Interview with Cyril Abbotts


Interview with Cyril Abbotts


Cyril Abbotts volunteered for the Royal Air Force while he was an engineering apprentice with W T Avery at Smethwick. After his reception at Lord’s Cricket Ground and initial training,he trained as a pilot at RAF Bowden and Moose Jaw in Canada. On his return to Great Britain, he spent some time in holding units, before being posted to retrain as a flight engineer at RAF St Athan. He flew operations with 57 Squadron from RAF East Kirkby in 1945 and later converted from Lancasters to Lincolns. Post-war he completed his apprenticeship, becoming a draughtsman for various companies including ICI. He retired after 30 years of service with them.







01:18:53 audio recording


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CB: So today I’m with Cyril Abbott and we are at Malvern in Worcestershire and it is the 15th of October 2015 and we’re just going to talk about his time in the RAF. Cyril, could you start off by talking please about your, family early, your earliest times you recollect?
CA: I was born in 1924 in a place called Princes’ End, Tipton. I lived with father and mother, with my grandparents. My mother was one of a large family, unfortunately she died when I was six and for the next two years we were looked after by my Grandma until Dad remarried. My mother and father were, had a house built in a village Coseley, which was about two miles away but we never moved there because of my Mum’s death. But having remarried we moved as a family, mother, or I should say step-mother, and father and my sister Doris who was four years older than myself. And we moved to a house in Bradleys Lane Coseley. I went to junior schools in Princes End, Tipton and at the age of eleven I passed scholarship and entered Dudley Grammar School where I was educated for the next five, six years. I left school in ‘39 and went out to work with W and T Avery at Smethwick as a engineering apprentice. I didn’t like work so at the first opportunity I volunteered for the Air Force, for aircrew, and having had all the two days of tests at Digbeth, Birmingham, I was accepted as a recruit and sent home and told to wait until I heard from the RAF. I was a bit of a nuisance to my father and mother because every day I used to come home from work and say ‘Has the letter arrived?’ and nothing had appeared and I really caused a bit of grief. But eventually the letter arrived ordering me to report to ACRC at Lords’ Cricket Ground, London. I travelled to, down to London with a fellow from the village who was also joining up, I think it was the first time we’d ever been away from home by ourselves in the whole of our lives but we arrived at Lords’ and the cricket ground was full of recruits, you couldn’t see a blade of grass basically. But they formed us up in groups of about forty and marched us off to Seymour Hall baths where they told us to strip off and swim a hundred yards. This rather shook us I believe ‘cause having to swim without a costume, but we did this and those who could swim the hundred yards were pushed to one side of the bath, and those who couldn’t swim went to the other side. We found out later that the non-swimmers were sent off to RAF Cosford to learn to swim, if I’d have known that I would have done the same [laughs] because Cosford was within about twenty miles of home. But still, we, we were billeted in flats around St John’s Wood, waiting for postings to ITW. Eventually I was posted to 8 Wing ITW at Newquay, Cornwall where I spent the next three to four months school work. In actual fact I can remember the flight commander was a Flight Lieutenant Paine, he was an ex solicitor and the Squadron Leader I think was a man named Fabian, who was a English international footballer amateur. But, and the two PTIs was Corporal White and Corporal Beasley, one was a Londoner, a real Cockney, and they used to take us out on cross country runs. Because one day I, I decided I didn’t want to go, so we had to get changed and set off and I drifted to the back and at the nearest public toilets I disappeared into it, little realising that Corporal White was running right at the back and he caught me [laughs] and I was taken in front of the squadron commander and given three days CB, confined to barracks, but at the end of the, I think it was about twelve weeks of school work were finished and we were waiting then to, for postings and I eventually was posted to RAF Sywell for familiarisation, twelve hours in a Tiger Moth. Again, I remember the instructor was a Flight Lieutenant Bush, I think he could have owned the flying school which had been taken over by the RAF, but we did, we did about ten to twelve hours flying around in Tiger Moths to see if whether we were compatible with flying and then at the end we were posted to Heaton Park, Manchester which was a receiving centre for people waiting basically to go overseas. I mean there were literally hundreds of UT aircrew there and we used to have to attend in the morning when they would read out lists of people with the postings and you had to answer in a certain manner to signify that you’d understood the shouted instructions. Initially I’d received a posting to South Africa, Rhodesia for flying training and we went up to Blackpool to receive the inoculations required, and having received these