Interview with Eric William Harrison


Interview with Eric William Harrison


Eric William Harrison joined the RAF in 1943 and trained as a flight engineer at RAF Locking, RAF St Athan, and RAF Chedburgh, where he flew Stirlings and recollects that they were a terrifying aircraft compared to Lancasters. Harrison formed a crew at the Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Feltwell, despite arriving late due to a broken-down train. In November 1944, he joined 195 Squadron stationed at RAF Wratting Common. He details the difficult take-off on their first operation due to inexperience operating an aircraft fully loaded with bombs and petrol. Harrison highlights the dangers of night attacks, noting specifically an operation to Vohwinkel on the 31st December 1944 where two aircraft were lost to bombs dropped from above. He also recalls an operation whereupon discovering that the gunner was unconscious the pilot opted to return to base and release their bombs over the North Sea. Despite volunteering to serve in the Far East, Harrison was later stationed at RAF Driffield, RAF Little Rissington, RAF Hullavington, and RAF Manby. He recollects an unfortunate flight during a Battle of Britain display that convinced him to leave the RAF in 1950. Finally, Harrison details his career after demobilisation, painting during retirement, and his appreciation of the recent commemoration for Bomber Command.




Temporal Coverage




01:48:55 audio recording


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AHarrisonEW190914, PHarrisonEW1903


BW: This is Brian Wright interviewing Warrant Officer Eric Harrison of 195 Squadron at 2.30 on Saturday 14th September 2019 at his home in, or near Bolton, Greater Manchester. And also with me is Phil Harrison, his son. Eric, if you wouldn’t mind please for the record would you just give your full name and service number and date of birth please?
EH: Yes. My full name is Eric William Harrison. I was born on August the, 25 08 1925.
BW: And whereabouts were you born?
EH: I was born in a place called Heywood.
BW: Near Manchester.
EH: Near Manchester. My father had been in the ’14/18 war but he had been [pause] discharged because of mustard gas inhalation and he never recovered. He died at the age of forty.
BW: Did you, did you know him? Were you familiar with —
EH: Oh yes. I knew him but he was a sick man.
BW: And how many others were there in our family? Were you —
EH: I had two sisters. Another brother.
BW: And were you the eldest?
EH: Yes. I was the eldest.
BW: What was it like growing up in, in Heywood?
EH: Oh, we had a wonderful mother. The mother was the mainstay of the family.
BW: And what —
EH: Without her we would never have existed.
BW: And was she working or did she spend her time —
EH: No. No.
BW: Looking after you as a family.
EH: She looked after us. Did washing for people. Did sewing for people. It was hand to mouth. In those days things were a lot different than they are today. Welfare wasn’t quite available at the same rate. If any.
BW: But she took work in for people.
EH: Yes. She did washing and all sorts of things and ironing. Wonderful mother.
BW: And where did you go to school?
EH: Well, I went to school to play because I thought that’s where they went. I didn’t know you had to learn anything. I didn’t know. I was about eight before I realised you. Eight years of age before I realised you were going there for a reason. I thought you went to play, make gangs and all sorts of nonsense really. But I think schooling really clocked into me when I was about twelve, I think. Roughly I was about that age before I realised that one of the teachers who was called [pause] a nice chap and we were doing practical drawing and he said to me, ‘Have you ever tried drawing, Eric?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a wonderful gift for it and you should develop it.’ And I set up with set squares and t-sets and I can do drawings of, extended drawings and so on. And I still, ‘til lately but that stopped me. All those, these drawings in my house and well, he’s got a couple I think and, but I’ve enjoyed painting. Water colour painting. But he was very good. But he was the one who set me on the road to becoming interested in art. I don’t think, without that I wouldn’t. Because of art it brought me on to read and read what you need to know about angles and figures and figurations. So it was like a development from one to another ‘til when I was, I left school at the age of fourteen and that was when the war started in 1939. And what did I do? Well, I went, I thought, well what do I do now? I’ve got to go to work now and everybody said, ‘Get yourself a job that gives you a pension at the end of it,’ in those days. So it was the gasworks, or the ironworks, or the steelworks, or the mills, or where they had a pension at the end. So anyway, I went and was working at the gasworks. I got a, I became a so called gas fitter but then I realised I was making no money out of it because I had, I was more or less the bread winner of the family which meant that, well life was tough and we had to [pause] So I packed that job in. I went making cabinets for the War Ministry and I was earning thirty five shillings a week which was a lot of money in those days. Having gone from eleven shillings a week to thirty five shillings a week was enormous strides, and that was making cabinets for sides of, when the Army and the Navy, for bedside, bedside tables and things.
BW: Wooden ones. Not steel ones.
EH: Wooden ones. The wooden ones. Yes. Of course. But that’s, like I said I did that for a couple of years. Then it got the war, my time had been threatened with the call up and so forth. And then I thought, I realised that I’d better do something about this Air Force thing.
[recording interrupted]
BW: This is Brian Wright carrying on with part two of the interview with Warrant Officer Eric Harrison of 195 Squadron at 2.45 on Saturday 14th of September. So, Eric we were listening before to you describing the journey down to London on the train.
EH: We arrived at 5.30 in London after a long dour hassle. It seemed forever. However, emerging out of Euston Station on to Tottenham Court Road at 5.30 in the early hours, in darkness of course, and wandering along I met a lonely character. I said, ‘Where’s Lord’s Cricket Ground?’ because that where the journey I was making to and he said, ‘Well, you’ve quite several journeys to go. You’d better get the underground at — ’ he mentioned some underground. It was all a foreign language to me. However, on the other side of the street I saw my image of myself. A person of about the same stature carrying a gas mask, a little bag of tricks and I thought well, I wonder where he’s going. So I went across the road quietly, I introduced myself and he said his name was Clark and he was going to Lord’s Cricket Ground like me. So at least I had a companion from then on, and we struggled our way through London and eventually at quarter to eight that same day we arrived at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The gates opened and in we went. Several hundreds of other people were there and then once inside we had to form into groups. They called us out in to various divisions and we were taken for breakfast. Well, that was rather a funny one because we had to get into some sort of assemblage and march in threes down to London Zoo where we had breakfast. There were no animals in the Zoo, they’d all been taken out but nevertheless they used the Zoo in 1943 as a feeding place for potential RAF officers which, I mean it’s a starting point isn’t it? So, that was, that was genuine, and for a fortnight we marched up and down the streets of London at 6 o’clock in the morning going to breakfast, 6 o’clock at night going for our evening meal. And of course darkness fell upon us and the guy at the forward unlucky enough to be carrying the lamp because it was the corporals who, who made the life bearable. They’d bless you every night and put, tucked you up into your beds and they frightened the life out of me, and they would issue these red lights. One for the lad in the front and one for the lad in the back. But however, we managed and during that fortnight we had our hair cut, teeth pulled, shoes measured, ankle socks taken away, and so forth and so on until eventually like, like spick and span new boys. And after the, and I was stationed in a billet at and it was a palace of varieties called St John’s Wood. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it but they were, and in those days they’d been accommodated by the RAF. Taken. Taken over and were looked after by the likes of, and we had to spend at least a two hours a day scrubbing them and cleaning them. And I mean cleaning them because they wouldn’t let you touch the doors or, it had to be clean. What a life. Anyway, at the end of about a fortnight what was left of us that survived the ordeal managed to get on to a train going to Bridlington. A slow train via Doncaster and here I don’t know about trains. I don’t know a lot about trains. I hadn’t been on very many. If any. But when it chugged in at 4 o’clock in the early hours of the morning at Doncaster and the lads wanted the call of nature they opened the door and fell out. There was no platform there. There were these carriages again. Just open the door. Just fell out. They thought there was a platform. They were like me. Numbskulls. They hadn’t any sense. Had led a sheltered life you see and, however we chugged back to, back on the train and rubbing our ankles and what have you we eventually got to Bridlington. Pouring with rain. We were allocated houses in two, two at a time and I got on with the guy I was with. He was called John. Call him John. A Scots lad. And we had one room in this house in Bridlington. We hadn’t to go in any other room unless we were told to by the [pause] which was, you could understand in a way. So for about another three or four weeks we marched up and down Bridlington front dressed only in ankle socks. A ground sheet tied around your neck and your funny little hat on with your white flash. Didn’t you look a right sight marching up and down the front at Bridlington? All barbed wire on the front. You couldn’t climb over it of course. They wouldn’t let you escape. But we managed to work out, this, this Scotsman said to me one day, we were, he stayed with me, we were taken for a twenty mile run along the coast up to Filey, and then come all the way back down again. And he said to me, ‘Hang on a bit. Hang on at the back.’ I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Well, let them all go.’ So when we, I set off and this John fella, I can’t remember his surname, he said, ‘Look, when they’ve gone jump in this field at the back here.’ So off they go and we jump in the field. We crossed the field. We wait for them on the other side coming back because they was like over that field to the top, run around and came back all the way down again. So we joined in again at the bottom when they all went past. We did that for about four days until we got caught and we got a hullaboo by the corporal in charge, because he knew about it. They’re not that silly you know. They, like another corporal put me on a charge, just diverting a little bit but talking about corporals. They were like Adolf Hitler had one. I think he was a corporal. And these fellas in the RAF with two stripes on they frightened me to death because they was, ‘Airman. Do this. Do that.’ I think they were air marshalls really. But anyway whilst at St Athan I was taking a cup of tea back to my billet surreptitiously and a corporal spotted me and shouted my, ‘Airman.’ And of course I was put on a charge and I was sent in front of the station warrant officer who said how dire this was against my, my good name was besmirched by being caught with the tea which we weren’t supposed to take to the billet. So what could I do to put this right? I’d have to go on Saturday at 12 o’clock to the mess. The mess. ‘Report to the orderly sergeant at 12 o’clock and he’ll give you duties to do.’ So eight of us funnily enough turned up at 12 o’clock. I thought I was on my own. There was about eight of us, and we were taken to this sort of small hangar. Not a great big hangar but big enough. At the far side of the wall was like a vent and we were told to sit down and get these shovels and buckets and then someone shouted, ‘Right lads,’ and they opened the vent at the back of this wall and lorries were there with, full of spuds. Tipping spuds down into this building and we were there peeling spuds ‘til 5 o’clock. Spuds. Eight of us. In buckets with water. What a game. Anyway, we got, that was another, that’s another just breaking up but that’s how they treated you and that’s part of the [pause] anyway that’s, so after, after those days we went on to what they called the mechanical side of things. Learning about engines. Because I didn’t know whether I’d passed to be a flight engineer. To be taught whether I’d passed or not was another matter.
