Interview with Harry Parkins. Two


Interview with Harry Parkins. Two


Harry shares several memories of his time as a flight engineer in the Royal Air Force. He describes their initial accommodation in luxury London flats, and dinghy training at the local swimming pool. He recounts how in June 1944 they received 17 bullets in their aircraft on an operation to Wesseling but managed to return safely, also discussing lucky charms and superstition.
Anecdotes include a low flying incident near Skegness for which they were in trouble with the group captain, and the issue of guns and ammunition when some German prisoners escaped. They lost their possessions to the Committee of Adjustment when they were diverted to another airfield.
Harry received army-type training at RAF Bridlington and continued his flight engineering training on Stirlings at RAF St Athan. He was sent to RAF East Kirkby on Lancasters.
Harry collected prisoners of war from Italy and Brussels. He describes people’s recollections of Guy Gibson.
He stayed for seven or so years in the RAF, flying Lancasters and Lincolns at RAF Waddington. Harry relates the delayed publication of a photograph, with a Lincoln and Lincoln cathedral.
Harry outlines his encounter with a group captain who helped him to change his wheel, subsequently inviting him to dinners at the Petwood Hotel and Bomber Command headquarters. Harry received a two minute standing ovation for one of the longest bombing trips of the war.




Temporal Coverage




01:29:35 audio recording


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DE: Harry, you were going to tell me the story of being shot at.
HP: Yes it was on the 21st of the 6th ‘44, we were on operations to Wessling, and we had twelve thousand pounds worth on bombs, we succeeded in doing that but on the way back I spotted what I thought was a plane coming towards us, I shouted to the gunners ‘cause [sic] they hadn’t seen it, and as it got nearer it started firing tracer bullets which was very frightening, and the gunners spotted it and shot at it and luckily they downed it, so we were able to get back home safely but I went down to see where the tracer bullet had gone in the aircraft to see if there was any serious damage, I couldn’t see any but when we landed the ground crew actually cried because there was seventeen holes in the plane and it didn’t fly again, a shame that was, and that took us four hours twenty minutes that trip.
DE: Where were you standing when you saw this aircraft attacking you?
HP: I was just standing by the seat that’s next to the pilot, where there’s a little dome, and standing in that dome you can see all the way round, and I always liked to look all the way round when I wasn’t checking the engines because, it was your job really to spot anything, and some of the frightening aspects of it is if the Perspex wasn’t cleaned very well, in the night time, incidentally that was a night time flight, in the night time if you saw a little speck of dirt that hadn’t been cleaned it could be a fighter coming after you, so we always wanted the ground crew to make sure the Perspex was always as clean as possible.
DE: So what did an incoming eighty-eight look like then?
HP: [slight laugh] it’s hard to remember because with the tracer bullets coming at you, you practically didn’t see the plane, all you saw was these lights coming at you, which was very frightening, it’s bad enough being shot at but to see, actually see it coming at you, it was worse than ever.
DE: Did the pilot take any evasive action?
HP: Yes, he did a slight corkscrew but not too much because the gunners had got the plane, and it went down, so he really didn’t have to do a corkscrew, but that’s a frightening thing when you do a corkscrew, because at one time coming back from an operation, I forget where that was, we were caught in searchlights, and that again is another frightening thing, and it’s, it’s like being on a stage completely naked and everyone’s looking at you, and well the gunner shouted to do a corkscrew and it went really mad, it was a really violent corkscrew, you thought the wings were gonna [sic] come off, but we managed to get out of the searchlight and carry on home, again we were lucky.
DE: And when you landed, you say the ground crew were really upset, was it that obvious then that the plane had been hit?
HP: Yeah, you could see all the holes in the side, yeah, but we didn’t know until after briefing how many holes there was, seventeen all told [sic], which is quite a lot, [pause] that was our twentieth operation that one.
DE: So, you mentioned at certain points when the searchlights were on you or if you were being shot at you felt frightened, how did you feel before and during operations normally?
HP: I didn’t feel too bad because, I think half the time being a young age it was like excitement more than anything else, you didn’t really have a lot of fear at all, at least I didn’t, and I don’t think the rest of the crew did, except maybe the rear gunner because that time when we had a mid-air collision, I think that really frightened him.
DE: But he was OK?
HP: He carried on until the end yeah, and when we finished the tour of ops, they went back to their various countries, which was Australia and New Zealand.
DE: You had another story about some low flying?
HP: Oh yes, my skipper like to do low flying, and, we were low flying what we called air to sea firing where the gunners fired off their guns to make sure everything was OK and you checked various things in the plane and coming back, he decided to do a bit of low flying along Skegness and in actual fact when I looked out from my little blister, I could see the pier above us [laughs], and he still carried on and as we passed further along near to the pier there was two men in a boat, who must have thought we were coming into crash because they jumped out the boat [laughs] and we passed them and coming up to Butlins camp which at that time had been taken over by the navy, and the navy was having a parade on their parade ground and he went so low that the parade all scarpered and ducked down and we all laughed at that and carried on back to East Kirkby, but a couple of days later we were called to the group captains office and he said, ‘first of all you needn’t deny this because we’ve got people who witnessed your aircraft number from the naval station’ and he said the naval officer in charge contacted him because he knew it was from East Kirkby and said that ‘tell your crew that next time if they do that, it won’t be air to sea firing, it’ll be ground to air firing’ and he just said ‘dismissed’, I think he thought it was more of a joke as well [pause], anything else?
DE: Well anything else you can tell me?
HP: I don’t know if I told you about when Pilot Officer Jackson and I went, three, twice with him, did I tell you that?
DE: Yes you did.
HP: I’m just trying to think of the other thing.
DE: Yes you said that three was your lucky number.
HP: Yes, well I lived in 13, Churchill Walk in England, in London I should say and we had a bomb dropped on the next street and it shattered all the windows of our street, right the way along except number thirteen, never touched the windows at all, and with no explanation for that at all.
DE: Would you say you are quite a superstitious person then?
HP: In the way of three and thirteen, yes.
DE: What about any lucky charms did you have anything?
HP: No, never had lucky charms but quite a few air crew used to have lucky charms, and my opinion is that often the lucky charms cause them to do something wrong and end up being either shot down or crashed, because when you think about it, if a member of the crew had a lucky charm and he’d gone and left it before he was flying, instead of his mind being on what he should be doing, his mind was on, ‘what did I do with that lucky charm?’ and during that period something could happen, but that was only my opinion.
