Interview with John Whitworth


Interview with John Whitworth


John Leslie Whitworth was born in Sutton Coldfield. Signed up for the Royal Air Force in 1940, finally being called up for service in 1941, before starting his training at the Initial Training Wing in Torquay, followed by more training at RAF Sywell in Northamptonshire. John was posted to RAF Moreton on the Marsh, which was a feeder station for the Wellington bomber crews, and he tells of meeting a lifelong friend called Brian Hurd, who was his navigator. John reminisces of his overseas posting to Egypt, to 37 Squadron at Abu Suweir, and flying over Gibraltar where he describes his first sighting of flak. John tells of his sadness of the death of his close friend, and also of his crash into the desert, after the Wellington he was piloting lost a propeller, his journey across the desert, and his subsequent rescue. Retells the story of a South African Air Force Boston which crashed into parked aircraft at Abu Suier in August 1942. Tells of his posting to a Wellington Instruction Unit, his training at RAF North Luffenham, and his love of golf. In September 1944, John volunteered to go back on operations, and was assigned to 142 Squadron flying Mosquitos working with the Pathfinder force, before being transferred to 162 Squadron, before finally being posted to ferrying Mosquitos to India. John completed two full tours with Bomber Command and was into his third when the Second World War ended. After the war, John became involved in his brother-in-law’s Engineering Manufacturing business, which he took over when his brother in law died.




Temporal Coverage




01:21:44 audio recording


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PL: Hello, my name is Pam Locker and I’m in the home of Mr John Leslie Whitworth of *** Harrogate, HG2 0NTand it’s the 22nd of June 2016.
JW: Yes
PL: So John, can I just start by saying on behalf of the International Bomber Command Memorial Trust, an enormous thank you for agreeing to talk to us and share your memories.
JW: My pleasure.
PL: Can I start with your — start at the beginning?
JW: Yes, I came from a large family, eight, born in Sutton Coldfield. I was number seven, five elder sisters, one older brother and one younger brother. My father and mother — for many years my father had, before the war, had a very substantial motor, er, motor car showroom business, service station, everything, which the war killed There was no business, it collapsed completely. My father was too honest. He paid out everybody, every employer and everything, and started up and expanded this cycle business. A very wonderful father, er, man, with all these kids he educated. I was educated at Bishop Peter’s School, Sutton Coldfield, a famous old grammar school. Anyway, I was, I was then being trained as an articled clerk, chartered accountancy. The war came, we struggled a bit. My younger brother, because of the collapse of my father’s business, couldn’t go to university, so I’ve always been very, very bitter about Germans. I don’t like Germans. I don’t trust them anymore or anything and the sooner we get far away from them in the European Union the better. But that’s me. Anyway (pause), England, Britain was hit very hard. Along came Dunkirk. To me, we looked after ourselves marvellously. Got our army back. Like everybody else I’d already signed up to go in the Air Force, put on reserve and everything. After the complete collapse I joined the Home Guard with all my powers, the whole lot. To say that Britain couldn’t look after itself is rubbish. We did, we had to then, we’d got nothing. Thousands of little boats went across and got people back from the Channel and to say we fought on our own, cannot live without the European Union, is rubbish. We can, we’ve done it once and we can do it again. Anyway, in the Home Guard, name Whitworth. Everybody had volunteered for aircrew, all my friends, or the Fleet Air Arm. We were at the end of the queue. It was 1940 [laugh]. It was 1941 before I eventually went in the Air Force, signed up down at Cardington in the week and then training at Torquay, at ITW, and then flying training at Sywell, near Northampton. Learned to fly Tigers. At that time, er, most training was going on in Britain. I went down to Lyneham where, to learn to fly Oxfords, um, and literally we were almost the last [emphasis] of aircrew, bomber aircrew at any rate, trained in Britain. Everything went to Canada, Rhodesia and everything, all the whole lot. I was almost the last one. Learnt to fly Oxfords, and then went to Moreton in the Marsh. What was I doing in ’42? I got my wings. I didn’t get a commission because [laugh], I’ll say this, I was marched in for my final interview in front of the group captain and everything, and a certain Warrant Officer Marsh said, ‘This gentleman has not had — this candidate has not had the courtesy of having a haircut’. I was not a long haired — it was about like — I was not — well of course — well that ruined that. I got my wings at Little Rissington, er, sergeant pilot, posted very rapidly to Moreton in the Marsh, which — Wellingtons — which was the feeder station for crews, Wellington crews, all going out to the Middle East. Trained there, formed a crew and the second pilot, a Geordie, two Australians, three Brits, two Australians, and a New Zealander. A mixed-up crew. Wonderful. Great. Always remember going together. When you first got together on Wellingtons, you’re all stuck in a crew room and you sort yourselves out and a nice looking fella, there’s his picture there, called Brian Hurd, walked up to me, looked at me, looked at me, said, ‘My name’s Brian Hurd. Do you want a good navigator?’ I said, ‘I’m John Whitworth’, I said, ‘I’m one pilot to two but I think I shall be captain’. I jolly well intended to be anyway [laugh], I knew I was better than the other lad who’d asked to fly with me. Formed up, we trained there, down to Portreath, Cornwall. Waited for a week for a following wind in a brand new Wellington. Gibraltar. A night’s sleep. Off to Malta. As we got near Malta, we knew we, we were getting there [slight laugh]. It was getting evening then. It was a long flight. It’s a long flight, seven hours, with no friends either side. There wasn’t any going to Gibraltar. If you didn’t make it, well nobody would see what’s [unclear], you know, occupied [unclear], one or the other and it was the same down there. As we stood there, there was flak going up. It was an air raid. Oh, it was good to see. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever been glad, as a bomber pilot, to see flak. That was ours [emphasis], shooting at the Germans [laugh] who were raiding it and stopped it. In we went and they were - pow! All over the plane, gave our three passengers a pop! Gone. In twenty minutes we were gone, up to Egypt, non- stop. When we got to Egypt, straight down into unit, tied up in the central transit camp. We hadn’t had any sleep of any sort for thirty-six hours. That was it. That was what happened to everyone. Posted almost immediately to 37 Squadron, Wellingtons, at Abu Suier, near Ismailia, and started my first tour.
