scarlet fever. And she recovered now but her aunt lived in Jersey with her husband who was a Jersey man. And she invited her, my wife, to go over to stay with them a little while to recuperate.
DK: Yeah.
JW: So they set off. Her, her younger brother Derek who was a tall chap.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And her best girlfriend across the road. Audrey. The three of them. How the hell they managed to go through all the rigmarole of travel to get to Jersey but they did it. And any rate the first night I was there I’d been over, I went over previously in February just to have a look at the place. And I was very pleased with what I saw and I thought this is a place for a holiday. Soon as I got back I had a chat to my roommate there. He was an army officer. I said, ‘We ought to go and have a holiday there you know.’ He said, ‘Right.’ So we arranged to have our leave at the same time. I took him down to Paddington. There’s another route from Paddington to Weymouth.
DK: Yeah.
JW: We went that way.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Took him there. I said, ‘Do you know, I’m going to take you to the Palais,’ because servicemen always do that. The way you meet girls was at dances, you know. And I took him along there. When we got there it was, we were a bit early and the band was just coming on with their instruments and things and there was hardly anybody there. But I noticed at the far end, up that end there were three people sitting there. Two girls and a chap. I thought, as all servicemen do, look around for what they called an available bit, you know [laughs] And I thought she’s nice. I like that. So as soon as the band got themselves together and struck up for the first dance I walked across in uniform. The full, the full regalia. And I remember clearly for the first time in my life I was full of confidence. I don’t know how it happened. I felt, it was the uniform I think. I always felt good in uniform. I strode across with all the confidence in the world. ‘May I have this dance please.’ She said, ‘Oh yes.’ Got on the floor and she was light as anything. She was a beautiful dancer. I thought, you know, I can’t, I’ve got to say something. You’ve got to have a conversation haven’t you when you’re dancing?
DK: Yeah.
JW: So I said to her the usual thing, ‘Are you a local girl?’ ‘Oh No. No. No. I’m here on a holiday.’ ‘Oh, are you? Where are you from?’ She said, ‘Nottingham.’ ‘Oh, that’s my favourite city.’ And it was.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I loved it. I was telling the truth, I loved it because I was at Syerston you remember. That was their watering hole.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Nottingham. And I said look I’ve got my mate down the bottom there and we’ve got a jug of claret cup which is what they do there. Instead of having drinks they give you a big glass jug and they mix it up. Half of it is claret and half is lemonade.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Top it up.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And they serve it up with glasses there and you just help yourself when you want it. Not a bad idea. I said, ‘We’ve got a claret cup already.’ I said, ‘Can I ask you who are those people? Who is that chap?’ ‘That’s my brother.’ Oh that was, I’ve heard that before. Anyway, I said, ‘Well come down and join us.’ She brought them down shared a nice little foursome there, you know. It was quite jolly. A nice evening. And we all disappeared and afterwards and I saw her home. St Aubin. She lived in St Aubin, that’s right. Up there. I made a date for the following day and she turned up at the weighbridge there and I didn’t, I hadn’t planned anything. It was unusual. I’m a great planner and I hadn’t. I don’t know why. Anyway I said, ‘Let’s get on a bus and have a ride,’ So we got on a bus, took her back to where she was at St Aubin. We got on another there took us down to a little bay which I’d discovered. There was a big bay called St Ouen’s. Huge thing. And the island’s prestige hotel called L’Horizon. The Horizon. L’Horizon it was called.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It was a good five star hotel. Very good. Very top class you know. Now, as that bay goes around when it gets to this side here instead of going around there it ended in another little bay called Ouaisne. And we had a bus. Went from St Aubin to this place. We went down there and sat on the sand there. Had a little cuddle. Sat reading and things like that and on the point as this little bay went around the corner there was no beach but there was a whole pile of rocks been worn smooth by the water over the years. And I loved walking over them, climbing over them, you know. So I had a little walk around, came back and said, ‘Its nice around there you know. Do you want to have a look?’ And she’s a game girl. She always was. She came with me. We were climbing over these rocks. We found a little spot there. There was one big shiny smooth slab there slightly inclined. Well that’s just the job isn’t it? So we got on there and had a cuddle on there and spent the whole afternoon there. And I took her to the back as the tide was coming in. We just got around the corner before the tide cut us off actually and got on the bus back in. And I made a date for the next day. This went on for a fortnight.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Every afternoon bar one I took her out. We were getting thicker and thicker and thicker you know. She was lovely. And very, well the only way I can explain is it was compatible if you know what I mean.
