Interview with Donald Briggs


Interview with Donald Briggs


Donald Briggs was born in Lealholm near Whitby in Yorkshire. After school, he became an apprentice with the Royal Air Force. He trained at RAF Halton in 1939 and became an engine fitter working on Wellingtons and Manchesters. He volunteered for air crew in 1943, qualified as a flight engineer and completed 62 operations with 156 Squadron Pathfinders at RAF Upwood. After the war he retrained as a pilot and took part in the H bomb tests at Christmas Island. Later he became a flying instructor and trained aircrew to fly Vulcans. After he retired from the Royal Air Force he became a commercial flying instructor. He continued to instruct and fly microlights until he was eighty-four years of age.




Temporal Coverage




01:08:42 audio recording


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PJ: My name is Pete Jones. I’m interviewing Flight Lieutenant Donald Briggs DFC. Other people attending are Sandra Jones, Pete Jones and Ann Kershaw. It is Monday the 27th of March 2017 and we are in Mr Briggs’ home in Freeland, Oxfordshire. Thank you Donald for agreeing to be interviewed for the IBCC. Donald, now tell me about your early years before you joined up Bomber Command.
DB: Right. Thank you Peter. Well, I was brought up in a small village called Lealholm which was about ten miles from Whitby on the north east coast and my parents ran the village post office and general stores and I, I used to help out while I was a teenager and that sort of thing and then I went to, I went to Whitby County School, a good grammar school and I did five years there but I decided that having seen some advertising literature for the air force and apprenticeships at RAF Halton, and so I applied and then I sat the entrance exam and got through all right, and this was as things were building up towards World War Two. And so the Royal Air Force were recruiting ground servicing personnel in pretty large numbers. At this time I was a fifteen year old and so I saw my chance to learn all about aircraft and what, how you put them together and so on and so I applied for the examination as I said. And I joined at Halton on two days after the war was declared. And that was on the 5th of September 1939. And so there is little doubt that the harsh discipline at Halton coupled with excellent theoretical lessons in schools, and the schools were known as Kermode Hall after the well-known Kermode, the aerodynamicist and he used to teach there actually, and many hours filing pieces of metal in workshops. And it turned boys into men and later in the course we worked in teams stripping down and re-assembling many types of aero engines and at the end of the training which was reduced a bit because of being wartime, and there was a great demand for fitters out in the units, in the fighting units. So my first posting was at RAF Finningley which is about ten miles from Doncaster. And I worked there on the engines of Wellington bombers and Hampden bombers and the Rolls Royce Vulture engines in the Avro Manchester and they, they gave a lot of trouble and er, which meant there were several engine changes that I assisted in. And the next posting was to RAF Upper Heyford where I was promoted to corporal at the age of eighteen. Now there I worked on the Wellington Mark 3 with more powerful Hercules engines and after carrying out rectification on an aircraft if an air test was necessary I usually asked if I could accompany the pilot. Which I did on several occasions and after approximately two and a half years I decided that more excitement was needed so I volunteered for air crew. The president of the selection board said that I had passed all the tests to become a pilot, but the waiting list for pilots was pretty lengthy and also there was a little demand, this was mid-1943 and the commanding officer of the board interviewing, the selection board er he, he said, ‘Now look you’re already a technician, a fitter 2E,’ he said, ‘And what we need is flight engineers,’ and so he said, ‘You want to, you’ll be on operations within six months. You do want to fight don’t you?’ And of course I had to say, ‘Yes. Of course I do,’ and that’s how I became a flight engineer, by passing the course at Royal Air Force St Athan in Wales. Now, during this crewing up procedure when I finished my training I was sent to Lindholme near Doncaster. I was fortunate in meeting the captain of the crew that I was to fly with. He was Flying Officer Bill Neal with his crew and they had already completed a tour of operations on Wellingtons. Now Bill explained that they had been selected to join the Pathfinder force and what our duties would entail. Our first step was to convert on to the Halifax Mark 1 because these were ex beaten up old war, operational aircraft that had seen better days, and so we had to train on them and during our training sorties, Bill Neal gave me a potted flying lesson so that the very, very first aircraft I flew was the Halifax. And that flew alright and I got the hang of how to fly straight and level and do gentle turns and so on, but we completed the course of thirty hours and went on to convert on to the Lancaster at RAF Hemswell, north of Lincoln. Or nearer to Gainsborough actually. I did the night conversion on to the Lancaster on my twentieth birthday, would you believe? And after attending a short course to learn the Pathfinder procedures we joined number 156 squadron Pathfinders at RAF Upwood near Peterborough. And as a new crew we had two weeks of training to complete during which time I took on the additional role of bomb aimer. I was taught how to run up on the, set the bomb sight up to start with and, and then how to run up and give corrections to the pilot, running up to the dropping point, aiming point. And we dropped practice bombs at a nearby bombing range which I seemed to get the hang of quite, quite well. And also during this time Bill Neal vacated his seat. There were no dual control Lancasters on squadrons you see, just a single set of controls in the left hand seat for the captain, but he allowed me to