Interview with Jack Harris. One


Interview with Jack Harris. One


Jack Harris was born in Gillingham, Kent. At sixteen, he undertook employment as a clerk in the intelligence department of the Air Ministry. He describes the brief evacuation of his department to Harrow in 1939 and receiving permission to leave his reserved occupation and volunteer for aircrew in 1940, when he was sent down to Babbacombe. Harris began training as a pilot on Tiger Moths in February 1941 at RAF Fairoaks, followed by Oxfords at RAF Grantham and RAF Ingham. Harris describes night flying at Harlaxton before going to Ingham. He describes his first solo night flight, when a German intruder bomber caused the landing flares to be turned off, forcing him to find an alternative airfield to land. In 1941, Harris was made a navigation instructor and was sent away to a navigation instructor’s school at RAF Cranage in Cheshire. He then served as a navigation instructor for pilots at RAF South Cerney until May 1942, when he was posted to an Operational Training Unit in Canada as a staff pilot leading Ventura training exercises. In January 1944, Harris returned to England and trained on Wellingtons at RAF Hixon, Halifaxes at RAF Sandtoft, and converted to Lancasters at RAF Hemswell. In August 1944, he joined 550 Squadron based at RAF North Killingholme and completed thirty-seven operations. He compares his first daylight operation accompanying an experienced crew to Le Havre with his first solo pilot operation at night to Frankfurt. He also recounts anti-aircraft fire puncturing a fuel tank and seventy holes into their wing during a daylight operation over the Rhine River, and his penultimate operation to Dresden. In March 1945, Harris was posted to a Halifax Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Sandtoft. Finally, Harris describes receiving a permanent position in the RAF in 1946 and training to fly C-47s before being posted to the Far East in 1949.







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AHarrisJ190131, PHarrisJ1901


PS: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Patricia Selby. The interviewee is John Harris. The interview is taking place at [buzz] Tunbridge Wells [buzz] and the date is the 31st of January 2019 and it’s 10am. When were you born, John?
JH: I was born on the 21st of September 1920. I was born in Gillingham, Kent which at that time was the largest borough in Kent with a population of sixty thousand people who depended heavily on the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham which was a very big employer, and there were also other army units at Old Brompton and other places in Chatham. I was born in very modest circumstances, I suppose. It was a traditional family residence with a front room which was kept under wraps Monday to Saturday and opened up on Sunday when relatives or friends came for tea and that was the big social point of the week. Yes. Very, very modest beginnings. And then when I was aged about four, my parents who had both been shop assistants decided to open up their own shop which was a confectionist and tobacco shop. And we moved to 465 Canterbury Street say when I was about three or four. I was still on a little tricycle and the garden path had to be widened slightly to take my tricycle. I remember that. Living as a small boy in a sweetshop was a mixed blessing [laughs] and it was easy to overdo the pleasures particularly as I soon found my way around the sweet shop. Where the best chocolates were kept and such. So I was brought up with a pretty sweet tooth. Yes. But anyway I went to Napier Road Elementary School at the age of five and stayed there until the age of ten when I got a scholarship to go to Gillingham County School for Boys in Third Avenue Gillingham, which was a fairly new school. It had probably been built four or five years before, and it had a school of about four hundred pupils. It had very big playing grounds with cricket pitches, rugby pitches and a hockey pitch and unusually it had its own swimming baths which was pretty small. About twenty yards. Twenty five yards long or so. But it was quite unusual for schools to have their own swimming pool. Yeah. So I [pause] stayed at the County School and took two exams in about 1935, and I was then aged fifteen. And at that time the government was very worried about the spread of venereal disease and they decided that students in the fifth form, who would be aged about fifteen, would be given talks or lectures on the dangers of venereal disease. And we were the first class to start this new instruction. The physics master gave the lesson. It was unfortunate because he had a slight stammer which was a legacy of the Great War. But his lecture was built around a series of photographs which he passed around for all the boys to see and these boys, these photographs showed up in considerable detail what could happen to your private parts if you caught gonorrhoea or syphilis and it wasn’t a terribly happy experience. And it had a very, very daunting effect on, on my life and I was a slow beginner. So that affected me quite a bit really. That you didn’t want to, to get involved with that sort of thing you see.
PS: Yeah.