BW: Did you put down on your form you wanted —
EH: No.
BW: To be a flight engineer.
EH: No. They decided by your tests at Padgate what what you were going into. And I wanted to be a pilot. They said, ‘I’m sorry. We’re full up.’ They were all queuing up like a candidate waiting to. They said, ‘You’ll have to wait.’ So they said, ‘We want flight engineers.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll be one of those then.’ That’s how we started really. So anyway we went from Driffield, a lovely sunny morning in January down to Weston Super Mare. RAF Locking it was called. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. L O C K I N G. RAF Locking. And there we were taught the rudiments of engines, carburettors, things that fly like butterflies and Tiger Moths and other [laughs] and we had to have a, sit an exam at the end of this four week stint to see if we’d learned anything because some of us just were like playing about and it was just a game. But anyway they whittled us down slowly until eventually after about four or five weeks we were sent across the water, the River Severn to St Athans. That is the biggest RAF camp I think in England or the British Isles anyway. I don’t know how many men it housed but there was a lot, and I’m talking thousands. And when we got there I think that we were Group 101 or Group 106. I’m not sure of those numbers but that was our site number. Whatever you call it. The entrance number, and we then we were designated to sheds as I call them. Nissen huts or, and some of the pranks that went on in there you would not believe. However —
BW: This would be still late 1942. Thereabouts.
EH: It is. ’43 I was in.
BW: ’43.
EH: ’43. And we got into the RAF St Athan which was what? It was about the end of January I think when I went in there. The end of January I think it was. That might tell us something. There’s a date on that pass test. What’s the date test? Go back one. I had to pass an exam to, to get that book.
BW: The logbook.
EH: Start at the beginning.
BW: The logbook.
EH: Yeah. The marks I got. Does it give a date?
BW: It says flight engineer course, Number 4 School of Technical Training, RAF St Athan. That’s Lancaster 1 and 3 exam results and that’s —
EH: No date.
BW: Yeah. 23rd August ’44.
EH: That’s the one. That’s right.
BW: So you were there.
EH: I passed out.
BW: All the way through.
EH: Right from January right to August.
BW: ’44.
EH: And that, that was six months roughly. Six seven months. That was it, and it was a course that was 8 o’clock in the morning you started on your duties until half past five every night. You didn’t get home any earlier than that. So you were having your evening meal if you were lucky at 6.30 and the reason for that was you didn’t want to do anything. That was all you were fit for.
EH: Eat and sleep.
BW: The next time you went to bed the bells were going. You were six, 5.30 the clock went off waking you up in the morning. And they had you running and doing everything. You can see of that list of names that I showed you with that those names.
BW: This is a list dated July ’43.
EH: They were the passes. Not all those lads passed out of eighty in that 106 course or 101 whichever it was.
BW: Yeah.
EH: They’re the ones who passed.
BW: Now, this states on it and I’m assuming these are chaps who’d been —
EH: Allocated aircraft.
BW: Allocated to aircraft.
EH: That’s right.
BW: So someone’s got Halifax.
EH: That’s right.
BW: Others have —
EH: Yeah. They knew where they were going.
BW: Catalina and —
EH: And most of them were gone by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And the ones that failed I’m talking, let’s go back to those. We were in a hangar and we were called to assemble. All in our and all the officer said, ‘I want you gentlemen when I call your name out you go through that door over there.’ What? You didn’t know what was, who’s passed or what but anyway calling the names out. Out. Out. So eventually, this was about midday if it was that I’m told that they went out there, were given a quick lunch, boarded a bus and they were parked off down to Enfield in London. All failures. I don’t know what they were going to do. All failures. There would be no brevet. I’ve still got my little brevet with the E on it. But that was the height of —
BW: And how did you come to leave St Athan? Were you put on a bus as well or were you just told to go by train and report somewhere?
EH: Aye.
BW: The next —
EH: As I can recollect, I think it was, I was going down to [pause] I’m trying to think where I went to.
BW: The next entry in your logbook is 1653 Conversion Unit.
EH: That’s right. That’s the one.
BW: Chedburgh.
EH: Chedburgh. It’s a funny name isn’t it? Chedburgh. And I went there and did a bit of flying on Stirlings of all things. Fancy going, when you’d been trained to fly a Lancaster then you suddenly find yourself on a Stirling. It’s a totally different piece of equipment altogether.
BW: How did you find the Stirling?
EH: Terrible. Frightened to death. Used to have to wind the undercarriage down.
BW: And was that what you had to do?
EH: Yeah.
BW: As s flight engineer. To wind the undercarriage.
EH: Yeah. Wind the undercarriage down or up whichever way you need. Part of your duties. Up and down. Used to take about ten minutes. And they said, ‘Wheels upright.’ It was, I mean the engines were reliable but the rest of it was a bundle of, well terrible. That was my version. And we nearly, nearly bought it in one of those one night. We landed and the, one of the wheels locked, front wheels locked, skidded and off we went down the pan, off the runway, over the grass. Ended about a yard off the sergeant’s mess I think it was.
BW: Yeah. There’s a number, there’s a number of day flights.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And night flights. I understood that the Stirling was from a crew perspective roomy.
EH: Oh yes.
BW: Not so much comfortable but room.
EH: Oh yes. Roomy. Plenty. Yes. I’ll give you that. There was more room. You could move about better. I mean the Lanc, if you lay down nobody could get alongside. Have to wobble over but, but at least you knew where you were with a Lanc. Once you’d found out where the oxygen bottles were and what was, where the main spars were and things you got, you got the hang of it. But it was mainly that paper’s not much thicker than what they were made of, you know. In fact there were twelve rivets on each little panel and it was the twelve rivets that were holding it together. That held the thing together. Not the panels. The panel were just covering the [pause] you could lean on them and they would move. Never put your hand up when we were flying because it was so cold your hand would stick to the ice. No. It wasn’t, wasn’t a nice [pause] but the aeroplane itself, Lancaster was a wonderful aeroplane. It did its bit anyway. You could rely on it.
BW: And you started flying with a couple of pilots here. One of whom we’ll come on to later is Fitton. The other one was Flying Officer White.
EH: He was a coloured fella. Yeah. Flying Officer White. Yeah. Nice chap. But —
BW: You say he was coloured. Do you know where he came from? Did he come from the Caribbean?
EH: No. I haven’t a clue where he came from. No. But he was a nice chap. Very well spoken. I can recall that with clarity.
BW: And there was one flight you’ve noted in here where you jettisoned four hundred gallons of fuel.
EH: Yeah [laughs] We did that a few times over the, over the, over the North Sea.
BW: Do you recall?
EH: You couldn’t land with all that fuel on in a, in a crash situation. That was one, I mean one of the last flights I ever did was the worst. One of the worst flights I ever did. That was later on. That was 1951. The Battle of Britain display.
BW: And from there you moved on in November ’44 here to Number 3 Lancaster Finishing School.
EH: Finishing School. That’s where I met the crew. Yeah. That’s right.
BW: So how did you crew up then?
EH: Well, that normally, well normally —
BW: I mean you were assigned to people in training but what happened on —
EH: Well, my meeting I was travelling from this Feltwell and the train I was on broke down as they do. I was only travelling like a distance of about eight mile on this train to get to Cambridge where I could catch the train to get to Feltwell but I’m late. Not that I, I make a habit of it. But I’m late. So consequently all, I’m making for this little [pause] what’s the station called?
BW: Feltwell.
