Interview with Thomas Edward Noton


Interview with Thomas Edward Noton


Thomas Edward Noton was born in Greenwich on the 4th of April 1923. Upon leaving school he began a toolmaking apprenticeship, however, before finishing the course, Noton decided to join the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen. He explains why he chose the RAF over the Navy and the reservations of his father, who was wounded in the First World War. After training in London and Canada, Noton explains how his crew was formed at RAF Abingdon and their conversion to flying Halifaxes. On the 18th of June 1944, he joined 78 Squadron, stationed at RAF Breighton, where he completed 35 operations with the same crew and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Noton talks about operation procedures, including eating a meal of eggs and bacon before take-off, his flying experiences, and why planned celebrations following their final operation were cancelled. He also talks about joking and spending time with his crew, cycling around York, and attending the cinema or local dances in their free time. Noton then served in India, Indonesia, and Singapore before he was demobilised. He recalls returning home to complete his apprenticeship, marrying his wife, and his career as a production manager. Finally, Noton describes his lifelong friendship with a fellow crew member and his opinion regarding the government’s treatment of Bomber Command.




Temporal Coverage




00:35:55 audio recording


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ANotonTE190423, PNotonTE1901


CJ: This is Chris Johnson and I’m interviewing Thomas Edward Noton today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We’re at Tom’s home in Kent and it is Tuesday the 23rd of April 2019. Thank you, Tom for agreeing to talk to me today. Perhaps the first question I could ask you is could you tell us please about your early life? Where and when you were born and your upbringing and family life and so on.
TN: Yes. I, I was born in Greenwich near Greenwich Naval College and my father before I was born had been in the First World War obviously, but he’d been so badly wounded he’d been invalided out. Couldn’t follow his profession which was an instrument maker, and went in to partnership with a friend and ran a public house where he met my mother. It wasn’t considered suitable for him to be a publican so he gave, he sold out to the, his partner who promptly went bankrupt. And my father therefore lost any money that he had at that time, and had to make do as best he could. But I was born on the 4th of April 1923 on a day that it snowed. So I’m told. My head was born two hours before I was born. My father had to call the doctor who wasn’t the family doctor who gave him hell afterwards for not calling him. But I was successfully born and I went to school in Greenwich until the age of eleven when I passed the junior scholarship and went on to a school called Glenister Road which was by Blackwall Tunnel in Greenwich until I was fourteen where I passed another scholarship which was, would have enabled me to go to sea and learn to be a navigator. Sea navigation which I didn’t want to, want to do. Or I could become a master builder but my father wouldn’t let me be because he said you only work six months of the year in those days. And I ended up by chance applying for, to be an electrical engineer with Siemens Brothers but they had no opportunities there. They offered me a toolmaker so I became a toolmaker instead. But before I finished my apprenticeship I decided to join the Air Force so I left the, left the job which they promised they would hold for me until I came back and finished my apprenticeship. My father was not very happy about my joining the Air Force, and I can understand that because of his war experiences but he never, never stood in my way. And I honestly think that he didn’t think I’d make it as a pilot. He turned out to be right in the end [laughs] But that’s another story.
CJ: Could I ask you why you chose the RAF rather than one of the other services?
TN: Well I didn’t want to be, there was, there was a reason. There was, I was what was it called? You couldn’t join up. You were in a —
CJ: Reserved Occupation.
TN: I was in a Reserved Occupation but I could have joined the Navy as an engine room artificer, but I didn’t. I didn’t think much of going to sea. Or I could have joined the Air Force as a pilot, navigator or bomb aimer only, and it’s on my papers that if I wasn’t used in one of those categories I was to be sent back to my job. My work. And as far as the Army was concerned it wasn’t even considered. So at the age of eighteen I think, I joined. Joined the Air Force. Went to initial training course at Theale, a small airfield in, in Oxfordshire that then belonged to the Blue Margarine millionaire who owned Blue Margarine factories and we took over his airfield. And there we were graded as to whether we went as pilot, navigator or bomb aimer and I was graded as pilot status. And it was from there that I then went to Manchester. A holding camp. Until such time as it was decided whether we went to Rhodesia or Canada. And my, my, I went to Canada. Not by choice but because that’s where I was sent. Around at New Brunswick, Newfoundland at a Holding Unit. Went from there to, and this is where I get confused now. Just a minute. Having left Nova Scotia we were posted to Virden, Manitoba which was an Elementary Flying School. At Elementary Flying School. While I was at Elementary Flying School Bomber Command changed their methods of crewing heavy bombers by releasing the second pilot and having only one pilot on board and most of us who were on the course were re-mustered as either navigation, navigating or bomb aiming. Therefore, I went to Brandon and was held there for a while. Brandon, Manitoba. And then I was stationed at St