Interview with Desmond O'Connell


Interview with Desmond O'Connell


Desmond O’Connell was born in London in 1919. He followed in his brother’s footsteps by joining the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve in 1939. He went to Cambridge to commence pilot training but half the contingent were transferred to become Observers. He was posted to 502 squadron to Aldergrove and then to Limavady in Northern Ireland. One night the squadron were detailed to attack the Bismarck and were loaded with extra petrol tanks, bombs and depth charges. However the plane could not take the extra weight and crashed three miles from base. On making his way out of the plane, one of the extra fuel tanks ruptured and Desmond was dowsed with petrol. When Desmond did make the escape, the plane was on fire and he suffered catastrophic burns. When he was in hospital, his parents were called for by the doctor, who asked his mother where she would like him to be buried. She wouldn’t accept this and Desmond was transferred by hospital plane to RAF Halton Hospital. His plane was escorted by two fighters who did a victory roll over the airfield as his plane landed. Desmond then began years of recuperation and endured twenty nine operations as a member of Archibald McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club.








01:37:21 audio recording

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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 9th of August 2016. I’m in Sunbury on Thames with Desmond O’Connell and he flew in Whitleys and we’re going to hear the story of his experiences in life and the RAF. Desmond what do you remember in the earliest days?
DO: I was born in 1919. One of eight children. My father had been in the First World War, in the infantry and he came home with a very, very strict outlook on life and he brought us up there in the East End. We weren’t very poor. We were poor, we were poor. We lived like you see on television these days when they try to depict the East End in the early days. I say I was one of eight children. Two of them died to leave six of us and we were all brought up. My father, coming from the army was very, very, very, very conscious of strict, of strictness and that is why he, he wore a thick leather belt which he used on us reason, on the boys, which we thought unjustly but rightly or wrongly it, it brought us up thinking what a fine job my father did bringing me up like this. I’ll bring up my children the same ways. So I was overly strict but fortunately the boys are still sticking around with us. But when I started school at St Francis Catholic School in Stratford where I was born and there and there until I was eleven and then I got a scholarship to the local secondary school. My two brothers had also been at St Francis School and both won scholarships and went, my eldest brother went to the West Ham Secondary School. My next brother went to St Bonaventures at Forest Gate Grammar School and my, although we were Catholics, my father, I know, felt very, he really put education before Catholicism and my eldest brother that had gone to the West Ham Secondary School passed all the exams, even the final exams, two years early. He was so clever. I went to the same school and they found that brains didn’t necessarily run in the family so I didn’t quite accomplish what he did. But, after, after that I left school. I went to work in London, in the City and I was on fifteen shillings and two pence a week out of which I paid a little bit towards my upkeep and my train fares and pastimes. Then after a while I left there. It was the, it was an Australian, Australian agents for stuff to, merchandise to be sent to Australia and after that I went to, I got a wee bit ambitious and I went to the Teachers Provident Society at Hamilton House near King’s Cross and that was for two pounds a week which was quite a lift for, financially but it allowed me to, to expand, expand a bit more. To go on to join the tennis club and then I played cricket for the West Ham Secondary School Old Boys and I played soccer for St Francis Old Boys. So all in all I spent quite an active youth. My elder, my next brother up who went to the grammar school at St Bonaventures eventually came home one day and said he was joining the RAF VR which I’d never heard of but he, but I saw him in uniform and immediately the uniform was attractive and I joined the VR in 1939 and I was called up on the 1st, the 1st of December. I’ve got the telegram here. I was called up on the 1st of December and we went to Cambridge and went and we did a, I was at St John’s College, Cambridge and the other colleges were taken over for accommodation for doing the rudiments of service life, square bashing and learning RAF law and all and after that I went to Marshall’s Flying School at Cambridge to train as a pilot on Tiger Moths. My brother had also joined the VR, was also there but much more advanced of course having gone solo earlier and I was going quite well there and I was up for going solo on Tiger Moths and we were called up one Monday morning, which I remember well. We were all called on parade and the CO said, ‘I’ve,’ ‘I’ve had orders from Air Ministry. We’ve got too many training as pilots so we’ve got to cut down and go into other, other air crew jobs. ‘So,’ he said, ‘A’s to N’s will continue with their training as pilots and O’s and otherwise, well Z’ds will either, as you’re volunteer reserves either get out of the service and be called up or you can revert.’ My brother, who had gone solo got out and within a very short time he was a lieutenant in the navy and I was training as an observer. I trained. I went down to the, I forget what they call it now. The school at, at Hastings for doing square bashing. It was quite, there we used to do the square bashing on the sands at St Leonards on Sea and the sergeant, ‘I want to hear your footsteps.’ He didn’t, not realise, having been one of his, one of his favourite expressions he didn’t realise that we were on sand but after a while I was taken off to train as an observer and I went to Yatesbury to the Bristol Flying School at Yatesbury next to the RAF Wireless School and there we flew on Ansons doing navigation. We did navigation. An observer was pushed. He did navigation, bomb aiming, gunnery, meteorology and another subject which were quite difficult. Quite difficult to absorb because they, all of them were very, all of them were very deep subjects and eventually I passed. That’s the navigation side of it of the, of the training as an observer and we went then, we were posted up to Dumfries and we went under canvas at, I think, I think it was called Tinwald Downs. Something Downs. We went under canvas there while we did our bombing. Bombing instruction. And it was, it was a most enjoyable time under canvas there and eating out and the weather was quite nice but there we did our bomb aiming training at Annan on the coast there. We were flying Fairey Battles. Well we were a passenger in Fairey Battles while we were training for bomb aiming and also we were trained on, on Harrows. Handley Page Harrows, a big old aircraft for gunnery where we had the front turret had 303s painted blue and the front turret had 303s painted red and they had an aircraft go towing a drogue and we fired at that. When he, when we came down the drogue was taken off and the number of holes, colours was counted. Not allowing for one day, I mustn’t say whether it happened more than once, that the same colour 303s were used at the front and the back turret but they still got the, still got the result that there was so many blues and so many reds. When, when we qualified from there I and somebody else was sent to Belfast, to east, to Aldergrove to 502 squadron on Whitley 5s which, which I believe had been, had been withdrawn before but they were brought back. They were withdrawn as Whitley 3s had radial engine and they were brought back as Whitley 5s on Rolls Royce and we flew to Belfast, we flew to Aldergrove and there we did, we did tours flying to the Atlantic [coughs] excuse me. Flying to the Atlantic escorting convoys across. We had on these aircraft, what was then new, the ASV that was Air Sea V, I don’t, it was, it was radar for spotting any, any metal object in the water so really it was looking for , looking for submarine U-boats, looking for U-boat conning towers and we were on that doing eight hours, eight hours and right at the very beginning we took homing pigeons and to do eight hours flying and these darned pigeons cooing at you for eight hours it nearly sent you bonkers but eventually they were withdrawn but we did some, some very good, I’m going to pat myself on the back now, we didn’t, we didn’t do astro navigation. We had to keep, we had to keep RT silence, wireless silence so all in all it was dead navigation. Dead reckoning navigation and, as I say, patting myself on the back we always picked up our objects and we always got home without any trouble each time and I always, the more I think about it the more, the more proud I am really that say without all these modern aids we did achieve that. Then it was decided after a while that we would open up a new airfield at Limavady, which is just to the north, in Northern Ireland. It was an unprepared airfield. There was no runways. It was all mud. It really was mud. And we had, there was no accommodation. We lived in an old, a big old house with no amenities at all. We lived, lived on cold water for washing and everything and then one day on, on this, on this day after we’d flown from Limavady for a few times there was another Sergeant O’Connell. He was from, from Roscrea, in Southern Ireland. He and I were in the Alexandra Hotel at, at Limavady having a few drinks before we were going to Derry as neither of us had been there and while we were there Bill O’Connell’s two wireless operators came in and said, ‘We’re flying tonight.’ So I said, ‘Oh’ and Bill had had a few so I took him back to the airfield. It was all very new there so the, when sergeant, when I, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Sergeant O’Connell.’ I took Bill’s briefing for him and I I plotted his courses, his course and I was quite proud really but whilst I was there the CO, or one of the senior officers said, ‘You’re, you’re flying tonight.’ So, so if so we are. Now we’re on a Whitley 5. We’re after the Bismarck. The German Bismarck. Heavy, heavy warship was just outside our range and causing havoc amongst the, amongst the convoys so our aircraft we had was given extra fuel tanks, extra bombs, extra depth charges and off we, we were due to take off at 3 o’clock ish in the morning and duly took off but all those extra bombs, extra fuel and everything was too much for the aircraft and it didn’t make the high ground a couple of, three miles away from the airfield and hit. The, the pilot, first pilot and the wireless operator, second wireless operator got out the front. Now, the second pilot Chris Carmichael you see and me and the wireless operator Stan Dawney and the rear gunner, I’ve forgotten his name, nice chap, were going to get out of the back of the aircraft and I was crawling down to the escape through that door and the extra fuel tanks were strapped, fractured and covered me with petrol which again wasn’t bad because just before then we’d been issued with flying jackets and leather flying boots. I was crawling out and it fractured, these tanks fractured, covered me with petrol