War Memoir - George Bilton


War Memoir - George Bilton


Talks of early life at school and work in Hull. Volunteered as ARP messenger and described duties and air raid damage in Hull. Volunteered as aircrew and initially selected for wireless operator/air gunner but later asked to change to air engineer. Trained in Blackpool and RAF St Athan. Crewed up with mixed Canadian British crew on Halifax HCU before being posted to 6 Group 427 Squadron. His pilot did not return from a second dickie orientation sorties so crew went back to conversion unit to crew up and train with new pilot. Then posted to 428 Squadron. Subsequently transferred to 434 Squadron when pilot promoted. Completed tout of 34 operations on Halifax. Gives detailed description of individual operations, experiences and activities. Describes flying in Halifax and discusses moral, discipline issues, operating with Canadians and other general comments. Did instructional tour after completing operational tour, offered commission, did not enjoy it and volunteered for second tour but curtailed by end of war. Comments on tours after war including one in Burma including dealing with casualties in from a Dakota crash in Egypt.


Temporal Coverage




Oral history


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I: Were you born in Hull?
GB: Well, outside of Hull at Anlaby.
I: Which year were you born?
GB: 1923. October.
I: And what did your father do for a living?
GB: He was a coach builder for, well it’s now British Railway but first of all Hull and Barnsley. Then it was taken over by the London Northeastern and he built the coaches and the waggons. He was with them all his life.
I: Did you go to school in Anlaby?
GB: Anlaby Church of England School. And then the last two years I was at Hessle School when they closed the Church of England one down. I left school 1938.
I: So you were fourteen.
GB: Fourteen. Yeah.
I: Did you get a job?
GB: Yes. I went and got a job as an apprentice furniture salesman.
I: In Hull.
GB: In Hull. At Harry Jacobs Furniture.
I: Were you doing that when war broke out?
GB: Oh, I was still with them when war broke out. I was with them until I went into the Forces in 1942.
I: What was your reaction when you heard Chamberlain make the declaration that we were at war with Germany?
GB: Well, I think it was a bit too young and didn’t know anything about it but I volunteered for an ARP messenger boy and I was accepted and that kept us busy on a night time. Even with practices.
I: Where did you volunteer for it?
GB: Anlaby House which became the Central Headquarters for the ARP in Haltemprice. It is now the headquarters of Beverley Borough Council. The same house.
I: What kind of work did you have to do as an ARP messenger boy?
GB: Well, if any of the telephone lines were broken in a raid we had to go out and take messages from one post to another.
I: By foot?
GB: No. On our bikes.
I: Did you have a uniform?
GB: No. Just a steel helmet and an extra special gas mask. That’s all.
I: What was extra special about it?
GB: Well, it was more like the Services one. Not like the ordinary civilian gas mask.
I: What was the difference between the two?
GB: Well, it was heavier and, well and you just, you didn’t have the mask at the face. You had a small canister at the side.
I: So you didn’t have the protuberance.
GB: No. That’s right.
I: Did you have an arm band to show who you were?
GB: Yes. ARP messenger, that was all and the steel helmet with M on.
I: What did M mean? For messenger.
GB: For messenger.
I: Did you get paid for it?
GB: No. It was all voluntary. No. Nothing at all. You, you, when the sirens went you reported to Anlaby House and you stayed there until the siren all clear and then you went back home.
I: Whereabouts did you do this work?
GB: In Anlaby. The farthest we ever had to bring a message was from Anlaby to Cottingham when the lines were down.
I: Did you enjoy doing it?
GB: Oh yes. I did.
I: Could you have thrown it up any time you liked?
GB: Any time you wanted you could decide to finish and that was it.
I: Was there competition to get these jobs?
GB: Well, there was about four of us and that’s all they needed. They all went in the Forces and of the four there was one killed.
I: How did that happen?
GB: It was a lad called John Harding. He was killed in Italy about a month after the war. He went all through the desert, all through Italy and he was killed about a month after the war moving shells from the artillery.
I: Were there any incidents that happened to you after you had done the messenger work?
GB: Not really.
I: That you can recount.
GB: No, there was, it was very very quiet in the area of Haltemprice. All the damage that was done was done in Hull. I think we had what five bombs dropped in the village of Anlaby and they were unexploded.
I: Whereabouts did they drop?
GB: At the, two or three hundred yards from Anlaby House down Woodlands Drive in a snicket.
I: A snicket being a cut through.
GB: A cut through. Yes. They did no damage. The Army came, found them and exploded them.
I: Was anybody injured?
GB: No. There was no injuries whatsoever.
I: When did the bombs drop on Anlaby? Which year would that have been?
GB: That was in the big raid of 1940. May the 8th 1941.
I: ’41. Any others that you remember that dropped in Anlaby?
GB: None at all. There was only the five.
I: Did you ever see the damage in Hull?
GB: Yes. I used to work in Hull. The place where I was employed in Jameson Street was completely gutted during the 1941 raid.
I: What was the name again?
GB: Harry Jacobs Furniture, Jameson Street.
I: What else did you see of the damage in Hull?
