Interview with Reg Harrison


Interview with Reg Harrison
Interview with Reginald Wilfred Harrison


Reg Harrison grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada and enjoyed watching aircraft when they flew over. He had his first flight as a youngster after borrowing five dollars from a shopkeeper. He volunteered for aircrew as soon as he was of age and began his training as a pilot. He had four crashes which earned him the nickname, Crash. The first incident took place while he was on his second dickie trip and the aircraft crashed. He and another member of the crew then heard the pilot shouting for help and returned to get him out of the aircraft. Reg sustained burns and was treated at East Grinstead Hospital. On their 13th trip, his rear gunner was worried and suggested they call this trip 12A rather than thirteen. They crashed on take-off. On another occasion he and the crew had to bail out over England. Whilst on another operation they came under fire from a Halifax, the crew of which had mistaken them for a German aircraft. They just managed to get the stricken aircraft back and crashed at RAF Carnaby. When on leave, Reg would often go and visit his family who lived near Hull. He completed 19 operations before he was screened, as his Wing Commander felt that he had been lucky too many times and might not be so lucky the next time. Reg has always been mindful of the loss rate in Bomber Command. He has a photograph taken a day after he got his wings. Of the four airmen in the picture, he was the only one who returned home.







02:21:35 Audio Recording


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AHarrisonRW210227, PHarrisonRW2103


RH: I’m ready for take-off then.
DE: Yeah. I’ll do a very quick introduction and then, then we’ll start properly. So this is an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive with Flight Lieutenant Reg Harrison. My name is, is Dan Ellin. This is recorded over Zoom. Mr, Mr Harrison is in Saskatoon, Canada and it is Saturday the 27th of February 2021. It’s 10.30am in Saskatoon Canada and it’s 4.30pm in Lincoln in the UK. So, Reg, thank you very very much for agreeing to do this interview with, with me this morning.
RH: My pleasure and my honour to do it.
DE: Thank you. So, right from the very very start could you tell me a little bit about your early life and how you came to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Air Force please?
RH: Yes. Well, I was born on a farm and we farmed near [unclear] Saskatchewan. Do you know where Regina, Saskatchewan is? Ok. Well, it’s, it’s towards central Saskatchewan and we were about probably a hundred miles away in the east of, of Regina. And when I did my Service flying at Yorkton we were flying Cessnas then but they started the station with Harvards. So the Harvards, we were only about seventy miles from the airport so the Harvards were always flying over. We didn’t have a tractor or a car so I was sitting behind six horses and as soon as the Harvards came over and doing their aerobatics I stopped the horses. Horses are pretty smart. It didn’t take them very long. As soon as they heard a plane they automatically stopped. So cut it short we didn’t get as much farm work done as we should because I sometimes sat there for about twenty minutes before I started them up again. So when I got embarkation leave, some of the neighbours came over to bid me farewell and I heard my dad say, ‘Well, we don’t like to see him go but I have an idea we’re going to get more farm work done.’ So, to make a long story short I only had my grade ten and I, I took my grade nine and ten by correspondence because we didn’t have a High School. I don’t know what you’d call it in England, I forget but, I had to go to Public School. I went to Public School at Lorlie from grade one to grade eight. Took correspondence course from the Department of Education to do my nine and ten. And then they said, ‘Well, in order to be a pilot you had to have your grade twelve.’ And in 1941 the Royal Air Force were getting short of pilots, so the powers that be decided well there’s a possible pool of, of pilots that only have their grade ten, maybe partial grade eleven, partial twelve. If we set up what they call Educational School, Pre-Enlistment Schools they called them, and if they passed a medical and a physical then they could enrol in this Pre-Enlistment School. So they set that up in 1941 and in the Fall of, after harvest was finished, I went to Regina to the Recruiting Centre and I had my medical. I only weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds so I was pretty skinny then but rather wiry I guess. I managed to pass the medical, and they also gave me an aptitude test. Coming from the farm I didn’t know very much about the big wide world, but maybe the aptitude test might have been easy because I managed to pass that. And then that school started at the end of October and lasted until the end of April. If you successfully completed that course then you got credit for your grade twelve, last two credits. And then you were sent to what they called a manning depot and that’s where all pilots, navigators, well they weren’t navigators then we were just called, we were just called airmen. AC2s and you stayed there for several weeks. You learned to march and you got all your inoculations and all that sort of thing. And then if you wanted to train as a pilot then they had what they called a Ground School where you took meteorology, physics, preliminary navigation, and so on. And they had that in Regina and that lasted for ten weeks. And then after you’d done that the pilots then were sent to Elementary Flying Schools, and in Saskatchewan at that time they were using Tiger Moths, Gypsy Tigers. You later switched over to Cornells but they used Tigers. So, about the time they were, they were starting those in the Fall it was, most of the fellas that I knew would get posted to Regina Elementary. But in 1942 they had a very large crop in Saskatchewan so my dad contacted the authorities and asked them if, they, I could come home for six weeks to help with the harvest. Which I did. And then when I got back to the station they said, ‘Well, there’s no room at the Regina Elementary so we’re going to send you to Virden.’ To Virden, Manitoba. So I then went to, I went to Virden. I started there in, in late October, and I finished that course just about the end of December. Went home for Christmas and then, but before that when I’d finished the elementary they asked me where I wanted to go for my service flying which I was surprised. I thought well they would tell me where I might go. And I said, ‘Well, what choice do they have?’ They said, ‘You can go to Dauphin, Manitoba, go to Brandon, Manitoba or you can go to Yorkton. I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think I’d like to go to Yorkton.’ He said, ‘Why do you want to go to Yorkton?’ I didn’t tell him it was close to the farm. I said, ‘Well, if we happen to get a forty eight hour pass the bus connections or train connections would be easier for me to get home.’ So they said, ‘Ok. We’ll give you the warrant and you can go to Yorkton.’ So when I got to Yorkton I was very surprised to find that the fellas that had gone to the Elementary School in Regina, I figured they’d be halfway through their course but they hadn’t even started because in 19 — in that winter of ’42 there was a lot of blizzards and snowstorms, and the flying was set back. And my friend Buddy who I’d met at the, at the Pre-Enlistment School he was also there and that course had just started. It was about a week into the course and they thought well I could catch up so I joined that course. And that course lasted, it was started in January and we got our wings the last week in April. And we get, everybody gets ten days embarkation leave. I went home for ten days, and then I caught the train at [unclear] Saskatchewan and so I have pictures for you. I’ll send those to you, and they show me standing at the station. Then I had to change trains in Melville. What we called the Trans-Continental. That would be similar to your train that would go from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, and it would only stop at the main stops. I think that one from Kings Cross if I remember correctly it had about seven or eight stops. I know it used to, it used to stop at Doncaster and it would stop at York and it would stop at Newcastle on Tyne and so on.
DE: Yeah. The distances are totally different aren’t they?
RH: So that particular, what they called the Trans-Continental it would leave Vancouver and it would take seven days to get to Halifax. So that gives you an idea.
DE: Yes.
RH: How large Canada is. So I got, changed trains and got on that train at Melville and then it took about almost four days to get to Ottawa. Then when it got to Ottawa my friend Buddy, he boarded the train. Then it took us another three days to get to Halifax. And then I think we were in Halifax about, possibly three weeks. But we didn’t go over in a convoy. The convoys took about almost a month. Well over, maybe a hundred, a hundred and thirty ships in a convoy and under normal circumstances the U-boats were sinking at least twenty five to thirty ships. And they told us that we were going to go on the Louis Pasteur. That was a French liner that had been converted to carrying troops and we said, ‘Oh well, how about, we’re going alone. How about the U-boats? They said, ‘You don’t have to worry about the U-boats because this Louis Pasteur can go faster than U-boats,’ which it turned out to be so. It took us four and a half days to cross the Atlantic. Then we landed in Liverpool on July the 1st 1943.
DE: Can we, can we just go back a little bit? Could you tell me what, what was it like the first time you flew? And what it was like going solo for the first time?
RH: That’s, that’s an interesting question, Dan because when I was ninety three years old one of the CBC reporters had met me at an Air Show and unbeknownst to me she arranged, she arranged for me to go for a flight in a Tiger Moth. And one of the fellas near Saskatoon he had a runway right beside his house. It was on an acreage. And he also owned about five planes and I went back in a Tiger Moth when I was ninety three years old. And it was, in a way it was a, in some ways it was a strange feeling but otherwise it brought back a lot of memories for me. But he said to me, ‘When did you solo?’ I said, ‘I’ve no idea but,’ I said, ‘I’ve brought my logbook. Let’s have a look.’ And it turned out that I soloed on Remembrance Day in 1942. And I probably, I think the average would be about eight to nine hours, or ten hours before they sent you solo and I look at my logbook and I think I had, I had about nine and a half hours when I went solo. But I really liked flying and actually when I was about twelve or thirteen years old I had a flight. It was in the wintertime and I had a flight in a small aircraft. In our Public School they had a furnace that needed some repair so the chap from the furnace company came, rented a plane and came out and landed in a field near Lorlie. And then while the furnace was being repaired he came over into town and, and wanted to know if anybody wanted to go for a ride. It cost five dollars and I asked my dad. I said, ‘Dad, could you loan me five dollars?’ He said, ‘Why do you want five dollars for?’ I said, ‘Well, I can go for a ride in a plane.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t have any five dollars,’ he said, ‘I might not even have enough to buy these groceries,’ he said. But the storekeeper overheard the conversation and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I understand that you’re a little bit of a trapper and you’ve been catching —’ what we called weasels and so on, and he said, ‘Do you have any?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do,’ I said, ‘I’m going to get ready to shift them to Melville.’ He said, ‘What do you think you can get for them?’ I said, ‘Well, I hope to get maybe seven or eight dollars.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll loan you five dollars on the understanding that when you sell those pelts,’ he said, ‘You’ll pay me back.’ So that’s, that was my first flight when I was twelve years old.
DE: Fantastic.
RH: And it was cold too because it was an open cockpit. I remember that [laughs]
DE: Yeah.
RH: So then, of course as you well know Dan when you get to, when you get to Liverpool or wherever you land in England everybody goes to Bournemouth. All the, all the, all the aircrew go to Bournemouth. And we discovered there that there were a lot of beautiful hotels and that’s where the, I guess you would call the rich people went there for their holidays but they, they made sure that all their pictures and all their expensive furniture was removed from the hotels. But I remember Buddy and I, we stayed at what they called the Royal Bath Hotel and we were there for probably maybe three or four weeks, and then the pilots had to go to an Advanced Flying School to take what they called a BAT School, Beam Approach Training. One thing I should mention is that when we were flying in Canada, night flying, all the towns were lit up. Aircraft had navigation lights on. When we got to England I can vividly recall that train ride from Liverpool to Bournemouth. It was at night. I knew we were going through towns and you couldn’t see a light. Everything was blacked out. And then we discovered that night flying you couldn’t have any navigation lights on. So in addition to the blackouts and no navigation lights we also discovered that the weather in England wasn’t as conducive for flying as it was in Saskatchewan because we had lots of sunny days. In the Midlands when you were flying we had, I suppose you’d call it quite a bit of haze because there was a lot of manufacturing done in Birmingham and Sheffield and those things. So flying was much more difficult. I think that’s why they started the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Furthermore, there wasn’t enough room left in England for, for all their training.
