Interview with Jack Harris. Three


Interview with Jack Harris. Three


Jack Harris resumes describing his post-war career in the Royal Air Force. In October 1955, he became the commanding officer of 542 Squadron, a special duties squadron responsible for sampling radioactive fallout produced by American and Soviet atom and hydrogen bomb tests. He describes the sampling process and the impact on his health in later life. In 1957 he was promoted to wing commander and produced specifications for new aircraft until he was posted to RAF Wildenrath in 1960. In 1962, he transferred to the NATO headquarters at Fontainebleau where he was responsible for the photo reconnaissance squadrons. He was posted back to the Air Ministry in July 1965 to join the Manning Directorate, where he remained until he retired in 1967 after twenty-seven years of service. Finally, he describes his role in the formation of the 550 Squadron Association and RAF North Killingholme Association and the organisation of their annual reunions. He also details his involvement in a civilian industry based organisation called the British Hospitals Export Council.




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00:29:25 audio recording

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PS: OK doke.
JH: In [pause] in October 1955 I became the commanding officer of 542 Squadron which was first based at Wyton, and then we moved to Weston Zoyland near Bridgwater in Somerset. And 542 Squadron was a special duty squadron. And during 1955 and 1956 both the Americans and the Russians were testing their atom and hydrogen bombs and the job of 542 Squadron was to fly in the areas of greatest radioactive fallout from these nuclear explosions and bring back samples to be sent to Harwell, the atomic weapons establishment where they could help determine the yield of the weapon and the trigger mechanism. We did the sampling by flying in the areas of greatest radioactive fallout, and when the Russians were testing their weapons up in Siberia we had to fly into the Arctic Circle, and fly in the area of fallout for about one hour at a time. And we used to have to, when the Russians were testing we were moved up to airfields in Scotland. Kinloss and Leuchars and we used to fly right up north of Iceland and into the arctic circle and spend about an hour sampling. We had to fly at forty seven thousand feet which is the upper limit of the earth’s atmosphere. Beyond forty seven thousand feet you get into the stratosphere. We had to sample in two ways. We had some metal gas bottles in the bomb bay, and there was a pumping mechanism to pump in air from the atmosphere outside into these gas bottles. The second way of sampling was on each wing tip of the Canberra we had a fitting which looked like a wing tip fuel tank. It was cylindrical but it was different. It had a nose opening which you could open which let the air into this container and inside we had metal baskets which contained special filter papers, and these filter papers trapped all the radioactive particles that, that were the result of the atom and hydrogen bomb explosions. So flying at forty seven thousand feet the air was very thin and you had to be very careful with your throttle movements, and very careful how you handled the aircraft. If you’d got an engine flame out we had to drop down to ten thousand feet before you could relight the engine. So it was quite a tricky job flying. Now, when the Americans were testing their nuclear weapons they were using a test site in the Nevada desert close to the Mexican border. When they were testing we sent a detachment of Canberras down to Gibraltar and they flew off south west and we monitored on a, on a latitude which was the same as, as Mexico really. So we brought all those samples back for Harwell. We used to have a Geiger counter in my office and the filter papers in the metal grid containers. When we put those on the scanner counter sometimes the reading would go off the clock, and we had to rush them up to Harwell and we had no protective clothing. We, we were handling them with our bare hands. We had no protective breathing apparatus so we, the cockpit was full of air from the outside. It was compressed to give a special altitude but it was still contaminated air you see. So I did these flights for fifteen months until the end of 1956 when I was promoted to wing commander and took another posting. But it caught up with me in 1991 when I had some problems passing blood in the urine and they did an ultrasound investigation on my kidneys and found a tumour in the left kidney. The National Health Service was extremely good. Within a fortnight of the ultrasound investigation I was having the operation in the Kent and Sussex Hospital. I walked into the hospital and walked out at the end [laughs] But Air Ministry admitted responsibility and they gave me a disability pension for the loss of that kidney and I’m still drawing that pension. And the other kidney has grown in size by twenty to twenty five percent to take up the load. Yeah. But I have to be careful not overload the kidney with a lot of alcohol, drink plenty of water and try and lead a fairly simple life you see. But there haven’t been any other problems since. The surviving kidney has kept me going. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Yeah. Very good. You’re doing well.