PL: Who were your passengers?
JW: Three army fellas. A sergeant and an officer who were all — I think were a bit huffy. I mean in a Wellington, you’ve no room. We said, ‘Make yourself as comfortable as you can on the bed’. And that’s it. He sort of got the idea he could come up the front. Were all sergeants, even a lieutenant, and well, it meant nothing to us at all, ‘Behave yourself. Don’t be sick’. [unclear] And then, ‘Don’t be sick. Here’s some bags. Don’t be sick in my aeroplane’. They listened to me. They weren’t. When he went back, he said, ‘We were flown out from Malta by a little bastard sergeant who pushed us around and said, ‘Don’t be sick’’. And I meant it. [unclear] I always remember, ‘Don’t be —’ [laugh] Well that was it. I’d tell my passenger. Never mind them. If someone’s sick in your aeroplane it stinks and clearing up and anyway, that was our squadron. Almost immediately I was informed that I’d have to do a number of operations as a second pilot, er, and learn the trade, fair enough, before I got my captaincy. I did — my crew didn’t like that, especially as the fella that took over — his name was Pierce, it was Pilot Pierce. I went up, took — had to take a plane up to Tel Aviv in Palestine and while I was there, he went on his first op with my crew, crashed on take-off and my great friend Alex Sutcliffe, the New Zealander, who’d come all the way from New Zealand, trained, trained with me. He used to come home, met my family, and they liked him. He was a quiet country lad, was lovely, was killed on his very first — hadn’t even done his first op. Anyway, but I came back from Palestine and they said Alex was killed last night. Oh God, they crashed and he as front gunner, was in the fuselage. It set on fire and he had difficulty getting out. They got him out but he was badly burned and died. A particularly terrible tragedy for someone who’d come all the way from New Zealand to help us and flown all the way, halfway back to the Middle East and everything, had friends and everything, was killed. Anyway, now I’m going to tell you, I was lucky that I didn’t get commissioned. When it came through on the Squadron later on, all the things came through. There was no Marsh to muck it up. I was commissioned later on Squadron but I was lucky in my crew,the whole way because we were all sergeants and I made wonderful friends for the time they lived. We operated from there. I did two ops, on the third op I went to Tobruk, which was a seven hour flight. Three hours or so each way, three and a half hours over the target. On the second flight an engine started to play up, seized up, lost a propeller. Wellingtons lost — would lose, the best Wellington, best for petrol, would lose a hundred feet a minute, so if you were at eighty, eight thousand feet we’d got eighty minutes flying. That was three hours flying to do back. We got a fair bit the way back but eventually we gradually sank, sank, sank down and we were getting back towards the lines and we just flew into the ground. No option. No don’t jump out in the desert in a parachute or anything like that. No option, you, you stuck together, we crashed, all walked out. The pilot I was with was good but we combined well on that crash. I still had quite a bit to do with it. We could have landed better, I can say that now. I said it then and I say it now, I was a better pilot than the fella I was attached with but that was it. Anyway we walked out. We walked, oh, I suppose this was about 2 o’clock in the morning, and we walked all through the night across the desert. The desert was pretty flat scrub like bracken, you know, all through into daylight. And believe you me, when you’re walking to save your life or to avoid being captured, you walk. We carried ten gallon of water, which was in every Wellington strapped to the ladder, and the six of us walked and there wasn’t a grumble all the way of any description. We walked and walked and walked. And dawn came up and we kept walking and it got hotter and hotter but we still walked. Er, it was est— estimated we’d done over twenty, twenty-five kilometres which was somewhere between ten to fifteen miles but we walked and we weren’t sure whether we’d got over the lines. We were well south of the lines on the edge of [unclear], a depression there and the walking wasn’t bad but we didn’t know if it was mined. We didn’t know anything, we just walked. We weren’t really certain but we thought we were — had reached safety, but there was no trouble that far south which we’d deliberately come. The navigator had got us there, er, and suddenly we looked and there coming down the sand, a wadi, a shallow depression there, was a truck in desert colouring and everything, you couldn’t — no markings on it at all and we looked at it and somebody said, ‘Oh God. Look at those front mudguards’. They were flat. British trucks were Bedfords, curved mudguards. The Germans and Italians were — militar had a big flat front at the top where they could load a mach or you could load three chaps when you were escaping or going forward to the mach and you could sit on there and hang on. These had got flat mudguards. We dropped down on the ground in a little huddle, all six of us there. I had got a thirty-eight pistol that the pilot had, all the pilots had those, carried them. Don’t know why but we did. [laugh] We had a little conflab. What can we do? There’s nowhere to run. No, we mustn’t get separated. We just got to give up. I mean, the fella got out and he’d got a machine gun, obvious a — never knew what sort it was — it was a machine gun and that and if he shoots [unclear] all packed up, we got to give up and the captain, Mick Marne, said, ‘If anyone’s got to give up, it’s my responsibility’. Tied the handkerchief on his pistol, hands up and walk towards the truck, and I suppose this truck was a hundred and fifty, two hundred yards away, and he got about halfway holding this up. I see it so clearly, you know, in my mind and this chap standing in the front of the truck with this and just watching him come. And all of sudden he started [applause], yelling and jumping, ‘He’s British, he’s British, he’s British’. It wasn’t an American truck they were using. This was a research salvage unit, four wheel drive, desert truck with American flat mudguards. Oh God. Oh, a cup of tea that’s all we thought of. They were out looking for crashed aircraft, all other manner of vehicles picking up spares or anything and that’s it. Anyway, we had cup of tea, that’s all we could think of. Out came a primus stove and we had a cap of tea. Picked us up. We got in the back of that truck. Steel floor, steel floor with a few bits, nothing else, no, nothing at all. And that was the best seat I’ve ever sat on. We were safe and we headed off for the nearest airport which, well was about — I suppose at this time it was about 11 o’clock in the morning, 11 o’clock, and we headed off - bump, bump, bump - and bump on our bottoms in the back, no, no padding, [laugh], all there was the steel floor and some parts that they’d got which had at least been strapped so they didn’t get — and off we went to back to Cairo, Almaza airport. Another truck and we were back, all six of us. The only injury was a fellow called Barlow, he’d whitish fair hair, almost snowy, he got a terrific black eye, that was the only thing and we were back home. And thank heaven. We were known to the — by the signals we’d sent back as we came back that we were somewhere in the desert, and not even, nothing had been sent back to England about missing or anything. They were waiting for some news so no bad news had been sent back. And we were back. Now, I said I’m lucky. I’m lucky and possibly one of the luckiest people who ever got in the Air Force. Two days later, we were all lined up for another operation, again to go — this was August the 2nd and August the 4th or August the 1st or thereabouts.
