Interview with Robert Whymark


Interview with Robert Whymark


Robert Whymark’s father John ‘Jack’ Whymark took part in three tours of operations. Initially Jack was trained as a mechanic and was posted to 17 Squadron at RAF Debden and RAF Martlesham Heath. He then volunteered for aircrew and trained as a gunner. He was posted to 149 Squadron, 106 Squadron, 103 Squadron and 101 Squadron. He was killed when his plane flew into a storm en route to Italy as part of Operation Dodge.




Temporal Coverage




00:30:54 audio recording

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RM: Tactical.

JM: Right. This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslin and the interviewee is Mr Robert Whymark. And the interview is taking place at Mr Whymark’s home in Little Haywood in Staffordshire on the 3rd of November 2017. Robert, could you please tell us a little bit about your background and your awareness of your late father’s service.

RW: Right. Thank you, Julian. Very firstly my thanks to the IBCC for this opportunity and all the volunteers that are doing the work. I’m Bob Whymark. Only son of Jack, or John as he was christened. He was also known as Johnny. Flight Lieutenant John Percy, but we don’t talk about that, Whymark DSO DFC RAF. He was an air gunner. Robert is a name slightly out of the family tradition. I’m not sure where that come from. I don’t know of any others but the surname is originally Breton I’m told. We could claim 1066 and all that if we did the connection. There was a Robert de Whymark who was the Sheriff of Southend in 1086. They say everybody’s descended from a royal so we might be Harold the III’s lot. He was a big friend of William the Conqueror. However, more realistically we are immediately down from a load of farm labourers in Norfolk and Essex. I’ve gone back about mid-1700s. My dad’s father went to school with my other gran, my mother’s mother in the1890s in the village. My dad was born 10th of January 1920 in Grays, Essex. He had a sister nine years younger. He seems to have been quite bright because he got a scholarship to Palmer’s Boys College for secondary education. His first job was at the Bata Shoe Factory in Tilbury which was seven miles each way on a push bike. Rain or shine. Character building as we called it. He joined the Royal Artillery Territorials when he was fifteen, 1935 to ’38. And then he went into the Air Force in October of ’38 as a ground crew mechanic armourer. He went to St Athan for a mech’s course. I followed twenty-six years later in 1964. His first posting was 17 Squadron Hurricanes at Debden and Martlesham Heath. He was also on the Allied Air Strike Force in North West France, Le Mans, Channel Islands. The same time as Dunkirk was going on. He had to burn the Hurricanes as they French wouldn’t give us any fuel. He was evacuated in July 1940 and went air gunner for safety reasons as he told my mother. He’d gone to school with my mother. They had boys and girls separate schools with a fence between them of course. His best friend was somebody called Mervyn who married Eve who was my wife- my mother’s best friend. There’s more on that at the end of this tale. So, he went aircrew. Evanton in the Cromarty Firth was an air gunner’s training place and Salisbury Plain. There were two areas there. Twenty-four hours of flying time later he was put on first tour with 149 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall. December ’40 to April ’41. He was a Wellington rear gunner. He did fifteen ops from December to March over Europe. The first five all ended in some sort of tears. One with two crash landings, one shot up by anti-aircraft fire and two diversions for fuel. Then there was an outbreak of peace until operation number fifteen over Cologne where they were coned in searchlights for six minutes. I spoke to a guy who’d been coned at twenty thousand feet for about four and he said he’d never felt so helpless in all his life. After that 148 Squadron was formed in Kibrit which is on the Suez Canal. They also went to Malta. This again was on Wellingtons. April to September ’41, he did two hundred hours for a tour so that ended up as thirty-nine ops. He did twenty-four ops in North Africa. A lot of Benghazi’s and Malta in the thick of their bombing. They were actually bombed by a Junkers 88 on landing and ran off into the quarry which snapped the Wellington in half. People who know how they are built, which is rather like the Forth Bridge know that was quite an achievement. They also discovered when they got back one time that a shell had gone through the fuselage side to side. Didn’t explode of course. Nobody noticed. He then came home by troop ship from Suez, stopping off at Aden, Durban and Trinidad. He then had about two hundred hours of instructing duties at RAF Manby and West Freugh near Stranraer February ‘42 until October ’43. This was while the Battle of Berlin was on so he may have been rested from that or else I wouldn’t have been here. He did have one off operation mid-way November ’42. They used to take training troops and boost up the number of crews for some raids. He was detached to RAF Syerston, 106 Squadron. There was an American pilot who’d come up through Canada and over, Joe [Curtin?] He had a DFC from his first op which was while he was on pilot training. They’d been hit by a phosphorous shell in the cockpit and it blinded him for a while. The flight engineer kept it going and then he landed it. He got another DFC later on before he was killed. This was Guy Gibson’s squadron before the Dam Busters. Their op was to Danzig. Or Gdansk Harbour. It was ten hours fifty-five minutes in November of ’42 as a rear gunner. He went into Leconfield for fuel. So, it was fairly tight because it was only twenty minutes hop over to Syerston, between Newark and Nottingham. Back to West Freugh. Promoted to warrant officer and then at the end of that was commissioned. His second tour was from February ’44 to May ’44. Quite quick. 