inoculations we were sent back to Heaton Park where we found out that we weren’t going to South Africa after all. I was sent to Canada and we, we sailed from the River Clyde, Greenock, or something similar on the Queen Elizabeth, the original Queen Elizabeth one, and I think it was about three days and four nights journey which I didn’t like, I don’t, I’m not a, I don’t like sailing, I don’t like water and it was a welcome sight to go through the harbour bar at New York to get inside the docks because as we went through the bar and they closed it the ship lit up because we’d sailed in darkness over, through the Atlantic, and as soon as we entered the, the New York dock area all the lights came on the ship. I mean New York was lit up as you see it on the films, I mean we hadn’t seen lights for three years. Eventually we, we docked in Pier 91 next to the burnt-out Normandy which had been, it had gone on fire and had capsized in the dock next to us, and it was still there. But eventually we were taken off the boat and we went under the river to New Jersey to get a train to go up to Monkton, RAF Monkton in Canada. We had to pass through the customs between America and Canada, and we stopped on the American side and one or two of us shot off because we were near to a small town and got a glass of beer, and we’d got to drink this very quickly and we didn’t realise the American beer was practically frosty, it was very, very cold. But we, eventually we arrived in Monkton, and we were there for maybe a week or so before we were sent west to the flying schools and I finished up at 32 EFTS, RAF Bowden in Alberta, I mean we could see the Rockies on the horizon, as we drove from the station, Innisfail was the station, why I know that is because I was reading a book by an ex Worcestershire cricketer, Cheston, who had trained there as well, and I picked up the name Innisfail I’d forgotten, but as we drove up from the station to the aerodrome all the training planes were lined up with their tails towards us and we all thought God, we’re all going to be fighter pilots, they looked like fighter ‘planes ‘cause they were all Fairchild Cornell which was a low wing plane. We were there for a period of time, I think we got in about seventy or eighty hours, and I soloed quite quickly after about five hours and during the training I realised that I would never become a fighter pilot because I didn’t like aerobatics. I always remember being sent up to practice spins and to do this you climbed to about three or four thousand feet and then spun down, and pulled out and climbed back and did it again. But every time I went to do it I’d get practically to the point of stall, at which point I was supposed to kick in rudder to go right or left and my nerve went so I pushed the nose down and climbed another thousand feet until I finished up at about ten thousand feet before I forced myself to spin. But having done it the first time and realised I could get out of trouble it wasn’t so bad, but aerobatics I just did not like. So I made my mind up then that I would never become a fighter pilot, I’d go for twins or multi engines. Having completed the elementary training we were posted to service flying training and I was posted to a place called RAF Estevan in Saskatchewan it was right on the American border just a few miles on the Canadian side but it was more or less in the middle of the dustpan, everything was covered with dust, there was a wind at all times and it was just blowing this dust and coating everything. The dormitories had got double-glazing with a mesh screen to try to keep this dust out, but they were flying Ansons there for training and we had to have a check to see whether our leg length was sufficient to be able to apply full rudder in the event of an engine failure. Well I didn’t like the station I thought I’m going to do my best to get away from here, so when I came to do my test I put, extending my to get full rudder and I gradually slipped down in the pilots’ seat so that I couldn’t see over the top of the board, dashboard, so that I failed the test. I didn’t realise that I could have been washed out of pilot training but I was posted away from Estevan to RAF Moose Jaw at Saskatchewan to fly Tiger Moths. The Anson hadn’t got a moveable rudder pedal whereas the Oxford had, you could wind them in to suit your leg length. The Oxford had got a bad reputation for killing people. It was a very difficult aeroplane to fly and they said that if you could fly an Oxford you could fly anything. And I took to the Oxford, I soloed after about five hours again and from then on it was just train, train, train until we eventually finished, I think we did something like about a hundred and fifty hours flying, and it came, the wings, the graduation ceremony, and I believe we were presented with our wings by Air Vice-Marshal Billy Bishop who was a Canadian fighter pilot in the First World War. I believe that it was him but we had already sewn wings on our uniforms and stripes on our arms if we were becoming sergeants, but we had to parade without, without wings or stripes on. But then having graduated, we had, we were given a posting back to Halifax, to get the boat back to England. We were allowed, I think, forty eight hours to have a leave in either Quebec or Montreal on the way back. I can’t remember now