PL: 19—
JW: 70 Squadron was the other squadron and they were sending about fifteen aircraft on another operation. It was all Tobruk at that time it was because that was —
PL: What year was this, John? What year was this?
JW: This was 1942. This was August 1942. We’d flown out in June. This was August. Er, the captain was a pilot officer. Alright. He seemed a decent bloke. He wasn’t — we were all sergeants. We took our kit out before going to briefing [cough], five of us, myself and — and I was second pilot. I was not in charge anyway. Just seeing that was everything before going to briefing. The aircraft, thirty aircraft, were all down the side of the airfield, not all in a line but all round the edge waiting and we were the front one at an angle. The others were all straight, and the other four got in, the plane, checking the thing and I was in the front talking to an airmen. I don’t know what it was, something about the aircraft or something, and then I heard this noise, a noisy aircraft in the circuit, obviously not running properly, and I watched it and it was a Boston, an American light bomber but part of the South African Air Force, and it was coming round and it was in trouble, and it came round and, didn’t realise at the time, he came round downwind, had to. The other four in the aircraft hung on, one in the rear turret, and I was with the airmen in the front and I watched, watched it. I was right by the ladder, instead of climbing up, I just watched it, watched, and watched and he came down and touched down at the end of the runway, bounced and he completely lost it, lost control completely and he headed straight for us, absolutely — we’re number 1. Aircraft 1, 2, 3, we’re — straight for us. All I could do was scream something to the others, nothing, could do nothing, and I ran with the airman, just ran and, er, as we ran, there was this a terrific petrol explosion behind us as the two hit - woof! And the fully, fully bombed up, all these aircraft had all got five— five hundreds on board, and we dived into a slip trench which was put fairly close behind in case of German low flying attacks, which didn’t happen but could have happen. This was the nearest thing, you dived in, we dived in there, lay down and the first bomb went off and blew, blew — I was suppose I was thirty, thirty yards, forty yards from where it blew up, blew it to bits, a piece of geodetic that big landed on the back of the airmen in front of me and - pow! We rolled over, over and over. I said, ‘We’ve got to run’. The two of us just scampered off as hard as we could go and I never saw that airman again, no reason to, and I ran and ran and ran, er, get into a proper air raid shelter, which I found another bomb had gone off in an aircraft, and dived in. Well of course nobody but the people out there and flying control could see what happened. Everybody thought it was an air raid, these bombs were going off, there was aircraft somewhere, Jerrys or something, Italians were bombing us and these were bombs and the whole of the air raid warnings had gone off and everybody was in the shelters and everything. The natives working were running screaming and, oh dear, and I collapsed in the shelter and two of my friends were there, one of which was Brian Hurd, his picture’s there, my previous navigator, and they took me off to the, the sick quarters and, er, which time, there were one or two people coming in, and took me back and I was given this injection and I was put to bed by two of them, put to bed, and — but for the rest of the night, um, this aircraft and the others caught fire and five blew up and a number of others were damaged in that, in it, and of course the whole airfield was chaos. So, I know but I really — the next day I was — I just never got out of bed but anyway I survived. Eight, eight air crew in that collision, two survived. Our rear gunner, he got out of the rear cockpit somehow or other. He was injured. I never saw him again. That was the only survivor out of eight. Now there was lucky for you and I hadn’t got a scratch. Our air gunner, the New Zealander, he was taken — I know he was taken to a hospital in Cairo. What was he? He was injured. I never saw him again. But there was luck. I was one survivor out of eight or half as, or one of two and I was burned here on the — I’ve got all the reports. In, in the reports this was the worst damaged aircraft and airfield at Abu Suier of any axis air raid in the whole [emphasis] of the North Africa campaign. It’s in the RAF records that this was the worst and I was a survivor. Anyway, there we are. I was attached to it then and attached to another crew who —
PL: John, can I just ask you, what about the other planes? Were other, I mean I imagine it to be like a domino effect.
JW: Yes, all five in a row were set on fire and blew up.
PL: Goodness.
JW: Five and we were all one crew.
PL: Did any of the other crews managed to escape?
JW: And others were damaged. Somewhere or other I’ve got the report with the numbers of them. But it says in the records that was the most damage done by any air raid and it was done, done by ourselves.