Johns, Quebec where I did a navigation course. And after St Johns, Quebec I went to Dafoe on a bombing and gunnery course. I may have got those mixed around the wrong way. I’m not sure. On, on graduation I was commissioned. One of only two people, one of only three people in the course who were commissioned. The other two happened to be my friends as it happened. And then we went to, back to New Brunswick and came, travelled home to England on the Queen Mary which was an event in itself because there was about twenty odd thousand troops on board. Mostly American all being sent to England, and we were given squadrons of American soldiers to look after while we were on the travels. Having arrived at England I went on leave and then I went to ITW. I’ve missed. I’ve missed the ITW bit out somewhere along the line. I went there before I went to Theale. Actually [pause] that was at Torquay. Yeah. That was before. That was before I went to Theale [pause] I think at that stage of having gone, returned they didn’t know what to do with us for a while so they sent us on a course at Ludlow where we had, we camped in a field and during the day had tutoring in mathematics until we were then passed on and went to [pause] where did we go? I’m getting this all wrong.
[recording paused]
CJ: So you said that you’d had time in Ludlow earlier before your training. And that you then went to the Initial Training Wing in Torquay. Then you had these different postings to schools in Quebec and that you’d then graduated and then you said you came back to the UK after that.
TN: That’s right.
CJ: And where were you next?
TN: Halfpenny Green.
TN: Where the hell did I go?
CJ: I have a note here about Halfpenny Green. Advanced flying.
TN: Oh, yeah. I was just. Yes. I think it was that.
CJ: So you said that there was a decision taken to take away the second pilot on the bomber crew. What was the reason for that?
TN: Well, the reason for that, I think was aircraft were becoming available faster than they could get pilots. So by taking the second pilot and turning him into a captive aircraft they freed those occupancies and it also meant that the bomb aimer could assist the navigator in the astro navigation and the H2S when it came in. Gee. All these things that came in on navigation aids, could help with that and also do the bomb aiming because before that the navigator virtually did the lot himself and it became too much for them. And that’s the line that I followed. To be, mainly act as the bomb aimer/second pilot come navigator as required. Then we were posted to Halfpenny Green which was somewhere near Birmingham, and did the course, concentrated course on navigation. From there I moved on to [pause] what was the name of the damned place?
CJ: Stanton Harcourt?
TN: Yeah. I was posted to Abingdon and moved out from there to there to the satellite field of Stanton Harcourt flying Whitleys. But while at Abingdon we formed a crew which amounted to being all thrown together in a large hangar and told not to come out until we’d got together as a crew which everybody seemed to manage. My first pilot was a sergeant and I was told, or the rest of us were told that he couldn’t go forward. He had to go back for extra training. But there was a pilot available who was called a headless, headless, we were called a headless crew. And he was a pilot without a crew. So they put us together and asked us to think about it which we did and it was possibly the best decision we ever made because he was an excellent pilot. Very, very, very good. A New Zealander. And from that point on we, we progressed through Stanton Harcourt doing our first op as a leaflet dropping exercise over Paris. And from there we graduated to an OTU. I don’t remember where the OTU was.
CJ: Was it Rufforth?
TN: Rufforth. Rufforth. I’m losing my voice. Rufforth was the moving over to four engine aircraft.
[recording paused]
CJ: So you were on the OTU. The Operational Training Unit at Stanton Harcourt. And where was your next stop?
TN: The next move was to Rufforth in Yorkshire. 1663 Con Unit. Conversion Unit. Where we converted to four engine Halifaxes, before going on to 78 Squadron at Breighton, Yorkshire. 4 Group.
CJ: And when was this that you were moved to the operational squadron?
TN: I flew my first operational flight on [pause] give me a minute [pause]
[recording paused]
TN: Moved to the 78 Squadron on 18th of June ’44 where I completed thirty five operations before being screened. At which time I was awarded the DFC.
CJ: And did you fly all your missions with the same crew?
TN: Every mission was flown with the same crew. Yes. The crew was made up of a pilot named Selby who was a New Zealander [pause] rear gunner named Pollock who was English. A mid-upper gunner named Walmer who was English. A flight engineer named [pause] the flight engineer’s name was Stan Knight who was an ex-policeman. An Englishman. And the wireless operator’s name was Daniels who was an Englishman. And that made up the crew, I think. That would be all of them.
CJ: And given that you started your operations shortly after D-Day had that changed the type of target that you were attacking compared with crews who were flying missions before?
TN: For a, for a period of time we supported the army who were in the Caen area by bombing tank emplacements and generally making ourselves obnoxious to the Germans for Montgomery who, who did give us a citation for what we did for him. It wasn’t so much that we had to hit the tanks, it was churning up the ground to stop the tanks from moving while he got his troops together. But after that, after a period of that we then moved on to flying bomb sites and V-1, V-1, V-2 sites and then places like Brest, Kiel, Duisburg. Some of them being daylight raids rather than night raids and on one or two occasions there were mine laying operations at Kattegat and Skagerrak.
