Interview with Tom and Gabi Wilson

Title

Interview with Tom and Gabi Wilson

Description

Gabi Wilson grew up in Berlin and was a schoolgirl in 1939. She discusses one brother training as an interpreter and another brother returning from Russian prisoner of war camps. She worked as an apprentice at a publisher firm. She met her husband, Tom at university, they married in 1950 and moved to London where he became a head teacher.

Tom Wilson came from an academic family in New Zealand. He studied engineering and worked on radar before volunteering for the Air Force. He flew 13 operations as a navigator before his aircraft was shot down and he became a prisoner of war. He met his wife at a lecture.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-08-16

Contributor

Julie Williams

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

01:03:27 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AWilsonGT150816, PWilsonT1501, PWilsonT1502

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

AM: Ok. What I’m going to do is just introduce us first.
GW: Yeah.
AM: So this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Annie Moody and the interviewee is Gabby Wilson.
GW: Yeah.
AM: And the interview is taking place at Mrs Wilson’s home in Coleshill near Birmingham today. The, Sunday the 16th of August 2015.
GW: Yeah. I think people prefer Warwickshire. I’m sorry.
AM: Warwickshire. Oh better than Birmingham. Ok. A better postal code. So, Gabby tell me a little bit about your, your, just a little bit about your childhood.
GW: Right.
AM: And where you were born.
GW: My childhood was unusual because my father had lost his sight. He was a regular army officer in the Prussian Army and he lost his sight in November ’14. Straightway decided to start a new life. Went to Berlin University aided by his batman at first. Said to the batman, ‘Introduce me to that girl with the beautiful laugh.’ And that is my mother who gave up her studies. And we had a very happy childhood. Four children and I was the youngest of four.
AM: Fabulous. Where did, whereabouts did you live Gabby?
GW: Oh Berlin.
AM: In Berlin.
GW: It was. Yes. It was, yes, Berlin. It was Berlin University and my parents got an apartment in a place founded by Frederick the Great for invalided soldiers. And there was, built in 1912, an officer’s apartment halls and a large, large garden. I would think four to six times as large as this.
AM: And this one’s quite big.
GW: Yeah. Yes.
AM: Ok. And what about school? Where did you go to school?
GW: I went to school. To the local primary school at first. And then to the, what’s called, well what would be grammar school. And we had to go do a tram ride to get to that one so that was. But of course taking my father about, although he was very independent we were well dealt with. We knew about traffic. We were fine. I think I took my father across the road, a quiet road but still, when I was three.
AM: Three years old.
GW: Yes. He would say. He was always in command. Which was very good. The whole complex was moved out in ’39 just outside Berlin. Still Berlin but the absolute edge. Which was a blessing of course with the bombing and everything.
AM: Was it moved out because of the —
GW: No.
AM: No.
GW: No. No. It was because the complex in Berlin was being, going to be used for the Military Medical Corps for training and so on. So we were pushed out there. Very inconvenient for, particularly for all those with jobs. It was a fifteen to twenty minutes walk to the suburban station and then three quarters of an hour, half an hour, three quarters of an hour into the city. Which — my father, who had got his degree and was manager of one blind organisation for war wounded and another one for civilians where it was particularly seeing to jobs. That they had jobs. The usual blind jobs but more than that. It was a university with extra courses? My father went into town every day and we bought, in fact, we bought a tandem and learned to be in front with a heavy father at the back. I know my mother and I was, it was not easy at first. Later it was fine.
AM: How old were you?
GW: I was then eleven. Twelveish.
AM: Eleven.
GW: And it had a little, two little clips and if I had, I had to have my father’s permission. I had to ask him because he would notice it. If it was just a plain road, not up or down — perhaps down a little bit I could put my feet on there and he would do the pedalling himself. So that was, that was great. We went swimming every day. When we were in, lived in the centre of the city there were open air swimming pools but then we went and swam in a dead arm of a river.
