Interview with James Stanley Wilson


Interview with James Stanley Wilson


James Stanley Wilson remembers serving as a flight engineer on 626 Squadron during the war. Tells of his baptism of fire on his first operation to Berlin, when his aircraft was targeted by enemy fighters. Mentions marking targets on D-Day. Talks about comradeship among the crew members.



IBCC Digital Archive




Peter Schulze


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00:30:53 audio recording




AWilsonJS160630, PWilsonJS1601

Temporal Coverage


JF: Hey there, I’m John Fisher and I’m talking with Mr. Stanley Wilson, who is ninety one and a half he tells me, and he lives in Wolverhampton. He’s originally Scottish as you’ll soon find out and he was in 626 Squadron having volunteered for the RAF when he was eighteen in around November 1942. Stanley, you had a rather rough initiation, didn’t you, with your first operation? What happened?
JSW: Yes, that’s quite correct. The first operation of course was unfortunately on Berlin and as we flew over the enemy territory, we were engaged by Fw 190. Information from the gunner, the rear gunner, pilot went to do a corkscrew and at that particular time we were hit by some shells. One came through my windscreen and through my seat, fortunately I wasn’t there at the time, having gone into a dive, of course I left my seat and finished up on the roof of the cockpit. After various corkscrews and assistance from the pilot, we evaded the, eventually evaded the fighters although severely damaged although no damage was done to the [unclear], elevator or anything so we pursued, carried on to the target. No more attacks were made that night. We arrived safely.
JF: What were your feelings when you, here you are, you’re a flight engineer, having just done three months in a flight engineer’s course, this is your first operation, what did you feel about that? As soon as you got over Berlin, there you are, being attacked?
JSW: It was frightening, because we had no idea what happens on an operation and all these things like fairy lights and flares, flashing round about, you wouldn’t realise these were anti-aircraft shells exploding.
JF: You were [unclear] green, they didn’t tell you too much.
JSW: They told us nothing, despite the fact that the pilot had been on a Second Dickey trip, he couldn’t explain much because the trip he was on was fairly quiet. So what we did see over the target was really frightening. Unbelievable you wonder how you can fly through all these flak, the anti-aircraft shells exploding and suchlike, but you can hear the shrapnel hitting the aircraft and bits and pieces where it explodes. What do you do? You carry on and hope for the best.
JF: So, how did you get back to base then?
JSW: Oh, no problem get back to base, fortunately there was no damage done to the aircraft as far as flying was concerned so we did do the ride back, safely, shaken and wondered what, is this what we are in for the future?
JF: So, you really thought, is this every night?
JSW: Yeah, this was expected, this was our initiation, do you get this every night?
JF: Oh dear, how old were you then? You weren’t very old, were you?
JSW: I’d just turned nineteen.
JF: God!
JSW: And my birthday was the first of January, first of November and that flight was somewhere in December, so, I can’t remember, I think it was the 24th, Christmas Eve.
JF: Oh dear! And base then was?
JSW: We were based at Wickenby at that particular time.
JF: Yeah. And of course this is in 626 Squadron.
JSW: This was 626 Squadron.
JF: Yeah.
JSW: Wickenby of course is something like ten miles outside Lincoln.
JF: On your second night, what happened? Stanley is consulting his logbook [laughs]. It’s a long time ago, it’s difficult to remember, isn’t it?
JSW: It is at all. [laughs] The second operation again was Berlin and quite a trip that time, entirely different to the first one even over the target, it was well lit up by searchlights and flares dropped from above, to enable the fighters to operate that night instead of anti-aircraft fire so although we could see the fighters flying about, we didn’t have any attacks and made a fairly safe journey back home. Did ever hope that at the end of that, all the other trips would be the same.
JF: Did you know why the fighters didn’t attack anybody or?
JSW: Oh, we could see the fighters attacking, yes, we could see them, we could see also see aircraft being shot down, we could also see the odd parachute coming out of the aircraft. And you could also see all the aircraft blowing up.
JF: Had you any experience of parachuting?
JSW: Never, never even taught how to parachute out.
JF: So you wouldn’t even know.