whether we were in Quebec or Montreal, but we eventually got back to Halifax and boarded the French liner, Louis Pasteur, to come back and it was a terrible journey. Since we were now supposed sergeants capable of looking after ourselves on the ship some of us were posted as assistant gunners on the anti-aircraft guns which were put about ten feet above the boat deck on a little platform with a rail around it to stop you falling off. And we had an Oerlikon cannon to look after. I mean we’d never seen a firearm but we’d got a naval man as the gunner and we were just there to help, But we always said the Louis Pasteur was a flat bottomed boat because it rolled and rocked like nobody’s business and there were literally thousands on the boat, the conditions were terrible, but every morning at about twelve o’clock if I remember rightly, we had a rendezvous with a Coastal Command aircraft so that when it came time we had to close up the guns in case it wasn’t an RAF plane, but bang on the dot it would appear out of the clouds, circle round for about half an hour, and then off it would go and we’d plough on. I mean we were not escorted it was just a, a quick dash across and I must admit I saw more U boats in the sea, that on that journey, than the German’s had got, every wave was a U boat. [laugh] But eventually we arrived at Liverpool, and we disembarked and were shipped to RAF Harrogate, the Majestic Hotel we were billeted in, and there were literally thousands of pilots, bomb aimers and navigators there. We just, we just didn’t know what was going to happen to us. I mean they came round I think twice, once asking for volunteers to change to glider pilot training. I mean those that did, that accepted it, I think most probably went in at Arnhem. But I being frightened, I decided I would stay and get an aeroplane with engines. So I was there for quite some time and eventually I was sent, we had um, because we’d been in Canada, living the life of luxury, they sent us up to Whitley Bay, Newcastle under the Army to have a month toughening up, and everything was done at the double. I was given a rifle and a band to cover my sergeant’s stripes, we used to have to wear these because the instructors were corporals and privates of the commandos and they gave us a real tough time. Route marches of about twelve miles, my feet were sore, but that was completed and we came back to Harrogate. They just didn’t know what to do with us. So we, eventually I ended up at RAF Bridgenorth, under canvas, and we always said we were draining an air commodore’s farm because we were digging ditches all the time and there were, there were Australians, and other Commonwealth aircrew with us and they used to, to show how tough they were, they’d sleep out in the open without a tent, until they got wet once or twice, [laugh] but we were there most probably two or three weeks and back again to Harrogate. And then I went on airfield control at RAF Gamston, just outside Worksop, acting as traffic control watching the Wellingtons, it was an OTU unit, and we were there [indistinct] at night on flare path duty and the control hut flashing greens or reds as required with an Aldis lamp. While I was there, I became friends with one or two of the screened pilots so I managed to get a few hours in on a Wellington. At the end of the, at the end of the time Gamston was closed down and the ‘planes moved to other OTUs so I got a few hours flying with the screen people taking these aeroplanes to the stations. The funniest part was we landed at one, we had a plane which went round all the aerodromes picking up the screened crews to take them back to Gamston, a Wellington, and it was very funny we landed one control, or pulled up at the control tower and shut the engines down waiting for the people to be picked up and out trooped from the Wellington, about eighteen people and the control officer’s jaw dropped when he saw all these people coming out [laugh] but it was quite, we stood, down the Wellington hanging onto the geo, geodetic structure, it was quite funny. From Gamston, I eventually was posted, oh yeah, I think I went back to Harrogate again and there I was volunteered to do an engineers’ course at St Athan down in South Wales. There was no chance of becoming an official pilot because they hadn’t got enough aeroplanes and there was too many people. So we were volunteered to do an engineers’ course at St Athan on the Lancaster systems, which we did about six weeks just to get the fundamentals of the system. And having completed that I was posted to sixteen 54 HCU at RAF Wigsley in Lincolnshire, where I was going to get crewed up with an ex OTU pilot and crew who wanted an Engineer, so we walked in, as engineers we walked into an office where there were pilots sitting around and the first person I saw was a man who’d been on the course immediately in front of me at Moose Jaw, a flying officer, he was a Pilot Officer Coates and we made contact and starting talking, he said ‘Well I’m looking for an engineer’ I said, ‘Well I’m an engineer but I’m also a pilot’ he said ‘Do you want to come and fly with me?’ ‘Yep’, and that’s how I joined Pilot Officer Coates’ crew because we knew each other. We completed a number of hours on the, at the heavy con unit, the conversion unit, and we were posted as a crew to 57 Squadron at East Kirkby.