AM: Ok.
GW: We would cycle half an hour to that spot. And there was what was called a dead arm where they stored logs. And that’s where we would bathe. And my father, incredibly brave, he’d just rely on us for those. But yeah he loved that. So for us really I mean for all of us this move out which we’d cursed because it was so far out from anything that was going on then was a blessing of course as the war went on. So that was my childhood.
AM: That was your childhood.
GW: With a very — well my mother had given up her studies but very bright, intelligent. It was that lovely. With two older brothers both very bright. One older sister. Very happy family life.
AM: Lovely. It sounds lovely.
GW: Yes. Yes.
AM: And then the war came.
GW: Well the war at first didn’t touch us one bit. For a long time. We had air raid shelters and we would go down and we had banks in it but nothing happened. We heard the planes follow the S [unclear] line in to Berlin and out and that was it. But no I wasn’t there at the end of the war because we were — I would have reached the last year at the school and we were all sent out to be called up by the, there was the organisation the arbeitsdienst. It was a Nazi, well, organisation where every girl had to do, I think, a half a year. My sister had to do it but instead of it we were supposed to be called up but they forgot me because, oh yes because of the Berlin schools were evacuated and so my mother sent me to a boarding school in Potsdam which is just outside Berlin.
AM: Yes. Yeah.
GW: Which, in a peninsula. Paradise.
AM: So your memory of it, apart from hearing the planes, is being in paradise.
GW: Yes.
AM: In Potsdam.
GW: Even we didn’t. That wasn’t in the flight path then. But we just had if there had been a long air raid we would have lessons either cut off or later. To get a bit more sleep. But that was a very very lovely time. And then we were supposed to be sent home. Supposed to be called up. Nobody called for me but I knew that girls were used to train young horses. And I’d done a bit of riding. Not very much. So I thought that rather than be called up I got into that. And my record for falling off was six times one morning.
AM: In one morning. What were the horses being —
GW: Between six and the eleven. Well they were very young.
AM: What were they trained for?
GW: They were trained you see. But since they weren’t on full rations they were comparatively very mild. They hadn’t got the strength to —
AM: Ok.
GW: To be naughty.
AM: Were you on rations during the war? Your family.
GW: Sorry?
AM: Were your family on limited rations during the war?
GW: Yes but my mother was a very good manager with the garden and things. We didn’t starve. Food was a bit boring. The hard time came after the war. Now, it sounds perhaps cruel but my father, now you’d think it’s nothing, he was seventy but he couldn’t, it took three hours to get into Berlin after the war because the Russians had taken tracks back. Don’t think I’m blaming them. They had suffered enough and so the train journey wasn’t smooth. It had to go on to the side to let the other one past. Long journey into Berlin. But my father still tried to work but it didn’t work and he died. I mean he had got a dicky heart and he died in October ‘45.
AM: ’45.
GW: The winter.
AM: So right at the end of the war then.
GW: The winter would have been, the winter of ‘46 was the worst. ‘46/47 for rations. So he — that would have been a very very hard time.
AM: What happened to your two older brothers?
GW: My oldest brother had, after leaving school they had to do half a year in something called arbeitsdienst. Some organisation.
AM: What does that mean?
GW: Well they had to dig things. It was a sort of supposed to be a bit of Nazi education or what but what did he [pause] well he didn’t, he didn’t work of course. He was good in three languages so he was an interpreter. It was, yes, ’36 Olympics.
AM: Ok.
GW: He walked about with three bands. French, English, Italian [laughs]
AM: How wonderful.
GW: And had a marvellous time.
AM: I would imagine he did.
GW: And the other one was too young. The other one was taken prisoner in March ’45 in, in Russia. In the Soviet Union.
AM: So they were both in the army.
GW: Yes. Yes. The older one was a sort of pulled in straight away. The younger one then later when he was old enough. And he spent four and a half years in a Soviet prison camp. So that —
AM: Gosh.
GW: But when Tom and he met they talked about prison camps.
AM: I can imagine. I don’t know, well —