JSW: Well, we knew what to do, get out quickly and pull the cord.
JF: [laughs] So, you really no idea what that experience is?
JSW: [unclear] no idea at all what it’s like to parachute.
JF: So, did you very quickly become experienced of operations?
JSW: You soon get into the way of it, but up most in your mind. Is this my time tonight? Well I’ll be going back home tonight, there is always that thought in your mind, when you take off, by saying cheerio, so the thought is always there because at that particular time, roughly five weeks was the expected time on a Squadron. Well, when somebody tells you that the losses are fairly heavy that particular time, you begin to worry, you say, when will it happen?
JF: What about your parents, did they?
JSW: Unfortunately my parents didn’t know I was flying until they read it in the paper about the first operation and then of course then it was extreme worry all the time. Unfortunately I think that was one of the reasons that they both died before I was demobbed.
JF: Just worry.
JSW: Worry, yeah.
JF: So, do you remind the identification on your plane at all? What that was?
JSW: I can remember the number, only because it’s in my logbook.
JF: [laughs] and what is it?
JSW: This was a DV 171 K2. That was on that particular occasion. But of course, because of the damage to some of the aircraft, we never knew [unclear] was going and as being a new crew to the station you took all the old summer past sell-by date, the older ones until you were there for and did a few operations, that was when you were allocated, you know, one of the newer aircraft.
JF: Ah, and did you get one of those?
JSW: Oh yes, we did eventually, oh, yes, yes.
JF: So, how many operations did you do?
JSW: I did, we did thirty.
JF: You did thirty.
JSW: Yeah.
JF: Yeah, that’s good. And have you ever kept in touch with any of the rest of the crew?
JSW: Oh yes, the pilot and the navigator were Scottish and we used to meet once a year when I went back from Scotland we spent a day out, wives and the husbands, we spent just reminiscing.
JF: And what were their names?
JSW: The pilot was Jimmy Stewart
JF: As it would be [laughs]
JSW: And the navigator was Bill Meir. Jimmy Stewart came from Elgin and Bill Meir came from Motherall. I came from Coatbridge so we were all
JF: Yes, you’re not far away from each other.
JSW: Yes, we were not far away from each other. The rear gunner had a farm down in Taunton, Somerset, we did meet him very, very occasionally, kept in touch the mid upper gunner, Lane Smith, until he died on the Isle of Man a few years ago. I can’t say anymore of the rest because the bomb aimer lived in London and I think, emigrated to South Africa. The wireless operator, because we had problems with our original wireless operator, we finished up with spare [unclear] so we didn’t get to know them very well. And two of them were Australians, so they went back to Australia, so really it was the mid upper rear gunner, navigator, pilot and myself that kept in touch.
JF: Now, you were at the sort of, at the front end of the D-Day operations, weren’t you?
JSW: Yes.
JF: Tell us a bit about what you did and where you went.
JSW: Well, at that particular time, D-Day, we were on this special duty squadron, which was formed by number 1 Group and the purpose then was to mark the targets visually on moonlight nights only along the coast to disrupt the transport of troops, equipment etcetera. [unclear] camp, camps where the tanks were all spread out, offices where the senior officers were, so this was our contribution then to disrupt the transport of all the goods about along the coast, which stretched from the North of the Channel, from Calais right down to the Normandy beaches.
JF: They were totally different to bombing over Berlin I take it?
JSW: Oh, that was entirely different because we were only, at that particular time, this special duty squadron that was formed, we did nothing but drop flares. We went in at low level, visually mark the targets and then contacted the main Pathfinder force to mark the targets. We marked them with a certain coloured flares and informed the master bomber then to mark the target that we had already marked.
JF: And were there any really, really major targets that you were able to identify?
JSW: One in particular which is a book written about [unclear] Marne, which we marked properly but unfortunately there was a lack of communication between the master bomber and the rest of the Pathfinder force, there was a mix up there so that was one in particular.
JF: And what was you were marking, what was, tell us a bit about what it was?
JSW: Sorry?
JF: What was it you were marking?