EH: Feltwell. And there they’re going to crew up. I know that I’m going to, I’ve got to go to a certain building, so I dashed in to the RAF camp. That’s where this building was. You know, two mile down the road and in there you’ll be alright. I run down this street in the camp passing all the billets. Get to this one building where they’re all coming out. Crews are coming out. I thought where’s my bloody, where’s my crew? I can’t think of a crew at all. So just as I’m giving up hope and thinking, well I’ve shot my bolt and I’m [pause] this six weary guys sort of limber up on the side there and I thought I wonder who they are? And this bomb aimer shouted to me, ‘Are you a flight engineer?’ I looked at him. I thought he was being funny and I said, ‘Well, yes. I suppose so.’ He said, ‘Come here.’ They introduced me to Keith then. Keith. ‘This is Keith Burnett Fitton. Don’t forget the Burnett.’ I said, ‘Pleased to meet you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m Eric W Harrison.’ They said, ‘No. You’re not. You’re called Rick.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because Humphrey Bogart was called Rick.’ And I thought, oh. And that’s how I came to be called Rick. And I had to be called Rick. And that’s how I was introduced to the lads. The navigator who was Harold. A lovely lad he was. And Pat came from Belfast. And the funny thing is now, the names have gone and the sad thing of this, this life story is that we met in a funny sort of way. Like I just told you. They’re all, everybody’s got a crew except this one wandering around looking for a flight engineer. I’m the guy. But when we come to say our farewells it’s just disappointing because we’d done our tour, finished our last trip and they all said, ‘Right. Where are we going?’ So the officer came and said, ‘Well, we’re looking for volunteers to go to Japan and bomb Japan. We’re forming a new squadron. Would you be interested?’ So we all looked around at each other. Well, we’re trying to kill each other we might as well go out see some more.’ So, we all volunteered to go to Japan and he said, ‘Right, well tell you what go and have fourteen days holiday, enjoy yourself and come back to [pause] what’s the RAF station called?
BW: Wratting Common.
EH: No.
BW: Feltwell.
EH: I was on Wratting but I’m not going back to there. I’m going back to the main squadron of that group. Do you know it? The main squadron of that Group. The idea was to form a new squadron there. We weren’t, after ten days or so we were going. So we’re all, we’re all joined up with all this like. We were going to be bombing the Japanese for good so that meant our formalities now, going home on leave was like just packing bags and, ‘See you in a fortnight lads.’ We all went out the door like, as you could that door and disappeared. Because he was going via Cambridge, he was going down to London, well two went to London, two were going to Scotland and I was going up to Sheffield. No. York. Making our way, and we just said, ‘Cheerio lads. See you in a fortnight. Bye.’ Never saw each other again. The next thing I got was a telegram to say report to Wheaton RAF camp on a driver’s course.
BW: And that’s at Blackpool.
EH: Near Blackpool. Yeah.
BW: Kirkham.
EH: That was what in, so I went in in I think it was July. Late July I was sent to Kirkham and for an eight week driving course. Big lorries, AEC lorries. Passed. Then they said, ‘You’re on, we’re going to send you overseas.’ So the next thing I was posted to Blackpool. Blackpool to Clyde. Clyde on to an old rickety ship going back to America which had been one of these converted warships that never did any. Just a bag of rust really but it had, it had a kitchen full of food. I’d never seen so much food in all my life and I’m talking about pre-refrigerators. There was at least six. Big. As big as that window there and you opened them and it was full of food. Can you imagine how much food there was there? Shanks of this and that meats. Anyway, we were on there for a fortnight until we went to the Azores. They shuffled me off to the Azores. That was another fun and game.
BW: Was it?
EH: I don’t know whether you know whether the Azores is. It’s in the middle of the Atlantic.
BW: I know it. So coming back to the point at which you’d met the crew at, at Feltwell. There was a number of sorties that you flew there. A handful daytime.
EH: Definitely.
BW: And two or three nights.
EH: One of them, I’ll tell you one I can tell you about. Whether it’s in there or not, I don’t know how many hours it were. We took off. I think it was a Stirling. We were doing a night exercise flying north and we were, at night time of course and we’d done this exercise so many hours north, stopped, turned around to come back and our navigator Harold said, ‘There’s something’s gone wrong here.’ I said, ‘Why?’ he said, ‘We’re further away from home than we’ve ever been.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ he said, ‘Well, we were supposed to have turned around, and been flying back home for the last hour,’ he said, ‘But we’re nowhere near it.’ And what we didn’t know was that the wind had turned around from this way to that way and blowing us further that way than if we went that way. We were doing a hundred and ten I think. The aircraft was being blown back by a hundred and forty so we’re not going anywhere until we realised that if we carry on like this we’ll have no petrol. I informed them. I said, ‘Look, we’ve got to either get down or — ' What it was we were flying at the altitude, the aircraft couldn’t do eighteen thousand feet. It wasn’t doing it any good. The air was rarified. Anyway, we came down to about two thousand feet I think. We were a lot better. We did get back to base fortunately, but that was another one.
BW: So you weren’t there that long.
EH: Oh no.
BW: In you logbook it was less than a week but you moved from Feltwell to Wratting Common to begin ops at the end of November.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And you mentioned prior to recording that you’d known or, or perhaps even done a couple of sorties on 115 Squadron. What do you recall about the transition for you from base to base, but also from the formation of the squadron because it was pretty well a brand new squadron when you joined it?
EH: Yes. It was. Yes. But what you’ve got to realise is that we’d never flown with bombs on board or a full load of petrol. When we did our exercises one way or another, even doing our little bombing they were only about four pound in weight these miniature bombs we carried we had to go and practice dropping bombs. I used to think it was cock-eyed but anyway that’s what the bomb aimer used to have to do. Go and practice bomb aiming. Used to take the gunners out to sea to go and shoot at a marker out in the sea. Going around da da de de the mid-upper gunner and the rear gunner shooting and the bomb aimer. All three of them shooting, trying to hit this target which they never did and the bullets were going everywhere. Anyway, that’s another story. Quite funny. But we had a laugh. We did joke about it but this business of learning how to fly heavy stuff we never, no one taught us that there’s a difference taking off with a fully loaded aeroplane and one that’s only lightly loaded. We thought it was all the same, you know. Just off you go. When you touch the accelerator of your car it goes. A lot of it, you just drive it like that. Anyway, this particular target of Homberg we were, it was a daylight raid taking off at around about 8 o’clock in the morning.
BW: On your logbook it’s down, the first one to Homberg was in —
EH: Yeah.
BW: November 28th
EH: Yeah.
BW: And that’s timed at 12.58.
EH: 12.58, we were. That was the time we were supposed to go. We didn’t go. Just when we got in the aeroplane a rocket went up. A red rocket. Off. So we thought well what’s gone wrong? Didn’t know. Nobody said anything, like we didn’t have comm like mobile phones like you’ve got today. It was all very, ‘I wonder what’s going on.’ So the WAAF came with a list, with the, from the van said, ‘We’ll take you down to the sergeant’s mess. You can have a cup of coffee.’ So this was 12 o’clock. So by 1 o’clock we were at, eventually they said it could be started again around four. Oh. So we all lumbered back up to the aeroplane, all eager to like to shuffle on not knowing what, what’s going on. We’d been to briefing. Seen all the, done all the necessary and, but what, what we didn’t know. The one thing we didn’t know was that between the original briefing at 12 o’clock and our 4 o’clock spasm, they’d moved the runway from the three thousand long runway to the two thousand eight hundred runway. We didn’t know that. Nobody said they’d moved the runway or anything. Just, follow that. So what happened when you started the engines up and the ground crew gave you the okay, you know off you go. And you have to, you come out of dispersal, taxi on to the runway, the what do you call it?
BW: Taxi way.
EH: Taxi run. You get in your queue because there’s more than one and off you go. So tch tch tch and eventually it’s our turn to chug on to the runway, green light comes on and off we go. I have to call the speed up. So I’m shouting, ‘Twenty. Twenty five,’ The throttles were fully open like. Really going. [banging] That’s, do you want to go and see who’s at the door, Phil?
PH: No, it’s somebody outside.
EH: No. It’s your mum knocking at the door.
PH: She’s there.
Other: It’s not. I’m here.
EH: Oh. Who’s knocking at the door then?