CB: So when was this exactly?
CA: Well I think it was in either February ’45, because I wasn’t on the squadron long enough to be able to be awarded the Bomber Command Clasp which I thought was a bit em, bit naughty of them, I can come to that later. Well we were introduced to Wing Commander Tomes who was the Squadron Commander and I think Squadron Leader Astall although I’m not sure about that name. And we were more or less sent off to go and do some practice flying which we thought we’d done enough with the heavy con unit but it wasn’t good enough for the squadron. So we did quite a few cross countries and bombing practice at Wainfleet. And one day I was, I think most likely the last one in the engineer’s office and I was about to go for tea, and as I was walking out the engineer officer shouts, ‘Cyril, what are you doing tonight?’ I said ‘I’m going to have a beer why?’ he said ‘No you’re not, you’re flying.’ He said so and so has called in, his engineer’s gone sick, so they want an engineer so you’re flying as a spare bod on Flying Officer Jack Curran, who was an Australian pilot, he was short of an engineer so I was going with him and that night we went to Luetzkendorf which was the first operation, our rear gunner had also been made a spare bod and he went as a rear gunner with another crew. But Jack, Jack Curran had been shot down about two months previously and had got back so he was, he was a bit nervous as a pilot, he gave me a bit of jitters, because once we crossed, if I remember rightly, once we crossed over the Channel and got to the other side he proceeded to weave all the time and it made a heck of a mess of my petrol consumptions. But the thing that I always remember, was having got to the target, was the different colours or shades of red that there are, or were, I’d never seen so many different shades. Of course I mean I didn’t realise what was happening I mean I was, I’d got bags and bags of window which I was pushing [unclear] down the chute like nobody’s business thinking they were saving me but they weren’t they were saving the people coming behind me. But I pushed packets of it down, I even jammed the ‘chute once I had to get a big file from out of my kit, my tool kit and try and clear it and the file went down the ‘chute as well so that if that hit anybody downstairs they would have had a headache. But eventually we got, we came back and as we neared East Kirkby, Jack had called in to ask for landing instructions and we were told to vamoose, scatter, it was either an intruder in the circuit or something but we scattered like nobody’s business heading towards Wales, and on the way, we were told to make for RAF Bruntingthorpe which we eventually reached and Jack landed the Lanc’ alright, we parked it and were taken into a room for a bit of a debrief, given something to eat and then we were taken to beds in the dorms, in the Nissen huts. And I was, I was lying there on the bed, I couldn’t get to sleep, I suppose it was the adrenalin still coursing through the veins, but I was smoking away like nobody’s business, and I woke up the man in the bed next to where I was and he sat up and he saw I was a flight sergeant, he saw my tunic on the bed, so he said ‘What’s happened?’ so I just explained that we’d been diverted there and we were talking, he was a corporal engine fitter and he looked at me and I looked at him quite intently as if we knew each other. So eventually one or other said ‘Were you ever in Canada?’ and I said ‘Yes, you were at Moose Jaw, were you at Moose Jaw?’ ‘Yes’, he’d been an Engine Fitter out on the flights at Moose Jaw and had been posted back to, from Canada and he was working, was working at Bruntingthorpe on the Wellingtons. Well eventually we were given the all clear to go back to East Kirkby and, although it was forbidden, the squadron pilots always shot up the aerodrome having taken off. So we, we took off and joined a queue of people waiting to go down the runway and ignored it which we did. The station commander went mad and by the time we got back to East Kirkby the squadron commander was waiting for us and he proceeded to tear us off a strip. ‘They were OTU pilots being taught to fly safely and you people go down and show them what not to do’ [laugh] still it was Lancaster below zero feet going at about two hundred miles an hour is something, it’s really exhilarating, but still. Um, oh yeah, a few days later we went to Pilsen as a crew, Fred Coates the pilot and the rest of the crew, I mean he’d already done two spare bods as a pilot getting the idea of what happened, and Johnny the rear gunner had been, but the, I’d been but the others hadn’t so it was all new to them, but us old hands [laugh]. Well we went to Pilsen and our navigator was a graduate and he was a very meticulous navigator, very good, but very meticulous. I mean when we were flying you’d hear his voice come over the, the intercom, ‘What speed are we supposed to be flying at?’ ‘About two hundred and twenty, why?’ he said ‘I want two hundred and twenty five, nothing else, two twenty five is the airspeed.’ So I spent minutes trying to get the, the right speed. And he’d come through, ‘What course are you steering?’ ‘Why?’ He said ‘You’re two degrees out’, oh he was a, he was a menace [laugh]. But on the way, it’s only in latter life that I’ve realised this, but it was his first trip, it was most of us second or third and he was navigating and he said ‘We’re too early, we’re going to get to target too early’ so Fred said ‘Well what do you want to do?’ So Marsh says ‘We’ll do a dog leg, turn, and he gave us a course to turn to the left, to port, and flew out for a few minutes and then to come back into the, into the stream and go, head toward the target again, we’d lose the required minutes. And like fools Fred and I did this, but during the flight we were getting, we were getting, bumped about a bit and we couldn’t understand this because there was no flak to blow us around but we’d get jumped up and down, it would last a minute and then die down and then about a few minutes later again. We couldn’t fathom out what it was, but it’s only in latter life that I’ve realised what it was, because we got to Pilsen and back okay, and then we were put on a daylight to go to Flensburg, and I mean the RAF didn’t flew, didn’t fly in formation, they just got into a gaggle and went. So we joined the bunch and the idea was to get into the middle of the stream, so you kept lifting yourself up a bit, move over and then gradually drop down and force the man underneath to move out of the way so that you were doing this all the time. And occasionally we’d get this bump and it’s only as I say in latter life that I realised that at night when we got these bumps it was the slipstream of planes in front of us, that I never, I never saw a plane during flying at night but we must have been very, very close because it showed up during this daylight. But we went to Flensburg and it was aborted we couldn’t bomb, why we were never told but I did see a Messerschmitt 262 I think was the jet fighter, something came, went through the formation like nobody’s business but we’d got Mustang fighter escort they were most probably about ten thousand feet above us, but we did see them come down and go through the formation, on the way down to the deck whether they’d, they went down to er, hit some of these two five twos taking off, two six twos, but that was quite a sight to see these little, little bits going through the, through the formation. But my war ended with that aborted raid on Flensburg. We were thinking we should be going to Berchtesgaden but all the, the higher ups of the squadron did that, they didn’t let the lower lads do it. Then after the , after the war I flew on Lincolns, 57 Squadron were given three Lincolns initially to carry out service trials on them and by this time our pilot, Fred Coates, had departed. He’d been a police constable before the war and since they wanted the police in peace time to build up again they got Class B releases, or they were allowed to take Class B release. So Fred had just married his Canadian girlfriend who’d come over here to marry and 57 Squadron was one of the squadrons that were going out on Tiger Force to the Far East but Fred said no he wasn’t going to go, he’d get his Class B which he did. And we had another pilot, a Flight Lieutenant Strickland, who was posted into us to take over the crew. He came up I think from Mildenhall, I can’t remember which group they were, but he’d been an instructor in Canada for a number of years and he was very meticulous with his flying, everything was perfect and he kept the rest of us on top line. We flew the Lincolns, we’d got three and I think Mildenhall station they’d got three, we had lots of trouble with engine failures where as Mildenhall had airframe failures, rivets popping and things like that so it was quite, it was quite stressful flying these Lincolns. I’ve got a write up.
CB: We’ll stop there just for a moment.
CA: Yeah, I’ve got a write up actually,
CB: So we’ve stopped for a comfort break, and you were talking about Lincolns, you took on Lincolns?
CA: Oh yeah.
CB: You took on Lincolns. What happened then?
CA: Well, with the Lincolns, we as I say we’d got three and I since found that there was a Flight Lieutenant, Flight Lieutenant Jones who was one of the leading lights in the flight, I can’t recall him really, but erm.