fly this superb aircraft, the Lancaster. And on completion of this training we were declared operational and on the 11th of June 1944, we saw that our crew was on the battle order. All a bit, a bit terrifying for a new chap like myself. The target was vast marshalling yards at Tours in the south of France. The Germans were routing most of their reinforcements through here to the Normandy battlefront. Now, on this particular trip we had a couple of night fighter sightings and attacks and Bill Neal being a terrific pilot he corkscrewed and got rid of them. The whole secret was if you had a rear gunner with such good night vision and if he saw the night fighter before he saw you, then you stood a fairly decent chance of getting away without, without disaster. Well, firstly I volunteered for aircrew and I was fully committed now. There was no turning back. Anybody that did turn back were, were called lack of moral fibre and they were, they were given the most terrible mucky jobs that you could ever imagine. And so, but anyway I stuck with it and destiny would decide whether or not I survived. And secondly I was fortunate in joining a very experienced crew and they all made me a welcome addition to the crew. They had not flown previously with a flight engineer because the Wellington didn’t need one and so on. I should explain that in Pathfinder crews the reason the flight engineers took on the extra duty of visual bomb aimer was that the primary bomb aimer operated the H2S radar, and a lot of our targets relied on this for identification and running up and so on. Now 156 Squadron were primarily a blind marker squadron which meant that if no target indicator flares were seen by the master bomber, he would call for blind markers to be dropped and they were reds which is where we came in. And they would be seen cascading and so on, and give an initial aiming point for the main force of bombers running in. The master bomber would then know that the markers were dropped blind and the target had not been visually identified. But on the very first operation we were about to fly we were part of the illuminating force, and we carried twelve rather large hooded parachute flares. And you drop all twelve together and that was like turning the target into a daylight. The visually illuminated target so they were able to, to identify the aiming point, the master bomber. We had a master bomber and his deputy and he had a dicey job. He used to go right down to about four thousand feet and circle around and a very dangerous job. Some of them didn’t make it and were shot down. And on the first ten operations mostly dropping flares, and on — I was mentioning earlier about the run in to the Tours marshalling yards we had two night fighter attacks and we thought actually that — we heard later that these were night fighter pilots that were training down in France so they weren’t sort of fully, fully operational like their counterparts in, up in Germany and Holland and so on. And so it was a great feeling to be safely on the ground back at our Upwood base and I often used to say to my colleagues, my — well between us we’ve said we climbed up that ladder of the Lancaster at the back end where you board the aircraft, not knowing whether we’d ever be in the position to come back, climb down it again on to terra firma so — but happily I did that sixty-two times. Gratefully rather, I survived those to, climb down that ladder again. And I, our crew was sent on Allied support for the ground forces on the Normandy battlefront and we dropped sticks of one thousand pounders, fourteen bombs in a rapid stick of bombs from only four thousand feet. And the aircraft shook very badly with the blast as you’d expect at that height, and we could see the blast rings coming up from other people’s bombs as well. And we also attacked the V1 launch sights in the Pas-de-Calais area. And the, we formation, six Lancasters formatted on a Mosquito aircraft which was equipped with this very accurate blind bombing system called Oboe. They, they used that for, some of the Pathfinder squadrons used it for marking targets as well. So that when his bomb doors opened we opened ours and when we saw the bombs leave his bomb bay we hit our bomb release button and, as you can imagine that was a lot of bombs going down, usually finishing up in rendering the buzz bombs site unusable. And that must have saved a lot of lives in the, around London. And my first German target was Hamburg, and that was our thirteenth op. And it was quite a, quite a dicey town. Very heavily defended of course as always was Hamburg, being a major port and ship building and that. But we came through the barrage unscathed. My skipper always used to say, ‘What you see in the sky is what’s been, the flak bursts and they’re not going to do us any harm. It’s the ones you can’t see that er.’ But anyway, night fighters were of course were in the area, and we saw several bombers going down in flames, and erm, it was a sickening sight and we, er, sort of sympathised with our colleagues and comrades. They would meet their end in a fireball from bombs and fuel when they hit the ground. It was a sickening sight but we made a note of its position and we got on with our own job. And there wasn’t much else you could do. [pause] Bill Neal, my skipper, always said to me, ‘Don,’ he said, ‘when we’ve finished our tour of operations,’ not if but when, he said, ‘I’m going to put you up for commissioning and,’ he said, ‘Then you can join the rest of us in the officer’s mess.’ So I said, ‘Oh well that’s good. Pleased to hear that,’ and sure enough that’s what happened. After I’d done forty operations and about the end of my first tour and I had an interview with Air Vice Marshall, Don Bennett up at Pathfinder headquarters and he was satisfied and so I became Pilot Officer Don Briggs. And erm, so the — I carried on with Bill because he was awarded the DFC because he’d already, that completed two tours of operations having done one before I met him. So what one more tour and of course usually, certainly a skipper got the DFC. And, but I’ll just tell you during a daylight operation to a target called Kleve in October ’44, we had a flak burst right on the port wing tip. And it, we thought it was really the end, you know, because it was that close. And it damaged the aileron quite badly on the port side, but we still had, skipper had control of the aircraft well and with his amazing piloting skill brought us back to a safe landing back at Upwood. But there was substantial damage, the aileron was, was in a terrible mess. And I pressed on in to my second tour with Bill apart from one operation with another crew as their flight engineer had completed his tour of operations. And one of which was with the squadron commander, one of these battlefront operations, and I had the gunnery leader, the squadron leader was — I was on the bomb sight at the front, and he was in the front turret with his legs, and one of his legs was in plaster. He’d, he’d broken a leg or done something, and in plaster, and this was rubbing on my ear as I was trying to aim bombs and he was swivelling around the front turret which normally wasn’t manned at all. And so that was about it. I’m happy to say that despite several very close shaves, I came through sixty two operations unscathed. Lady Luck was certainly on my side. Bill Neal pressed on with another flight engineer and notched up just short of a hundred ops and he was awarded the DSO and he’d already got the DFC. And the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre, and I’m eternally grateful to Bill for getting me through the most dangerous period of my life. He made sure that my operational record was recognised resulting in the award of the DFC in July 1945. I’ve got a few statistics here which are, to save boring everybody, the number of French targets that we did was twenty-four but German targets exceeded that. Thirty-eight we did to German targets. Forty-one of those were night operations and we did twenty-one daylight operations some of which were daylight ops on Ruhr targets in the hell’s, what do they call it? Hell’s valley or something? Happy valley. That was it. And forty-one of those operations we had our own Lancaster which was GT J-Johnny. And so we flew that and of course that meant our own ground crew and we got to know them pretty well. Of those ops we did three raids on oil refineries, because the Germans were desperately short of fuel towards the end of the war and you can’t run a war machine without fuel. And the V1 sights we did, five of those attacks I was telling you about and five on the battlefront and, and then four on marshalling yards. Ruhr targets. Yes ten. We did ten of those and four in daylight, and my last thirty operations were all German targets. Now, it was a massive relief as you can imagine to have survived all those ops and great to be able to enjoy end of second tour leave with my parents and four younger brothers. I’m the eldest of five. So that ended my wartime contribution to the, to the war effort and I, after the war I was selected for Transport Command and flew on Yorks as a flight engineer going out to India and the Far East. And did that for a couple of years and then was posted to the Empire Test Pilot School at Farnborough and I got some valuable experience there. Only the very, very best of pilots were selected and of course we had exchange officers from America, from the United States Air Force and also the US navy. They sent a representative to the, representative to the empire test pilots course. And a lot of those test pilots that I flew with under training they became, you know, top test pilots for the different companies. And so a very interesting three years out, flying Lincolns and things mostly. And after that I was posted to Manby in Lincolnshire where I met an ex-Pathfinder wing commander and he advised me if I wanted to take pilot training, re-train as a pilot, I should write him a letter which I did. And he must have found it fairly satisfactory ‘cause he, he had me to London, to Hornchurch for a selection board and I passed everything there, all the aptitude tests and so on. And very soon in the summer of ’51, late summer, I started training as a pilot at RAF Ternhill in Shropshire and that was — I enjoyed every minute, every minute of that. It was wonderful. And so er, I passed out from there, graduated and awarded those prestigious pilot’s wings that, all RAF pilots remember being presented with their wings. And so I’ll lead on later to describe my, what, what the, what my path through the peacetime air force was. Right. Now. In the August of 1951, I was allowed to start my conversion to retrain as a pilot. And so I promptly, having got furnished accommodation for Edith and we had two children then and, in Louth, and I used to travel across to Ternhill in Shropshire. So the first two weeks of the course naturally was ground school and exams and all the rest of it. And then we started flying, and the aircraft then for training was the Percival Prentice which was a lumbering old thing, but you could do, you could do sort of basic aerobatics with it and so I went solo on that. My instructor sent me off on my own after about four or five hours. Something like that. And then I did sixty hours on the jet, Percival Provost and then I went on to Harvards and that was a wonderful machine to fly. A very big powerful five hundred and fifty horsepower engine in front of you and not easy to see when you’re flowing out for landing. The engine gets in the way, you’ve got to sort of look over the side a little bit. Anyway, I loved flying the Harvard and completed the course and did my final handling test and so on and graduated for my pilot’s wings presented by some air vice marshall and so I’ve still got the photograph. I trained with a lot of chaps that were engineering officers and they were sort of doing a seconded tour in the general duties flying branch just before going back on to engineering. And so from there it was a question of advanced training over at Oakington in Cambridgeshire, and the Meteor was the standard trainer for jet conversion. I had a French instructor of the