Interview with Syd Marshall


Interview with Syd Marshall


Sidney Marshall grew up in Lincolnshire and worked as an agricultural engineer. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force at eighteen and trained as a flight engineer. On his first operation to Duisburg one of his Lancaster's engines was hit by shrapnel and they returned on three engines. Returning from another operation they had to divert and land at a station in Norfolk with the help of FIDO, as the aircraft was nearly out of fuel. He also discusses what it was like to fly at night over Germany as part of a stream of hundreds of aircraft, and his experiences of VE day celebrations in Boston.




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00:44:58 audio recording

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This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre the interviewer is Mick Jeffries, the interviewee is Mr. Sidney Marshall. The interview is taking place on 8th May 2015.

SM: My name is Sid Marshall, I’m recording this for the International Bomber Command Centre on the 8th May 2015. I live in Boston, Lincolnshire, right then? I left school in 1938 at the age of fourteen which most people did in those days, this was about a year before the outbreak of war, so when that started I was still only fifteen, and I had gone to work with a local engineering, agricultural engineering I should say, we were repairing tractors and all kinds of agricultural equipment, and of course this I suppose was considered in war time to be extremely er important, farming, farmers were never called up and that sort of thing, and when I got to be eighteen I er discovered, in conversation with my boss that I was in a reserved occupation, which simply meant that my job was considered more important than me joining the forces, but I think there is a bit of peer pressure comes into it here, everybody keeps saying to me ‘when you joining up, when you joining up’ , and eventually I got a bit fed up with this and I discovered that if I volunteered for aircrew I could get out of it, this was about the only thing I could er go to do, er, which would get me into the forces and away from me civilian job. It’s quite a performance getting in as well, I had, I went one day I was out on the job and I knew the recruiting officer was at the local, [coughs] excuse me, was at the local Job Centre and er so I thought I would go and see them and to my surprise when I got there it was a young lady, and she looked me up and down and I was in my greasy overalls, I suppose I didn’t present a very good picture really, and she said you know I told her I wanted to volunteer for aircrew, and she said, ‘ you know you have to be absolutely fit for aircrew’, and she was sort of trying to be put me off I thought anyway I insisted, and of course that’s how it all started. I didn’t say anything to my boss about it for a start, but I had to tell him when I got called for a medical, I started off, I had to go to Lincoln and this was the same medical that was used for any kind of military service, they used to jokingly say if you had two arms, two feet, and you were felt warm, you were all right, [laughs] you’ve heard that before.

MJ: Yes

SM: Er, anyway I, eventually came round I had to tell him when I went to Lincoln, I said look, tell the boss ‘I said look I’ve volunteered for aircrew duties and I’ve got to go for a medical’, so I went and this was pretty simple really, and er, I there was then a break of probably a couple of months, and I then had to go to Doncaster which was the full aircrew medical. You had to go and be prepared to stay there for a couple of nights, so the thing was spread over three days really. So anyway I got myself to Doncaster, and I found the Selection Board and all that were in the top floor of a multi-storey shop, and er, the first thing you had of course was the medical because if you didn’t pass the medical then you didn’t go any further, and they were very very strictly, they didn’t exactly turn you inside out but very nearly, you had to blow up columns of mercury and hold them, and you had to do various exercises, you were given a much stricter medical then had been for you know for what I call ground crew job. Anyway I passed the medical okay and in fact if you didn’t that was as far as you went, if you hadn’t passed the medical you were sent home again, that got the first day over. The second day [coughs] because I hadn’t been to Grammar School I had to sit a maths and general knowledge sort of test, anyway as an engineer I had been taking lessons in er [coughs] excuse me, in science, er maths and technical drawing, and of course that had boosted my education enough and I managed to slip past the exam okay, and that was about the last thing on that day. The third day you went before a panel of officers and they asked you what you wanted to do, they interviewed you and er, I realised the fact that I hadn’t been to Grammar School was not going to help me and they said ‘what would I like to do?’, and of course I think everybody wanted to be a pilot originally, anyway I told them I had been studying at night school and that