Interview with Norman Edward Wilkins


Interview with Norman Edward Wilkins


Norman Wilkins was born in West Norwood. At the age of 14 he joined the Air Training Corps and became a member of Brighton and Hove Air Cadets 176 Squadron. He then joined the University Air Squadron at Oxford, with fees being paid by the Royal Air Force. In 1942-1943 he was sent to Winnipeg for navigation training. At the end of the course, he was nominated for the Pathfinder Training Unit at RAF Oakington. Norman did astro navigation on one occasion. He also did a course on the radar navigation system and was posted to RAF Finningley for about two and a half years. Norman flew in Lancasters and was also involved in Operation Manna. He then became president of the 7 Squadron Association which meets once or twice a year.




Temporal Coverage




01:04:16 audio recording


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AWilkinsNE170922, PWilkinsNE1704


CB: So, this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre.
NW: Right.
CB: And today I’m interviewing Norman Wilkins. His wife Ann is also present. The interviewer is myself Cathy Brearley and today’s date is Friday the 22nd of September 2017. And the interview is taking place at Norman and Ann’s home near Worthing in West Sussex.
NW: Thank you.
CB: So, thank you very much.
NW: That’s alright.
CB: For giving this interview for us. Thank you.
NW: That’s really accurate.
CB: So, could you just start off by telling me whereabouts you were born and about your early life and where you grew up?
NW: Yes. I was born in a place called West Norwood which is what? South London really. Yeah. South west or south east. I can’t remember which. And I was such a weakling that the doctor said to my family and let, because it was the days of the big smogs and things, ‘Unless you get this boy out of London he isn’t going to make old bones.’ So, my father who worked for the railway got a job down in — we moved to Redhill in Surrey. And that’s, I suppose that’s when I joined the ATC. A little bit later. And that’s how it rolled on into the Air Force. I was in the ATC a long time. And we’re still involved with the ATC in that when we lived in Kent, the Kent Wing Commander had got such a huge parish that he used to give me about a third of his inspections to do. Which we eagerly did. Which was rather lovely. But now we’re members. We’ve got a certificate that says I’m a member of 176 Brighton and Hove Squadron.
CB: So, how old were you when war broke out?
NW: I must have been fifteen would I? Wait a minute. Which was about 1940. I was born in 1925 so I must have been fourteen then. Take. Yes. Fourteen. And I went to Reigate Grammar School having passed the necessary exams which you had to in those days. And the Battle of Britain was on then. One, a German bomber came down across the playground as you’d call it. And the gunners shot all the windows out in the school [laughs] but we were all outside so nobody was hurt. And fortunately he crashed just down the road. So I set off with my father’s 410 shotgun to join the savages that were going to hold the crew up [laughs] but Corporal Jones and Co got there first. So, that’s alright I remember about that bit. Then I grew up there completely. Joined, joined what was the first thing was the Air Defence Cadet Corps you’d have heard off which was set up, worthy people who believed that where the Air Force was the way ahead. So, Air Defence Cadet Corps turned into ATC which, which took me into the University Air Squadron at Oxford. I was in New College Oxford in a scheme that if you joined the air training — sorry, if you joined the University Air Squadron your fees were paid for by the RAF. Which was a very good scheme and that’s when I remember there was a hideous Flight Sergeant used to bully us in the, in the, when I was in the UAS. Blow me down about two years later he popped up again in Cambridge [laughs] when I was still at the Initial Training Schools which, you’ll, you’ll know about the RAF training system then as well as or probably better than everybody else. You’ve heard about it so many times. When, then we all took off didn’t we? To Heaton Park, Manchester. And I was there for, for some time. But again having opted for Navigator Training I met, I made friends, which is neither here nor there. I made friends with a chap called Eddie Cullen. Now, there was, he was a son of a big grocer’s then in those days called Cullen and Sons. Didn’t matter then but it mattered later. In the middle of the night we marched off. Got into a train for Canada. All the blinds were pulled down so you couldn’t look out and see where you were going. Because I always remember as we, it was all supposed to be terribly secret but as we marched out of the camp there were a bunch of people’s girlfriends there saying, have a, ‘Goodbye. Have a good time in Canada.’ [laughs] So much for security. And when we were allowed to put the blinds up in the morning what were we going to get into? Queen Elizabeth the First. All grey paint painted. So, that’s how I went over to Canada. In the Elizabeth the First. Which, as you know went unescorted because she was faster than the Destroyers that would have escorted us. So it was only four and a half days. Now, in, we were in the Reception Centre in Canada, Eddie Cullen played, paid off because there were people there who’d been hanging about a long time to get on with their training. Eddie Cullen immediately recommended and met one of the Corporals. Because Corporals ran the training system as you know. They ran the air training system really. He met, realised that he’d been at school with this Corporal so we agreed, Eddie and I, go, he’d go and see him and find out whether we could go to London, Ontario — London, Ontario which sounded an attractive spot. Eddie came back and said, ‘Uh huh got to wait three months to do that. But Portage le Prairie next week.’ Right. That was it. Portage le Prairie please. And off we went. That, then the next phase of course was right across Canada in a train. Through the next, through the — what was it called? Lake of the Woods which was a beautiful area. Until we emerged at Winnipeg where the bands were playing. Where they were playing. And up we carried on to Portage le Prairie where there actually weren’t platforms. You got down from the train onto the ground. [laughs] Which didn’t matter because the trucks were there to take us to the airport which until very recently was still, still doing Navigator training for the Canadian Air Force. And we were there however long it was. We were there for the winter course because I remember being in these Ansons you opened a step up, stood on it, opened a flap in the roof and did your astro through that. Temperature would go down to minus fifty of course on the Canadian prairies. And the other thing was you were working hard to make a good plot to get back home but the Canadian pilots who were all civilian bush pilots that had been recruited, you heard that as well, they, they made their own arrangements. So thinking they were helping you but in fact they were doing the very opposite. But it didn’t matter. They flew the radio ranges that they’d always flown. And now that must have been six months through the winter of 1942/43. And then at the end of the course all the others went away to go on the OTU HCU trip and I thought to myself what have I done wrong? Waved them all goodbye. Of course what had happened in fact because I was number one on the course that automatically nominated me for the Pathfinder Training Unit. And so eventually I went but of course I went to squadron very quickly. They had to plough their way through OTUs and HCUs and fly in Manchesters and other horrible things. [laughs] And that really gets me completely to 7 Squadron where on the day I had been there a couple of days and my skipper who — the crew couldn’t operate because their previous radar man had failed. So, they couldn’t fly because they hadn’t got seven people. He was told, ‘Come to the adjutants office again. We’ve got a new radar man for you.’ Well, I was still, still nineteen wasn’t I? Yes. Yes. And I saw, George’s face fell as he thought, ‘Oh my God. What will I do with this little bog rat?’ [laughs] And he walked with me into the crew room where the crews were sitting on benches either side and as we walked past you saw the look of pleasure on their face as they realised I wasn’t for them [laughs]
CB: Whereabouts was this that that happened?
NW: That happened at Oakington itself. Yes. Yes. Because I’d been posted to Oakington from Warboys and that bit happened. That’s when we crewed up. And I met people like, with a very good English name of [pause] I’ve forgotten it. Something like [unclear] Emmanuel Azzaro, who was a Brighton taxi driver. Or had been.
CB: Really?
NW: He was the rear gunner.
CB: And who was the pilot?
NW: No. He was the rear gunner.
CB: Who was the pilot? Who were the other people?
NW: Oh, the pilot was George Harvey who had flown as a civil flight for the National Airways of New Zealand before the war.
CB: And who were the other crew members?
NW: Well, the other member was my, well he had to be a friend because we sat thigh to thigh like that. Bill Parnham, who I don’t know what he did before that. The rear, upper gunner became a policeman just after the war. I don’t know what he did before then unless he was a police cadet. That’s right.
CB: What was his name?
NW: Pass. I can’t get it.
CB: No.