GB: All of Jameson Street were moved. Our offices were down Osbourne Street and that was severely damaged. You could see all of Paragon Square which was Hammonds at the time was gutted. There was a terrific amount of damage done and especially in the Stoneferry District where the oil mills were and the flour mills around it.
I: Did people come out of Hull to Anlaby to get away from the bombing?
GB: Yes, they did. They built a camp down Lowfield Road in Anlaby for displaced personnel from the raids and there was one built on Priory Road just outside Cottingham which was taken up by people who had been bombed out. Those two camps after the war housed the young couples who got married and they had no housing. When I got married in ’51 I finished up in one of those converted accommodations for a year before I got a house.
I: What were they like?
GB: Alright.
I: Just describe them.
GB: Well, they were two little bedroom. You had a small bedroom, small living room and there was a small like kitchen for cooking and doing your washing. In Priory Road where the camp is we spent a year in there didn’t we before we came to Cottingham. There were no housing at all and they were in use for about ten years before they were finally closed down.
I: What was the standard of accommodation like?
GB: Poor. Single bricks. Very damp. Corrugated roof.
I: Wasn’t it later used to house Poles?
GB: That’s correct. Yes.
I: Now, can you tell me how you came to be in the Air Force?
GB: I volunteered for air crew in, when I was eighteen in what we called a Selection Board. And I was accepted as a wireless operator air gunner.
I: When you, which year would this have been?
GB: That was 1941. I was eighteen in October ‘41 and I volunteered then and went down for an interview at Padgate. I went through the examinations. Then my medical and then the Aircrew Selection Board and I was accepted for training as a w/op a g.
I: Why did you volunteer for it?
GB: I was, I should have made a very very poor sailor and my father always said, ‘Don’t go in the Army.’ He’d had enough.
I: So you wanted to exercise a choice before you were directed.
GB: Before I was directed.
I: But you were. Did you become a w/op air gunner?
GB: No. There was, they had a tremendous influx of people wanting to be w/op a g’s and I think I’d been waiting about four months to go in and they were short of flight engineers for training so they asked me if I would like to take a test board and become a flight engineer for training. And I accepted that instead of waiting. So I was called up in August ’42. Went to Blackpool. Did my initial training footslogging and I stayed in Blackpool then for about ten months doing a flight mechanic and a fitter’s course. Passed out AC1 flight mechanic and AC1 fitter and I went down to St Athans for six weeks to do the Halifax course and I waited then in August ’43 and I was posted from St Athans up to Number 6 Group, a Heavy Conversion Unit 1664 which was then at Croft and I crewed up with a Canadian and English mixed crew on August 1943.
I: In that training did you run into any problems?
GB: None at all. The only time I got jankers was for failing to carry a bayonet whilst on duty [laughs] and I got seven days CB for it and I swore never again to do any punishment.
I: What happened to you on the CB?
GB: CB? Well, you reported at 6 o’clock after you’d done all your schoolwork for three hours of square bashing. Fifty five minutes square bashing, five minutes off with full kit. Saturday you scrubbed the NAAFI out at Squire’s Gate and it was a huge one. Sunday you reported after Church Parade on the hour every hour until 10 o’clock at night. That was enough. No more. So I kept my shoes clean after that.
I: Did you resent the punishment?
GB: Not really. It taught you to behave yourself.
I: What did you think of the quality of training that you got?
GB: Very good. The instructors were very good. I had no complaints whatsoever against any of the instructors. They were always fair and they helped you whenever. All the way through the course.
I: Were you taught what you had to know or did they miss any?
GB: Well, I think the original entries for flight engineers were given far too much training on engines. You didn’t have to become a fitter to become a flight engineer as they found out later. They shortened the course to about a twelve week course where it took me nearly a year. You didn’t have to be a qualified flight fitter engine to become a flight engineer.
I: What did a flight engineer have to do in a bomber?
GB: Look after chiefly the control of the engines, the petrol consumption, know the hydraulic systems and all the emergencies. Assist in take-off and landing.
I: If the pilot had been hit would you have been able to pilot it?
GB: It would have been a struggle. As a Halifax flight engineer you didn’t have any pilot training. You were never on the controls whereas in a Lancaster you were. You acted as a second pilot for take-off and landing but on a Halifax bomber the bomb aimer assisted in take-off and landing.
I: Now, you said that you were posted to 6 Group. Can you tell me about what 6 Group was?
GB: 6 Group was the Halifax group financed by the Royal Canadian Government. They provided all the aircraft and the crews were mixed. I had three English and four Canadians in the crew. The pilot was, pilot, navigator and the two gunners Canadians. The wireless operator, the bomb aimer and myself were the English members of the crew.
I: How was the crew formed?
GB: Well, I met the crew. They’d done their Operational Training Unit course and they were posted up to Croft and ten crews and ten flight engineers were told, ‘Sort yourselves out.’ And they picked me and I accepted them and I went with them. You weren’t allocated. You weren’t told, ‘You fly with that man.’ Or, ‘You fly with them.’ You were left to individually sort yourself out which crew you wanted to go with. So if you met a sergeant in the mess, you know you knew him and you had a drink or two before you crewed up you went to him.
I: How did you like serving with Canadians?