CJ: And given that this was later in the war and you were aiming for more scattered targets did you meet much opposition in the way of flak or fighters?
TN: We met very little opposition from fighters. We were attacked once or twice by fighters but evaded them. But fighters didn’t seem to be a great problem but flak was always exceptionally heavy and unfortunately you couldn’t avoid it because it was always around the target. And it was difficult when you were dropping the incendiaries for instance with a two thousand pound bomb as well because the terminal velocities were different. So you dropped one lot before you dropped the other and you had to fly straight and level to make sure that it dropped in with them and disrupted everything going on below on the ground with fire fighting forces and those sort of things. And of course you had just to stay there and take it. One thing I have always been astounded by is that there wasn’t more crashes in the air of aircraft colliding with the numbers of aircraft that were in the air at any one time. But I didn’t see too many of them. All in all I can’t complain about the tour of ops I did because it, we got knocked about a bit from time to time. We crash landed a couple of times but we always seemed to get away with it.
CJ: And you were flying which aircraft and what did you think of that aircraft?
TN: The Halifax I thought was an excellent aircraft. I couldn’t compare it with other aircraft because we never flew them such as the Lancaster etcetera, but the Halifax I have no complaints about. I thought it was a great aircraft. It could take a lot of punishment.
CJ: And have you been able to visit any aircraft in museums for example?
TN: Well, I’ve been to Duxford where they have remnants of the, of a Halifax and I’ve been to Croydon where they have a Halifax. Not complete but in pretty good shape which was dug up from the fjords in Norway after attacking the Tirpitz. And I’ve also been to Elvington where they have a fairly fully built Halifax. But that was a number of years ago now.
CJ: I think you had a birthday treat recently to Hendon.
TN: Hendon. Yes.
CJ: Yeah.
TN: Hendon. Recently.
CJ: Yeah.
TN: Where they do have a Halifax but not in, not in complete form.
CJ: And coming back to operations could you tell us please what the procedure was if you were going on operations? How you found out where you were going, what route you were taking, and how the crew felt before you went and so on.
TN: You were called to, called to a meeting in the operations hut, and there you would find a board with who was flying that day or night as the case may be with timing for briefing. First briefing. And you would have a quick first briefing between the bomb aimers and the navigators, gunners all got their separate briefings. And then you would go for your meal which usually consisted of eggs and bacon before the final briefing at which the targets were shown. The routes were shown, the weather was given and you were wished good luck. One amusing incident was the CO came on board one evening, one night and said, ‘I’ve got good news for you, and I’ve got bad news for you. The good news is that you’re not going to Berlin tonight but the bad news is you can only have one meal and you’ll either have it before you go or when you come back. So when do you want your eggs?’ And one united roar, ‘We’ll have it before we go.’ [laughs] That’s quite true that is. Then you would hang around on the base. Go out to your aircraft having flown it during the daytime to make sure that everything was ok and [pause] wait for take-off.
CJ: And after the each raid were you debriefed on what had happened?
TN: On return providing you returned to your own airfield you were debriefed. Debriefed on site by usually a WAAF officer. What were the navigation problems you had, what problems you had with the aircraft, anything you saw distinctive over the target, any action that the Germans had taken against you. On one occasion my rear gunner said to the debriefing officer who was a young WAAF officer that he, he had noticed one peculiar problem. When on being asked what it was he said they were using black searchlights. And it was a minute or two before she realised that [laughs] he was taking the pee out of her. But she was quite happy about it.
CJ: And how did the crews fill their time if, if ops were off and you had free time?
TN: Well, free time we spent either wandering around York. We all, all had bicycles except the flight engineer who managed to find himself a car which we made use of. I don’t know where he got his petrol from. I never asked him. And going to the cinema. Having any odd lunch out. Little cafes that were open in York. Going to the local dances. And just generally, generally spent your time together as a crew.
CJ: So you were deemed to have, you finished your tour with thirty five ops. What was it like when your crew finished that last op?
TN: It, it was, we finished our last op rather badly in a way because the weather had been bad. The airfield was a bit waterlogged. We ran off the runway and bogged the undercart down and had to hang about around the aircraft waiting for somebody to come and pick us up which took rather a long time. And the person who came in the wagon to pick us up was the local, the padre. My skipper was in a bit of a mood and said, ‘You took your time didn’t you?’ And the padre said, ‘Why? What’s so special about you lot?’ [laughs] before we went back to debriefing. But it had been planned to have a party that night after the party, after the last op was finished together with another crew who were finishing their tour but they crashed on landing and blew up. So we called the party off as, in actual fact I can only recall during my time on the squadron my crew being the only crew that survived while I was on there, that finished their tour of ops when I was on the squadron. There was, I think about thirty two crew members. Thirty two crews.
