Interview with Basil Ambrose


Interview with Basil Ambrose


Basil Ambrose was born in Reading. He left school at fourteen and became an apprentice turner. He joined the Royal Air Force in May 1942 and trained as a turner before transferring to aircrew as a flight engineer. He trained at RAF St Athan, and completed thirty operations on Lancasters with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. In 1945 he was posted to 617 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa. He left the RAF in October 1946, and returned to his apprenticeship. He retired as Chief Safety Adviser for Greater London Council in 1981.




Temporal Coverage




01:11:15 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today we are in Tilehurst, near Reading, and the date is 29th of June 2016 and we are talking to Basil George Ambrose of 267 Squadron about his experiences in the war and we’ve also got here together with us Christine Parkes, his daughter. So Basil, what are the earliest recollections you have on life and tell us from there?
BA: First may I correct you?
CB: Yes—
BA: 617 Squadron —
CB: oh 617 Squadron —
CP: And 467, and 467.
BA: I was in — I’ll carry on then —
CB: Yes. OK. 617. Fire.
BA: We‘ll start with my birth—
CB: Yes, yeah, yeah —
BA: in Derby Street, Reading,
CB: Yes —
BA: on 24th of the sixth 1923. Well, you’ve got all that haven’t you? Sorry. And I was fifth, if you like, but my father was married twice. He had, he was a fine man who’d seen the war and had a wife that became [unclear]. She had four children with him. Horace was the eldest, no beg pardon, Doris was the eldest, Horace was next and they were both born in 1910, one at the beginning and one at the end. And Graham was next. She was, er, no — anyway Bernard was the last and it was 1915. But my father was brought back from the trenches [unclear]. He was in the Royal Ordinance, no, Royal Army Service Corps. So he was surprised in other words and he was sent home to put his family together when his wife left the children. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, I suppose. But anyway, he did a very, very good job of putting them together. He left them in charge of his mother, who was a very strict disciplinarian, and they saw the war through. But of course, he had to find somebody [unclear] to love and look after his children, which was my mum, and I was born in 1923. And the first memories I have in Waverley Road is of a doctor calling for, I don’t know for what reason. And we had seven Alsatians in a very nice wooden kennel, if you like, big, big kennel, and you could go in there and I grabbed the Doctor following me (Doctor Milne was our doctor for many, many, years) and diving in there was seven Alsatian puppies and they were all over me. So that was one of my best memories. And my other memory is, the garden was surrounded with cages of rabbits, rats, chickens [unclear]. It was, what you’d call it? A menagerie and most of them liked by the older children. I was too young to appreciate it. I suppose I can think, I was about, I must have been about the age of four when we moved to Waverley Road, in West Reading. In a big five-bedroom house, which was very, very suitable for a lot of jokes and pranks. I can even remember climbing on the roof out of the attic ‘cause my younger brother Gerald, who was the only other child of my mother, he was about four years younger than me and, can we stop for a second? And yes we had lots of fun there. I remember we were in an attic, Gerald and I, and we shared the same bed. I had an uncle who was looked after by my mother, her brother in fact, her eldest brother, and he used to work at the AEC in Southall and caught a very early train. So he used to get up very early and go to bed when he came home to ‒ and always had his curry [laugh]. [background noises] The er — Yes, so, I’m lost.
CB: Caught his train.
BA: Yes, yes. Very early train up to [Ealing]. The story is, my brother Gerald came running along the passageway to the end bedroom where I was, I suppose, and Uncle Harry came out, because he, having woken up having worked all night, and slapped Gerald across the face, which was not very good really. But anyway, these are snippets of memories, I suppose. And the other thing that is my brother Horace was a real prankster. We had a, my mother had a, er, Mongol, Mongolian, do you’d call it?
CP: Mongol.