10 squadron- 101 squadron, sorry. RAF Ludford or Mudford as it was called, Magna. He did twenty ops in less than three months. The last one was his number sixty, the night I was born, 20th of May ‘44. He got a DFC for this tour. The first one was to Leipzig and there were seventy-nine aircraft missing which is about three hundred and fifty-three men, I think. No. Four hundred and fifty-three, I beg your pardon. He then flew in DV290 Lancaster five times. Once to Berlin, seventy-three aircraft were lost then which is four hundred and seventy-five people. The same, same as Afghanistan over fifteen years. Now, while those deaths were obviously terrible it does give a perceptive. Four hundred and seventy-five in less than eight hours. The Nuremberg raid — he should have been killed twice on that — ninety-seven aircraft were lost including the photo Mosquito the next day, plus eleven that crashed in UK on recovery. So, about six hundred and fifty people there. He’d flown in DV290 so many times he wrote it down again for that raid. It crashed at Welford near Newbury. They were all killed. Over the target they were nearly hit by a Halifax on its bombing run. He had to side slip. He also had a do at Aulnoy which was a railway yards in North East France. They were coned for nine minutes at six thousand feet with, “accurate flak” as he put it. A night fighter pilot got seven aircraft in two sessions there. He was cruising the searchlights. When the ack-ack stopped our crews knew that night fighters would come in. He must have been down refuelling when they were in the lights. Nobody knows how they got away with that. Another tactic the night fighters did was to attack the mid-upper gunner first as he couldn’t help the rear gunner. They did say that the rear gunner was the loneliest job in the aircraft, and I’m sure it was, but the mid-upper wasn’t that mid, it was quite well back and he could fire backwards. So, they took him out first if they could. The only time he’s recorded attacking anything was at over Schweinfurt where they were attacked by a Junkers 88. He said he fired three hundred and eighty rounds and hits on the fuselage. He didn’t claim anything and they were damaged by flak. He then did a gunnery leader’s course. And then third tour, which nobody could make you do, was from September ’44 to October ’45. That was on 103 Squadron at RAF Elsham Wolds. The main runway is now the slip road up to the Humber Bridge. It’s almost all Severn Trent Water. A heavy gravel type company operates on the main field and there’s a big industrial estate. One hangar is left. The big one. They can’t get that down. He was a mid-upper gunner on all of these trips. He was gunnery leader so he didn’t have a dedicated crew but was still busy. He started daylight ops then as well. He did a few Manna, Exodus and Dodge operations. That was dropping food to the Dutch, Exodus was re-pat of prisoners of war and Dodge was bringing people back from Italy. He did eighty-one ops but as he was grounded in January by the big boss he didn’t record all of them. Two or three veterans I’ve spoken to have said he was probably up to ninety-five or ninety-seven. His DSO citation says that he flew with weak or disturbed crews. Not a good idea I don’t think. There was a Canadian crew. [ Sachs?] was his name. It doesn’t say whether they were weak or not but he flew with him six times on the trot. Then he changed crews and they both went off to Dessau near Berlin and Sachs was shot down. His DSO for this tour was one of eight hundred and seventy to the RAF. As he was not a captain it was very rare, if not unique for a flight lieutenant to get that medal. Probably the leadership element came from his appointment as gunnery leader. He was then killed October, yeah October the 4th of 1945. This was a Dodge operation. He and the pilot were going mental doing admin, the pilot said. I’ve got a letter from him to his nephew. They picked up nineteen women passengers at Glatton or Honington, Peterborough Airport now. It was a filthy night. Many aircraft turned back to Istres, Marseilles, as did they after an electric storm and engine trouble, they radioed. I’ve spoken to crew members on this operation and they confirmed the weather. I’ve spoken to the navigator of the other aircraft that was with them and they were the last to talk to the aircraft. They were posted missing. Nothing was ever found. Six crew, seventeen ATS and two nurses were lost. A week before, twenty-five passengers, male, had been, went missing. Same area — plus a crew of six of course — same weather conditions. And a month later the same numbers. So, three Lancasters, ninety odd people all vanished within six weeks. No trace of any of them ever found. One of the girls was a Lance Corporal May Mann. She was engaged to a Warrant Officer Basil Henderson who was on General Alexander’s staff. And this is where Mervyn comes back in. He was waiting in Naples, Pomigliano for my dad. Basil was waiting for his fiancé. Basil had been the filter warrant officer for General Alexander’s staff and Mervyn had spent the whole of the North African Campaign trying to get past him. Basil eventually met my mother through correspondence over this accident and they got married in 1948. I was four. I remember Mervyn turning up, took one look at Basil, he spoke just like Lionel Jeffries, and he said, ‘Oh gawd,’ he said, ‘I don’t suppose you’d let me in here either.’ That’s my first memory. That’s the family link if you like. Basil died in 2008, my mother in 2014. My dad of course, when he was twenty-five. He would have been ninety-eight in January. I’ve been through his logbook, I think he should have been killed about thirty-seven times properly. All raids were difficult, in fact even flying was because of crude navigation equipment — not the navigators — technical problems, maintenance was difficult, weather, and they used to say, lastly, the enemy. But he had some scrapes and lucky escapes by changing crews or aircraft or what have you. They say that for every one hundred aircrew, fifty-one were killed on ops, nine were killed in UK training type crashes, three were seriously injured, twelve were POWs, twenty-four survived. Now, if you’re very sad you’ll have totted that up to ninety-nine. I can only assume that the one spare bloke went AWOL or something like that. However, that’s the basics of his story. I — all I know is that I have no memories of him. Luckily, he met me. I know many people who were killed, their fathers were killed before they were born etcetera. So, we had a little bit more than they did.