DE: So you think it’s more professional just to keep your mind focused on the job?
HP: Oh yes, definitely.
DE: Did you know if anybody in your crew had anything like that?
HP: No, none of them, none at all, the only thing we considered a lucky charm was our whistle and we all had a whistle it was always pinned to your coat.
DE: So the other thing I’ve read about is similar superstitions that if you associated with a certain woman she was unlucky or anything like that, do you have any stories about things like that?
HP: No, the only story I had was that one of the air crew, I don’t know who he was, I think he was a pilot, he’d got going with one of the girls in the village and after a while, whether he got fed up with her or not, she found out that he’d been seeing someone else when he said he was off flying and she happened to be in, the, it was a WAF and she happened to be in where they had the parachutes and as a revenge apparently she cut the strings of the parachute and of course nothing happened for a while but eventually they were shot up and the crew bailed out but his parachute didn’t open properly and that was the end of him, there was an enquiry about that but it was more or less hushed up because it would’ve scared other members of the crew. Whether that was a true story I don’t know but that’s the story that went round.
DE: And you heard that on, during your time on operations?
HP: Yes.
DE: Did you have any associations with any WAF’s?
HP: No, only when I was training I had a association with a land army girl who lived in Nottingham, and, I think it’s more or less after, no towards the end of the war, I was stationed at Stirgate and we got leave and I thought ‘oh I’d go into Nottingham and see if I could find this land army girl’ and as it happened, whilst I was in Nottingham I met up with some Americans and they got chatting to me and they said they had a club, would I like go into the club and having a few drinks, well a few drinks ended up to a lot of drinks and then I found out where this land army girl lived and I knocked on the door and she came out and give me a cuddle and said ‘oh lets go for a walk’, and at Nottingham there’s the Lincoln castle where you go up a sort of a hill, and we were walking up there and we got to the top, we were going to sit down and have a chat and I was dying for a leak [slight laugh] and I said ‘I’m ever so sorry, I’ve got to go and find a toilet’ and I actually run down all the hill to find somewhere, I found somewhere, when I went back up she’d gone, [slight laugh] that was the end of that ‘cause [sic] she didn’t like people drinking, and that’s about the only experience I had.
DE: Did you have a lot to do with Americans then?
HP: Not really, but we did have an American who swapped a pilots, with, he came to East Kirkby as a pilot on Lancaster’s and an English pilot went onto theirs, to go onto super fortresses , just an exchange and it appeared the American was a bit of an unruly type so that’s why they were keen to get rid of him go to the RAF, but if ever we went out together because we always get chatting together, he would go into Boston with us and instead of wearing either his American outfit or his British outfit he used to go with part aircrew American on top and part RAF at the bottom and he was always being picked up by MP’s, but being American he always got away with it, and there was one incident where, it was when a lot of prisoners made an escape and the Germans found out where they were coming up and I don’t know if you ever read about it but the Germans shot, I think it was about thirty or forty of the escapees, so at that time the group captain said that if anybody wanted to draw a gun, fifteen rounds of ammunition, he’s not saying you should do that but if you felt you wanted to you could do, so I think nearly half the air force drew guns and fifteen rounds of ammunition, and this American he’d got his gun and fifteen rounds of ammunition, and outside his nissen hut, there was a tree where a blackbird used to come every day twittering away and it upset him he didn’t like this blackbird so he went outside and fired at it but he never hit it at all until he run out of ammunition , and I can remember also, where you went for ablutions, it was in a place outside where your nissen hut was, and they used to issue you with a tin bowl, and I was walking across with this tin bowl and all of a sudden a bullet hit this tin bowl [laughing], I dropped the tin bowl and rushed into the ablution, never found out who fired it, but there was so much ridiculous firing going on round the airdrome at East Kirkby that the group captain got to know about this and he said ‘right, that is stupid of all these people’, so he wanted all the guns handed, handed in and all the ammunition handed in, well, all the guns were handed in OK but I think there was only ten rounds of ammunition, all the rest had been spent. Similar things like, in my crew a New Zealander, he didn’t like flies and we used to often play darts a lot and he saw this fly going across the dart board so out come the gun firing, [laughing] firing at the fly, so as I say there was all daft things like that going on, that’s why the group said, group captain said ‘right they’ve all got to come back in again’, he didn’t trust any of them.
DE: So, people in your crew took them, did you take one?
HP: Oh yeah, we all took one I think, as I say, I think everybody who was allowed to took one, I never fired mine, I don’t think my crew did except this New Zealander, he did at the dart board [laughs] a crazy lot.
DE: I’ve read in other people’s stories that the medical officers sometimes gave tablets to help you get through night operations, did that ever happen with you?
HP: Never heard of it, never, although once when I got a sty on my eye it was considered to be unlucky if you couldn’t go off on your routine operations one after the other all the way through, and I got such a bad sty on my eye, I thought ‘well they won’t let me fly’, so I said to the crew ‘I’m going down to sick quarters’ to see if they can do anything, and sick quarters was quite a way off the airdrome and it had a seat in there which was just concrete to sit on while you was waiting to be seen by the doctor, well when I got there there was nobody else there but the doctor wasn’t there, and while I was sat there, the dentist came out and he said ‘it must be freezing cold over there, son’ he said ‘come in, sit on the dentist chair and we’ll have a look at your teeth’ [laughs] so he had a look at me teeth and before I knew it he’d took one out and [laughs] I got blood all over me shirt and I said ‘oh I only came in for me eye’ he said ‘well it was much warmer in here wasn’t it?’, [laughs] and I said ‘yes’ and his WAF helper, she said ‘oh here’s the doctor now, so you can go in next door and see the doctor’, and he looked at me and said ‘good God, what’s all this blood all over you?’ ‘I said ‘well the dentist decided to keep me in the warm and took a tooth out’ and I’m sure, it was that one there, and I’m sure there was nothing wrong with it, and he looked at me eye and he said ‘I could lance it’ and he played around with the sty for several minutes and he said ‘if you go back and rest before you get your briefing’ he said, ‘I think you’ll be OK’ and that was it, I carried on on ops.
DE: I would’ve thought you’d need more time off for having a tooth out?
HP: Yeah [laughs]. We certainly had some funny things happening during our time in the RAF.