and they said ‘ oh I think you’ll just about make it’, but to try and put me off they said ‘we have got such a lot of applications we probably won’t be able to take you in for seven or eight months’, I think it was just a gag really to put you off. Anyway they then asked me was I what work I had done and as soon as I mentioned that I had been working in engineering for four years, ‘oh your just the chap we want you can become a flight engineer’ and I’m afraid my sealed, fate was sealed at that, so that’s how it all came about. I went back home anyway and told my boss that I’d be going shortly but I was another, I should think another two or three months before they called me up, and er, anyway that was it, he never got on to me about it I think he understood how I felt, and he did say, ‘well your job will be there when you come back’, which was fair enough wasn’t it. Anyway the time came round for me to go and I found myself on Boston Station early one morning with my little suitcase bound for Kings Cross. I got on the first train and er, when I got to Kings Cross there was an NCO working there, waiting I should say, and by that time there were seven or eight of us who were all going to the same place, we had to report to what they call the er, er, oh dear, RTO, that’s the Rail Travel Officer, and er she gathered us all up and then we set off on the underground to St. John’s Wood Tube Station. We got off the station there and there was a corporal there waiting, marched us in some sort of disorder to the holy, holy place, Lords Cricket Ground, that was where it all happened. The first day we got there, we were booked in, they took our names and that sort of thing, and then we were given a card with a number on it and told to go and sit in the grandstands until we were called, of course there were hundreds of other lads there, and er, eventually my lot was called, and you went in and you had another er medical, it was only brief, it was what they called, it had all these er initial letters in the forces, this was an FFI, free from infection, I don’t quite know what they thought what we’d had picked up in the interim, but anyway it wasn’t very severe that one, and we went on, and then er, the next then we got to er [coughs] we went and got kitted out, we were given a kit bag and you went down the line, and I was fascinated by how they got the size of uniform right, there was a sloping line on the wall marked off in feet an inches, and as you walked by one bloke called your height out [laughs].

MJ: [laughs].
SM: Another bloke put a tape measure round your chest and that’s why, that’s how they decided the size of uniform unit. So you finish up with arms full of stuff and a kit bag, and we stowed all that lot in there and that’s about all we did the first day, and of course the next day we had to kit ourselves up in uniform and something else that really tickled me was [coughs], we decided that, you’ve seen Poiroit on the television haven’t you in these very posh block of flats, well we were in one of those, mind you it wasn’t very posh, there was nothing much on the floor and each room just had a double bunk each side and that was it there was nowhere to hang your clothes up or anything else, if you aren’t wearing it, it lives in your kit bag [laughs] or hung on the end of your bed, and we er, and we were there in all for about three weeks, and when I wrote home my address sounded very good, and it was er, the house was called Grove Court Mansions and it was in Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which is a very posh address isn’t it, and of course when my mother wrote back, she said ‘ [unclear] lad you’ve got such a nice place’, I didn’t disillusion her, [laughs] I let her think if she was happy I would leave it at that [laughs], and we were there for about three weeks altogether, we started to drill, we had another full medical, we were divided up into swimmers and non-swimmers, and we started er the you know we had our meals by the way, the zoo of course was closed in those days, London Zoo, not being too far away we used their canteen that was our cookhouse, we had our meals there, and anyway time passed pretty quickly and we got to know er some of the other lads, there were four of us in this room and er, I, and we managed right the way through our training to keep together [coughs]. As I say in all we were about there for three weeks and then one night we were packed up and we were put back on the underground again back to Kings Cross Station, and they never tell you where you were going, and when you got to Kings Cross, I thought if you are going to Kings Cross you are going North. We got to er, overnight, we travelled at midnight, I think they put troops and that on the train at night to leave the trains free for the civilians in the day time, imagine that was the idea. Anyway we found ourselves in the early hours of the morning at er York, clambered out there and we were put on another train and er we arrived quite early in the morning at Scarborough, and here’s another posh address the place we went to there was called The Grand Hotel, and of course the forces used these places, they