[recording paused]
EH: Anyway, I’m reading the speed out. Keith’s hanging on to the [pause] Don’t forget, I mean this is our first trip. Sprogs. Like bits of kids. I’ve got, I’ve got my hands full throttle. I’m saying, crikey, ‘We’re not fast enough.’ And in the distance you used to have to see the end of runway like. It says, ‘All aircraft turn right.’ It’s only a ten foot sign like but it’s got a bit of barbed wire hanging from it. It’s about as high as that. No higher. And it had a board on it, is said, ‘All aircraft turn right.’ And barbed wire hanging off. But I thought, I’d just, Keith looked at me and realised that we had this extra boost and between us we made a grab for it. I’m on the left, left hand side of it to move it to forward and it gave us immediately, immediate I can’t tell you how quick but you could feel the difference from sort of eighty five mile an hour to ninety five came just like that. It was as though somebody had shot you from behind. Fortunately we’d about, I’m guessing from forty or fifty yards to go and Keith pulled his stick back and literally dragged it over the fence with the wheels. But we took the barbed wire and the piece of wood. I don’t know where it went to but we took the wood for about two or three hundred yards while it banged against the aircraft on side. But we touched down in the field on the other side of the road. Just touched. I mean when you’ve got a sixty tonne aeroplane touching down it like, it leaves a little bit of a mark. But it touched down and nobody said anything. All frightened to bloody death. It was, it was the rear gunner Jock who said in his broad Scottish, ‘God,’ he said, ‘Has anybody got any underpants because I’m bloody — ’ I won’t say what he said. But he said, ‘Because I’ve left it all over the place.’ He said to Keith, ‘Will you stop doing that? Don’t do that anymore.’ And not a word was said, not, but I mean we literally you were only allowed to use that for three minutes but it took us from eighty five mile an hours immediately to ninety five to a hundred and five and away. But without it we’d have been, I don’t know where we’d have been. It’s got, I mean like afterwards we said a bit of a [unclear] try this, you know and it wasn’t, it was a bit nicer times than that but that was the introduction. And we didn’t we didn’t tell anybody about it other than the ground crew. We got back to the ground crew and said, the barbed wire was still hanging from the undercarriage so the ground, told the ground crew to would they look after the undercarriage for a bit because there was some barbed wire hanging from it. But that was the end of that story. Never heard any more about it until about, I think somebody must have known something because it was only when Keith got his DFC. Suddenly he was a flight sergeant. He went from a sergeant one week. The next week he was a flight sergeant. And the next week he was a pilot officer. All within about a month. Then he got the DFC. In other words you only give Distinguished Flying Crosses to officers. Not to other ranks. So someone wanted to make, I have a feeling it was him. That man there.
BW: This is Farquharson who was your —
EH: I think he, he was our air commander —
BW: Flight commander.
EH: He may have heard about the ruckus that we had. Don’t forget, our first trip.
BW: And that was to Homberg and that was unsuccessful on the first one. That was not —
EH: Yeah.
BW: For any of your efforts.
EH: No.
BW: That was simply because the weather.
EH: Weather.
BW: Under, undershooting the target. But you had to go back there the next night.
EH: That’s right. Yeah.
BW: And the squadron was more successful and in general over the period of time you were flying with them they got a bit of a reputation for accuracy and accurate bombing.
EH: That’s right. Yes. Yes. Yes, we did.
BW: From there through December you were flying regularly. Reasonably regularly.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Most of your ops were daylight.
EH: Yes.
BW: There’s fewer and fewer —
EH: Yeah.
BW: Night raids.
EH: They were trying to do what the Americans did in those days. Farquharson thought we could we’d better chance of survival in daylight. And I mean we used to fly into each other at night. There was at least three or four every night flew into each other because of night flying. You’d no lights on you. No candles in jars you know or things like that to warn other aircraft that you were dangerous. And if you hit one of them it made a mess.
BW: Just thinking about your role as a flight engineer and we’ve got a, a couple of photos of a cockpit layout and you mentioned some of the controls that you used. What, what sort of things would you have to do to prepare for a mission? What? You mentioned briefing but what other things would you have to do?
EH: Pre-eminent, pre-start the, do the engine start ups. See that they’re okay. Check the mag, mag drop, and all the rest of it to see that the magnetos are working satisfactorily and you could check those by switching them off and watch the rev counters go down on the others. The rev counters. But it was, do you know it’s a long long time ago now and I have to think hard and long now. But I admit I used to know those instruments. I could tell them almost like the back of my hand.
BW: Were there any rituals you had as a crew?
EH: No. I had the flaps, he had the —
BW: Superstitions or anything?
EH: I checked the, I put in fine tune, make sure it was in fine tune. Fine tune on those and put the undercarriage down. Put the undercarriage up. And see to the fuel. Sorting out the fuel, balancing the fuel out that was important as well. It’s no use having a load of middle, petrol in the mid-wings and none in the, in the, you had six tanks. Three in either wing. Well the middle, the big one had five hundred and eighty gallons and the middle one had three hundred and eighty three gallons, and the little one at the end had a hundred and fourteen gallons. And you used to have to start up on the middle one. Middle tank in each case and take a hundred gallon out and then you could transfer the hundred gallon out of the far tank into the middle tank and then eventually use all that in the middle tank and then go on to the big tank which is a five hundred and eighty gallon which is central. Keeps the aircraft more balanced rather than have a hundred and eighty gallon stuck out there. It’s a problem where, because if you got hit and you lost your fuel you’d be able to balance it and not struggling with the aeroplane. But the other, in those days they had a, you could put the pilot in automatic control as aircrews but what you had to watch was the, there’s a little container with a red light in, or a blue light or a green light on top. If it was red don’t use it because it wasn’t going fast enough to keep the gyro going and it was driven by air and it used to get wet inside and so the it was a bit not very, it did its job from time to time. One of the times we were doing a manoeuvre, well we were being shot at and there was the gunner shouting, ‘Starboard. Starboard. Starboard. Go.’ Corkscrew. It’s not a very nice thing to do in an aeroplane, this corkscrew. And anyway, we did it but then we sort of went out of control for a little while. The aeroplane seemed to want to go on down [laughs] because we were still in, the reason was again novices. We’d been in this automatic control and unless you knock that out you’re in automatic control. Even though you’re doing this and doing this a little bit and it’s helping but it’s not doing it as it should. Consequently the, Keith had forgotten to knock it out of this particular. I mean, good Lord, we’re human beings. We make errors. But they were a good crew. I admired them immensely.
BW: And at this stage most of the trips while they’re being done in daylight are relatively short.
EH: Yes.
BW: We’re talking about four or five hours. There are the odd —
EH: Yeah.
BW: Longer trips of say seven or so hours. Your first night one was to Merseburg.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Which was an oil plant out in east Germany near Leipzig which was quite, quite a long trip. What do you, what do you recall of —?
EH: No. No. I can’t. It’s just, it’s a bit of blur now to me. More or less. Apart from the odd incidents that I can recall.
BW: Towards the end of December there is, there’s a couple of interesting destinations and they’re interesting really for what, what was happening on the ground and also in one of the later ones what happened in the air. December 26th daylight raid.
BW: St Vith.
EH: St Vith.
BW: St Vith. That was in support of the Battle of the Bulge.
EH: I think it was.
BW: From roughly. From the flight times you’d have been there late afternoon. Probably around dusk.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And being a flight engineer you had a good position from which to view out of the window beside the pilot that —
EH: We had the dome at the side.
BW: Were you able to see much on the ground at all?
EH: Not really. No. No. I must, I mean being honest, no. I would say it was puffs of smoke and that’s all it was really as far as we were concerned at this height. We didn’t see a great deal. But it was, it was frightening.
BW: Did you get much anti-aircraft fire?
EH: Because they were shooting. Somebody used to shoot at you and that becomes another ballgame. When you’re like flying in an aeroplane going to Mallorca and there’s another guy in another plane trying to shoot you down it gets a bit [pause] but that’s, that’s how it is. Another thing was that we, our gunners knew that the chances of hitting the fighters that were coming after us were a bit slim anyway. And when we went on training exercises like I say out to the North Sea they’ve, got to shoot this candle in the wind sort of thing on the water, coloured lights, coloured Very lights they wouldn’t get within about fifty yards of it. So when you think about a Messerschmitt coming in at three hundred mile an hour, chances of hitting it was very remote, but we tried. We did our best.
PH: I think Brian’s just trying to say dad if you can recall specific to the mission anything that would be really useful. That’s all.
EH: I can’t remember, Phil I’m sorry to say, I can’t.
PH: Okay. Well, that’s fine.
EH: The only, the only thing that’s of any note was, like I say flying at night. Total darkness. I don’t know what night it was but we all but met our Waterloo because we knew we’d been in contact with another aeroplane because the engine noises were different. And we came back and it was the following day when we were told by the sergeant in charge. He came down in his Commer van took us up the squadron. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this.’ We couldn’t see anything at first. And they’d bent back.
BW: The propeller blades.
EH: The propeller blades. All bent back. All three on each side. But on one side a little bit more. Looked like we’d skimmed across. Where we touched I don’t know but all it went dark and gone, and you think, what was that? Then there’s like this strange noise and they make a strange noise propellers when they’re not feathered properly. But that was, we didn’t know any different. It could have hit us. We would not have known. But that’s about as near as it, it’s not nice sometimes when you stop and think how far are we off? That far? That far? They wanted another little bit.
BW: An inch or foot and it could have taken the whole engine out.
EH: The whole lot away. Yeah.
BW: There was a point after that raid on St Vith when the commander, if you like Farquharson commended the flight and the squadron on the accuracy of the bombing.
EH: He did. Yeah.
BW: Do you recall him giving a sort of a briefing or anything?
EH: Oh yeah. We was called to the Nissen hut and given a briefing, yeah, said, ‘Well, done lads, you know.’ Yeah. But there was so many things happened. It’s like, it’s almost like a blur now.