NW: Oh. Victor Emmanuel Azzaro. That was it. Victor Emmanuel Azzaro was the rear gunner. The Brighton. Now, because once Azzaro said, ‘You lot ought to come down and see Brighton. It’s a wonderful place.’ So, we all trooped off on a train and came down and put up. We were put up at, in Victor Emmanuel Azzaro’s house. I remember the disgusting business because they had one of these steel shelters. The Anderson shelters were in the garden if you remember. The other one’s were table top ones. Azzaro’s family were tipped out and told to go away somewhere and we, we all took [laughs] over the shelter. And the excuse was we were more valuable to the war effort because we were a bomber crew.
AW: [unclear]
CB: Ann’s reminding, Ann’s suggesting reminding you about a story about a wheelbarrow at Brighton.
NW: Oh, yes that was after the war. Yes.
CB: Oh, was it?
NW: That was after the war. Yes.
CB: Ok. Well we can come back to that if you like then.
NW: I was flying with a different man but eventually because I’d become a senior radar person and of course so we only went when the weather was C R A P. We rarely went in good weather. But I can remember towards the end of the bomber offensive we began to go on a few daylights. And on one particular daylight the gunners got very excited because we were going to be attacked by this ME163. A little baby jet. And why they were excited was they couldn’t move the turrets quick enough to catch up with the thing it went so fast. Just a small memo. Other than that I remember no other incidents really. Oh. We went into Cologne but we had P51 Mustangs of the US Air Force escorting us. Right above our heads. But we realised during these daylights how many aircraft and crews had been lost with collisions or accidents because we would be, we were straying, staying on this day on the bomb run and all of a sudden bombs started coming down all around us. There was a guy just above dropping his bomb load. Well, that was because of course the, everybody set their pressure setting but because they would be cheapo they weren’t all exactly the same. Or they should have been but they weren’t. They all got the same setting but they only needed to be a few feet different to be up there or over there and knock a wing off.
CB: Did you do any astro navigation?
NW: Bill insisted we, we did once. But by then another aid called LORRAINE, LORAN had come in. And because we were in Pathfinder f off everything that was brand new in navigation was fitted to our aircraft. But we didn’t do, we didn’t do much with that because Bill would be plotting right there. I’m sitting right here. And we agreed we’d do fix. We’d fix the aircraft six minutes, four minutes and he’d give me a nudge and of course we got a perfect radar pictures. You could see, you’ve seen many of them. So, that was the best way to navigate the aircraft and it finished beautifully in the bomb run. I did lots of astro but that was on Vulcans.
CB: That was later.
NW: Ah.
CB: Yeah.
NW: By then, as I was pretty senior I was picked out to fly with some other crews who hadn’t got a radar man. And one I flew with was a man Phillip P Mather. M A T H E R. He was a big drinking man which doesn’t really matter but his mother lived in that lovely square.
AW: Brunswick.
NW: Brunswick Square. And so, the war was finished. I had flown with Mather on two sorties or one. I can’t remember which. So, I knew him pretty well. And he said, ‘You need to come down and see Brighton.’ So, off we went down to Brighton. And one day we all marched out with the intention of having a pint in every pub in this street. Western Road. Yes. When we, what was annoying about PP Mather was he got all the girls. Didn’t matter how aged they were. Whether they were sixteen to sixty five he got the lot. No one else got a look in because he looked like Ivor Novello and was often mistaken for him. However, when we, when we, when it was decided it was time to go back — oh yes I remember. His mother was an agony aunt for one of the magazines, and Phil, we were all a bit frightened of her so when Phil said, ‘Right. We should go home,’ off we went. And we all were traipsing along and we came, we’d seen the same corner where there was a shop Mence Smiths Do you remember Mence Smiths. No.
CB: No.

NW: Outside was a gleaming brand new wheelbarrow. That was ours straightaway. I climbed in it. Phil picked up the handles and off we went pursued by an employee of Mense Smiths in his warehouse coat. I think they were called khaki coat. He escorted us with the strict instructions to get the wheelbarrow back. But just at the same time a policeman was marching along with us. And we looked and said — he was wearing aircrew ribbons, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, gentlemen. I will navigate through the traffic with you.’ So off we went with our wheelbarrow. Pushed it all back. He held up the traffic, because we were one side and Brunswick Square was the other, while we crossed, handed it back to the man in the warehouse coat and we scuttled in to his mother’s flat. Having pushed this wheelbarrow about a mile I suppose. We’ve been to that corner since. Or identified it since.