GW: Well no, the Russian one was worse. But both had learned as much as they could. Tom had learned German. My brother had learned all sorts of things. They used their time. There were ways that they learned that. But he came home in ’48 [pause] or ‘49 I think.
AM: So he was still in the prisoner of war camp right up to 1949.
GW: Yes.
AM: Gosh.
GW: Yes. Yes. And if you, well you can always cut out, can’t you? At that time quite a few prisoners were coming home and they were announced who would arrive in Berlin next morning. That was around, announced on the radio at 10 o’clock at night. And my mother who then worked for Quakers and we’d moved. Her first job, her first job she ever had but wonderful. Well my mother just got home at 10 o’clock. Turned the wireless on, heard my brother’s name and so didn’t know whether it was hallucination or what was this. A few minutes, a few pebbles at the window. The parson, the local parson had listened in and he came to tell her. Wonderful wasn’t it?
AM: You’re making me cry.
GW: Yes, well wonderful. That, I mean that was great. So now by that time I had been in West Germany but I came home and there he was. Wonderful. He tried [pause] yes he tried some social work training and he was [pause] it was far, I mean, he was far too clever for that sort of level the training. And then he remembered before he was called up he had done a term or two at the Institute for Dramatic Studies. And that counted as having been at university then and so he got in again. Because it was still a long long waiting list to get in to university. So he got in. In his second term he did research and got his doctorate. Professor. Professor of Sociology and quite fantastic. Wrote books and —
AM: Wonderful.
GW: Still stayed the nice big brother.
AM: And where —
GW: But he then died. Yes.
AM: Where did you meet Tom?
GW: Tom, I met at this. My mother worked at a Quaker centre run by Americans. And they had arranged, they called it a seminar. Youngsters from all sorts of countries coming together and having lectures and doing things together. Now Tom had been doing, Tom had got a science degree really but after the war he, he got in to Cambridge doing German and Russian. And he’d gone to a seminar in Germany and the Americans, they had education officers. Because Germany hadn’t got a government or anything.
AM: What year was this Gabby?
GW: I beg your pardon.
AM: What year was this?
GW: That would have been in forty, did he come in ’48 or, yes, ’47 or ’48 and he went. Well, after he’d done a degree in German here first and then went to a seminar because, to get some practice and the American education officer took a shine to him because most of the young Americans on that course went into the woods with the frauleins rather than go to lectures [laughs] So she suggested that he go to Berlin. To this seminar. So that’s how we met. Yes, that’s when I had evenings.
AM: So you were there as a student or —
GW: No.
AM: No.
GW: No. I’d done, well my, two of the leaving certificates were supposed to have been given to me because I couldn’t have been going on. So I was doing. Had I started at that? I started an apprenticeship at a publishing firm.
AM: Ok.
GW: And my mother was there as, they called her hausmutter. You know, she looked after people at that centre, and so that’s how I came to come to those open evenings. And as far as I’m concerned it was love at first sight.
AM: Wonderful.
GW: And then my tactful mother gave me a photo of all of them when they went. And then Tom wrote because he wanted a girlfriend to form a correspondence with some girl. But that was a sort of a bit of getting into contact and so we started writing to each other and he came to Berlin at Christmas. Nothing nearly happened because he and my brother who had just come home were comparing notes.
AM: About being prisoners of war.
GW: Yes. But it did happen and we got married and I came here in 1950.
AM: And here you are.
GW: So that was —
AM: And you’ve been here ever since.
GW: Yes. Well —
AM: Were people ok with you when you came? You know the fact that you were German. That it was fairly soon after the war.
GW: I was pretty, I was pretty fluent in English.
AM: Ok.
GW: Because for some silly reason because English is easier to start with certainly and it used to be first foreign language — French. But it had been changed to English so I’d done seven years or six or so years of English. So, no, I was pretty, pretty good at it.
AM: Good.
GW: Yes.
AM: And people were ok.
GW: People were fine. People were fine. There was another German and I and we once had letters. Both of us. And that was the only thing we’ve ever had.
AM: Nasty letters you mean?
GW: Yes. Yes.
AM: Yeah.
GW: No idea what that was. No. People were fine.
