Interview with David Sanders


Interview with David Sanders


David Sanders flew operations as a flight engineer with 189 and 619 Squadrons. He joined the Royal Air Force as a flight engineer and discusses an operation when they arrived too early over the target, being followed by a night fighter and having a bomb hang up. He also explains the role of a flight engineer.







00:31:24 audio recording

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GC: Right. So. This is an interview being conducted on behalf of International Bomber Command. My name is Gemma Clapton. I’m here at the home of David Sanders on the 5th of March 2016. He was a flight engineer in 189 and 619 Squadrons. We’ll begin with something nice and gentle. Tell me about how you joined up for the war for Bomber Command?
DS: Well it’s very difficult because my brother was in the Air Force and I didn’t particular want to go in the army so I volunteered not knowing exactly which part of the aircraft I wanted to be in, but as I was in engineering before as a youngster I decided to go as a flight engineer . So I went to Cardigan and they did an exercise and interviews and I had to file a cube to go into a square [unclear]. I did it perfectly so they said go back home and a few months later I got accepted as a flight engineer. Um, my first thing, my dad took me to Lord’s Cricket Ground for six months, sorry six weeks, as an introducing and being uniformed and have inoculations and all these things there. And we had to march every day to the zoo for our food. [laughs] Anyway – that ok?
GC: OK. Um, where was you stationed first? What’s your first memory of life of Bomber Command itself?
DS: Of Bomber Command? Well ‘cause this came a lot later ‘cause I had a six months course in St Athan. Learning the inside and out of the Lancaster Bomber. Um, so my first actually meeting the crew was at, I can’t remember the name of the place now, but the, the rest of the crew were already joined up and I was the odd man out. So my skipper came and I joined up to the crew, that’s my first thing and we flew into Stirlings aircraft and that was on operations, I forget what they call me. You kept — just a minute, I can’t remember the name of the places now and we were there for several months and flying and then we converted on then to Lancasters. Did training and eventually we went to a squadron. OK.
GC: Can you remember the first time you was inside a Lancaster? First op in a Lancaster?
DS: Oh the first op was quite traumatic because obviously we were all nervous, ‘cause being our first one, even though the pilot’s already done as a spare introducing. Anyway we went to Blenheim [?] and the only fault ever the navigator made he got us too early there and the rest of the time he was perfect. So we had to hang around being fired at which we never experienced before in our lives. After we’d dropped our bombs, on the way out we were combed by searchlights for about seven minutes and we thought we’d never get out of it ‘cause you’re a sitting target. But fortunately the pilot, he was a wonderful Australian, a lot older than us, a lot of experience of flying, just pulled back the throttles and we fell out the sky and we lost them. So we managed to get home and that was our first [laughs] experience.
GC: OK. Tell me a bit about the crew, ‘cause you obviously had an Australian?
DS: Well the pilot, Australian from Sidney, he was in his thirties so we, we treated him as our dad. He looked after us very well. The two gunners were wonderful Canadians, my age. The navigator was more — a little bit older. He was from Nova Scotia in Canada. A little bit snootier him [laughs] but the wireless operator [unclear] came from somewhere Middle East. Unfortunately he was shot down in another plane later. My mate Matt and I were both Londoners.
GC: So you had a real mixed crew?
DS: Very mixed crew, yes.
GC: Did – What was, what was the camaraderie like?
DS: Great, yes, yes we would — generally we used to go out and have drinks together. Perhaps the pilot was a little bit more aloof than us ‘cause we were much younger. [laughs]
GC: OK let’s take this somewhere else. You were obviously quite close to the rest of the crew. Can you describe a bit about life on the station?
DS: Um.
GC: As, as a group.
DS: Yes. Well ‘cause we were, we were in Nissen huts so it was quite, quite funny really ‘cause the Canadians, if you’re from the East or the West they used to fight each other so you had to put the fighters [unclear] up by the door in case we get raided. There was always, always friendly friction between, between people. In each Nissen hut there were two crews. So you had a funny old fire and we had to try and keep warm by putting in anything we could find to keep it — to keep us warm. [laughs] It was quite fun really, you know.