GB: Oh, they were very good. Very friendly. They didn’t have the bull. The discipline wasn’t as severe on the Canadian group as it was on the English groups.
I: Can you give an example?
GB: Well, I mean you mixed freely with the, when I was an NCO you mixed freely with the two officers. The Canadian officers. No trouble at all calling you by your Christian names.
I: Now, what was your first operational squadron?
GB: My first operational squadron? Well. I lost my first pilot. We went to 427 squadron and Sergeant Dresser went on his second second dickie trip and never came back.
I: 427 was your first.
GB: First squadron at Leeming. So we were a crew without a captain.
I: When did you join that squadron do you think?
GB: We joined 427 Squadron 4th of September and we left on the 23rd of September. We were posted back to 1659 Conversion Unit Topcliffe where there was another pilot waiting for us.
I: So did you do any operations —
GB: None at all.
I: At that base?
GB: No. None whatsoever there. As I say the pilot never came back from his second, second dickie to Frankfurt.
I: So you were posted to a new squadron.
GB: No. A new Conversion Unit for a new pilot. A new pilot by the name of Watkins, a flying officer who had been instructing in Canada for nearly two years. He’d been, come over and we crewed up with him on the 24th of September with Flying Officer Watkins at 1659 Conversion Unit Topcliffe and we went through our month training with him again until the 7th of October ’43 where we were posted to 428 Squadron, Middleton St George.
I: And it was then you started operations.
GB: Operations. Yes. The first operation we did was the 3rd of November.
I: Can you describe what you remember of it?
GB: Very very little. It was Dusseldorf and everything seemed to be on top of you at the first you know. You didn’t take it all in. All I seem to remember is a little bit of flak and the flares going down for target indicators for bombing. Everything happened so fast on your first two or three trips that you hadn’t adjusted to operational flying. I learned more on my second op. We went to Ludwigshafen on the 18th of November.
I: What happened then?
GB: Well, first of all we got coned over the target. We got the master searchlight on us which was a bluey colour and he followed us and we got out of him after a lot of evasive action and as soon as we got out a fighter opened up on us and we got a good hiding. The rear gunner was severely wounded. The IFF that we had was damaged. Monica, which we had was damaged. All the trimming wires for elevator and rudders were cut. We had petrol tank wires cut from one, two and four tanks. All hydraulic pipes were cut. We couldn’t close the bomb doors. They were fully opened. We were in a mess and we got hit about twenty one thousand feet and by the time the pilot got control we were down to fifteen thousand. We had no navigational aids and the navigator brought us back by straight navigation of the Pole Star. We were off track coming back when we crossed over Ostend at fifteen thousand feet and they hit us with everything.
I: They what?
GB: Hit us with everything. They opened up with everything they had and we couldn’t take any evasive action. We just had to go through it.
I: This was the flak.
GB: Yeah. There was flaming onions coming up in between the tail plane and the main plane. It was rough. And then we crossed the coast and we still didn’t know exactly where we were so the skipper called up. The emergency call sign then was Darkie and Woodbridge accepted the call and we did a full emergency landing there.
I: What was the emergency landing like?
GB: It was very rough. We couldn’t get the undercarriage, it came down but I couldn’t lock it down. We tried everything. Put in to a shallow dive, pulling out to see if we could just pulling into a shallow dive, pulling out to see if we could just jerk it that two or three inches to make it lock and we couldn’t do that. We were all in the emergency positions coming in to land and just as they pulled up to do a belly landing it just threw it that little bit forward, the wheels, and they locked. So we were alright. We came out. The rear gunner we, we’d patched him up. We’d pumped morphine into him and he went to Norwich Hospital. We never saw him again. He was very badly wounded in the head. And we spent the night there and then an aircraft flew us back the next morning to our base at Middleton St George.
I: What was the date of that?
GB: 18th of November.
I: And which Halifax was it? What was it called?
GB: NA O-Oboe. We were just off on a night operation at 16.45 on a trip which lasted seven hours and five minutes.
I: Did that put you off wanting to go on operations after that experience?
GB: Not really. We were in operations again on the 26th of November. We took two spare gunners and we went to Stuttgart and we had a reasonable trip. We had no fighter trouble but when we went to a diversionary raid being done on Frankfurt and the Germans had laid what they called you know the fighter flares, the path the Mosquitoes were taking oh and it looked rough. We bypassed it and Stuttgart was quite you know quite a normal trip. A bit of flak. No fighters. But I think that got the confidence of the crew back.
I: When you went on these trips to Stuttgart and Ludwigshafen could you see other planes being hit?
GB: Not on those two. No. I never saw anything anyone shot down over Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart or the first trip Dusseldorf.
I: How did your next operations go?
GB: Well, the next operation was January the 20th 1944, Berlin and that was a rough one.
I: Can you describe it?
GB: Well, at one part the Germans had laid a flare path for fighter flares and they were among the bomber stream and we were going down. You could see the fire from the German aircraft and a small amount coming from our aircraft. The Allied aircraft and then you’d just see a ball of fire and it would hold steady for a minute or two then it would just go in to a dive. That was quite an experience to see it. When we got to Berlin we were in the first wave and the target indicators were a few seconds late and we got caught in predictive flak because we were the first wave. We had no cover from the metal strips. The tin foil that we threw out. It didn’t affect, it didn’t help you it helped the people behind you and we were a little bit off. [pause]
I: Which was the worse? This Berlin one or the Ludwigshafen?