BA: Mongol sister. She was a very, very, nice person. She used to nurse me and look after me but Horace took advantage of her. He used to invite friends in and then go and get a kitchen knife and give it to her and say ‘go and fight them’ you see and she knew exactly. She would be going in the room saying ‘Nicky, nicky, nicky’ [slight laugh] and mainly they were his friends of course and they would jump out of the window, on the ground floor of course. The memories come flooding back. The other thing is, my eldest brother had a very, very nice bicycle, a racing bike, which he gave to me when he went in the Navy. ‘Cause my Dad decided that it was going to be too much for my Mum to look after four of them, me and when Gerald was coming along I think that was the trigger that caused the break-up of the family. So, where are we now? Yes, the garden was walled all the way round. There was a greenhouse at the bottom with a storage room next door to it. There was an alleyway that went right round the back of the houses in Beecham Road. We could get over that wall into this alleyway, although we didn’t have a right of way. Everybody else did. Because we were at the end, we were not on the right of way. And I used to hop over and go into Beecham Road that way. The other thing I remember are the things that Dad made for me. He made me a beautiful pedal car and other things like that, he was very good. He was the stage manager at The Palace Theatre, Reading, by the way, and was there from 1906, away from the war of course, the Great War, and he used to get complimentary tickets which he could swap with people like the Reading Football Ground. They had given him a season ticket which I could use on occasions.
CB: So, where did you go to school?
BA: Wilson Road, Wilson Road School, which was right by the football ground. The top of Wilson Road came out by the football ground and then it was up Wantage Hill to the top of Waverley Road, left to Prospect Park and right to our house, 137.
CB: What age did you leave school?
BA: Fourteen. Fourteen. I wasn’t very good. A sickly boy, I think. I had, what do you call it? Bronchial catarrh. I suppose I was kept at home on more than one occasion. And the other thing I remember is having a friend, Dick Chandler, whose father had a post office at the bottom of Norcot Road and the Oxford Road. Quite a busy post office and grocery shop as well, and he was able to tell me what to do for [laugh] getting out (well I didn’t get the buckshee) to go in and tell the lady, Miss Bacon (a nice little lady with a tiny little shop opposite the school), ‘Tell her you put a penny in the chewing gum machine and you couldn’t get anything out’. So she used to give you — she gave me [emphasis] this chewing gum, but of course it was found out, obviously I got caught, and I had to pay for it, go and apologise. Fair enough. I don’t think it crossed my mind [laugh] the way I misled her, I suppose. And the other occasion was my brother Horace had a very, very good catapult which he allowed me to borrow one day so I take it to school and I was showing off, I suppose I was boasting really. Dick said ‘let me have a go with it’. Just coming out of school. I said ‘No, no. We’ll get into trouble’. Sure enough he managed to persuade me. He got himself a stone and fired it over towards the [unclear] back gardens and I heard a crash, and obviously a window being broken. Probably it wouldn’t have been found out but for the fact the caretaker’s house was right by the playground and he’d seen us do it. We were — So we had six each, six strokes of the cane. We had the catapult confiscated. I paid for the window. It was any amount of punishment. My dad was a bit furious about this, thought it had gone over the top. I should have been punished but within reason, which was justifiable, I suppose.
CB: You left school at fourteen. What did you do then?
BA: I went to the Pulsometer. I got a job, an apprenticeship, as a turner. That was 1937 and you had to pay, pay for this, these indentures, and the only thing I could do was pay half crown a week. I got five shillings a week pay and I paid half a crown a week for the indentures. It was a good training, very good training. I went — And it was very beneficial to me in the finish because when I was called up (and this is jumping the gun, sorry, let me go back). I did try to get in to the ‒ I went to get into the Navy and they said ‘You’re too young.’ then I was told by the firm I was in a reserved occupation. I was quite useful to them really because I’d already got about, how many years’ experience? Two and a half years’, three years’ probably experience, in training. It was good training. [Pause] Oh yes, yes, yes, when you had the call up everybody had to do it, at the age of eighteen? And they saw I was in a reserve occupation and wouldn’t be able to go and the officer, he was an RAF officer, who was interviewing, he said ‘Well you can,’ he said, ‘come in in your own trade and then remuster when you’re there to what you want to do’. Which was a great benefit to me because I went in May ’42? (I can’t read it.) Yes, it was May ’42 when I went in. I’m jumping a bit like a frog.
CB: It’s OK.
BA: One of the first persons I met at Cardigan, Cardigan [coughs] where new recruits had to go first of all and get the uniforms [unclear]
CB: Was it Cardington?
BA: Cardington. Yep.