DK: Yes.
JW: I felt at home and at ease.
DK: At ease. Yeah. That’s important though anyway.
JW: Yeah.
DK: Feeling at ease.
JW: Going back to the bus at weighbridge and she sat there and I sat here and I was getting very embarrassed because she kept looking around and gazing at me all the time. I’m not used to this. Then we got talking. I asked her how old she was. She said she was sixteen. Oh my God. I’m cradle snatching.
DK: So how old were you at the time then?
JW: I was twenty five at the time.
DK: Oh ok.
JW: A bit too old for a sixteen year old. And she was messing up. She was pulling my leg. She wasn’t. She was twenty actually.
DK: Oh that’s ok then.
JW: Yeah. But it made my heart sink you know. Particularly with this gazing at me all the time. I thought oh bloody hell. I’m not used to this. Anyway, we got around that alright. Then we got settled in very nicely. Now, when it came to the end of the holiday she had to go back because she was booked to go back on the boat on the, on the Saturday. Butch and I were going back on Sunday. The day after. So I had my last afternoon with her on the Friday before. Instead of catching the bus back I said, ‘Let’s walk around the point and have a look around there.’ We walked around the point. We found another little bay, a little bay there and there was a little island there all on its own with trees and everything on it. I said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. This is lovely.’ I said, ‘I’ve got the urge to swim in the skinny.’ So I took my things off. I said, ‘Are you coming?’ She said, ‘No. No. I’ll stay here and read.’ I said, ‘Ok.’ So I went in and I was swimming around. Lovely. And I came out. The sun was shining and I was warming up. She was laying there and I laid down beside her. Now the rest of it is a bit personal.
DK: Say no more.
JW: Except to say that we only cuddled. Nothing else.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Absolutely.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I don’t know what got over me that times.
[recording paused]
DK: So its back on again. It’s been off. Don’t worry.
JW: Well, he successfully baled out.
DK: So if I could just recap there. So Wally Layne was the wireless operator.
JW: That’s right.
DK: And —
JW: He was a warrant officer at the time.
DK: He was a warrant officer.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And he baled out.
JW: Right. Well he survived the parachute jump alright and he started what they call evading. It was our duty to evade if you could and he spent a week. All he had was the escape kit that we were all issued with.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It had things like a tube of condensed milk, some chewing gum. Bits. And vitamin tablets. Things like that to help us. And what he could pick up on the way wasn’t very much. I think he said turnips he managed to get hold of. Anyway, after a week he was so weakened by this that he decided he’d had enough. He was a prisoner of war. He staggered out in to the street and fell in to the arms of the first person he could find who happened to be a policeman. The policeman invited him to the hospitality of a prisoner of war camp. And when he got to the prisoner of war camp he got to the gate going in, from what he was telling me, he got to the camp and the first person he saw there was our previous navigator who’d been shot down in another plane. They laughed their bloody heads off [laughs]
DK: So can I ask who survived the shooting down then? The wireless operator, Wally and the pilot?
JW: Yeah.
DK: Fletcher. And there was two others who survived the —
JW: The bomb aimer.
DK: The bomb aimer.
JW: That’s that chap.
DK: Yeah. Can you remember his name?
JW: Jack [pause] bloody hell.
DK: I think we’ve got it.
JW: I think it’s somewhere on there.
DK: I think we’ve got it on there. The bomb aimer. Because he’s the one on the photo.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And who else survived?
JW: Yeah. I can’t think.
DK: So the wireless operator, pilot.
JW: And the engineer.
DK: And the flight engineer.
JW: That was Joe. And I can’t think of his surname.
DK: Joe. Right.
JW: Joe. The older chap. He was like the father to us. We were all a lot younger than him.
DK: So the rear gunner, the mid-upper gunner.
JW: The rear gunner was killed instantly. The mid-upper gunner who was the chap who took my place, he was killed instantly.
DK: Can you remember the name of the rear gunner?
JW: And our replacement navigator. He was killed also. That just left the four of them.
DK: Right. So the rear gunner, mid upper gunner and the navigator were killed.
JW: And the navigator.
DK: Yeah. Can you remember the name of the rear gunner?
JW: Yeah. Harry Page.