PL: Did any of the other crews manage to escape?
JW: They all got away. Er, probably in, in the one or two others they hadn’t come out. We’d just gone out with our kit and it happened in that minute or two. That was all. We were only out there three minutes but nobody else was hurt or anything and I was a survivor and that was it. Myself and the airman, he was alright. There, there we are. I survived that. Went on to do — that was three ops, another thirty-four, after I did about ten. Well for one thing I had to do was as second pilot, because this was the crew I should have inherited, was getting near, the captain was getting near the end of his tour and I should have inherited but they’d gone. And so I’ve got to be found a place in another crew and, and there wasn’t one with a place coming up for a while so I had to do, I think I did about another ten and then I got — took over a crew which I kept right to the end. Did another thirty-four ops. Two hundred and fifty hours [laugh]. It’s all there. All in that book.
PL: Goodness me. And did you —
JW: Anyway, er, I finished the tour up at — we got moved forward at that time. Of course, there was the big advance. The — if you could be exciting in the Wellington bombers. Jerry was streaming back, streaming back and we, at night, we bombed them. And the front line, the British front line, they had a strip of lights wherever they’d got to. So anything west of that was the Germans or Italians. We’d bomb that at quite low level, er, all the battle area and groups and that were lit up by Aboukir by the Fleet Air Arm who were in Alexandria, who weren’t very far away, but they were on a carrier that was stuck, they were stuck, they were stuck and they did a very good job of blooming hitting it and in a flat area, after bombing, we used to go down to low level, about three hundred feet, and empty our machine guns on anything we could see and back, er, that was introduced by the squadron commander, the Australian Rankin, who couldn’t do enough to kill Germans. He’d got some reason. It started, Rankin, said, ‘When you come back at low level anything, there’s not big bombs, you’re at three feet, anything you can see west of the British lights shoot at’. [laugh] And we had these big Wellingtons. That’s what they were there for. Strafers. It made a bit of variety [laugh] but anyway, I finished my tour, back to Cairo, there at Cairo stuck in a transit camp for ages waiting for a way back. There was nothing. You couldn’t go up the Mediterranean or anything. You got to get — eventually the Americans sent up a very good, er, military airline, a military airline, which flew us across the southern Sahara to West Africa to Lagos and there, then we sat at Lagos waiting for a boat until an absolute hell ship came, which was full, full of coloured troops in the basement. They were going up to Freetown for some reason I don’t know, and, er, as we flew, we sailed from Lagos to Freetown which was a week’s journey, covered by a rickety old armed trawler [laugh], so they could only draw water from one side for some reason. The Cap Cadoran was her name. This was a French merchant boat which we converted into a troop carrier. As we did so we got a bigger list and when we eventually arrived in Freetown we’d got a list like that [laugh]. Well that meant going down into the mess decks or anything like that, you got steps like that or the other side [laugh], there you climbed up them or go down, either up or down, according to which side. Oh dear, that meant that one day someone with buckets of porridge were coming into, from the cook, cook area into eating (we ate and slept in this area) and someone slipped and the buckets fell down the steps and everybody got a bit, you know what I mean [laugh]. It was a joke, anyway. We said, ‘Did you get any porridge today?’ Up to Freetown and there were these coloured troops and the rest were all returning aircrew, there was a hell of a lot of them. All parts of Bomber Command were there, all the volunteers, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians and when we got to Freetown, they absolutely — we were going home. We’d have literally got in a row boat and rowed across, if you could think of it [laugh]. They weren’t. They went, they were just going from there to, the Aussies and New Zealanders were getting further from home again and the Canadians weren’t getting any nearer really and they refused to move until they’d inspected — and literally — it wasn’t a strike, it wasn’t a mutiny, it was a plain fact. They just stated that we shall not to move off this boat until we can expect the next and rightly so as I say. All the Brits, we agreed with them but we were going home. We’d row a blooming thing. They weren’t. Anyway we were put on — oh, several big troop ships came up from South Africa, all loaded with prisoners of war and, and other people going back to the European, going to — South African troops as well going up to Europe. We were put on a Dutch boat which was good and, er, they formed up a huge, huge quarry, huge convoy in Freetown which has a huge harbour, and almost with them I think we had a cruiser and three destroyers and about, I think it was six troop carriers, and right smack in the middle, protected all around, was the Warspite Battleship which had been — had come all the way round. It was badly damaged somehow or other by an air raid in the Mediterranean, and it come down through and was on its way back to Britain for repair but they stuck that right in the blooming middle, which we — it was correct. It was proper battle order, but to RAF blokes to have the blooming Navy in a warship with us all round [laugh], it was funny. We came up, back up and stopped off at the Canaries for a while, while the battleship refuelled and destroyers, and we just walloping along and nothing but we had — we heard some explosions a long away which we believe was someone expected something and let off one of the depth charges but never knew. Up to Liverpool, back on leave, a week or two’s leave and I was posted down to Wing to a Wellington Instructor Unit. I’d been there as a sergeant. While there my flight sergeant came through and was called up and my commission had came through on December the 5th 1942 and I was commissioned in February. Hung on for a week or so to get my uniform and everything and I was then — oh, the chief ground instructor seemed to think I’d, I’d make a good ground instructor, probably because I could speak reasonable English [laugh] and that, and sent me on a number of courses, a PO and a flying course, that was on Oxfords, and