JH: So it put a considerable break on my social activities with the other sex [laughs] But there we are. That was what the government wanted to do. And of course in a way their lesson got home because we were all pretty scared about the whole thing. Yeah. Yeah. So when I was sixteen I passed the matriculation exam with quite good results. Distinction in maths and French. And I then sat the entrance exam for the Civil Service to become a Civil Service clerk. And there were exams held in every big city and I had to go up to London to the Civil Service premises at Burlington Gardens. And there in a big hall they’d assembled about two or three hundred desks and we all had to sit down and take this exam. They came around, put the question paper on your desk and then they said: ‘You can turn the paper over and you’ve got two hours to complete the paper.’ [laughs] Quite, quite, quite a stiff test. I mean you know it was pretty important and you could see the other two hundred and ninety nine you were competing with [laughs] Yes. But I managed to pass that exam. I also took the exam for the London County Council to be a clerk with them and passed that as well so I got jobs offered with both. But I accepted the job with the Civil Service as a clerk and started off in the Intelligence Department of the Air Ministry in, I think it was June or July 1936. You see. Yeah. Yeah. Because I, I had to wait for the inter-house cricket competition to be finished because I was the best batsman in our house cricket team. [laughs] So how little things influence things. But anyway I started work and they started me off in a section in air intelligence which dealt with security. Well, the word intelligence was pretty, sounded pretty well to a young boy, you know. And we were responsible for security in the Royal Air Force and we had contacts with MI5, the counter intelligence agency that rounded up foreign spies. The RAF liaison officer with the Secret Service was a friend of my boss in, in our department and he was always coming in once a week for a chat and so on. Not, not that he said anything of importance. It was just social chat, you know. But anyway [pause] I started that job, I think in 1937, and then when war broke out [pause] one Friday we were told to pack everything up and tie it up and label it and put it in desks, filing cabinets and cupboards. All these cupboards, cabinets and desks were labelled and so on. And war was declared on the Sunday morning and on the Friday afternoon we, we cleared up everything and put it in the cupboards and filing cabinets and we were given railway warrants to go on the Saturday to a school at Harrow and Willesden. This school had been evacuated. The children were all sent away to Devon, Cornwall, Wales and so on. That was a mass evacuation. So we arrived at this school. Our desks, cupboards and filing cabinets were in a classroom. Well, we were provided with a telephone. We were all there on the Sunday morning. We heard Neville Chamberlain declare war and about fifteen minutes later the air raid warden siren sounded and we trooped off into air raid shelters built in the playing fields. But of course nothing happened. It was a false alarm. So the Air Intelligence Department from Kingsway London had been evacuated to a school at Harrow in North London. Yeah. It was, it was, just a Grammar School. A secondary school like, like ours in Gillingham, you know. But I mean it was quite amazing how the move was done and the telephones were connected and working all, all within a twenty four or a thirty six hour period. In some ways it says quite a lot for the planning that was involved. Yeah. Yeah. We, we stayed at Harrow for about a month. And this was the period of the Phoney War. Nothing was happening and then they moved us back to central London. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I remember that, and although young men were conscripted for military service on their eighteenth birthday, I was exempt from conscription because I was in what was called a Reserved Occupation and if, if they thought the job you were doing there and then was more important to the war office, war effort then being in the army or the other services you got exemption from the call up. So I carried on as a Civil Service clerk. But then when Dunkirk came along in May and June 1940, the Civil Service bosses relaxed the rules and they said that young men like me could be released to join the services if you wanted to be aircrew or a glider pilot or a parachutist. So I applied to be aircrew straightaway and I went before an Aircrew Selection Board at Uxbridge and got through all that and they accepted me as a trainee pilot. This would be about July or August. [pause] Oh God, my memory’s failing me. God.
PS: Don’t worry.