GB: Ludwigshaven. Ludwigshaven was the worst. I mean we got a lot of shell, a lot of holes, a lot of damage. This Berlin it was just that you were in the predicted flak. We didn’t get hit. We didn’t have any fighter trouble. Berlin, Ludwigshafen I’ll never forget it. Never.
I: Was Berlin a particularly dreaded place to go to?
GB: It was, yes. It was such a long, it was such a long stooge. It took us eight hours fifteen minutes. It was very tiring and it was overpowering on the target area because it was so heavily defended. There were so many searchlights. I think on the first one we lost about forty odd aircraft that night.
I: You said which particular Halifax you had. Did you always have the same one?
GB: No. That was Halifax NA U-Uncle on that Berlin trip.
I: Was there any competition to get the best aircraft?
GB: No. It was just what you were allocated. Our pilot later became a flight commander and he took any aircraft. I mean I think we were nearly always in a B flight when we flew aircraft.
I: What does that mean?
GB: Well, you had A flights and B flights.
I: As part of the squadron. To make up the squadron.
GB: The mark up the squadron. Yes. And the A flights were the first half of the alphabet and so the second B was the second half. We were either V-Victor, Q-Queenie, or O-Oboe later on that we flew in.
I: But was there any, ever any feeling that the more senior people were getting the best aircraft?
GB: No. No.
I: Or the best ground crews?
GB: No. The best ground crews were on operational squadrons. I thought so anyhow.
I: But was there any difference between the different ground crews that you had in your squadron?
GB: No. They were all first class. They all did a first-class job. The aircraft were always in good condition. We never turned back from thirty four trips from any trouble whatsoever.
I: What was the next operations that you had to do?
GB: Well, the next two I did were two mine laying stooges. One was to Kiel which was a quiet trip and the other one was down to la Rochelle which was a very long stooge. Eight hours ten minutes. That was the fourth of February ’44. Then we went to Berlin again on the 15th of February.
I: Was mine laying usually a quiet job?
GB: Yes. Well, it was a very hard job because you were by yourself. There would probably be about twenty aircraft you know to lay mines and you were on your own. You had no cover whatsoever. I mean the tin foil that you threw out didn’t help you. It more or less showed the Germans where you were because you were always ahead of the tin foil you were throwing out. There would be about twenty. Probably twenty two twenty three aircraft would go down to La Rochelle and lay two mines a piece. In between the island of la Rochelle and the mainland.
I: Did you ever call those gardening operations?
GB: They are gardening operations. I did the La Rochelle. I did two La Rochelles in February. One on the 4th and one on the 21st and then on the 25th I did a mine laying stooge to Copenhagen Sound.
I: Well, what was your next Berlin operation like? Was it any different from the first?
GB: It was the same as the first. A lot of flak. A lot of fighter activity but we never had an attack. That day, night we were diverted to Shipdham which was an American base and we were there for three days for bad weather. Our base was closed down and we stayed with the Americans. Had their hospitality.
I: What was the date of your second Berlin raid?
GB: 15th of February. We took off in NA Q-Queenie. We took off at 17.20. We were airborne for six hours fifty minutes.
I: What did you fear most over Berlin? Was it the night fighters or the flak?
GB: The night fighters. The flak no. It was the fighters. We were always looking out for fighters. You didn’t want, you didn’t want to battle with them you wanted to get out of their way because the armaments that we had was four 303s were just like peashooters to their cannons if you could see them and get out of their way. That was the main thing.
I: And then after Berlin? That second Berlin operation.
GB: After Berlin we did as I say two mine laying stooges to la Rochelle and Copenhagen Sound in February. Then March we started with another gardening operation mine laying to the mouth of the Gironde River which was seven hours fifty minutes. Then we started the pre-D-Day marshalling yards in the March of ’44 and it was the marshalling yard at Trappes. Now that one we had an absolute full bomb load, I’ll never forget it of eleven thousand five hundred pounders. We had eleven thousand five hundred and fourteen hundred gallons of petrol and it was made up of seven five hundred pounders and six one thousand pounders. That was the heaviest bomb load we’d ever taken and after the operation the marshalling yard at Trappes was never used again. It was, it was quite an easy trip. There was very very little flak. It was very light. No fighter trouble. We came, we did five hours forty minutes and there was bad weather at the aerodrome and we were diverted to Harwell. And we spent the night at Harwell and we left the next day back to base.
I: Now here you’ve given me a sheet headed “Target Token” relating to this Trappes raid on the 6th of March 1944. Can you tell me what this sheet signifies?
GB: Well, that is the marshalling yards there. Those are early flares, the photograph flares that we dropped to illuminate the target so we could take the photograph. Well, from that they could photograph from the headings that we were on. They could tell you exactly where those bombs straddled the target and the whole load went right across the marshalling yards.
I: So you’ve got the copy of the photograph.
GB: Of the photograph. Every crew member was presented with a copy of the photograph.
I: As a means of congratulating.