CB: This is still war time before the Japanese surrender isn’t it?
CA: It was, yeah, but it was after the European war –
CB: Yep.
CA: And it was in the time between May and August -
CB: Right.
’45. The Lincoln was, was being produced to go overseas with the Tiger Force because the Lanc’ hadn’t got the range that was required and the Lincoln was supposed to have. But it wasn’t, in our eyes, it wasn’t as good as the Lancaster, I mean we were in love with the Lanc’ whereas the Lincoln was, was something different. I fully remember on one flight, I was sitting down on the right hand side and Pete was flying and I looked out of the starboard side and looked at the wing and I could see the skin rippling and I nearly collapsed with fear because I could see the wing moving up and down, and when it lifted up, so it rippled the skin at the join between the mid-section and the wing section, and for the rest of the flight my eyes never left that section [laugh] that part, but I found out when we got down that the wings moved five feet between the bottom and top and this was due to the weight of them and the, the fuel. And it was only after then that I noticed that when the Lincoln sat on the ground the wings appeared to be drooped and they moved up during the take off period to obtain the flying attitude. But it was a frightening sight I will admit.
CB: So it was a bigger aeroplane?
CA: It was a bigger aeroplane, it was heavier, I don’t know about the bomb load. I don’t think it was any different.
CB: But they were bigger engines and could fly higher and the span was a hundred and twenty four feet?
CA: A hundred and twenty.
CB: Hundred and twenty.
CA: About a hundred and twenty feet, yeah.
CB: Now when did you get promoted to warrant officer?
CA: Two years after I graduated. You were made, when you got your wings, you were a sergeant for about nine to twelve months and then flight sergeant for a year and then you became warrant officer. I mean a lot of the ground crew, senior NCO’s didn’t like this, I mean there were us youngsters who were up to sergeants after about eighteen months and they’d been in the Air Force for years and had just made corporal. So there was a bit of resentment between the ground crew NCO’s and the aircrews. But of course I mean we were only as aircrew given stripes, or officers in case you were ever shot down and taken prisoner, you got better treatment as a NCO, but that was the only reason.
CB: OK, so fast forward again to the Lincolns, your time in the RAF finished when, 1946?
CA: 1946 November.
CB: Right, so what did you do?
CA: What did I do afterwards?
CB: After the war, after the war finished?
CA: Well, I came back and as I said previously, I’d been an apprentice with Avery’s, and my apprenticeship had been cancelled when I joined up. So I went back to Avery’s and recommenced my apprenticeship but due to my service, instead of having to do a further length of time, because I was apprenticed for about five years and I had only done about twelve months, they reduced the remaining time by about twelve months and they concluded my apprenticeship about twelve months, having served and I’d done a four year apprenticeship instead of five, and that would have been somewhere around about 1947, ‘48 when I, they transferred me into the drawing office at Avery’s and I became a draughtsman.
CB: How long did you work as a draughtsman?
CA: Well I left Avery’s in 1951 and I was employed by the Cannon Iron Foundries for a year and then I, I went to Thompson Brothers in Bilsden for about three years and finally finished at ICI Marston Excelsior in ’56.
CB: What did you do there?
CA: I was a design draughtsman there and I, I did design, design work on, I always remember my first job was designing a heat exchanger for the Folland Gnat , just a small one, I can’t remember what it was for, I believe it was for the pilot cooling system to keep him cool. But this was on heat exchange. I finished up actually on heavy fabrication work, in aluminium work, and I became a section leader. I did various jobs, I engineered a liquid ethylene storage plant for ICI organic, organic section I think, or one of the sections at Billingham where we stored surplus liquid ethylene. And we stored it in a big container like a gasometer and I, I was given a piece of ground on the side of the river and put a storage plant there. I must admit that my initial estimate of costs was way down, [laugh] I made a hell of a bloomer, I think I estimated about a hundred and fifty thousand and it finished up at about, eight hundred thousand [laugh] we had quite a, an argument, not argument, discussion why [laugh]. But then I went onto production, onto the production side of the factory, as chief planning officer on fabrications which I, I did until the work started to peter out so I went onto development work on cold rolling of noble alloys for jet engines.
CB: This is all for ICI?