were empty in those days, nobody taking holidays were they, but it wasn’t very grand, but we didn’t have to worry us too much, because we had our breakfast there and then we were all drawn up outside and we were ticked off where we gonna’ go and they found there wasn’t room for us all at er Scarborough, so my flight which consisted of something like thirty of us were put on a train again and went to Bridlington, and this is where I did my, we got these letters again, this is ITW, Initial Training Wing, and when we were in London it was ACRC, which sounds a bit queer but it was Air Crew Reception Centre, you get used to all these letters don’t you. So this was where our initial training was going to be and in all I think we were there for about eight weeks, and it was the middle of winter and we used to do PT on the beach in the snow with the spray blowing off the sand, and do you know you never catch cold because you are fit aren’t you, and er when we went into the er Ex’, we were based in the Expanse Hotel, which I’ve seen since it’s still there, it is one of the top hotels, but of course they took us to these places ‘cause there was accommodation available didn’t they. We lived on the ground floor of the hotel in my particular case, and we were told when we went out to leave all the windows open get some fresh air in, well the sea was rough and the spray was blowing as well [laughs] which didn’t help matters. Anyway we were introduced then to our er instructor, a drill instructor, Corporal Horrocks, I won’t tell you what we called him, because would it be rude to mention it?
MJ: If you want to.
SM: [laughs].
MJ: It’s up to you.
SM: I won’t mention it, but you can guess what it was, he was a very nice chap actually, and er the only trouble was he was, we got lads there some of them from London, some of them from all over the country, and he was a Geordie, and you just couldn’t understand what he said a lot of the time, his favourite thing we used to drill in the streets, and of course along the seafront, no traffic about in those days as nobody had any petrol did they, and we used to be marching up and down there and I remember one occasion we came out of a side turning up to the promenade and he said something, he said ‘hey up [?]’, and we didn’t know if he said right or left and we parted company like that you know, one line went left the others went right, and there was a group of women coming up there with their shopping bags laughing their socks off at us [laughs], and of course he bollocked us as they say for that [laughs], but he was actually a very nice bloke he didn’t mess us about too much, and er we did, we had lectures in the Spa which is a sort of dance hall place there isn’t it, and we were, and I think the main thing was getting us fit, we sometimes we’d go jogging in just of a pair of shorts and if you like a vest if you like, and I remember on one occasion, while we had it I don’t know we had a rifle, a bayonet, a tin hat and all that and a gas mask, we never used any of those things did we? Anyway we, they took us one day, I’ve forgotten the name of the place there, seaside on the coast near er, and we all got out and er we had to march to the far end which was probably three or four miles and then we this lorry followed us up, we had to chuck all our kit in the back of the lorry get stripped off and run back, [laughs] this is all part of the getting fit process, and we had lectures as I said in the Spa, er it’s surprising we did drill instruct, drill we had to do shooting, we then started using, do clay pigeon shooting which was shooting at moving targets which I think was more akin to aircrew than anything else wasn’t it, anyway we were you know there in all for about eight weeks, and then we got at the end of the time we, it happened to be Christmas, we were very, very, lucky, we were sent home we had a ticket wherever you were going to get home and then we had to go back to London, so I was home for Christmas so that was very nice, I had a full week at home, and then I was back to Boston Railway Station again and down to Kings Cross and we had to return, and again we had to report to the RTO, that’s the Rail Travel Officer, they had these offices on all the main stations to you know supervise troops travelling about telling them where to go and all that sort of thing, and this time we were put on a train we knew were we were going, er we were put on a train to Wales, and we rode at first of all, I think we got as far as Cardiff and we had to change onto a slow local train then and this was taking us to our final destination for that, we pulled up er, went through Barry, and er we eventually stopped on the little wayside station it was at the bottom of cutting and it was one of those places where there was only about one man there he was the station master, the signal, the porter, and everything else, and er we got off the train there and er we then marched up there was a corporal, there always corporals aren’t they, corporal met us, with all our kit and that we were marched up to the RAF Station at Saint Athan, this was where we were to be for the next, I don’t know seven