did well on that and then I went on a ground instruction course. Oh, a great course at Luffenham Airfield, how to intruct, which was a very instructive course, taught how to, how to make a speech, and how to tell things and everything, things which were so handy in later life, how to put it together and things. Very, very good — how to bomb things. It was a very, very good course. Then I went on an engine handling course down at Bristol. And then, then they decided they wanted a squadron air sea rescue officer, so I went on an air sea rescue course, um, took, told how to land an aircraft in the sea in fog. But no way you could pass on and no way of practising that except above the clouds, try it on the clouds and that [unclear]. I spent a whole lot of, a whole period there, early days, and then I was put straight in ch— second in the ground instruction area, er, airmanship, and I had a cushy job, absolute cushy job. Formed up a golf team. We used to sneak off for an afternoon and that sort of thing up to, up to the local golf course at Leighton Buzzard and, oh dear and, er, I had a great friend called Atkins, he was an engineer. He’d done a tour on Stirlings and we got on like a house on fire, and he was a keen golfer and he suddenly found out I was a golfer. He said, ‘I hear you play’. Yes, I was one handicap. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘Let’s — I play off about seven up at Liverpool way’. He said, ‘Let’s go up and hire us some clubs at the nine hole course at Leighton Buzzard’. And off we went up there and across. Saw the pro. Oh yes, he’d hire us some clubs, some very old ones and he didn’t have any idea. He just thought we were people trying it out. And some old balls and that and we had a few holes. Anyway, we came in and he apologised. He said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about these’. And he went off up the [unclear]. You couldn’t make it up. Anyway we joined up and, oh dear, it was a really cushy number there. Really was. We could disappear out for the afternoon. We both joined the local club and played in competitions and organised the team. And, um, on one great occasion I remember, always and so will he, we went and played and he said, ‘I’ve got a car’. And the original leave petrol I got when I was demobbed right at the beginning lasted about 18 months [laugh]. I mean, we found it and never really had to use our own petrol but you went in the right garage and you got a coupon for one and we’d say, ‘Come on, come on. We’re rested air crew, bomber air crew. What can you do for us?’ And, you know, ‘C’mon, where’s the gaffer?’ I never got away with less than five gallons from the one [laugh]. We always had petrol. Anyway, he said, ‘Ashridge is a good course just down by [unclear] not very far away’, he said. That’s the famous course where Henry Cotton, who we knew was in the Air Force, is, was pro and everything. ‘Let’s go down and have a weekend stay in the hotel nearby at Ashridge’. And we went down there and played golf. Went down the Friday, that’s right, the Friday evening, booked in the hotel. Nice and comfortable. We didn’t earn a lot of money but we got enough to stay and we went up to Ashridge and played golf on the Saturday, and met a number of people, and got chatting about this and aircrew and God knows what, and, um, someone said, ‘Oh, Henry Cotton is back in his house just down the road. He was a pro there and been a pro there’. He said, ‘He’s back there and he comes up to play occasionally’. Henry had been invalided out. He was invalided because he’d got stomach ulcers, duodenal ulcers, which you had to have a special diet and you were straight out in the Forces because they couldn’t do it. And, ‘He’ll probably be around’, and we said we’d like to meet him, you know. We were equivalent in rank in any case to what he’d been, and in any case in the Air Force, he was non-aircrew. We were pretty, pretty snooty, you know, especially after operations. You’d done a tour of ops and you looked down on everybody else, which we had. And we came in and there was Henry Cotton and we were introduced to him and had a long chat and that sort of thing and, er, I don’t know, we got on and we were going to play on the Sunday morning and then go off. And we said we were there and he said, ‘I must be playing tomorrow afternoon with my wife, Toots’. Toots, she was a South American, I think it was, a nice person. He said, ‘Would you like to join us for a few holes?’ Join Henry Cotton! Ay? Henry Cotton! Good Lord yes, definitely yes and we had nine holes with Henry Cotton. That was something. In my golfing career people said, ‘Who’d you played with?’ I’d say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve played with Henry Cotton’. ‘What?’ [laugh] True. The only boast in all my life, but the great Henry Cotton. Anyway, er, it came to a point in September ‘44 I’d been where life was too easy, er, my greatest pal was shot down at Arnhem in Thunderbolts, attacking, and I volunteered to go back on ops and Fox started to form up a Lancaster team. One or two people came up and, er, started touring and, um, Charlie — what’s his — the chief engineer, said, ‘I hear you’re going back on ops, Lancs, John’. I didn’t call him Charlie. ‘Yes Sir. Yes Sir. Yes Sir. I’m going’. He said, ‘Well, I can get you on Mosquitos’. I said, ‘What? Mosquitos’. I mean, they were only really coming out as the fastest propeller plane in the world, and faster than anything, absolutely, well bombers. ‘I can get you onto those’. What? Oh golly, and off I went to Mosquitos. No, first I had to pass the high altitude test, which was three times in a decompression chamber, the equivalent of thirty-five thousand feet, so you that didn’t get the bends. I mean Mosquitos operated at around thirty thousand feet and some people get the bends, you know, at around thirty thousand feet. Of course, you never did it on heavies or anything else and I remember sitting in there, didn’t dare move, you know, in case, in case you got a pain. Anyway I passed it and was on — I went straight off onto a Mosquito Training Unit and onto the squadron. And the Mosquitos, not just an ordinary squadron, a squadron being formed for Pathfinder Force. We were — we did spoofs and everything for the other Pathfinders, the Bennetts and — a light night striking force and Mosquitos attached to it. We did spoofs and things, window in front of the heavies and that, all sorts of things. I did fifty ops on Mossies. Twenty-one to Berlin.
PL: Goodness. I’m sorry John. I don’t understand, what’s spoofs? When you say spoofs, what do you mean?