DE: You briefly mentioned the ablutions then, what were the living accommodations and the ablutions like there?
HP: Well it was only a nissen hut with so many beds all the way down which weren’t all that comfortable but you had plenty of blankets that you could put underneath or over the top of the mattress so it weren’t too bad and the ablutions was, well you had to take your own bowl, you didn’t get hot water, just turned the tap on and that was it, so it was very sparse, but you got on with it, you didn’t complain, if you complained nothing would happen about it [slight laugh], and another thing happened, they used to be card mad and if you weren’t on any day light trips or anything like that, you used to sit there playing pontoon or shoot, shoot pontoon, I don’t know if you knew that, it was where you had a dealer and he’d go round to everybody to see how much they’d put it the deal in the front, either to match his or over match it then as they dealt the cards round to each person you said ‘shoot’, either put a bit more money in or you left it as it was and you either lost or you won and you took something out or put something in and when it got to my turn, I had an ace and I thought its worth shooting the lot , so I shot the lot, I got a queen and the damn dealer got a king so his took preference over mine so I lost the lot and another fella next to me, weren’t member of my crew, he had an Indian motorbike and he’d done the similar thing and lost it all so he still wanted to go again so dealer said ‘what have you got?’ and he said ‘well, I’ve got no money left but I’ll put my motor bike in’ [laughs] and he put the motorbike in and he lost, so round it went and when it came to my turn again and I said ‘I’ve got no money neither but I’ll shoot the motorbike and I’ll have to pay if I lose, at a later date’, anyways I won so I won this motorbike and I had no clues what so ever how to drive a motorbike, and the fella who had originally lost it, he said ‘you lucky devil’ he said ‘I’ll show you what to do’ and we got outside the nissen hut ‘cause the card game had finished and he said ‘right, you do this, do that, and away you go’, so I did that and did that and I went straight through the ablution, straight through [laughs], straight through the covers that were on the outside and just stopped so I said ‘no I don’t want this anymore’ [laughing], I had a few bruises but the motorbike was OK, except where there was a big hole in the side of the ablution, so the next time we played I put the motorbike in purely to lose it, and I never went on a motorbike again.
DE: Probably quite right. So did you play cards with other crews?
HP: Yeah there was all sorts that used to mix in with playing cards yeah, yeah there was one time when we were due leave but the train wasn’t due till, I forget probably about half past ten or eleven and we were always up before seven, you go for your breakfast, come back and waiting to go in, get in to Boston station and you’d play cards, and I played cards and lost again, lost all me money, I went on leave purely with your leave application where you didn’t have to pay anything and when I got to London, I relied on my father to pay for the fayre to get back home, and I said what I had been doing, playing cards and he said ‘your best bet is to leave cards alone unless you’ve got a good memory for where cards turn up’, so I never played cards again [slight laugh].
DE: So just quickly going back to the nissen hut, who did you share with?
HP: Just your own crew, maybe, possibly another crew that were in a nissen hut nearby, so it weren’t too bad, bit cold in winter though, yeah [pause], but I had a cut throat razor, as where we used to live in London, we always used to go to the top of the road ‘cause there was a Jewish barber there and he was always asking about me, when I come home on leave I always used to go there to have a haircut and have a chat with him and he said, ‘you’ll soon be needing to shave, won’t you?’, I said ‘well I got a little bit of stubble coming’, he said ‘I’ve got something for you, I’ve saved this for you’ and it was a German crop razor one of the best there could be and he said, ‘there you are, that’s for you’ and eventually I had to use this, and people used to come and watch me shaving thinking that if I got the twitch from flying I’d cut myself [slight laugh] but I never did and then we went off somewhere and we came back and somehow the call up[?] seemed to go astray, went wrong and instead of landing at east Kirkby we landed at another field, airfield nearby, can’t remember what it was, it might have been Strubby or some name like that, and when we landed we had briefing and they said ‘oh you are not far from East Kirkby so you may as well stay the night, which we did, then next morning refuelled and fly back to East Kirkby, when I went into the nissen hut there was nothing of mine there, it had all gone, and I had a wallet where one of the young ladies I knew in London had given me a ten pound note and I’d always kept that in this wallet for emergencies and that had gone, ‘cause you weren’t allowed to take anything on ops with you, nothing to identify you, and what had happened, if any crews were shot down or didn’t come back, rather than send any of the stuff that the person had kept, they used to have what they called a committee of adjustments, and that was where the stuff was put in to be auctioned off and everything was auctioned and I lost all my stuff, and other members of the crew had lost their radio or maybe a bike, it was all gone, so I never ever got my razor back.
DE: Oh dear and this was because you were somewhere else for one night?
HP: Yeah, they thought we had been shot down.
DE: So for the sake of one phone call, you lost all your kit.
HP: Yeah. That was one of those things, but hardly anybody had ever heard of it, committee of adjustments, I’ve never heard of anybody who knew about it, none of the parents or lovers knew about it either, it just all sort of vanished.
DE: And over efficient as well it seems.
HP: Yeah, very efficient [laughs]
DE: You mentioned when you were talking about your razor, about the dangers of shaving if you got the twitch, could you explain a little bit about the twitch?
HP: Yeah, well that was where some air crew who had got so scared, that they were too scared to admit that they were frightened and they used to have a sort of twitch which gave them away, you know when they were walking along they would go like that somehow, do a funny little twitch with a hand or the head and we we [sic] had one fella who had got it so bad he was walking along as though he was carrying a ladder and if anybody was near him they’d shout at them ‘get out the way, can’t you see the ladder?’ and he’d got nothing, again [laughing] this is what we called the twitch.
DE: Did these people carry on flying then?
HP: Some of them did and some of them didn’t, they ended up in hospital you know having consultations and things like that, see if they could get them back to normal.
DE: Did you know anyone personally?
HP: No. I say on an airdrome or a base you’d mainly know your own crew really thoroughly but other crews you didn’t really mix a lot at all, so didn’t know many of them at all, ‘cause many a time I spoke or people have asked me about being in East Kirkby and they say, ‘do you know Jack Thompson?’, I said ‘never heard of him’, ‘oh well he was there, he was at East Kirkby’, as I say you just didn’t know these people, unless they were someone famous.
DE: So you wouldn’t talk to each other in briefing or anything like that then?