or eight months. In the war time you know the courses get shortened, I think the engineer’s course at one time would probably be nearer eighteen months, at the time I got there it was down to about seven or eight months, and er, if you had er, some people had engineering experience like myself didn’t find it too difficult, but some of the lads had never touched it and they of course you know an exam about every fortnight and if you didn’t get on very well you got put back a week, and I think if you got put back more than twice you were kicked off the course [laughs]. Anyway we were there for, let me just get my book, I’d only really got to er we’d just arrived at Saint Athan hadn’t we, for our training, I didn’t realise then how long it would be but we actually, er training of flight engineers lasted about seven months, and it covered all aspects of the aircraft, we had to know a little bit about everything, we had to know about the hydraulics, I mean the undercarriage and the bomb doors and all that sort of thing are all hydraulic, so then we had to learn about brakes because they’re pneumatic, and we had to learn about the engines and how to get the best out of them and keep in in an eye in view the amount of fuel we were using, if you opened the engines up too much the fuel consumption went up drastically and if you did that too much you might think you hadn’t got enough fuel to get home with again [laughs], this is the sort of things you had to you know get used to, but this is what we were taught to do, we had at the end of it we had actually we had an exam about every couple of weeks and if anybody was not quite up to scratch they were put back and did that section over again and you could do that twice but if you did it more than twice you got chucked off the course for taking too long [laughs]. All in all I was at Saint Athan for about seven months, you can’t really go into detail about it, it’s too technical and too complicated, but we had a [unclear] a list of all the things we had to do anything mechanical or anything that worked was my option, and my most important job really was in a Lancaster you know you got four engines and you got six fuel tanks and normally the two sides of the aircraft are separate, there is a valve in the mains bar[?] where you can open so you can transfer fuel from one site to the other, [sighs] but normally you took off on the middle tank, there was a tank between the engine and the fuselage, another one between the two engines and the third one was out in the, out part of the wing, so you’ve got, your wings are full of petrol and the floor underneath you was full of bombs, it’s not a very good situation really to be in is it, you don’t really want to get hit, and er, the most important job I had to do was, ‘cos an aero engine uses a lot of fuel er, anywhere between about twelve hundred and fifty horsepower each engine, in fact to put it an easier way a Lancaster did about one mile to the gallon, which is pretty [unclear], not far is it, and if you had a full load of petrol you could go out somewhere there and back and do two thousand miles and that was about your limit, you always had to keep at least a hundred or nearly two hundred gallons er back for landing you don’t want to be landing on your last gasp of fuel do you, and when of course they were arranging operations they took the weight of the aircraft and er then they [coughs] I had to look at the plan and calculate how many miles it was there and back, shall we say if was probably fourteen hundred miles there and back, and without going into decimal places the Lancaster did about one mile to the gallon, so okay fourteen hundred miles you want fourteen hundred gallons of petrol and they gave you two hundred gallons extra that’s your safety margin, so if all goes well you should arrive back at base with two hundred gallons of petrol, but it does allow for the fact you might get delayed, you might have a head wind which might make it take a bit longer to get back home again, you might not be able to land at your own base because it’s probably fog bound, so you have the hours grace, and I remember of one occasion we had to, we came over, got over Britain and we set off, er the bomb aimer, sorry, the navigator gave the pilot his last course back to base, we hadn’t been going long before we had a radio call through to say that we couldn’t land at base because it was covered in fog, and er we were to land I think it was somewhere in Norfolk, anyway that’s fair enough so we made a slight alteration of course and we are heading towards this not long after that we got another message to say we couldn’t land, it was Langham in Norfolk, can’t land there it’s now fog bound as well, so we start to circle around and they said to stand by, so did a wide circle round, we went round a couple of times, and I said to all of them [unclear] ‘we soon want to be landing somewhere because we are getting down on fuel’, and almost at the same time the wireless op, the mid upper gunner came on the, on the intercom and said ‘I can see a glow in the sky skipper it might be FIDO’, you know fog dispersal, so we made our way over there and