DK: Harry Page. And the navigator. What’s his name? It doesn’t matter.
JW: He wasn’t with us. He wasn’t one of the original crew. He was a replacement.
DK: Right.
JW: Our proper navigator had been taken away from us and put into another crew. Took one particular operation and was shot down. So we lost him.
DK: Right.
JW: So they gave us a new navigator. I should know that name. I’ve got it somewhere.
DK: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. And I notice you were at Kinloss in October, November ’43. Is that when the plane crashed with the cadets on board?
JW: Yeah.
DK: So, we didn’t actually record that unfortunately. You couldn’t tell the story again could you? So you’re on a Armstrong, was it a Whitley?
JW: Yeah.
DK: A Whitley.
JW: Armstrong Whitley. That’s it.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Terrible plane. Oh terrible. Used to fly like that [laughs] In point of fact it was so bloody slow and underpowered.
DK: Yeah.
JW: That as I said that runway went out to sea. If we’d got an inshore wind like this the chap up here would do this for a lark, he’d put the throttle right back. Almost stall. And he would hover like that. The wind [laughs] Oh no.
DK: So how many, how many air cadets were on board? How many air cadets were on board at the time?
JW: Oh I don’t know. It was all shrouded in memory. I can’t remember. I’m guessing. I think there was some female cadets. Did they have female cadets?
DK: Probably didn’t.
JW: There must have been. But I don’t remember. I should say about four. Four or five.
DK: And you came down in the sea there.
JW: In the sea.
DK: Yeah
JW: Yeah. Landed in the sea. Wheels up. As I say the water was only four feet deep.
DK: So the dinghy came out by itself then.
JW: The dinghy came out on its own. We grabbed the dinghy, put all the kids in and pushed it ashore [laughs] When I think about it was bloody funny you know. It wasn’t very funny at the time but there we are. Oh dear me. It’s a story that nobody believes of course. Oh dear. Although, It’s funny enough though a few years back I took my son up to Scotland as I told you. And one of the, one of the reasons was that I’d made arrangements to take him to Kinloss to see the airfield here I flew from.
DK: Right.
JW: And we got off the train at Forres . The station at Kinloss had been closed. RAF Kinloss had its own railway station on this line. This was the main line from Inverness to Aberdeen.
DK: Yeah.
JW: We used to have a little station there called Kinloss and there was a footpath we used to walk across, over the fence and we were in the airfield. It was very handy. Getting back late, you know [laughs] At any rate where was I? Oh yeah. Kinloss. I forget. I’ve lost my trend. Jack Beesley, that was the chap’s name. Beesley. Jack Beesley.
DK: And he was the —
JW: Got it?
DK: He was the —
JW: He was the bomb aimer.
DK: He was the bomb aimer and he survived.
JW: Yes.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Yeah. He did.
DK: So, after the war then, did you stay in touch with any of the four surviving crew at all?
JW: Sorry?
DK: Did you, did you stay in touch with the, with your crew after the war?
JW: No.
DK: No.
JW: Because we went our ways. We were all over the place. Joe came somewhere up near Bolton. Somewhere like that. And another one came from Birmingham. Who was that? [pause] Harry Page came from Bristol.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Wally Layne, Grantham. Bob Fletcher, he was at Burton on Trent. He was at Burton on Trent. Who have I missed?
DK: Wally, Bob.
JW: I came, I came from Enfield, Middlesex. That’s a touch, I’ve got a touch of Cockney in me you know [laughs] I spent most, a lot of my pre, nearly all my pre-RAF days working in London. At the headquarters there of the Co-op.
DK: Right.
JW: The London Headquarters.
DK: Yeah.
JW: In Leman Street.
DK: Yeah.
JW: East 1.
DK: Just, just looking at your operations here I notice you’ve got “Target award.” Is that because you were the most on target or — ?
JW: Recall is it?
DK: Target award.
JW: Oh target award. Oh yes. I’ll show you that.
DK: Oh right. Ok.
JW: Are they in this? Are they in this book or are they in that book?
DK: So you got one of those for Milan, Nuremberg.
JW: That’s quite true. Yeah.
DK: Spezia, Italy.
JW: But not with Bob Fletcher. It was other crews.
DK: Right. Because that was, they were with 97 Squadron.
JW: Yeah. Let’s see what I’ve got here. I’ve got all rubbish here, haven’t I?
