Bill Thomas memoir



Bill Thomas memoir


He describes his first interest in the RAF, in 1938. He joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps, and later in 1941 the Air Training Corps. He was called up by the RAF in February 1942, and proceeded through initial training and the Initial Training Wing at Aberystwyth. Here he was promoted to leading aircraftsman. Having failed his pilots course, he was subsequently sent to Moncton Canada in late November 1942. Following a number of postings including bombing and gunnery school and navigation he was shipped home on the Aquitania back to the UK in December 1943. In early 1944 he was posted to Wigtown to train as a bomb aimer. He reported to 28 Operational Training Unit in late May 1944 where he crewed up. After flying in Wellingtons he passed through the Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Sandtoft and the Lancaster Fininshing School at RAF Hemswell. He joined 166 Squadron, his flight forming 153 Squadron, which moved to Scampton, and on 31st October 1944 carried out his first operation on Cologne. He continued on operations including the attack on Dresden on 13th February 1945. On completion of his tour he trained as an equipment officer. He was released by the RAF in July 1946 and returned to his job with Cornwall County Council, He eventually moved to Morpeth in Northumberland and maintained his links with the 153 Squadron Association.




Temporal Coverage



Eight typewritten pages


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My first interest in the RAF came in 1938 while I was a pupil at Redruth Grammar School in Cornwall, when a flight of the Air Defence Cadet Corps was formed there and I became a member. I am sure its formation occurred because Mr Weatherall our Headmaster had been a fighter pilot in the First World War which really instIlled interest in those of us aged 16 and above. I remained a member of ADCC until August 1939 when I left school for employment.
When the Air Training Corps was formed in 1941 I joined the flight which was formed in Redruth where we had the usual instruction in Morse code, and navigation, shooting and of course drill (dreaded drill). We were fortunate to have visits to RAF Portreath aerodrome and that is where I had my first flight, in a Miles Magister. It was great!
I volunteered and was accepted for aircrew training in August 1941 and placed on deferred service and continued as a member of the ATC, reaching for the dizzy height of Sergeant! While awaiting my call-up to the RAF I had to register for National Service but informed the officials that I was already a member of the RAF and gave them my service number. Two or three weeks later I had call-up papers from the Army! I called the registration office and they said no problem we will sort it. However after another week I had a forceful letter from the Army telling me to report to depot or other, by such and such a date or they come and fetch me! Panic!
Fortunately we had a family friend who was an Army officer in the First World War and he contacted the Army on the phone using language I was not then used to and I heard no more!
So eventually, in February 1942 I was called up by the RAF and went to the aircrew reception centre in London. I reported, as so many had done, to Lord’s cricket ground for registration. We were provided with a uniform (which was tailored to fit) and received the first batch of injections. We were billeted in what had been serviced apartments in Prince Albert Road, quite close to Regents Park zoo. Here we had various lectures, a lot of drill and endured an extremely cold London.
Then came our posting to Initial Training Wing at a very much warmer Aberystwyth in West Wales. Here we received training in navigation, Morse code and RAF Law besides large doses of more drill, physical training and sports.
I enjoyed the course at ITW very much, especially as I knew it was the beginning of flying training. As I said earlier the weather at Aberystwth was warm and we rarely needed to wear greatcoats (which we did in London) and by June, when the course ended, it was a really warm summer. I learned that I had passed the course ended, it was a really warm summer. I learned that I had passed the course and was promoted to the exalted rank of L A C (more pay too!).
I was then posted to Sywell in Northamptonshire to begin training as a pilot. Unfortunately I failed the course because my landings were deemed dangerous and I was unable to go solo. Mind you, I did not get on very well with my instructor who was over 6 feet tall, as against my 5 foot six and as he sat in the front cockpit what chance had I of seeing straight ahead? No contest!