JH: So that is 542 Squadron. Now, when the Americans were testing their atom and hydrogen bombs in South Pacific islands, 542 Squadron sent a detachment of four Canberras out to Australia to sample the fallout from those weapons. Yeah. So, so it was quite, quite a special job. So we’ll have a cup of tea now. Yeah.
PS: Yeah.
JH: A cup of coffee.
[recording paused]
JH: Well, on the 1st of January 1957 I was promoted to the rank of wing commander so I had to leave 542 Squadron, and I was posted to Air Ministry to head up a section in the Operational Requirements Branch and I was the head of R 2 which was responsible for writing the specifications for new transport aircraft and helicopters that were then about to come into the Royal Air Force. Up ‘til then the Royal Air Force had been mainly a fighter or bomber force with some resources devoted to Coastal Command, but now there was quite a big change and Transport Command was formed to fly the British Army to trouble spots where ever they might occur. Mainly in Africa but possibly in the Far East. And the requirement was to fly two thousand troops with their light vehicles like jeeps to air bases in Africa or the Far East where there might be some trouble erupting and so on. So I was responsible for writing the specifications for the Britannia which was a long range transport aircraft and could fly ninety or a hundred troops in, in one go and could transport about four jeeps, you see. And we also wrote specifications for the Argosy which was a medium range transport which would fly troops and equipment about, inside a theatre in Africa or in the Far East. We also wrote specifications for the twin Pioneer which was a very small aircraft that could move about fifteen or twenty people and we brought it. And then later we wrote the specification for the Short and Harland Belfast which was a strategic transport that could fly very long distances with lots of troops. Then we also wrote specifications for the Wessex and Belvedere helicopters. So the RAF was moving from a bomber and fighter force to a transport force. So that was quite an important change. In early 1960 I was posted to Germany where I became Wing Commander Operations at an airfield called Wildenrath, just west of the Rhine, and Wildenrath was a master diversion airfield which was open twenty four hours a day seven days a week. Always flying. It had two resident Canberra squadrons. One was a Canberra strike squadron which had the task of providing a quick reaction aircraft which was bombed up with a nuclear bomb and at ten minutes notice could take off and go to east Germany or Russia and bomb a pre-determined target. The bomb was provided by the Americans. So there were two American officers at Wildenrath and they had code words which authorised them to make the bomb live and, and, and let it go. We had code words to actually despatch the aircraft but the crew were pre-briefed on their targets. They sat in flying clothing with their helmets and everything else ready with them and when the alarm bell went they had to sprint out to the aircraft which was about a hundred yards away, start the engines, check everything, take off and go on this raid. And that was, that was the Cold War.
PS: Did they have to sit all the time? Every time they were on duty?
JH: No. They were pre-briefed on their targets but they, they could do other duties in the squadron but they couldn’t go away. They had to be handy to the aircraft, you see. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Right.
JH: The other squadron was a photographic reconnaissance squadron with Canberra PR7s. We had a communications squadron which was equipped with Pembrokes, a small transport aircraft and we had an Army Air Corps helicopter squadron on the airfield as well so it was quite a busy airfield. So I was at Wildenrath from about May 1960 to the end of ’62. And then I was posted to NATO Air Headquarters at Fontainebleau which was Allied Air Forces Central Europe and I was responsible for the photo reconnaissance squadrons flown by all RAF, Americans, Canadians, French, Belgian And Dutch. They were the tactical air forces and they had the job of, you know, doing reconnaissance of whatever was required. Battlefields or airfields or anything. So I was at Wildenrath, I was at Fontainebleau until July 1965 when I was posted back to Air Ministry to join the Manning Directorate and I was in charge of a branch which looked after the ground crew for all, all the ground trades in the RAF and we had to make sure that recruiting targets were set which would keep each speciality fully manned and make sure that the training facilities for them were there. And I was at Air Ministry until August 1967 when I finally retired from the Royal Air Force. So there we are.
PS: Right.
JH: So that’s it.
PS: Lovely.
JH: So 1940 to 1967.
PS: Yes.
JH: Twenty seven years of undetected crime. Yeah [laughs] So that’s it. That’s my story.
PS: That’s lovely.
JH: Yeah.
PS: It’s very very interesting.
JH: Yeah.
PS: And you must be very proud of it.
JH: Well, we were just doing a job. There were plenty of pilots, you know. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean it was a good life. There’s no doubt about it. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: You enjoyed it. That’s the main thing.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: When we originally started all this I found out that you were the secretary to the 550 Squadron Association.