JM: Thank you. Thank you very much.

RW: Alright. That was —

JM: Was, was your decision to join the air force in any way influenced by your father’s career?

RW: Yes. About fifty percent. I was at grammar school. I did two years in the fifth form to achieve four GCSEs. Mainly because of these guitars we’ve been talking about and I was trying to be Eddie Cochrane really, and I missed any sort of technical training. I was too old for an apprenticeship. I had a couple of years at the telephone manager’s office, telephone engineering, and then went in the Air Force as much for the education as my dad. But certainly, that was that. My stepfather had no problems about talking to me about it. He said — I remember him when I was four saying to me, ‘I want to marry your mother but I’m not going to make you change your name because of your dad.’ Well, I didn’t know anything about him then of course. But I found out later on. Mervyn, my dad’s best friend from school was a big help. He tidied up some puzzlement I had about this last accident because my mother had the idea that my dad had been pulled out of bed because somebody had broken their leg playing football or something. Well, he’d obviously had time to arrange it. In fact, they were all up at Brigg on the Monday. On the weekend before they had a big dance, probably for VJ-Day. She was up in Brigg, stayed probably at the White Hart. They all piled off back on Monday morning. He telephoned her to say that he’d be down on the Saturday. Of course, they took off on Wednesday, crashed on Thursday morning. The pilot was a big friend of his. He’d just been picked to be Bomber Harris’ personal pilot and he’d done some — he’d got a lot of hours but there’s not much about him, so I don’t know what he was up to. He may have been slightly clandestine. He’d written a letter to his family, I think they were in Leeds, and he said, ‘We’re going mad, Jack and I, so, we’re off to Naples’, he said, ‘I’ll see you on Saturday for my great coat.’ Right, he had a very young brother who didn’t have any kids ‘til he was about thirty-seven. So, he had a nephew of the pilot who’s the same age as some of my kids. He’s about fifty now. And all he knew was, his uncle — he thought he flew Lancasters, and he found the 103 site so he wrote to David Fell, the historian then. He passed it all to me and we emailed and I said, ‘Your uncle’s service number was —’ this that and the other. And it was weird talking to this lad. That I knew more about his uncle than he did. Now, we’d been brought up in just south of Middlesbrough because Basil was a Durham lad originally. He was living down in Harold Wood at this — during the war. ,He moved back up north. I said, ‘Where are you?’ to this nephew of Jeff Taylor’s, the pilot. And he said, ‘Oh. We’re in Thirsk.’ Which was about eight miles from where we were living. And he came over one Christmas Day and he had a crew photo and this letter. It’s a bit poignant. And I helped him a lot I’m glad to say. I’ve got a pile of research from all the veterans on 103 and other historical branches. They had my dad down as second pilot in one letter. So, I queried that, and they said, ‘Oh, he may have been in the bomb aimer position,’ because this last — these Dodge ops were part of bringing back the 8th Army who were about to mutiny. It was called Dodge because some cretin at Air Ministry decided they’d dodged D-Day by daring to be overseas for six years all through North Africa. I hope he was —had it explained to, you know. So, that’s what they were doing there.