HP: Not really no, ‘cause your crew was your crew altogether and further down was their crew, all listening to what was going on.
DE: I see, what about the ground personnel and the ground crew that looked after your aircraft?
HP: They were smashing, really good blokes, yeah.
DE: Did you have more to do with them then?
HP: Not really, only when we took off and come back again, so you didn’t really mix with them in the mess because most of them were, I forgot what, LAC’s, they weren’t sergeants or anything like that, so they were in a different category.
DE: I just wondered if you chatted to them about anything out on the dispersals?
HP: You did occasionally but not very often, not unless like when we came back and we had seventeen holes and they were upset about it.
DE: Did you always fly the same aircraft then if you could?
HP: No you had several different aircrafts but in just looking at that, we flew an X, X X X X, the same Lancaster all the time there, then, after that X X, Q V, all different letters to the different Lancaster’s.
DE: I’ve read somewhere that the ground crew said that the aircraft belonged to them and the air crew only borrowed it.
HP: Yes [laughs] I think that’s true as well, because they really were good blokes, nothing wrong with them at all, they really looked after your aircraft, [pauses] in fact they should have got more praise than they ever did, ground crews.
DE: Did you have any views about what you were doing? I know it’s been a matter of debate since the war a lot.
HP: Not really, but I always thought we were doing the right thing as being a Londoner and being in the Blitz, seeing what had been happening in London and you felt you were doing the right thing to do the same thing back to them.
DE: Yes you mentioned last time we spoke how you were on your way to work and the factory wasn’t there anymore.
Hp: Yeah, so you know you had that feeling we were doing the proper thing.
DE: I can’t remember if I asked you much about your recruitment and your training?
HP: Well I think I mentioned that, two lads at the outer city trip (?-name of company) transport company where we were thinking we might get called up, we were having our lunch and we were debating should we volunteer and we decided we ought to so we got what we wanted and we went straight out after lunch, straight down to the recruiting office and both volunteered for the RAF and that was because I thought it was safer in the air than on the ground at the time.
DE: Yes you said that you didn’t want to join the navy because you couldn’t swim very well.
HP: No only across the canal because there was a big canal near us in London and we often used to go and swim across the canal, and we also used to get an old bike wheel, break all the spokes out and thread a sack round, put some string on and drop it down, pull it up and we’d got loads of sticklebacks and it reminded me of that, seeing I don’t know if you watch it, Countryfile, it was showing you about a stickleback there that was blowing its nest waiting for the little ones to come out and they called it the star of the show and it reminded me of that because we used to sell these sticklebacks then to other kids, because everybody used to like a fish in a jar, made a little bit of money doing that. [laughs]
DE: But you were expected into the RAF and then you went away?
HP: Yes we, we went first of all to the flats were film stars used to be, the RAF had accommodated those and I thought it was marvellous because the bathroom was cut glass all the way around with like fish swimming round and I thought ‘boy this is the life to be in the RAF’ but that was only temporary while we were doing the training, and also on the square we had a fella called Alva Liddel, he used to be an announcer for the news and he always used to say ‘this is the news and Alva Liddel speaking it’ and he happened to be in, I don’t know whether he volunteered or not or was called up, but he was on the square and in the papers it said ‘this is Alva Liddel on the square, bashing it’, so that was interesting and we were opposite London zoo and we had our food in the zoo, and people used to be wondering around looking at us having food in the zoo which seemed strange to them, and there used to be a place, I forget the name of the place but we used to march from the flats where the square was, down across the stop lights on Marylebone road to a swimming baths, where we used to have training for, if you came down how to turn the, not the airborne lifeboat, it was like a big circle, I can’t remember what they call that now, but often if you dropped it for you to go in to, it would turn up the wrong way so the bottom of it was on the top and there was like a suction, so you had to be able to go over the top of it, hold on just where the bottle was for blowing it up, grab hold of that and pull yourself up like that and go right the way under and re-put it right, [DE: turn the dingy the right way round] yeah dingy that was it I couldn’t remember what they were called them, yeah and I wasn’t pretty good at that even though I couldn’t swim very far, but they used to make you march in this place as well, because they put boards across and if it was raining you could go in there and do your marching up and down on these boards, when it was swimming they used to take all the boards up and you did the swimming exercise, and there was one where this sergeant he called out, I don’t know if I mentioned this before, he called out that all the crews that were there had to put on their flying suit and he said ‘I want all the swimmers this end and all the non-swimmers that end’, so I thought to myself ‘I don’t know what he’s going to do so I’m going to go to the non-swimmers’ so I was down the non-swimmers which was the least deep part of it and all the swimmers were up by the diving board, then he said ‘right I don’t want anybody to move but all the non-swimmers come up by the diving board’, all the swimmers went down to the non-deep side and the idea was you had to climb up to the top diving board and jump off with your flying suit on then swim to the side if you could, and I was that scared of having to go up that ladder I kept getting behind and behind and behind, and I was the last one and everybody was booing me and he came up to me and he said ‘I can understand you being scared but just go up to the top, I’ll come with you and just look over and you’ll be OK’, he said ‘then you can come back down’ so I believed him and I went up with him, got to the top, and he said ‘you can let go of the bars either side’, so I let go and he just pushed me and down I went and I went right down under, well I didn’t come up because where the zips on my flying suit didn’t work they just filled up with water, held me down, so there was panic on to fish me out, get me back and pump me chest to get me spilling all the water out and after a while I was OK, but I wouldn’t dive after that [slight laugh], and that was a frightening experience, and I always hoped that I would never have to jump out of an aircraft into the sea or even have to turn the dingy over, but luckily we never had to, but that was a frightening experience before I even got to flying.
DE: So what other things did they have you doing for your training to be an engineer?
HP: Oh before you was, became an engineer you had to do like army training, going through tunnels and climbing over things and that was done at Bridlington, I think I mentioned that, [DE: briefly yes], well that was where we were marching along and I looked over the side and I thought that looks like my Uncle Ernie, and I didn’t know he was in the army, he’d been called up, and I just went marching over to him, because the sergeant halted the crew, came over to me and shouted, shouted a few abusive words at me and I said ‘well that’s my Uncle Ernie’, he said ‘I don’t care if it’s the f’ing queen’ he said ‘you don’t walk out of my marching section’, so I got ten days working in the cook house cleaning dirty tins, yeah, and he got chatting to me uncle to see if it was true, he was my uncle and they got quite friendly and he used to arrange football matches between the RAF and the army, ‘cause the army didn’t get on very well with the RAF but that broke the ice down.