JSW: Well, it could be if we take, let’s get this, Lyon. We marked motor works, was ammunition dumps, Reims ammunition dumps, Coburg gun positions
JF: This was fairly important.
JSW: These, yeah, these were all selected of course. Maintenon ammunition dumps, railway [unclear]
JF: Were you getting any resistance when you [unclear] cause you had to do low flying, did you?
JSW: Resistance, we had ground fire, quite a lot of ground fire and of course severe damage too. On many occasions we suffered. Can you stop that for a bit, I just.
JF: Stanley has some photographs here which is showing the bomb doors and the damage done to the bomb doors and also to the fuselage. How did that happen?
JSW: Well, we were struck by obviously ground fire which exploded the ammunition and blew out all the gunner’s ammunition and set the flares on fire. The aircraft went on fire, we were only at two thousand feet.
JF: How did you feel there cause although you were up in the
JSW: Well, we were smoked by, we were covered in smoke and suchlike and the instruction was, the pilot instructed the wireless operator and the mid upper gunner to, the pilot to make sure, and he said he would climb and enable us to bail out if it were necessary because at two thousand feet we couldn’t, so he got up to eight thousand feet and went into a dive, bomb doors open, the flames were put out by not just for the fire extinguisher by, also by the diving.
JF: So that was another lucky escape.
JSW: That was a lucky escape, so, that was it, we take home, come home.
JF: Yes, cause there was nothing you could do at that point.
JSW: We had already marked the target, that was no more because all our flares had gone and fired at an aircraft and that was it so we come home. But the target was successfully marked. Then we made our way home and had our cup of coffee [laughs]
JF: That was a relief.
JSW: Yes.
JF: Mainly because how did you get coffee [laughs]?
JSW: Ah, well, you see, this is it, when you go through your debriefing, the WAAFs are there with their coffee and the [unclear] is there with the rum, which you distilled with an eye dropper [laughs] and then we always had a debriefing after each raid. No matter where you went, you were always debriefed, very carefully and suchlike. But then we went back here and had your flying meal.
JF: And what did you do between tours, you know? You went on a pub occasionally on your weekends off when you got?
JSW: There was no such thing as weekends off, there were no such things as days off unless the weather was such that there was no flying. There was always something to do if there were ops, if you were free of ops on a particular night you may get the time off which if you are at Wickenby you are going to Lincoln and when we were at [unclear] we were into Grimsby. What do you do when you are going there? You look for the nearest pub you look for and also at some [unclear] where you can get something to eat and enjoy yourself, make the most of it because you never know when you will be back again.
JF: No, there’s no point. And what about comradeship on [unclear]?
JSW: Well, of course, six of us, we had problems with the wireless operator, the first wireless operator after the third operation disappeared from the squadron.
JF: Do you know why that was?
JSW: Yes, he lost his nerve, LMF. We then had a second operator, he lasted one raid, he [unclear] LMF. Then we had spare operators after that, we were very good. John [unclear] was an early man but he was an excellent wireless operator and another one was an Australian, he finished his tour with us, he’d only a few operations to do, he finished his tour with us and we had an Australian, [unclear], who was very good and he finished his operations with us. And then with the third one, and for the life [unclear] I can’t remember his second name was Johnny, he finished his tour with us. And then that was it.
JF: Was it something you said? [laughs]
JSW: [laughs] And, but the rest of us, the six of us stuck together, we went everywhere together. We didn’t know many other people, we were so close, even when we travelled, we travelled north and the train, Jimmy, Bill and I, obviously went to Edinburgh and then separated when we got there. But despite the fact that these two were officers first class, I travelled first class with them [unclear] then CO.
JF: That was quite a privilege.
JSW: Well, I’ll tell you. Yeah, that was it. So, we were very, very close together right until the day we parted. Because you aline each other, you’re dependent when you’re flying you’re so dependent on each other and we trusted each other, that was the most important thing, the trust. Jimmy was a good pilot, but we were all good.