GC: It, it sounds good. OK. So can you, can you — is there a raid or op that sticks out in your memory for a various reason?
DS: Um, oh yes ‘cause most of them. There was an instance possibly in every one. I did say, the — when we went to Dortmund Canal, Heinbeck [?]. We’d go there every three months ‘cause they’d build it up and we’d knock it down again for them. It’s a viaduct. And we lost seven aircraft that time. But on the way back over England we were all relaxed thinking it was good we were getting home. Then we saw an aircraft go down, we thought the poor chappie didn’t make it. And later another one came down. And we had to log them each time. When we got to our aerodrome the perimeter lights were out so we asked them to put them on. They put them on. We landed straight down and we went to the end of the runway and went through our perimeter at the end of the runway. The [unclear] was in the truck ready to pick us up when a Messerschmitt came down the runway firing bullets all the way down. Jokingly the mid-upper Canadian [laughs] he [unclear] in his arms and said ‘it was worth every minute of that’. That night we lost about twenty something aircraft ‘cause we didn’t know the fighters were in, coming in with us.
GC: Was it common for the fighters to follow the planes?
DS: Sorry.
GC: Was it common for the fighters to follow –
DS: No.
GC: Follow home?
DS: No, no it was practically unknown and we weren’t warned ‘cause we had in the aircraft friendly and foe, and you press that and on the radar it would, it would tell whether you’re friendly or not and so they should have seen these coming but they didn’t and they didn’t warn us.
GC: And it wasn’t common?
DS: No.
GC: No. When you was on an op what was more unnerving the, the lights going up or knowing that there was possibly fighters up there with you? Was there a –
DS: Oh no, it’s, it’s very mixed. Another bad raid we had. This time I wasn’t with my crew, I was just spare and I had to go and do this crew. I’d been to Harburg before and Harburg was rather flak. Harburg, which is very near Hamburg. When we went there and bombed there wasn’t any flak and we couldn’t understand it, but when we came out we could see air to air fly, firing going on and as we – all of a sudden our aircraft lit up by an aircraft put a flare beside us. Behind that a fighter came in and fired on us so we had to corkscrew right away. The [unclear] bullets were flying everywhere and the two gunners, very experienced, shot him down. Hurray [emphasis]. And later another aircraft came in we started to corkscrew but he disappeared. We got home safely. The two gunners were awarded DFNs.
GC: Oh wow.
DS: Um.
GC: So, is there, was there a difference in attitudes towards a daytime op and a night-time op?
DS: Um.
GC: Was there a difference?
DS: Well they’re totally different really ‘cause the Americans generally did the daylights and we always did the nights. I went on one daylight. A thousand-bomber raid and you don’t believe what a sight. Everywhere you see is aircraft and when you got to the target you had to look up. You see aircraft are probably opening their bomb doors [laughs] and [unclear] get out of the way skip, you know, but generally speaking apparently all my raids were at night. And, er, you’re individuals. Your navigator is on his own. Do you like one?
GC: No.
GC: Do you – I’m, I’m reading here your list and it said at one stage you, you went up to Bergen.
DS: Bergen, yes.
GC: Bergen. Would you like to tell us a bit about that please?
DS: It was more or less straight forward, no problems just a bit of flak and not difficult at all. The longest raids I did was Munich into Poland, I can’t think of the names in Poland. Oh Politzs [?] and that thing — they were very long raid. Took us about ten hours and standing in the dark all that time. It’s – your eyes start to play tricks on you. You’ve got to look out all the time. So long raids were very fatiguing.
GC: So if you are doing raids say of nine hours plus. I know going out you’re going to be concentrating. How do you keep your mind sharp to concentrate for that amount of time?
DS: Well you used to take wakey wakey pills. You had little pills to keep you awake [laughs]. But I don’t know it’s very difficult because then you get – your life is at stake so you had to keep, you know keep on, keep on watch. My job being a flight engineer I had to look out a lot to – apart from looking after the engines and everything I had keep doing – and your eyes did play tricks with you sometimes looking out in the dark for so long.