DE: Why didn’t the army and the RAF get on?
HP: Well we were called the ‘Brylcreem boys’ [laughs], supposed to be the aloof.
HP: Did I mention that on, when they were expecting the invasion from the Germans they put us on duty either end of Bridlington with our rifle, so many rounds of ammunition and you had to march up a little way and back just to see if there was any invaders coming and shoot them, and this particular time it was a moonlight night with the clouds suddenly going over, and I looked up at one of the hotels and I could see what I thought was somebody flashing to the enemy, so I thought ‘well I’ve got to go and investigate as I’ve seen it’, and I got my rifle ready, I went scrambling up the stairs, right to the top, and as I went along the top corridor I saw another fella coming at me with the rifle and it frightened the life out of me, I dropped my torch, dropped my rifle and ran like mad and when I got to the bottom I thought ‘that was odd, nobody shot at me and nobody come running after me’ and I couldn’t work it out so I thought I better go back, pick me gun up, rifle, and when I got up there I realised I’d saw myself in a mirror [laughs] at the end of the corridor and there was anybody there and the light that I thought was somebody signalling was as a cloud went over the moon it was flickering on the window and the window was sort of flashing, I never told anybody about that [slight laugh] so that was another funny story.
DE: Were you at Bridlington very long then?
HP: Not long, no.
DE: Where did you go after that?
HP: After Bridlington, it was to do with going down to Saint Athens where you learnt everything from the book and from me looking at the engines to find out how they all worked and that took a couple of months, so you really knew everything about the Stirling bomber, and then you eventually went flying with different people in a Stirling and that’s where I said you were dead scared seeing as you’ve never flown before and you were meeting your crew for the first time in the bar, and that’s when this Aussie, rear gunner come up to me and said ‘you sound a bit like us, mate’ I said ‘why where you from?’ because I didn’t know where he was from, he said ‘Australia, where are you from?’ I said ‘Hackney’ he said ‘where’s Hackney?’, I said ‘in London’ he said ‘that sounds good, Hackney Harry’, ‘cause I’d told him my name and that’s when he said come and meet the crew, and I think I went through that.
DE: Yeah you did, you mentioned you got put on a charge and had to work in a kitchen?
HP: Yeah that was through meeting me uncle.
DE: What did they have you doing in there?
HP: Well all the greasy tins when they fried anything or done anything, they couldn’t wash them straight away, so you had to scrub away with the brush to get all the grease off and you had to do that at breakfast time, dinner time and evening meal time, which weren’t very good [slight laugh].
DE: Was it a fitting punishment then do you think?
HP: Yeah, I didn’t think so at the time, but there in the hotel where we used to go into, there was a stairway like that coming up with a landing like that and the toilet was right in the middle, and there was no locks or anything on it, did I tell you about that? [DE: no] well there used to be a scotch fella, who always had a great big knife, always down the side of his belt and I was on the toilet and this scotch fella came out, bashed the door open and said ‘out’ [emphasis], like that and it so infuriated me, I head butted him, he’s much bigger than me, great big bloke, and he went over the banisters, landed on the floor, I, I honestly thought I’d killed him and the sergeant come over and he was still laid there, he’d been knocked out actually, ended up in sick quarters, and all the rest of the air crew that used to be training there they were really scared of this scotch men and I became his best friend because nobody had ever stood up to him and it really upset him and he looked after me from then on, [slight laugh] but it was a frightening experience.
DE: Did you keep in touch with him?
HP: No, no once we split up, went off to you know the squadron where you met your crew and started flying with them, and as I said before it was with Stirling’s to start with and then after a little while they decided Lancaster’s were coming in, so you ended up at East Kirkby on Lancaster’s and I think I told you what happened when I said that I needed more training, they put me on ops.
DE: Yeah. That’s smashing, I think we’ll call that a day unless you can think of any other amusing anecdotes? I’ve ticked all the questions I had for you.
HP: Yeah, well when I was at the end of my first tour training with, I think I said that the pilot trained a pilot and the engineer trained an engineer, and I was with a, a pilot and we’d be on a cross country or something and it was dark when we were coming back so they used to let you go round the circuit before you came in, and this particular time someone fired up a red flare which meant there was danger you couldn’t land, and the pilot carried on landing and I said to him ‘we can’t land, there’s something wrong’, I think somebody had crashed before us, so he said ‘oh, we better go round again’, so we went round again, he was a squadron leader and he’d been on a lot of ops, and as we come round again, another red flare went up and he said ‘oh good we’re ok now’, I said ‘no it’s a red flare, what’s up with you, are you blind or something?’ [laughs] and round we went again and we were called up on the intercom to keep flying round until a green flare was fired, so we did this until I spotted a green flare coming up and I said ‘it’s ok now, there’s a green flare’, so he said ‘ok, we’ll go into land’ and when we’d landed and taxied round I said to him ‘I know you are a higher rank than me but I’m wondering if you’re bloody colour blind’ and he said ‘sssh, I am’ [whispers] and he said ‘I’ve never admitted it to anyone’, he says ‘so please, please don’t report me’, I didn’t know what to do really, because he was training he wasn’t on ops anymore so I just forgot about it, and I thought well if he’d been on ops, he’s done his share so let the poor bloke carry on, but that was frightening as well ‘cause if I hadn’t had said something he would have gone in and probably have crashed into the other plane crash.
DE: Which operation training unit was this you were at then?
HP: Can’t remember where that was. It might have been at Stirgate, fifty squadron ,Stirgate, it was there and that’s where we went on to picking up the passengers in Italy.
DE: Yes, you told me about that.
HP: Oh and another time we had to go to Brussels, this was after the war, to pick up twenty four ex-prisoners of war and the first time went there, everything went through OK, we had a couple of days off and then we had to go again and as we were coming into land, my pilot was looking either side because there’d been a lot of aircraft that had crashed there, and they were just bulldozed over the side and he was looking at, ‘oh look at that, that’s an American so and so, oh look at that’, and there was a great big gulley where somebody had crashed there and they’d moved the plane out the way and we went into that and burst a tire and an American bulldozer come out, up to us, I’d got, well we’d all got out the plane and he said ‘ok, everybody out the plane, I’m bulldozing you over to the side ‘cause other planes have got to come in’, I said ‘no you daren’t, you’re not gonna [sic] bulldoze my plane’, I said ‘we’ll wait until we get a new tyre’ he said ‘no I’m gonna bull doze it’, so all the crew stood in front of him so he couldn’t do it so in the end he gave up and somebody else came out and towed us over to the side where we had to wait for somebody to bring out another wheel for us, and that was at Brussels and we ended up at Melbrook, wherever that was and then we got the tyre all sorted out and then went on to our base, that was a daylight operation.