JW: [laugh] Spoofs. What it is, a spoof, we went in front of the main force when they were going to a target and that, and then we branched off, like wherever it was going, we branched off to another target, bunging out this window, these bits and pieces, to give it that we were a much bigger force, deliberate to take — they thought that the Pathfinders who were in the front were going to so and so, and we used to go towards that, alert the German fighters, they’re going Berlin. Everything they thought, ‘cause of Mosses, they thought it was Berlin. Thought the heavies were going there but they weren’t. They were going to another target. And that was it. And that was the lot to my job. And then we, I was moved from 142 to 162 — 142 was a stick it squadron on the worst station in Bomber Command, the ground and lodge, all mud. Oh, we were glad to get posted from there. I did about ten ops, mainly to Berlin, from there and we were posted to 162 at Bourn, which is a nice station, with another Mossie squadron, and, er, not too big a mess and no mud, [unclear] was shocking. This, this was October, you know, October ’40, blimey, October ’44 and it was terribly wet. Terribly. You couldn’t go anywhere without wellingtons or flying boots, awful place, and not even a decent pub which [laugh] — and we were posted to Bourn, which was near Cambridge, and that was where I finished up. Completed fifty ops from there just in time, just before the war ended, and back to Group and two tours. I was — if you were a fighter and you got five killed, you were considered an Ace. In Bomber Command there was no such thing as that, but if you survived two tours as a pilot you were, you were a Bomber Baron. That’s what I acquired. A Bomber Baron. It meant nothing. It meant nothing. It was just a phrase. I’d done two tours and I could go up to Group, Pathfinder Force, and could pick anything I wanted. And at that time, I meant to stay in the Air Force and I wanted to go onto a Dakota transport unit to learn how to fly those, which would be good if I wanted to carry through to civilian flying. I went up there. They said. ‘That’s easy, but there’s a cracking good job for you I can put you on at Pershore’, which was quite near home. A ferry unit, Number 1 Ferry Unit. They were ferrying aircraft, Mosquitos, out to India and everything like that, for the huge build up at that time for the big attack planned, Army, Navy and Air Force, on Malaya and Singapore and they were pouring out. And I went out there and then a posting came to go to Islamabad, Number 9 Ferry Unit in India, which was a very established station and I thought, ‘Oh, there’d be something of a job out there’, which there was. And I took it, I needn’t have gone as I’d done one overseas tour. I needn’t have gone, but I did go and ended up there and, of course, out there we were getting everything ready, and everything all ready to — the most experienced going right to the forward ‘drome so that when the big attack came, we could take aircraft to where they captured an airfield and established a unit, and we moved down there, Rangoon, and we were all ready and someone came and said, ‘There a great big bomb. Huge bomb. We think the war will be over’. It was the atomic bomb and it was all over. And, um, we were stuck there. Nobody wanted to know anything or anyone. There was nobody wanted aircraft, nothing. All the chaps could think was, ‘How can we get home? How? ’ Army, Navy, the lot. We were stuck there, absolutely. I was the second in command of the ferry flight at Maubin there, and, er, Squadron Leader Poutney, he was posted to somewhere else. He’d got his permanent commission, he was posted somewhere and I was appointed CO, Temporary Acting Squadron Leader, Temporary Acting Confirmation Flight Lieutenant Whitworth to Supervisor disbandment of the unit. Just somebody had seen I was a trained chartered accountant and must have thought I could do something, which I did. I did a good job, ended up being posted down to another unit, the group, the group communication flight to disband it as well and I ended up with nothing but an aeroplane and the first one — two aeroplanes and I got instruction for everything, every blooming thing, everything off, where it went in. The crews, all the crews, all the ground crews but nothing for the aeroplanes. I left them, but obviously the, the things were in control. And it had been a ferry crew had come and collected, abandoned them there and the second [unclear]. Anyway, I could see I’d get a good job but it would be in administration and I hadn’t stayed in the Air Force as pilot. And up came my demob number and I came home and out.
PL: So how did you get home?
JW: How did I get home?
PL: Yes.
JW: Boat. Boat. All the way from Rangoon across the Ind— oh, nice boat. Empress of Canada, nice boat but jammed full of troops, jammed full. And the officer’s thing was absolutely a mess. The first day out of — oh, two sittings for food and, er, we sailed out into the Indian Ocean there, south Indian Ocean, and I thought, oh, this is going to be a slog, we’ll be a week up to Colombo. Got to cross this and one in the know said, ‘Don’t worry’, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Sir. Once we get out and starts to roll a bit there won’t be two sitting for meals. Half of these blokes which you’ll never see again’. And we didn’t. Oh, whether they only had every other meal. There was no crowding in the mess for food or anything [laugh] and I never had to worry about seeing these people. And there was not half of them I never saw again, and it was quite a comfortable trip up to Colombo, er, collected a few more, off then and up the — across the South Indian Sea and round Aden, and up through the Suez Canal and up to Hyéres, not far from a port quite near Marseille and they landed us there and the boat was immediately going back. And we came by train across France, right through to the channel ports and across and that was it. And, er, I was demobbed and within a week and then of course I was dead lucky. Dead lucky. I survived everything and then a further great bit of luck occurred. I really didn’t want — I did go back to the office accountancy people for a while. I shouldn’t have been, I shouldn’t have had to take the intermediate exam. I should have gone straight to the final. To be quite candid, having been in charge of two big units, with rather responsible jobs for the last few years, sitting down, swatting and doing — taking the exam I didn’t know what to do. My father — my brother was also coming home and he was going into the business which my father had built up quite a bit, his cycle business, quite considerable. I got in and I looked around all sorts of things, I went out to New Zealand flying, flying crop spraying, I got that and it was a bloody great thing. Canada. And, as I saym I had five sisters and four of them were married, substantially, and one of them, name of George, nice fella, came to me and said, ‘I hear you’re giving up accountancy?’ I said, ‘Yes, George. I really don’t know I’m going what to do. I’m trying to make up my mind to whether go to Canada or something like that or fly with one of the smaller airlines’. He said, ‘Well, I’ve inherited a small engineering manufacturing business’, he said, ‘It’s going alright. Would you like to join me?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe my ears. Anyway I joined him and we worked damned, damned hard and everything and built it up to a substantial business over the next period. Really wasn’t expecting it. And I got married, got married to Audrey, who I’d met before the war and had always — we were parted for seven years but she was the girl and we got married. We had money, we had children and enough money to send them to good schools and was very comfortably off. Very comfortably off, er, right, right until getting towards retirement and I was — George had then retired and died and I was managing director, Chairman and managing director. It was a substantial company and things were getting hard. They were — things were getting, you know, a bit tough about then, er, and I was, I was sixty-one and took one job instead of the sales director. I said, ‘I’ll handle this’. And I made a mess of it. It was a very [unclear] Leyland on trucks. It was a big, big contract. I didn’t make a mess of it but I went and they said, ‘You didn’t do us good’. I was never a great salesman but, ‘You didn’t do a good job on that. Barry Watkins would have done a lot better, got much better terms. You’re over the hill’. And I retired at sixty-two. Came out. There we are. There we are.