DE: And also, you know there’s, there’s not the Luftwaffe to worry about either if you —
RH: Pardon?
DE: There’s not the Luftwaffe to worry about either if you’re training in Canada.
RH: Oh no. No. I think that was, I think that British Commonwealth Air Training Plan really contributed a great deal to the success of the war.
DE: So did you go on to multi-engine aircraft in Canada?
RH: Yeah. When we went to Yorkton they’d switched over from Harvards to what they called 172 Cessna Cranes. They were twin engines because then they didn’t need fighter pilots like they did in the Battle of Britain. They were short of bomber pilots. So they switched a lot of the service stations over from Harvards to Cessnas, and Canada leased a lot of aircraft from the United States. And those were flown back again after the war.
DE: Ok. Yeah.
RH: So when we got to, Buddy and I went to Church Lawford in Warwickshire. I think it’s, if I remember correctly it’s not that far from Stratford on Avon.
DE: No. It won’t be. No.
RH: I had an aunt that married my Uncle Harold and she came from, from Warwickshire, near Stratford On Avon. But that, that course it was of course beam approach training, and I often wondered when we were at Yorkton why pilots had to take Morse Code. I thought well the wireless operator would have to do Morse Code. Why did the pilot have to know Morse Code? Well, I soon found out why that was required because then you had to use, you had to use the beam, the Morse Code to get lined up with the beam. And that of course was used when the, if you had to land in the fog when the ‘dromes were equipped with FIDO. And for our very first trip, this was much later, our very first trip in a Lancaster where we did have to land on FIDO but I’ll tell you about that later because that was over a year ago and I’d really forgotten what the damned signals were. So when we were at, when we were at Church Lawford [pause] every time Buddy would, Buddy was engaged to, to his High School sweetheart Jean Woods, and he wrote to her on a regular basis and every time he’d write to her, he called me Harry, I guess short for Harrison, called Harry, ‘Well, Harry you’d better put a footnote on this letter to Jean.’ Of course my usual reply was, ‘Well, I don’t know Jean and I don’t know what to say.’ And he would always say, ‘Well, you never know. Some day you might meet her.’ And the last day we were there I have a picture, I’m going to send you a picture of Buddy and I. And we had a little Welsh gal that looked after us. Polished our shoes and all that, so we thought we were really in, in royalty when we had that kind of treatment. That didn’t last very long after we left that station. And he said, ‘Well, I’m writing another letter to Jean.’ I have a picture of him licking the stamp to put on the letter. He said, ‘You’d better put another footnote on this,’ he said, ‘Because when we get back to Bournemouth,’ he said, ‘We’re going to get posted to OTUs,’ he said, ‘And we might not end up at the same one.’ So I used to say, ‘Well, I’ve told you before Buddy I don’t really know what to say.’ He said, ‘Well, just put something on this. You never know. You might meet her.’ So, when we got back to Bournemouth I think we were only there about two weeks when we got posted and I went to Ossington. That was number 82. I think if I remember correctly it was near, it was near Sherwood Forest and we were going to start flying there and then. They had a course that wasn’t finished so they had a satellite drome called Gamston so we, we did our flying from Gamston. But I found that the Wellingtons, they were, as you know they were geodetic construction and they were very sturdy aircraft. Well-constructed. And I found them I guess an easy way to say it was somewhat heavy on the controls but they were, I wouldn’t say they were easy to fly but they were quite a little bit more, certainly more effort than the, than the Cessnas and the Oxfords that we were flying and I found them particularly hard to fly on one engine. But I managed to get through that course and looking there, I looked to see what my rating was and I got, I got above average so I guess I didn’t do too badly. In fact, I got that, I’m not bragging but I got that in most of the training that I did. And that, that course lasted, I, it was a fairly long course. I think it lasted about three and a half months, and then we got posted to a Conversion Unit and we went to, we went to Dishforth which later as you know became, became part of 6 Group. And that’s where 431 Squadron and 44 Squadron were, were stationed. And it was all, all it was part, it was two of the fifteen squadrons that made up 6 Group and that was, that was a Canadian group.
DE: Yeah.
RH: They’d been advocating for some time to have their own, to have their own, their own group.
DE: So —
RH: And —
DE: When —
RH: That was —
DE: Sorry. Sorry.
RH: Ok
DE: I was going to —
RH: Go ahead.
DE: I was just going to ask when did you crew up?
RH: Pardon?
DE: When did you form, when did you form a crew?
RH: Oh, now that, I’m glad you asked that question because that’s very interesting the way they did it. They put us all in a big hangar. An equal number of pilots, navigators, bomb aimers and we weren’t in the hangar very long and this tall chap came over to me and he said, he introduced himself, he said, ‘I’m Hal Philips,’ he said, ‘I came from Vancouver,’ he said. And I introduced myself. He said, ‘You got on the train at Melville didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Really,’ I said, ‘How did you know that?’ He said, ‘Well, my wife and I got married on my embarkation leave and she said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have, the honeymoon’s going to last seven days,’ she said, ‘Because it’s going to take seven days to go from Vancouver to Halifax.’ So, that’s how I got my navigator. And I said, ‘Well, Hal, we’d better look around for a bomb aimer.’ So we looked around and we saw a chap sitting down smoking a cigarette and we went over to him and we introduced ourselves and he said, ‘Well, I’m Gordon Dumville,’ he said, ‘I come from Saskatchewan. From Rocanville.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I know where that is. In south east Saskatchewan.’ I said, ‘Do you come from a farm?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Are you crewed up yet?’ He said, ‘No. I guess nobody wants me.’ I said, ‘Well, would you like to fly with us?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to fly with somebody. I might as well fly with you.’ So then we said, ‘Well, we’ll need a, we’ll need a wireless operator.’ So we looked around and we see somebody with, with a w/op badge on so, or a wing I should say so we introduced ourselves. He said, ‘I’m Bob Hooker,’ he said, ‘I come from Big River.’ That’s kind of interesting because where my youngest daughter lives now we go right through Big River and she, they live on a lake front property about eight kilometres from Big River so that brings back memories. So then we said, ‘Well, we need, we need a rear gunner.’ So then we saw some gunners in a group and one chap seemed to be by himself so we introduced ourselves. And he said, ‘Well I’m, I’m Kenny Taylor,’ he said, ‘I come from, from a farm near Mayerthorpe, Alberta.’ So it turned out that he was the youngest in the crew and I was next to, I was next to Kenny as far as age goes and my navigator was probably, he already had a degree in agriculture. He was probably seven or eight years older than I was and my, and Bob Hooker was also about the same age. And so that’s how we crewed up.
DE: Ok.
RH: And then —
DE: I was just going to say when did, when did you get your flight engineer because he’d have been RAF rather than Royal Canadian Air Force, wouldn’t he?
RH: We got, we got our flight engineer when we went to conversion.
DE: I’m sorry, I’m —
RH: We did, yeah we had a five man crew on Wellingtons and we didn’t need an engineer.
DE: I’m jumping ahead. Sorry.
RH: So, yeah, so we got the engineer then when we went to the Conversion Unit and the Conversion Unit didn’t last more than about three weeks. And I, excuse me I’ve got to have a drink of water.
DE: Cheers.
RH: And they, they gave us an instructor who had just finished a tour, and I, I could tell that he wasn’t too enthusiastic about being an instructor. And so he did the first couple of circuits I guess and then he told me to take over. We were flying Halifax 5s with inline engines and I understand they used to have a lot of glycol leaks, Merlin inline engines. And on my first landing I didn’t do a very good job. I couldn’t keep it straight. So he stopped the aircraft and he said, ‘If you bloody well want to kill yourself,’ he said, ‘You bloody well go ahead,’ he said, ‘You’re not going to kill me.’ So we taxied the aircraft, told me to taxi the aircraft up to the flight. We did that and he got out the aircraft and left me there. And then a flight commander came out and he got in the aircraft and did a circuit. Told me to, no actually he told me, he told me to do a circuit and we were coming in to land, the aircraft was moving around I guess too much on the runway, he said, ‘Take your damned feet off the rudders.’ You don’t, he said, ‘You don’t need very much rudder control on these aircraft.’ He said, ‘Try another landing.’ So we did another landing and I suppose the reason I kept my feet on because I wasn’t very tall. I was about five foot six and he said, ‘I think you need a cushion or something behind you so you can reach that. But remember you don’t need much rudder,’ he said, ‘On these aircraft.’ And that was the problem that I had. So after we got that solved then as I say, that course only lasted about, about three or four weeks. And then while we were there it was interesting. They said, ‘Well, if you finish this course without killing yourselves,’ that was not too encouraging [laughs] They said, ‘Just hope you don’t get posted to Croft.’ We said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Well, Croft throughout Bomber Command is known as the jinx station. Everything that happens always happens at Croft.’ Well, I often think back and after I’d been there, finished my tour with my four crashes I guess I added to their reputation. [Laughs] So, when we, when we got to, to Croft I think we were only there about, well we got there on the 12th. I remember that. We got there on the 12th of March and on the 15th of March there were five crews arrived that day. They’d had a few losses. Five new crews. And they had told me what crew I was going to fly with and one of the pilots that had come to the station the same day he came to me and he said, ‘Well, I know pilot —’ so and so, he said, ‘Would you mind switching places with me?’ And I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, I said, ‘I really don’t know any of the, any of the crews.’ So he said, ‘Well.’ I said, ‘You go and speak to the flight commander and see if he ok’s it.’ So he did. And so I ended up going with a Flying Officer [Feldman] and his crew and I discovered that he came from Quebec City and was a very good hockey player and he played with what they called the Quebec Aces. And the, the —
Other: Sorry. I’m just plugging this in. Sorry, Dan.
DE: Ok.
Other: Don’t want to lose power halfway through.
DE: Oh right. You’re just plugging in the power cord. Ok. Thank you.