DE: Did you bring many prisoners of war back then?
HP: Yeah there was twenty four there, another twenty four the second time and then when we went to Italy there was six where we brought twenty back at a time so [adds up out loud] so that’d be about hundred and eighty blokes coming back.
DE: How does that make you feel that you did that?
HP: It made us feel good because they couldn’t get back other than by sea and going by plane it was a couple of hours so they were really grateful to us but really scared of flying, so we went without our parachutes to prove to them that it was safe to fly [slight laugh]
DE: What state were the POW’s in?
HP: Very poor state, very poor, some of, some of them were being sick but they couldn’t help it because they’d never ever flown before and some had bandages on them where they had broken their limbs, but it felt really good fetching them back.
DE: The other thing I’ve read about, about flights at the end of the war, where you had a sort of tour of Germany and had a look at the bombing, did you do any of those?
HP: No, no I didn’t hear about it though.
DE: I think people called them cook’s tours?
HP: No never heard of it, [pauses] the only time I heard of anybody going around, looking round again is Guy Gibson, I think I told you about that didn’t I? I had a mate, air crew flight engineer, used to on the same sort of ops as we did but I had done a lot more than him, we got very friendly and if we managed to get back we’d go into the pub and exchange stories, and this particular time he was right down in the mouth, he wouldn’t have a drink and I couldn’t get him to talk and I thought he’d got lack of moral fibre and was likely to disappear, so I kept talking to him and in the end he said ‘I’ve been sworn not to say anything ‘, so I said ‘well that’s a bit daft’ I said ‘because we could be not here, on our next op so what does it matter about telling me what you’re on about?’ so he said ‘alright then’ he said ‘you know we’re the last ones to get in the plane after our inspection?’ I said ‘yeah’ he said ‘I was just going up the ladder and this bloke come up to me, pushed me out the way and before I knew it was on the plane’, he said ‘I didn’t know what to do so I pulled the ladder up and went up to my position’, he said ‘and when I got there was this bloke sat in my seat and he just said ‘bugger off down the back’ and I was just about to shout at him when the pilot said’ ‘ssh, it’s Guy Gibson’ he was a squadron leader then, so I shut up and listened to rest went on and he said ‘all the way over when we went on the op he was criticising everybody, the gunners, the navigator wasn’t doing it right, the pilot wasn’t watching this and watching that’ and he said when they got to the target, they went round, dropped the bombs and the idea was you got away quick but Guy Gibson said ‘hang on, go round I want to have a look’ and he made the pilot go round about three times before they flew off back and all on the way back he still criticised them all and he said just as we were coming into land he said ‘I wanna [sic] speak to every member of the crew, I want you to swear an oath that you never saw me in this plane’ and he said ‘it frightened the lives out of all of us’ and that was why he was like he was but anyways he got over that and carried on flying, and I never liked Guy Gibson and when I once went to, I forget where it was, somewhere near Coningsby, which was the end of the runway where they’d got a museum there of what happened with bomber command and one of the fellas there happened to mention something about Guy Gibson and I said ‘I hated him, from what he did to one of my mates’ so he said ‘you’re not the first one to say that’ I said ‘why?’, he said ‘well there was a young pilot who was just about going to take off, walking up to his plane and Guy Gibson happened to be just at the side and he called this pilot over and he said ‘don’t you ever salute your superiors and the pilot said ‘I didn’t know you did that when you’re going off flying’ and he said ‘right, when you come back, you’ll be reduced in rank’, reduced him down to sergeant from a pilot officer, he said and that’s why he didn’t like Guy Gibson, but strange nobody liked him not on the squadron he was at and there was once when we come back from ops, we went into the pub and all of a sudden there was a shout and everybody saying ‘wahey’ and I said ‘is that the end of the war, have we finished?’ and somebody said ‘no, Guy Gibson’s caught the bucket’, in other words he’d gone down and that was where he’d gone off with some, I think it was mosquitos he was flying and on the way back instead of keeping with them, he spotted a train and he decided to go down and shoot this train up, and the story we heard was that one of the guards on the train had a rifle and he fired at Guy Gibson’s plane and a million to one chance he hit the fuel tank and it blew up and he went in, but that was all hushed up, they gave another story about why he was shot down.
De: What was the other story?
HP: I forget what it was but he was coming back and he was with the two other mosquitos and he was unlucky that got a shot that hit his plane and down he went, but we believed the first story, no he was never liked at all.
DE: Why was that do you think, was that just his attitude?
HP: His attitude to everybody, he was the king and he was the one who knew everything.
DE: Was there a lot of discipline or difference between people with officers and sergeants?
HP: There was some, I wouldn’t say a lot, but often when people were sergeants and they were made up to officers, that’s when you got a bit of flack, ‘cause I always remember after the war there was something happening and all crews were going to this place, I forget where it was, and I’d been issued with medals and I’d got the air crew Europe and star, because I had actually flown before my crew had so I come under that particular section and my pilot who’d got the DFC on behalf of crew co-operation, we never got anything so we were a bit bitter about that but I happened to spot my pilot and I went up to him to shake hands and say ‘how you doing?’ and the first thing he said to me, ‘how is it you got that?’ I said ‘what?’ he said ‘the air crew Europe and star? I’ve only got the air crew Europe’, I said ‘that’s because I flew before you’ and he weren’t very pleased and just walked off, never even spoke to me, so that sort of thing did happen.
DE: Was there a difference between people who were flying before the war and people who were volunteer reserve?
HP: Not really no, they were all doing the same thing.
DE: So how long did you stay in the RAF for?
HP: I think it was about seven or eight years, all told [sic]
DE: So what did you fly after the war?