which was still not bad. We got out and unfortunately the grass was alight and consequently I was set alight and fortunately, as I say our flying jackets and flying boots saved my, my, saved me quite a bit but the rest of me from the waist downwards to the back of the shins suffered badly and I got out and my, the, my wireless operator Stan Dawney put me out as much as he could but there was so much petrol on board that it was quite a difficult job and we were there and somebody, one of us said, ‘Careful of the bombs,’ and we ran, including me, we ran to the brow of the [cough] excuse me, the brow of the hill and just got over the top when the whole lot blew up and you heard about it for miles away. So much so that the, we were, we were all, all registered as killed in action but we’d all got away with it and we started walking down there, down the hill and unfortunately it had been a hill for peat. Where they dug about six foot trenches to get it and of course it was not visible so there was a second to get Chris Carmichael, Stan Dawney, the rear gunner and myself walked and we kept falling down these pits, these trenches but eventually we came to a farmhouse. I think it was McGuiness. We came to this farmhouse and we knocked at the door and the explosion must have warned them that something had gone wrong because they opened the door quite readily and these three, the other three said, ‘We’ve got a bloke here who wants a bit of help. Can we put him in your cowshed,’ which was, it was attached to the house, to the, so says ‘Yes.’ So they put me in there with sacks and sticks. Sacks and things like that and the three of them went off to try and find some help and after a while I was there by myself. The cow, or cows came over and started sniffing so I opted out. I got back to the front door of the farmhouse, knocked on it and they opened the door and I said, ‘Can I come in? The cows are getting too, too friendly.’ But it was then about five o’clockish in the morning and the sun was rising behind me. They opened the door. It was a very catholic area and there was a big picture of Jesus Christ facing me on the wall in the, and as I say the sun was behind me. I thought, whatever they said I’ve arrived. It was worth it. But they took me in and they sat down. A big peat fire. They sat down, sat me down beside it and although my face and hands were quite severely hurt they put a cigarette, they put, gave a cigarette, they held it to my lips, helped me smoke it and they were very, very, McGuiness but what was, I thought my gloves were, there were strips hanging off my hands and I thought it was my gloves but I knew I hadn’t put my gloves on because when you get in the aircraft by the time you’ve put your maps out and done this you can’t do it with gloves you have to do it with bare hands. I didn’t have them but I saw the skin of my hands was hanging, hanging loose but eventually they, somebody got, and got through to the airfield, to Limavady and they sent transport out there and I think it was Flight Lieutenant Storer I think came out, picked me up and took me to Roe Valley Hospital which was a little hospital, mainly, mainly for maternity, and put, put me in there and I was in there for quite some time. My mother and father were sent for and they came over. The, our, not being critical or being nasty but our medical officer was a big Irishman who was a bit fond, bit fond of the bottle and he, he said, in my hearing, I didn’t, I don’t remember losing consciousness, I may have done. But he said to my mother in my hearing, ‘You can either have him buried here with medical, with er marshall, a marshall funeral or we can send his body home. With the CO, with the MO was a little fresh, fresh medical officer. He was a flying officer but he had just joined the medical service and I’m sure he was a foreigner, non-British and he said to my mother, ‘If you don’t do something he’s going to die.’ And my mother kicked up a, kicked up a stink and I was flown back to England to, but whilst I was in there, in hospital there, the chaps had, there was nothing else to do up there on this and they used to come in to the hospital, really for something to do and I remember them saying, ‘The Bismarck had been sunk. The Bismarck’s been sunk.’ And apparently the navy had, which I haven’t checked but I think it must be right, but I was flown back to this country in a hospital aircraft. I’m pretty sure it was an Oxford with a, with a doctor Aitchison. I’m sure it was Dr Aitchison was my bod and we were coming back, flying back to Halton, the RAF hospital at Halton, and about the Midlands the pilot had been warned that there was enemy, there was enemy activity in the area and I was being escorted by two fighters and when we landed at Halton they did a victory roll over the airfield and disappeared. When they got me off the aircraft on the, they got me to the hospital someone took the, uncovered my, my, my details and said, ‘Oh he’s only a bloody sergeant.’ So that, that was my greeting to Halton Hospital. But while I was there I was treated very much so. But I think he was, I think it was a Squadron Leader George Morley, again I wouldn’t mind that being checked but he did some very, very, some very essential first aid, first aid to burns treatment and it was, it was through him that my hands got away with a lot, they could have easily been bandaged as clumps but it was he, George Morley I’m sure but one day Archibald McIndoe appeared and, at Halton Hospital and he took all of our, all the burns patients back to East Grinstead much, much to the annoyance of George Morley. And there, the Halton Hospital was very good but even the nurses, although they were good nurses, they were still disciplined. Disciplined. RAF discipline. And you weren’t, you almost had to lie to attention when the CO came around on his weekly, on his weekly inspection. He seemed to be more interested in whether there was dust on the window sill. I think the sights, I think the patients there were he wasn’t used to it, he just wasn’t used to it. He just wasn’t used to it and he seemed to think well I I can’t do it and George Morley can and he didn’t, he didn’t really inspect us. But any rate, at Halton, at East Grinstead we were put in to Ward Three and we, it was a great leveller. A great leveller, Ward Three. There were quite a few Battle of Britain pilots in there and there was, there was no, nobody was rank conscious there. We all, they looked at, the commissioned people looked at us wondering and we looked at them wondering but the way Archibald McIndoe treated us all it soon, it soon cancelled out any, any rank consciousness and I think that made, made it a lot for, for the success but I had about, all in all I had about twenty nine operations. And there, I always remember there was a flying, flying officer, I think it was a Flying Officer Burton. He did a pinch graft on me. That’s where they took a little piece of skin from the unburnt part of my legs and planted them on the backs of my thighs which had been badly burned. A pinch graft. But that was his first operation and I believe he went on, well I mentioned his name since they, and people said he became quite a big name in plastic surgery. But as I say I had twenty five, twenty six, twenty nine operations and, but the big, the thing about it is Archibald McIndoe did not like, did not like authority poking its nose in and he was very much, he was very much for the saying, making you not feel conscious, self-conscious and he railed, ranted at people of East Grinstead to treat them normally which they did do. Then after a while they, when they were getting fairly active we went out to industry to mix, to mix with other people. I went to Kelvin Bottomley and Bairds who were instrument makers down at Basingstoke for three months. Then I went to, then you go back to hospital then for three months and then another three months I went to Carter, I don’t know, at Wembley and we did that just to get us acclimatised to meeting and we did work too. Acclimatised to meeting people and getting, getting, stopping from being self-conscious. But of course at these places people rather looked upon you as heroes kind of thing and it made you feel not, because they did it, it made you not conscious of what you looked like to them and from there on I came out. I went back to my old job as, well I do know, a big thing Archibald McIndoe did, while I was in East Grinstead, while I was in East Grinstead hospital the chaps came down from, as it was a, came down from ministry, air ministry to try and convince, I don’t know whether it was convince, whether we should go out under a pension or stay in. They tried to encourage some people to go out so they didn’t have to pay. One always thinks nasty thoughts about but it was as if they were wanting you to go out to save money but Archibald McIndoe heard about it and stopped it there and then. How could he carry on his, his healing if people weren’t there, back doing their old jobs and from there on I I was, I had an airfield as an airfield controller where I used to be in a caravan at the end of the runway telling aircraft, signalling aircraft a green light whether it was alright for them to take off or land or a red light if it was caution. Not, not to. And there, in, I don’t know now but there again this airfield, airfield I was at was Ossington, Ossington in Nottinghamshire was taken over for British Overseas Airways to train their pilots on their aircraft and it had been an OTU before that and it was going too well until the boss of British Overseas Airways started to be a bit, a bit bossy and, kind of thing, you know. He was a civilian and we were all air crew, air force and after a while we started answering him back and there was always a feud, a feud going on. And then once, one Friday or Saturday he went away as an airline pilot and came back on Monday as a squadron leader which changed, which changed things a lot. We always seemed to fall out with him and I got a wee bit fed up and I went to the orderly room and in charge of the orderly room was a Flight Sergeant Williamson. He had been in the RAF, or rightly had been in the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War and I said to him, ‘Willy, get me a posting please.’ And he said, ‘I can’t.’ He said, ‘The only way you’ll get away is to apply for a commission,’ So I applied for a commission and somehow I got it and I went to various places and I finished up at Cosford but I got this commission and I went to various places overseas. I was at Blackbushe Airport and I went overseas to El Adem and I was on my way to the Far East and I got, we got to Cairo and while we were there the atomic bomb was dropped so my posting to the Far East was scrubbed and I was posted up to, to Italy and I was at Poppiano, just by Vesuvius and Pompeii there and while I was there my padre took me up to Rome and we had a, he was a Czechoslovakian, Australian Czechoslovakian and he was going back to Australia and he still had a friend up in Rome I think, who later became Cardinal Knox who went to Perth in Australia and they got us , they got us an audience with the pope there. And another funny thing is we were out in Cairo. We had one night. We thought that we were going to be posted. One of us went down to Wadi al Far, one went to Malta and I was going to Italy.
Other: Do you want a refill or anything? More tea or coffee.
CB: I was –
Other: Yes? No? Sure.
CB: Yes please.