AW: One and a half.
NW: There aren’t any wheelbarrows there now.
AW: [unclear] has gone.
NW: Mense Smiths had been gobbled up into something else. Yeah. Just a silly incident but that of course was just after the war. Philip Mather disappeared into the blue. I’d imagine if I looked in the Brighton directory I’d find him. But I’ve no intention of doing so because he’s a dangerous man [laughs]
CB: So, could you explain a little bit about how the radar navigation system actually worked?
NW: Yes. Yes. Now, that was the [unclear] the war expired, we’ll, we’ll jump a bit if that’s alright with you. The war expired and I got a permanent commission to stay in the Air Force and I got posted to what was then the Air Ministry. Well, while I was there in a very interesting intelligence job the cry went in, out in things called AMOs — Air Ministry Orders saying virtually, ‘Where have all the radar navigators had gone? If anybody knows where they are try — ’ Winco Buggins — I can’t think of his name of course because it didn’t matter, ‘On this number.’ So, I pounced on the phone. Got this lovely fellow on the phone and I said, ‘Hello sir, I’m here.’ ‘Right,’ he said, ‘Well, you’re about to be somewhere else. We’re starting a radar course for the V Force at Lindholme and you’ll be on number one course. So, I found myself on number one course. Myself, and twelve bright shiny pilot officers. Flying officers who were all from the Canberras force and whereas my radar training to get on the Pathfinder Force had been three weeks this, they decided the training for the V force would be more than a year. So we were at Lindholme for more than a year. And then I went to Hemswell. Nothing to do with the V force. I finished up commanding this Lincoln squadron which was doing the radar training for the V Force. So it was still the same thing. When I’d finished that —
CB: That was at Hemswell.
NW: That was at —
CB: RAF Hemswell.
NW: it came and I’d found my Jaguar. Oh yes. Outside the officer’s mess was this. You wouldn’t have remembered them because you’re too young. Jaguars in those days used to had P100 headlights. Huge. Huge things. This — and I kept eyeing this and I borrowed somebody’s metal polish in the middle of the night and went out and worked on these lights and found that the chrome was perfectly sound. Eventually I said to the mess manager, ‘Who owns that Jaguar out there?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s the chap,’ and again I wouldn’t remember the name because it wasn’t relevant. He went off to Suez to fight the Suez war. I said, ‘Any chance you’d give me his name?’ and, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Yes. I’ll give you a name. As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a home address for him.’ So, I wrote to this chap and said, ‘Could we talk on the phone?’ This chap rang me in the officer’s mess at Hemswell and said [pause] must have been Hemswell. Yes. He said, ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Why are you ringing me?’ I said, ‘Because I’d like to have your Jaguar.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘That old wreck,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t be bothered to pick it up because while I was away Aunt Fanny died and left me a small fortune so I’m in to new cars now,’ he said. ‘But I have got a scrap man from Lincoln coming out for it and he’s going to give me forty pounds for it.’ So, I said, ‘Right. Now, if I sent you a cheque for forty five pounds you’d send me the keys and the logbook.’ ‘I’d be happy to do that,’ he said. So, that’s what happened. It was my Jaguar. But what I hadn’t thought of was who could tow to start a two ton Jaguar. Now, by sheer fluke I was with, flying with a Squadron Leader Skeane another huge tall man who’d got an old American Packard six which was capable of pulling this thing. So, came the day when I’d been posted to Finningley and been over there and picked my married quarter when squadron, we got hold of a massive rope. I don’t know. Must have got it from a sports field or something. It was the sort of thing that was being used for the tug of war. We’d attached it to this. Away we went. Let the clutch out. Bang. She started. And all I could do then was flash the lights at Don Skeane to stop. Drove back to Finningley and used it for about two and a half years.
CB: Is that how long you were at RAF Finningley?
NW: I was at RAF Finningley.
CB: Yeah.
NW: Yes.
CB: And which aircraft were you in when you were there?
NW: Sorry?
CB: Which aircraft were you flying in while you were at — ?
NW: Vulcans
CB: Oh right. Yeah.