GB: Congratulating. More or less that you’d got the whole fifteen bombs right across the marshalling yard.
I: Any other marshalling yard operations that you did?
GB: Well, I know the next one we went to was, the next operation I did was another gardening trip to Kiel. We did the mining to the entrance to Kiel harbour. The next one was on the 25th of March. We went to Aulnoye. That was quite an easy trip. A marshalling yard. No trouble. Then on April our skipper had been promoted to squadron leader and we were posted 434 Squadron where he became B Flight commander.
I: Where was 434 Squadron?
GB: At Croft. It was a satellite aerodrome of Middleton St George. It was one that was built during the wartime use whereas Middleton St George was a peacetime aerodrome. The next marshalling yard we went to was Lisle. That was a quiet trip. That was on the 9th of April. We went on the 26th of April to Villeneuve St Georges. A French target. On the 29th we had a short gardening trip to the Frisian Islands. The mines we were laying were supposed to be for a convoy that was coming through. We laid the mines and the convoy was coming through. There was quite a bit of flak from the flak ships. That was then —
I: Were you hit?
GB: No. It was, we had no trouble. We seemed to be lucky again. There was a lot of flak from the flak ships but we had nothing. No holes whatsoever. Come to May, the 1st of May we went St Ghislian. And then on the 27th we went to Le Crepiet. They were quiet trips. Five hours and four and a half hours we did. On June the 15th we flew in J-Jig on a daylight to Boulogne and you could see the flak there. When we were going in there was one aircraft coming out with the whole of his starboard wing in flames. We never knew what happened to him.
I: Was that the first daylight raid?
GB: That was the first daylight I’d done. Yes.
I: How did you feel about that compared with the night raids?
GB: Well, you’re more confident because you could see what was happening and you knew you had fighter cover. It was just the flak but then flak you got used to. It never really bothered people unless you got hit with it badly.
I: What was the date of that bombing operation?
GB: 15th of June.
I: So this was after D-Day.
GB: After D-Day. I was on leave on D-Day. We were. And the next operation was to Disemont on the 21st of June.
I: What was the target in the Boulogne raid?
GB: On the Boulogne raid we were dropping bombs that exploded as soon as it hit the water to cause waves to go into the fence to destroy their MTB boats and that.
I: Do you think it worked?
GB: By all accounts yes. The reports we received afterwards it had been a successful raid and the docks got a good pasting as well. In July, we started off the 1st of July we went to a place called [Benayes or Beugnies] and when we got there there were no PFF markings so we bombed on Gee. There was quite a bit of flak and we lost all hydraulics and had to, we had to land using emergency undercarriage but I could never close the bomb doors. They were open all the way back and all the way for landing. And we had to use full emergency for getting the undercarriage down and the use of the flaps.
I: When was that?
GB: That was the 1st of June. We went in Q-Queenie that night.
I: 1st of July.
GB: 1st of July, sorry. They sent us back to the same target on the 6th of July. To [Benayes or Beugnies]. We went on G-George that time and it was a quiet trip.
I: Where is [Benayes or Beugnies]?
GB: It’s in France. All I can —
[recording paused]
GB: And after that I went to Caen on a daylight and on a night operation on the 18th of the 7th took off at 3.30 in the morning. That was when they started the big push and their breakthrough at Caen.
I: Was that a particularly big raid? A mass raid.
GB: Yes, it was a mass raid. They practically destroyed Caen that night and the Army moved forwards and they never stopped moving after that.
I: Do you have any memories of that raid?
GB: Yes, all I can remember was it was a dead easy raid. Flak not bothered. No fighters. No nothing. Just like a cross country.
I: Were you aware of all the other planes?
GB: Yes. They were all, they were all so close together. All bombing on one area. You could see them even though it was that time. Just two hours. It would be about 5.30. just dusk coming on.
I: So you didn’t have any opposition.
GB: Nothing at all. Nothing whatsoever. It was just like flying from here to Jersey on your holidays. No opposition whatsoever.
I: Do you think you hit your target?
GB: Well, we must have done because the Army never stopped moving. They took Caen. The next job after that it was a rough one. It was Hamburg. That was the 28th.
I: What happened then?
GB: Well, we were in the second wave and we were a bit late and we were at the scheduled height of bombing at seventeen thousand feet. There was somebody else above us and they dropped their bombs and we had, on our bombing run we just had to dive starboard to get out of the way of his bombs or we should have got the lot because they always had separate heights for bombing and we were late. Two minutes late. We were at seventeen and the next wave was at seventeen five. That was it. There was quite a bit of flak at Hamburg. That was the most terrifying thing. A full bomb load up there. And the skipper just dived starboard and we were on the bombing run. Where our bombs went we don’t know.
I: Was it common for planes to be hit by bombers above them?
GB: I don’t think so. I think it occasionally happened but this was too close.
I: What about collisions between bombers?
GB: I never saw any. Never saw any at all. I think they did happen but they were very few and far between.
I: And then —
GB: And then after that August was a very busy month. Our skipper had been promoted because our original wing commander, Wing Commander Bartlett had been lost. He’d been shot down and killed in action and our skipper was promoted and became wing commander of 434 Squadron. On the 1st of August we took J-Jig to Acquet in France. There was no PFF markings so the full bomb load was brought back. We brought the whole load back. On the 3rd of —
I: How dangerous was it to bring bombs back?
