Interview with John James Smith


Interview with John James Smith


John Smith grew up near Corby, surrounded by aerodromes, so was used to the sight of aircraft. He observed Lancaster aircraft practising for the Dambusters raid over Eye Brook Reservoir. He also witnessed glider practice and was impressed by the sight of the Flying Fortresses flying overhead. John witnessed German aircraft flying overhead to bomb Coventry and witnessed a German aircraft being shot down. After the war he spent his National Service in the RAF at Church Lawford.




Temporal Coverage




00:34:46 Audio Recording


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ASmithJJ201227, PSmithJJ2001


NM: So, my name is Nigel Moore. I’m recording this interview on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. It’s Sunday the 27th of December and I’m in my house in Bushey, Hertfordshire. I’m going to be interviewing John James Smith, known as Jim who happens also to be my father in law. Jim was born in February 1929 in the village of Gretton where he still lives. Gretton is in the northern part of Northamptonshire and very close to the border with Rutland and Leicestershire. It is also located at the top of the southern escarpment overlooking the valley of the River Welland. So, Jim, tell me about the first ten years of your life before the war. What was life like in the village?
JS: Very quiet. You know it was a small village. Only about six hundred people and we just carried on a farming life really. Though with Corby so close Corby was a steel town making tubes. In fact, it made the tubes for the Pluto and most of the men either worked on the farm or at Corby in the steelworks.
NM: So, what about schooling in your family?
JS: Well, we all went to Gretton Primary School and at thirteen, I got a scholarship to go to the Corby Technical College which is about five miles away. Used to have to cycle that every day. Night, night, night and morning.
NM: So, what, what, what changed in village life when war broke out? Because you, you were ten when war broke out
JS: Yes, well —
NM: What changed?
JS: Well, suddenly about forty children came on the train from London and they all went, issued out to various people. And the people opposite us, an elderly woman she had two boys and she said, ‘Oh, no. I want two girls.’ But she had to have two boys. Two boys. And these children hadn’t seen any green fields at all. They came from inner London and hadn’t seen the countryside at all and the first night, first day the two, two boys went down to the river and on the way they came to across a field of sheep and it started to rain. So they tried to get the sheep to go in the hovel but the sheep wouldn’t cooperate with them so they took their coats off and put them over two sheep, two of the sheep and got wet through themselves. They came back up and the woman said, ‘Where are your clothes?’ They said, ‘Oh, we couldn’t get the sheep to go in the sheds so we put our coats on the sheep.’
NM: So, did, did you village children mix at all with the evacuees?
JS: Yes. We did. Yes. They brought two, two teachers with them but one of them quickly disappeared and the other one he was a bit odd. He used to cycle around the village with his tin helmet on and his trilby on top of that and he was an odd sort of a character he was. So we suddenly had these thirty or forty children came into the school and of course we, our education suffered. And the men in the village came up to the school and dug trenches in the garden so we would have somewhere to go when, when the air raids started but of course we never, never went in the trenches at all and we all, the school issued, was the issuing centre for the gas masks. So we all had our gas masks from there and most of the people in Gretton had their gas masks from there as well. And the children, the very small children had a container with the, they put the children in and that was their gas masks.
NM: So did you all have air raid drills at school?
JS: Not really. No. We, they built blast walls around the cloakrooms and we went and sat in there but they were the only air raid precautions we took.
NM: Did you get the Anderson shelters to dig in your gardens?
JS: No. But there was a few in the village and they, they built above ground shelters but nobody ever used them. We used, we used to sit under the table downstairs during the alarms, when the alarm went off. And we had two radio, aircraft air raid sirens. One was at Uppingham which was always going off that was. We didn’t take any notice of that one. And then the one at Corby and we always took notice when that went off. But there were some ack ack guns at Corby. But they only fired about once or twice. Corby itself was a steel town and had Bessemer converters which were open to the skies and it’s a wonder really that they didn’t come and bomb them. But we had smoke cannisters all around Corby and they were lit and the smoke came out when the air raid sirens went.
NM: So, were there air raid wardens in the village?
JS: Yes.