NW: 101 Squadron.
CB: Yeah.
NW: Was a Vulcan squadron.
CB: And you flew in Lancasters and Ansons during the war.
NW: Well, yes. Ansons in Canada.
CB: Yeah.
NW: Old ones. Built over there. And when I got back straight into, at the Pathfinder Training Unit straight into Lancaster.
CB: So, what was it like flying in a Lancaster?
NW: Oh. Chummy because we were sitting like this. Bill there. Me here. Just the other side but I couldn’t see him. Oh, I must say and you must have heard this many times that people started talking about fear. Well, we didn’t have any fear because we were behind black-out curtains. So I couldn’t even see the flight engineer and the pilot because they were behind blackout. But then we were so busy fix fix fix fix fix. Getting it right. Until we were on the bomb run. Then it was only then when it was that either the markers gone and the bombs have gone did we pull the blackout curtains back. Stand up and have a look at what was going on, and what had we done? And headed back for home very smartly. I don’t know whether that’s of any value or not.
CB: No. It’s interesting.
NW: But, oh there was one serious incident when I was talking to you about accidents. When one time over Germany there was a wacking great bumph. The whole aircraft started rocking and when we’d all recovered ourselves and decided that our trousers were still clean, George said to me, ‘Norman. What do you reckon?’ ‘I’ve got no radar,’ I said, ‘It must have been something to do with the radar. I’m going to put an oxygen bottle on and go back and see if I can find what damage was done.’ Well, the radar, all we’d got back there was a big hole. The radar had been, had collided with something and had gone. [pause] During debriefings we heard that a Halifax had lost a tail and had landed successfully. So, two things were put together. The Halifax had taken our radio off and our radio had taken his, one of his fins off. That was the most, that was the worst feeling that we had. Most of the time we never saw flak or anything like that because we were behind our black out curtains. But that wasn’t very good and I’ve got a picture of that somewhere but I don’t suppose that was worth looking for. That was the biggest incident that we had was loading. We couldn’t of course carry out an attack that day. We turned very smartly and headed for home. Oh, and there was an interesting — [laughs] On another incident we were on the way home and Bill Parnham said to me, ‘Norman, have you ever heard of,’ — where’s the market? ‘Ford?’ I said, ‘No. Of course I’ve never heard of Ford.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re not to go to Oakington. 8 Group aircraft have been diverted to Ford.’ So, we said, ‘Where the devil’s that?’ Well, Brill got out every map he’d got and eventually we found Ford and discovered it was a Naval Air Station up the road from us here really. Now it’s a big market at the weekends. But we found Ford and arrived there and we were, we were something like a top of a huge, because all Pathfinder aircraft based at the Pathfinder bases when the fog had appeared, the Lincolnshire fog all diverted to Ford. Not hundreds. I suppose about fifteen. And George eventually said, and he’d been we’d gradually worked our way down the stack. George decided he’d had enough of that and said, called out, ‘My fuel gauge is getting very low. Low. I need an immediate approach and landing.’ So, that’s what we did to be greeted by some flying officer who was in charge of Ford who said, ‘I’ve got accommodation for you gentlemen. And I’ve got supper for you but I have to tell you it’s only baked beans.’ Oh yeah. Very interesting. So, we slept on, this is where the gunners came good because they had got, many of them, the old fashioned leather fur lined jackets. The rest of us of course had what I would call ordinary thin flying overalls on. The point being we slept on, on the springs of beds because what the pilot officer hadn’t told us was yes he’d got beds but he hadn’t got any mattresses. So, the next morning everybody rose, had their breakfast. Baked beans again. And we discovered that we had three squadron commanders with us from the, from the, from the 8 Group. And the three squadron commanders said, ‘Can we get out of here?’ ‘No. You can’t,’ said the flying officer, ‘We were instructed that you should stay here.’ And I remember we looked. There were Lancasters parked in odd positions all over the airfield because of course nobody could see in the dark. Fortunately nobody had run into another one. They were all over the place. The squadron commander suddenly said, ‘Where’s the nearest pub?’ and the chap said, well it’s Little Dogsbody or somewhere where it was. About seven or eight miles away. So the squadron, the squadron said to him, ‘Right. Firstly, preferably you must know his number in the officer’s mess. Ring him up and tell him a lot of people are coming to drink his beer ration.’ Because beer was rationed as you know. And he said, ‘Secondly, transport please.’ So, a couple of three tonners were appeared and we all scrambled into it and off we went to the pub. And it didn’t take long before his beer ration had gone. And while we were still having a good time, must have been about an hour and a half later the flying officer suddenly appeared and said, ‘Gentlemen, time up,’ he said, ‘Pathfinder bases are clear. You are to immediately return to base.’ So, after another pint, I think or two we went back with the flying officer and his two trucks, scrambled in our Lancasters and went back home again. Just another daft event but we still with our, we still had and it wasn’t the same night so, we must have had a radar that worked. There was one working there. Now, what’s interesting is a friend of Ann’s who was a violinist in either the RPO or the LPO was, who we now are in touch with has got a German friend whose job is to come — is to research bombs. That’s why the bomb load is written in the bottom there. Now, he’s coming over at some time in the very near future because we meet these people about every three to six, three months. He’s coming over. He stays with them at a B&B when he’s over researching at Kew. At the National, is it the National —
AW: Archives.