JH: Yes. This would be about July 1940 but the RAF training machine was so overwhelmed with new people coming in, that they couldn’t accept me for two or three months and I had to wait until mid-October 1940 when I was sent down to Babbacombe on the outskirts of Torquay which was the Receiving Centre for new trainee pilots. And we went to Babbacombe. It was a Receiving Wing it was called and you were attested. You took the Oath of Allegiance and you got a service number and then we drew a uniform, an RAF uniform and we started introduction to RAF drill and early lectures on Royal Air Force law and so on. And we were only there for a fortnight when I was posted to Number 5 Initial Training Wing at Torquay where we were in a requisitioned hotel called the Elfordleigh. And there were three flights of students with fifty student pilots in each flight and we started off our pilot training with lectures in air navigation, meteorology, the principles of flight and beginning to be introduced to machine guns and how they worked and so on. And of course there was lots of drill involved and a certain amount of sport. That course lasted eight weeks and we finished just before Christmas 1940 and we were due to go on to an Elementary Flying Training School to start to learn flying Tiger Moths. But first of all it was winter time and all the RAF airfields then were grass airfields and in the winter they got too soft and boggy and couldn’t be used for flying. Also, the training machine was being overwhelmed by this new influx of would be pilots and there was no flying unit we could go to and they sent us to Paignton just to mark time, and waste time for two months until we could be sent away to start flying training. So I didn’t start my flying training until February 1941 when I was sent to Fairoaks near Woking to start to learn to fly on Tiger Moths. Fairoaks was a grass airfield. It was also belong to an aircraft factory in the corner of the airfield which was making certain planes. I can’t remember what they were, but anyway, anyway we started flying training in Tiger Moths. The instructor sat at the front. No. Sorry. The pupils sat in the front cockpit. The instructor was behind and the instructor gave you instructions with a gosport tube. He spoke down a tube which came in to your earphones and of course you started off with circuits and landings, learning to fly the thing and land it. To do local flying and then a little bit of cross country flying and that was it. We did about forty or fifty hours on Tiger Moths and then we were ready to go on to the next stage of flying training and I went up to a service flying training school at Grantham in May 1941 to learn to fly Oxfords which were a twin engine trainer. And again you did circuits and landings, local flying, you did formation flying, you did some cross country, you did some bombing exercises on a bombing range and you finished up by doing night flying. Grantham wasn’t a good airfield for night flying because the airfield was shaped like an inverted saucer and you couldn’t see the far end of the airfield. Also it was alongside a main road with telegraph poles and telegraph wires so it wasn’t good. So the night flying was meant to be done from a World War One grass airfield on the other side of Grantham which was called Harlaxton. But at the end of the runway, the end of the flare path at Harlaxton, there was a factory making twenty millimetre cannon for Spitfires and Hurricanes and it was a priority job to get these British fighters equipped with this twenty millimetre cannon and they were scared that if the flare path was laid out at Harlaxton it would attract German intruder bombers and the bombs could fall on the factory. So they stopped us flying from Harlaxton at night and we were sent up to Ingham just north of Lincoln which was not a proper airfield. There were no buildings of any sort. Just tents, telephone and slit trenches. But it was a grass airfield of course. A farmer’s field converted to an airfield, but you could lay out a portable flare path which gave you eight or nine hundred yard take-off and landing strip. So we went up to Ingham and my instructor did three or four dual circuits and landings with me at night. And then he got out and he said: ‘You’re on your own. Go and do your first solo night take-off and landing.’ So I taxied to the end of the flare path, got the green light and the Aldis lamp from the flare path controller who was at our end of the flare path and he gave me a steady green, so I opened the throttles and took off down this flare path. I’d got about two thirds of the way down this flare path when I noticed in the corner of my windscreen there was a reflection of five or six bright yellow flashes behind me. Well, I knew what they were. A German intruder bomber was dropping a stick of bombs along our flare path chasing me up the flare path. Well, I saw the flashes from the first five or six bombs. When the last two bombs burst, I heard the crump of the burst and got the push of the blast so it sort of helped me down the flare path. Anyway, I got into the air, climbed up to about forty or fifty feet, retracted the undercarriage, put out my navigation lights because I didn’t want the German bomber to pick me up and shoot me down. And I turned cross wind and looked back and our flare path had been turned out you see. It had been turned off. They had turned it off. In those days each RAF airfield, when flying at night, had a red beacon which was portable and it was located within a mile or two of the airfield and it flashed two Morse Code letters. So for Ingham our pundit was flashing I and, I for India and N for nuts you see. So I went to this portable flashing beacon at a height of about a thousand feet and circled it for a minute or so and then I thought well this isn’t a good place to be because the German will come to the beacon anyway and look for me. So I mean I turned off my navigation lights so I had no contact with the ground. No radio. So I didn’t know what to do. My own flare path had been put out. I, I had to find another flare path. I’d, I’d got about three hours fuel left to fly but dawn was still four or five hours away so somewhere I’d got to find a flare path and make a landing at night and I’d never done a solo night landing before. So I formed a little plan and I flew south for five minutes looking for a flare path. Came back to our beacon. Nothing. I flew east for five minutes, came back, nothing. I couldn’t fly west because we were getting near the hills. Getting near the Pennine Hills. So then I flew north for five minutes and I was flying now at about two thousand feet and I was just looking for a flare path and suddenly I saw what was called a hooded flare path. It was a proper flare path with two lines of lights you see, but there was a hood over the lights so you could only see the lights from low level. You couldn’t see them from high up. So I lined up on this flare path, set my gyro to make sure I’d got the right heading, did a circuit and landing, dropped my wheels down, down downwind. Came around, put my flaps down and landed. I’d had no radio contract with the airfield and I landed on this flare path which was actually a runway and it was an airfield being used by a night fighter squadron flying Defiants and they had a couple of aircraft up looking for the German bomber that had bombed my flare path you see. Well, of course I was a big surprise to them. It was, they had no warning of my arrival. As I came over the end of the runway, the runway controller in a caravan at the end of the runway told his ops room that he’d got a stranger. An Oxford had just landed. Well, they shepherded me to a dispersal and I switched off. So both I and the aircraft had got down in one piece safely albeit to a completely strange airfield. But it had a happy ending you see [laughs] So that was quite an introduction to night flying.