From Sywell I was posted in July 1942 to Heaton Park, Manchester, which was a holding unit for potential aircrew awaiting the decision as to my future training, along with quite a number of others. We were then sent to Hastings, another holding unit, where we were billeted in a large block of flats (Marine Court) right on the seafront. We were only at Hastings for about three weeks because one afternoon at about 4 PM on our return from the sports afternoon, a German aircraft on a hit-and run sortie dropped a smallish bomb on one end of the building. Fortunately no-one was injured, however it caused perhaps the fastest reaction I have ever experienced. By 4 AM the next morning
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we were getting on a train (with a day’s dry rations) and we were taken to Harrogate to yet another holding unit!!
I enjoyed Harrogate very much where we received the usual few lectures and drill and bags and bags of sport. Harrogate was a great posting, especially as there were lots of young ladies there who were the clerical staff of the General Post Office who had been evacuated there from London!
I was eventually brought out of my reverie by a posting back to Heaton Park with a few dozen other bods, where we were informed as to our future training which for me was as a navigator/bomb aimer. This we were given to understand, would not be in Great Britain but overseas, as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme.
It was in late November 1942 that King George the Sixth sent me to Canada, aboard the Queen Elizabeth, to train as a navigator/bomb aimer, thus enabling the rest of the country to get on with the war. To my delight, I was informed that I would not have to pay my own fare.
The memories of that voyage are still with me. I remember approaching the liner on a small tender and being showered with toilet rolls which were thrown by the disembarking aircrew who had returned to the UK sporting their wings. Not to be outdone, we advised them to hang on to the toilet rolls, as there was a shortage of that commodity in our war-torn homeland.
Once aboard, I was given a job as a kind of security guard (along with 20 or 30 others) to prevent smoking in any place other than the cabins. I remember pointing out to Edward G Robinson that such a rule existed, when I spotted him and a large cigar waiting for the Lift. He promptly took a deep puff on the cigar, stepped into the lift and said with a smile, “Is that so. Bud?”
We had quite a large number of well-known people (including Douglas Fairbanks) on board and to our delight, they provided several evenings of entertainment for us during the crossing. The meals were very good and it was a special treat for us to be served with white bread after eating since 1939, the sandy brown standard wartime loaf.
We took several days on the voyage since we were sailing unaccompanied a long way south before turning and travelling up the Eastern seaboard of the United States. We were informed that the detour had taken place because a U-boat pack had been detected in mid Atlantic. Good intelligence and communication obviously saved us and I understand that Lord Haw-Haw had reported us as sunk on two occasions. We sailed into New York harbour and docked adjacent to the Queen Mary and the Ile-de-France, the latter lying on her side after suffering a major fire some time earlier.
Whilst most of those on board were allowed to disembark, I found myself appointed as a member of the baggage party. About 30 of we unfortunates were given the task of unloading the rest of the RAF contingent kit bags. As a result, at the end of the day we were still aboard but were delights that that evening to be served with the most terrific meal which we considered to be a just reward for our hard labours as baggage handlers.
The next morning we disembarked and after being transported by coach to Grand Central Station, we caught a train that would transport us to Moncton in Canada. But all did not go smoothly, because en route, we were involved in a train crash. The crash was on the Gaspie Peninsula, at the mouth of the St Lawrence River when a freight train, with a huge cargo of logs crashed into us while we were waiting at a small country station. Fortunately we, the RAF contingent, only sustained a few cuts and bruises.
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Mainly because of the steel constructions of the trains in Canada we were lucky indeed. Further luck for four of us who got invited by the daughters of a nearby farming family to have some breakfast. We accepted and trudged across two large snowbound fields to the farmhouse. Just as we finished, breakfast, we were told that a relief train had arrived at the station to take us on to our destination Moncton. We missed it! However we boarded the next train and we were met in Moncton by an NCO, a sergeant I think, who told us off and then we boarded transport to the camp. It was pointed out to us that the rest of the party had to march there so we were lucky again!
Moncton, on the eastern seaboard of Canada, was another holding unit where we awaited posting to the start of our real training. However we were at Moncton for Christmas 1942 and also over the New Year in Arctic like whether with plenty of snow. A case of infectious disease, scarlet fever I think, caused member of the hut I was in to be in quarantine for some weeks until finally our posting arrived.