DK: Oh that’s a Nuremberg one.
JW: There’s another one.
DK: Right. So —
JW: Do you want another one?
DK: So that’s the target award for Spezia on the 13th and 14th of April 1943.
JW: Yeah. Some things are repeated, of course. I don’t know. Some —
DK: This one then. That’s Fletcher. That’s with the Fletcher crew.
JW: Yeah.
DK: Yeah. So then Milan 14th to 15th of Feb 1943 — target award. And Nuremberg 25th of the 2nd 1943. So the pilot then was Lennox.
JW: Lennox, that’s it. I flew.
DK: Yeah.
JW: The three trips I did with him. His last three before he finished his thirty ops.
DK: So these target awards then were, were they they based on how close you got to the target?
JW: Photographs.
DK: Photographs.
JW: When you dropped your bombs, when they dropped the bombs though they also dropped a flare chute.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Not a chute, a flare thing, you know which is due, which is timed to detonate at a certain level. And as it detonated it lit up the target and it showed where you drop the bomb.
DK: Right.
JW: But it’s a bit hard to get that really because you’d got cloud to think of and all sorts of things to think about. So, it wasn’t, it wasn’t all that easy. We weren’t, we weren’t conscious of it of course at the time.
DK: So just for the recording here the Spezia one on the 13th and 14th of April.
JW: Yeah.
DK: The pilot’s Fletcher and you get Sergeant Mason, Flight Sergeant Robertson, Flight Sergeant that would be Wally Layne. Sergeant White, yourself. Pilot officer Bale and the Sub Lieutenant Lett. Was he Royal Navy then?
JW: [pause] Yeah. [pause] Ok. Shall I put them back in the —
DK: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. Yeah.
JW: This you might be interested in. Look at it that way.
DK: There you go.
JW: That’s a bomb. Oh you’ve twisted it around.
DK: A bomb bay.
JW: No re-gain.
DK: That way.
JW: That way. That’s it. That’s the four thousand pound bomb.
DK: Bomb.
JW: That’s right.
JW: And those are incendiaries.
JW: That’s right. A hell of a load isn’t it?
DK: Yeah.
JW: That aircraft, the Lancaster was really, really a winner you know. It was, it was a great boost for AV Roe.
DK: That was going to be my next question actually.
JW: Yeah.
DK: What did you think of the Lancaster then?
JW: Marvellous. Yes. She was a, she was, it was quite a comfortable aircraft really. Flying this is. Mind you, where we were, the rear turret was a bugger and I steered clear of that. Some bright bloody bugger up at headquarters got the idea that if you remove the Perspex in front they can see better. He has to put goggles on to make up for it so where’s the saving? All you got was cold. As you know when you push something through the air you get a backdraft.
DK: Yeah.
JW: You get it in a car isn’t it?
DK: Yeah.
JW: Well you’ve got a gale blowing in there and it’s bitter cold. It really is bitter. Your saliva which drips down from your mask, that freezes and it can block the tube.
DK: So how many times did you fly in the rear turret then?
JW: I can have a look.
DK: Yeah. Ok. But you were mostly —
JW: As little as possible I can tell you.
DK: As little as possible. So it was mostly the mid-upper turret.
JW: Well, you see, in the early days I didn’t have much clout as the saying goes. But as I got more and more experienced in things and surviving, our crew had got a reputation on the squadron of being the lucky people. We were lucky. No doubt about that. They couldn’t understand how we escaped so much. We did. And I’ll tell you Bob, he didn’t cut corners. I’ll swear to any bible you like we went to the target and he went to the bloody target and he dropped his bombs on the target. That’s how we got the target awards. And he came back. Now, he was a good chap. Now, you want to know, what am I looking at?
DK: How many times you flew in the rear turret.
JW: Oh yeah [pause, pages turning] It’s here somewhere. Ah yes. There’s [pause] well that was a training flight. 8th of October of ’42. Now then. Mid-upper. Mid-upper. Mid-upper. Here we are. Conversion course at somewhere or other. I was rear gunner all of those. That’s right. We didn’t have a mid-upper there. That was, we were doing a conversion. The stupidity, the apparent stupidity, let’s put it that way, of what goes on in wartime among the passing things down. You know. Well, there we were at Syerston flying with a crew and suddenly we were sent to Swinderby, just up the road for a conversion course to four engine, four engine aircraft. What the hell did they think we were flying in any case? I mean it’s so ruddy stupid it’s hard to believe. There we are. I’ve got it here.