PS: Yes.
JH: Yeah. We’ll have a cup of coffee. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Right. Ok.
JH: Yeah.
[recording paused]
PS: You’re on.
JH: Well, [pause] about ten days after that incident where the Germans bombed my flare path I finished my flying course on Oxfords. And I received my wings on the 2nd of August 1941 and I was commissioned on that day. And then all the big tailors; Gieves, Orchid and so on had representatives that they sent to officer’s messes and you could be measured for your uniform and it would be made up and then you’d have a fitting. And you could get your uniform within oh two or three weeks. It was quite well organised. Unfortunately, I had come top in my navigation exam. And when I finished this course on twin engine Oxfords and got my wings, they made me a navigation instructor and I was sent away to a navigation instructor’s school at Cranage in Cheshire and we spent six or eight weeks learning a bit more about navigation in general but specialising in astro navigation using sextants to take shots of the stars, the moon and the sun. And you could get position lines from your sextant readings and plot these on the chart and get a fix. If you had taken shots on three stars you could get a fix which should give you your position at night to an accuracy of about ten miles which was a lot better than they’d had up ‘til then. So there was all this emphasis on astro navigation and particularly on the various star constellations and we had to get out and identify these at night when, when the sky was clear enough and so on. But the RAF had great hopes of astro navigation but it was overtaken by other better means of navigation soon after so it didn’t catch on as a mainstream of navigation. It was always a back up aid if you needed it. Yes. Yes. So [pause] I did about a six or eight week course at Cranage and I was then qualified to teach navigation. And you’ve got to remember I was only twenty one. Still pretty young. Yeah. So they sent me down to Number 3 Service Flying Training School at South Cerney near Cirencester and I taught navigation to each group of student pilots that came along. And they had to get enough in to, to pass navigation exams and so on. Each course consisted of fifty student pilots and they were learning to fly Oxfords and we were teaching them navigation. Each course of fifty students included eight or ten Polish pilots. And these had been perhaps members of the Polish Air Force or young Polish men wanting to fly who’d used an escape route to get out of Poland and be passed down through five or six countries. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania into Turkey and finally they’d reached the RAF in Palestine and there they’d be vetted to make sure that they weren’t German spies. But then they would be accepted into the Polish Air Force and sent to England for training. So that’s why we had a lot of Poles on each course. Now, the training included some exercise learning how to drop bombs from two points of view. One being the pilot accepting instructions from the bomb aimer about getting on to the aiming point and the other being the actual bomb aimer who was guiding the pilot and giving instruction to the pilot to make sure that he lined up properly on the aiming point. And a bombing detail consisted of two pilots in an aircraft flying to the practice bombing range which was on mud flats in the Severn Estuary and took about ten or twelve minutes to fly to the bombing range. And then one pilot would go down to the nose where the bombsight was and he would guide his pilot friend to drop six practice bombs on this bombing range and they would change over and the other would do the bombing and the other would do the flying in the pilot’s cockpit. So the actual dropping of the bombs took about fifty minutes and with flying back to base the whole flying detail would be about an hour and twenty minutes or an hour and a half. [pause] One day, two Polish pilots took off to do this practice bombing exercise but they took a long time to come back and the Oxford only had fuel for about four hours flying but these two Poles didn’t come back to South Cerney and enquiries were made as to whether anybody had reported an Oxford crashing somewhere. They, they thought they’d crashed you see. Well, after about four hours these two Polish pilots returned. They hadn’t got any practice bombs on board. They’d dropped them all. They’d flown out over the English Channel at low level to get below the German radar screen. They got to the French coast. They flew up and down the French coast until they came to a German barracks flying a swastika flag and they dropped their twelve practice bombs on the German barracks. [laughs] Now, these practice bombs were very small. Only about eleven or twelve pounds each. They were just filled with magnesium powder so that you could plot them to give a cloud of dust. But they had a small explosive charge that gave a flash. That was all. But anyway, after about four hours these two Poles returned and they said what they’d done and of course everybody