HP: It was Lancaster’s and Lincoln’s, that was at Waddington, and did I tell you about the story of taking a photo of a, a Lincoln bomber? well when the Lincoln’s come onto the squadron, I was thinking about this and I thought to myself ‘it’d be marvellous , a Lincoln bomber flying over Lincoln Cathedral’, sounded good and I said this to my pilot and he said ‘yeah that sounds good’, he said ‘if you could get it organised ‘cause I’d had more experience than this new pilot, so I said to the photographer who used to unofficially do our photographs for us, I told him about this, he said ‘that would be marvellous, if you get me on the plane’, so I spoke to another pilot and we all agreed that we’d do this, we’d be in a plane with the photographer and another plane in the Lincoln would fly over Lincoln Cathedral but he happened to be late on take-off, the Lincoln pilot, and he came in a bit late, but because he was late he went flying too low and he went below the cathedral so anyways we got the photo of this, got back on the ground and I said ‘I’m going up to the photographer’s to see how he’s getting on’, so when I got there, he said ‘oh come in’ he said ‘a fabulous picture, Lincoln bomber flying below Lincoln Cathedral’ he said ‘it’s absolutely marvellous’ and he’d put the either negatives or something on a drum which used to go round to dry these photographs and just as he was doing this the group captain came in, inspected and he said ‘what are you two up to?’, ‘nothing, sir’ saluted him and out came this picture and he looked at it, he said ‘good God are you trying to get me demoted?’ he said ‘that’s illegal [emphasis], where is the negative?’ so the photographer was dead scared gave him the negative, he ripped it up and he ripped the photograph up and he said ‘you deserve to be on a charge, you two’ and he stormed off , and just as he stormed off the second picture came out and I grabbed hold of it and put it in my battle dress and the photographer said ‘you can’t do that!’, I said ‘I’ve done it, cheers’ and I kept this right the way till the end of the war and when I came out and I got friendly with a photographer, can’t remember his name now, of the Echo and he got to hear where I was working at Thorne electrical wholesalers and he phoned me up and said could he come in and see me so I said ‘what for?’, he said ‘I’d like to have a chat with you’ and in my office ‘cause I was a manager, I had a big picture up of the Lancaster and anybody who used to come in to see me said ‘that’s a super picture, why have you got that in an electrical wholesalers?’, because I said ‘I was in them’ and I used to get in with these people who used to come flogging you things for the electrical side, so he came in and he saw this picture, he said ‘that’s marvellous’, I said ‘I got a better one than that’ and he asked me questions like you have about me war record and he said ‘can you fetch that picture in to me?’ and I said ‘yeah I can fetch it in but I don’t want to let go’ so he said ‘OK’ he said ‘I’ll have a word with the editor and see if we can publish it’, so a couple of days later he rang me up at work and said I’ve got some sad news, he said the editor said it’s on RAF paper, it’s illegal photograph and he said it couldn’t be published until say twenty five years until that time had expired so he said ‘but I’m keeping it on file’, so I said ‘Ok then’ he said ‘I’ve got a copy of it and I’ll let you have that back’ and I got a copy in the bedroom I’ll let you have a look, and I suppose about twenty years afterwards he rang me up at work and he said ‘do you get the Lincoln Echo?’, I said ‘now and again’, he said ‘well buy it today’ so I did, front page was this picture, that marvellous picture and no end of people wanted to know how I took this and I told them and as I say I can show you the actual photograph, but this group captain, did I tell you about him who lived across the way? When I got a puncture outside his house? [DE: yes you told me but it’s not on the tape] Oh I was going one Sunday to get the Sunday paper and just as I got near this group captains house, I didn’t know he was a group captain, something went wrong with the car and I got out and I found I got a puncture and I jacked the car up, tried to get the wheel off but do you think I can undo those nuts, just couldn’t do it, and this young fella come strolling over and he said ‘I can help you there, I’m a younger fella than you’ so I said ‘oh thank you’ and he did everything, put the old one in the boot and put the new one in pumped it up, I said ‘oh thanks very much’ so he said ‘I hear you was in the war, in the RAF, is that right?’ I said ‘yes, I was flight engineer’, he said ‘did you do any ops? I said ‘yeah, I did thirty nine all told [sic] and had a mid-air collision at East Kirkby’ he said ‘good God and you’re still here’ [laughs] I said ‘yeah’, then he put out his hand and said ‘well done, I’m a squadron leader’ no he was a wing commander then, ‘I’m a wing commander’ so I said ‘well fancy that, that’s a new one ain’t [sic] it?, a wing commander changing the wheel of a warrant officer [slight laugh], it’s never been known’ and he laughed and he said ‘can I come across and see you?, where do you live?’ I said ‘just across from you’ so a few days later he came over and like you he sat there and he said ‘have you still got your log book?’, because you’re not supposed to have had it really but most people did and I said ‘yeah’, he said ‘can I have a look at it’ and he went through it and he said ‘I can’t believe you’re still here’ [laughs] and he said ‘there’s going to be a do at Petwood hotel’, I forget what it’s called but I can show you what it’s called up here [pause – background noise, moves to collect something] it’s called the memorial dinner, 3rd of July 2009 and there would be all top ranking officers there and these officers either had the girlfriends or their wives there and it was a fabulous dinner because lots of companies had donated money, they didn’t have Petwood hotel chefs they had the, what do they call those top chefs?, I’ve forgotten what they call them at the moment but they did the dinner, wish I could remember the names, you see them on television sometimes, very top chefs, somebody had arranged to have all the drinks so everything was free there and it was marvellous, and half way through, a fella got up and he was a famous painter, don’t know if you’ve ever seen a big elephant, I forget the name, what it was called but he was there and he said ‘gentlemen and ladies’ he said ‘I’ve asked the squadron leader if he would auction those three paintings that I’ve donated to the RAF because my heart is felt with the RAF for what they did during the war’, so the squadron leader got up and the first two paintings went for fifteen hundred pounds each, the last one went for two and a half thousand pounds, so it was smashing all donated to the RAF, and I thought I’ll have to go up and get his signature this fella and I went up and there was a couple of people in front of me and it was funny because one of the group captains wives was there with all her gold and chains on her, and she turned round to me and she said ‘oh’, she saw me medals and she said ‘you were in the RAF were you during the war?’ I said ’yes, that’s what these are for’ she said ‘what did you do?’ I said ‘I was a flight engineer on Lancaster’s and I did thirty nine ops’ she said ‘good God can I kiss you?’ [laughs] I said ‘if you wish’ [laughs], she kissed me and she said ‘thank you very much’ she said ‘if it wasn’t for people like you we wouldn’t be here having this do’ so I said ‘oh thank you’ and they gave us one of those, [DE: the mug] also a book of Lancaster’s and spitfires in it, it’s fabulous and then I suppose a couple of months after that, he rang up here and he said ‘would you like to come over?’, so I said ‘yes’ went to his door, he said ‘come in, I want to show you this’ and he showed me his hat and his lapels on his suit and he said ‘I’ve been promoted to group captain’ so I shook his hand and said ‘well done’ and he said ‘we’re having a do at’, he said ‘I’m at bomber command headquarters at the moment now’ he said ‘but I’ve come home for the weekend to show the wife me promotion’ he said ‘so when I go back I want to take you with me to bomber command headquarters and have a big dinner there’, did I tell you about that? So he said ‘have you still got your uniform?’ I said ‘you’re joking its seventy years ago now’, he said ‘well you need to have a dress suit’ so I said ‘well I haven’t even got that’ never even thought about it, so he said ‘well I’ll leave you to it, see if you can get one quick’ and he said by such and such a date, he said ‘I’ll be taking you down with me’, so at that moment my wife wanted to go to Matalans and my son said ‘I’ll come along with you I might see something I want’ ‘cause it’s a bit cheaper buying stuff there so we walked round and my wife brought a few skirts and things, and my son said to me ‘you wanted a dress suit didn’t you?’ he said ‘come and have a look at this’, and they had some dress suits that they were selling off cheaper so I worked out my size, tried a jacket on and it fitted so I said ‘I’ll buy this’ and instead of paying a couple of hundred pound I got one for about forty five quid so I thought that was really good and, I rang him up then, I said ‘I’ve got a dress suit now’ and I said ‘do I need to have me medals put on?’ he said ‘yes’ he said ‘if you bring it across, my wife will stitch them on for you’ so that was good, so did all that, she made some sandwiches and we went all the way down to High Wycombe, when I got there I’ve never seen so many high ranking officers, because I was only a warrant officer, I didn’t really know where to put myself so he said ‘I’m going to take you round’, he said ‘cause I got to do some work’ he said ‘but I’ll come back for you at seven o’clock, be dressed up with your medals on and we’re go and have a drink first with some of the officers, then we’ll go in for the dinner’ so I thought ‘lovely’, so picked me up at seven o’clock, I was put in an officer quarters so that was nice, went down to where they had the bar, had a few drinks and a lot of these top officers had never been on ops at all and they started asking me questions so that was good, and then he said ‘it’s time now to go in to our table’, and all along the top table, group captain was there, I was sat at the side of him and a nice WAF squadron leader at the side of me and we started off with this dinner and then he said ‘we’ve got to drink to the Queen’ and what is coming round is port and there was a great big jug like that of port so I went to grab hold of this big glass to pour mine out and he ‘aaah no you mustn’t touch it, it’s only touched by the squadron leader coming round, its part of the system that we have’ so they poured these glasses out and went all the way round and it was all silver service, you never see anything like it and then, a little while through, air vice marshal got up and he said ‘Gentlemen’, [clap clap] he said ‘I’d like to tell you there’s an interesting person with us tonight and I’d like to speak about him’ and I looked round and I thought maybe the Duke of Edinburgh were there but by the time I turned back he said ‘his name’s ex warrant officer Harry Parkins’ and he said ‘he did one of the longest bombing trips in the war from East Kirkby where they had to top up at the take off point, they went all the way down to Italy to fool the Germans, came all the way back up again to bomb Munich and on the way back his gunner a New Zealander’, no an Australian said ‘Harry we’re going to lose a day of our leave or maybe more if we land down south where we’d been told to go because we might not have enough fuel to get anywhere else’ so he said ‘can you work out the fuel, Harry?’, I said ‘yes’, there was no computers in those days, and I worked it out and I said ‘if there was a sunny morning we’d just about make it’ he said ‘so all the crew said ‘go for it, Harry’ so we did and we landed at East Kirkby on a nice sunny morning and all the engines chopped at the end of the runway’ and he said ‘gentlemen that took ten hours twenty five minutes, the longest that had ever been done in a Lancaster bomber and a hundred and sixty officers got up and gave me a two minute ovation, I didn’t know where to put myself or what to say but I got up and said ‘it wasn’t me gentlemen, it was the crew’, so we carried on with the dinner, and that was really was smashing and then he brought me all the way back home, stayed there about three nights, and one lunchtime, he said ‘I’ll tell you when to come in’, went in at a particular time and there was two other pilots sat with him, we were having your dinner and you could pick almost anything you wanted and it was a Friday so I said I’ll have fish and chips and they all had the same, they all did the same [laughs] and one of these pilots said to me ‘as a flight engineer did you ever do any flying yourself?’ I said ‘oh yes, we had training in a link trainer’ and up to a point I’d never flown a Lancaster but my pilot was a sergeant and then he was promoted to a pilot officer and he went out celebrating that night, and next night we were on flying, on ops and he was still under the weather so went through the briefing, never said much but felt a bit hazy like, he said ‘I’m going to take off Harry’ and I’m sat at the side of him and he said ‘you can do the rest’ I said ‘what do you mean?’, he said ‘ well you’ve had training on the link trainer’ he said I’m going back and having a sleep and you can carry on’, so I flew I think it was about two and a half hours to the bombing target and the bit that amused me most was when they were saying ‘left a bit, left a bit, right’ ‘till we got over the target, bombs away, turn round and on the way back and on the way back, I didn’t feel like doing the landing myself ‘cause I’d never done anything like that so I went back and woke him up and he came up and did the landing, so that was my time of having, flying the Lancaster myself, I didn’t do anymore that was the only time, but I felt quite proud about it and luckily we got back OK.
DE: Well that’s amazing, you mentioned the story of your ten hours twenty five minutes, is there any significance about it being a sunny day?
HP: Yeah because if it had been dark, you might have had to go round the circuit, to get your bearings for coming in, being a sunny day you could just go straight in, no need to go round the circuit, no other plane were likely to be flying there. I told you about the group captain coming in, yeah? So that was another good story.
DE: Smashing, I’m going to press stop there, that’s another hour and a half that, thank you very much.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Harry Parkins. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 14, 2024,

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