AM: Good.
GW: Of course by that time Tom had done two years teaching when we got married, so he was established. That was near London. In Essex. Yes. Two years and then he got a headship because of all of his, you know, qualifications and things.
AM: Ok.
GW: They wanted these. It was a grammar school of course. They wanted it to have a technical bias. Which he was equipped for with his engineering degree.
AM: Yeah.
GW: And then of course it changed here but we had a very happy time in Coleshill.
AM: In this lovely house.
GW: Well that, of course, that was a widow. We think, and of course it’s a relatively big house. We think that they had hoped to have a family and didn’t. And we bought it off the widow.
AM: So you bought it.
GW: Which was sad for them because — but wonderful for ours.
AM: I’m going to switch the recording off and get Tom’s story.
GW: Yes.
AM: Of how he met you.
GW: Right.
AM: He got married in ’45.
GW: So your older brother. He was – who was he an interpreter for?
AM: Oh Americans.
GW: Ok.
AM: He was in the American part of Germany. You know, they were —
GW: You said that he spoke the languages.
AM: They were divided in to four parts.
GW: Yes.
AM: And he was in the American part. And he married in ’45 and that family they couldn’t imagine him to go on studying and then — no. Having very restricted life with not much money so he didn’t, he didn’t get on. He was an interpreter. Had good jobs but nothing compared with the little brother who’d always been in the shadow and then became a well known person. So it was a bit hard for him.
GW: Yeah.
AM: So your sister.
GW: Yes. Yes. My sister was in Berlin when the Russians came.
AM: Oh.
GW: And the, where we lived was the most northern tip of Berlin. So the first tip that many Russian soldiers got to and you can imagine that they went crazy. But my mother, who was very clever managed to hide my sister, a cousin, our maid and herself in all sorts of places. So they all escaped the attention of the Russians. It was, it was fantastic.
AM: I’m guessing it was dreadful though.
GW: Oh. Terrible. Yes. I didn’t know anything about them for six months.
AM: Remind me where were you at that time?
GW: I was in west, I was in West Germany you see. I’d gone to my mother’s best friend in the end.
AM: Ok.
GW: There was an uncle but he obviously didn’t want any more in his household because things were short but there was my mother’s best friend and I was absolutely convinced she would take me. And I — so I set off to see her. Train journey from Dortmund, which is Cologne area to where she lived, Frankfurt which was only in the middle. Took five days.
AM: Five days.
GW: Yeah.
AM: Good Lord.
GW: Mainly on goods trains and things. Now, for a youngster without children to care or old people to care or things see it wasn’t, it wasn’t such a hardship.
AM: Was it an adventure?
GW: Exactly.
AM: So how old were you then?
GW: Yes. Yes.
AM: You would be?
GW: I was seventeen.
AM: Seventeen.
GW: Had I [pause] Or had I — no. I was just eighteen. Yes. Yes.
AM: Yes.
GW: So I went to this friend in Frankfurt and then there was an exchange of people going from the east to the west in the morning and west to east in the afternoon. Something strange. Of crowds to let people get home. And I did that.
AM: This was before the wall of course. Before the wall was built.
GW: Oh yes. Before the wall. Yes. Yes.
AM: But still you had to go across the sectors.
GW: Yes. Oh yes they were. Oh yes they had, you had to have permits for instance to get into the west. In to the American part also. It wasn’t, it wasn’t all open. But I got through and I got to Berlin and I went back to school. And the headmistress, about that height, had started school again about three weeks after the end of the war. Fantastic woman. So, and of course we were all, all hungry. We were all had difficult times and if somebody said, ‘We’re going. I’m sorry I can’t come to school we’re going to try to get some potatoes,’ kind of travelling to that. Everybody said, ‘Good luck.’
AM: Bring us some.
GW: Yes.
AM: Yeah.
GW: Yes. Yes. So I then, did I go straight — Oh no. I worked for a publishing firm as an apprentice. Germany has always apprentices and exams in anything. And I did the apprenticeship and did the exam but by then the university started. The university was the main, the university had been in the east, but freie universitat, free university, started off in the west and I managed to get in to that and started studying there. So that but then I didn’t complete my degree because in Germany you go on and on and on and then when you think you’re ready to go you got to a professor and think, ‘I think I’m ready.’ Quite unorganised [laughs] so I came, we got married and I have got an Open University degree.