RH: So, so the target that night was Amiens and we were, we were bombing the large transport, I guess you’d call it a transportation centre. The Germans were bringing up a lot of supplies in preparation I suppose for the, for the allied landings. And there wasn’t a jump seat there so I stood up about halfway and he said, ‘Well, you’d better go and sit down on the step,’ which I did. It was a sort of a routine trip. There wasn’t very much flak or much searchlights there and when we, when we were coming in to land, excuse me [pause] coming in to land he told me, I was standing beside him, I wanted to watch him land, he said, ‘Go back to the crash position.’ Well, I didn’t go. I stood back about three or four steps so he couldn’t see me because I wanted to see him land. And unbeknownst to the crew they had a five hundred pound bomb left in the bomb bay and when the aircraft touched down the bomb didn’t drop off. The runways were a bit, they weren’t very level there so the aircraft always bounced a bit. We got just about to the end of the runway and then the bomb dropped off even though the bomb switch was off. The bomb was still live. We never heard the bomb go off but it woke everybody up on the station and I suppose from the concussion, the bomb literally blew the plane apart. There wasn’t anything left from the wings. The fuselage was gone, the rudders were gone and it was like a movie scene. I, I suppose I was knocked out momentarily because in a Halifax you’re about twenty six feet off the ground. So I don’t know what my trajectory was but I expect that the bottom of the aircraft blew out when the bomb went off and it killed the two gunners instantly. And the rest of us, I suppose literally blew us out of the aircraft because I found myself lying on the ground and I remember opening my eyes and I thought I could see stars. And then I thought, my first thought was jeez, I must be in heaven. There was no sound. And then all of a sudden I started to get wet and, I, my first thought was oh I must be bleeding to death. Well, it wasn’t. What had happened, when the bomb exploded all the gas lines were punctured or fractured, and then the hundred octane gas was flowing towards the exhaust. They were still pretty hot from the flight and then they all burst into flames and then there was a big wall of fire. And I picked myself up, I was still sort of dazed. It was dark but it was getting lighter as the fire rose, and I started to run. This is a bit fresh, I don’t know whether I should tell it or not but I tripped, and I tripped over, someone’s head had been decapitated and there was no helmet on and he had a mop of, I remember he had a mop of beautiful curly hair. I kept on running and I saw someone else running and heard someone else yell, ‘Help.’ And the pilot was almost out of the, the cockpit was left, one wing was fully intact. Another wing was only partly there, but the pilot was almost out but he had those, the old type flying boots on where they, they were fleece lined with the zipper all the way up. That’s when they, later on they changed those into more of a boot with a zipper on. Then if you bailed out because when they were baling out the fire, when they baled out when the parachute opened they were losing one or both flying boots so they made a new type of flying boot. So this chap that was, I didn’t know the crew, the chap was running. He called me and so we, we both tugged on the pilot and pulled him, pulled him away from the aircraft. That part wasn’t burning. It was just the rear part of the wings and that that were burning. And then of course, I guess it was the oxygen bottles started to explode and the verey cartridges and there were a lot of explosions around. And then, then I think I think the ambulance arrived then and took us to the hospital. And then nobody seemed to be injured but I had a sore arm and so they said, ‘Well you’d better, you’d better go on.’ They told me it was a bad scrape. So I went to my aunt and uncle’s in Hull. They lived in Hull, and I was there about the third day and my uncle who had been in the, survived the First World War he, one day he was home for lunch and he said, ‘Let me have a look at that arm.’ So he looked at it and he said, ‘By Jove, I don’t like the look of that,’ he said. There’s an anti-aircraft battery. As you probably well know, Dan, next to London Hull was one of the most bombed cities in Britain. All the east I remember from history that there was a lot of, a lot of lot of shipping done from Hull, and all that was left there were just concrete. All the docks and everything were gone but there was just enough room for the trawlers to come in. They used to go out at night and do their fishing and come in with their catch in the morning. But there was still an anti-aircraft battery in the outskirts of Hull so I got on the bus and went out there. It was called Sutton. I went out there and I saw the medical officer. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You’ve got phosphorous burns,’ he said, ‘How did you get those?’ So I told him about the bomb explosion. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Those bombs,’ he said, ‘There’s lots of phosphorous in those,’ he said, ‘That’s where you got your burn,’ he said, ‘That needs to be looked at right away.’ And he said, ‘I’m a little short of bandages,’ he said. I suppose they had, quite a few people were killed in Hull. So he, he said, ‘I’m going to put a fish dressing on your, on your arm.’ And he wrapped it up in newspaper, tied it up and he said, ‘You’d better get — where are you stationed?’ I told him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’d better get back on the train as soon as possible and get back to the station.’ So I went back to my aunt and uncle’s and got the clothes that I’d taken there, and went to the train and then of course I had to take the train from there. I had to change in York to get back to Croft. Then Darlington. Then up to Croft to the station. Of course in those trains you know you’ve got six people in the compartment and three on each side looking at one another, and pretty soon people started looking around and sniffing. They could see I wasn’t carrying anything. They thought they could smell fish so I had to, I had to explain to them where the fish smell was coming from. [laughs]
DE: Oh dear.
RH: I don’t really know what the fish dressing did but apparently as the doctor said that was the best thing to do. So to make a long story short I saw the medical officer and he said, ‘Well, where do you want to go for treatment?’ Well, they might as well have asked the [unclear] because I didn’t have a clue where I should go. So he said, ‘Well, I’d better send you to Basingstoke.’ Of course that was a big, I remember my dad saying that was a big hospital in the First World War. And at that time they had a lot of casualties. Especially tank casualties from Italy. And when I got there I was so embarrassed because I was walking around and I saw fellas bandaged there with, you know some of them were blind, and some of them had their arms grafted to their face and I just felt so. They kept me there for a week. They just didn’t have enough time to deal with me. They did, dressed my arm and then they finally sent me to East Grinstead. And then I was there for, I had pinch grafts done on my arm. Dr Tilley. He was a Canadian doctor. He was the one that, that did my, my pinch. He did a pinch graft. They tried a flap graft first but that didn’t work so then they did pinch grafts. Took pinches from my, from my upper thigh and then grafted it on. So I was there for probably nine weeks and then I went back to the station.
DE: What had happened to the, your crew during the nine, ten weeks that you were —
RH: That [laughs] that’s interesting. When, when I got back to the station I thought oh well they’d have found another pilot. I’ll have to, I’ll have to get another crew. Well, I guess it turned out they didn’t know how long I was going to be away and the crew were still there. I don’t know what they did for the time I was away but they were there waiting for me. So I think, I think we did maybe one or two cross countries to get climatised I guess again, and well actually that would have been my, several weeks, almost two months before I’d flown or since I’d flown. And then we did, we did eleven trips without any, I wouldn’t say without any difficulty but some of them were, what the word for exciting is. I don’t know whether that’s the right word or not but they were all very different. And on the way out to, on our thirteenth trip on the way out to the aircraft, the lorry used to take us out, if I remember correctly I think the lorries were large enough to take two crews which would be fourteen airmen. And my rear gunner, Kenny Taylor, the youngest in the crew he was very quiet and I said, ‘What’s the matter, Kenny? Don’t you feel good?’ He said, ‘Well, skipper. Physically,’ he said, ‘I feel ok,’ he said, ‘But do you know what trip this is?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s twelve, er thirteen. Why?’ ‘Gosh,’ he said, ‘I sure don’t like, I don’t like thirteen,’ he said, ‘Can we call it 12a?’ I said, ‘Kenny, if it’ll make you feel better then it won’t be thirteen. It’ll be 12a.’ I don’t know whether Kenny had a premonition or just what, but when we got the green light to take off I got at least three quarters of the way down the runway and the port inner engine suddenly stopped and I had about eighty, it was just prior to lift off. About eighty to eighty five miles an hour, and the engine stopped suddenly and the aircraft veered off the runway. Then it’s pitch dark. It had been, we’d been, the flight had been delayed at least a couple of times and then when we took off it had quit raining but it was dark and I didn’t know if I throttled back if, I was the fourth aircraft off out of nineteen or twenty. The other aircraft, I knew they were slowly inching their way to the take-off point on the perimeter track. I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know if I could get stopped. I knew if I didn’t get stopped and crashed in to one what a horrible site that would be. So I pushed the throttles through the gate and when I did that I had more than full power on the two port engines and suddenly the aircraft, I did gain a bit of altitude. The, the right wing went down and then the aircraft started to shudder and I still had enough control. I remember straightening the aircraft out. I yelled at the crew to brace for impact. My bomb aimer was standing beside me. The last thing I remember is telling them to brace themselves and I don’t remember anything else. But I got over those aircraft and just off the edge of the drome there was a farmhouse and a barn and there was a stone wall around, around the house. The barn was attached to the house which was quite common in England. And we crashed into that wall and then when we, we were probably I don’t know how fast we were going. Maybe eighty, ninety miles an hour. My bomb aimer went forward into the instrument panel and I don’t know how I ended up with the cockpit split open. I don’t know how I got out but they found me lying on the wing. I was knocked out. My wireless operator and mid-upper gunner apparently pulled me off the, off the wing. And the navigator and the rest of the crew apparently were wandering around, around the aerodrome. And I was still unconscious but the bomb aimer, he was still conscious, and there were, he had a serious head injury and they were going to take us to a hospital. I think it was Northallerton. They couldn’t do anything at the, at the base hospital. So I, I woke up on the way to the hospital and I knew, I’m pretty sure that Gordon was still, was still alive then because they operated on him. I think it was Northallerton. But he didn’t, he didn’t survive the operation. But then I ended up with a broken nose and probably twenty or thirty stiches in my face and a badly bruised thigh so I was in the hospital for probably about ten days. [pause] So then they when I got out the hospital they had got another bomb aimer to take Gordon’s, take Gordon’s place, and we continued our operations. And on the seventeenth trip it was, we went to Brest, and I remember when we were going out to the aircraft I remember my wireless operator saying to, to my two gunners. He said, ‘Well, we’re, we’re going to Brest,’ he said. They told us at briefing it was, expect to encounter a lot of flak because the, Brest and Hamburg were where the German U-boats were being serviced, and he said we could expect a lot of flak and probably a few night fighters. He said, ‘I hope we get back from this trip ok.’ I think it was Kenny or Maurice said, ‘Well, why?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re going on leave. We’re going on leave tomorrow,’ he said, ‘So, I hope to get back.’ And I, whether which one was it? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Well, the skipper, the skipper will get us back ok.’ So I never gave it another, I never gave it another thought. But then when, I suppose, I’m not sure just where we were, whether we were halfway back to England then we ran into this heavy rain. And as we got closer to the, to Croft, the wireless operator had told me, or I asked him, I said, ‘Have we got any diversions?’ And he hesitated and he said, ‘No.’ And then the second time he called up he asked about the weather. ‘Got any more?’ I said, ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘Well, aircraft from 3 and 4 were being diverted.’ I said, ‘Well, better, better listen.’ So he called up three or four times, and I kept asking if he’d had a diversion. He said, ‘No,’ he didn’t have any. But I don’t know how he, how he missed the diversion but when we got back to base it was still pouring rain and it was heavy cloud and I think there was only one. Only one person on duty in the control tower and he said to me, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You can land,’ he said, ‘But I’ll put on all the lights that we can,’ he said, ‘And come down to about eight hundred feet and see if you can, see if you can see any lights.’ Which I did but I couldn’t see any. And he then said, ‘Well, climb. Climb to thirty five hundred feet and stand by for further instructions.’ Well, they always say that you can’t fly by the seat of your pants, and I’d been flying for at least two hours in this heavy rain and thick cloud and I decided, well I’m pretty sure we’re going to, we haven’t got much fuel left. We’ll probably have to bale out although I never said anything to the crew. And he said, ‘Climb to thirty five hundred feet.’ So I remember it was easier to turn to port to do a slow turn than it would be to starboard. So I did a slow climbing turn with just enough RPMs on to gain some height and I suppose I was getting calls from the control tower, and while I was doing this slow climbing turn I must have been unconsciously pulling back slightly on the control column because all of a sudden the navigator yelled at me, he said, ‘Skipper, what’s happening?’ Just as he said that all of the navigation equipment ended up in the cockpit and then the aircraft started to shudder and I knew instantly what had happened. That the aircraft was almost on its back because the cloud was thick and I had no sensation in that position. I shoved the throttles forward. At the same time I pushed the stick forward. I still have that feeling of the aircraft shuddering but I caught it in time and then I got it into a dive and I pulled as hard as I could and finally got, got out of the dive. And apparently the chap in the control tower had been calling and he went outside and he could hear the aircraft so I don’t know how close we came to slamming into the ground. But then I said to myself well to heck with this I’m not climbing to thirty five hundred feet, I’m climbing to five thousand feet and I did. I kept the throttles at full force and the perspiration was pouring off me, and I climbed to five thousand feet and in the meantime he was calling up wanting to know where I was. Well, in that kind of weather I’m sure we didn’t know exactly where we were and he finally said, ‘Well, the only drome open is Silloth on the west coast.’ And I asked the navigator, I said, ‘How far is that? It sounds like it’s a long way.’ I think it was just on the very west coast. Right on the, I suppose it would be on the Irish Sea. I’m not sure. But I know it was an OTU because they were, they started flying Hudsons there, and I know they had a lot of, they had a lot of crashes there. But anyway we didn’t have very much fuel left and I said to the crew then, I said, ‘Well, it looks like we’re going to have to leave this aircraft. We’re going to have to bale out.’ So I said, ‘We’ve gone through the bale out procedure.’ I said, ‘When you leave your position,’ I said, ‘Let me know because,’ I said, ‘I’m going to be the last one to bale out.’ So [pause] they, they did. They all let me know when they were, when they were gone and then it was my turn to go. And you’re probably aware that the pilots had the opportunity of wearing a chest type chute or a seat type chute and as soon as I found that out I thought gosh that doesn’t sound very good. My chute’s down in the nose and the bomb aimer’s job is to give me my chest type chute if we have to bale out. What if the bomb aimer gets injured, we get attacked by a night fighter or we get hit with flak how am I going to get my parachute? So I used to carry my parachute. It weighed about almost thirty pounds I think with all that silk that was packed in there. I used to carry it in. I remember getting over the main spar. It was a bit difficult but I carried it in and it fit really well into the, into the cockpit seat. And then after I got in there I would strap it on, and then I’d put my waist, my Mae West on top of that. I did that every time. But when it was my turn to bale out which I’d never tried doing before because when we got back from a trip we just undid the parachute and I carried it out. So I moved across the cockpit and then I got hold of a rung with my right hand. Then when I figured I was clear of all the levers I let myself go. There’s three levers come at forty five degree angle and the last lever came up between my leg and my parachute harness. And I’d already let go of the rung and then I found myself dangling there and when I, before I baled out I put in the automatic pilot and I trimmed it so it was slightly nose down because I knew that it was a sparsely populated area but I didn’t know how far the, the aircraft was going to go. So I thrashed around and I thought egods, I survived the, survived the trip from there but now I’m going to go down with this aircraft. And I don’t know how long I thrashed around but finally I heard, I heard a crack and the lever broke. I suppose with my weight and the weight of the parachute the lever broke. I remember falling. There were three steps to the escape hatch and I remember falling down three steps and I remember hitting my elbow and I actually rolled out of the aircraft and I saw the, I saw the, I remember seeing the rudder of the aircraft and then I started to roll over and I found my rip cord. I gave it a yank. Of course nothing happens when you first pull it. And then this chute opened with a real jerk and I swung to the right, came back and I hit the ground. So I really, I really have no sensation of falling in a parachute. I’ve asked skydivers at air shows, ‘How close do you think I was to the ground?’ They said, Well, you were probably less than a thousand feet. Might have been about eight hundred feet when your parachute opened,’ because I remember hitting the ground really hard. But by this time the rain had stopped but it was real foggy and I remember sitting on, sitting on my parachute and I thought well at least I’m alive. And then I wasn’t sitting there for very long and it was real still and I heard a whistle. And as you know, we had a whistle on our battle dress that we had to use in case we were ditching at night. And I heard this whistle. So then I dropped my whistle and I blew back. And then I heard someone. Someone shouting, ‘Where are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m over here.’ Somebody said, ‘Where’s here?’ [laughs] I remember that so distinctly. And finally after calling back and forth my mid-upper gunner Maurice Content, he came from Montreal, he had a bit of a French accent but he was a really great guy. He was probably about seven or eight years older than I was but he said, ‘Skipper, thank God we’re alive.’ I said, ‘Yes. Thank goodness we are.’ I said, ‘I wonder how the rest of the crew made out.’ Then we heard another whistle. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Somebody else is alive.’ So then after more blowing whistles, and some more talking, here our rear gunner Kenny shows up. So at least there’s three of us alive. And so I remember we, I don’t know which one of them said, ‘Well, we’ve got an escape kit that we’re supposed to use if we bale out over enemy territory. Let’s open it and see what’s in it.’ [laughs] So we all opened our, our escape kits and of course there was some chocolate in there and there was a compass in there and a little map. Some I think had a little package of dressings and so on. I remember we ate our chocolate and then I remember Kenny saying to me, ‘Well, skipper. What are we going to do now?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to start to —’ by this time then the fog had sort of started lifting and it would be, I think we baled out about, hit the ground probably about 4 o’clock in the morning and this would be about, well we sat there for a long time and finally the fog started to lift. It’d be about, somewhere about nine and nine thirty and then I said, ‘Well, we might as well go back in an northeast direction,’ because that’s where we came from. So we started to walk. And as you probably know we were in what they called the Fells district, and some of them call them high hills. Some actually call them small mountains but they seemed like mountains by the time we walked up one, they were and the grass and heather was at least up to our knees and we had the new type flying boots on. They’re fleece lined and they come up to just about your knees and then they actually made like a shoe, and then if you bale out over enemy territory then you can rip that top off and then you’ve got a boot. And but we didn’t do that. We walked and then about eleven or, ten or 11 o’clock the sun came out and it was, it turned out to be a really hot day which you, you get very few of those in England unless it’s, unless it’s in southern England you’d have more of them but not in, not in that part of the country. But anyway we walked all day. All we saw were sheep. We never saw any habitation. We didn’t see any buildings and we were getting tired and hungry and about 7 o’clock in the evening Kenny, my rear gunner, he said, ‘Skipper, I think I can see a building.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘You must be hallucinating, Kenny,’ I said. ‘There’s no buildings around here.’ ‘Skipper,’ he said, ‘I’m sure there’s a building there.’ I said, ‘Ok. Let’s go and see if there is one.’ So we started walking. He told me where he could see it. Maybe his eyesight was sharper than mine but we kept walking. Sure enough there was a building there. As we got closer and there were lots of sheep around and it turned out that it was a shepherd and his wife. That that was their summer home and they had got probably hundreds of sheep. When we got there we saw at least three or four sheep dogs. And then what we thought was the hired man but it turned out later, I found out later that it was their son, and their name was Blenkinsopp. I could understand his wife but I could not understand [laughs] I could not understand and he actually when he saw us coming I guess whether he thought we were German airmen but he had, he had this pitchfork over his shoulder. I remember his wife, I could understand her, saying, ‘No,’ she said, ‘They’re Canadians.’ So they had this, this hut was stone wall but there was a, I don’t know whether it was a dirt floor or what it was. It seemed like a dirt floor but it was kind of solid. And then I remember looking up and they had bacon and hams hanging in a beam across there. I remember seeing chickens running around there and then we could smell bread. She’d just baked bread and she said in her accent, ‘I suppose you lads are hungry.’ We said, ‘Well, yes we are.’ So she made us some, cooked us some bacon and eggs, and she had some biscuits for us and I think she made us tea. And then the shepherd which we thought was a hired man, later it turned out to be his son he spoke to them and they had a horse and a cart and I saw him take off on this with this horse and cart. Just the son. And seemed a long time but about midnight an RAF van showed up and we got in the van and it took us to the Penrith. And when we got to the, it was the hospital and when we got there here the rest of the crew were there.
DE: Jolly good.
RG: And I, I have no idea how they, how they got there but they were all there. And the navigator apparently had, he had of all the sparsely populated area he’d landed on, he’d landed right on a stone wall. I don’t know whether it was part of Hadrian’s Wall or what it was but he’d landed on it. He landed on a wall and he had two fractures in his, in his upper vertebrae but he could still walk but that showed up after. And another one had a badly sprained ankle. But they were all alive. And then I guess they’d notified the, notified the station and later on during the day a Lancaster showed up and transported us back to Croft. But when I got my records from the War Records Branch in Ottawa I got this, that was after what they called the Access To Information Act. When it expired I think it was twenty five years after it expired, then you could request documentation. So I remember writing to the War Records Branch in Ottawa to get copies of my war records and I got an envelope and I’ve measured it. It’s twenty two inches long and it’s fourteen inches wide and over an inch thick. So when I looked, looked through that there were thirty five, they had two Boards of Enquiry. One in to the, in to why the bomb exploded even though the bomb switch was off and then of course was a large investigation over the crash on take-off because the very first thing they did was send the engine to the factory. And apparently when they took the engine apart there was no fuel in the fuel lines to the engine. So their conclusion was that the engine failed due to fuel starvation. Whether there was an air lock or what but that was their determination and, and then the, what else [pause] I’ve lost my train.
DE: It doesn’t matter. I just, so did you and your crew all get the little caterpillar badge for, for using your parachutes?
RH: Pardon?
DE: Did you get the little tiny caterpillar badge from the Irvin Parachute Company for, the little pin?
RH: Oh yes. Yeah. Yeah. Got that. Yeah.
DE: And do you know what happened to your aircraft after? After you managed to bale out.