French Armee de L’air, and George Golee [?]sent me on my first solo in a Meteor Mark 7 and that was enjoyable and went very well. And the, then working my way through the course — the one thing that I didn’t enjoy too much was at night climbing above thirty thousand feet unpressurised and I had a pretty bad attack of the bends. And ask anybody what the, what that’s like and all your joints, it’s the nitrogen that comes out in the joints of your, everywhere knees, ankles the whole lot, so you can only spend a few minutes above thirty. However, and down we came, and the one thing about the Meteor was when you’d been up high everything used to mist up on the inside so you’re sort of rubbing frantically to be able to see out for the landing. However, that was ok and I passed my final handling test with the wing commander, chief instructor and he seemed quite pleased with my performance and he, on landing, after landing offered me the chance of going straight back to Central Flying School to become a flying instructor. Like what we would call in the service creamed off. Creamed off CFS. Now I politely declined and said I was flattered and so on, but I would like to proceed to a Canberra squadron. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Yes, that’s fine just I was giving you the chance, you know.’ So that’s what I did, and I proceeded to Bassingbourn to convert on to Canberras, and in those days there was no dual controlled Canberra. You just had to ride alongside someone on the, what we used to call the rumble seat, and er, see what he did and make a note of the speeds and everything, and then on the second trip he would climb out and look up through the hatch and raise his thumb and say are you happy, and all the rest of it and off I went. Well I think somebody else had control, namely the almighty I think had control of that Canberra on take-off. They er, it was so steep, but anyway. I enjoyed my first, first solo and certainly strange having to fly an aircraft where you’d never handled the controls previously, anyway. And so from there I was posted right up to Lincolnshire to, to join 10 Squadron. We were just forming the first Canberra squadron at Scampton. And we, straightaway I was made a flight commander and in charge of all the servicing and so on, on the eight Canberras. And so we, we got on pretty well and the Canberra’s a wonderful aircraft to fly. Quite light on the controls and plenty of power there and so on. And we did lots of exercises, and I always remember on my first early night flying we were, couldn’t land back at Scampton because of bad weather and we were diverted down in to Cornwall to then St Eval which is just near, just north of Newquay. And the trouble with St Eval is that the runway is up high on the cliffs and you come, you come right in on the approach and this was at night and remember, and I hadn’t flown at night for quite some time and coming in over these cliffs and the runway itself had a great big hump in the middle so you could only see half of it when you touched down. And then happily the final half of the runway came into view as you went over the hump. But I got away with it alright, and so and then of course we spent the night and went back to Scampton the following day. My, my time at Scampton involved quite a lot of diversions. There was once we were diverted up to Kinloss in Scotland. And the Canberra had a fairly good performance for, for the time in the air, endurance as we called it. And so during that time on Canberras my boss was, he was an ex-flight commander over at Binbrook on Canberras, and he was promoted and took over 10 Squadron. And Punch Howard [?] was a great Mosquito night fighter ace and he used to go over these German night fighter airfields and fire off the colours of the day and join in the circuit and shoot down two or three night fighters by doing so. And for this he got the DFC and the DFC and bar as well. And so he set up a formation display team and he gave me a check for my formation flying, and he was happy so I joined his team. And we used to give displays up and down the country and there was one in particular when the National Air Races were on at Coventry airport. And so we gave this display and they gave us a good write up in the flight magazine and also a very congratulatory letter from the president of the Royal Aero Club, which I’ve still got a copy. And so that was, that was my forte if you like on 10 Squadron and from there I, we were actually moved over to East Anglia to, to 3 Group at Honington, RAF Honington near Bury St Edmunds actually. And so I spent about three or four months there before they suddenly came up with a posting and I was to be one of the first pilots to join the new V bomber force on Valiants. The, the courses were starting at RAF Gaydon near Leamington Spa, and so I joined as a co-pilot for Squadron Leader Arthur Steele, who later became air commodore. And so we were posted initially to 138 Squadron at Wittering and Edith was — we actually couldn’t get married quarters, they hadn’t built, they hadn’t finished building them so we lived in an old country hall called Rushington Hall. And so the, it was a wonderful old place, and we had one wing of the place to ourselves and it had a lounge half the size of a hangar. And the boys used to ride around on their tricycles up and down the corridors in this thing, this place. But it was, it was good and then by the time we’d spent three or four months there we were given a married quarter at Wittering and we, there we stayed in that for a good five or six years. Then 138 Squadron was the first squadron to form on Valiants of course but then they were forming a new squadron, 49, 49 Squadron to do the Grapple operation. That was the H bomb trials in the pacific from Christmas Island and our crew, Arthur Steele that is, and myself and the rest of the crew, were selected and in the April, sorry in the March of 1957 we all flew out to Christmas Island via Canada. Goose Bay first and then Edmonton, Alberta and then down to San Francisco where we spent a couple of days, and were able