DO: I was going to Italy and we had a wee bit of a silly night on the junior officer’s club on on the Nile. One chap who I shouldn’t have said it but he did get on my nerves. He was always talk. Talk. Talk. Full of. He went out of Wadi Hal Far, one of them went to, the accounting officer went to Malta and I went to El Adem on my way back to, on my way to Poppiano and when I was demobbed I was flown back to Cosford to be, and I was, it was a bit foggy in the morning and when I woke up there was the, the fellow who I’d been drinking with on the, in the officer’s club, the fellow who annoyed me. I heard his voice and of course he had been demobbed at the same time. He came back and I even, I later joined the ministry of aircraft, Ministry of Civil Aviation as a controller and I went to various airfields. I went to Glasgow, Shetland, Wick, Inverness and then I came back down south and that’s where I flew. Roughly what happened.
CB: In what year did you retire then Desmond?
DO: ‘47.
CB: 1947. From the ministry.
DO: No.
CB: Or demob was ‘47.
DO: From the air force.
CB: Yeah.
DO: To the ministry.
CB: Ok. We’ll stop there a mo. Thank you.
[machine pause]
DO: They’d heard, everybody’s was blown, the aircraft was blown up.
CB: When you were pranged they thought it -
DO: Yeah. They thought -
CB: Yeah.
DO: As always your kit was rifled.
CB: Oh.
DO: By your colleagues.
CB: Oh right.
DO: And -
CB: Because they thought you were all, all dead.
DO: But everything was so disorganised there. I’ve got the thing, I’ve got somewhere, I wrote to the RAF, RAF records and they wrote that back and they gave me the obvious when I joined but then they said after that there’s nothing. Everything just terribly disorganised. In fact Limavady was a disaster. It really was.
CB: Did you keep in touch later with the other members of your crew?
DO: No. I attempted to. Stan Dawney the first wireless operator, he tried to, he tried to pat me out and he burned, he singed his hands but he was a nice chap. My rear gunner. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten his name. I’ve got his photograph somewhere. But my pilot, my first pilot was a very much an [stress] officer in the auxiliary air force. And he was very very rich. His father was a big potato man. And I’ve got, in fact he wrote, he had his -
Other: Is that the man that sent an account of your accident and you thought hmmn that’s a funny viewpoint? Dad.
CB: Ay?
Other: Is that the man that sent you an account of the accident that was in some journal and you thought, hmmn [laughs]. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where it is.
CB: We’re just pausing for a mo.
[machine pause]
CB: The pilot was Pilot Officer John Dickson of 502 squadron. There’s a, an article here.
DO: He was a -
CB: On a wing and a prayer.
Other: Oh if it’s -
DO: The thing about his, he never came to briefing and -
VT: Handy.
DO: He always, he always turned up, he always turned up in, his WAAF always drove him in a low car, drove him up to the aircraft when we, just before we took off. And -
CB: He was relying on the second pilot for the briefing was he?
DO: Chris Carmichael. Nice fella. I can’t think where it is now but his, his biography was written by somebody in Belfast and he sent me a copy of it and asked me to, asked me to write my autobiography and he -
CB: Oh yes.
DO: But that is the stories are -
CB: Other?
CB: I’m just stopping again.
[machine pause]
DO: My squadron.
CB: Oh you haven’t been in contact with any of the squadron.
DO: We didn’t know each other. We didn’t have a sergeant’s mess so the only ones, the only things to do in Limavady was go to the Alexandra Hotel or go to, they had one cinema and the pictures used to change every, every Wednesday there and that’s all there was to do.
CB: ‘Cause it was in the middle of nowhere.
DO: No. Nothing to do. Terrible. Terrible.
CB: So did you try to do things as a crew?
DO: No. No. No.
CB: Why was that do you think?
DO: Well it seemed to, certainly we wouldn’t have done anything with the commissioned type but we were all, I don’t know but they would say there was absolutely nothing to do. It was a little village. A little village.
Other: Who was Mr Redhead?
DO: Ay?
Other: Who was Mr Redhead?
DO: He was the, he was the second wireless operator.
Other: You kept in contact with him for a bit though.
DO: No. He kept in contact with me.
Other: Oh you enjoyed hearing from him I’m sure.
CB: We’re just stopping again because you deserve a slurp of your coffee.
[machine paused]
CB: So we’re restarting now and I’m asking Desmond about what happened. So the aircraft’s down, the grass is on fire, the ground is on fire.
DO: Yeah.
CB: How did you feel then?
DO: Well you felt a bit numb really. All you wanted to do, you wanted to get to safety, to help but I don’t think, I don’t think I thought anything, anything dramatic or - [pause]. I don’t know. All I wanted to do was to get somewhere to get er, because it was, it was very cold so all my, were all frozen so I didn’t, I don’t think I once ever felt sorry for myself. I don’t think -
CB: So this was, when was this exactly? What date?