CB: Right
BA: Well, the first person I should meet, because you had to go and get your hair cut, was Johnny Good, my barber —
CB: [laugh] —
BA: from Tilehurst and, er, [slight laugh] ‘cause you get sent back immediately on the next parade by the sergeant ‘go and get your hair cut’. Well this would go on several times but Johnny just said ‘Don’t take any notice of him, you’re alright’ he said to me and I didn’t, and it was perfectly all right. But anyway, [pause] so where am I?
CB: So, you’re at Cardington and you’re getting kitted out and getting your hair cut.
BA: Yes, I suppose yes, and then going on to do the square bashing at Skegness was the first place and then to Weeton, in-between Preston and Blackpool, and there as a turner, a trainee turner, and I took a trade test and passed out with flying colours and the only person who did it like that was another man from the Pulsometer. Which made me feel it was one of the best training schemes there was and although he wasn’t an apprentice like I was, he was a, what they call a shop boy, much the same, he did exactly the same as I did really. But it was good training. Started off very small, drilling, and working your way up to big machines, and then, as I say, when war was declared I became an instructor for the dilutees [emphasis] that came in. People were needed for the trades during the war. Pulsometer made a lot of pumps. Still going by the way, still there, Sigmund Pulsometer Pumps. Still around. [pause]
CB: So, you’ve just done your trade training —
BA: Oh yes —
CB: and that’s all on the ground, so then what?
BA: I passed out as a LAC [emphasis].
CB: Ah!
BA: Ah! And so instead of getting two shillings a day I was getting six and six a day. I always allowed my mum a shilling a day allowance —
CB: Yep.
BA: always right the way through. I can’t remember when I stopped it. I think when I got my commission she said I would need it, all my money. I think she turned it down. Anyway, so now I’m trained as a turner. Oh yes, I was posted to Sealand. Because you have to then, of course, have to apply for aircrew and I can’t quite remember quite how I did that but I did it and I had to, I think I did work one machine at Sealand (which was near Chester by the way). It was a very, very pleasant time there, very, very pleasant. Nice river, salmon leap all those sort of things.
CB: So from Sealand, having applied for aircrew, where did they send you?
BA: Well I, first of all, went back ‒ oh I’m missing the other bit out. I first of all went back to ACRC in Regents Park from Sealand, and this is the only time I’d be wearing a white flash. I can’t really remember that bit. Anyway, I must have done and there were, of course, all these people coming in, new recruits, and I was an experienced airman by then. Er — what happened? Oh yes, square bashing again, that was Bridlington [unclear]. So, Bridlington.
CB: Yep. It was an ITW? Initial Training Wing, was it?
BA: Well, I suppose so, but they wouldn’t know that I’d already been —
CB: No, obviously —
BA: trained at Skegness and done square bashing, but there of course was a Sergeant Steele, Flight Sergeant Steele. Blond hair, blond moustache, oh a fine looking chap he was. Not all that tall but a real first class airman. And I was fairly tall myself, not curved like I am now, and I was always their marker? Right marker?
CB: Right marker. Yeah.
BA. So everybody dressed on me. And our squad was right at the back. I don’t know how many squads there were, quite a lot, and I, we were doing the guard march, which you have to do right a bit, then left a bit, always face the front. And the girls were on the pavement right by where we were marching and everyone was far away from us, so I was chatting to the girls and forgot to turn right instead of left a bit [laughs] and so my squad was the only squad going that way and everybody else ‒[laughs]. He called me out to the front. Never, never get called to the front because once they know your name you are for it [laugh]. And every demonstration he wanted, he always called my name. I always had to go out and do it. I was not bad, I couldn’t have been that bad otherwise he wouldn’t have used me as an example. But it was a big, big error, a big mistake. What else? And of course, from there, as I say, to Weeton. At that time they took off the reserved occupation of the police force and the policemen poured into there. I remember these wooden huts, quite nice huts there were really, quite comfortable. I’d be lying awake at night listening to these policemen tell their stories and they were pretty vivid. A lot of them were Metropolitan policemen. And all sorts of things I’d never heard before in my life I heard there. And then from there down to St Athan I suppose. I can’t think of anything else. I went all the way down there [sound of shuffling papers].
CB: Do you want to stop for a mo’?
BA: Thank you.
CB: Now, we were just talking about St Athan. You went to St Athan for your flight engineer training?
BA: Yes.
CB: So what did you do there?