In February 1943 I was posted to number six bombing and gunnery school at Mountain View, Ontario where we practiced gunnery in Bolingbrokes, the Canadian version of the Blenheim, as well as on the gunnery range. We then turned out attention to flying in Ansons and practised dropping practice bombs. This seems to have taken quite a while really because it was the end of March 1943 before we left Mountain View for Number 8 Air Observer School at Ancienne Lorette, Quebec, to begin navigational training.
The navigation course at number eight air observer school at Ancienne Lorette, lasted from early April 1943 to early August 1943 and as well as air day and night navigation trips averaging around three hours each, we did a lot of classroom work including a navigation exercises, meteorology, signalling, aircraft recognition and armament together with a lot of practice work in the air and on the ground on astro-navigation.
At the end of the course I learned that I had passed and took my place on the passing out parade to receive my Observer brevet and also I was delighted to find out that I had been granted a commission.
We were then, after three weeks leave which I spent with my uncle and his family in Toronto, posted to Number 1 General Reconnaissance School at Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence River, where for three weeks we were to carry out navigation trips over the sea using what is termed dead reckoning navigation, by star or sun shots, taking bearings from radio transmissions to find our position. We learned how to identify all the naval ships of the world, quite a task. I found this course both challenging and interesting and I was glad to hear that I had received a pass which I hoped would lead me to be a navigator on coastal command when I returned to the UK.
At the end of the course at the beginning of October 1943 we were posted again to Moncton to wait before being shipped back to Great Britain. This did not happen until December 1943 when I returned on the Aquitainia, quite a nice ship but not so well appointed as the Queen Elizabeth. We landed back at Gourock and travelled down to Harrogate.
Harrogate was still a holding unit and there was quite a large number of aircrew gathering there from training in Canada and South Africa, eagerly awaiting postings to operational training units. In my case along with others from course in Canada, it was to be another three months before we got such a posting. I, of course, wanted to be sent to Coastal Command, which is what our extended training had been for, but it was not until early in April 1944 that we were told that we were to go to Wigtown in Scotland. On enquiry we were told that this was an advanced training unit for bomb aimers. We tried to argue that
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surely all the training in Canada that we had received ought to be for carrying out duties as navigators in one of the RAF commands. We were told that there no chance whatsoever of this and off to Wigtown we went. You can imagine there was quite a lot of disgruntled bods there but we decided that we must grin and bear it. We were told to remove our coveted and hard earner observer brevet and replace them with the B brevet and this produced a lot of very upset and in disgruntled people; so much so that caused a visit from an officer from HQ in London (an Air Commodore I think) to come up to Wigtown to meet us. He informed us that our C.O. had told him that we were refusing to fly, which in fact was totally untrue as we were continuing with our flights. As a result, the Air Commodore contacted London and an official ruling was made and we were told we could continue to wear (with pride I might say) our Observer Brevets. So, we completed the course and were granted 2 to 3 weeks leave and were instructed to report from there to number eight operational training unit at Castle Donington {which is now East Midlands Airport).
We arrived at the O.T.U. late in May 1944 and were crewed up, not being directed as to who would fly with who, but quietly talking to each other and trying to decide who you thought would be someone to trust your life with. I think I was fortunate in my choice as we all seem to get on from the start and it proved to the case when we continued to fly together later in the operations. However before we became members of the squadron there was more training to be done. First of all by the crew of six (there was no flight engineer in the crew at OTU) flying in the Vickers Wellington, learning all about our duties in an operational bomber. We were at Castle Donington from 27 May 1944 until 14 July 1944 and then we transferred to 1667 heavy conversion unit at RAF Sandtoft, learning the skills needed for coping in a four engine aircraft – in this case the Handley Page Halifax and there we were joined by the seventh member of our crew, the flight engineer.