AM: Have you now? Wonderful.
GW: Yeah. So I’ve got that.
[recording paused]
GW: I’ve been ‘36 or ’37, ’38 would have been, my father, who used to write a diary said that thirteen boys from my brother’s class were continuing their education abroad. And that was in ’33.
AM: In ’33.
GW: And thirteen left.
AM: Crikey. Right. Right. Your turn. Your turn Tom.
[pause]
AM: Can I introduce it first? So this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Annie Moody and the interviewee is Tom Wilson and the interview is taking place at Tom’s home in Coleshill in Warwickshire on Sunday the 16th of August.
TW: And you’re from the north.
AM: I am. I’m from near Manchester.
TW: Are you?
AM: I am.
TW: See when you got there it was hooome.
AM: Oh right. Hooome hoome.
TW: It hit me [laughs]
AM: Tom, tell me a little bit about where you were born and your childhood. Just a little bit about when you were born and your childhood.
TW: Right. New Zealand parents. Both families had emigrated in the 1880s and father went to university in New Zealand and eventually became a Doctor of Science in electrical engineering. And that’s important because I’d gone to Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School here. I’d been a sergeant in the OTC and my inclination was join up straight away when the war started. My father was dead against that because he, he’d been an electrical engineer in New Zealand and he’d been whipped off to England in 1915 as a researcher into the German war effort. And so I wanted to join up immediately the war started and he said, ‘No fear. Engineers aren’t cheap cannon fodder.’ And father had gone on working on German, secret scientific things right, really I suppose until, until the [pause] he was in charge of a big research place belonging to GEC. General Electric Company. And they were doing work for Britain. I think, right until he died more or less. And so the idea of my joining up in the infantry struck him as being absolutely fantastic — stupid.
AM: Right.
TW: And I ought to be working in research or something. And in fact what I’d done was in 1939 I’d started a university course in electrical engineering which was father’s racket. And I went on working at that and from time to time on secret things until my, kind of hero at school was killed. He didn’t come home from, he was flying a Spitfire. Spitfires. And he didn’t come home from Brest after a big Bomber Command attack on Brest and a on the, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were there then. And so that’s what father had been involved in. Whereas my inclination, having been in the OTC, having all the time been infantry was to join the infantry right against father. At any rate, what happened was he insisted that I did the engineering course. Electrical engineering course at Birmingham University which I did until, one of my, kind of, best friends or heroes from the Corps at Bishop Vesey’s, he didn’t come back from an intelligence. He was flying Spitfires and he didn’t come back from a trip to Brest. Taking photographs there of course of everything that was there. And when that happened I immediately went to cycle in to Birmingham from the university and volunteered for the air force. And the air force took me on in the first civilian entry of students working on radar.
AM: Ok.
TW: On airborne radar. And I stayed working with that until Bob Ayers was killed and I then immediately joined the air force. And so I had two years working on manufacture of, and design and everything else of British airborne radar.
AM: Right.
TW: And when I volunteered for that I was trained first of all and then sent off to fly on a special duty squadron in Northern Ireland. And having done three months on that I did — went on to a special duty squadron in Scotland and then I was shot down from there.
AM: How many, how many operations did you actually do? Or was it all — was it radar work?
TW: It was radar work.
AM: Ok.
TW: And I did thirteen really. The air force didn’t count the last as ops.
AM: [laughs] If you didn’t get back.
TW: That’s right.
AM: What, what position did you take on the plane? Were you the navigator?
TW: No. I flew as a navigator.
AM: Ok.
TW: But we had a navigator on the planes.
AM: So you were the extra man.
TW: I was the extra chap with a whole, kind of laboratory of apparatus. Of various clever things. All highly secret. And I was shot down. Became a prisoner of war. Had two years as a prisoner of war and then came back to this country. In ’45 it was, wasn’t it? That’s right.