BA: All manner, hydraulics, pneumatics, all of the things I was a bit weak on I suppose, but yes general maintenance of the engines, and we went all over the engines. In fact I went to Woodford in, er, Manchester?
CB: Yep, where they built the Lancasters —
BA: And I had a week there I think. Yes
CB: That’s alright. So how long were you doing your training at St Athan?
AB: Until, until about D Day because the thing that makes me recall this is the fact that a friend of the family’s, Stan Abbot. Stan Abbot. He’d been in the RAF for many, many years. He was a, flight engineer, not a flight engineer, flying officer, no, no, that’s not right —
CP: Don’t worry, we’ll come back.
BA: Tut, terrible, terrible. Anyway he was a test pilot at St Athan, because they maintained aircraft as well there. He was going to take a Beaufighter up to test it and said would I like to go up with him, which I did [laugh], much to my chagrin, because I was stood behind his seat and he would throw this Beaufighter all over the sky. I could feel the G forces forcing me down on the seat. And then whilst we were doing this it was over the Bristol Channel, I had a chance to see, there was a line of ships, merchant ships [cough] nose to tail, all the way as far as you could see towards the Bristol Channel, right up — [unclear] it was the Bristol Channel. And right up as far as you could see the other way as well. So I realised that something was on but didn’t know what. [Pause]. Anyway, that was my first experience of flight, realising that something was going to go on soon, and what happened then? I was posted to ‒
CB: Is that when you went to the HCU at Swinderby, straight after that, or did they send you somewhere else?
BA: Somewhere else. Did I go somewhere else? That was right. Yes, that’s right. You go in as a second engineer. And you spent some time ‒ it’s in the log book, isn’t it? Spend some time, with different crews and that’s when I say that Shirley [?] asked me if I’d join them [unclear] can’t see it, and then yes 5 LFS Syerston yes, the next one, and that’s when I got ‒ still not got a pilot’s licence. That’s the squadron. I thought we had a few weeks. That is [emphasis] it. Does that look familiar? LFS? Lancaster —
CB: Lancaster Finishing School. Right, so you went to Syerston, to the Lancaster Finishing School before you—
BA: Where did I go for the —
CB: HCU? Did you go to the HCU first?
BA: Swinderby. Yep, Syerston and Swinderby. Yep. Ok, 1660 HCU.
BA: OK [unclear]
CB: Right, so you are now part of the crew because of the HCU. What happened at the HCU? What did you tend to do when you were at the HCU Basil?
BA: This was the, did I say Stirlings?
CB: Yeah.
BA: Did I say Stirlings [papers shuffling]
CP: Do you want a break?
CB: We’ll have a break while you’re following that.
BA: Fred Ward in the bed next to me.
CB: This is the HCU.
BA: Yes HCU, and he was already an engineer so he had been there some time and I was the second engineer. And, they’d obviously, they’d obviously got some trouble with the undercarriage and he was winding it down and there was a pilot error so I understand, and he was killed. He was killed. As I say, he was in the bed next to me and we used to chat together. I remember that he’d told me he’d been up to Lincoln to get some photographs taken. I’ve got one in the album somewhere ‒
CP: Here, don’t worry now —
Ba: Anyway, yes, so his name was Fred —
CB: Fred Ward. This is Stirlings, we’re talking about.
BA: Yes, yes, That’s right. So he was killed at Swinderby and —
CB: Because the pilot made a mistake.
BA: Yes, I think so. I’m not sure that anyone else got killed. It was only because he was winding up the undercarriage I think. Not sure. Anyway, I go into Lincoln and find the photographer who’d taken these pictures. So, I collected them. I get his address, home address, and take them to his family, which I did and they were extremely grateful. They gave me one of the pictures. It’s in the album somewhere. Yes, so very sad that was. Made me hate the Stirling, hated it, but it was supposed to have been one of the best aircraft going except in fact, so they say, is that the wingspan was reduced by a hundred feet to get it in the hangar.
CB: Not a hundred feet but reduced yes, reduced to a hundred feet.
BA: And it spoilt it, I think.
CB: Yes, it couldn’t get any height.
BA: It was good at towing gliders, I think.
CB: Absolutely.
BA: So where am I?
CB: We’re at the HCU.
BA: Did we go somewhere else? No? Yes, we had to pick up the Lancasters didn’t we?