GC: So I take it from that you didn’t have something to focus on it was all done by maps and –
DS: Sorry I missed that.
GC: As I say it was all done by maps rather than what we would class as modern technology?
DS: Oh Yes. Well he had – the navigator had Oboe and other radar type of improvements. Though it was up to the navigator completely. I mean the pilot was the great, he was the chauffeur, but the navigator was very important if he didn’t get us to the proper place at the right time we were in trouble.
GC: Right OK. Is there anything that sticks in your mind from serving in Bomber Command? Any incident or –
DS: Well you see. I learnt to talk about the flight engineer job he was the jack of all trades. I had, once or twice, I had when the trimming – when you trim the aircraft you had a wheel to turn and it wouldn’t, it stuck so I had to go out and put my oxygen thing. Go round the aircraft to try to see what the problem was and the wires had slipped under the little wheels, so I had to correct that for the skipper ‘cause he can’t fly with that keep trimming his aircraft. Odd jobs like that the flight engineer had. We lost an engine one time therefore balancing the fuel was very tricky. I had to switch over and the flight engineer – if one of the gunners was injured or something it was my job to get up and take over so I learnt a lot about being a gunner. So it was rather a different job. And in take off I was the pilot’s third hand in take off and we had quite a thing between the two of us and know how to take the aircraft off. So it was quite an interesting job.
GC: What was it actually like inside a Lancaster though?
DS: Well being tall, six foot odd, I had difficulty getting in the aircraft because there was a part going right across the aircraft where they hold the wings together I had to climb over. So it was very restricted. It’s much smaller inside than you think it is and I had a little portable seat to sit so I could lift it up so the bomber, bomb men could get by and get underneath. So [laughs] it was a – not the most comfortable of places.
GC: OK. I’m going to take a [unclear]
DS: Yeah.
GC: OK. Tell me a bit about the actual training for Bomber Command if you would please?
DS: Yeah. One of the interesting things was that when you fly, when you got above ten-thousand feet you had to put your oxygen mask on and to prove that it was necessary in training we went into a decompression chamber. There was a whole crew we was all in there all sitting round all happy and joking then they said would you write down this poem. So we was writing the thing, we was writing it down and then we had to take our masks off then went down – I was still writing and I just went out. Then after they put us back onto our masks and I looked and I found that after the poem was just a scribble. The other thing he asked me he says ‘what’s the time now?’ I looked at my wrist, my watch has gone. So it just shows you that you’re oblivious once you have lack of oxygen when you go to, as we had to go, up to eighteen-thousand feet.
GC: You said, you said earlier that you had an engineering background. How did they train you? What part did they train you for? I know you were a flight engineer.
DS: Well –
GC: Just want to try and find out a bit about your training.
DS: Well as it happens every fortnight we did a different part of the aircraft and had exam on each one so you could pass onto the next one. So we did the whole – the frame, the engines, the hydraulics, the pneumatics, gunnery, bombing. We did the whole lot over six months. Every, every – it was very, very –
GC: Intense?
DS: What’s the word? Very, very – what’s the word? [laughs] Very, very, um —
GC: Intense? Intense?
DS: Intensitive that’s it yes. Anyway that’s — so at the end you had to pass another, another examination completely. I had a moaning [?] engine in front of me and they asked questions one after the other about that particular engine. I just scraped through. [laughs] OK.
GC: Um. We was talking earlier as well also about your uniform about the boots and things. Was — How was —What was it like putting that on? What —
DS: I think it was no problem really. I think we got so used to it and quite pleased to put it on knowing it was going to warm us up a bit. No I think it was quite easy. I think we got quite used to it. We did it so many times. We had big boots and we had a flight engineer I used to stick something in there just in case I needed it and also I had to carry the thermos for a skipper for when he wanted a drink. [chuckles]
GC: OK. Tell me about one of the ops when —
DS: One of the most vivid things I can remember was going to Brunswick. It was an incendiary raid. Very old town and terribly on fire. When we was going to a bombing raid there was another aircraft right beside us coming in with us. And all of a sudden he was hit and a huge [emphasis] great flame came up and he held us for a little while and then went down. That could’ve been us, we were right beside him.