CJ: So after you’d finished your tour of ops where did you head for next?
TN: Well, they asked me what I’d like. Whether I’d like to go on, on instructing which I said I would, as close to London as possible so I could go home [laughs] But instead of that they posted me to Bombay and I spent a little time in the camp at Bombay and then was sent to a repair and servicing unit up close to the north west frontier which was a very long trip by train. I seem to remember it took two to three days by train, sleeping on the train and eating on the train. And when I got there I’d been posted there as adjutant. When I got there I found there was already an adjutant in place and so I was surplus to requirements. So I sort of hung about doing odd jobs for the CO and the squadron leader discip, and then I was posted to Dehradun as CO, officer commanding a transit camp in the foothills of the Himalayas. I had nineteen people under me and we used to shift through every fortnight something like two thousand airmen coming up from the plains, the plains for a week in the hills and then we would shift the other lot. As we shifted one lot out we’d shift another lot in. When that finished, the season, the season finished they closed the camp down and put it in mothballs till the following year and I was posted to [pause] Medan in Sumatra. I think it was Medan.
[recording paused]
TN: From Dehradun I was posted then to Medan in Sumatra but sent to Madras to form the unit as adjutant. While, while there the operation was cancelled and we were going to be dispersed but it was later put on, back on again after having lost most of our equipment to other people. Which I then got the job of going out for and finding it and getting it returned to the unit before we moved on to Medan. Medan, as far as I was concerned was a disaster because the CO and I didn’t get on [laughs] I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me. So I requested a posting which I got, to Surabaya as the adjutant of a double Mustang squadron under a wing commander who had been a Bomber Command pilot and we got on famously. He’d often disappear down to the docks with his Naval officer friends while I looked after the unit and he would just ring in to see if everything was alright. After Surabaya I went back to Singapore. I spent some time and then came home by ship and was eventually demobbed.
CJ: And so what did you after demob?
TN: After my demob I went back to, I took a few weeks holiday, then went back to work and finished my apprenticeship and also married my wife. One of the best things I ever did. Still get emotional about that. But having finished my apprenticeship for some reason I came to the notice of the managing director of Siemens Brothers who asked if I would like to go to the north of England where they were setting up a new factory and start a new, start the tool shop up which I did. I set up the tool shop. Set up the tool design department and then was made production director of the unit. I did that job for about three or four years and then one day was summoned to the works manager’s office who said he had something to tell me. That he was going back to London on a new job and there was going to be a new works manager. I asked him who it was. Did I know him? And he said, ‘Yes, you know him very well. It’s you.’ I said, ‘When?’ And he said, and this was on the Friday and I asked when I took over and he said on Monday which was a bit of a shock. But I had just remained the works manager there for ten years when GEC took over and I decided I didn’t want to work for GEC and got a job as works manager, later director of manufacture with Churchill Gear Machines who were part of the GKN group. Things at home were getting a bit bad in London with my mother in law so we decided we’d move again, and Philips offered me a job and I came back to Philips and eventually was a works manager of the small appliance division based at Hastings for ten years. And when I took early retirement and never looked back. Is that alright? I mean does that do?
CJ: Yeah. And are you still in touch with any of the, any of your old crew?
TN: Yes. I still, still talk over by phone to my rear gunner about once a month. He either rings me or I ring him. We’ve been to a couple of reunions together over the years. He’s lost his wife, I’ve lost mine so we’re both in the same boat. But the rest of the crew I have no knowledge of where they are or what happened to them. I know that the engineer died of appendicitis which turned to peritonitis. He died many years ago. The rest of the crew are probably, probably are dead now anyway. There’s only the two of us remaining.
CJ: And looking back after the war and even up to now how do you think Bomber Command were thought of or were, were treated?
TN: I think Bomber Command was treated fairly badly. Not so much by the public but by the government of the time. It was probably done with the best of intent. Maybe very good reasons for it but we seemed to be treated as murderers rather than people fighting a war and that has never been really put right, you know. Never got a, never got a Bomber Command medal. Got a clasp after many, many years. And the CO, Harris wasn’t treated as well as some of the other generals and admirals were treated. I think all in all we were an embarrassment at the end. That’s my true feelings about that. The general public I don’t think felt that way but I mean the raid on Dresden. That was a terrible thing but then there was good reasons for it. Is that, that’s still on?
CJ: Well, thank you very much for speaking to us today, Tom.


Chris Johnson, “Interview with Thomas Edward Noton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 16, 2024,

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