NM: Firewatchers.
JS: Yes. Fire watchers. My father was an auxiliary policeman and there used to be about four or five of those used to walk around the village every night telling people to put the fire, put the light out if their blackout curtains weren’t good.
NM: Can you remember the night that Coventry was bombed in November 1940?
JS: Yes. We, we could see this glow in the sky and we wondered what it was. The planes were droning over us and in fact one was shot down but you could see the clouds of, well the sky was lit up with the explosions over Coventry and this plane was shot down by a Defiant and it was shot down over the village. We were outside and we saw all these tracers going over and in to the German plane and that landed, well crashed about five miles away at another village. All the people were killed in it.
NM: So, at this point you weren’t under the table in the kitchen then.
JS: No.
NM: You were out watching.
JS: That’s it [laughs] it was mid-evening that was. So it wasn’t, we hadn’t got up and gone under the table. We were standing outside and you could hear the drone, the planes droning over all night long. But that was the only action we saw.
NM: Were you aware that night that it was Coventry?
JS: No. No. We didn’t know what it was. We could see this glow in the sky and we didn’t, somebody said, ‘Somebody’s getting it.’ And we didn’t know who it was. But I had an uncle. He lived in Coventry and he said they went out and stood on a hill overlooking the town, city and they saw this parachute coming down and three or four of them said, ‘We’ll go and get him.’ And they went running towards it and suddenly found themselves on their back. It was a land mine. But no, it was very disappointing the next morning. Very depressed to see the city in ruins.
NM: So, you saw German aircraft that night.
JS: Yeah.
NM: What about other occasions during the war? Did you see any German aircraft at all during the war?
JS: Well, we didn’t, no. There was a lone raider, raider came over during the day and that machine gunned some farmers in the, in the valley but it was shot down near Peterborough. And one night we were all laid in bed and we could hear this plane going over and mother was saying, ‘That’s one of theirs.’ And father said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s one of ours.’ All of a sudden the bedroom lit up and he dropped about forty incendiaries in the valley below us and luckily all in the fields. If that had dropped on Gretton which had a lot of thatched cottages it would have been really serious. But the next morning I rode down to the valley to the site and collected a lot of bits of incendiary bombs. I’ve still got one somewhere in the house.
NM: So, were you the only child there or did you all, all the boys —
JS: No.
NM: From the village go down and all the girls as well?
JS: There were a lot of boys went down but you know it was scattered over two or three fields and we collected all the bombs, bomb bits we could find. All the fins at the bottom of the bombs. Some of the, one or two of them fell in the river itself but they didn’t go off. Or didn’t do any damage.
NM: So, did the Corby steelworks themselves get any damage at all during the war?
JS: No. That was very lucky really. No. Only once. Had got a new post office in Corby which hadn’t been opened and the bomb, one bomber came over dropped a series of bombs and one of them dropped outside the Post Office and opened the Post Office up for them. But the steelworks itself didn’t have a bomb dropped on it at all which was unusual because, you know these Bessemer converters going straight to the sky.
NM: Was there an occasion when one crashed in to the steelworks?
JS: That was an American.
NM: Oh, ok.
JS: A Lightning which, at that time I’d gone to the Corby College and we were at lunchtime and we heard this bang and looked up and the Lightning was coming down. Falling out of the sky. The pilot had parachuted out and it fell on, fell on the steelworks but fell in place with nothing there. Didn’t do any damage. And the pilot, he landed at Great Oakley which was about three or four miles away.
NM: So you’ve no idea why. Why he crashed.
JS: No. No. The plane exploded. Came from [pause] what is it? I can’t think. I can’t. About, an airfield about five miles away. We were surrounded by airfields. American and British.
NM: Yeah. So, in fact, the nearby airfields to Gretton were Cottesmore, Wittering.
JS: Yeah.
NM: North Luffenham and Spanhoe.
JS: Yeah.
NM: Can you give some description of the aircraft traffic you saw during the war? Those airfields.