PL: So what about the golf, John? What about the golf?
JW: I — oh dear. As soon as I got back straight back to Walmley, a good club. And straight — I got back, I was one handicap and I got down to scratch in 1950, which at that time I was thirty-eight, and for three years, and then in 1953, they altered all the calculations of the handicaps and everybody went up and I went up to three. And I got back to one. I never got back to scratch again. But I was in the County team, I won the County championship, I won the knockout and a few other things and I had very good years, very good years, a lovely wife, two boys, money, nice cars. I lived well. But then —
PL: Wonderful. Wonderful.
JW: As I say then at this time when I reached sixty I retired, I took early retirement, I took early retirement. It cost me as everything was based on the last three years. It cost me, but there we are. I wasn’t hard up. Then we lived in the same house. Bought the house, rented the house when we first got married in ‘54, I bought the house, nice house, in a nice area and everything, Oxford, in my front room. I remember buying it. I had good friends in, in the business and costed it all for me and everything and said you should buy. This was in 1957. You should, um, you should be able to buy this for about four thousand, four thousand three hundred, which was a good market price for a very nice house with land around it too. And I bought it in the front room and I got to our figure and my wife walked out the room. I wasn’t sure she wanted this house but I bought it for four thousand six hundred and I went out and she was crying in the hallway, ‘Oh John. I did so want I this house, you know’. I said ‘I’ve bought it’, ‘What?’ Oh, what, my wife moved, what, grabbed her handbag and tore back in and said there were things she’d lined up to buy in the Oxford area. We bought it and lived in it for fifty-four years until, until she died. Extended it and everything. Nice house, nice house, extended it and added a granny flat for the wife’s father. I lived well but I never thought I’d live to ninety-five, you know. Pension wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad but I’ve got plenty of capital which I’ve spent quite a bit of it, living well, but I thought all the rest of my family had gone into the eighties, and one sister did go into her nineties but, as I say, I never thought I’d live to ninety-five [laugh].
PL: Amazing. Amazing.
JW: Here I am now, still able to get round, losing my teeth [laugh].
PL: But not your memory?
JW: No. Not my memory, no, no.
PL: So John how did you, how do you about feel about how the veterans of Bomber Command have been treated over the years?
JW: How what?
PL: How the veterans form Bomber Command were treated over the years?
JW: Oh, it was a dreadful long time before they gave us the clasp. We shouldn’t have had anything. I mean, in the Middle East, I got the Africa Star and clasp for North Africa on it. At home, got the Air Crew Europe thing but nothing else, nothing else. But there were, considering there were fifty-three thousand, your chances, as I say, Mosquitos yes, Lancs a different matter, different matter.
PL: Did you feel that you were more in —
JW: There were a lot of gongs dished out but an awful lot of them, they were dished out and dead the next week and that sort of thing. People think they didn’t but they were. There was, but the people that got ‘em were dead. And the survivors, well there were quite a few. As I say, I survived and got the DFC and that but it took a long while for them to, to really acknowledge that clasp, Bomber Command, at long last, um, what’s his name? Our Prime Minister, he did authorise it. It should have gone through a long, long time and really I don’t think Churchill did enough and the end of the war to appreciate — to be honest I don’t think he realised that we’d lost fifty-three thousand volunteers, fifty-three thousand of volunteers, not one was pushed in. Everyone was volunteers and all educated, even, even, I mean, my brother was trained as a pilot and got through, served his flying training school in Canada and was near getting his wings but he couldn’t navigate. Jim couldn’t navigate. My brother could never learn how to read maps and getting near his final wings flying test he got lost in Canada and had to land and find out where he was and ring through and they sent for him and everything. And he couldn’t navigate. He couldn’t — he could go to the other side of Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield, and have a job to find his way back. Although it meant going north I don’t think he ever could put the sun and time together. I mean, you know, even in summertime. South, the suns around the 12 o’clock or, or a bit earlier than that to read summer time and east and west and all that and he could never do that. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. He was a damn good engineer. He’d be a blooming good pilot. He should have — he was scrubbed as a pilot right, right at the end of his flying course, right at the very end he was scrubbed. Well, I mean, um, the three categories of pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, the top one. Well [slight laugh] navigator, bomb aimer navigation was essential. So, he — there was no training. He would have made a good flight engineer, really good one, engineering trained and everything. He was really good. He knew all about — but there weren’t any in Canada. All the engineers, nearly all were trained in, in Britain or from British people who had been fitters, etcetera, in Canada and had gone out there. That’s where the basic trained and so of course.
PL: So what did he do?