GB: Well, they weren’t fused. I mean they weren’t fused until you were bombing. Didn’t press the selector switches so they would be alright. It was just that we would have a heavy load for landing. After that on the 3rd we took J-Jig again to le Foret de Nieppe which was for fuel dumps. On the 4th of August again in J-Jig again we went to caves that were just outside Paris where the V-2 rockets were assembled and that was heavily defended with a daylight op and we were hit by flak. We got a few holes. We were caught in predictive flak. We were diverted on the 4th to Dalton.
I: Was this a V-2 place or a V-1 place?
GB: No. A V-2 place where they were assembling the, where they assembled where they assembled the rockets.
I: And where was it?
GB: Just outside Paris. Some from what we could understand from the briefing they were more or less mushroom caves and that. And then on the 5th we went to St Leu d’Esserent. On the 8th we went to a fuel dump just outside at Foret de Chantilly and that was hit and there was black smoke when we left up to fifteen thousand feet.
I: What do you think you hit there at Chantilly?
GB: It was a fuel dump. And on the 9th we went to Le Breteque. On the 12th of August we went to Brunswick. To Germany. On that raid according to recent record was a complete failure as everyone bombed on H2S as there were no markers went down so we bombed individually and there was no concentration.
I: Did you feel at the time that it was a failure?
GB: Well, it seemed to be a failure because there was no concentration of fires or anything. Then on the 14th we did the Army coop where the German divisions were trapped at Falaise. Now that was a very easy trip. There was no opposition whatsoever. The only thing wrong was that the Canadian group bombed their own troops. The Canadian Army had advanced past the markers and of course there was a few killed.
I: Was yours one of the bombers that dropped on the Canadians do you think?
GB: Hmmn.
I: Right.
GB: It wasn’t the Air Forces fault. It was the Army had advanced past the markers. And the last trip I did—
I: And that was what? That was the 14th was it?
GB: That was the 14th of August. We took off at 12.40. It was a five hour ten minute job. And the last trip I did was the 25th of August. We went to Brest to soften it up so the Yanks could take it. And that was quite easy. There was no trouble at all. I think they were more or less giving in. And that was on the 25th of August. There was bad weather back at base and we got diverted to Thorney Island. We spent the night at Thorney Island and then came back the next day and we were told that was it. We had finished our tour.
I: Had you done thirty?
GB: We’d done thirty four and one sea sweep. The skipper, the navigator and the bomb aimer were each awarded a DFC and myself, the wireless operator Jackie Bennett from Newcastle and Jimmy Silverman the rear gunner were granted a commission. That was our reward.
I: What happened to you then?
GB: Well, after that I was posted down to Bruntingthorpe which was 29 OTU and I was instructing on engine handling. I did very little flying. And a week at Blackpool on an Air Sea Rescue course which I thoroughly enjoyed. I only flew twice in the six months I was at OTU. I was never keen on Wellingtons.
I: Why not?
GB: Well, the Wellingtons were clapped out [laughs]
GB: Then I went, I volunteered to go back on a second tour and I went in April ’45 with a Flight Lieutenant Kennedy. He made a crew up from 29 OTU and we went to 1651 Conversion Unit at Woolfox Lodge.
I: Why did you volunteer for a second tour?
GB: I didn’t like 29 OTU and I didn’t like what bit of flying I did do.
I: Why didn’t you like that OTU?
GB: Well, there was a little bit of too much bull. The group captain in charge was an ex-Cranwell boy and I think he thought it was still 1938 and not 1944.
I: So you preferred to risk your life.
GB: Yes.
I: Than have the bull?
GB: Have the bull. Yes.
I: Did you go back on ops in the end?
GB: Well, we did our conversion unit on to Lancasters and we were picked out unfortunately to go to Warboys for PFF training so by the time we’d finished the PFF training the war had finished. They had special training at Warboys and then we had to go through another course of automatic gun laying turret which was new to the gunners. By the time we’d finished those courses the war had finished. We finished up at 156 Squadron at Upwood and that was quite enjoyable because we did [pause] took ground crew on what was called a Cook’s Tour. We used to fly them over Germany up the Ruhr and show them all the damage that they’d helped to do in maintaining the aircraft. I did two of those Cook’s Tours in in June and we did a little bit of flying. I did an air test for the Royal Aeronautical Establishment. Another Cook’s Tour. We did a postmortem to Denmark where they did an actual like on operation to Denmark to see how the German radar system worked and that was on the 29th of June ’45. That was a five and a half hour.
I: Testing the radar defences.
GB: Yes. Of the, that the Germans had. Then we just did local flying and then for three days we were dumping. The 21st, the 24th and the 27th of July was dumping incendiaries in to the North Sea that were no good. And in the August of ’44 we, the 1st of August we did a passenger trip to Frankfurt and Nuremberg taking crew, ground crew in and bringing ground crew out. And we had a trip which made me want to go back to Italy when I got married but on the 15th of August ’45 we went to Bari in Italy and we had three days. Well, we crammed twenty of the 8th Army boys into a Lancaster fuselage, gave the a sick bag and put their kit in the bomb bays and flew them home. That was thoroughly enjoyable to see Italy.