JS: In the early days of the war they, at North Luffenham and Cottesmore they’d got Lancasters. No. Hampdens and Whitworths and they came over. Took a long time to get over from one side of the, one side of the sky to the other. Just limped over but we didn’t really see many. We saw more of the Yanks when they came to Spanhoe and they had gliders there and they used to take them up. When they got over Gretton they used to let them go and the gliders used to glide down to Spanhoe Airfield. And during, during the D-Day landings and also during Arnhem the roads were all closed round, around Spanhoe and we saw the gliders going off and saw masses of Flying Fortresses from various airfields, you know. Quite a few airfields and Flying Fortresses. One Sunday morning I was at work and suddenly there was a big explosion and one of the Flying Fortresses had failed to take off. All the crew got out, got out and the plane exploded and that evening I cycled over to Deenethorpe which was the airfield and got a belt of .5 ammunition. The police were there but they didn’t say anything to us. I flew away with, I come away with about a dozen .5 ammunition which my father took the bullets out, tipped the gunpowder out and lit that and that just flared and then he put the cartridges in a fire and they went all they detonated. Blew up then. So that was only the only real excitement we had.
NM: So, can I take you back to Spring of 1943 when the Lancasters with 617 Squadron were practicing —
JS: Oh yes.
NM: Over the Eye Brook.
JS: Yeah.
NM: Although, of course you didn’t know who they were at the time.
JS: We didn’t, we didn’t know what it was even. We didn’t know there was a reservoir there but you know in those days we didn’t know what was happening in the next village let alone five or six miles away. We could see these Lancasters coming low over about five miles away and as they come over they fired Very lights at them and we certainly knew afterwards that they’d been practicing at the Eye Brook Reservoir for the Dambusters. That was one of the two reservoirs they trained at.
NM: So, how often did you see them? Was it frequent or was it —
JS: Well, we saw them for about a week. Every night for a week or so and then suddenly they stopped and we realised afterwards what they were all about.
NM: So, they’d come over at night would they?
JS: Well, it was, it was dusk sort of thing. We could see them. That was the other side of the valley from us. So we could see them coming over and these Very lights being fired as they went over.
NM: So, moving back to 1944 again and D-Day and Arnhem. Did you see the gliders go off as it were?
JS: Yes.
NM: [unclear]
JS: We saw a lot of gliders going off. We didn’t know anything about it off course until afterwards. All the roads were closed and you weren’t allowed anywhere near Spanhoe. And the gliders went off and of course they didn’t come back, a lot of them. There’s a memorial at Spanhoe showing all the people who died on the various raids. On various operations that took part.
NM: It must have been an impressive sight. Was it?
JS: Yes. It was. Yes. Most impressive was the Flying Fortresses. Masses of them going over. I don’t, as I say there were four or five aerodromes around us and there were masses of these Flying Fortresses flying over. We didn’t, didn’t know at the time what it was all about but you soon found out of course.
NM: Now, during the war of course you went from being a ten year old schoolboy to sixteen by the end of the war. So, tell me —
JS: Yeah.
NM: Tell me about your development during, during those six years.
JS: Well, at thirteen I left Gretton and went to Corby Engineering College and I used to have to cycle there morning and evening. We didn’t see a lot. We saw all these smoke cannisters but never saw them lit. But one night, one evening when I came home from school the ground was covered in these plastic, white plastic pictures of foil. We didn’t know what that was about but of course it was practising the radar and they were all over the place they were. Had bits of foil all over the hedges everywhere.
NM: So, this was Window was it?
JS: Yeah. Windows. Yeah.
NM: So, at Technical College you were training for what? What was your —
JS: Engineering training.
NM: Engineering training.
JS: Yeah. Yeah. And of course, most of the people there went in to the steelworks or part of the steelworks.
NM: So, by the end of the war you were still going to that Technical College.
JS: Yes.
NM: What, what can you remember about VE Day itself? What happened in the village? How did you feel about it all?
JS: Well, everybody was very pleased of course and they had a big bonfire in one of the fields and a greasy pole. I’ll always remember that because most of the men would try and climb up this greasy pole and not succeeding. And in the end they pushed this chap up with two poles under his feet. And when he got to the top and got the flag he got a small pig and piglet and that’s the only real thing I can remember really about the VE Day.