to do some sightseeing and exploring in the good old San Francisco. And then the big leg from there to Honolulu was against headwinds normally and we could work out that providing that the headwinds weren’t greater than sixty knots we were ok. We had enough fuel to get there and a little bit to spare. But and as it happened on the day the winds were lighter than that so we were fine. So it was, Arthur Steele was a good skipper. He used to share the landings with me and if it was my turn come hell or high water I would do it and the one at Honolulu was at Hickam air force base and you come right in over Pearl Harbour on the final approach. So that was, I couldn’t look for very, very long I’m afraid, just a quick glance. And so we had a lovely time and it happened to fall on St Patrick’s Day when we were in and of course there was a big, the Americans celebrate that pretty well and we had, they entertained us very well in the officer’s club. And a couple of days later we flew down the thousand mile leg to the south of Christmas Island. Now, the runway had been built by the army, The Royal Engineers and they’d made a good job of it. It was quite a, not a tremendously long runway, but it was long enough just over two thousand yards. And that’s where we prepared for our H bomb drop. So we saw the first one, Squadron Commander Ken Hubbard he dropped the first and Dave Roberts the flight commander he dropped number two and it was our turn for number three. So we’d all prepared and done the drills and so on, the dropping drills. Now, I want to emphasise that we didn’t drop these H bombs and they went into the sea. They burst at eight thousand feet. So there was no, no fallout like some of the previous tests had done by well, say the Americans perhaps or the Japanese they, well, no the Japanese didn’t have it in those days. However, the, there was no fallout and the, but we took ours, it was on June the 19th ‘57 and the yield wasn’t quite as much as the scientists wanted but it was good enough and they were, the British government were then able to specify, say, Britain now can become the, have the facility of nuclear deterrent. The nuclear fallout, nuclear bomb. And so there was to be a fourth, but that was cancelled and we all came the reverse route and flew home. And flew back to Wittering and so that was, that was Operation Grapple. And so we, we settled down and then I, after that, shortly, short time after that I became a captain on the Valiant and posted back to 138 Squadron. [pause] After completing my tour as a Valiant captain which I enjoyed very much, I used to get trips out to Nairobi and did Salisbury which is now called Harare, I think. And er, Germany. I did several trips there with the Valiant and my co-pilot was an ex-fighter pilot, been stationed in Germany so he was able to show us how to get on there in our leisure time. We then, I was posted to Gaydon, as I said and became a ground school instructor on the Victor mark two. Wonderful aircraft, well built and it had all the then high tech, what was high tech in those days, you wouldn’t call it that now. And I used to teach that, and for doing that they allowed me to do first of all the pressured breathing course, because the Victor two would go up to fifty-two, fifty- three thousand feet and if you had an explosive decompression there you were, you were automatically on pressure breathing to get down to forty thousand as quick as possible. So having completed that which, which, which was a bit rigorous, I was able to do the flight simulator on the Victor two and then fly with the OCU instructors. OCU being Operational Conversion Unit which was at Cottesmore. So I, I enjoyed about six flights from either the captain’s seat or the co-pilot’s seat and enjoyed very much flying the Victor and streaming the great big parachute on landing. And you’d swear that somebody had clamped the brakes hard on when you streamed that, fantastic thing and I was later to come across it of course on the Vulcan. So that was the Victor two. Now, from there I was decided to do the central flying school course at Little Rissington. Near Bourton on the Water that was and so I did the course and qualified and became a flying instructor and was posted to Syerston, which was a flying training school near Newark in Nottinghamshire. And there I, I was checked out by the standards people, and allowed to instruct on the aircraft. And my first bunch of students, there was one of them who was particularly good material and tremendous potential and I could tell the way he was flying I only had to show him something once and he had it off pat, absolutely as good as I could show him. And that gentleman was called Brian Hoskins and he later, in later years joined the Red Arrows. He was a member of the team to start with when they were flying the Gnat and then he became leader, and converted them from the Gnat on to the Hawk which they use now of course. And so he led the Red Arrows for, for a couple of years so I’m rather proud of the fact that I helped train him and taught him his first aerobatics and formation flying, which was pretty essential for being in the Red Arrows as you can imagine. So, anyway I enjoyed my tour and I was promised to have a double tour on instructing on the Jet Provost, and I was just enjoying every minute. However, that was not to be. Because I, because I had previous V bomber experience they posted me up to Finningley, where I was to do the Vulcan course. The Vulcan Mark two and so once, once I was trained and finished the course as a Vulcan captain and I went to, you say, call it solo if you like but strangely enough I had an American colonel for my co-pilot on my first trip in a Vulcan. And first trip as captain anyway and he he’d done a tour in Vietnam had this chap, so a very accomplished pilot. And so after that I had to do a short spell of a year or so in the flight simulator, because having an instructor rating of course you need to establish familiarity and the checklist and emergencies in the flight simulator before they actually did the flying. However, they said, ‘Well don’t get too downhearted about it,’ he said, ‘When you’ve done this short spell in the simulator we’ll groom you for stardom Donald and you’ll be given the flying instructor course on Vulcans.’ And that’s how I became a Vulcan flying instructor initially, and they cut, I had to cut my teeth on some young co-pilots who were converting from the right hand seat to the left hand seat just for, they were from squadrons of course. And it meant that they were fairly flexible and they could, providing their captain could, could fly from the right hand seat they would, they would do that. And so and then I went on to take a whole crew, a full crew. And I trained some fairly senior officers, the odd wing commander that was taking over a squadron or a station, a group captain who would be taking over a Vulcan station and so give them the course and and I had some, I had some nasty experiences at night particularly with training, training co-pilots. And they failed to recognise that in a Vulcan once you allowed the speed to fall the Vulcan was, became a high drag machine and it dropped out of the sky very quickly. And so of course being instructors we could recognise this fairly quickly to take control and save the situation as it were. And I had to do this on more than one occasion. At night particularly. Sorry. [recording paused] After completing my tour on the Vulcan OCU as an instructor, I was given my own crew. And we were posted out to Cyprus on to Number nine squadron and I was to become the squadron QFI and then carry out normal duties of a squadron crew as well. So that was wonderful. Edith and I flew out on a VC10 from Brize Norton and the rest of my crew found their way out there somehow. And one of my crew, his wife played the piano, and I’ll just tell you this. You can have a good laugh. She, they managed to even to fly this piano out to Cyprus on some transport aircraft, a Belfast or something. And so anyway, we settled down and we had a very nice hiring in Limassol itself and that was until a married quarter came up and, which it did. After about three months we moved up on to the base into a very nice married quarter and there I continued my, my tour on the squadron and it was very enjoyable. We were able to — if we weren’t flying in the morning we were free to go at about one o’clock and after lunch we were on the beach taking in the sunshine and the nice, in the lagoons swimming. Swimming by the rocks and so on, in the crystal clear water. It was lovely really. It was like a paid holiday. And so that’s how I finished my air force service. I came out in 1973 and I was given a nice send off in the, in the officers mess, dining in night. And so we, Edith and I we’d bought a Volvo car and I was hoping to get it in duty free, but to get a car in from overseas duty free you’d got to have it over a year and I’d only had this Volvo about six months so I knew I was going to have to pay duty on it. However, we drove home. Got the ferry to Athens and then we drove, various little ferries from a place on the mainland to Corfu. And we spent three nice days in Corfu and then on to Brindisi and we drove up the east coast of Italy to, past Venice and up to almost before you cross the St Bernard’s, St Bernard’s pass. There was no tunnels in those days. And that’s how we got home for a series of ferries and arriving home and we still had our place in Doncaster and we sort of tried to settle down as civilians, which was rather strange because when you become a civilian after thirty-five years of air force service you, you feel you’ve lacked that sort of cushion, that cocoon. You’re cocooned in a, in a sort of safe situation in the services and you’ve got to, you’re out in to the big, big world out there to try and make a living. Well I started off by trying to sell insurance from door to door and I got blown out of many a place and without selling anything. And so that turned out to be a dead loss and we tried looking around for a post office and we found one in York. We actually had bought a property now, a new bungalow in York which was very nice. And we ran this post office for, oh I guess about three or four months, and we were going to buy it from the present owner and he must have fallen foul of the head post master of York because he said that, ‘If you sell that,’ he said, ‘I’ll close it down.’ And so we couldn’t, we couldn’t have that and I settled into an insurance office job which wasn’t very exciting. Now, some member of the family was doing a course at Kidlington Airport near Oxford and he said, ‘Donald, why don’t you get yourself down there and get a commercial licence and they want you as a flying instructor,’ and I did just that. It took me about three months and I finished up as a commercial flying instructor on the Oxford Air Training School. And there I did fourteen years and trained many pilots for the commercial airlines, British Airways included, Aer Lingus, British Midland, Singapore Airlines and many others. And it was very enjoyable and rewarding. The, the ones I didn’t have much joy with were the Algerians. They were a bit of a peculiar lot but, however I retired then after fourteen years and I still went on flying at RAF Halton, where my service life started of course in 1939. So I joined the Microlight Flying Club and they immediately enrolled me as their chief flying instructor so I did a bit more instructing on microlights, and not the weight shift, I wouldn’t fly those. These microlights were proper stick and rudder aircraft and so on. And so I was happy with that, and it just so happened I trained a couple of air marshals. They came through and wanted checking out on microlights so, so I flew with them and a very nice situation. And I went on flying those until I was eighty four and then I thought well I’ve just about had enough. I think I’ll. I’ll give it up now, the flying, and so I haven’t flown since and we are now in 2017. So, so, [laughs] right. However I’ve had a very, very enjoyable flying career and I’ve got a lot, a lot to be thankful for. So that’s the end of my little broadcast. Thank you.