GC: Did your brain work like that? Did you just accept it or —
DS: Well you had to. You had to go on. Do a bombs. And after you’d dropped your bombs you had to hold, I think for about forty seconds to take a photograph. You dropped a flare and you had to wait until that photograph was taken. And another bit of a funny thing with the photographs because my second raid was on Wolfen Island off Holland. We had to go to the island to breach the fence and when we took off we couldn’t find the group we was in so we rushed over to one to try to find it. It was the wrong group. We keep doing this and all of a sudden the bomber with me said ‘Your targets coming up. Quickly!’ So we lined up, dropped our bombs, came back home. Easy raid only two and a half hours but the next day the pilot and the navigator were up to see the CO. We’d bombed the wrong island. [laughs] So it was a — we’d bombed the — [laughs]
GC: Did they make you go back?
DS: No. Well actually we did it another, another time but they were in trouble. But it’s only because we couldn’t find who we were meant to be flying with. [laughs]
GC: Did you bomb mainly Germany or were you —
DS: No, we, we — Germany, Poland, Norway. Mainly those three.
GC: OK. I’m just going to introduce that there is a third person now in the room and it’s, it’s David’s wife, it’s Daphne. So if you hear a third voice it’s Daphne. So my apologies.
DS: One raid, I tell you is — how clever the Germans were. We went to Munich which is a very long raid. We had to go down South and across Switzerland but on the way we suddenly saw an aircraft on fire and it all of sudden you saw a big explosion on the ground, but we sussed out that when the aircraft was hit it wasn’t moving. So the Germans are very crafty and trying to scare especially the new, the new, new, the ones on their first and second raids. Thinking that they — but they, they shot over a flare up in the air that looked like an aircraft. Then did an explosion on the ground thinking that’s them. It’s very very clever how they tried to trick you.
GC: I know we have spoken about, like you said, the thousand-bomber raids. What was it like being surrounded by all those planes?
DS: You don’t believe it. ‘Cause today if two aircraft go anywhere near each other they’re in trouble. There was a thousand and they were all putting out window. That’s a big strip of things — to try and, to confuse the German’s radar. And everywhere you could see there was aircraft. In fact you know you had to keep your eyes open and tell the skip to watch out, go higher, go lower. Watch out the bombs are dropping in front of you. They were everywhere. [laughs] Anyway it was a very easy raid, there was, I think, only one or two aircraft lost most probably by other, you know, own aircraft. But you can’t believe watching everywhere you see there are so many aircraft in the air.
GC: What kind of bombs did you carry? Weaponry?
DS: Well they varied. The big cookie. Funnily enough once it didn’t release properly and it was rocking about in the bomb doors so the skipper had to open up and waggle the aircraft about tremendously to release it. [laughs] and it did go but sometimes we had incendiaries for fire. Yeah it was varied but generally it was a cookie and a few smaller ones either side of it.
GC: Can you describe a cookie for us?
DS: Sorry.
GC: Can you describe the cookie for us?
DS: Well it was like a big barrel, a huge great bomb, er, nothing like the ones you have on the 617 Squadron. They had, they had huge great things, but it was quite a big one. I forget the weight of it now.
GC: Good.
DS: Quite a big one.
GC: So it was just the one you carried at any one time?
DS: We carried the cookie and we had about six either side of the smaller bombs. [pause and whispering]
GC: Right, tell me about — you was describing to me the take off for a Lancaster please?
DS: Yeah OK. This is the flight engineer’s job on take off. So we taxied round to the runway. Lined up the runway and waited for the red light to come up, or the green light, I forget what, to start. So then we keep the brakes on and the skipper puts the throttles right up, half way up to get big power. Then suddenly releases the brakes so we go off. As the pilot is pushing the throttles my hand is behind him. Then he takes his hand away. Then I take over the throttles and I push them up to what we call the gate. I hold it there. As we go down the runway he says ‘full power’. Then I push it right through the gate and lock it. We can only hold that for a few minutes because it will blow up the engines. So now we manage to take off, so then I throttle back and lock it there. Then the skipper says ‘wheels up’. So I pull the wheels up, then he asks for flaps up by a third. I put them up a little bit then I pull the flaps up. Then we should be full take off then, so now we can just throttle back to the speed we need what the navigator has taken. That’s my initial job on take off.