we’d been told to stand by but we never got any further instructions I think they were struggling to find us anywhere to land, so we went on and we circled round over this and your call log if you were in trouble you called dark here, that was your trouble, it mean’t you were in difficulties, and our, our call sign was suedecoat, aircraft was C-Charlie, so you called ‘darkie darkie from suedecoat charlie’ and we got an immediate call back the usual lady’s voice, WAFS, ‘are you over an airfield with FIDO burning?’, so we think we are because we could see the glow in the sky so we came down a bit lower and er we called em again and they gave us landing instructions, and it was quite, I say it was a bit scary really, because do you know what FIDO was made of there were pipes laid down by the side of the fuselage, the runway, not too close to the runway, they were blocked off at one end and then holes drilled, a bit crude really, holes drilled in them and at the upper end near the entrance to the runway was a pump and a fuel tank and they were pumping neat petrol into these, and I don’t know who did it some brave guy must have gone out and lit it probably used a flare or something like that, and they only did about half the length of the runway but when you got lower you could actually see the flames and you usual drill was, er ‘yes Charlie you are clear to land call down wind’ that’s when you are coming down wind, so we called ’Charlie down wind’, you’ve got your wheels down, got your flaps down, [?] down, you then turn and say ‘Charlie Roger call funnels’ and your lights from the high up looked like a funnel that tapered into the runway, so they guided you onto the runway, in this case it was the flames, so we got on funnels they called ‘Charlie funnels’ they said ‘Charlie [?] mission is a Charlie pancake’ that means land, so we landed and there was a bar of flames and when we went over the bloody aircraft went ugh like than [laughs], like a kick up the backside, because tremendous heat from these flames literally lifted the aircraft, anyway we came in and we landed, I had my fingers crossed ‘cos I knew we’d got some damage, I said to Luke[?]the skipper ‘I hope to Christ we haven’t got a flat tyre if we swing off into that lot it will be unfortunate’, anyway we landed all right we taxied to the end and er a vehicle met us there and we followed it round, they took us round into a spare dispersal and of course you went through your drill close your engines down everything else, shut everything off, and er you can’t really leave anything in the aircraft so we went out loaded up with our parachutes and everything else which, we were then taken to a room where we was briefed, debriefed, and we discovered that the aircraft there were Mosquitoes, because one or two of them took off in that lot to go and bomb, so that’s they were using the flares to guide them, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, we heard this roaring come along, said ‘Christ it’s a Mosi’. Anyway we were debriefed, then we were given a meal and then we were given an armful of blankets and pointed toward a hangar, a Nissen hut, you go in there and there was Buckaroo [?] on the floor, it’s like dark brown lino on the floor usually isn’t it just so you can sweep it up, and you make your bed up and I think we was that ruddy tired, we just chucked the, we had three biscuits you know what biscuits are? Three padded squares that you put end to end, tuck a blank around it and that’s your base for your bed, I don’t know if we even bothered to do that we were that ruddy tired I think be then we just crashed out and went to sleep, we couldn’t get undressed ‘cos you’d nothing with you, trouble is when you got diverted like, you got no shaving kit, you got no ‘jamas or anything like that, you just had you were in what you were. Then we slept the sleep of the just there and next morning we went we found out, found the sergeants mess and had some breakfast, very much do it yourself isn’t it [laughs], and then we got, er we went to see, I think we went to see the CO or the squadron leader anyway, and he said ‘well you chaps look as if you are stuck here we can’t er, you’ve got some damage which your aircraft has got to be repaired before you can take it off again, you might even need an engine change’, and we discovered it was two days before Christmas and we knew we’d got Christmas festivities on at our base, ‘that’s bloody handy we are going to be stuck here over Christmas’, anyway our skipper went to see the adjutant and they had a bit of argy bargy with him and he came back and he said ‘we’re going home on the train’, we did we got [laughs] he’d got a , he’d got a ticket for the lot of us, so we the truck took us to the, I can’t remember where the nearest railway station was, um it might have been Cambridge even, I don’t know, I can’t remember now it’s a long long time ago. Anyway we got on there and we had to get on the train I think it took us to Norwich, then we had to go across to Peterborough, and then when we got to, we went through Boston and er we went back we got back to Grimsby, and then we had to get on a packed line from Grimsby