DO: What? The crash?
CB: Yeah. February ‘42. Because it was very cold.
DO: Yeah. I should know it shouldn’t I?
CB: Yeah. Ok. We’ll come back to that. What were the extent of your burns?
DO: Well. Just before, we, we were issued with these American flying jackets. They were leather from there to there.
CB: From the waist right up.
DO: Yeah. And leather flying boots which were from there to there. Other than that I was burnt. Burnt. But in fact I was very lucky actually that if I hadn’t had those I would have, I think they helped me. Even when I went, as far as I was concerned, well I know as a fact that I walked. I walked down the side of this hill to the farmhouse and they didn’t carry me, they didn’t lift me. I walked. As I said there were peat, peat trenches dug. We kept falling down those and going ha ha kind of thing but I think the shock was, was, numbed any feeling at all.
CB: At what stage did you begin to feel the pain?
DO: I don’t know because once, once I was bandaged you didn’t feel the pain I’m sure. I’m sure.
CB: But you were bandaged. When? -
DO: Well, as soon as I got to the hospital I just -
CB: So that was quite a while.
DO: It was three to four hours I should think but the, I still think I had a lot to thank the weather for. That it -
CB: So your hands, arms and your head were badly burned.
DO: Yeah.
CB: Where was the worst burn and pain?
DO: Oh the hand, the worst of the lot on, on operations is when they bandage your hands. They put tight bandages on to force the join, force the, I mean all these are, all these are force. Are all -
CB: All the joints.
DO: Yeah, and they, I mean once it starts moving it’s broken the seal so they put these very, very, very, and your fingers swell a bit too.
CB: Is this gauze that they are -
DO: Yes.
CB: Do they use gauze to, to bind the hand?
DO: Sorry?
CB: What sort of material. Is it gauze or - ?
DO: What do they call those -
CB: Elastic bandages.
DO: Yes.
CB: Right.
DO: And they put them on.
CB: Surgical dressings.
DO: Yeah. No. That was the, that any part and on the legs too where they put on and it was yeah having to be careful for a fortnight to three weeks. I had, I had three chins but there again it’s one of those things. Once you have food you start moving the, and I mean I was warned that give up eating for three weeks.
CB: What were they feeding you with? Soup?
DO: Yeah. Yeah. You didn’t like that because it made you feel an invalid. It was the same with the ears and these ears are plastic surgery. They become part, there was skin put on and there was bandaged behind and a very, very tight bandage put. The thing about it is this was early on plastic surgery and they were finding out what not to do later. No. We were, we were very early on in, in Archibald McIndoe’s success quite frankly because he was, I’m sure he was making lots of, inverted commas, lots of mistakes which he remedied later.
CB: Yes. The date was the 27th of April 1941. I was a year too late. So -
DO: That’s when I pranged.
CB: Yes. So that means it was the really early days of -
DO: Yeah.
CB: His activities.
DO: Oh very. Plastic surgery. Very early.
CB: And how did you feed yourself or did they feed you to begin with?
DO: No. Again I don’t know if it was done purposely but all our nurses were very, very attractive and you wanted to show them, show off to them how tough you were. We don’t need your help. It was very, I was [?] you know one who, so I was [she?] spooned soup with a toothpick you know. Some wonderful characters. Wonderful characters.
CB: So you were in a ward. How many people in the ward?
DO: There was, when we started Ward Three at East Grinstead. There was there and there was a dozen beds there on that ward but that ward was knocked down and, because it was all the sergeants were getting in there, all the, and overseas pilots and McIndoe didn’t like it, he had the ward, and he purposely, he purposely made sure that, ‘cause he was, he was a bit of, I don’t know if he ever had any trouble with other people but he was very conscious about mixing. Mixing. And he was very successful. Very successful.
CB: And so how about in your recuperation because your legs are burned as well as your hands and your face? How did you manage to get yourself comfortable?
DO: That was one of the actually, actually I think it was possibly that I did myself quite a bit of no good but it was only if I asked that person for assistance they’d think I’m a cissy. I can’t do it. So you’d want to show how tough you were and no, a lot of it quite frankly, quite frankly the patients there at East Grinstead did a lot for themselves psychologically and physically by not giving in. Did not give in.
CB: And how did they entertain you? Because some people like you couldn’t move for a bit.