GC: OK. Thank you very much. You often hear referred to in rides — you often hear referred to the phrase of a corkscrew. Can you describe a corkscrew for us please?
DS: Yes. A corkscrew is a — on the radar I said before when one of the enemy aircraft lit us up and the other fighter came in on the blind side the gunner said ‘corkscrew’. So we go down, fly down, very very fast. Then pull the aircraft up into like a corkscrew, going through the sky like a corkscrew. We’d done this many times on practice so the gunners know exactly where to put their guns. The enemy has got to keep resetting his aircraft to fire upon us, so fortunately this time it worked and we shot him down. But it’s, it’s very dramatic in a sense because one minute your, your blood is pouring down your face, next minute you’re lifted up as if you’ve gone into the sky. So it’s quite a dramatical thing to do really.
GC: Thank you. We was talking earlier as well about superstitions. Did you have any lucky charms or —
DS: Well I had a threepenny bit sewed in behind my wings. And I had a funny little thing that had a little beer barrel on and you tried to pull it and it would come down and you release it and it would go back again. So as I got in the aircraft I always gave it a pull.
GC: You was also talking about you had a dog, well the squadron had a dog.
DS: It was a stray dog which we, we looked after. A big black dog. And when we went into town on our bicycles he used to come along beside us. But as we speeded up a bit he didn’t like it so he rushed in front of us and grabbed hold of our wheels to stop us. So, and also on the way we got a piece of wood and we used to throw it in the field. And on the way back we’d tell the dog ‘go and fetch it’ and believe it or not he’d find that piece of wood we’d thrown in, you know. It’s a great dog. And a stray one. [laughs]
GC: You don’t know where he came from?
DS: No.
GC: You talked about going into town, obviously as a squadron and as a crew. What were the kind of things you did on your off days?
DS: Well. Relax one thing, and the other thing we obviously went to the pubs. We went to Dirty Annie’s for our meal and she used to give us eggs and bacons and things ‘cause we did like the breakfasts you used to have. We obviously had a bit of fun. We had parties in the mess. We went to once with an urn to fill it up with beer to come back so we all had a nice drink. It’s, it’s — we went together. So it’s, it’s about being together and enjoying our company ‘cause we’re, we’re fighting together.
GC: OK. We, we, we talked earlier as well about your crew. Could you just give us a little snapshot of each crew member please? With you.
DS: Well the pilot was Australian. He was in his thirties. He was very senior to us and he was our dad. He was a great pilot. The navigator was from Nova Scotia, Canada. Very, very good, very good navigator. The two gunners, mid-upper and rear were Canadians. The rear gunner at Penrose [?] thought he had enough so he went AWL and unfortunately got the LMF, lack of moral fibre. The bomber [unclear] and myself were both Londoners. And the wireless operator was somewhere from Middle East. I’m not quite sure where but unfortunately he went on a spare trip and got shot down and died.
GC: OK. I’ve read your CV and you, you spoke about bringing the POWs home. Could you tell us a little bit about bringing the POWs home?
DS: What? Sorry.
GC: Could you tell us a bit more about bringing the prisoners of war home?
DS: Oh sorry, yes. After the war, rather a wonderful thing really. We went [clears throat] — a whole lot of aircraft went [clears throat] I think it was to Belgium to pick up the prisoners of war. They were all lined up everywhere and as we taxied we stopped and our line all came into the aircraft. Full up. One sitting — standing right behind me. We took off and on the way back we saw the Cliffs of Dover and believe it or not they were all in tears.
GC: OK. I’d just like to say thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure and an honour to have met you today.
DS: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
GC: You’re welcome.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with David Sanders,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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