JF: Was there a lot of banter?
JSW: No banter while we were flying,
JF: No.
JSW: It was silence. No, no, that was one thing, it was installed on us, there was no talk, unless it was necessary. Jimmy and I sitting next to each other, we did a lot of signs, if there was any problems we didn’t want to disrupt the [unclear] we knew what was wrong and we could.
JF: As flight engineer, what were your duties there on the plane?
JSW: Everything except fly the plane [laughs]. Well, what would you say, start up, everything that the pilot didn’t do, what the second pilot used to do, you could say anything except fly the plane although I was taught, Jimmy taught me how to fly the plane and did fly it on many occasions but not on operations. That was just as a safeguard if anything happened to him. At least we made people to fly home, not to land but to fly home and bail out. Things like that.
JF: So you never actually had to bail out at all.
JSW: Oh no, we were very fortunate, we always got back, well, yeah, we always got back home eventually.
JF: And did you, were you able to contact your parents then to say, hey, we’re home or?
JSW: Oh no, no, there was no, there was no telephone.
JF: Tell us, you could, telegrams
JSW: Well, first of all, in those days, my parents hadn’t their telephone, not many people had, but how do you contact them and send them a telegram? I didn’t want to do that because if the telegram boy comes to the door, they’re thinking of something else, they could hear on the radio, forty aircraft missing last night, they think, well, you know.
JF: Yeah, how did you feel then when you heard that sort of things because?
JSW: I’m afraid you get used to it and really, if you see the, so and so hasn’t come back from the squadron, you just say, oh dear, bad luck or else. That’s it, I’m afraid that’s the feeling you get. You know, you accept death as a normality. Terrible.
JF: Yeah, and when you are up in the air, over Berlin or somewhere, are you slightly sort of numbed or?
JSW: Oh no, no, no, because you’re concentrating on.
JF: Yeah.
JSW: Everybody’s watching.
JF: Yeah.
JSW: You’re on the lookout for everything, you’re watching for fighters.
JF: You’re detached from it really.
JSW: [unclear]
JF: Yeah.
JSW: You’re so busy, you’re watching for the enemy, you’re also watching your instruments, watching that everything’s alright. You have no time to think of anything about danger here.
JF: So, as the war ended, what were you doing then?
JSW: Oh, when I finished my tour, you’re sent on a, you’re given six months what they called screening but at the time I finished which was back in, I think it was August, September ’44, they had enough aircrew so they decided that those who had finished their tour may have to go to Japan but if necessary, and if necessary they would be trained as such but then we were sent to, most of the air crew was sent up to our receiving centre in Scotland and assessed, tried to give you another job, a ground job, because I was a flight engineer they thought they’d sent me on a mechanics course
JF: [unclear]
JSW: Which I finished up at Cosford. Well, that was eventually, but I didn’t know where I was going, I went home on leave and fortunately they forgot all about me and I was home on leave for two months and I got a telegram telling me to report to Digby, which is outside Lincoln. And for some time I worked in an engineer’s office sending reports into Bomber Command about the aircraft that were fit for flying etcetera etcetera. Then months later they decided I should go on a mechanics course, which I went to Cosford and spent doing my mechanics course I knew more about the aircraft than the engines that worked some of the [unclear] [laughs] and then I was posted to Suffolk, Graveley where there was a Lancaster squadron and I was in the office until I was demobbed.
JF: And what year was that?
JSW: I was demobbed in January ’47.
JF: And did you go back to your old job then or what did you do?
JSW: Oh yes, I returned to, because I was [unclear] my friend as an engineer and I volunteered, when I volunteered, part of the deal was they would take me back and I went back to my old company from the Air Force, that was in 1947, I became a foreman in 1948 and I decided I didn’t want cause I [unclear] my hands and stuff like that and I went on to the management.
JF: Just remind us what this company is.
JSW: It was Murray and Paterson, who were an engineering company. Manufacturing all, again steel works plant equipment.
JF: Yeah. And where was that based?