DO: We had, we had various people used to come down on the Sundays but there were two, there were two cinemas in East Grinstead and they both changed their films on Wednesday so you had four films a week, kind of thing. And the one hindsight, the one bad thing was if you went to a pub for a drink you’d never have to buy it yourself which was a bad thing because it it tempted you to drink more and the big thing in the RAF hospitals, in service hospitals they used to have a blue uniform. Well, I don’t know if it’s a uniform but blue trousers and a blue, blue jacket. A white shirt. And if you were, if you were not a bit brains or something a red tie then you was in and of course no publican was allowed to serve anybody in a blue uniform. Now, McIndoe found this out and he kept all of us in uniform. He kept one blue suit for punishment and it was only one bloke, old Jonah, great fella. He was, he had to wear it for a while but that’s -
CB: What had he done to deserve that?
DO: I don’t know. He could have done anything. He was, he was bonkers. Great fella. Great fella.
CB: So you’ve got all these people with different experiences. To what extent did you share your experiences?
DO: Nobody.
CB: That’s what I thought.
DO: Nobody talked about what happened.
CB: Right.
DO: Nobody. Because you were always afraid that they’d outdone you.
CB: Sure.
DO: So you could let yourself down rather.
CB: Yeah. So what was the main topic of conversation if there was one?
DO: There really wasn’t one. Usually talked about funny incidents and Archibald McIndoe, I presume it was him got, got work for us to do in the, I mean there was a mix. Little handy jobs that you used to do to keep you. One thing was to keep the fingers going and the other thing for to keep your brain, brain ticking over but actually we were, we were very lucky because it was quite easy for, quite easy for not thinking at all.
CB: The danger I suppose was, was it, that the mind and was not exercised?
DO: Well just stagnate.
CB: Yeah.
DO: You got up. You had, you had meals given to you. You had people to come in, nurses to fuss over you and it was very tempting just to lie back and let them do everything.
CB: And as part of the activities did you have singsongs and somebody on the piano or what happened?
DO: No. There was, there was a piano in Ward Three for a while and Archibald McIndoe used to come and play it but that was all that -
CB: And what about beer on the ward?
DO: It was said and I don’t, I did not notice it, I did not experience it that they had beer on the ward. Now, I didn’t see but I can imagine for one occasion but it’s always that that was remembered.
CB: Yes.
DO: I can’t believe it but –
CB: They didn’t want you rolling out of bed.
DO: No. No. No. It wasn’t much. I used to have lunch and then half a dozen of you used to walk down to the cinema and you’d come back just in, just in time for tea, you see. It was a shocking life. In hindsight it was a shocking life.
CB: The, the cinema was on the camp was it or was it in -
DO: No. No. There was two. The Whitehall theatre and where, we had, we had our, we had our original, where we had our, our foundation of the Guinea Pig Club dinner there at the Whitehall Cinema and the radio centre. So there were two cinemas, two shows a week, different films. So just went. We, we had one pilot learning German and the young lady, a very, very attractive lady sat on a bed and crossed her legs and, and she had quite a class going. I remember the haben sie? Est is gut. Est is se gut but she, she gave us, she was running quite a popular, very popular class so suddenly she gave up and oh dear we got an old hausfrau came in and took her place and the class disintegrated.
CB: I wonder what signal that was?
DO: Terrible.
CB: What did you have to do to qualify to go out to the pub?
DO: Nothing at all but you didn’t, you didn’t risk being gated. No. Because the thing about is if you went down to the pub everybody wanted to buy you a drink and after a while it used to be embarrassing actually to refuse it.
CB: Did you have an escort with you?
DO: No.
CB: No.
DO: No.
CB: So what was the reaction of the local population?
DO: The, as I say McIndoe somehow, I don’t know, he did it, he got it broadcast in this little town, do not stare, and people were very, no, people in East Grinstead helped an awful lot because they didn’t, they didn’t cringe or anything at all like that.
CB: You said you had twenty nine operations.
DO: Yeah.
CB: How did that work as a sequence?
DO: I think, I think, I think that time available was it. If, if he had an hour to spare, ‘Who wants, who wants that slot?’ And if you were, he’d look at what’s got to be done in an hour and he said, ‘Right. I’ll take him down and do his hands and do his,’ I think, I think it was a lot like that.
CB: So we’re talking about ‘41 is when the crash took place. When did you eventually leave hospital?
DO: [pause] It was three and a bit years.
CB: So it’s nearly the end of the war.
DO: When did I crash?
CB: ’41.
CB: April ’41.
DO: I suppose early ‘43 I presume because I came out of the service in ‘46. Was it? And, and I don’t know. I wouldn’t hazard a guess.
CB: Well let’s say it was ‘43. What did you do in the rest of the war in the RAF?
DO: Well I was on airfield control where you were at the caravan at the end of the runway and you had a red light and a green light and if you saw a, you gave, if an aircraft was waiting to take off, if it was all clear out there you gave them a green light. If there was an aircraft coming in you gave a green light. If something suddenly happened, a lorry, you’d give them a red light and that was your job and at the airfield at Ossington they were doing, it was an OTU, Operational Training Unit prior to going on operations you were fairly well up all night doing, doing it.