BW: There was one notable raid as well at the end of December, on New Year’s Eve actually to a place called Werewinkel, and you mention, you touched on it earlier there were, I think three aircraft lost on that raid.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And you were talking about near misses. I understand two of them were hit by bombs from other aircraft.
EH: And dropped. Yeah. That’s another one. Yes. That is another danger. You can’t imagine it can you? Another aeroplane being above you and they open their bomb doors, drops their bombs and hits you. It did happen. It was frightening sometimes. All you got was a flash underneath you or, and you thought what the hell was that? It was total darkness some nights and lights light up very fervently and meaningful. And you feel the vibrations from it in the air if you, oh that was. And the other, the other frightening thing was the day I came back to daylight raids occasionally I can’t recall exactly when but they used to try and shoot us down, you know [laughs] with guns at eighteen nineteen thousand feet and you’d be driving along. Whack, whack. That was only like that far away but by this time we had this way and I’d gone that way. Like it’s, it’s shrapnel but it did hit the plane several times. Bits of shrapnel and one, you know the bubble on a plane, the? I was looking out like, with the side of the aeroplane.
BW: Yeah. This is the bubble on the side of the canopy beside the engineer.
EH: There’s a bubble right at the side by my, engineer looking out and the plastic was cut on the side of the bubble, on the outside. Just a piece scratched it, and my head was about that far away from it. So imagine. We were doing two hundred and fifty mile an hour. How fast was the piece of plastic going? we used to [unclear] to be honest. So it was close but —
BW: One of the aircraft on that later raid was actually shot down.
EH: Was he called Marshall?
BW: Yes.
EH: Yes.
BW: Were you?
EH: I didn’t, I didn’t.
BW: Did you see it?
EH: That to me appalled me when I heard about it. I knew that the aeroplane had been shot down, but I didn’t know what had happened to them. It was only after the war I’m on my laptop years and years later. [Keys tapping] It comes up that they were all rounded up by the local people and shot. The crew. Marshall and his crew were all rounded up. All baled out. Whatever that target was you were talking about —
BR: At Werewinkel. The marshalling yards.
EH: Yeah. Well, they got, they jumped out and they survived but then they were shot by the Gestapo in, when was that? January? March?
BW: December 31st ’44.
EH: Terrible isn’t it? So when people say well the Germans were treated worse than us, just a minute, you know. Death’s death whichever way you take it.
BW: And one of them, one of the aircraft on the raid was seen leaving on two engines so they’d been hit presumably.
EH: Yeah. Oh yeah.
BW: Limping.
EH: Oh yeah. You could limp home. You could get home on two engines. If you could balance it by putting, throwing out the rubbish you don’t want. And there were some very strange occasions.
BW: And then in January there’s a couple of other raids. Sort of night raids and a couple of day raids and one to Duisburg which was aborted but that must have been part way through because there’s a number of hours logged on it. Did you turn, did you have to turn back?
EH: Yeah. Came back.
BW: For some reason.
EH: I think that was the one that we had a rear gunner that was standing in for our permanent rear gunner, mid-upper gunner. I think this fellow was a Londoner called Robinson and we didn’t realise but he was frightened to death, and he knew all about lacking moral fibre. He said, and it’s a sad indictment sometimes when you think about putting somebody up against a wall and saying there might be a bullet in it, there might not be but anyway he, we’d flown that particular, was it Duisburg?
BW: On that particular one [pause] yes. Which was, that was in January.
EH: We’d flown about an hour and a half and we were over Holland somewhere and we were at about eighteen thousand feet and getting ready for flying over Germany to Duisburg and Keith the pilot always about every twenty minutes would go around the crew. Just his, it was his way of checking on us one by one. Bomb aimer, engineer, wireless operator, navigator. He would go through the ritual and he was happy then that we were all okay. And this particular night, darkness don’t forget and he called this gunner Robinson who was sat in the turret and called his name out and he didn’t answer. No response. So he called out me to go and take the, and we had those little lamp torches that clip on, and you could go down the aircraft in the dark and I found him in the hangar and he was slumped. Like that. Not looking out at all. And I put my arm through and found his neck and I could feel a pulse. So I said, I called on Keith I said, ‘He’s, he’s not dead but,’ I said, ‘He’s not responding to any of my acknowledgments.’ So he said, ‘Well, can you release him?’ Well, have you tried releasing an eleven stone fella? I had to climb [laughs] I’m not a big fella, but I was stronger then then I am now and I managed to unhook one belt and then the other one and lowered him down on the canopy of the aeroplane. And there I checked him again to see, and it was at this point he, I didn’t realise but he was still plugged in by his intercom. His intercom which is still plugged in to the, which I never gave a thought to but I was talking to Keith on my intercom and what do we do with him? He said, ‘Well, can you lower him?’ You know and stretch him out. I said, ‘Well, have we got no smelling salts, we’ve got no, like what do we do?’ So Keith said, ‘Well, if he’s not responding we can’t just leave him like that we’ve got to go back.’ So then [noises] I mean we’d two hours of flying time and going back is a waste of space. A waste of time. But Keith said, ‘Well, I’ve got to make a decision,’ because at that point the bomb aimer said, ‘Look Rick,’ he called me Rick, ‘Can you manage to open that bloody door and tip him out? That’ll wake him up.’ And that was like, I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ You know. There’s no way we could even consider that. So that was kiboshed and eventually we were marched into the, the flew back, told to divert to get rid of fuel over the, over the North Sea. Get rid of the bombs that we had on board. Then we came back to base and immediately the ambulance was waiting for him and crowd climbed on board and took him out. Navigator, Harold said, ‘I think he’s dead,’ because he’d checked him. He said, ‘I think he’s dead.’ That’s where this dead thing comes out. He thought he was dead. Anyway, he was carted off to hospital, Ely Hospital and two days later we were, had to go in and acknowledge that you know he’s a friend and go and see how he was getting on. So we went round to Ely Hospital, got there, steps in and on to the ward [pause] Redcoats. Over there. And they, as soon as we got in, ‘Who do you want to see?’ This fellow, ‘Robinson.’ ‘Are you Fitton’s crew?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Can’t see him. Embargo on you. There’s going to be a charge against you for —’ [pause] What what charge would they have against us? There was only but the thing was he knew what Pat said word for word. You know, it was like verbatim it was.
BW: Shall we tip him out?
EH: So he wasn’t unconscious at all. He knew everything that was going on. He was just frightened to death, and I can understand looking back on it. I mean like I say, if someone points a gun at you, has it got a bullet in it or has it not? It’s death, [unclear] isn’t it? But there we are. Yeah.
BW: And you say he’d been with another crew and was a stand in for you.
EH: He was a stand in one. Stand in. Yeah.
BW: So there was probably other raids that he’s been on where something’s affected him.
EH: Yes. Something could have done. But I heard that, we heard later that the charge against us was dropped. Farquharson, who was, who came to tell, not told me but told Keith the pilot that it had been kiboshed. They’d listened to all the noise, dropped it, finished. But Keith got the DSO.
EH: No. He had the DFC first. Then he had a DFC, DSO. Distinguished Service Order.
BW: Right.
EH: He died at the age of, have you seen his picture to look at?
BW: This is his picture. I was going to ask you about him.
EH: Oh, that’s not him. That —
BW: This is Bill Farquharson.
EH: No. I’ve got a picture and a bit of history of Fitton.
BW: Oh, is he on this crew picture here?
EH: There you are. That’s Fitton there. Keith.
BW: Second on the, second on the left.
EH: That’s him. He was our pilot and a good pilot too. There’s one of these pictures on here that’s got the crew. I don’t know. You might not want to.