CB: That’s when you went to the Lancaster Conversion Unit. No, Lancaster ‒
CB: The Lancaster Flying School.
BA: Yes, OK. That was at Syerston. The first thing I saw there was a Lancaster in the Trent with the engines [unclear]. Must have overshot or didn’t take off properly. Yes, so then we go to Waddington as a crew. Yeah, and I was pleased [emphasis] that the first operation we had was in support of the British Army, which was going up towards Brussels and were being held up by guns on the, by the Walcheren. We were sent to breach the dykes and very successfully. There’s a book by Paul Crooks. Which I’ve got two, I’ve got two of his books. He was a Dutchman. They are Dutch, aren’t they? And he said that they never blamed the crews, never blamed the crews. But we flooded these islands successfully, but it didn’t put the guns out of action because all the guns were on high ground —
CB: Yeah, right —
BA: and so we were sent the following day to go for the guns. So that was our first two raids and both daylight raids and that made me realise that daylight raids were not going to be a sinecure. The pilot was — we flew in formation, I believe. Don’t know why, I’m sure. But the pilot said it was hard work. We got there and the cloud base was lower than forecast. We were supposed not to go below four thousand feet but we dropped down. The cloud base under four thousand feet and almost immediately the plane alongside us was hit by ack-ack and went down in flames. I can’t remember the name of the engineer but I did know him. Anyway, we lost a plane almost immediately it came in sight. But we did have a go at the guns, I think it was unsuccessfully. We could have done [unclear], much better, much easier but the pilots wouldn’t have it. [Cough] We’d not done a very successful job. We didn’t go back there again. The next one was of course was our first night raid, Brunswick, and that one is, as I say, the one we should never [emphasis] ever have survived. First night raid, Brunswick. We had a fire in the G circuit, which caught all the curtains around the navigator and round the plot. The blackout curtains, it caught those alight and I had a go at it with the first, nearest extinguisher and that didn’t put it out. [Cough] Started to get it under control but the bomb aimer was stood by with his extinguisher and gave it to me and we successfully — he had another one eventually but I managed to get it out, before it got any worse. But anyway, it was a very useful aid to the navigator. We lost the G circuit. It was, well, a fairly quiet ride from there on [coughs] excuse me.
CB: Why, why was it a raid you shouldn’t have gone on?
BA: Well, [unclear] at the estimated time of arrival, or estimated time at the target, ETA, [coughs] the navigator said ‘Can anybody see any green TIs?’ And I said — I’m the only one probably looking to the port side because the pilot was looking ahead like this and I was looking across in front of him. And I could see these TIs going down some forty odd miles way and I could see them going down. So he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it, go for it!’ and the pilot immediately turned round and headed for it and of course by the time we’d got there the whole force had gone through —
CB: Oh.
BA: and we were over target, totally on our own. Wonderful picture we got, the bomb aimer got because simultaneously ‒ oh, before that, the skipper said ‘No ack-ack, watch out for fighters’. He thought they wouldn’t fire ack-ack if their own fighters were there. And simultaneously the bomb aimer said ‘Bombs away. Bombs gone. Bombs gone’. The gunner at the rear, rear gunner reported a fighter coming in from the port side to the rear. And the searchlights. The major searchlight. What do you call it? Anyway, the main searchlight came on and immediately picked us up. No two ways about it. Bang, straight on to us and then there was an absolute cone of searchlights all around, all on us and the skipper puts the nose down and I understand this is the only, and the classical, way of getting rid of searchlights is to dive. But he said ‘no’ he said ‘I lost control’ (laughs). Sense of humour. Anyway, we dive about five thousand feet, I suppose, and I’m pinned to the roof. I am supposed to help if he is in trouble. If he can’t manage it on his own I’m supposed to try and assist him in some way or other and I can’t. I’m pinned to the ceiling, pinned to the roof of the cabin. And then when he managed, he manages to pull it out and start going, climbing again I’m pinned to the floor [laughs]. Can’t get off the floor. Absolutely pinned —
CB: because it pulls out the G, yeah.
I never felt so useless in all my life. Anyway, we do this a second time, and by that time I think we’d lost the searchlights, and the fighter. We did another, dropped about three thousand feet, and then we went back home at about a thousand, five-hundred feet thereabouts, I’m not sure. Quite on our own. Then on the way, quite clearly we were flying alongside an autobahn and there was, the gunner spots, what he thinks, is an official car, big car with outriders, outside outriders, and they wanted the skipper to let him have a go at him and he said ‘No, no, we’re going home’ and sure enough we did. We were a bit late, but not too late.