JW: He became a gunner and put on a squadron, 462 Squadron, which was an Aussie squadron with Aussies, er, up here, up in this part of the world, 5 Group, and then they were transferred down to 100 Group, special duties, and this, in effect, this squadron that used to go around with several wireless operators picking up German radio and [unclear] language. Sometimes they had a German with them and just mucking them up, you know, jamming all the transmissions and that was his job. He did twenty-seven ops and survived. [unclear] two back. There we are. That’s it. But we should have had much more recognition. We should have had that Bomber Command clasp in ‘44, ‘45 long, long ago not just — not just, what’s it? Since I’ve come up here. It’s coming two years ago. It’s two or three years ago. We should have had that. There we are.
PL: Well John, it’s been an absolutely fascinating interview. Thank you so much for your generosity.
JW: I’ve been the luckiest bloke, luckiest bloke to survive. I survived everything. I survived everything even, even in Mosquitos. We were hit over Hamburg with the flak which came through in front, twenty-five thousand feet. It was always a bit of a mystery because very rarely did they get their flak up but we had one hit us and a piece of shrapnel came through the nose of the aircraft and went between — pilot and navigator sat there — between us and thudded in behind, and a bit of Perspex from it flicked my navigator’s eyebrow and, of course, we got a blooming hole in the front and a three hundred mile an hour wind coming in. And I turned and he pulled his mask down and of course, at twenty-five thousand feet, you bleed quite profusely, any — oh God, blooming blood all down here and I remember grabbing him and forcing him to — he pulled his mask off and doing this but it was only a nick. I remember dragging my handkerchief out and stuffing it down and getting him round, and, er, it was alright, and cleaned up a bit of blood spilt, caused two lumps. It was horrible but it was only a nick. That had gone through, missed him and missed me at eye level.
PL: Did you feel more in control what was going to happen to you being in Mosquitos rather than being—
JW: We were?
PL: Being in Mosquitos, did you feel you were more in control?
JW: Oh, absolutely. Mosquitos were marvellous. For a start, they were a two man crew, pilot and navigator or pilot, AI operator sitting. It was two men team. Absolutely. It really was. Whether you was fighter, intruder, Pathfinder, the navigator and the pilot, you worked together one hundred percent. No good pilot was any good without a good navigator, especially on — any plane you had to have a good navigator — but Mosquitos, the two of you were a team and I had a cracking navigator, Canadian, Bill Todd, he was a superb navigator, never failed. He could read H2S radar like — and so it was printed in plain language and that sort of thing. He was — he never took us over. I mean, I’ve got the route cards of many of my ops. We flew near, whenever we were going to Berlin, we flew up north near around Bremen or anything, to wake them up, waje them up, wake them up, down to Berlin. Wherever we went, Magdeburg in the middle, whatever it is, we always flew near, not over [slight laugh] they’d shoot at us, near to — to wake, wake never — Berlin, Berlin they never had any peace, ever. I’ve got copies of, er, from Goebbels’ diaries where he writes, ‘The Mosquitos were here again last night. We never get a good sleep every night’. But anyway, there we are. But the Mosquito was superb. It was a marvellous aeroplane. The film done on the Mosquito, “333, 233 Squadron” an operation where supposedly to a — Mosquito squadron to a heavy water plant in Norway and everything. You see them going off, these well-known film stars, the captain, squadron leader, I think his navigator was only a warrant officer or something, which was extraordinary for a start. I’m sure he was only a flight serg. You see them going up and doing the whole lot, and they come back and the pilot gets out first, oh well, well, you know, well, he comes down before the navi. That’s impossible, that’s a physical impossibility. In a Mosquito the pilot has to get in first, get in it and the navigator comes up and sits alongside him. The entry’s blocked, pull the ladder up, shut the trap. To get out, the navigator has [emphasis] to go first, he just has to and the pilot follows but no, in the film they come back and the pilot gets out, the wonder boy gets out first. Oh, every Mosquito pilot navi is infuriated about that film. They’re infuriated. Physical impossibility or damn near. You have to get the navigator in last and out first. There’s no room. No room. One can’t get past the other. [laugh] That’s infuriating. Oh dear. Any Mossie navigator that’s seen that says, ‘That’s blooming impossible’ [laugh]. Well, chatting to my flight commander he became, he became CO, Wing Commander, what’s his name? Peter MacDermot at Honington, where that film was made. They got these six Mosquitos and that and did that film. I brought it up. He said. But no, no, the star’s got to come out the plane, the great pilot, and it’s the blooming navigator that took him there and that’s it. Rubbish, rubbish. But anyway —
PL: Well, John, is there’s anything else at all that you would like to add?
JW: Well, oh dear me, I could rattle on forever, can’t I? Rattle on forever. No, I’ve been a very lucky chap. I’ve had a great life. I had a super wife, super wife, artist, mother, good looking, prettiest girl, super wife. Sixty-one years, everything. Look at that. She — those are all, my wife did all these. And that one, I always remember that. She did one or two like that in our kitchen, a nice big kitchen, we extended it. And the “Kippers by Candlelight” was the thing.
PL: “Kippers by Candlelight”
JW: It was a bit of fun. She liked doing things like that. And I remember a pal of mine coming in, Robin Lewis, always a bit of a wag, he looked at that and said, ‘Kippers’, he said, ‘don’t they look sexy?’ Do you know, they were known ever since, Audrey’s sexy kippers [laugh]. No reason at all. That’s always Audrey’s painting. It was Audrey’s sexy kippers [laugh].
PL: Well that sounds a very good note to end on, the sexy kippers.
JW: The sexy kippers. Well anything you want you can always give me a ring, anything, anytime. Would you like another cup or tea or biscuit or anything?
PL: I’d love one. Thank you so much.
JW: No. [laugh]



Pam Locker, “Interview with John Whitworth,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 19, 2024,

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