JM: So, the nurses that were on board. The women that were on board. Do you know what they, what they were doing? What was their role?

RW: Seventeen were in the ATS. Army auxiliary.

JM: Territorials.

RW: Territorial girls. They were sort of secretarial I believe. And drivers maybe. They were all — they’d been right through the North Africa Campaign from Tunisia right through. My stepfather was at Dunkirk. He got off the last ship from a jetty. Didn’t have to do any wading out. Because he was a Durham lad it upset him because the Durham Light Infantry were left as a rear guard. He wouldn’t talk about that. I persuaded him to give me his medals to get mounted and we found he’d been mentioned in despatches three times. Which was — he was in the Supply Corps.

JM: Very unusual.

RW: So, that was one down from a decoration frankly and so on, but he was well thought of. He didn’t get back from Italy until 1946. They lived in Warwick Road opposite Earl’s Court and we moved. That was my first sort of basic memory is up from Chadwell.

JM: Can I —

RW: Yeah.

JM: For the tape. Can I just clarify, my understanding is that on occasions the Lancasters might well be full of Italian POWs going home, and when they got to Bari or to Pomigliano then there would be British servicemen coming back to the UK.

RW: Yes.

JM: And it was this route that these ladies were on when the aeroplane went down. It was the return journey.

RW: No. Going.

JM: They were going.

RW: Going.

JM: Right. So, they were going out to Italy.

RW: Yeah. It has been put in some research that was, not stolen from me, but passed on without my knowledge. I corresponded with a Canadian guy who’d been at Elsham in ’42 and he wanted to know if anybody knew anything of that era. I said, ‘Well, I don’t but you might be able to help me.’ Told him that story briefly and he crossed it over that we were coming back. They were coming back.

JM: That’s fine.

RW: But they were actually going out.

JM: Yes.

RW: Now, the army I’m convinced had lost these girls. They’d been up to Liverpool twice on, for a troopship which would have had to come right out around the outside of Ireland because of the mine fields that were still about. They weren’t reported missing ‘til this troopship docked a fortnight later. The army would not release any information. Basil, on the staff of General Alexander couldn’t find anything out. And his — this girl’s mother, Mrs Mann, she put an advert in the paper and my mother was told about that so they corresponded. I’ve got a lovely letter from Mrs Mann about this and she’s saying ‘We couldn’t find anything out. We’ve written to everybody.’ And my mother was able to put her in the picture immediately. In fact, this Mrs Mann was more — as — concerned about my mother losing her husband of course. And so on. They were living near Harold Wood.

JM: Another aspect of it which is interesting and I don’t understand clearly is we are now in peacetime —

RW: Yes.

JM: It’s the October of 1945. The war has been over some months and yet the Lancasters were still carrying gunners. Why was this? Because you would have thought that had they not had those there would have had room for more passengers.