I: Can I ask you about the difference between Lancasters and the Halifaxes. What did you feel about flying in the two?
GB: Well, on a Lancaster the flight engineer did the work of a second pilot. He did the throttles, looked after the undercarriage controls, flaps and everything. But as regards flying I still like the Halifax. Especially the Halifax Mark 3 with the Hercules Centaurus engines. It was a marvellous aircraft. There was more room in it. It could carry a bombload of twelve thousand pounds but it couldn’t carry the big bombs because they hadn’t the depth of the bomb bays. But I still liked the Halifax. I think it was because I did all my operations in them and I got through a tour with them.
I: Did the Halifax have any disadvantages?
GB: I don’t think so. Not the later ones. The one of the first lots, the first ones had a tendency to stall but they altered that by doing, altering the rudder system.
I: What did you learn in the Pathfinder course?
GB: I took a bomb aimer’s course and learned how to drop bombs [laughs] That’s the only difference.
I: How did you do that?
GB: Well, they give you a concentrated course on dropping practice bombs and that was the only difference.
I: Now, can I ask you some general questions about operations in the war. what was morale like amongst the bomber crews as far as you personally experienced it?
GB: Very good. Very high indeed. I only ever knew one person who went LMF and he was a member of our crew but everyone else that I knew enjoyed the life. It was a good life. I mean admittedly it was very very dangerous but it was a clean life. You came back to a clean bed and you came back to good food and you were treated well. You were given leave every six weeks. You were. You had extra rations when you came home. It was a dangerous job but they looked after you and discipline wasn’t severe on bomber squadrons. That was on the Canadian group anyhow. But aircrew was quite relaxed.
I: Could you see signs of LMF in this chap?
GB: No. No, we couldn’t. It was only the second trip after we got a good hiding and he never said anything on the night when we did the emergency landing at Woodbridge. When we came back the next day I met him in the Sergeant’s Mess in the afternoon and he said what had happened and I never saw him again. He was off the squadron as quick as that.
I: So you couldn’t think of any reason why he should have gone LMF.
GB: No. None at all. He was the mid-upper gunner and that was just it. He just threw the sponge in.
I: What did the rest of the crew think about him going LMF? Did you have sympathy or did you look down on him?
GB: I don’t think they looked down on him. They were just pleased that he’d gone so quick and nobody could dwell on the subject. And when we got two new gunners and as I say we were away within seven days of that operation on Stuttgart 18th to the 26th and we got two spare gunners. And after that we got two permanent gunners.
I: Were the aircrew superstitious? Did they have any lucky charms or anything like that?
GB: Yes, I’ve still got my little St Christopher cross and three us was always emptied our bladder on the starboard wheel before we took off. Myself, the rear gunner and the wireless operator.
I: This was a superstition was it?
GB: Always did it. Always, whether it was a daylight or a night op. Whether the groupie was there or anybody it was always emptied against the starboard wheel.
I: And did other crews do that?
GB: I think other crews always went in in certain order. Pilot first and like that.
I: What were the briefings like? Can you describe the scene when you got the briefings?
GB: Well, when it was the Berlin and you looked up and everyone said, ‘Berlin,’ everyone, ‘Oh.’ That was it. Then you just stepped back in silence and let them all give you the information. The German targets when you saw them when you saw the red lines leading you knew you were in for a warm night. The French targets everyone [clap] was happy.
I: They clapped.
GB: Well, there was that and a cheer when they said Caen or St Leu d’Esserent like that. I mean compared to the German targets they were easy. The only targets that we didn’t really like, the whole crew, was the mine laying duty because they, the majority of them were so long and there were so few of you you felt so exposed. I mean the Germans would probably leave you alone but then the next time they’d probably lose four five aircraft out of twenty odd. They would really come down on you like a tonne of bricks than leave you alone. When they hit you they hit you.
I: What do you feel about the criticism that has been lodged against Bomber Command since the war?
GB: I think its people who have got no idea about a war. They have no idea what the targets were like. Bombing had to be done. It was the only way of offensive against the Germans and I don’t think they take in to fact the amount of damage that we did do. The amount of people that were tied down. There was over a million people tied down in German defence. There was thirty thousand anti-aircraft guns and over, nearly ten thousand of those were eighty eight millimetre. Now if those eighty eight ten thousand millimetres had been used on the beaches of Normandy the Channel would have been blood red. They had, the German defences had all the ammunition they wanted up to within six weeks of the war. They were never short. They rationed the Army but they never rationed the local defence. And after all we did reduce production and if you reduced production by twelve and a half percent of the Tiger tanks it’s a heck of a lot because there was nothing could touch a Tiger. So I think the criticism has been very unfair because the boys went through hell.
I: When you were at these stations how and where did you spend your spare time?
GB: Well, at Middleton St George and Croft we used to go into Darlington and we all had one particular pub. The Fleece. And that’s where we spent our time. At the Fleece. But I was up there about eight or nine years ago and it’s been knocked down. The Old Fleece pub.
I: Did you put any kind of trophies or anything like that up in the bar?