[recording paused]
EH: To the Azores when I came back in 1947. This is another funny little incident. In 1947 I was returned to the RAF encampment at Driffield which was an RAF bomb station where they kept bombs piled high on the runway. No aeroplanes but loads of bombs and after the war some bright spark in Parliament said that, ‘I think we ought to get rid of these bombs and mustard gas. It could be dangerous.’ In other words it could blow half of Yorkshire up if they’re not careful. So they set to and collected a number of drivers like me up and down the country to drive eight wheelers. What we had to do was we had prisoners of war on the camp and there were some of them were very good prisoners of war. I mean I got to know one or two Germans especially very well and you could trust them and they were good people. It’s a damned shame they ever went to, but anyway, that’s another story, anyway they used to load these AECs with bombs and I and other guys would take these lorries at night. 7 o’clock at night off over Bowes Moor, over Yorkshire and down to Carlisle where they would dump the lorry and bring an empty one back. That was our duty. But in the meantime I’m also looking after two huts with German prisoners in. That was my duty as well, and like I say I got to know the wants and requirements of the Germans. They, they were and in those days they were released to go into the towns, you know provided they would wear clothing with blobs on and then you would know that they were German prisoners of war. But that was a distinguishing mark about them but anyway so I’ve done that. I’m back in the RAF. I thought what do I do now? So I signed on again. I thought, well, I’m not going to do this bombing business with the AECs for three years. So anyway, I got a letter from the RAF Command saying I would be sent down to St Athan. A retraining course. That’s why I’ve got two retraining courses in there. I went for a six week renewal course to fly Lancasters again. And then from there I went to Little Rissington. And then I went from there to Hullavington, and then I ended up in Manby, RAF Manby. In the meantime I was doing all sorts of, well I got to know one or two of the gentleman officers like Downey [pause] like, my memory’s going again. But Downey in particular was a very close friend of mine. I could associate with him on a one to one basis. He was, when he died I was rather sad. But he was a good chap. Anyway, I set about pulling myself together and married Joyce, and one thing and another until eventually we married in 1949. And then we set, I set flying. I decided that I was going to stay in the RAF because this Downey wanted me, I could have been become, I was back to warrant officer and he wanted me to become an officer and he’d recommended that I [pause] just a matter of saying yes or no. But what happened was an incident happened that changed the whole kaboodle really for me. We were practising for Battle of Britain displays end of August. This time of year. But the Battle of Britain was in September and we were practising on our squadron at Manby and what the, what the drill was, I think it was eight aeroplanes or nine this side would all feather their two starboard engine and keep the port engines going. So we’d all dive and it was just a bit of nonsense really. But being we’d done this exercise practice so we got closer and closer like the Red Arrows sort of thing coming around but this was Lancasters but with two engines stopped and especially the starboard inner. Well, when you know a bit more about what the starboard engine does it runs the hydraulics and it runs the big pump on the hydraulic side so if you lose that one you’ve lost a pump. A big one. Wheels. Hydraulic. Anyway, we were going along and we’d done a couple of shoots up of the aerodrome. Only practising. Climb about five thousand feet then shoot down to about a thousand. All eight or nine aeroplanes close together and that was we were going to do that over London. Don’t ask me why but anyway, I’m the engineer on four of the occasions. Just pilot Downey and me and no one else. Just two of us. Off we go. So this particular day Downey comes up to me, he said, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve got a visitor, Eric.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘There’s someone taking your seat. Some group captain or something.’ Some obstropulous fella. I can’t think of his name. ‘Group captain —’ somebody, ‘Wants to take your place in the Lancaster to say that he’s done the Battle of Britain display.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ So I’m, three of us now. I’m at the back of him. The pilot, him sat down there, me at the back of him. So we do our practice, climb. Off we go and we were four or five thousand feet and a plane behind us calls up and says whatever aircraft number or letters we were. He said, ‘You’re leaking petrol. We’re breaking away because we can’t take any more of it. It’s dangerous.’ ‘Understood.’ So we said, ‘Petrol?’ So I’m looking at all the, I’ve got fifteen pounds of pressure and I can’t see any fuel coming out. Nothing. Can’t see the wing at all and can see no signs of any leakage and I’ve got, I’ve got no signs of the engine. Well, it’s off. It’s not running. So I thought, so we were on the port inner and port outer. It went [makes noise] So this chap, all decided, the aeroplane, these aircraft pull away and pulled away from there and then leave. We’re on our own then. And then suddenly pow. One flash and the part of the aeroplane nacelle is slowly flying off. Ping. Panels are going, and there’s flames underneath there what we can see. So I make a dash to try and get the feathering button but this fella’s in the way because if you look at that it’s up there in the right hand corner.
BW: Yeah.
EH: Anyway, I managed to pull his head to one side to get the feathering buttons going, the extinguisher buttons going, sorry. And then I said to the pilot, I said, ‘I’m going to have to get the engine going,’ I said, ‘Otherwise — ’ He said, this group captain lowers the undercarriage. Puts the undercarriage down. He said, ‘We can land. There’s the airfield.’ We were doing about three hundred mile an hour. When you hit the ground at that speed with a Lancaster it’ll not do you any good at all. So I said, ‘No, you can’t. It’s only got one engine that’s on the port side but it’s got a small pump so unfortunately we didn’t get the wheels down very far so the wheels slowly came back up again and this flame’s shooting out of the back of us. And anyway, this, the fire extinguisher did put the flames out so I pressed the buttons on the other side as well under the starboard outer engine and I got that engine going. So I got the starboard engines going and these two on the port side. By this time we had turned away from Manby and were out over the North Sea and so Downey’s calling to get a fix back to base and he was asking us were we alright? Do we want, what can we do? Well, what can you do with a flaming Lancaster on fire? And it isn’t flames coming back. Just smoke. And every now and then a panel flying off and it’s hot. So we eventually chugged along and back to base. Undercarriage down. Get the undercarriage down and make sure it is down because this group captain said, ‘Oh, it’s down now.’ And I said, ‘It’s not down now.’ We have, we had some, we’ve got lights in front with red and green. And when it’s on red they’re not down. He wouldn’t have it, you know. Anyway, I got, so in the meantime I thought what happened was as well we have a hatch above the Lancaster. I don’t know whether you know it. In the case of emergency for getting out. So when he said, ‘I’m going to put the undercarriage down and land.’ I thought we’ll never bloody land this thing, you know. ‘At this speed,’ I said, ‘We want all the help we can get. What have we got? What are our chances?’ Well, that’s one way out. So I knocked the hood off the top of the, it was about that big. We could have climbed out if necessary. But that was the saving grace. Anyway, eventually landed with this thing, and the ambulance was there and the fire wagon and we chugged along and I could, I could literally see the wing dropping because we were that hot with flames in the, on the main spar. Anyway, it sagged about there. So, I came out of the Air Force then. I decided, that decided me then. I’d had my stint. I’d had my few crashes and I had my few dittoes, and propellers bending back and I thought well it’s time I looked after my good lady and so I set out in business eventually. In all sorts of ways. I ended up in Preston in a company called Preston Brakes in Moor Lane. I don’t know whether you know Moor Lane.
BW: I do.
EH: That was opposite.
BW: I used to get my car serviced there.
EH: Did you really?
BW: When it was a garage.
EH: When it was a garage. Well, we took over after the garage and we filled the petrol tanks with concrete because [unclear] I can’t think of anything else. So that was me out of the RAF.
BW: So you’ve covered your sort of post-war period, and I had a look through your logbook. I wanted to ask, I wanted to sort of come back to your time in early ’45 because the squadron flew a raid.
EH: Yeah.
BW: A night raid in mid-February to Dresden but yours is crossed out.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Were you scheduled to take part?
EH: I didn’t do that but that was done by a clerk.
BW: Right.
EH: I don’t know why. I can’t give you the answer. Don’t forget like I say I did not have that control over that book.
BW: You handed it over and somebody else filled it in.
EH: I just signed at the bottom.
PH: The question is did you fly Dresden or not, dad?
EH: Oh yeah.
PH: Oh, you did.
EH: Yeah. The aircraft’s there in the —
BW: Because its logged. The time that was well that that the mission took. The raid took nine hours.
EH: Yeah. It was a long time.
BW: Was, was recorded. So while we see it recorded and seemingly crossed out it actually took place but —
EH: I think it applied to all of our books. Because what happened, I can’t recall exactly, but someone said that we were in our aircraft for the night was E-Easy and it wasn’t E-Easy it was F-Freddie whatever. And we were allocated another aeroplane in another logbook.
BW: Which is —
EH: [unclear]
Other: It’s the back of your chair, Philip.
EH: So it was one of those. I know we went. I might have lots of lights and lots of, and a lot of cafuffling at the time on the various squadrons as to why we’d, why was Dresden bombed but I don’t know the answers of it but that was, but as I say those books were not in our control.
BW: Do you recall anything of what you were able to see from —
EH: No.
BW: From above on that?
EH: Just a long time sitting in the sky. One was like another after a while.
BW: There was one further entry further down towards the end of February. “Starboard inner hit and feathered.” Do you think that was when you probably collided with that other aircraft and you had to stop one of the engines?
EH: It might have.
BW: It was a daylight.
EH: I think that was earlier in the month. That was a dark raid but I mean in those days you didn’t report everything. You had toothache you kept it to yourself. If you wanted your hair cutting well you did what you could.
BW: There was one incident February 25th on the raid to Kamen and you encountered fighters.
EH: Yeah. Well, they were all over the place. Yeah. Well, some of the time it was a bit hairy. I mean you didn’t get the DFC DSO for nothing. Somebody recommended him for that and I think Farquharson was the mainstay of it.
BW: It’s, it looks as though from the entry you were hit again. An engine feathered.
EH: Yeah.
BW: So obviously the attack has been close. Not quite successful because you managed to get back.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And brought it back.
EH: Yeah. I’m still here. No holes in me. At least I don’t think so.
BW: Do you recall what might have happened at that stage? You know, the interaction between the gunners. The conversation on the intercom.
EH: No. As time went on this is a strange phenomenon. We first met and there was Rick, I was Rick and he was Pat, he was and we all sort of as it were gelled together. And as the raids went on we, we sort of got on together. For example, Harold the navigator and I played Hangman’s Bluff on a piece of paper while we, these are the sort of things. And we had our bits of fun with the bomb aimer who was a, he came from Tonypandy. A Welshman. Came from Tonypandy and we used to pull his leg. So we had this sort of feeling for each other with, with affection. But as time went on we were given a gramophone box to play records by the, by the Salvation Army. So two people liked it, three people didn’t. So it started a little bit of influx and from then on it was like I would say Pat the bomb aimer who was the elder of all of us took a sort of, he wanted the war to finish so he could get to South Africa. He wanted to go to South Africa, and he couldn’t away fast enough. And as soon as, I don’t even know what happened to him. Not a clue.