We left RAF Sandtoft on 1 September 1944 and moved to number one Lancaster finishing school at RAF Hemswell. This proved quite a short course of about three weeks and we were then posted to join 166 squadron at RAF Kimmington on 26 September 1944, as members of C flight. This flight was being assembled to be made into another squadron, 153. This was duly achieved and some four operations were flown by the squadron from Kimmington before, on 15 October 1944, 153 squadron moved to RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, flying their acquired 18 aircraft there, while the ground staff travelled in a fleet of buses accompanied by a group of 3 ton lorries loaded with personal baggage. Our crew had the pleasure of being in the first of the 153 squadron aircraft to land at Scampton from Kimmington [sic] and had an unusual sight of an empty aerodrome: that is no aircraft on the ground, with a small number of ground crews standing by at dispersals to receive the aircraft.
Scampton was a station that was built before World War II and accommodation was in solid built buildings with tarmac laid roads and pavements; no mud to squelch through. Bruce Potter (the pilot) and I were allocated a room within the officers mess itself, but some of the others had to live in the previous married quarters which meant a shortish walk to the mess for meals and so forth.
On 19 October 1944, 153 squadron carried out its first operation from Scampton – 15 aircraft attacking Stuttgart. Our crew’s operations did not start until 31 October 1944 against Cologne. We carried on operations against various targets including the much written about town of Dresden on 13 February 1945, until 8 March 1945, we on takeoff for Kassel, our skipper Bruce Potter fainted at the controls. We were well down the runway with our tail up and it was the first rate action of our flight engineer Gordon Woolley, who managed to haul the control column back; cut the engines and bring the aircraft to a halt after it had executed a flat spin. The skipper was taken off to sickbay and the rest of us gathered outside the aircraft where the squadron commander, Wing Commander Powley, invited us to fly that night with another pilot. We firmly
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declined his invitation. We were then sent home on three weeks leave and on our return found that our skipper had left the station. He had gone to hospital I think. He never returned.
The remainder of the crew (six of us), completed the remaining three operations to complete our 29 operations with another pilot. Flight Lieutenant Williams, an Australian. Our last operation was on 9 April 1945 and on 10 April that same year we were sent home on leave, never again to meet up as a crew.
There is a list of our targets at the end of this article, together with the duration of each and I must say that we were a very lucky crew. Perhaps it was due to a little black cat which I wore pinned to my battledress. It was sent to me by an “anonymous admirer”. During all our trips we never experienced a single attack from an enemy fighter or received any substantial flak from German anti-aircraft fire. Jack Boyle was a first-class and diligent navigator and kept us on track and on time for every trip. We did have to abort on a trip to Politz on 8 February 1945 when one engine packed up and then another started losing power, but we were able to return safely to base. Another time, on 18 November 1944 while returning from bombing Wanne Eicline, our instruments packed up. It was a filthy night of wind and rain and there was a diversion for us to land at another aerodrome as RAF Scampton was fogbound. The crew decided that it would not be a good thing to try and land at strange aerodrome and we therefore diverted to the special diversion aerodrome at Woodbridge in Suffolk, where the runways were extremely long and wide. Bruce our skipper and Gordon the flight engineer were able to effect a temporary repair the next morning and we were then able to return to Scampton.
My leave on completion of the tour of operations was quite extensive as the great Western Railway managed to lose my kit bag with all my flying kit during my return to Scampton. I was sent home to recover it, something I was unable to do and so eventually, in July 1945 (after being home nearly 3 months) I was recalled to Scampton. I was informed that I was to train as an equipment officer and sent for training to RAF Bicester. This course lasted about six weeks and I was then posted as a fully fledged equipment officer to 35 maintenance unit at Heywood near Manchester. Within a week I was sent to RAF Strubby in Lincolnshire which no longer an operational station, to arrange to clear it of all its equipment. There was only a skeleton staff there and these were gradually posted away, leaving only about 30 other ranks (mainly equipment personnel) and myself, together with another ex-aircrew equipment (Flying Officer Frank Wilkes) who had been sent from Heywood to assist me.
It was a massive task of transferring the wanted equipment to appropriate maintenance units throughout the UK, however I never saw the end of the task and neither did Flying Officer Wilkes, as our times for release from the RAF occurred at the same time and so in July 1946 we left for Civvy Street and I returned to my job with the Cornwall County Council.