DK: So at the OTU and Heavy Conversion Unit was that all Lancasters?
JW: Yeah. Somebody had got their wires crossed I expect.
DK: Yeah. Was it? Was it Lancasters at the OTU and the Heavy Conversion Unit?
JW: Yeah. Here we are. I did some. Sergeant Goodwin, as a rear gunner and also, that’s right — one, two I did a lot of training flights. Only one operation.
DK: Oh right. So only one operation in the rear turret.
JW: There’s some more there.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Another one there. Mine laying. A lot, a lot of exercises went on. Kept us busy didn’t it? Rear gunner. All these are rear gunner. Oh yes. Here we are. Gardening. They called it gardening. Sowing the mines, you know.
DK: The mines.
JW: Essen. Berlin. Dusseldorf. Two at Dusseldorf.
DK: And that was in the rear turret.
JW: Yeah. These are all rear gunner. I did more than I thought.
DK: Ah.
JW: Hamburg.
DK: For the recording that’s, you were at the Baltic mining on the 14th of December ’42 and the 9th of January ’43. And then Essen the 11th of January ’43.
JW: Yeah.
DK: Berlin 16th of January. Dusseldorf 23rd of January.
JW: The 14th of, the 14th of February.
DK: Yeah.
JW: ’43. I joined 97 Squadron.
DK: Yeah. So Dusseldorf again 27th of January.
JW: Yeah.
DK: And Hamburg 30th of January.
JW: That’s right.
DK: 1943. And —
JW: They were all rear gunners they were.
DK: They were all rear gunner. Right.
JW: I didn’t know, I didn’t know I managed all that. Good gracious.
DK: So that’s at least one, two, three, four, five, six times. You were rear gunner more often than you thought.
JW: There’s still some rear gunners here. Lennox. It’s got to come to an end soon. Ah [pause] ah my first flight with Bob Fletcher. I even put his decoration in. DFM.
DK: And what date was that?
JW: That was the 30th of March ‘43
DK: Right. So that was a training flight was it?
JW: That’s my, that’s my first flight with him. That was the mid-upper gun. I exercised my seniority. I’m going in the top turret thank you. And old Harry Page was stuck with the other one. He didn’t mind. He’s a tough old bird he was old. Old Harry was. No. That’s all, that’s all it was. No more.
DK: So all your operations then up to the 30th of March were in the rear turret.
JW: I didn’t like it one little bit.
DK: And just here 24th of July 1943 was Hamburg and the first use of Window. Was that the dropping out of the, the reflective flares? The reflective paper then? Window.
JW: Window. Yeah.
DK: Yeah.
JW: That’s the strips of metal.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: But that, right I’ll tell you now a little story. Not a story but the fact. There was one anti-fighter device which didn’t get its proper recognition. It was a thing called Tinsel. All this was, it was a, it was the cheapest piece of equipment you could ever bother to think and it was the most effective. And it was ignored. That’s higher up. All this was was a microphone that was attached to one of the inner engines and the wire, and the cable went through the wing into the cockpit and down to the wireless operator’s position. And it coupled to his Morse code.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Now, on briefing all the wireless operators were given a wave band to listen out on. Right. And that’s all the squadrons all doing it. And what you had to do, what they had to do was to listen out, when they weren’t doing something else, listen out. As soon as they heard a German voice — on the key.
DK: Yeah.
JW: It transmitted this awful noise from the engine. There were a few sore ears down there I wonder. But it never got recognised as an effective. It probably sounded a bit too simple probably. All it was was a microphone, a bit of adhesive tape and wire.
DK: And wire. Yeah.
JW: A shame you know because, because the wireless operators got used to it and they started using it for their own purposes and they would tap messages to each other because you can’t broadcast when you’re flying.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Because they can pick you up. But if you’re transmitting this bloody noise the people, they can’t hear you, you see.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And come in, ‘I’ve heard from Joe and,’ so and so and so. ‘Oh really.’ [laughs] [pause] We saw Nettleton go down.
DK: Really.