was a bit upset because they completely ruined a day’s flying programme. Apart from causing concerns about a missing aircraft, they’d ruined the next couple of day hours that aircraft was due to fly. So the chief instructor had to tear them off quite a large strip but at the same time he had to admire their aggression. [laughs] They weren’t going to waste any practice bombs. So I carried on instructing at South Cerney until May 1942 when I was posted to Canada to become a navigation instructor at a new Operational Training Unit that was being set up in Canada. But we ran into some problems straight away. The Operational Training Unit we were going to was meant to fly Hampden twin engine bombers and the crews were meant to be trained for night operations in Bomber Command. And that is where astro-navigation still played some considerable part. But unfortunately, the airframes for the Hampden bombers were made in Canada so the airframes were available but the engines were Mercury engines made by the Bristol Aircraft at Bristol in England. Well, the engines for the Hampdens never arrived. They’d been put on a ship to cross the Atlantic and the U-boats had got it and sent the ship to the bottom. So we had no engines. And of course you can’t do anything with a bare airframe. So for four or five weeks we were in limbo with virtually nothing to fly. So they made an emergency decision. The Air Ministry had ordered from Lockheed Aircraft Company at Burbank in California a number of day twin engine bombers called the Ventura which was an adapted version of the Hudson maritime patrol aircraft. Well, the Ventura used the Hudson wings and the Hudson wings were built for flying for long periods at low level, at low speed on maritime patrols you see, and the wings weren’t suitable for a day bomber which had to be a high speed bomber. So the concept of making the Ventura a day bomber never worked out. We, the RAF did order a small number. Perhaps seventy or eighty aircraft. They equipped three squadrons in Bomber Command but the casualty rate was too high and they couldn’t get away from German fighters. They couldn’t defend themselves and the casualty rate was just too high so the Ventura was never a success as a day bomber as it was meant to be, but it was quite an interesting aircraft to fly. It had very modern systems. The Americans were very good with instruments, electrics and auto pilot. Much, much better than actually the RAF equivalent and it was still an interesting aircraft to fly. So I carried on flying Venturas at Pennfield Ridge in New Brunswick, Canada which was one of the Maritime Provinces and heavily dependent on forestry, agriculture, orchards and fishing and so on and generally a rather poorer part of Canada. Yeah. Yeah. So I, I stayed on teaching navigation and then they made me a staff pilot on Venturas and I could lead students on formation flying and certain air firing exercises and so on. So I did quite a number of hours on Ventura aircraft. So then in January ’44, I was sent back to England on a troop ship from Halifax in Nova Scotia, and I came back on a troop ship called HMS Andes which when war broke out had been under construction. So it was a fairly new ship and they were able to finish it as a troop ship and it could take, you know, several hundred RAF people. So we were, I think I was on one of the top decks. A deck it was, and a cabin with six bunks in it. Three double tiered bunks occupied seven officers. The seventh had to sleep on the floor so we took it in turns to sleep on the floor. But we didn’t come back in a convoy. The Andes was fast enough to make the Atlantic crossing unescorted and if you could cruise along at seventeen or eighteen knots you were probably going fast enough to avoid the U-boats and so on. So we came back to Gourock in the Firth of Clyde at Glasgow. That was our landing point. Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry, I’m wrong there. We came back to Liverpool. We landed at Liverpool. We landed at Liverpool, yeah. Sorry. And then I started my training with Bomber Command and I went to Number 30 OTU at Hixon, near Stafford, flying Wellington bombers. I was the pilot and I acquired a crew of; navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and one air gunner. So we became a crew of five and we did all our circuits and landings, local flying, cross country, bombing exercises, air firing exercises, formation flying, fighter affiliation and night flying and so on. And then after about eighty or ninety hours on Wellingtons, we finished that course and we were ready to go on to the next step on the Bomber Command training ladder, and we went to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Sandtoft near Doncaster to learn to fly the Halifax four engine bomber. And there I added on a flight engineer and a mid-upper gunner to my crew. So at that point we became a crew of seven and we did the same sort of exercises; circuits and landings, local flying, cross countries, bombing, air firing, fighter affiliation and night flying. So we did forty hours flying on Halifaxes