NM: So after the end of the war I know you did National Service. What happened between you, the end of the war and you doing your National Service?
JS: Well, there was one other thing with regard to the Americans they decided, well with their, with our Army cadets they said they’d take us all up. And they took two Dakotas. We sat in the Dakotas. No seats of course. We sat on the floor and they took us up on one Sunday afternoon for about half an hour and flew around and then we had our tea up there. Had cakes which I hadn’t seen before and it was very very very good of them. And then when the rationing was on you had to cycle to Corby every Saturday and get cakes which weren’t available in the village.
NM: Was there any other impact of rationing on, on the village life?
JS: Well —
NM: Were allotments and home grown —
JS: Yes.
NM: And all that?
JS: There were a lot of allotments there taken over. My father had what? A ten pole. Twenty pole. Which was quite a big bit to dig and grow mainly potatoes. And then we had a Pig Club in the village and well a lot of people kept a pig in the back garden and every Sunday they used to go around looking at everybody’s pig and having a drink in everybody’s cottage and they finished up finally the worse for wear. My grandfather, he kept a pig and as I said we had some people from, lived in Coventry and when they used to come down my father, my grandfather used to hang their hams up in the, in the living room and when they, when they came down from Coventry they always wanted to take one of the hams back. So, in the end when he knew they were coming he used to take his hams down and hide them in the other room.
NM: So, when did you graduate from Technical College?
JS: Well, when I was fifteen, fifteen and a half, sixteen and started work straight away and spent five years as an apprentice. And at the end of the five years, on my twenty first birthday when I got on top rate of, for the money I had my calling up papers. I always remember when I started as an apprentice. I got twenty nine and nine pence a week for forty seven hours and when I’d just got on top rate, on the same day I got my call up papers to go on National Service and spent two years, well eighteen months but due, due to the crisis, Suez I think it was it put up two years. But I, I was lucky. I got posted to an aerodrome near Rugby which was only about forty miles away and I used to come home every weekend.
NM: So, you did your National Service with the RAF.
JS: Yeah.
NM: From 1950 then when you were twenty one.
JS: Yeah.
NM: So how come you ended up in the RAF as opposed to the Army?
JS: Well, we had, we went to Northampton to have our medicals and while we were there they had an Army and a Navy and an RAF chappy there and they asked you where you wanted to go in. I said the RAF. They said, ‘Why?’ I said ‘I don’t like marching.’ That was good enough. I got in the RAF. But a lot of, a lot of them went in the Army which they didn’t like at all. And one or two got in the Navy. But most of us went in the RAF and I went to Padgate to do National Service training and after six weeks had an interview and they sent me to a training college. At Weeton I think it was. Near Blackpool. And we had an eighteen month course in six weeks there and after we came out of there they posted me to Church Lawford near Rugby and I spent the rest of the time there.
NM: And what was your role at Church Lawford?
JS: Well, I was on the maintenance side of the earth moving equipment and I used to have to go out to various sub-contractors to sign off the work they had done and I always used to arrange for it to be on a Friday so that I could go straight off to, on leave for the weekend.
NM: So you could go back home for the weekend.
JS: Yeah. I was, by that time I’d been made up to a corporal and there was a, you had a security patrol every six, seven weeks and you had to spend all the weekend on the camp. So I used to arrange it so that on the Friday I used to be away from there to another civilian place. One of them was at St Albans and we stayed at the RAF camp there at, at somewhere. On the De Havilland site I think it was. And I used to arrange so that I went on Friday. So, they used to, when they used to ring up seeing where I was they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s on detachment.’ And by that time you’d be on detachment for seven or eight weeks before I’d be sent somewhere else and they realised I was still on the camp and so I didn’t do it. I only did security patrol once.
NM: So you spent the whole two years at RAF Church Lawford did you?
JS: Yeah. Yeah.
NM: Were, were any other trips involved? Did you get any flying at all?