JH: Yes.
PS: And you did tell me a little bit about that. Can you do that again for me so I’ve got it on this one?
JH: Yes. Well —
PS: You’ve got to click in haven’t you?
JH: After I’d retired you start a new —
PS: Life.
JH: Civilian job. And I didn’t spend any time going back to the wartime airfield or contacting other members of the squadron and then somebody in the Golf Club told me to join the Bomber Command Association and the RAF Aircrew Association. And they produced quarterly magazines and in these magazines there was quite a lot of talk about squadron reunions and it triggered off something in me, and in 1991 I contacted two or three former members of my Lancaster bomber squadron. 550 Squadron. They had a list of fifty or sixty contacts and their addresses, and in the Autumn of ’91 I set about forming the 550 Squadron and RAF North Killingholme Association. North Killingholme was our airfield. And it was very well received and in June 1992 I organised and presided over our first annual reunion which was at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.
PS: Yeah.
JH: And that went very well and the Association grew stronger and stronger, and it grew to a membership of about two hundred and fifty people. And even today grandchildren and children are joining. It’s amazing.
PS: Good. Yeah.
JH: Now, we had reunions at the old airfield North Killingholme. The first reunion North Killingholme was 1993 and the reunions are still going now. I shall go up there in July this year. I don’t run things or give the speeches now. I’ve handed over all that to other people. But the Association is still going very strongly.
PS: That’s good. Well done.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve written about eighty, eighty newsletters or something. Sent them around to the members. We used to do two or three newsletters a year. Yeah. So I’ve done all that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: You’ve done very well. Yeah.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Because it’s not easy setting up something like that is it?
JH: Well —
PS: You had the start with a list but —
JH: You’ve got no idea how it’s going to go. And then when it takes off you just have to live with it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Yeah. So —
JH: Yeah.
PS: So, did you do anything after you came out? You did some work, some charity work didn’t you after you came out of the Air Force?
JH: I joined a civilian industry based organisation called the British Hospitals Export Council which had been set up a couple of years before I joined by a chap who was a very able hospital administrator and he had done a two year job in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf setting up their health services.
PS: Gosh.
JH: And while he was there he found it very difficult to get the information he wanted about hospital equipment, and also hospital design and building and running and manning and everything. He found it very difficult. And when he came back to England, as a part time job he set this up and he ran it as honorary secretary for about eighteen months and then I came in to take over from him. Well, when I started, we had about twenty member companies and I built it up to over two hundred and fifty member companies and it, it flourished quite well. Yes.
PS: Good.
JH: We used to do [pause] British medical seminars and conferences abroad where a group of top English specialists would go out and talk, and alongside them there would be an exhibition.
PS: Yes.
JH: Of hospital and medical equipment and all the other services. Architects who designed hospitals, contractors who built hospitals, some companies just ran hospitals and could man them and so on. So that was all done alongside these British medical seminars and it was quite a successful formula. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: That was your expertise from sorting out transport.
JH: Yes.
PS: And things over the years in the Air Force.
JH: We did have some government help from the Board of Trade who were running export drives.
PS: Yes.
JH: And they could help us quite a bit. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: So you —
JH: So that was my career. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Yeah. So it all sort of slots in really doesn’t it?
JH: Yeah.
PS: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
PS: Did you enjoy doing that as well?
JH: That’s right.
PS: Yeah.
JH: So when I left the RAF first of all I formed and expanded the British Hospitals Export Council, and then later it was the 550 Squadron Association. Yeah. So that’s two projects I started from scratch that came off. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Well done. Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
PS: Well, thank you so much —
JH: Yeah. Well —
PS: For being so patient with me.
JH: It was a pleasure.
PS: It’s been really.
JH: Well, this is probably the last time.
PS: It is. Yes.
JH: We’ve got to the end. Yeah.
PS: We got to the end at last.
JH: Well, it’s lovely. I do admire you for doing the work. Yeah. Yeah.
PS: Yeah.
JH: Yeah.
PS: Well, thank you very —



Patricia Selby, “Interview with Jack Harris. Three,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 16, 2024,

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