RH: That’s, that’s another story. In 1984 I went to, I went five times to Guinea Pig reunion at East Grinstead. Apparently, the English, they met every year. The Guinea Pigs that were remaining. Well, I say England. Britain now let’s say because they came from Wales and Scotland. And the Canadians, they formed their wing, because there were about seventy five Canadians that were treated there and I think there were enough Australians also to form a wing. But they were mostly British. They’d be a few maybe Poles or French and so on. But all together I think there were close to eight hundred treated at the, at the Burns Centre at East Grinstead and then we all became a member of the Guinea Pig Club. And that’s, that’s how it got its name. The plastic surgeon he was a New Zealander.
DE: McIndoe.
RH: Pardon?
DE: McIndoe.
RH: Yeah. That’s right. McIndoe. One morning he was going his rounds and they were, they had this Englishman in the bathtub in the saline bath because they’d discovered that the Battle of Britain ones that had baled out and landed in the Channel or the North Sea, that their burns were, that they healed quicker so it must be the salt water. So that’s how they treated them at East Grinstead. The first thing they did was put them in a saline bath. So the story goes that McIndoe poked his head around the door and said, ‘Good morning,’ and the Englishman in the bathtub, he said, ‘You know, sir,’ he said, ‘We’re just a bunch of bloody guinea pigs.’ And Sir Archibald McIndoe said, ‘Oh,’ he said ‘that’s interesting,’ he said, ‘We should form a club and call it the Guinea Pig Club.’ And that’s how it got its name. Because I think they’ve done a documentary on that.
DE: There’s books written and all sorts. Yeah. So, you were going to —
RH: Because I —
KA: Tell him about, he asked about when they found your plane.
RH: Oh yeah. That. Yeah.
KA: Right. Tell him about that.
RH: Yeah. I’m going to tell him about that. So, so in ’84 when I went to the, when I went to the reunion in East Grinstead there was a lady there from Carlisle and her brother, their name was Hutchinson. He was one of the very badly burned airmen and I think they were having a tea and she said to me, where, wanted to know where I came from and she wondered what station I was from and I told her then about the bale out. And she said, ‘Oh, well that’s, that’s not so far from Carlisle,’ she said, ‘Tell me the whole story,’ she said, ‘And I’m going to write it up and put it in the local paper.’ So she did that and then there was a business man there by the name of Peter [Connan] and he got interested in that story and took my address and wrote to me and said, ‘Well, the next time you come to England to visit your relatives,’ he said, ‘Come to Carlisle,’ he said, ‘And I’ll take you out to the crash site.’ He said, ‘I know,’ he said, ‘I’ve written two books now,’ he said, ‘And I’m on the third one.’ He said, ‘I’m researching aircraft that crashed within a hundred miles of Carlisle.’ But he said, ‘I have details of your crash and,’ he said, ‘I know where the aircraft is —’ For I don’t know how long it was but the RAF, the area where the plane crashed I think it was an earl that owned all the land and he wouldn’t let anyone near the aircraft unless they were from the, from the RAF. And so he took me as close as possible to where the, where the aircraft had had crashed. And he belonged to a Rotary Club and took me to one of their luncheons. And then about four years ago I got a letter from a fella by the name of Philip Smith who lived in Newcastle on Tyne and he said, “My friend and I,” he said, “We’re doing research on aircraft that crashed in the general area where —” he said, “I was born.” He said, “I came across your crash,” he said, “In my research,” He said, “Your plane crashed about forty miles from where I lived but —" he said, “I’ve moved now to Newcastle on Tyne,” he said, but he said, “I’ve been out to the, I’ve been out to crash site and,” he said, “There isn’t anything left,” he said, “As far as the plane goes. The scavengers they’ve taken everything.” Because I guess the earl sold [pause] I forget his name now. He sold the property. But he came to Canada to train and he was a Spitfire pilot. And I can’t, I can’t just, at the moment I can’t remember his name but he was an earl. And, so Philip Smith, he sent me pictures and he gave me the name of the, he’d been visiting the farmer and his wife and their, and at the moment I can’t think of the exact name of the town where they are but they’ve taken over. They’ve taken over the area or the farm where the aircraft crashed and it was in a boggy area and apparently it went almost straight down and the engines apparently are still in the bog. But of course there isn’t anything left now of the plane but the farmer’s wife, it’s not agricultural land, the grass is almost two feet high and they have cattle and sheep because it’s so hilly and there’s no, there’s no agricultural crops grown. And the farmer’s wife’s name is Edith, her husband’s name was Geoff Wilkinson and she went out in their quad. She said, ‘Philip has been out several times,’ she said, ‘So I decided one day I’m going to get on the quad and I’m going to go out and see what I can see,’ because all there is left is a crater but it’s covered over now with grass. But they took pictures of it and showed me exactly where the aircraft was and she said, ‘When I got there,’ she said, ‘I stuck my hand down rabbit holes,’ she said, ‘And I ended up with about thirteen or fourteen pieces,’ she said. ‘So I put them in a sack. I took them home and I laid them out on the kitchen table,’ she said, ‘And I took a picture of them,’ she said, ‘And I’m, I thought you might like to see them.’ [laughs] So, I’ve, I’ve got a picture there so I’m going to write to you and I’m going to send you one of those pictures.
DE: Oh smashing. Thank you.
RH: Because it’s interesting to see and then when on one of the visits that Philip Smith made out there he found, he found an article that there were numbers on it and he wanted to know if I knew where it came from. And I could see there were white numbers but there was a lot of mud and things caked on it. So I cleaned it up and I got out my pilot’s handbook and I looked. It looked like it might have been something to do with the fuel gauge so I looked at the engineer’s panel and I found that this, this, it was actually the shape of a, it was flat but it was indicating how much fuel was in a particular fuel tank because I got it cleaned up enough I could see all the white numbers and they corresponded with the numbers that when I, you know when they had them all numbered in the, in the Halifax handbook. I showed the engineer’s panel so I was able to write back to Philip and tell him that I’d been able to able to, able to identify it and I still have that. I’ve got it taped on there. So then when we got, when we got back to, when we got back to the, we got back to the, from, from the bale out about five days after that they told us that the powers that be thought that the crew should go to London, to the Central Medical Board to be examined. And of course when we got there we saw psychologists and psychiatrists and they were all wing commanders, I think. Coming from the farm I wasn’t that well versed with psychologists. I didn’t really know they existed. But we had some really interesting questions posed to us and I answered them the best I could. So to make a long story short we were there three days. When we got back to the station they called me there. The squadron commander called me in and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘We got the results from your visit to the Medical Board.’ And he said that, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news for you,’ he said, ‘The good news,’ he said, ‘You and your rear gunner are still considered fit to fly but the rest of the crew they’re not fit to continue flying. So we’ve decided that even though they’ve only done seventeen trips we’ll give them credit for a tour. They’re entitled to the ops wing but then they’ll go back to Canada. But if you and your rear gunner want to join them you can also get credit for your tour.’ So, I gave Kenny the news. As I say he was the youngster in the crew and Kenny said, ‘Well, skipper. If the rest of the, if the rest of the fellas on the squadron know that we’re fit to fly and we don’t continue flying they’ll think we’re cowards.’ And I said, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ I said, ‘That would never do, Kenny.’ And at the time they were converting the squadron to Canadian built Lancasters, so the squadron commander, Wing Commander Mitchell, he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘If you and your rear gunner want to continue flying,’ he said, ‘We’ll give you a couple of hours flying with the Lancaster,’ he said, ‘And we can, no problem getting you a new crew,’ he said, ‘We’ve got a lot of orphan crew members around here.’ He said, ‘They’ve lost their crew. They were either in hospital or something, but they’re trying to finish their tour and they’re having a difficult time to get another flight.’ So he said, ‘We’ll soon get you a new crew.’ So my navigator had a very good friend named Abby Edwards. He came from near Toronto and he was a dentist. He was probably about my navigator’s age. He came to me and he said, well, at the time my nickname was Crash and he said, ‘Crash,’ he said, ‘I’ve got about six or seven trips left,’ he said, ‘Can I finish my tour with you?’ I said, ‘Abby, you know what my record is,’ I said, ‘You might never finish your tour if you fly with me.’ [laughs] He said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I know your record,’ he said. He said, ‘Your crashes you were in,’ he said, ‘They weren’t your fault,’ he said, ’So, I’d like to finish my tour with you.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s fine.’ So he became my navigator and then they made up a crew for us. [pause] And then I still had Squadron Leader [Frankie Gulliver] for my flight commander and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Go and sit in that brand new Lancaster,’ he said, ‘And familiarise yourself with the, with all the controls,’ he said, ‘Not much different,’ he said, ‘From the Halifax,’ he said, ‘But,’ he said, ‘Sit there for a couple of hours,’ he said, ‘And then,’ he said, ‘We’ll do a couple of circuits and bumps.’ So I get, I can’t remember how long I sat there but I finally went back and I told him, I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think I’ve got a good idea where everything is.’ He said, ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘Get your crew,’ he said, ‘And we’ll do a couple of circuits.’ So I expected he would get in to the seat and fly. ‘No,’ he said, ‘You get in there,’ he said, ‘And you fly.’ He said, ‘I’ll just go with you for one circuit.’ So, I got in and I was really surprised at the way the Lancaster handled. It was, I just can’t describe it but it was so smooth on the controls and I made a reasonably good landing and he said, ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘Take your new crew,’ he said, ‘And go out to do some air to sea firing,’ he said, ‘And do a short cross country,’ he said, ‘And then you can come back,’ which we did. Then two days later we went on our first op.
DE: Ok. So you’ve, you’ve flown a couple of different Marks of Halifaxes and now you’re flying Lancasters. There’s, there’s lots of people —
RH: Yeah.
DE: That argue, you know which they liked best and which was best. What’s, what’s your opinion?
RH: Oh, the Lancaster was, it was, for me it was much smoother and easier to fly. But I also, I’ve read many books where it said those that had to bale out over enemy territory that more people found the Halifax easier to bale out of than the Lancaster. Just the way it was designed I guess.
DE: Yeah.
RH: Same as, same as the Mosquito but apparently it was very difficult to escape from too.
DE: But you, as a pilot you liked the Lancaster.
RH: I liked the Lancaster. But I will say this about [pause] like I flew the, I flew the Halifax with the Merlin inline engines and I did my tour with the, with the radial engines. With the Hercules radial engines. They were very powerful but they discovered that you know they were very hard on fuel, so you couldn’t carry as many bombs. Well, you could carry probably twenty three hundred gallons of petrol if your tanks were full but they used, they used a lot of fuel on take-off. So we didn’t have any difficulty over the target on the first trip but when we were getting, I’m not too sure how far we’d be from there but the wireless operator said, ‘Well, we’ve been diverted to Tuddenham and it’s equipped with FIDO.’ Oh my God, I thought, my first trip in a Lancaster and now I’ve got to land on FIDO. Well, number one, when I was sitting in the aircraft I never looked to see where the little box was to turn it on so that I could get the Morse Code signals.