JS: No. No. I didn’t see any aircraft at all while I was in there. Oh, I went, I went, they sent me up to Acklington to repair a tractor. RAF Acklington and they said, ‘We’ll take you to an airfield in in Birmingham and a plane will come and pick you up.’ So, they dropped me at this airfield. All the hangars had, all the control places windows had been smashed. I stood there wondering why, what was going to happen and all of a sudden this Avro Anson dropped out of the sky, picked me up and took me up to RAF Acklington. And after repairing the tractor I come back on a lorry all the way from there to, to Rugby. Stayed overnight at, in Doncaster. At the airfield there.
NM: So at the end of your National Service you went back to the, back to the steelworks?
JS: Yes. Yes.
NM: At age twenty three. Yeah?
JS: Yeah. I went back and they put me straight in the drawing office so I didn’t actually go to do any work in the workshop itself. I just stayed in the workshop, in the drawing office for six or seven years. Then started doing various, started building various things outside and I used to go and look after those.
NM: Such as? What were you —
JS: Well, the —
NM: Mostly involved in?
JS: Well, the most, the biggest one was the ropeway aerial ropeway which was six miles long from Rothwell to Corby. And I was a clerk of works on that so I oversee the work on that to get that working.
NM: So, this was to try and get, is this is to get the ironstone from the quarry —
JS: Yeah.
NM: To the steelworks.
JS: Yeah.
NM: This six mile ropeway.
JS: They were going to build another big dragline but that, and this ropeway was going to provide the iron ore for it but they cancelled it. The big dragline. So really it was surplus to requirements the ropeway. But it stuck around for four or five years and then they cut it all up.
NM: So, you were involved in all the, how many quarries were there around Gretton and Corby that you were working with?
JS: Oh I don’t know. About eight or nine I should think. Yeah. With large draglines in four of them and various smaller ones in the others.
NM: And how long did you take, take on that role for?
JS: Until, well until I was made, after about six, seven years I was made engineer in charge of maintenance of all the various areas and I stayed there until I was made redundant in nineteen [pause] I don’t know what it was now. No. I can’t remember.
NM: Was that when the steelworks closed?
JS: Yeah.
NM: Right.
JS: That was ’59, I think.
NM: And what did you do? What happened after that?
JS: Well, I got a job. Well, I knew one of the chaps in the steel, in the tube works. Used to go on the same manager’s mess tables as him and he said, ‘What are you going to do when you’re made redundant?’ I said, ‘I’m going to go on quality assurance. Come back to haunt you.’ Because he was in charge of quality assurance for the two works and he rang me up and said, ‘Were you serious?’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ He said, ‘Well, Lloyds Register of Shipping want somebody and would you be interested?’ So I said, ‘Yes. Yes, I would. Yeah.’ So, he said, ‘Go to Birmingham and see the chief, chief surveyor there and he’ll take you out to lunch.’ And I went to the Birmingham office and he said, ‘Oh, I’m too busy to see you today,’ he said, ‘Can you start next week?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And that was my interview for Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. Somebody else had joined from another area at the same time as me. He said, ‘How did you get on at the interview?’ I said, ‘I didn’t have one.’ He said, ‘Oh, I had terrible one,’ he said. ‘They grilled me for about an hour,’ he said [laughs] So mine was just, ‘Can you start next week?’
NM: So, your last part of your career then was with Lloyds inspector.
JS: Yeah. Yeah. Lloyds. Yeah. And then I had a stroke when I was fifty nine and so I didn’t work after that. That’s been thirty odd years ago now.
NM: So that just about covers everything.
JS: Yeah.
NM: I had on my list.
JS: Yeah. And me.
NM: Have you got anything else to —
JS: I don’t think so. No.
NM: Add to that.
JS: No.
NM: When you look back during the war what was your overall impressions of growing up between those formative years of ten to sixteen and then with such major events going on around you. What was your —
JS: We didn’t really know much about it. As I say we lived in a village and we didn’t really know what was happening in the next village let alone what was, what was happening in the world. I remember on D-Day I was doing a trig lesson and I put in the top of the page, “D-Day.” And that’s really all I knew about it. So it didn’t really affect me much at all.
NM: Ok.
JS: Yeah.
NM: Very good. Thank you very much.
JS: Thank you.
NM: We’ll finish the interview there. Thank you very much.



Nigel Moore, “Interview with John James Smith,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 15, 2024,

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