AM: Where were you shot down Tom? Can you remember?
TW: Yes. I know where I was shot down. I was shot down in Holland [unclear]
AM: [unclear]
TW: Which is The Hague. And so I had two years as a prisoner of war.
AM: Whereabouts? Which camp were you in?
TW: Stalag Luft Drei. Stalag Luft iii.
AM: Three.
TW: Yeah.
AM: What sort of things did you get involved in in the camp? Did you get involved in learning or in any of the shows that they put on or anything like that?
TW: I was in, I was in the orchestra and of course I was also very much involved in escape.
AM: Oh tell me about, tell me about that.
TW: The wooden horse escape. I was asked to join in my first week or so and so that’s the big thing. I’m the oldest survivor of the wooden horse.
AM: Of the wooden horse. So what was your role within that? What did you actually do?
TW: Vaulting over the wooden horse. So, which was —
AM: It was a vault. A gym box.
TW: Yes. That’s right.
AM: And you, you were one of the people who vaulted over it.
TW: That’s right.
AM: While they were tunnelling underneath.
TW: And then eventually it was over and the wooden horse was carried back in to the cantina. I had to take over and make certain that there were no traces left. That everything was cleared up and looked normal.
AM: And what were they doing underneath?
TW: Building a tunnel.
AM: To go under the wire and —
TW: We fixed it. We didn’t put the wooden horse against the barbed wire. That would have been obvious but we had it fairly near. And the tunnel was done from under the horse. Out and under the wire.
AM: So a lot shorter distance than if they’d been doing it from one of the huts.
TW: That right. Not so short that it became immediately suspicious. On the other hand Charlie, that’s the chap who was in charge of German security was very suspicious of the wooden horse all its time. And after the wooden horse escape I was of course involved in all kinds of secret things in the camp.
AM: What sort of secret things?
TW: Well, tunnels. And I taught German.
AM: To the other, you taught the other prisoners German.
TW: Yeah. Yeah. I’d teach. Yeah.
AM: Yeah.
TW: And was involved in trying to work out what they were doing the whole time.
AM: Yeah. Gosh. So at the, at the end of the war then were you marched? Were you involved in the marches?
TW: Yes.
AM: Yeah.
TW: At the end of the war we were certainly [pause] I’d managed to fall. I was the breakfast chap in our room so I made breakfast and on some kind of day in, in the autumn I had fallen down carrying two, there must have been three or four gallon boiling water things.
AM: Oh gosh.
TW: And I lost all the skin on this foot.
AM: On your right. Right foot.
TW: Yeah. That’s right. And so before the big march started I was on a train, on goods wagons. They’re always, when you read books about escaping they write about cattle trucks. They weren’t cattle trucks. It’s only that being goods wagons they had painted on the side forty men or twelve horses. And that was information to the German railways that that’s what they could load on the things.
AM: Ok.
TW: In fact we had fifty five on our truck. But there it was.
AM: So where was the, where were you going on the train?
TW: We went to Nuremberg. It took from, I think Monday ‘til Friday and we were unloaded at Nuremberg. In the prison camps there. And then I was immediately, I’d been teaching German in Luft iii, I was teaching German again and I found the Nuremberg camp was largely American. There was some RAF but it was largely American people and quite often I would find myself acting as interpreter between American colonels and German people.
AM: Gosh. And then what happened after? Where did you go next after Nuremberg?
TW: From Nuremberg we marched. Beginning on the 4th of April ’46.
AM: ’45.
TW: No it wasn’t in ’46. It was ’48 wasn’t it? The war ended in —
AM: ’45.
TW: In ’45.
And this was three years later and we started marching. And we marched until we got to the largest camp. The largest prison camp in Germany and we were stuffed into that. And while we were there we were liberated by the American army and were put into the, we were kept in to, kept inside the prison camp and eventually we were driven to the nearest aerodrome to be flown home. And it didn’t happen from there. We had to march off somewhere else and we met a whole of squadron of Lancs. Lancasters. And they brought us back here.
AM: Yeah. And what was it like when you got back? Deloused. Did you have to be deloused?
TW: Yeah. When we were liberated — I think it was somewhere in May ’45.
AM: Yeah.