CB: T I is target indicator.
BA: Yes.
CB: Yes.
BA: That’s the green ones. Well, you could have reds, greens, and yellows.
CB: Right.
On this occasion they were supposed to be green for bombing. But I understand that the bomb aimer was commended for his photographs. They really saw what happened over Brunswick, which I believe was very, very successful. The only time I ever felt sorry for the Germans was the fact that you could see everything, everything was clearly picked up, close to you. You could see the firemen up the ladders using their hoses. I thought ‘Poor devils’. What did they do to cop this? Whether they did or not I don’t know. Don’t know what side it was. If you were bombing a particular part of town because of railway, or the sidings, whatever. I don’t think it’s in the book, is it? But it was the one raid I think we should never, ever, have come home. If anyone was going to get shot down, it should have been us. No two ways about it. From there on we had a good mixture of raids. We did thirty altogether.
CB: Right. And this is with 467 Squadron? Yeah. Ok. So, thirty ops took you to when? The end of the war?
BA: No, no —
CB: No.
BA: No, no, because we went over to 617 Squadron by the end of the war —
CB: After that. OK, well we’ll pick up on that in a minute. So, then what? After you’d finished the ops, what did you do?
BA: Well the navigator wanted to go with them. No, that’s right, the skipper stopped me — I don’t know when — he stopped me and said ‘Do you want to go to 617 Squadron?’ So I said ‘Yes. If you’re going, yes I’ll go with you’. But the only ones who could go were the rear gunner, (they didn’t curry with the upper gunners nor wireless ops because you had your VHF so, there was the rear gunner, the bomb aimer, navigator, pilot, engineer. Six.
CB: Right.
BA: Anyway. So we go fairly quickly to Woodhall Spa. Was it Woodhall Spa? Yes. Straight away. I go in, I got a commission before that, didn’t I? ‘Cause the pilot got awarded the DFC and I think, yeah, I did instruction. I had to go and do some instruction, things like that, they watchedg me do it, lecture I suppose you’d call it. It was rather convenient because at that time and it was looking like the end of the war was there and people were looking to go as far as they could. [unclear] The Australian Squadron was no better place to go but Australia. [Unclear] I’m dreading the telegraph about this. [Unclear] I used it to advise some of them about getting to Australia, migrating to Australia, which some of them did I think successfully.
CB: When did you come out of the RAF?
BA: October ’46.
CB: Right.
BA: I had to be on reserve for 6 months I think, to April I think it was. So April ’47 I was clear of the RAF. They could call me back any time, day or night within 6 months.
CB: So what rank had you reached as an officer. Were you still a pilot officer or had you got to flight lieutenant?
BA: I was a flying officer by then because that was an automatic promotion I would think, from PO to FO.
CB: Yes, because you were experienced. Ok. So the war ends, you were demobbed. Then what?
BA: Yeah, the war ends. No, when we finished the operations the only ones in the crew of the Aussies were the bomb aimer, the skipper, not the navigator because he’d had a baby at home he’d never seen. So, he wanted to go straight home, which he did. Yes so we go to ‒ how we did it I don’t know. You had to be — you had to have had a tour of operations before you could be accepted by 617 Squadron and we’d done that. So then when we go there, in March, no before that. Anyway, we go to Woodhall Spa and you had to get your bomb aimers exam. Get down to a hundred, a hundred yards before you’re put on ops. Well then of course the end of the war came. No, no, before that we were put on ops twice, but both were cancelled. I suppose because, er, timings were getting short, over run. So they were cancelled. We never flew, much to my disappointment. I’m sure we were going to carry a 10 ton bomb on the same aircraft on both occasions. [cough] It didn’t happen. So I was a bit disappointed. But then the end of the war. The pilots, all the Aussies go and I’m left. The rear gunner’s in a different place to me. I’m in Petwood Hotel, Room 110. That was great. With the little cinema in the woods. Golf course all round. I wasn’t able to play golf at that time. [cough] Yes, so, I’m a spare engineer. I’m [unclear] and then this pilot, this New Zealand pilot, came to the station, Squadron Leader Saxeby, Saxelby. New Zealander. Very experienced I think, especially in digging the tunnel. He was waiting to get in the tunnel when it was discovered. This is at Stalagluft 3B?