DE: Oh, for the —
RH: To get myself lined up with the runway.
DE: For the BAT. The beam approach.
RH: Yeah. The beam approach training. And then when I finally found the box to turn it on I turned it on and then it had been over a year since I’d taken a course and I could not remember the signals. The signals to port were different than the starboard and they always told us, ‘If you get into an emergency don’t panic. If you panic you won’t think of anything.’ Well, I don’t know how long I sat, well sitting there, I was in the ruddy, somewhere within the circuit and I finally [pause] it came to me. I knew that one side was dit dit dit. The other was da da da. And I finally got, I remember crossing the beam twice in my circling I guess the aerodrome and then I finally got the signals figured out and got myself lined up with the runway and then of course you’re still in fog and I get down to seven hundred feet, a thousand feet, nine hundred feet and I thought egods where is that? Where is that runway? And about eight hundred feet you break through the fog because they’ve got this hundred octane fuel forced through these pipes eh with holes in and blazing away. There’s two walls of fire and I thought egods I’d better keep this damned aircraft between these walls of fire because I glanced out to my port side and I saw a Halifax blazing away. Now, to make a long story short I got the aircraft down and taxied over to where they were dozens of aircraft there. I don’t know how, you know how many were there but there were certainly a lot of aircraft. I think they had, if I remember correctly they only had about three stations equipped with FIDO. But this was Tuddenham. It was a large drome, equipped at Tuddenham and we stayed there. And then about 10 o’clock I think, the fog had cleared and then we, then we headed back home. I think it was two days later we went to, we went to Duisburg which had been bombed several times. And when we were on the bombing run, just started the bombing run we got hit with flak and it hit the port, the port inner engine but, there was a small fire but the engineer was able to extinguish the blaze but almost at the instant the mid-upper gunner yelled at me. He said, ‘Skipper, there’s a Halifax shooting at us. What’ll I do?’ ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I can see the bugger.’ I said, ‘Well, shoot back at him then.’ And you know, I don’t know whether it was, it seemed like it was almost hailing, you could almost hear the bullets hitting the aircraft and then the firing stopped. And then we found out later that their guns had jammed but when they got back it was their first trip. We discovered that when they got back to the station they claimed they’d shot down an unidentified four engine German night fighter. Well, [laughs] as you know the Germans didn’t even have four engine bombers. I think they had Dorniers and Heinkels as their twin engines. I don’t recall them ever having a four engine bomber. But that’s what we turned out to be.
DE: Oh dear.
RH: An unidentified four engine German night fighter. So we got the bombs dropped and went to close the bomb doors and they didn’t close all the way. And of course I didn’t, I had no idea why they didn’t close. Then when we got into the circuit went to put down the, put down fifteen degrees of flaps, and then went to put down the undercarriage and we’d only got one wheel. And I remember flying the Halifax that there was, there was an air bottle there charged up to I think about twelve hundred pounds pressure to use that and the engineer knew where, where it was. Tried that. Couldn’t get the wheel down and then he said, ‘Skipper,’ he said, he said, ‘There’s a crank here somewhere,’ he said, ‘Maybe we can crank it down.’ I said, ‘Well, try cranking it then.’ Well, he couldn’t. Couldn’t get the wheel down. So I told the control tower. I said, ‘I’ve only got one wheel.’ And they said, ‘Stand by.’ And finally they came back and they said, ‘Well, you can’t land here on one wheel,’ they said, ‘The runway’s not long enough. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the aircraft after you land so —’ They said, ‘You’ll have to go to a crash drome.’ So, they said, ‘Stand-by.’ You know. They finally came back on and said, ‘You’ll have to go to Carnaby.’ Well, that was on the, you probably know where that is, that’s on the east coast and actually not that far from Hull where my relatives lived and we had enough fuel to get there. And when I was in the circuit I said to control tower, ‘Have you got any instructions how I can land this brand new Lancaster on one wheel?’ And there was silence. Came back and said, I forget what they called the, referred to me, not as skipper but I forget the word they used, ‘You’re the first one that’s tried landing on one wheel. We’ve had lots of belly landings,’ they said, ‘But we haven’t had one landing on one wheel.’ But they said, ‘We know that you’re going to ground loop so we’ve got three flare paths. We’ve got one with like,’ they were all hooded, of course. ‘We’ve got one to the right with red lights. We’ve got one in the centre with amber. And then we’ve got one at the port side with, with green.’ So they said, ‘We’re going to put you in the centre. We’re going to put you in the centre flare path.’ And this was right close to the North Sea and as I turned in one of the engines started to sputter so I knew that we were getting a bit short of fuel. So I came in probably a little bit higher and a little bit faster than normal but as soon as I touched down I suppose the weight from the aircraft was too much for the one oleo leg and it snapped off. And then the aircraft started to spin. I don’t really know how many, I don’t know how many times it actually did but we went right across the green flare path and we ended up, we ended up on the, on the grass. I’ve got several pictures there. It shows the Lancaster sitting on the grass. So this was still dark and when we went out, when it was daylight we went out to look at the aircraft and what had happened when they, when the Halifax started shooting at us all their bullets hit the hydraulic lines. It punctured the hydraulics and we slowly lost all the hydraulic fluid. But if they had been about three or four feet higher it would have killed the navigator, the wireless operator, they would probably have killed me, the rear gunner. Maybe the, maybe the mid-upper might have survived. But if they had been that much higher. So that’s how close it, how close it came. So, then we, we went to the, I don’t know how we got to the station in Hull but I said to the crew, I said, ‘I’ve got a cousin that works in an office not, not very far from the station,’ I said, ‘We’ve got, we’ve got an hour and a half to wait for the train to York and then we’ve got to change trains in York.’ I said, ‘I’m going to slip over to see if my cousin’s working.’ So I went to the office and there was a young lady there. She said, ‘Can I help you?’ And of course I’m in my flying gear. She said, ‘Can I help you, sir?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I’d like to speak to my cousin.’ ‘And who may that be?’ I said, ‘Mary Graham.’ ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘I’ll call Mary.’ So I still see my Cousin Mary and her eyes were that big and she said, ‘Oh, my God,’ she said, ‘Don’t tell me you’ve crashed again.’ [laughs]
DE: It must have been, it must have been quite good for you having family in Hull. So I guess you could go see them when you were on leave and things like that.
RH: Oh yeah because my dad never did get, like after he survived the First World War. He came out to Canada in 1912. Went back when they needed engineers and got married in 1917. Got I think about three or four days leave, and he never did get back. He lost, he actually lost two brothers in that war. Strange because they named me after both of them. Reg. Reg and Wilfred. And then when, when we [pause] had my little visit with Mary of course she went home and told her folks what had happened. And when we got, got to the station and got on the train and changed at, changed at York and then got back to the station. Then I think it was the next day Wing Commander Mitchell by this time, Group Captain Turnbull, he’d been transferred back to 6 Group Headquarters and I’m not sure if it was Northallerton or Harrogate, it was either one of those where 6 Group was located but he was transferred back to 6 Group Headquarters and Wing Commander Mitchell was put in charge of both squadrons. He was the station commander then in charge of all, and they brought in another wing commander from the RAF to take his, take over his place. And then Wing Commander Mitchell called me in to his office and he said, ‘Well, Crash,’ he said, ‘You’ve cheated the Grim Reaper four times,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a feeling,’ he said, ‘That you’re not going to be lucky the fifth time,’ he said. ‘So we’re going to screen you,’ he said, ‘And you won’t be doing any more operations. But,’ he said, ‘If you like flying the Lancaster,’ he said, ‘They’re establishing a new special duty squadron over in Middleton St George,’ he said. ‘Not sure what you’ll be doing but,’ he said, ‘They’ll be making trips to France which is now clear of the Germans,’ he said. ‘So if you want to join that squadron,’ he said, ‘They have lots of room for you.’ So he said, ‘You can think about it for a few days.’ I thought about It, and I thought well I won’t be doing any more ops but I said. ‘Maybe my luck will run out,’ I said, ‘Even though I’m not on ops,’ I said, ‘Maybe something else will happen to me because,’ I said, ‘I seem to be jinxed.’ [laughs] So, I decided. Oh, I said, ‘Maybe I’d better get screened.’ So that was, that was the end of my flying career.
DE: So how many ops had you done at that point?
RH: Pardon me?
DE: How many ops had you done at that point?
RH: Nineteen.
DE: Nineteen. Ok. Thank you. Are you ok to carry on or would you like a wee break for a, for a little bit?
RH: No. I’m fine. I’ll have another drink of gin [laughs]
DE: Oh, you’re lucky [laughs] I’m on water.
RH: Yeah. I think I am too.
DE: Ok [laughs]
KA: Have you shown them the book?
RH: Eh?
KA: Have you shown the book?
RH: Oh. Can you see this book?
DE: I can see it says, “Flight.” If you lift it a bit higher. Ok.
RH: Ok. So that book that just came out recently and it was written by Deana Driver, and she once said there’s been, actually I should go back. She, she and her husband ran, she and her husband ran a printing business. Can you hear me?
DE: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.
RH: And so she had [pause] I guess I have to go back to the Canadian Snowbirds. You’ve probably heard of them. Canada’s air demonstration team.
DE: We have the Red Arrows.
RH: Did you?
DE: Yeah. The RAF display team are called the Red Arrows. They’re stationed, well they practice over my house.
RH: Oh yeah.
DE: So yeah. Yeah.
RH: But anyway when they were formed they reactivated 431 Squadron. So then I’ve had a connection with them ever since and been to their station at Moose Jaw. That’s where they’re training NATO pilots. But then when, when the Governor General visited Saskatchewan in 2018 for her training as an astronaut she took some of her flying at Moose Jaw flying Harvards. So the Snowbirds said, well and she wanted to visit the station. They said, ‘Well, we’ll put on, we’ll put on a special show for you.’ And unbeknownst to me the fella in Saskatoon that had organised, he’d organised numerous air shows and there’s another photographer there. He had interviewed numerous veterans and done videos and they’d arranged, they’d arranged with the, with the Snowbird commander to make me an Honorary Snowbird. So after the air show I thought well we’ll be going back to Saskatoon. They said, ‘No. We’ve got a, you’d better stick around for a while because we’ve got something else to do.’ So then I saw people gathering around and people with cameras and much to my surprise the Governor General was there and the commanding officer and then they had a beautiful plaque and the Commanding Officer, Colonel French presented me with this plaque and made me an Honorary Snowbird. So I have a picture taken with the Governor General on my right and I’m in the centre and the Snowbird commander’s there and I’m standing right beside the Governor General and I thought, gee I wonder if I should put my arm around her [laughs] I suddenly thought well better not do that I said, because Prince Philip, he has to walk six blocks behind the Queen and the Governor General is representing the Queen. I said, you’d better, you’d better not do that [laughs] After they’d presented me she said, she had a bit of an accent and she said, ‘Oh, they tell me you used to fly the Lancasters.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘What were they like to fly?’ I said, ‘They were a lovely aircraft to fly.’ I said, ‘Your excellency, if you go to Trenton,’ I said, ‘There is one Lancaster that can fly and one in England,’ I said, ‘If you go to Trenton I’m sure they’ll let you fly the Lancaster.’ ‘Do you think so?’ [laughs] I said, ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m sure they’d let you fly it.’ So I’ve often thought it was a good thing I didn’t try and put my arm around her. So where were we now? I got sidetracked.