BW: When you mention the crew I’m looking at a photo here of you stood next to a Lanc.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Marked A4 and you’re, you’re knelt.
EH: Yeah. I’m knelt down.
BW: On the left hand side. Second from the left.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And the pilot’s directly behind you.
EH: Yes. He is.
BW: Who, who else is on the photo?
EH: That is Tom Wilkinson the wireless operator on my, on Keith’s left.
BW: And Keith was the pilot.
EH: Keith Burnett Fitton was the pilot. Yes. Tall, six foot two New Zealander. Him.
BW: And who’s next to him directly under the A?
EH: That’s, I’m under him. Yeah.
BW: Who’s next to him? Under the A.
EH: That’s the, sorry that’s, that’s the bomb aimer. Pat. He was an Irish name. I can’t think of it. He came from Belfast.
BW: And who’s on the end? By the —
EH: He came from Glasgow. The rear —
BW: The rear gunner.
EH: He was the rear gunner. He was, he came from Glasgow.
BW: And that would be Jock.
EH: Jock. We always called him Jock. We never gave him any other name. [unclear] and you’d say. ‘Alright Jock, I’ve got the message.’ [laughs] had to —
BW: Probably as well he was in the rear turret. Nobody could understand him.
EH: He was a good lad. He was a typical Scots lad. And this one there was the navigator and he was called Harold.
BW: And you’re next to him on his right shoulder?
EH: And next to him is the mid-upper gunner. Yeah. He was called Taff. He came from Tonypandy.
BW: And you said that photo was taken by the WAAF driver.
EH: Driver. Yes.
BW: Who came to pick you up.
EH: Yes. It was all, looking back on it, it was simple. She drove. She drove the Commer van, backed it up and she got out with a box camera. She said, ‘Would you like to have your photograph taken?’ I don’t know whether we’d done a few trips by this time. I think we had. And we said yes. So that’s how it all, that’s the only photograph we ever took. I’ve got one, I’ve got one of me somewhere. I’m holding a Tiger Moth by the propeller. I had to guide it in the sky.
BW: And then towards March, mid-March there’s a few other raids. Only a couple of night ones one of which the rear turret went u/s.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Unserviceable.
EH: Yeah.
BW: Which suggests that you aborted that raid on Dortmund.
EH: How many hours was it?
BW: It’s down as three twenty.
EH: No idea.
BW: So you got a fair way out.
EH: Out.
BW: Before you had to turn around and come back.
EH: Well, I can’t recall them all. Like I say those notes were always put in by clerks.
BW: Yeah.
EH: On the squadron.
BW: And then hydraulics shot away by flak.
EH: Yeah.
BW: On a daylight raid and Gee caught fire. Well, Gee was the navigator’s.
EH: Gee was the navigator’s.
BW: And that was pretty close to you because it’s directly behind you.
EH: Very.
BW: Over your left shoulder.
EH: Doesn’t have to be, mind it doesn’t have to be a bullet going through it, it could just set on fire. I mean they’re not as good as they are today. These equipment. The equipment we used, I mean Gee when I first saw that in the aeroplane I said to Harold, the navigator, ‘What’s this box of tricks?’ He said, ‘See these little, I can send these little blips along.’ I said, ‘Well, what does that tell you?’ ‘I can tell where I am.’ I said, ‘Get away.’ He said, ‘Watch.’ Duh Duh duh. Set it. And it puts a picture on the screen then at the back of it. ‘There we are,’ he said, ‘We’re over in, somewhere over in Holland somewhere,’ he said. ‘How did you know? Do you believe that?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And he could manoeuvre the plane on those early Gee. Do you remember that do you? I can’t remember. Just like a small television set. Because you only had one line across there and a line across there and one and a little blip and then you could impose the screen and pull these two together or wherever you wanted by, if you knew how to work the damned thing. I didn’t. Too complicated for me but Harold, he worked on it. He knew all about it.
BW: And you always got to your target at the right time.
EH: Oh, we did. He was a good lad. Always got us there and back again. And he, that lad, I’ll just tell you this, Harold on the right. He’s now passed on unfortunately, but he, like Keith decided to leave the RAF and went back to New Zealand in 1949. But later in ’49 he got fed up and re-joined the RAF again in London. Came, they both unknowingly came back to London and saw each other by chance. Now what’s the odds of that? Going to New Zealand, coming back and anyway they both joined the RAF again. Keith became a flight lieutenant and Harold became a flying officer but he was then sent to somewhere near Doncaster as a training officer for navigators did Harold. And for some time he was teaching people how to use navigational equipment, and he was flying of all things Wellingtons. Not Lancasters. Wellingtons. And one night they were on a training exercise and for some reason, I don’t know the full story but I’ve got a cutting where it was in the paper where this plane with Harold in it comes down with a bump and crashes and three people are killed on it. And Harold goes, having got, excuse me, having got out of the aeroplane rushes back and saves two lives. Takes two, managed to drag two people out who lived and he was awarded the George Cross. Oh yes. Awarded the George Cross, which I’m rather proud of myself because I knew him very well. We used to play housey housey. He was a good lad. A nice lad. Harold. I’ve got letters from him somewhere.
BW: Right. You mentioned also just coming back to Bill Farquharson because there’s an obituary here of Group Captain Bill Farquharson who you mentioned.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And he’d been awarded —
EH: Yeah.
BW: A couple of medals.
EH: Yeah.
BW: But you’d flown with him.
EH: Yeah.
BW: A couple of times. One of the notes in your logbook says you went to pick him up.
EH: Yeah. From somewhere. I knew him to talk to like I’m talking to you. He was a nice chap. He was born in India of Indian parents, or English parents in India and he was a nice chap.
BW: Would he give you the briefings before you went on operations?
EH: No.
BW: That was somebody else.
EH: Oh that, you mean when they used to —
BW: Sort of the crew briefings.
EH: Oh, crew briefing. Yes, he would. He’d come in and give us a briefing. Tell you the, here’s another, another funny little thing. It’s nothing to do with bombing or anything else, but we were on a daylight raid and we were going to somewhere over southern Germany on a bombing raid in daylight. We were climbing and we were in total cloud and had been from about ten thousand feet all the way up as we climb up eighteen thousand still in cloud. I was about nineteen thousand feet or thereabouts, we break and it’s beautiful sunshine. And guess what’s on our left hand side? A flock of peewits. A flock of peewits flying in the same direction as we’re going. Over there. About twenty or thirty of them. Nineteen thousand feet above the cloud. Now, that’s a true story if ever. Peewits. Lapwings.
BW: Well, they know your navigator knows where you’re going so they’re following him.
EH: That was in March sometime that was. I’d never, never heard of anything like that in my life. Very strange.
BW: And you passed me a photo.
EH: That came out of a book I’ve got.
BW: Yeah. This one of a Lancaster from 195. 195 Squadron. What, just tell me what you recall of that.
EH: It’s upside down.
BW: It shows one that’s been shot up.
EH: Well, it’s out of control. The pilot’s gone. That tells me the pilot’s, I mean if the pilot had anything about him he would have had the plane straight but that plane’s upside down. That’s why it’s like this, rolling out of control and the pilot’s either dead or injured. And you can’t, I mean when the pilot’s in the seat and the controls have gone say to the left or to the right, getting them back again is like a herculean task. It’s, well you’ve got to be very strong. If you’re not in the, if you’re in the pilot’s seat you can manage it but when you’re at the other side trying to manoeuvre it’s very difficult. But those poor devils never, didn’t have a chance.
BW: Am I right in thinking that as a flight engineer you were trained to take over the aircraft if the pilot was incapacitated?
EH: Yes. I had to do training. I had flying training, and yes I used to do that quite a bit. Keith would say, ‘Here, take over.’ But he’d, he’d settle. He’d settled it down for me like and so there was no, or on a general descent. [pause]. He was a good pilot.
BW: Did he actually get out of the seat to let you sit in the pilot’s seat?
EH: No. I don’t think he ever did that. No. No. I can honestly say he never did that. But he would let go off that and hands off and say, ‘Come on take over, Rick.’ He called me Rick. ‘It’s your turn. Sort the thing out.’ I said ‘Have you switched the pilot off, auto pilot?’ He said, ‘Yes, and it’s on manual now.’ As long as it’s on manual I can manoeuvre.
BW: What did it feel like to have control?
EH: Oh, it was, it was great. I mean we used to go in the link trainer which was like a, like an aeroplane but did all the —
BW: Crude simulator we called it.