CB: Yes, 3B
BA: He never told us anything about this. It was a friend of his that told one of the crew and then, of course, we all began to know about it. Anyway, he never told us that but this chap, Castagnola (it’s in the book), he was a real character, he had a harelip, but he was a good pilot, flying officer. He was on some on the last raids of 617 Squadron. He was on the Berchtesgaden one. Anyway, he asked me if I’d go up as a flight engineer with him and Squadron Leader Saxelby. So I said ‘Yes, I would, and pleased to do it’ and we did a couple of circuits and bumps. He got us to go to the offices, what do you call them, yes offices, flights, flight rooms. Anyway, alongside the hangar there were these rooms.
CB: The crew rooms.
BA: The what?
CB: The crew rooms.
BA: Yes, so I drop in there and Squadron Leader Saxelby said ‘Are you sure you want to go with me?’ I said ‘Yes, of course’ and I think that endeared me to him and so I was the first member of his crew at 617 Squadron. And he, Saxelby, he was B Flight Commander. He actually commanded the aircraft, the Squadron, and I think he flew in Canberras and all sorts of things. In fact, he flew many, many, aircraft (not with me). We went to ‒The Tiger Force was being formed to go to the Far East. Kuala Lumpur we were due to go to, and presumably support the British army there against the Japanese but then of course, the atomic bomb was dropped before we even left. So, we still went but we still went to Digri in India instead. And, as I say, Saxelby was in charge of B Flight and Squadron Leader Ward [?] and Somerby [?], the Canadian Fauquier was the Wing Commander. Fauquier, French Canadian I think he was. He was the Commander of the Squadron. I was following Tait, and then Fauquier, I think. [unclear]
CB: So, that was the end of the war.
BA: Yes, so we go to India. We did a fly past, a victory fly past, because VJ day was over there. As I say, the war had stopped before we got there with the atomic bombs and — sorry [unclear]
CB: It’s OK, we’ve got good background there. So when you left the RAF what did you do?
BA: Oh, I went straight back to getting my indentures at the Pulsometer. I hadn’t completed them and the Government had introduced a scheme where, you could get them if you did four and a half years, not the seven years that the indentures required ‒. So, in any case, I’d had some good experience in the RAF at that time and they did promise to give me a better job than just a turner. Mind you, I was on one of the best lathes. Strangely enough [laughs], I was making parts for aircraft. Turning in parts for aircraft but it was mainly a spindle machine and that was a very skilled job, if you like.
CB: So how did you progress in the —
BA: So then, I’d asked them ‘If I could I do something better?’ because I didn’t want to stay in the workshop, working on the machine, and they said ‘yes, yes, they would’ but when the time came when I finished my apprenticeship I asked them again and they said ‘oh yes, we’ll do something’ but I thought yes this’ll go on and on and on so I just walked out, gave my notice to leave, and I went to Cooks in Reading, who installed milking machines in barns and things like that. Quite an experience but very, very useful. Alfa Laval, I think. Yeah, Alfa Laval Milking Machines. Oh yes, my Dad had a friend called Hughie Graham, whose brother had the land on Silverstone Racecourse. He was farming that and he wanted, oh yeah, he had also this firm, Modern Conveyors at Adderbury. [unclear] Yes, it was Adderbury, and they wanted somebody to erect their dryers which were dual [?] combustion dryers but they were making them. So I had, first of all, down here at Percier-Pratt [?], one drier up there, [unclear] anyway, so next one was Birmingham, Birmingham Industrial Plastics. They wanted four and then another five, so I was there some long time actually, building these industrial driers, big things. In fact they probably caused me to stop smoking [unclear] ‘cause I’d already stopped. I couldn’t get cigarettes so I was trying a pipe. Anyway, somebody caught me [slight laugh] so the pipe goes [unclear] so I smashed two or three pipes so it wasn’t worth it, wasn’t worth doing.
CB: How long did you stay there?
BA: Birmingham? A long time.
CB: No, how long did you stay with Modern Conveyors?
BA: Ah, David was born. We were in a caravan on Colt’s farm.