RW: Yeah. I’m not — I don’t think they’d removed the guns but that wouldn’t have affected the number of passengers. My dad was basically doing admin. I think he was virtually on a jolly as we call it.

JM: Right.

RW: Hence this bomb aimer’s position. Crowd control or what. I’ve seen how they load up the Lanc for that when I was instructing at Cosford. They’ve got a museum and there’s a big clump of them in the middle and then they go front to back for weight and balance. So, fifteen was in the bomb aimers position. It would be a cosy little fit. Sixteen was right at the back by the toilet you know. Which was no fun. There were nineteen passengers. So, there was a number fifteen. So, it’s nineteen to one whether my dad was sitting next to the, this ATS corporal, my stepfather’s fiancé. Which would have been a bit spooky.

JM: Yeah.

RW: Her middle name, funnily enough, was Eleanor. Which my stepfather said he never knew. He had her shoe brushes as a souvenir which was what you used to do. My mother was Eileen and my dad called her Eileena. And he always said that if he knew he was going in he’d shout her name out. Now, she says that on the day, Thursday morning, she sat upright in bed thinking she’d heard his voice. And then they got a phone call that night from a friend of his at Elsham. He said, ‘Look, they’ve gone missing. I’ve asked them not to send this awful telegram,’ which they did. He said, ‘I’ll come and see you. I’m on my way to Ramsgate. I’ll drop in on you at Grays,’ near Tilbury, in Essex. Now, that’s a bit of a trek by train and stuff for him so that was very good. He turned up on Saturday morning with my dad’s father and it all came out. He’d got the full chapter and verse by then.

JM: Yes.

RW: But the army would not tell anybody anything for some time.

JM: My understanding is that the passengers in the Lancaster would sit on simple seats and they had no oxygen which would have —

RW: Yes.

JM: Limited the height at which they could fly at.
RW: Yes.

JM: Is that correct?

RW: Yes. And the heating wasn’t brilliant either. But they were both — there were two of them with passengers from Honington. I beg your pardon. That should be Conington. It was because of Honington and Coningsby they called it Conington. I hope I’ve got that right. Yes. It was an American B17 base so they knew. The, Glatton, was on the other side, there was a grass strip for Spitfires and such. Different accents. Yeah, they were sitting on rudimentary canvas seats or their kit bags. You’d think something like that would have floated up to the top but it didn’t. Three times.

JM: Do you have a theory as to what caused your father’s aircraft to crash?

RW: They did report to the other guys that they were down at two thousand feet. I went off the point there because I spotted that mistake. They were down at two thousand feet. They were in a filthy electric storm. The other two, ten minutes behind. The other aircraft was in pitch black but clear, if you understand that. They could see Corsica so they knew they were that far. They crashed off Cap Corse which is the north point of it. There are sort of pot holes in the sea so there’s — the three other crews saw an explosion or fire on the sea, they knew what they looked like of course, and they plotted a latitude longitude which I’ve plotted myself. There was a misprint in one of the reports which made it east-north-east of Cap Corse which was too far, too close to Italy. It was the other way, west-north-west. And that was that. But as I say, they were both low down. The rest of them — there was about twenty aircraft up that night going — they went over high level because they were on oxygen and whatever. Yeah.

JM: So, it might well have been weather related.

RW: Well it was —

JM: The electrical storm may well have been a factor.

RW: Yeah. They were struck by lightning. Or, they did report engine trouble so they were turning back to Marseilles they said.

JM: Robert. Thank you very much.

RW: Ok.

JM: Is there anything you wish to add? You’ve given us a very, very, thorough account.

RW: Right. Good. Thank you very much. No. If anybody wants to get in touch by all means. I’ll pass my — I’m on record with the IBCC people. And, Julian, I’m sure will be able to —

JM: Yes. Absolutely.

RW: Tidy up the link.

JM: Yes.

RW: But I’ll be delighted to help anybody with any further information or questions.

JM: Thank you very much on behalf of IBCC. Thank you very much Robert.

RW: Thank you.

JM: Thank you.

RW: Cheers, Julian.



Julian Maslin, “Interview with Robert Whymark,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

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