JW: We didn’t know at the time it was him. We were coming back from one of the Italian jobs. Milan or Turin and he came back over the Bay of Biscay. That way to avoid coming over France. Daylight by now because it’s a long trip. Broad daylight and I was flying there and occasionally, it was very interesting flying along on your own. You think, on your own. And suddenly another one there, another one there, another one there they were popping up and people in the same stream going down. You know. Very interesting. And I was looking down there and I saw this one down a bit low there and flying like that and suddenly his nose dipped down like that. He went straight in the water. I noted the time. And when I reported this back at interrogation afterwards I found out it was Nettleton. So nobody knows why he went down.
DK: Yeah. Is it, is it possible to check your logbooks? I just —
JW: Sorry?
DK: The aircraft P Peter. Does it have the serial number in your logbook by any chance?
DK: 1943.
JW: I’ve got a lot of rubbish in here.
DK: Did you, did you make a note of the serial numbers?
JW: Yes.
DK: I’m just. P Peter.
JW: Here we are. JA 708.
DK: Ok. And that was operation to Hanover on the —
JW: Hanover. Yeah.
DK: 22nd of September.
JW: That’s right.
DK: 1943.
JW: Yeah. My last trip that was.
DK: And then the following night. Hanover again when the aircraft was lost.
JW: The following. Ah. Now then, another little story coming up. Now here we go. They flew off without me. A bloke in my place. And the target was Mannheim.
DK: Oh Mannheim. Ok.
JW: It was. But they never found it. They never hit it. Now I had a letter many many years later from the editor of the local newspaper of a small town which lies in between Mannheim and Ludwigshafen.
DK: Right.
JW: They’re both inland ports.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: About in the middle. And I can’t remember the name of it. He wrote to me. He said he’d heard of my survival and he’d like a little more information because he said for the anniversary of that particular night they were going to put some show on or something.
DK: Ok.
JW: And he wanted to get all the information I think he could out of it. There wasn’t much I could tell him because I wasn’t there. He appreciated that. But he did send me a diagram of the town centre which was completely obliterated. They got the lot down there. It was the wrong target. Great shame wasn’t it?
DK: Yeah.
JW: These things happen don’t they, in wartime doesn’t it?
DK: So which town was this then that —
JW: Well I don’t know. I can’t remember the name of it.
DK: Right. Ok.
JW: It begins with the letter K I remember.
DK: So the target was Mannheim but they —
JW: They should have bombed Mannheim but the Pathfinders had made a mistake. They targeted this little town instead.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And this little town got the lot. Seven hundred Lancasters dropping bombs on them.
DK: And that was the 23rd of September 1943.
JW: Completely obliterated the whole town centre he tells me.
DK: And that was, just for the recording here the 23rd of September 1943. Yeah.
JW: Is it, he had a title. He was a professor of something or other.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Editor of the local newspaper.
DK: Yeah. Ok. Ok well let’s stop the recording there. I’m sure you are.
[recording paused]
DK: So it’s recording now so —
JW: Ok.
DK: Consider what you’re saying. So 97 Squadron then. What do you —
JW: Right. Woodhall Spa.
DK: Yeah. Ok.
JW: Right. Well it so happens that our parent station was Coningsby. [But you didn’t really notice that?] And they were so close that the drem circuit, which is a ring of lights around the airfield.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And they crossed there. Think of this. They’re going that way around like that and down like that. This one’s going the same way like that. But when they get there they’re in opposite directions. We thought that’s a bit hairy. Fortunately there was no flying at Coningsby. They were busy putting a hard —
DK: Runway.
JW: Runways down. Putting hard runways down. But we were so close to Coningsby really. All our, all our admin work was done at Coningsby. Now, I went back to Coningsby twice. The first time was we’d all subscribed. In the Association not the Squadron Association, we subscribed to a stained glass window to commemorate the squadron. And that was being placed in the chapel on the station. The RAF station there. A proper do on a Sunday morning there. Even got one bloke there playing the bugle. He couldn’t play it to save his soul [laughs] but never mind. It was a gesture. We got that done. I guess, I got another, another instance where I broke my thoughts about the future. A lot of the chaps there with me were wearing the DFM. Which means they were airmen. Not officers. That’s just, just a little aside. At the general meetings each year the first time I went I shared a table with a couple there. Two couples in fact. A big table. Yeah. They were original people from the squadron in wartime days and come to think of it they weren’t particularly happy about being there. They thought, I got the impression they thought it was a waste of time but I didn’t say anything at the time naturally. But it added to my thoughts about the whole thing you know. And when I was first approached by Ann Savage who was this WAAF, ex-WAAF who was acting as secretary she, I don’t know how she found me but she got me and talked me into joining. Before joining I rang my pilot Bob Fletcher at home and I asked him for his, his opinion. He said, ‘Don’t touch them with a barge pole.’ He wouldn’t have it. No. Out. Oh dear. But pressure was put on me to join and I thought well I do owe something. I mean you must know by now how lucky I’ve been. I do know something. So I, I gave in and I went along to that. The next AGM and reunion. The other reunion there’s a misname. It wasn’t a reunion at all. It was an AGM really. There was so few people there who were actually on the squadron during the wartime days. Now, that’s what I call a reunion. Me meeting old friends there.