CP: 1950.
BA: Yes, 1950 and it was when Jean was pregnant with Christine and she said ‘I want to go home, I want to go home’ so we came back to Reading. We were able to bring all we owned. The caravan was parked on the bottom of ‒ Langley side, Langley Hill area, at the bottom of my Dad’s garden. The electricity board had a plot next to us so I could get right down and put the caravan at the bottom.
CB: So, what did you do as your next job?
CP: It was AWRE.
BA: [unclear] Not immediately. That’s right. What happened then? British Estates Services. I think it was the mayor of Reading had this business down here on the Bath Road. Still there, I think, opposite [unclear] somewhere there, or maybe the garage there. Anyway, I went there as a machinist.
CB: What was that called?
BA: British Industrial Estates.
CB: Right OK and then eventually you went to AWRE.
BA: Well, what happened: We were coming up to Christmas and one of the men working in the shop —you were repairing machines, engines, and things like that for earth moving equipment, yes earth moving equipment — and he went to the store and said he was short of a long, long or short, pole I don’t know what. And they accused him of cutting one to fit and then coming to get another and they sacked him and he had four kids, and he was sacked. [unclear] before Christmas. They wouldn’t give him any Christmas pay so they asked me if I’d go and speak to the management and I did. But they were hard nuts. They just said ‘You can all go, if you like’ so we did, we did. And much to my pride, everybody did exactly what they said they would and supported me.
CB: And left.
BA: They all left. And nicest thing I could see was advertisements in the papers for weeks and weeks and weeks from British Industrial Estates trying to get mechanics. Anyway, oh yes, I came home and Mum was crestfallen. ‘It’s Christmas’, she said ‘It’s Christmas’ [unclear]. And then Denis Baldwin [?} he was the postmaster or something or other down here in Reading where they sorted all the parcels at Christmas time, and of course they wanted extra people at Christmas time, and he asked me if I’d go there for a week or so and it was very interesting that. There were these big chutes coming into the station and all the parcels being brought out to be sorted. Anyway, yes, so that was an experience, if you like. What then, oh yes, knowing I was coming back to Reading, Aldermaston was just beginning and I’d written sometime before, made an application, and I think they did a security check, a very, very vigorous one, you could say. It it was going on and on and I thought ‘probably nothing will come out of this’ but just as I finished the post office job, I had a letter from AWRE to go for an interview so I was taken on as an RE mechanic. And what did I do first of all? Industrial Chemistry Group, which was dealing ‒ no that wasn’t the first, was it?
CB: Don’t worry. I think we’ve done really well. So, thank you very much. I don’t want to wear you out.
BA: And I got an extremely good pension.
CB: Chief Safety Adviser for Greater London Council?
BA: Yes. It was there I got into safety, first of all at Aldermaston. A friend of mine was in electrical and strangely enough his name was the same as the ex-factory inspector who came to Aldermaston as their safety advisor. They called them officers in those days. He was electrical advisor and I’d already worked with him and he said would if I’d like to go over and join them as their mechanical safety advisor. Which I said ‘yeah, I would’ I think I got promotion to that. I never, ever got Tech one grade and I wanted to go ‒ there was a job advertised down here in, Winforth [?], Whitworth [?] in the West Country? A Tech one there and I applied for it but didn’t get it.
CB: What year did you retire?
BA: ’81. February ’81. That’s right ‘cause Dad died a year later. Yes, I was fifty-seven, but it was stupid, really stupid. This is Maggie Thatcher’s fault, well I suppose. The Conservative Party wanted to get in the Council, lead the Council for their next election and they said they would cut down three thousand staff and they couldn’t get three thousand staff to go so they asked if anyone wanted to retire. And when I saw what I could get — I was in a department that dealt with all these things — and they told me I’d get around sixty to sixty-two thousand lump sum and all sorts of things. It was a real golden handshake, if you like, so I applied for it and my boss, who was controller of manpower, [unclear] he said ‘Why do you want to leave me?’ I said ‘I don’t want to leave you but I can’t, cannot refuse to take this.’ So, it was left at that and then it was about eleven months later and he asked me to stop behind after a meeting and said ‘Do you still want to go?’ and I said ‘of course if I can’. ‘Well’ he said ‘You can because I’m going as well!’



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Basil Ambrose,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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