CB: And what vehicle are you in because it’s a mobile unit?
DO: Yeah.
CB: You’re at the end of the runway.
DO: A caravan.
CB: Right.
DO: A caravan.
CB: Which is black and white boxes.
DO: Black and white squares.
CB: Yeah. Squares. Yeah.
DO: And you used to have a meal brought out to you in a, in a hay box at night.
CB: So a lot of the time you were a sergeant. Did you go to flight sergeant before you were commissioned?
DO: Yeah. I was, I was a flight sergeant.
CB: And what prompted the commissioning?
DO: Well, as I say it was British Overseas Airways. Their fellow in charge was a, we suddenly realised he wasn’t in the service so we could say [?]. So when he was given a temporary squadron leader it was then we started, instead I went to Flight Sergeant Williamson and said, ‘Get me a posting,’ and all he could do he said, and it showed you how hard up they were. ‘All you can do is apply for a commission,’ so I applied and got it.
CB: And what training did you get to become an officer?
DO: You had the Officers’ Training School. It was mainly physical. A little bit learning about RAF law but not really much. It was really conditioning you to be in charge of men. As you’ve never, you’ve always been in charge, you’ve always been in charge of and cut out any slovenly habits you’ve got and things like that.
CB: Can I just go back to the operations? How did you feel about this sequence because there’s an awful lot of them so where, of operations, twenty nine. Were you looking forward to them? In dread of it? Or what were you feeling?
DO: Oh no. No. No. No. Not at all. I don’t think I ever, was ever apprehensive about what was done. I don’t think so. Maybe. You always thought, you always thought what they had to do was for you. It was for your betterment.
CB: Ok. Finally changing the subject. When did you meet your wife and where.
DO: She’s my second wife. My first wife I was at Glasgow, I was at Inverness. I was in charge of Inverness airport and she, my first wife worked in teleprinters [?] and up there she was from Elgin which was thirty miles up the road. She was a catholic. I was a catholic. We met going to mass and we got married there and we had five children. And she died of cancer.
CB: Oh.
DO: Then I got around, I finished up at London airport and my present wife was was an air, an air traffic assistant there and we had nothing to do so we got married. We had two children. Well we, we’ve been very unlucky. Two of our girls were killed in accidents.
CB: Dreadful. What was your first wife’s name?
DO: Renee. Renee Patterson. A great Scottish dancer.
CB: Oh. And your current wife. What was her -
DO: She was Winifred.
CB: Last name.
DO: Freaks. F R E A K E S.
CB: Ok. Right. Thank you very much indeed.
[machine pause]
CB: That was really interesting. So your accident -
DO: Did I tell you about the accident? We were after the [pause] Bismarck. We were after the Bismarck.
CB: Yes. You did. How much flying had you done at that point?
DO: It must have been over a hundred hours. I was, I was, I was very conceited about that flying because I flew with no aids, you had to keep WT silence and I wasn’t astro navigation conscious and -
CB: Did you use a sextant?
DO: No. As I say we didn’t, hadn’t, no, you used to take, used to use a bomb sight and take your drift on air waves, on wave tops. I thought I was very good and -
CB: Before the accident did you engage any German submarines or surface ships?
DO: Well, in fact the Germans had a great big old aircraft also out on patrol.
CB: The Condor.
DO: I don’t. But if you, if you saw one there was a race. He, if you saw you there was a race to get in to the clouds so you didn’t see each other.
CB: Oh right.
DO: I think it was the Condor.
CB: Yeah. The Focke Wulf Condor.
DO: Yeah.
CB: But you didn’t do any attacks on surface vessels or submarines then?
DO: On suspect. Yeah. You didn’t, wasn’t conscious of anything.
CB: Who was running the air to surface radar? On the aircraft? On the Whitley?
DO: It was installed in the aircraft but there was an awful lot of guesswork in it.
CB: Yes. But who operated the system?
DO: It was installed in the aircraft. It, I think the system was installed as a box.
CB: But somebody was operating the system and looking at the screen.
DO: Oh we were.
CB: You were or the wireless operator.
DO: Well anybody but somebody was.
CB: Right. Ok. Anything else?
VT: No. That’s fine.
[machine paused]
DO: Not long, not long after I crashed.
VT: Yeah.
DO: As I say the fellas had nothing to do. They came to the hospital and told us that the Bismarck had been sunk.
VT: Yeah.
DO: But the navy were after it anyway.
VT: Yeah. And you know the story of that do you?
DO: No.
VT: Oh right.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Desmond O'Connell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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