CA: All, yes, it’s all under ICI’s name, we bought in a cold rolling machine from Holland and we used to roll to very, very close tolerances. Rolls Royce were trying to reduce their costs by getting in components where they didn’t really have to do any work on, and I mean the jet engines required diameters to a thou’ in tolerance and we were supposed to try to do this by rolling them, which we did eventually, I mean we bought this machine. I went out to G, GE the American counterpart of Rolls Royce. GEC?
CB: GE yeah, General Electric.
CA: And I spent a fortnight out there getting some idea of how they tackled it but I mean they’d got a different idea I mean where here we had to justify spending sixpence, there the engineer, development engineer said ‘I want a machine it costs two hundred thousand pounds’ and he was given the money and they got the machine. Whereas we were trying to do it on one machine they’d got a battery of them, about ten. I mean this is the reason why they are the world beaters. Money is no object.
CB: When did you finally retire?
CA: I retired in March ’86 having completed thirty years.
CB: OK, thank you, I’ll stop there. So we’re restarting, we’re restarting just on a flashback. So you’re back from Canada as a qualified pilot.
CA: Yeah. I should have said then that I went up to, we were asked where we wanted postings to go to for flying. I never realised that there was a flying school at Wolverhampton otherwise I would have asked, instead I got posted up to RAF Carlisle on Tiger Moths where we did about a month flying a Tiger Moth around getting used to flying in English conditions. We used to take a navigator or a bomb aimer as a passenger for them to practice map reading while we flew it. We did a lot of flying around the Lake District, we were flying over Maryport and Workington I think is the other port, on the coast there. And we, we used to go down and count the number of ships that were in the harbour and things like this, and then having to fly back over the Lake District which was very, which could be quite treacherous with the down draughts and the winds whistling over the hills. It used to bounce the Tiger Moths around like nobody’s business. But we did that for about a month and then we were posted again hoping we were going to get posted to OTUs but it never, never, I was, you asked how I felt. I felt disappointed having made my mind up I was never going to fly single engine fighters I put down for twin engines or multis. The onus was on providing crews for four engine planes. So to get there I’d got to go to an OTU and that was never going to happen. So when I was posted to the engineers’ course I accepted it and it, I was still flying, that was what I wanted to do, I wanted to fly. So that, I made the best of a bad job. I thoroughly enjoyed it I mean, I enjoyed the, being on a squadron, being a crew, being a member of a crew and we’d got a good crew. I mean our mid upper gunner was the only one who could shoot through the aerial leading to the rudders which he did time and time again, it used to cost him half a crown a time when he pierced them, I mean this was when we were doing air to air gunnery and he was firing at a drogue and he’d traverse and ‘ping’ and Andy the wireless operator would say ‘You’ve done it again’ [laugh], but um.
CB: So, how long did you keep your pilots brevet?
CA: All the time.
CB: Oh did you, throughout the war?
CA: Yes, yes we were never forced to change them. That is why I always say I was a PFE rather than a flight engineer, I was a pilot flight engineer. And the pilots that I flew with gave me the opportunity to fly, to pilot. I mean Peter who was the ex-instructor, he was always within reach of pulling me out of the seat if necessary, but Fred he used to go and wander down to the Elsan at the back and leave me in charge. I mean I was playing about one day above the clouds and I was following the, the shape of the clouds up and down and Johnny who was sitting with his turret doors open, fore and aft, and it, it started to get a bit robust, the movement of the up and down movement and the Elsan lid which was tied down with a bungee rubber broke and the contents of the Elsan came up, [laugh], oh dear, and it covered him [laugh], he didn’t speak to me for days [laugh] because he knew it was me and not Fred [laugh].
CB: How did the crew get on together socially?
CA: Very good, very good we never went anywhere unless we went as a six. I mean, we bought our beer in the mess, we bought it by the bucket and helped ourselves with dipping the glass into the bucket rather than separate. No, it was a very good crew, very good.
CB: So in those days you could buy beer in a bucket could you?
CA: In the mess.
CB: In the mess, right.
CA: In the mess yeah.
CB: OK, and as a crew you worked well together?
CA: Oh yes, yes.
CB: And er.
CA: Well Marsh, he was working, he wanted to get onto pathfinders.
CB: Marsh being?