NW: Archive office. That’s right. Now, he knows the reason I’ve kept that is I’ll get a decent copy of it and he will take it away with him and put it in his research.
CB: And you’re.
NW: So, that’s a bit left over from —
CB: And you’re now president of the 7 Squadron Association.
NW: I’m president of 7 Squadron Association. Yes. Which we shall be going to —
AW: 1983 we formed it.
NW: You’re going to the ATC.
AW: 1983, the 7 Squadron Association was formed.
NW: Right.
CB: And do you have an annual — ?
NW: I was the chairman.
AW: Yes.
NW: For over ten years.
AW: Yeah.
NW: And got booted upstairs to take over from an air commodore who was the president. And I’ve been the president now since oh a very long time.
AW: Yeah. And we meet once or twice a year but lots of us are in touch with each other all the time on the phone.
NW: Oh yes.
AW: Visit each other. Or —
NW: That’s good.
AW: Yes.
NW: Oh yes. Oh yes.
AW: Because again it’s it’s like a second family.
NW: It’s like a family, isn’t it?
AW: It’s like a family. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: You haven’t mentioned Operation Manna yet.
NW: Yes.
CB: And I understand you were involved in that.
NW: Well, badly briefed again. We were told that we were going to go to Holland. So, we were going to go this way. Near Rotterdam. Another one was going to go near Amsterdam probably. And as at low level we were to open the bomb doors and load and release bags of food for the starving Dutch. So off we went and as I said we went — well we didn’t climb up ever that day. We stayed low level. Joined a run in to where Pathfinder markers had been lit to by, by good Dutchmen on the ground. And as we went in I suppose it was yes, polder. The side of a polder was filled with medium sized German flak guns and they tracked us as we went across to release our food and likewise our gunners were tracking them as we went by. But we’d got top cover of American Mustangs so the Krauts very sensibly didn’t make anything of it. Years later, but we didn’t know at the time we were told including by a Dutch policeman. He said, but he said, ‘We were starving,’ he said, ‘People were actually falling down in the, in the street, from starvation.’ He said, ‘If it wasn’t you my — I wouldn’t be here.’ This was one of our escorting policemen when we went there on Manna in the 50s.
AW: Yeah. We went there. I can’t remember what year.
CB: Ann is now showing me a collage of photographs. Was this given to Norman?
NW: Yes.
CB: By the Dutch people when you went over on a visit.
NW: Oh, quite incredible. Quite incredible.
CB: Which is a photograph. A series of photographs.
NW: The equivalent of the, of the Home Guard.
CB: A collage of photographs.
NW: He took holiday to escort us everywhere. Everywhere we went we were escorted by these policemen who were dressed in white. White leather. And we met, mostly met schools.
AW: No. We went everywhere and were given the freedom of the cities.
NW: Oh. Freedom of here and the freedom of there. Yeah.
AW: These are made by the grandchildren of the people at the time in what they’d been told from their grandparents that actually happened. And we each had three or four of these placemats.