TW: We were liberated there and then. We were liberated in that our camp was invaded. It became an American camp because it was the Americans that liberated us. And then after about — well it was in, in fact it was the end of the war was the 8th of May ’45 and I was loaded on to a Lanc on the 10th .
AM: Was that your first time on a Lancaster?
TW: Yeah.
AM: Because you’d flown Wellingtons I think.
TW: Wellingtons. Yeah.
AM: Yeah.
TW: Yeah.
AM: And back home.
TW: Back home. Yeah. That was very quick. Now what had happened — oh yes the camp was being evacuated and they weren’t being evacuated by Lancasters but by [pause] DC3s weren’t they?
AM: I’m not sure. Dakotas? Maybe. Anyway —
TW: What the Americans were using and as we left the camp to drive to the aerodrome in big German transports there were big columns of black smoke to the north of us and this was where one of these DC3s had swung on takeoff and it had ploughed into five other DC3s — all loaded with American ex-prisoners. And we saw this before we left our camp. And when we got there they were just piles of DC3s absolutely full of American ex-prisoners of war. And I was told to — it was May the 8th. It was VE day. And I was told to take my chaps off in to the town and find them billets. And so I found them all billets and was left with two others. That’s right. And we were given then a girl’s home. She wasn’t there. Where she was I don’t know but I read her knitting magazine. And then the next day, that’s right, and we went off to the aerodrome and we found the aerodrome was absolutely empty. It had been, because of the accident the Americans had said it was an impossible aerodrome. It was too small.
AM: Right.
TW: You see, it was in the middle of a wood for one thing. And so, at any rate I was sent off to find billets. I had one hundred and eighty five roughly of our prisoners and I had to find billets for them. Whereas the Americans that had been on this aerodrome – they were all on board planes. But the smoke I’d seen before we left the prison camp, it was one aircraft had swung on takeoff when the pilot had opened up the throttles and he ploughed into five other aircraft and the Americans in result had immediately said that this aerodrome was impossible. It was too small. And the next morning I got up. Got all the chaps I’d billeted and marched off to this aerodrome because we’d been told on leaving it that I was to return the next day and there’d be further orders for me. I returned the next day and there were no Americans there at all.
AM: Gone.
TW: They’d all gone. And I just got, what we did was we lay on the grass of this aerodrome for three days. There was a German in the forest who had done what Hitler had said, not many did. But Hitler had said that when the end of the war came Germans weren’t to hand themselves over as prisoners. They were to hide up somewhere with guns and ammunition and shoot western troops until they were out of ammunition. And so one of these characters was in the woods bordering the aerodrome. And he couldn’t have had much ammunition. It meant that he fired at us probably about every two or three hours. One shot.
AM: Did he actually get anybody? Did he manage to shoot anybody?
TW: No. No.
AM: Oh good.
TW: Mainly he got his gun tipped down and was catching, firing in to the ground and the bullet was then coming to us on the aerodrome making a hell of a noise but it was hitting the ground and then shooting up. And that was that. At any rate I had my, I had a hundred and eighty plus prisoners I was in charge of. And having had them billeted on German platz that one night. We just felt so tired we just slept on the aerodrome.
AM: Slept on the ground.
TW: We were lying on the floor so that we weren’t presenting a target for this character that was holed up in the forest. And so we’d arrived on the Monday. We were lying on the aerodrome on the Tuesday and the Wednesday. So 8th, 9th 10th and then nothing. There had been aircraft there when we arrived. They took off absolutely full of Americans. And we spent one night. I had found billets in town. No Germans in the billet I was in which was the last one. It had had a German woman in and I read her knitting books.
AM: You read her knitting books.
TW: Yeah. And then the next morning I marched all of my hundred and eighty blokes on to the aerodrome again. There was no one there.
AM: They’d all gone.
TW: They’d all gone and we just lay on the ground.
AM: Just laid there.
TW: And slept.
AM: When you got, when you got back home.
TW: Yes.
AM: What happened then? Did you go on leave? Did you come back to Birmingham?