JSW: That was based in Coatbridge, my hometown. So, and I remained with them until 1952 and then I joined Harvard and Wolfs. And that was the engineering department in Wolfs, which slightly different, ship building. I started there as an inspector and but then in two years I was a foreman and then I became a superintendent in the engineering division. [unclear] three or four years after I joined them. And then I was headhunted to a company in Sheffield in 1961, I joined a company in Sheffield as [unclear] manager and remained with them until I, with the company until I retired in 1988, finishing off as an engineering technical director.
JF: Do you ever go back to the war and what happened and do you talk to people about it?
JSW: Yes, my daughter is connected with the education of children. I’ve been asked to go back and speak about the war time, living in the war and war service, I’ve done on several occasions at one or two of the schools.
JF: And the children, what sort of questions do they ask?
JSW: They are mostly interested in, of course children today you got to explain the difference in aircraft, some of them [unclear] and they think it’s police shells flying in the aircraft and you got to explain it to them, it’s very difficult to get them to understand that. Then you try to tell them about blackout and you explain it to them, it’s just like being in your bedroom and no lights on, and they can’t understand how you can walk about like that. It’s very difficult to get the children to understand. The older ones those I have spoken to those who were on [unclear] and they asked more questions about how does one feel about the killing of people and that type of, they’re more interested in killing of people.
JF: And what do you tell them?
JSW: Well, it’s, all I could say to them was we had to do that because if we hadn’t done what we did do, I wouldn’t be able to stand here speaking to them in a free manner. We would have been very restricted in our [unclear] and they accept that.
JF: Cause it is very difficult for children to understand that, doesn’t it? When I was a youngster nobody talked about the war. We didn’t hear anything about til years later.
JSW: Well that’s quite correct, because I can tell you this that when you research the subject my two daughters were, well the youngest one is twenty five, and the oldest one, the other one was thirty one, didn’t know I had been flying, until they were at that age. I’ve never spoken about it.
JF: I can understand it, my mother never spoke.
JSW: Never, never raised it and the people I worked with didn’t know. In fact, when I retired when I was 64, I said, some of the directors there didn’t even know I’d been in the Air Force. I’d never spoken about it then.
JF: Why didn’t you talk about it?
JSW: Well, it’s difficult to see, you feel
JF: Do you shut it out of your mind or?
JSW: You try to shut it out of your mind because for years afterwards I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares, the thoughts and the things that happened and the more you think about it, the worse it becomes and then you start thinking about the killing of people, was it worth it? And of course, the feeling from the public after the war because of Churchill, the way he treated Bomber Harris and never referred to the bombing etcetera, despite the fact that he was the one who instructed us what to do, people were anti and that’s why one of the reasons why I never spoke about it because you would just create rouse and suchlike and that’s why at this moment of time I’ve been asked to speak at one or two of the Churchill’s things, whether the women ventureship, I refused to do it because I know some of them are anti bomber, they become involved in any discussion.
JF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose they can’t comprehend what the alternative would have been.
JSW: No, that’s the difficulty. Yeah.
JF: Yeah. How do you feel today? Should youngsters be told about all this thing, I know you [unclear]?
JSW: Yes, I do, I think youngsters should be told all about it but not the blood and guts of the thing, the reasons for it, I, this is something I hate to see on television, they won’t concentrate and show you dead bodies and sorts like, I said I think that’s totally unnecessary. Bu they should realise why we had these things, why we had to fight them,
JF: Would you do it again?
JSW: Yes, I would. Because, when you ask people would you do it again, well, you got to put the situation, if the situation was exactly the same, I would do it again.
JF: Stanley, thank you very much for your thoughts.
JSW: Pleasure.


John Fisher, “Interview with James Stanley Wilson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 12, 2019,

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