CB: Well, they’re lovely.
AW: We wrote to the children.
NE: That was very clever certainly.
CB: The children’s drawings.
AW: Yeah.
CB: The grandchildren’s drawings that have been coloured in and laminated for you to use as placemats. A very grateful nation.
AW: Yes.
NW: We had to bend like this so they could get their clipboards to write on.
AW: As we drove in to each town or village —
NW: Oh.
AW: In the coaches the townspeople or the village people were fighting each other to get on the coaches to hug the men that had brought them food.
NW: That was a very emotional business that.
AW: And the whole week.
NW: Was like that.
AW: We were escorted by what we would call the Territorial Army.
NW: Yeah.
AW: As help. They had taken one week’s holiday out of their ordinary pay and jobs to escort us. And the police escorted us. Two coaches. The whole time. Wherever we went and we went to schools, to towns.
NW: Yes. Villages.
AW: To villages. To the racecourse where you dropped food.
NW: Racecourse.
AW: And a Lancaster came over.
NW: That’s right. A Lancaster came over.
AW: And dropped bread while we were there.
NW: And did a dummy food drop on the racecourse.
AW: Yeah. Very moving. It was an incredibly moving week.
NW: Yeah. It was indeed.
AW: None of us stopped crying the whole time because we couldn’t believe.
NW: The children.
AW: Because these young men who flew in the Lancasters didn’t actually know that people were dropping dead in the street at the time.
NW: No. We didn’t know that.
AW: You didn’t know that, did you?
NW: It was the policeman. I went to speak to him in his white leathers and I said, ‘Thank you very much for escorting us.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘Thank you for being here. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here.’ I said, ‘Why is that then?’ He said, ‘Well, you did, my parents tell me that people were dropping dead in the street and if you hadn’t come and did the food drops it would have been in a very very serious situation and I wouldn’t be here.’ But they were all, well they were all like. Weeping.
AW: Everywhere we went, as you can see there were so many things that happened.
CB: There was a singer.
AW: That week. Oh, we had a singing.
CB: A band.
AW: Bands. We had a complete day with old vehicles and their vintage things. The Americans came because they called it Chowhound. So, there were a few Americans there.
NW: Yes.
AW: But I think the most moving man was the Polish man who came with his daughter from Poland and the whole week he never spoke to anybody or reacted to anything at all that was happening. And on the Friday night the hotel who were involved also with the Manna operation gave us Freedom of the City of Rotterdam and also at any time if we wished to go back to the hotel we stayed there free of charge.
CB: Wow.
AW: And there was a small speech by one man and then the whole company were asked if they wanted to speak. And Norman stood up and spoke on behalf of 7 Squadron and then the Polish man said he would like to speak. And in perfect English —
NW: Yeah.
AW: He brought the whole room —
NW: To tears.
AW: Crying. To tears again.
NW: Incredible.
AW: And you thought he hadn’t taken any of it on board but he had and it was so emotional. That was the end of our week there. These things don’t happen now.
CB: No. It’s wonderful that they have done and you’ve been.
AW: Yeah.
NW: Yes. It was incredible.
CB: How many times did you go over?
AW: We went —
CB: With the with food. How many trips did you make with the food?
NW: I imagine, I’ll have to go and get my logbook.
CB: I know you’ve got your logbook. I’ll just pause the tape a moment.
NW: I went.
CB: Just pause it a minute.
[recording paused]
NW: 1970 I went to six of them. Headquarters, Bomber Command. As it still was. And we went over as the British judges in the American. So, I flew in B52s then. It was only a few sorties but —
CB: And that’s when you asked for the four Vulcans to come in in formation.
NW: No. They — that was 1977. That was ’69. Can you remember, well you can see the States here. Here is 1969. The lilac city of Spokane in Washington State. Down here is Orlando in Florida. Well, there couldn’t be a bigger trip between the two. Not that that was relevant at the time to having done the, we had our own Americans over to fly with us in the competition where we were based in Orlando. Which was a nice holiday for the lads. And to make sure a court was able to get plenty of attention because you’ve worked out I’m such a modest person I took my own piper with me from Waddington. He was an engine mechanic but he, he was a Scotsman who played in a pipe band. So he made the, all the television rounds in Florida of course. And all the meetings, everybody’s Caledonia associate. If you saw him he couldn’t stand up. He was all like [laughs] he had such a great trip.