to Elsham, now that railway train ran through Elsham that was still about three miles away from the camp, anyway we rung up and they come and picked us up, and you do, you don’t ‘cos we took our parachute with us and everything, and when you get on a train with your flying kit carrying your parachute you get some very funny looks off people [laughs], that was one of the most interesting things that ever happened to us, and anyway we had our ‘cos when you went on ops you emptied your pockets you’d no money, you’d nothing have you, you couldn’t even go in the sergeants mess and buy a pint as you’d no money. We had our Christmas there, and I, shows you in my book anyway, em I think we had Christmas and it was about four days after Christmas eventually one of our other crews flew us back to Graveley to pick our aircraft up, so we didn’t do anything for nearly a week [laughs] is that the sort of thing you’d be interested in?
MJ: Yes
SM: That’s a bit unusual and er.
MJ: Yes
SM: That was, we were halfway through a tour when we did that, but it’s just something that came to mind. I think er the first time we ever went out we got hit, I’m going backwards now. When you got the you’d finished your full training, ‘cos we did some further training after we got posted to a squadron and er we thought well we’d only done about nine and a half hours flying on a Lancaster, we did our ITW that’s interesting our heavy conversion[?} rather on Halifaxes, which wasn’t very good for me because I’d been trained to go on Lancs’ so I had to learn about Halifax a bit quick we did about sixty seven hours flying on heavy conversion unit[?} and then we went to Lancaster Finishing School and we went to Elsham we’d only nine and half hours flying on the Lancaster which wasn’t very much was it? We found out when we got there the reason was though because we’d, know you know what H2S is now the down [?] scanning radar and not all squadrons had it. The reason we went to the squadron was we were nearly there for nearly a fortnight before we did any operations because we’d never seen this apparatus before and the bomb aimer was the set operator so he had to learn all about the H2S and then we had to go on cross country flights using it to get the hang of it and get used to it so we were a fortnight really before we did any operations and of course we eventually we were ready [laughs], and that was I think it was the 14th October 1944, and er, the first, did I had already mentioned when we got, no I haven’t, um, so no I was going to say we got hit on our first trip didn’t I. We went our first trip was to Duisburg and er over the target we were going lined up you got, once your bomb aimer has taken over you can’t diverge you have to do what he says, he’ll say ‘left, left, steady’ and ‘right, right, steady’ and then when you dropped your bombs you also drop a photo flash and you take a photograph, well of course the photograph doesn’t want to happen until the bombs have hit the ground does it, so you going along straight and level over there you’re being shot at but you can’t do anything about it because you have got to keep straight and level and er then a light comes on on the dashboard telling you that the photographs been taken, and then you can open the throttle, put the nose down and get the hell out of it [laughs], and while we was over Duisburg I was also we used to have another job had to do was throwing bundles of Window, you know strips of silver paper, there was a chute in the nose of the aircraft and this stuff came in bundles with a bit of string looped through a brown paper wrapper, pull the string, tore the wrapper and you put it out the chute and it scattered all over and it caused blips on the radar which they couldn’t pick out the aircraft from the rubbish if you like, and I was down in the, down in the nose doing that, and of course er this pilot shouts out he said ‘come and look at this engine’, and I scrambled up and there were flames coming up out of the side of the end [?] port engine, and you remember to do your drill, the first thing you do is shut the fuel off, close the throttle, wait while the engine slows down then you know what I mean by feathering it, you know what I mean by feathering it , but if you don’t feather it the windmill will keep turning, so you have to turn the blades of the air screw so that the edge on to the wind so it’s stop turning and then and only then you can fire, fire extinguishers in the engine cowling, there’s two extinguishers in each engine fastened on the back plate and er you just press a button and er ‘cos there was flames coming out of the engine but we didn’t know what it was at the time and it went out, but we discovered afterwards if it had been petrol it probably wouldn’t have gone out, but a piece of shrapnel had gone through the side of the engine, smashed a hole the size of my palm in the engine casting and of course the oil spilled out and got on the red hot manifold [?] it was the oil that was burning fortunately for us not petrol, so that was our first time out we came back on three engines [laughs]. Just by way of introduction. Switch it off a minute. - Is it ready?