EH: Yes. It was crewed out like with all the runway there and clouds here and so you had all the, all the visions that you could. Yes. It was, the last one of my duties. Every other day we’d go link training in case. Thank God I was never asked to fly in any length of time. I did a little bit but it was limited let’s put it that way. In fact, I was frightened to death. No. I wasn’t. I think what happens is that [pause] I would say it’s like a bravado exercise in a way. You, after a while of this, I mean when that looking back on the first trip we did we were frightened to death. And I mean frightened to death. We didn’t know what we were doing properly. It was all scrabbling about, but not being, I mean we got away with it but after that as we gained confidence, we took it in our stride. Like as I say, flaps and it was all.
BW: It became second nature.
EH: Yeah. I wouldn’t say bravado but you were more confident in what you were doing, and it just shows you that with with training it is possible to overcome this shyness. Disability. But it’s a bit frightening. When your life’s in jeopardy you think twice sometimes.
BW: By the same token as a flight engineer on those instances where the aircraft’s been hit or the engines become u/s.
EH: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: You’ve taken the right action and enabled the pilot to bring —
EH: Yeah.
BW: The aircraft and the crew home.
EH: That’s what you do. That’s part and parcel of your duty. Yeah. Keeping the oxygen going and keeping the petrol flowing. We had this, going back to that one reason in the aircraft blew up with the engine and this, this again is part and parcel of, I wouldn’t call it stupidity, but it’s [pause] there are rules to be obeyed and there are rules which you can waive a little bit but what happened was after that landing we made after the North Sea excursion and back to base and the wing was over the [pause] I was on the squadron talking to the sergeant in charge of the hangar at that time. I said, ‘Have you fixed that?’ He said ‘What a bloody mess it was.’ He said, ‘Do you know what it was all about?’ He said ‘Every aircraft on the squadron is grounded.’ I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Well, two modifications should have been carried out and they’ve not been carried out on the whole squadron.’ I said, ‘Nothing to do with petrol is it?’ He said, ‘No.’ And do you know what? If you ever find it the pipe, petrol air frame it’s got three rubbers in it. Three rubbers. The outer rubber, the inner rubber and one inside, a plastic inside that and what happened on, we only had two. An outer rubber and a plastic inner and the plastic on this specific occasion had shrunk so where the jubilee clip was supposed to be holding it together it had shrunk. The middle had shrunk and allowed all the petrol under fifteen pounds worth of pressure. Squirts everywhere and ignites and that’s what caused the problem. So all the aircraft were grounded and they all had to be modified. They all, they all, it had been a modification from AV Roe’s that had not been carried out. We got away with it.
PH: Just.
EH: Just. Yeah.
BW: Yeah. [pause]
EH: I’ve bored you to tears haven’t I?
BW: Not at all, no. One of the other things that I wanted to ask you and I think it happened after you had left the squadron your tour seems to have ended on the 13th of April but the squadron continued to —
EH: Oh yes.
BW: Take part in things like Operation Manna —
EH: I never went back.
BW: And Operation Exodus, but you’d gone by that time.
EH: Gone. I was at Kirkham, driving a lorry. Or learning to drive an eight wheel lorry. I had my stripes up. I meant my —
BW: Yeah. And you were expecting to go out to Japan to the Far East.
EH: Eventually.
BW: And the Far East.
EH: Yeah. Yeah. That’s where we were going to go. We were told that was what was on the menu for us when we came back from our leave. But in the meantime some of us got a message. The wireless operator got a message to go to India. But I got one to go on a driving course and go to the Azores. I think that when the war was over there was this aircrew gut, or a glut of people wandering around doing nothing. What do we do with them all? We can’t demob them all in one go. So send them here there and everywhere. Some went to the Bahamas. Some —
BW: You mentioned that you continued in the RAF and you stayed in for another three years.
EH: Yes.
BW: You signed on and came out in 1950.
EH: ’51.
BW: ’51.
[recording paused]
BW: So you came out the Air Force in 1950.
EH: ’50.
BW: And you were married.
EH: Yeah.
BW: The same year.
EH: To Joyce. No. 1949 I married.
BW: 1949. I beg your pardon.
EH: Well, I tried to get a job at ICI but they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t let me. So I ended up as a manager of a wireworks. Superintendent at Connolly’s in Blakeley [pause] By then was working very hard looking after all these ladies who were on these machines. Providing them with plenty of wages. I thought this is not for me. I saw an uncle of mine outside this, at lunchtime and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to my factory down the road? Small and Parkes who make brake linings for lorries and trucks.’ I said, ‘Brake lines?’ He said, ‘Oh they’re always looking for people.’ So I went down one dinnertime and knocked at the door and the commissioner he said, ‘What do you want lad?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ ‘I can see that,’ he said, ‘I know a chap who is looking someone like you.’ He gets on the phone and eventually a fellow came. Smart lad like you and said he was a chief inspector and he said, ‘I believe you’re a bit of an engineering lad.’ I said, ‘Well, when you say engineering,’ I said, ‘I’m the lad that starts the handle at the front,’ you know. I said, ‘That’s about it.’ He said, ‘Well,’ he pulled the micrometer out of his pocket and he got this piece of paper, ‘Tell me the thickness of that piece of paper.’ So I did. I do it like you do. Point 007 or whatever it was. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I said, ‘Well, what about the other side of it?’ He said, ‘Tell you what I’ll pay you nine seventy. Nine pound.’ I was on four pounds something at the other place. They offered me nine pounds. I forget what it was. And I went, the following week I was working at Small and Parkes. I ended up as a rep for them eighteen years later. Eventually I broke away from them and started my own business in Preston. Preston Brakes and supplied Preston Corporation and all the other BRS, and all the other users for about, a number of years until I retired and you get old, weary. Then this takes over. In the meantime I started painting. But I enjoy the painting. Do you do painting?
BW: I don’t because I don’t have the time for it.
EH: No.
BW: But my wife is more, much more talented than I am and yeah she does it from time to time. So you’ve sort of come full circle because that’s where you started out in college aged fifteen.
EH: Yeah. In a way it was, yes.
BW: You took it up in later life.
EH: I ended up in my latter days doing painting and drawing. Yes. That was a teacher that said, ‘You could have a career in. You’ve got something about it.’ And I thought, [pause] but we all go down the various roads and lanes of life and whatever the obscurities are we just jump over them as best we can.
BW: You’ve been involved with the Bomber Command Association. Been a member with them for a while.
EH: Yeah.
BW: And you attended the Green Park Memorial ceremony.
EH: Yes. I went there and I went to Lincoln when that was opened.
BW: Was that for the opening of the Spire?
EH: Yeah. They opened the Spire. That’s wonderful that.
BW: That was a good day. It was a day like today actually. Bright and sunny wasn’t it.
EH: Yeah. And they’ve got those plates, half moon plates. I’ve seen those with all the names of the aircrew.
BW: Yeah. These are the steel walls with the names.
EH: Of those that died. Yeah. And I suppose the idea is to put all the hundred and twenty five thousand names eventually should go on these names, on these plates so that they are all, all the hundred and twenty five thousand have been recognised, because when you think about it I mean I know that bombing people isn’t, isn’t an answer, but war is terrible. War isn’t nice. It’s an amalgam of all sorts of yakety yack, but —
BW: What are your thoughts about the Memorial Centre itself? The Bomber Command Memorial Centre at Lincoln where you’ve been. Have you seen it since it’s opened?
EH: I haven’t, I’ve not seen it since it was opened when Phil and I, Phil took us down. No. But I got to go up there and all about it, and aircrew. And the, I think it’s, I think it was a good. I think it was a long time coming and I think when you consider as, that out of a hundred and twenty don’t forget you had to volunteer to get in to that. You weren’t conscripted. You couldn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m going to be a pilot.’ You had to go through all the rigmarole of testing, and if you were good enough and eventually some of us were and a hundred and twenty five thousand of us made it, of which I think fifty odd thousand were killed which is quite a few. Not making the grade. But, but whether you say bombing Germany was a good thing or a bad thing I’ve got an open mind. I know that the Germans killed a lot of Jewish people. That was terrible and I think that we, we were being bombed long before we started bombing them. Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, London were all being bombed long before we started bombing them. And Churchill said that for every ten pounds worth of bomb they put on us we’ll put a tonne on them. And we did, we tried to. I don’t say it was right but —
BW: You’re happy that they’re being commemorated. The aircrew that served.
EH: Yeah. Well, I think, I think they should be because I mean it was an ordeal for them. I mean, I’m not saying I was brave. Far from it. I was more of a robot. A robot really but I think, I think you gained strength as you went, as time went on. At the beginning was, and a lot of rookies didn’t get very far down the line for one reason or another.
BW: Well, I think that’s everything covered and —
EH: Let me ask you one thing. Has it been worthwhile your visiting?
BW: Of course. Yeah. Absolutely.
EH: I’ve not wasted your time.
BW: No. No. It’s fantastic, you know.
EH: Do you believe me?
BW: I’ve got the records to prove it so, yeah. So thank you very much for your time.
EH: It’s been a pleasure. It’s been my pleasure. Lovely.
BW: And for doing the interview. Appreciate it.
EH: I appreciate it.
BW: Thank you.
EH: I’m glad that Philip’s heard it now because he —


Brian Wright, “Interview with Eric William Harrison,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 20, 2024,

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