SJ: So did you have any, in all the times you were flying, did you have any lucky mascots or superstitions.
DB: Oh well no, not really. I tend, you tend to sort of get into a habit so that you know if you do something — I can’t give you a quote somehow I can’t sort of think of much that, that would, would do it. But I think you know you make preparations. It doesn’t matter what sort of flight you do you’ve got to prepare for it and otherwise you know if you just go leaping off without checking anything. Now, you see some of the material I could give the people who are coming after this. I’ve got one that the BBC did on me. They came out to Halton and checked. I mean I don’t want to waste time now showing it to you. I could, it only runs for about three minutes anyway but it was on BBC South Today and Geraldine Peers have you, do you remember her?
SJ: Yeah. Know her.
DB: She started, she introduced it and there was Jeremy Stern did the interview.
PJ: You’re quite a celebrity then Donald.
DB: Oh yeah. Well, I was at the time.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: I don’t think many people would remember it but the, and then they edited it and Frank Sinatra, “Come Fly With Me,” you know, it sounds, it sounds quite good and you see me take off in the latest microlight. It was a lovely craft called the Sky Ranger.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And I mean we, my brother Malcolm helped to build it. He did all the instrument layout of that. You’ve flown in that with me haven’t you?
AK: Yes.
DB: No, you flew in -
AK: I flew with my head down.
DB: I’ve forgotten. That was the Thruster we flew in.
AK: Oh right.
DB: I don’t think you ever flew in that Sky Ranger. No.
AK: And never again.
DB: Oh I taught you. I gave you a potted flying lesson Ann.
AK: Yes. For free.
DB: Yeah. All for free. So -
PJ: When you were in the Pathfinders.
DB: Right.
PJ: To get in to the Pathfinders were you told that you were going in the Pathfinders? Were you transferred or did you volunteer because I’m not sure?
DB: No. The way it worked, Peter is that I, like a bunch of other guys that had passed out from St Athan as flight engineers we all had to obviously go on to bombers or transport. Some of them even went on to Sunderland Flying Boats and Coastal Command and so on. However, I, we all went on parade and there was the crews, crews that were going to do the course were six people. There was the pilot, navigator and bomb aimer, the wireless operator and two gunners. Six people. All we were shirt of, short of was a flight engineer. So Bill Neal strode up and down, and I don’t know what it was but he just caught my attention and I sort of nodded and he said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ So I said, he said, ‘Have you done any flying?’ I said, ‘Well yeah a few with air tests, you know, flying in Wellingtons and that sort of thing on air tests but not, not all that many hours,’ but so, and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’re probably just the chap we’re looking for. Do you want to come and fly with us?’ So I said, ‘Well, yeah. Thank you,’ and he said, ‘We’ve all done a tour of ops so experienced crew and he, ‘cause he’d been instructing down at Harwell. There was an OCU at Harwell and Hampstead Norris was their satellite and so on. Bill Neal this was. So anyway and he said, ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘We’re not going to the main force.’ That would have been 1 Group or 3 Group. He said, ‘We’re going to Pathfinders.’ 8 Group and he said, so I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m not the wiser,’ I said, ‘Tell me about it,’ ‘Well,’ he said, and then he went on to describe, you know we, we will be doing this that and the other and helping to mark, find the targets. Good navigator and we did have a good navigator and find targets first and then mark them or help the master bomber to mark them. But when that first crew had done a tour they all left and we got, not all of them, sorry, the two gunners left and the navigator, that’s the first, what we would call the plotter, not the H2S operator, George Hodges, he stayed with us. Johnny Carrod, the radio, the wireless operator, he stayed, and so we had to find two gunners and a new navigator. Now, the gunners we were lucky, because there was a guy called Eric Chamberlain and he had hawk eyes. He could see in the dark this guy. He could honestly. His night vision was amazing. He could, he would see the night fighter before the night fighter saw us. And then, but the Canadian, the navigator was a Canadian flight sergeant and he was thrown in at the deep end. He had no operational experience at all and the first, he got us lost on the first trip! And I had to get them out, Bill Neal thrust a map in my hands and I said, I said, ‘I’m not,’ it was at night I said, ‘I’m not ruddy good at map reading,’ [laughs] But it so happened that we were running up on the, what they called the Frisian islands, the Dutch islands and there was one in particular that I recognised that was the shape on the map. And I was able to give him a pinpoint on that and actually the target was up in Northern Denmark. Well it was German occupied of course as you know but, and that’s how he, but he improved and he wasn’t bad, you know later on. His name was Archer, and I can never remember his first name but he was a young Canadian. Yeah.
PJ: Did you stay in touch with the crew after the war? Any of your crew members?
DB: Just, just Bill Neal I’m afraid. Johnny Carrod died fairly young and his house was burgled and he lost his DFC. That was stolen. And you know you can buy the odd whatever it is like theatre replica or something.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: But -
PJ: No.