MJ: Yes.
SM: Well on this occasion I was asked to speak at a meeting which was a fundraiser aimed at raising funds for the new spire to go up on Canwick Hill, and I said I was wondering really what I could talk to you about, something I’ve often been asked about was what was it like to fly in a bombers stream at night, I said when you took off of course from your station you circled round over your own base until you had a time to set course, and I said there were several in er problems arose there because you’ve got people going right and people met head on an all this and collisions, so we had a special arrangement where we went from our base to Goole to Crowle to Scunthorpe and then back, all the aircraft in that area went round this big circuit instead of meeting other head on and that kind of thing and when it was your time to set course the navigator would tell you and you’d cut across and er so you set course at the right time, and well on this occasion I’m thinking about we often flew down to Reading and of course if there was no enemy activity over England you could keep your navigation lights on, you’ve got a red and a green light on your wing tip and a tail light that’s all you have got in’it, you don’t have any headlights or anything on car on aircraft, I said to you we flew down to Reading we changed course and then we [coughs], excuse me, we headed towards the coast and as we crossed the coast everybody starts to switch their lights off ‘cos you going in to over enemy territories and over the sea, so as up to then you can see one another ‘cos you’ve got lights on, now it’s all gone dark and it’s dark outside, I said the nearest thing I can give it to you is, you imagine you are driving down a motorway and everybody has their lights on and all of after time they start switching their lights off, first this one and then that one, and you finish up you are still bombing along there at about seventy miles an hour and now you can’t see one another, and I said you’ve got your eyes peeled you are looking in the dark because in an aircraft you you’re going a good deal faster er even with a bomb load on you probably cruising at about hundred sixty five or hundred and seventy mile an hour, and I said you find that er we used to have, I would sit beside the pilot, the pilot’s looking out in the front and over to his wing tip, I’m taking that side from the front round to the wing tip, the gunners are taking a quarter of the sky each at the back and if he is not doing anything else the wireless operator probably stood in the astrodome he’s keeping a look out as well, so you’ve got have five pairs of eyes looking out, and I said you see people sometimes coming when you get to a turning point everybody doesn’t always turn exactly the same you find somebody drifting towards so you have to go up a bit and he goes underneath you and then you turn and then you probably find you are chopping somebody else off, I said it was a bit scary, it was, that’s about as much as I told ‘em [laughs], and that was gonna’ last the rest of the trip wasn’t it, you didn’t put your lights on again until you were back over friendly territory at er it was a bit scary really the er you can imagine if it [unclear]. Anyway I er – I think that’s about it, was that any good? I remember being asked at a meeting some time ago to speak for a short amount of time I was at a loss to know what to talk about and I suddenly thought about to mention what it was like to fly in a column of aircraft at night, there could be three or four hundred aircraft all going to the same place, and er there would be spaced out of course, each aircraft had a time to be over the target and that sort of thing and it really meant that a raid that was gonna’ last er probably twenty minutes the aircraft flying at hundred eighty miles an hour roughly I mean, twenty minutes so that means that you’ve got a string of aircraft probably sixty miles long and that’s [perfectly fine until you get to a turning point when you find that er you’ve got you’ve got no lights on of course and er you might see a little bit of exhaust flame, but they carefully put some covers over the exhaust because it gave your position away to the fighters but also it mean’t so you couldn’t see one another either [laughs], it’s do debatable which is the worst situation, but getting along talking about what it was like at night if we were flying over England you could keep your navigation lights on providing there was no enemy action and I think on one occasion we flew down to