DE: Yeah. You had just been screened so I guess it’s —
RH: Oh yeah.
DE: It’s, it’s from there and the voyage home I suppose.
RH: So then, well then of course I stayed around the station for a while. I went back to my aunt and uncle’s to, [pause] to say goodbye to them, and then went to Warrington. That’s where they all went to turn in their gear and so on. And when we, I was only there for one day and then it came [pause] oh I guess what you’d call a storm but anyway the weather turned really cold and all the pipes froze. They had hundreds of people there, and you had to return all your gear. And then they said, ‘Well, it’s going, everything is shut down because all the pipes are frozen. We can’t get anything done so where ever you came from you might as well go back.’ So I went back to Hull for another three or four days and said a second goodbye to my aunt and uncle. Then went back to Warrington. We had to turn in our helmets and flying boots, and I thought well I’m not going to turn everything in. If we didn’t turn in we had to pay for them. So I thought, well I survived four plane crashes I’m taking something home with me. So I took my flying boots. They said, ‘Where are your flying boots?’ Well I said, ‘I forgot.’ I said, ‘I left them with my aunt. I left with my aunt and uncle.’ They said, ‘Well, you’ll have to pay for them.’ So, ‘Ok. I’ll pay for them.’ And I often wish I’d kept my darned helmet, you know. Because when, over the years I’ve gone to numerous schools and so on and I often wish that, I used to take my flying boots to show them and that but I often wish I’d taken my helmet. But I didn’t. Then to make a long story short I, you remember my Buddy saying, ‘Well, you might meet Jean?’ Well, when we got to, when we got back to Canada I think it took us about another four, four and a half days but I got seasick. I never did going over but I got seasick. In the Irish Sea there was a bad storm and I was so sick. It’s the strangest feeling. I just wished the ruddy ship would sink I got so sick. Even though I’d survived the war. That’s how sick I felt. And I think we got, probably got tossed around. I don’t know how long. I was sick for about two days. Anyway, we got back to Canada. We landed at Lachine, Quebec and I wired my folks in Melville and told them at the farm, told them when I would, possibly when I would get there but I would let them know when I arrived at Melville because I’d decided I wasn’t stop at Ottawa because I didn’t know what I was going to say to Jean. I got cold feet. I’d never had to do such a thing so I figured she’d be upset and I phoned. I phoned, it was a Saturday afternoon and Jean wasn’t at home. Her sister Angela answered the phone. She said, ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Jean’s not here,’ she said, ‘But when will you be arriving in Ottawa?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, Angela,’ I said, ‘But I’ve wired my folks and I won’t have time to stop.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Jean’s going to be disappointed because she wants to talk to you about Buddy.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘But I won’t be able to stop.’ So I hung up the phone and it wasn’t long before a little voice said to me, ‘You know that’s pretty darned selfish of you. Your good friend, Buddy, he never even gets to the squadron and he’s killed in his last trip at Conversion Unit. The least you can do is go and see Jean.’ I wrestled around with it for at least an hour more and then I said, yeah, I guess I’d better go. So I phoned. I phoned back and Jean was home then and she answered the phone. She said, ‘Well, my sister told me that you weren’t going to be able to stop.’ And I said, ‘Well, I changed my mind, Jean,’ I said, I said, ‘I’m going, I am going to call.’ She said. When will you be arriving?’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s hundreds of airmen here and they us told it will be several days before they get everybody sorted out. All the trains.’ I said, ‘I’ll let you know when we’re going to arrive.’ I think it was three or four days before, before they got it sorted out and of course we had several stops before we got to Ottawa. We stopped at Montreal and other places. And then when we got to Ottawa this was a large station full of airmen getting greeted by families and so on and I’m sitting on my kit bag and my uncle had given me a nice leather case to bring my flying boots back. So I looked across and I saw two women and it looked like they were looking at a picture. I thought gosh, that might be Jean and her sister so I got my kitbag. It was heavy. Dragged it over there. And it was cold. It was the 28th of January ’45. And when I got closer I said, ‘Are you ladies looking for someone?’ They said, ‘Yeah. We’re looking for Flight Lieutenant Harrison.’ Oh, I said, ‘I’m a flight lieutenant. My name’s Harrison. Maybe you’re looking for me.’ So that’s how, that’s how I met Buddy’s Jean. And you know I often thought that he was always so emphatic when he’d say, ‘You never know. Some day you might meet her.’ And I often thought that then maybe he had a premonition that he wasn’t going to make it, eh? So anyway I was going to stay two days and I stayed four. Went back for holiday for ten days and that in ’45 and then the same in ’46. And December the 23rd ’46 we got married. And then my —
DE: Wonderful.
RH: My girls often say to me, ‘You know dad, if you hadn’t listened to that little voice we wouldn’t be here, would we?’ [laughs] I said, ‘No.’
DE: Yeah.
RH: But it’s a strange thing you know when, when I think about it and I should say too you know when I got back to the farm everything was quiet. It was like living in a different world and I, I thought then you know why didn’t I stay another year or so over there and join that special duties squadron because I understand that they were flying a lot of the prisoners of war back. Making trips and I’d often wished, but then I’d think well maybe I did the right thing because even though I wouldn’t be facing the enemy something else might have happened because my flying career was jinxed [laughs] But what really has bugged me and all through these years, my navigator and I were recommended for a DFC. And I know that because after the raid on Sterkrade when Croft lost eight aircraft on that raid, it was we were bombing a synthetic oil refinery and unbeknownst to, unbeknownst to the authorities the Germans had opened a night fighter ‘drome about thirty miles from Sterkrade. And we were attacked that night just after we left the target. We were attacked by a Messerschmitt 109 and my mid-upper gunner got credit for shooting him down. I think he was either inexperienced or I was just coming out of the corkscrew manoeuvre and my rear gunner saw him coming in. He missed us on his first run. He was coming in the second time and the rear gunner yelled at the mid-upper and told him where he was. The mid-upper gunner got a real good shot at him and that plane immediately went into a steep dive so he must have hit the pilot with his first burst. And then after the loss of those aircraft and they also, 431 also lost five aircraft on one night on raids to Hamburg. And they called me in and Frankie Goldman said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’re going to be a deputy flight commander,’ and I said, ‘Frankie,’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about office work, I said. I came from the farm,’ I said, ‘I haven’t got a clue what to do as a deputy flight commander.’ He said, ‘You’ll learn on the job just like I did.’ So I was about, I think I was only on the job about four or five days. One afternoon the phone rang about 2.30 and I was in A Flight, and I didn’t give my name, I remember saying, ‘A Flight.’ The other end of the line was, ‘This is Flight Lieutenant Nicholls. I’m the adjutant at Middleton St George and I’ve got recommendations on my desk for gongs for Flight Lieutenant Harrison and Flying Officer Philips.’ He said, ‘I’ve got all the information I need on Harrison,’ he said, ‘But,’ he said, ‘Before I send them up the line for a final approval,’ he said, ‘I need more information on Philips.’ I said, ‘Flight Lieutenant Nichols, this is Harrison speaking.’ I said, ‘The wing commander’s in his office. I’ll transfer your call.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘By all means do so.’ I transferred the call to the wing commander. That night in the mess Al was writing home to his new wife and I might have been dropping a line to my folks at the farm, or I’m not sure. Looking at the pilot’s, I always had my pilot’s handbook with me and that night I said to Al, ‘Oh, it looks like we’re going to get a gong.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ I told him about the phone call. Well, to make a long story short after the, after the crew were screened and just before, I think it was after the first trip on the Lancasters I looked on the Daily Routine Orders and there were three airmen that got the DFC and one was my navigator Al Philips. And I had an idea right away why my name wasn’t there. Because after the bale out the group captain called me in. The flight commander said, ‘The old man wants to see you.’ So I went to see the group captain. He said, I saluted him, he said, ‘Sit down. I’ve got something for you to read.’ So he had an endorsement in my logbook. Said at the top “Carelessness.” The gist of it was that my navigator also had one in his book and the wireless op. “This pilot in conjunction with the navigator knew that aircraft from 6 Group were being diverted and should have known that he had, that he’d be able to land at Croft.” So he said, ‘I’m placing this in his logbook,’ he said ‘Due to carelessness.’ Well, if I had ever known that any aircraft from 6 Group were being diverted I would, I would never have gone.
DE: No. Of course not.
RH: You know. So I, that’s why I never received my DFC. But anyway —
DE: So you were, you were, you were talking about this time when you were attacked by night fighters. Did any of the aircraft you flew did you also have the, the mid-under gunner?
RH: No. They never did. And you know what I never realised. I think I don’t think the authorities knew for quite some time that the German radar, you know they had the two types. They had the type where they, and mostly the women operating these three radar stations and they used to zero in on individual aircraft. They would relay that information to a night fighter, tell them where the aircraft was and then he was to let them know when he could see the aircraft and then he would get underneath. They had cannons on those night fighters as well as machine guns. They would get underneath the aircraft and he would aim the cannon at the gas tanks. Yeah. And if they were on the way to the target he didn’t get too close because he didn’t know what, what the bomb load was. And they had a, I understand they had a special tip on their cartridge and when it hit the gas tank the whole aircraft would be a mass of flames. Because quite often you’d see a big orange ball in the sky and that meant that it had been attacked and hit by a night fighter. They were probably, some of them were probably incinerated. But then the other method they had what they called the lone wolf. Right. So they would just, they would know where the bomber, they would be directed to the bomber stream and then they would just be on their own then. Then when they spotted a bomber then they would, you know come in for the attack. [pause] But I think, I think the closest estimate that I have I think there were close to the figure of all the bombers that were lost about eighty percent of them were shot down by night fighters rather than flak. And have you ever, have you read the book called “The Red Line,” the raid on Hamburg?
DE: I’ve read —
RH: No. Nuremberg.
DE: I’ve read several books. Yeah. Yeah.
RH: Have you read that one?
DE: I’m thinking, I think it’s one of the ones behind me.