DB: It’s not the same as the original. I was going to get mine to show you.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And [coughs] excuse me. But George Hodges, he, he, er, I spoke to him on the phone but I never actually saw him because he never attended our reunions did George so, and that was it really. I lost touch with all of them really.
PJ: Did you -
DB: Except Bill Neal.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: Bill Neal and I met at the Hendon museum. At the RAF Museum at Hendon and we had a full day touring around. Pictures taken near that Lancaster which says, “No enemy aircraft -
PJ: Yeah. Yeah.
DB: Shall penetrate German airspace.”
PJ: Yeah.
DB: Old Goering you see.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And we had our pictures taken with that.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And all the hundred odd bombs on the side, you know, painted on.
PJ: Is it, is it a fallacy you all, that the whole crew stuck together and when you went out you all went together to the pub? Is that - ?
DB: More or less oh -
PJ: A fallacy? Because -
DB: Somewhere I’ve got a picture of my first car which was a little Austin seven tourer and I bought that from a Canadian who was finished his ops and was off back to Canada. And I bought that car for thirty-five quid and it was a tiny little two seater really but people used to sort of get, we had the whole crew on that [laughs]. Can you imagine the springs [laughs].
PJ: Brilliant.
DB: And to start it all you had was just a blade. You could start it with a screwdriver.
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And I had the keys in my pocket and I parked outside the pub and when I went outside it was gone. Somebody had stolen it and they’d obviously had a blade of some sort, a knife maybe and just turned the thing and started the engine and away and they stole it. But it was found abandoned up near the airfield, near Upwood main gates or somewhere. Rotten devils.
SJ: You said that the red markers were blind markers. They had green markers as well.
DB: Oh yes.
SJ: What were green markers for?
DB: Yeah. The green markers were what we called backers up and we dropped some of those but you dropped them on mixed reds and greens. Mixed reds and greens were dropped by the master bomber and the primary visual marker. And they actually had identified the target visually by this time but TIs didn’t last forever. They needed backing up you see and so we, we were able to back them up by dropping just the greens on their own. Now 156 were basically a blind marker squadron so if that master bomber had got to the target but he wasn’t happy with the actual identifying the aiming point, he would call for blind marking. And this is where George Hodges on his H2S would drop the reds, red TIs. But when I was down the front on the bomb sight if mixed reds and greens were going down then I would go click, click, click, click and deselect the markers and just drop HE. We became really like main force and I would just, just drop the bombs on, on the markers that were already, but that was, that was what the three things and they called this a Parramatta. Bennett had his own various names for the -
PJ: Yeah.
DB: And the, we even had sky markers. Where the, if the, if the target was obscured by a thin layer of cloud or something like that they used to drop what they called sky marker flares. They would go off more or less the same or just a couple of thousand feet below the height of the bomber stream but there was one thing about an air, an air, a sky marker and that is if that’s the target and let’s say this is the blind marker, you had to bomb on an exact heading because if you didn’t, if you came in on a heading like that, and you dropped there you would, you might have this in your sights but the bombs would fall over that side, over there. So you had to be, you had to run in on an actual precise heading when you bombed on sky markers. And that was another thing that, but we only had to drop them a couple of times that I can remember. George Hodges having to drop sky markers. But they had, I know that Bennett, he went around his office and he said something about, he was asking various people what they would call a certain attack you see. I think the Parramatta one that he decided was by a New Zealander. It sounded a little bit New Zealandish that. And there was another one. What was the other one? That — he asked this young WAAF clerk, and she gave him a name and that’s what he called, what was it? That was the overall sort of marking plan. I can’t remember the name. It’s so long ago now but yeah that’s that was what Bennett did. And he used to come around and visit you know after, not every, but he used to get around a lot of the bomber stations and he came to Upwood to the debriefing, he was there for debriefing. And he always used to ask you, you know, ‘Who dropped the bombs?’ And, ‘Did you see the target?’ And did you do this, that and the other? And I used to try and give him the best idea that, that I could. He was always quite approachable you know. Bennett. And then another night he’d be down at Graveley, you see, debriefing them from 35 Squadron and all these other path — Oakington was a Pathfinder station you see. Little Staughton, that was another one, and as I say I’ve got a list of them upstairs. Can you think of anything else?
SJ: No I think you’ve covered it.
DB: Have I?
PJ: Yeah.
DB: Well I hope I haven’t bored you stiff and just before you go come and look at this big picture I was telling you about and you’re welcome to come out.
PJ: Anyway, Donald.
DB: Sorry.
PJ: On behalf of the IBCC -
DB: Yes.
PJ: I’d like to thank you for allowing us to interview you. Thank you.
DB: Alright. Right. Right. Ok. Did you want, have you recorded that?
PJ: Yes.
DB: Oh.



Pete Jones, “Interview with Donald Briggs,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

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