DK: Yeah.
JW: I knew nobody. And nobody knew me. These two couples at the table there they weren’t particularly happy about it all. The next year I went again. I didn’t see them again. They never turned up again. I noticed a few others that I remembered were there. They didn’t come again. The third time I went nobody came there who was on the squadron during the wartime days. Completely out. And going back to that business I said about, about the youngsters there this particular organisation now is devolved into just a club for the young people. And I try to influence them a bit. The chairman was a retired wing commander. Bomb aimer. Ken Cook. And he and the secretary were together like that and they had some sort of interest in the hotel. The Admiral Rodney. Admiral Rodney in the middle of Lincoln? Oh well [laughs] And Hornchurch is, it’s a sink town. It’s dreadful. They’ve got a little stream that runs through the town there. It’s only a little stream but you get all the rubbish in there. Bedsteads and trollies and all sorts of things. It’s a dreadful place. It had a Woolworth’s there.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And it hadn’t been changed since the wartime days. It had ordinary floorboards. No lino or carpet. Oh God. Oh no. No. I said, I thought came into my mind this is not going to attract anybody.
DK: Yeah.
JW: You’d have one say never again and I tried to steer them away. I thought Lincoln would be the ideal place.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Lincoln was the centre of Lancaster country you know. We all know that. Everybody. It’s always written up on it and they wouldn’t listen because this hotel. They got hat and glove with the proprietor of the hotel I think. They took over the hotel and allocated the bedrooms and things like that. No. That’s not the future at all. Any rate, the wing commander, he wrote to the other members of the committee misinterpreting exactly, misinterpreting entirely what I had wrote to him. He said I was trying to tell them to buy a sack of Kevin’s books and dish them out as rewards or something like that.
DK: Yeah.
JW: Not at all. That wasn’t it at all. I was talking about the location of the place. So I bowed out. I said it’s not worth it. It’s not worth worrying about. Except for Kevin. He stayed on. He became the secretary. Acting secretary shall I say. I don’t get much from him these days. He’s very busy. Like all of us when you retire you start getting busy.
DK: Yeah.
JW: But there you are he keeps on saying I’ll come and see but it’s a long way to come from Peterborough just to take you out to lunch isn’t it?
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JW: And I haven’t got a house now to offer hospitality. He stayed with us before when I had a house at East [unclear] but that’s gone now.
DK: When you were based at Woodhall Spa did you use the Petwood Hotel?
JW: Yeah.
DK: At all. Was that, was that somewhere you used to go to then as the mess?
JW: Well the last time we went I took my wife with me. A bit of luck once again. Just my lucky streak. And somebody from the hotel staff, somebody in authority, they said, ‘Oh we’ll change your room for you.’ We had some sort of little room. They gave us a lovely room. Private bathroom. The lot. It was well done you know.
DK: Yeah.
JW: And it so happened that after the meeting and all the fun and games and things like that, people drifting away that more or less left Kevin and his lady and me and my wife and one or two others there drifting away. And we were taken, my wife and I were taken with Kevin up to this room and people were going back to their room, passing. Raising an eyebrow. They knew this was a good room. We got the plum. So that’s it. That’s it. Time to quit. Any rate I wished them the best but when you come to think of it though when they first asked me to join that’s over twenty years after the war. It’s a bit late to start a reunion isn’t it? Twenty years after the event isn’t it?
JW: It is. It is a little bit.
And then Bob saying don’t touch them with a bargepole. I don’t know why. I don’t know what his objection was but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Yeah. It was a bit downmarket I must admit.
What? The Petwood?



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Ernest James White,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 26, 2024,

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