and then we were sent to Number 1 Lancaster Finishing School at Hemswell where we all did a quick conversion course on to the Lancaster and it was just circuits and landings, day and night flying and I think one cross country. We were only there for about two, two and a half weeks and then we were qualified Lancaster crew and I was posted to Number 550 Squadron flying Lancasters based at North Killingholme near Grimsby. We arrived about teatime on the 30th of August 1944 and there was an air of gloom everywhere because that day the squadron commander, a wing commander had been shot down on a daylight raid on a French target but unfortunately he didn’t come back. So we did a couple of cross country exercises on the squadron, particularly getting used to a navigation aid called H2S which was a downward looking radar which gave you a picture of the ground and you could identify towns and water features which helped a lot with the navigation. So we did two or three training exercises with the squadron and I had to start my tour by doing a second pilot trip with an experienced crew which I did on the 10th of September 1944 and the target was Le Havre port. And we attacked it in daylight so the whole sortie was very short and we were only over the target for two or three minutes and we hardly saw any flak. Just a few puffs of smoke. A few. But it wasn’t much good from the point of view of getting me used to enemy defences. So our first raid as a complete crew was a night sortie on the 10th of September to Frankfurt and we went on a totally clear night with no cloud. But Frankfurt and Mainz it’s twin city had about two hundred searchlights and they were all alight as we came over this target and you could see three or four aircraft had been coned by, you know twenty or thirty searchlights each, and they were being plastered with flak. So that didn’t do the morale a lot of good. But anyway, we, we got through all that alright. That was a flight of just over seven hours. And then we started to do three or four daylight raids on targets in or near Calais. There was a gun site that was firing shells into Dover and southern England. There were a lot of German troops in Calais which were trying to stop the allies capturing the port because we wanted to get the port for the port facilities it offered you see. Loading supplies and so on. Yeah. So we did three or four day sorties and then we [pause] we were sent on one daylight raid in October, early October, to an inland port on the River Rhine at Emmerich which was being used to bring German reinforcements in. And they sent us in in daylight at a height of eleven thousand feet which was pretty low and the German flak gunners had no trouble in picking you up as target. And suddenly a flak shell burst about thirty or forty feet in front of me. Fortunately just below me. Just a few feet below. I saw the red flash as the shell burst. I jumped out of my skin. I knew I was going to be severely tested in the next few minutes. There was one very loud bang which we found out when we landed was because a blind landing aerial on the outside of the fuselage just below, just by my left knee had been shot clean away. And we took a lot of flak fragments in the port wing and one fragment punctured one fuel tank and the mid-upper gunner reported fuel streaming back from this tank and I could tell from the petrol gauge that it was leaking pretty badly. The needle was going down. So we had to run all four engines off that one tank to make best use of what fuel was remaining in it. And I checked around with the crew. Nobody was hurt. We were all unharmed. That was a bit of a surprise in a way. And when we landed we found we’d got over seventy holes in the port wing in the bomb bay doors of the fuselage and so on. So we’d taken quite a pasting from this flak shell. But anyway, we got back alright and then we set out to do a lot of night raids on mostly targets in southern Germany like Stuttgart, Munich, Leipzig, Nuremberg and so on, interspersed with raids on Ruhr Targets like Essen and Dusseldorf and then three raids on Cologne we did as well. On one of the Cologne raids we were hit by flak again but that time minor. We only got ten or twenty holes. Yes. Yes. So there was one particular episode during my tour with 550 Squadron. About halfway through our tour, our flight engineer fell off his motorbike and broke his wrist and he was out of action for five or six weeks, in which period we carried on flying doing six raids with a replacement flight engineer. So when my crew had finished their thirty raids, the flight engineer had only done twenty four because he’d missed six of them. So I got the whole crew to volunteer to fly six extra raids to finish off the flight engineer which meant that I as a pilot did thirty seven raids all together, because I’d started with the second pilot trip you see. So I, there weren’t, there weren’t many people on the squadron that had flown more raids than that. Yeah. And we, we got through the tour alright. As long as you were in the middle of the bomber stream you were relatively safe