CA: The navigator. He was a very good navigator but, Mac, the bomb aimer, he was more of, an easy come, easy go.
CB: So.
CA: That second or the first raid as a crew to Pilsen we went through the target twice because Mac he wouldn’t drop because he couldn’t line it up properly so he said ‘I’ll send you round again’ and the rest of us shouted ‘What the hell, will you pull them’ and Fred said ‘If you don’t I shall jettison’. So he says ‘Go round again!’ So we had to make our way round and come back and get it back in the stream and fly it through but on the second time he let them go.
CB: This is a daylight raid?
CA: No, this was a night raid —
CB: This was in the night. So the reason I said that is because that sounds a particularly dangerous thing to do when you can’t see anything —
CA: It was a, well this is it, I mean what with trying to get in, slip into the stream, I mean you, I never saw another Lancaster in the stream. And I mean we went through the target we were only given somewhere maybe half an hour from the start to the end of the squadron’s time over the target so I mean God knows how close we were, but we were very close when we were getting buffeted by slipstream. But I mean a, when Marsh sent us on a dog leg when we turned out of the stream and then had to come back and join it again. We didn’t realise the stupidity of it, but Marsh being Marsh he’d got to have it down on his chart.
CB: Why would it have mattered if you had arrived early?
CA: Well a, the target may not have been indicated, or they were down below marking it, so you, I mean er.
CB: You could have bombed your own people —
CA: You could have bombed them, yeah —
CB: Right OK.
CA: And since the Lancaster was always the top flight, I mean it was Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings.
CB: Right, there’s a ranking.
CA: So.
CB: And how did the crew feel, and you feel, about what you were doing as bombers?
CA: I don’t think we thought about it.
CA: I don’t think we thought about it. I mean the first one — we had been bombed at home in 1940. We’d had a landmine dropped within about a hundred yards of home and our house is most probably still standing with the back, back wall bulged where the roof lifted and the walls started to move and it dropped down and it held. So I wanted to do something back but having that I don’t think you, we never talked about whether there was a right or wrong, it was a job.
CB: My wife was born in a bombing raid in Birmingham.
CA: Eh hum.
CB: What about LMF, did you know anything about that, or experience.
CA: We knew of it.
CB: Yes.
CA: We knew of it but we never met anyone who was accused of it or anything like that. But we didn’t like the idea because it wasn’t nice when you were over there. A funny tale, we had a man on the squadron, he was a dark, a Negro, and he was as black as the ace of spades, colour. And he’d got perfectly white teeth and he was known as twenty three fifty nine, that was his nickname, because twenty three fifty nine is the darkest part of the night, or supposed to be, a minute before midnight. And he was a rear gunner and when he was in his turret at night and you walked past it all you could see was these white teeth. It was really funny, but he was a good lad.
CB: What about other aspects of the work? When you boarded the aircraft what did you have with you to eat or drink?
CA: I think the only thing I can remember is boiled sweets. I mean I can’t ever remember fruit, or anything like that. I don’t think we ever took, I never took a drink at all. I mean I can tell the tale where, I mean, we used, sometimes to remember to take a bottle to use and one day Fred had forgotten his, the pilot, and he was in, he was in dire trouble. So he said ‘I’ve got to have something, I’ve got to have something’ so I was scooting round trying to, what the hell can he have? And I went and took the cover off the G George instrument, gyro, which was a pan of about eight or nine inch diameter and about three or four inches deep held on with four screws. So I took this off and gave him this to use, which he used. So he used it and said ‘Here get rid of it’ so I said ‘How?’ he says ‘Throw it out the window’ so I pulled my sliding window back —
CB: [laugh] —
CA: and threw it out, threw the contents. Of course, I mean as soon as the contents went out the slipstream took it all the way down the canopy, the Perspex, and we, I couldn’t see out of that side all the way back, and I also lost the G cover [laugh] which cost me five shillings and a telling off from the engineer officer. How, why was the G cover uncovered. ‘I can’t remember’ [laugh].
CB: Now what about the ground crew because you relied on them so, what was the relationship with them?
CA: Very good, other than the first time I went, we joined the squadron, and I don’t know whether I ought to say this, can I, can I not get up?
CB: Um.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Cyril Abbotts,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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