RH: Oh, it’s an interesting one. That’s the night they lost ninety five bombers over, and then lost eight in England. And the wind changed a hundred and eighty degrees and they overshot the target. Did hardly any damage to the target they got so lost. And at the very bottom of that book it said the most costly and bloodiest raid of the war.
DE: No. No. It was. But you were, you were on operations in ’44 weren’t you?
RH: Yes.
DE: So after that. Yeah.
RH: Yeah. That was before when they, yeah.
DE: So did you do a mixture of targets? Because I suppose some of those were in support of the Normandy campaign and in France as well as in Germany.
RH: Yeah, we did.
DE: You said you did —
RH: We did quite a few of them in France, you know. Before, before D-Day, and after D-Day. We were on the Falaise Gap one too. Where they bombed short. Oh God, I can remember everything was timed right down to the minute and that’s when the Marauders had been in early in the morning and, and they’d, they’d, but they bombed things in a quarry and then, then the Canadians and the Poles moved into the quarry and then there was still a lot of smoke and that in there, and they had inexperienced crews on that raid. And I could, I can still see that Halifax. It was a Halifax setting up to meet and open the bomb doors and I said to the navigator, ‘How much farther have we got to go?’ And he said, ‘We’ve got about almost three minutes. We’ve got at least two and a half minutes. Why?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s a Halifax right up on my port,’ I said, ‘I can see all the bombs. I can see all the numbers on the bombs,’ I said, ‘And he’d got its bomb doors open.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘We’re not there yet,’ he said. I said, ‘Well, they’re —’ and I said, ‘I’m going to pull away from this because he was almost over my wings.’ And shortly after that the bomb, he let the bomb load go and then when that happened and we were bombing on yellow TIs that day and they sent a Lysander up firing off yellow cartridges to stop the bombing. I think it ended up with, it was either nine or thirteen bombers dropped their bombs short. Killed quite a few Canadians and Poles. And then when we got back to the station there was a message. All pilots, navigators and bomb aimers report immediately to the briefing room. And then of course they, they developed the pictures and we could tell quite easily the ones that had bombed short. But they should never ever have sent because the only escape route there was for the Germans to the east because the Americans were there to the west and then the Canadians and the British and the only escape route that the Germans had was the east. And I, it was a sultry day and a hot day and I remember looking out and there were, there were actually horses and that there. I suppose they were short of fuel that were pulling maybe some of their guns and that. But there were lorries and tanks. The whole countryside was littered with vehicles and trucks and tanks and streams of soldiers on the, on this escape route to the east. I’ll never forget that raid. So, that’s a few of the highlights of my, of my flying which I must say, Dan was entirely different than sitting behind six horses on the farm. And you know when I, there’s many a time when I look back and wonder how I ever, how I ever did it. Eh? Because when on the farm I knew very little about the big wide world. And then when you got over there every day was different. You learned something every day. It was just almost as if you were picked up and dropped on another planet or something. Life was so different.
DE: So did it change you?
RH: I think that it, I think it changed me in many ways. I think during that, for well the eight months I took the pre-enlistment course, I think during those four and a half years I think, I know I learned more about life in many aspects than I would have at any other time in my life. And I think what bothered me more than anything and I never realised it at the time that all the fellas that I trained with at all the different stations and different stops they made, Ground Schools and Flying Schools never thought that just over half of those fellas never came home because the loss rate in Bomber Command was fifty five percent. Somewhere between fifty five and fifty six percent. And I know for a fact, that for a fact because I had a picture taken just the day after we got our wings and there are four of us in there and I’m the only one that came back. There were thirty, thirty two I think got their wings that day and seventeen never came home. So that’s what it averaged out to. And you know, I often think when on Remembrance Days the thought occurred to me that for most people Remembrance Day was just a day in their life, eh. But for families that lost loved ones they had many Remembrance Days throughout the course of the year when the loved one that they lost had a birthday.
DE: Yeah.
RH: Or Christmas, or Easter or other occasions. And most people, you know they, they just have no idea. I’ve always said that there’s no glory in war. War is hell. More so for civilians than really the military. The military at least have, they have some opportunity to shoot back or that, but the civilians don’t and when you think of the millions that died in the Second World War. It was the First World War too. But I heard so many horror stories from my dad about the First World War that I was never going to join the Army and I didn’t like the water so [laughs] I think the only, the only place left for me is go in in the air.
DE: Yeah. There’s so many people like you, I think have said the same thing, ‘I don’t want to be in the trenches like the, like the infantry.’ And yeah. One chap said, ‘I can’t swim so I’ll join the air force.’
RH: That’s exactly how I felt [laughs]
DE: Yeah.
RH: Yeah. I think about the First World War. I never realised until reading the Legion Magazine probably a few months ago the number of horses and mules that were lost in that war, eh? Something like two hundred and seventy thousand. I often wonder how they ever fed them. But I also never realised that Canada sent several shiploads of horses over there, and those ships wouldn’t be really fitted for transporting horses and I understand they sent veterinarians with them but a lot of the horses were dead before they got there.
DE: Yeah. And some would have been, some would have gone down because they would have been torpedoed as well so —
RH: Yeah.
DE: Yeah.
RH: Yeah.
DE: So, just, you know really quickly what, what did you do after you got married? You didn’t work on the farm then.
RH: Well, that’s interesting because I hadn’t, like I didn’t, I really didn’t like farming. I had allergies and working harvest time, and the grain dust and that it used to bother me and I never really, to be truthful I never really wanted to farm. So when, after I’d been home I got discharged in April. I think April the 14th ‘45. I had to go to Winnipeg. Get discharged. Then when I got back I thought well I’ll go to the university. Maybe I’ll take a course in agriculture. So I went. I saw the, I had an appointment with the Dean of Agriculture and he said, ‘Well, Harrison,’ he said, ‘We’ve got over two hundred, most of them ex-Air Force and some Army,’ he said. ‘They’re all going to graduate,’ he said, ‘And I don’t know. I’m sure there’s not enough jobs for them,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what they’re going to do,’ he said. ‘You told me that you had an application in for the Public Service and you could have an opportunity to go to work for the Veterans Land Administration which would be settling veterans on farms. So —’ he said, ‘If I were you I think you should take that job,’ he said, ‘Because I’m sure that all these fellas that are going to graduate from agriculture there’s not going to be enough jobs for them so —’ I took his advice, started to work for the Veterans Land Administration. Not only did they settle veterans on farms they also built houses for them and then if you didn’t want to farm or didn’t want to build a house they also had what they called Re-establishment Credit. You got seven dollars a day for every day you served in Canada and fifteen dollars a day for every day you were overseas, and then you could use that for buying furniture and so on. So that’s how I used mine. But I think the Federal, the Canadian Government, I think they had one of the best, one of the best programmes for veterans that came home from war. So that, then I worked then for the veterans. I worked from November ’45 in Regina until, when I got back from, from marrying Jean they called me in the office. They said, ‘Well, we’ve got good news for you. Oh,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a, have I got a promotion?’ ‘No. We’re going to transfer you to Saskatoon. To the District Office. You’ll have the same, get the same salary as here.’ So I started working in Saskatoon in January ’47 and retired in 1984. So I probably worked for the Veteran Land Administration for thirty eight and a half years. I started near the bottom of the ladder when I was one of the younger ones and kept my eyes and ears open. And a lot of them had university degrees but I worked my way up the ladder and when I retired my job was Regional Director for the Far Western Provinces so I often thought well I probably just as well there as if I’d gone to university.
DE: Yeah. Probably did.
RH: So, I just, I think those, for the times that I spent in the Air Force I think in many ways the times they were the most exciting. Sometimes the most interesting and I have to admit sometimes they were a bit scary. So I have, I guess you could say I had mixed feelings about the war but overall for me they were favourable because I was just, it was just luck I guess that I survived some of those plane crashes because they weren’t normal.
DE: No. No. Quite.
RH: Plane crashes.
DE: Yeah. Your nickname was well deserved I think.
RH: Yeah.
DE: So, we’ve been talking. Well, you’ve been talking and I’ve been listening for well over two hours so I’m quite happy to end there. Just there’s, there’s a couple of other questions that I always ask before I end an interview and, you know the first one is there any other story that you have in mind that you can think of that you’d like to tell before we, before we wind this up?
RH: I just wanted to ask you when, when Kevin goes back to my place when he has time and takes pictures like when you walk into my place I have a hallway. I’ve got lots of pictures of, of aeroplanes and so on, but in 1944 the Canadian press went around to all the Canadian bomber stations and they took pictures. You may have seen them but they, they were, oh here’s a book. They took pictures of, of all the squadrons and there you can see them. You can see them all standing on the top of the Halifax. And —
DE: Yeah.
RH: So that shows how much, how strong those things were built, eh?
DE: Yeah. Yeah.
RH: Because now when you get on an airliner the first thing they see is, ‘Don’t step here.’ [laughs]
DE: Yes. Yeah.
RH: Yeah. So, so what, what I plan to do is I’m going to, I’m going to get your address from, get Kevin to give me your address and then I’m going to, I’m going to send you a copy of this. This article was written by a, by a Mr Gray and I met him at a, at a Allied Air Force reunion in Toronto in September 1990 and he was a retired High School teacher, also a former RCAF pilot and he had a, there was another teacher there too, a High School teacher who also a pilot. So when they had a going away luncheon on the Sunday he noticed my Caterpillar and my Guinea Pig Badge. He wanted to know how I got those and I told him the rest of my story and he said, ‘Did you ever write a book?’ I said, ‘No. I never considered myself a writer.’ And apparently he, he liked to write and he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Would you mind if I wrote up your story?’ And I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘I’ve got all my documentations. Copies of all my records.’ I said, ‘They came in an envelope,’ I said. I measured it. It was twenty two inches long. It was fourteen inches wide and well over an inch thick.
DE: Yeah.
RH: So I said —
DE: Well, I would —
RH: I said, ‘Thirty pages,’ I said. ‘Thirty five pages in the, in the Board of Enquiry into the crash on take-off,’ I said, so —
DE: Yeah. Well, I mean anything you could send like that would be absolutely wonderful and I’ll have a chat with Kevin about how we can get copies of photographs and things.
RH: Yeah. So what I, what I’ll do when I, when I go back to the offices, go back to the offices, there’s the endorsement. So I’ll send you a copy of that.
DE: That would be fantastic. I think we’ll stop the recording but we’ll keep chatting for a little bit longer.
RH: Ok. Yeah. I’ll get one of those books too and send it to you. As they say, ta ta. Ta ta for now, love [laughs]
KA: We’re done.
RH: We’re done.
KA: Good job, Reg. Holy smokes man. You talked for a long time.
RH: Too long, eh?
Other: Ok. Here. I’ll stop that.


Dan Ellin, “Interview with Reg Harrison,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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