Reading and then turned across head towards the coast as we got approached the coast everybody switched their lights off and of course you could see one another with your lights on so now we’re going along, your flying along at about hundred and sixty, hundred and eighty miles an hour and you can’t really see where you’re going, and on top of that you can’t see the other people who are going with you, er all you might get is a flicker of light now and then from something and er and I know it was the case of the pilot looking out the front and across to his wing tip and I’d be doing sitting at the side of him providing I wasn’t doing anything else keeping a look out, the gunners had got a quarter of the sky each er which they’re looking out for aircraft coming up behind you and er[coughs] excuse me – getting lost – I’m sorry I’ve lost my track.
MJ: That’s all right.
SM: The nearest thing I can tell you to flying along in a group of aircraft at night with no lights on, I want you to imagine that you probably driving down a motorway at night and everything is lit up as usual, headlights, sidelights, a bit of street lighting, you imagine what it would be like if suddenly the all the lights went off gradually, first one switches their lights off and then another, and you finish and you are still buzzing along probably sixty seventy miles an hour but now you can’t see one another and it was exactly like that in the air, unless somebody got very close to you, you couldn’t see them you had to keep a really good lookout, and er it was certainly the worst point was when you reached the point where you’re changed direction and you’ve got people cutting across the front of you and you went up a bit and let them go underneath or dived under or went underneath and so you could keep an eye on them and it really was quite exciting, never muind exciting it was ruddy dangerous really wasn’t it [laughs], but er that was what it was like, and er you had everybody provided everybody kept on time it wasn’t too bad but it was still a crush when something like three or four hundred aircraft all going to pass over the target in the space of about twenty minutes and er it really I think that was one of the most dangerous things apart from enemy action of course which er hopefully you’d avoid. – You asked me what I did on VE Day as it happens I was home on leave and of course as you can imagine there was great excitement everywhere and add to that we were very fortunate in Boston that the annual May Fair was there and of course this gave us something to do and I remember me meeting up with some of my friends I mean er a lot of them were away in the Far East and all over the place but there always seemed to be somebody you could meet up with, we’d got a couple of pals and then we got along with some er local people we had also one of my pals who was in the Navy joined us and we came across a I think it was a sergeant in the American Air Army and he seemed to be on his own a bit so we adopted him as well, and you know how it goes on these nights you [unclear] you pick up until you’ve got a little group don’t you and I remember particularly that we er went into one or two of the pubs and of course beer was always short in those days it wasn’t very long before they ran dry we came out of there and went somewhere else, there was a lot of toing and froing in that respect and by the end of the evening we had er several sufficiently to put is in a good humour I’ll put it that way, and I do remember particularly towards the end of the evening we had the sudden idea that we would swap clothes and I think I finished up the day with this American chaps tunic I think he was a sergeant actually, and one of my pals had got his sailors hat on, and we were all mixed up and we were going round, it was really very jovial and thoroughly I think we had a jolly good time and nobody considered the fact that we were improperly dressed or anything [laughs] silly like that it was just a jolly old night and a really memorable occasion, and it’s not the sort of thing that it happens every day very often is it?
MJ: No.
SM: Was that all right?
MJ: Sidney Marshall let me thank you on behalf of the International Bomber Command History Project, this is the end of the recording taken by Michael Jeffries on the date of the 8th May 2015 at three thirty. Thank you very much.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Syd Marshall,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 14, 2024,

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