CB: Do you remember his name?
AW: So great you had to send him home.
NW: No. I can’t. No. No I can’t. No. I had two adjutants I sent home. Yes.
AW: Getting drunk.
NW: One of them. Yeah. We hadn’t managed get to that business of the wing commanders in the UK. Do we? Oh dear.
AW: No.
NW: No. Well, except to say because you’ll wonder why I’ve closed up on it. This guy thought the work thought the world was an enormous place. And to get from Spokane back to the UK when the competition was over would mean racing across America on a stagecoach. That would take weeks and weeks. Then you’d be on the sailing schooner coming across the Atlantic. And eventually months later you’d arrive in the UK. Now, that wouldn’t have mattered but unfortunately he’d said to a certain young lady there, ‘You must come and see me when I’m in, when I’m at home.’
AW: She did.
NW: In 1970 the corporal on duty at Scampton had a young lady came up, knocked on the door said, ‘Now, corporal can you tell me where wing commander,’ umpty ump, ‘Lives?’ ‘Yes madam,’ he said. ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Well, I want to call on him.’ So Corporal locked up the guard room and took the young lady to the Wing Commander’s house. Knocked on the door. Who answered it?
AW: His wife.
NW: The Wing Commander’s wife who was in a wheelchair. A worse situation I think there could possibly be. So, I was building up the squadron. Waddington then. This gentleman rang me and said, ‘Norman, I’m in terrible trouble.’ Gave me an outline of what had happened. He said, ‘You must have some young men in your lot now,’ he said. ‘Could you spare one of them to entertain this lady for about a week?’ he said, ‘Take, take her out here. Take her out there.’ We’ll find out everything else we can find. Well, I had, the Air Ministry had given me a light, young baby Lightning pilot. He was, I think he was twenty one but he was held up in training because the Lightnings were as usual with British aircraft instruction were way behind. So, the Ministry man said, ‘Would you mind having this?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘Lovely. I can do with an adjutant.’ So, this, the guy at Scampton said, ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Right. See what you can do and you can tell him I’ll pay his expenses.’
AW: To give her away.
NW: So, I called this chap in. He was perfect for the job because he had a two seater sports car. And I said, ‘You’d better sit down. I’m going to tell you some very good news. Well, it could be if you agree to do it.’ I said, ‘There’s a nice good looking young lady staying at Scampton and certain people, including me would like you to entertain her for the next seven or ten days.’ I said, ‘All you’ve got to do is to take her out to a good typically English pub. Take her into Lincoln and see this, that and the everything else.’ Wonderful. The chap said, well he said, ‘Yeah but I’m not terribly well paid sir.’ I said, ‘This is the good bit. The wing commander will pay.’ ‘My God,’ he said. Shot off like a rocket then. [laughs] And they rampaged around Lincolnshire. Pulling down direction boards and doing all the stupid things that students normally do. But it did get her out of the way.
AW: It wasn’t so much away when you took the bombing competitions over to the US the guys getting drunk. It was the fact that they were on television being interviewed drunk. And that didn’t look very good.
CB: Not so good.
AW: For us. In the light of — so that’s why he had to send some of them back home.
NW: Well, the girl was —
AW: Don’t worry darling don’t go into that one.
NW: I’m not going to go —
AW: Because it’s so long, you know.
NW: No.
[recording paused]
CB: Well, thank you ever so much both of you. I can’t think of any other particular questions to ask you. Is there anything else —
NW: Lovely to see you. As I told you —
CB: That you can think of.
NW: You’re absolutely right for the job.
CB: Thank you ever so much and thank you so much for your time. And thank you Norman for recounting your memories for us of such interesting times. Thank you.
NW: Sorry some of them have been way out. I agree.
CB: No. It’s been absolutely fantastic. Very very interesting to listen.
NW: You’ve had to —
AW: More way out than that.


Cathy Brearley, “Interview with Norman Edward Wilkins,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,

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