from night fighters. The night fighters were the biggest danger because with their twenty millimetre cannon firing upwards they came underneath you and you couldn’t see them and they fired up in to your fuel tanks and engines and so on, and usually the first burst was pretty fatal. But the night fighters were looking first for bombers on the edge of the bomber stream where they would be easier to pick up you see. But I had a good navigator and he kept me in the middle of the bomber stream and we were never attacked by a night fighter. So I take my hat off to my navigator there. He was really responsible for the crew coming, coming back unharmed from all these raids. Yeah. Yeah. We finished up. Our next to last raid was the Dresden raid where we, we flew for ten hours twenty minutes. And unfortunately when I started up my own aircraft, the brake pressure was too low and we couldn’t taxi out and take off. We had to switch quickly to the reserve aircraft which was already bombed and fuelled up. So we were taken to the reserve aircraft and we flew the sortie in the reserve aircraft. But not surprisingly the reserve aircraft was a very tired out aircraft and possibly had a twisted fuselage. It didn’t fly too well and I had to use much more fuel than usual in climbing up to altitude and we started to get a bit short of fuel and coming back across France we realised we didn’t have enough fuel to get to North Killingholme, so we landed at an emergency airstrip at Manston in Kent. Just next to Ramsgate. And we landed there about ten past seven in the morning just as it was getting light. Yeah. So, that, that was that was a long, long sortie. Ten hours twenty minutes was our longest sortie. That’s ten hours twenty minutes from take-off to landing. But that means, what with starting the engines during the early take off checks, taxiing to the take off point, taxiing back after you land, I’d been strapped to that seat for over eleven hours you see. Quite a long time isn’t it? [laughs]
PS: A very long time.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Ok. So shall we have a rest now?
PS: Yes.
JH: Yes. Yes. Yes.
[recording paused]
JH: I’d finished my tour and I was posted in early March 1945 to a Halifax Heavy Conversion Unit at Sandtoft where I was an instructor and deputy flight commander. And of course we were training crews on the Halifax first and then they would go on to the Lancaster. And the war with Japan was still on and they were due to go up to the Pacific Islands to bomb Japan but Japan came out of the war in, I think it was August 1945, and obviously there was no need to carry on training crews. So we had a very awkward period where they didn’t really know what to do with all the aircrew they’d got, and holding units were set up just to [laughs] just to sleep and feed them but not, not really knowing what to do with them. So it was a rather awkward time. And I had a stroke of luck. I took some leave and my home was in Gillingham in Kent so I went up to London quite a lot. And I was walking the streets of London and I met a squadron leader who I knew and we started chatting and he, he was in charge of pilot postings in the Air Ministry and he said to me: ‘You know, pilots and aircrew are going to have a difficult time for the next few months until everything gets sorted out, but — ’ he said, ‘If you like I could get you a job in the Air Ministry.’ Well, I leapt at it you see. So I was posted to the Air Ministry on the 1st of October 1945. And first of all I was a flight lieutenant but fortunately in about March ’46 they made me an acting squadron leader and I was pretty pleased with that at the age of twenty five. Life was looking pretty good. And then a month or two later about April or June, April or May ’45, they gave me a permanent commission which I accepted as quick as I could and I was going to stay in the RAF permanently you see. So that was a lucky break for me. Yeah. So then in March 1948, I went back to flying duties and had to take a refresher course flying Oxfords at Finningley near Doncaster for six or seven weeks. And then I was posted to an Operational Conversion Unit flying Dakotas at North Luffenham near Oakham in Rutland and I acquired a pilot and a wireless operator, so we were just a crew of three and we learned to fly a Dakota transport aircraft and the Dakota could transport about thirty or forty troops. It could drop paratroops. It could tow gliders, and you could also drop containers as supply dropping to troops on the ground. So we had to practice all those exercises. But the main thing was doing a long cross countries to get the navigator exercised and so on. So that was fine. And I carried on until March 1948. No, sorry. [pause] I carried on ‘til February ’49. That’s right. February ’49 when I was posted out to the Far East and we went up on a troop ship the Devonshire which was the services troop ship, you know. Yeah. Now, we’ve got —



Patricia Selby, “Interview with Jack Harris. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 19, 2024,

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