TW: Came back to Birmingham. In fact what had happened was that we flew from Germany and since it was an American camp, an American evacuation and we’d been liberated by the Americans we went to the American prisoner liberation camps which was in France. And I was there two days. No, no Americans around. They’d gone off since this place was now condemned as impossible as an aerodrome. And on the Thursday a whole squadron of Dakotas came in. They came in and landed and we got up and ran out to meet them. ‘Where are we?’ they said. And so I gave orders to all my blokes to get on board and I said, ‘We’ll tell you when we’re on board.’ And they’d flown us to this centre. Liege or somewhere in France and from there the Americans were being taken to a gathering camp, Brittany where they were waiting for boats. And on the other hand we British were told, I was told to report to, the British embarkation officer was there and I reported to him and so immediately I had to produce lists of my hundred and eighty chaps in. Enough to fill an aircraft. And they weren’t allowed to fly without these lists on board. So that if the aircraft crashed and people were killed they could us names.
AM: Right.
TW: Or it didn’t happen. At any right I’d had to write out these lists when I eventually made contact with the Americans and I’d had, on each occasion to write out — I started off with, I think it was twenty five. I started with twenty five prisoners on a Dakota. And then the Americans thought they might manage to squeeze thirty on board. And then they decided that they might have to just send twenty. And so on each occasion I lost complete sleep that night and I spent the night writing out — they had to be quadruplicates. Four copies for each aircraft for a number of aircraft that would take our hundred and eighty. And it meant I was writing out these lists all night.
AM: All night.
TW: Yeah.
AM: Where did you, where did they land back in Britain?
TW: We had three days on this airfield or [unclear] airfield. In fact I’d gone back to it. Marched back to it and it was condemned as too small but I wouldn’t move. And there were no Americans there at all.
AM: No.
TW: And we were there on our own so we just lay on the floor and slept. And on the Thursday, why was I staying there? Because I knew that the Thursday was Ascension Day. And I thought Ascension Day might be lucky.
AM: Might be lucky for you.
TW: Yeah.
AM: What did you do after the war was over?
TW: I went to Cambridge.
AM: You went to Cambridge and took a degree in —
TW: Took a degree in German and Russian.
AM: In German and Russian.
TW: Yeah.
AM: And then what did you do? What work did you do after that?
TW: I taught German and Russian. I bought two copies. Two successive, no three copies of The Times Educational Supplement and read through them to see what there was in the way of jobs. And the first week I found two posts in London — four French teachers and this the third day it was a school in Essex and they wanted someone that would teach German and Russian. So I went there.
AM: So you went there.
TW: Yeah. I immediately applied to the schools that wanted French teachers but I never got a reply from them. On the other hand I got a reply from Essex to their advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement on the third day. And I went there.
AM: So you went there. Where did you meet Gabby? How did you meet Gabby after the war?
TW: Right. So we had the end of the war and I decided that I must make certain that my German was faultless and so I looked up advertisements and answered two advertisements wanting language teachers in London and around about there. And on the third day it was Essex. Romford.
AM: Yes.
TW: And so I applied to all these advertisements and the Romford Head wrote back straight away and I went for an interview and I got the job.
AM: Got the interview there.
TW: Yeah. There were two others being interviewed with me but they hadn’t got either German or Russian. They’d got French. And so I got the job.
AM: Wonderful.
TW: And then I stayed there eight years and the Head advised me it was about time that I was applying for headships and I’d already decided to do that. And Coleshill came up and I applied for it and I got it. So it meant that after the war I replied to two, to three advertisements. Three different schools and I was offered the post at both of them so I was very lucky.
AM: Yeah. Brilliant. I’m going to switch —

Collection

Citation

Annie Moody, “Interview with Tom and Gabi Wilson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 18, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11778.

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