I lost contact with the crew but many years later through a letter which I had published in the RAFA magazine I made contact with Jack Boyle our navigator who was at that time living in Blackpool. However, Jack was in rather poor health. We were able to swap phone calls and letters for about 12 months before sadly, he died. Some years later I was fortunate enough to make contact with Harry Hambrook our rear gunner who lives in Harrogate. I’m glad to say that we keep in contact and are able to meet up each year at our squadron reunions.
I moved to Morpeth in Northumberland 20 years ago and on joining the Northumbria branch of the Aircrew Association, I met Mr Bill Foote from Alnmouth who had been a pilot flying Halifaxes with 77 squadron in Yorkshire. It was some little
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while before Bill and I discovered that we were both on the Queen Elizabeth voyage to Canada in November 1942. Now we both meet up with two or three others on a regular basis for lunch.
Another coincidence occurred after I joined the 153 Squadron Association about 12 years ago and met two associate member who had uncles in the crew of Pilot Officer Gibbins, the pilot in 153 Squadron at Scampton who shared a room with my skipper Bruce Potter and I. “Gibby” and I became great friends and were companions on sorties to Lincoln on days when we were on stand down from flying duties, to carry out “beer testing” in Lincoln’s many pubs! Unfortunately “Gibby’s” aircraft was lost on a daylight raid on Essen on 11 March 1945. Sad to say there were no survivors. These two members of the Squadron Association have been to Germany and visited Reichswald Forest war cemetery in Kleve, where their uncles are buried. I meet up each year with those two members, Ernie and Dave at our Squadron Association reunion which is held in Lincoln.
I must confess that I was quite disappointed at not being able to fly as a pilot (in a Spitfire in fighter command of course!) However, completing our tour of operations on bomber command and being one of “Bomber” Harris’s Boys was something I look back on with pride. I also give thanks for not being wounded or being one of the 55,573 airmen who were killed in action.
Much has been written by historians who have decried the efforts of bomber command and have called its head “Butcher Bomber Harris”, saying that he was targeting the civilian population of German cities. I can in no way agree with them as there was always some industry in each of the cities targeted. Dresden is often referred to as being a civilian target; not so, because it had armament factories including Zeiss Ikon, which provided a supply of precision instruments to the German forces. It was also an important communication centre with considerable concentration of troops within the city.
Our crew took part in the Dresden raid on the 13th and 14 February 1945, unloading our bomb load of a 4000lb “cookie” and lots of incendiaries on the city when I pressed the bomb key. Should I count myself as a murderer for doing that? Some people in this country seem to think so but most of them were not alive at the time and so did not have to endure the bombing of our cities by the German air force.
[underlined] W.H. Thomas [/underlined]
Bill Thomas
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11/10/44 Fort Frederick Heindrik 3.20
31/10/44 Cologne 5.20
02/11/44 Dusseldorf 5.20
04/11/44 Bochum 5.20
09/11/44 Wanne Eicline 4.55
16/11/44 Duren 4.30
18/11/44 Wanne Eicline 5.35
04/12/44 Karlsrhue [sic] 4.30
13/12/44 Essen 6.05
17/12/44 Ulm 7.50
28/12/44 Bonn 5.40
29/12/44 Buer 6.20
31/12/44 Osterfeld 5.50
02/01/45 Nurnberg 8.40
05/01/45 Royan 7.30
07/01/45 Munich 9.25
14/01/45 Merseburg (Leuna) 8.35
28/01/45 Zuffenhausen 7.15
03/02/45 Bottrop 6.10
04/02/45 Gardening – Heligo Bight 4.45
08/02/45 Aborted – Politz 2.50
13/02/45 Dresden 10.20
14/02/45 Gardening – Keil Bay 6.15
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20/02/45 Dortmund 6.25
22/02/45 Duisberg 5.50
23/02/45 Phorzheim 8.05
07/03/45 Dessau 10.00
08/03/45 Ground Loop – Kassel
03/04/45 Nordhausen 6.30
04/04/45 Lutzkendorf 8.10
09/04/45 Keil 5.55
Total Hours Night 185.45
Day 19.25


Bill Thomas, “Bill Thomas memoir,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,

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