GB: No. No, we just went there to drink and sing and other things.
I: Were there any breaches of security with people telling girlfriends about —
GB: Not to my knowledge.
I: Ops.
GB: No. No. If you were going up there for a night out you didn’t know anything because the station would be closed if there was a full ops on. There would only be probably only a few ground crew but the aircrew wouldn’t go, be allowed out. So most of the telephone lines were shut down. Were closed. You couldn’t make outside calls if there was ops on.
I: Did the German Air Force ever attack these airfields.
GB: No. Not to my knowledge. Not whilst ours.
Now, I think after the war had ended you went out to Burma.
Burma, yes. On 267 Squadron at Mingaladon. The squadron was keeping the airways open taking mail and passengers flying from Mingaladon in Burma up to Dum Dum at Calcutta. And then from, back again and then from Mingaladon to Bangkok. Bangkok, Saigon. Saigon to Kai Tak which is the aerodrome for Hong Kong on the mainland of Kowloon and they used to fly down to Singapore.
I: This is Dakotas.
GB: On Dakotas. Yes. And the flight engineers were all remustered as air quarter masters on those trips looking after the baggage and the passengers and I had about fifteen of the lads under me. We used to take them out on these trips which they thoroughly enjoyed going up to Calcutta. Spending a day in Calcutta and then coming back going down to Hong Kong. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time.
I: What kind of passengers were you moving?
GB: Well, RAF and Burmese and if you were coming from India you used to bring down the Indians who were coming down on business trips or anything like that. Used to bring our own people down to [unclear] and look after the stores. Generally taking mail across to Bangkok, Saigon.
I: So you were a bit like an airline.
GB: A bit like an airline. Yes. A bit rough and ready. I did one or two. I went to Saigon and worked with Saigon. Wanted to look around during the night time but we were informed that all personnel were on curfew and had to be in by 9 o’clock. And the biggest shock I ever had was walking into the hotel where we were billeted to be given a salute by a Jap prisoner of war with a rifle and fixed bayonets.
I: When was this that you were in Saigon?
GB: 12th of February ’46. Then from Saigon we’d go to Kai Tak which was the aerodrome for Hong Kong on the mainland and the people of the mainland which was a British colony I’ve never known people so friendly to see us. We were taken into cafes and restaurants and you could have everything you wanted.
I: In Hong Kong.
GB: In Hong Kong. But what I was surprised about Hong Kong is that they had everything on show and sale and the war had only been over for five months. You could go in and buy a Rolex Oyster watch. You couldn’t see them in Europe but they found them. They could. You could buy anything you wanted.
I: Were these Chinese who were —
GB: Yes. The —
I: You in Hong Kong.
GB: In Hong Kong where they were first class.
I: Coming back to Saigon did the Japanese soldiers do their job well?
GB: Yes, as far as I know they had no complaints. They guarded us well. But the trouble was just beginning to start then. There was just a bit of discontent amongst the Saigon people I think. It was just beginning to start with the Viet Cong. Just beginning to get unruly.
I: What did you see of disorder there?
GB: Nothing at the night time. That’s when it happened. During the day everything was normal. It was on a night time when they used to come and try and interfere on the aerodrome but we were in the town itself so we saw nothing.
I: So they were trying to attack the aerodrome.
GB: Trying to you know disrupt it more or less.
I: Did you see any French military presence there?
GB: Well, last I was there the only French presence was two Corvettes in the harbour. There was no French troops whatsoever. If the French had spent a little more time in French Indo China as it was then instead of parading around Europe they might have been in a bit better position out there.
I: Did you feel in much danger in Saigon?
GB: No. Not really. I wasn’t there long enough and the short time where the trouble was we were in the hotel out of the way.
I: You were telling me about 29 OTU at Bruntingthorpe was it called?
GB: Bruntingthorpe.
I: Where is that?
GB: Just outside Leicester.
I: And you were telling me about the excessive bull there that drove you to apply for a second tour. Can you give any examples of not —
GB: Well —
I: Without mentioning the group captain’s name any examples of the kind of bull that went on there?
GB: Well, we had once a month we had an officer’s dining in night where all the tables were put in the shape of a horseshoe with the group captain in the centre and then going left to right from squadron leader. From wing commander, squadron leader, flight lieutenant, flying officer down to pilot officer which was pre-war bull. Not wartime discipline. And then he would hold a full parade of the whole OTU and every officer and every airman would parade on the main runway and would march past the rostrum as though they were the guards which again goes back to pre-war. It should never have been done in wartime RAF. But the Australians didn’t like it because we had a lot of Australians go through there and they objected strongly. And in the Officer’s Mess we had a very big organ by a very well known organist. The organ, keyboard and the sound box system was flooded with beer. The Mess notice board all the Mess board notices were burned down by the Australians. The group captain had his own hook for his hat and coat with a bolt right through the wall. The peg was pulled out. Also, part of the wall [laughs] In fact they did so much damage the group captain closed the Officer’s Mess bar for a week. All because of bull.
I: Did you approve?
GB: No.
I: Of what the Aussies did?
GB: Yes. I did. But no one was allowed in the Officer’s Mess after 5.30 unless they were in full dress. No battle dress. I came back and I’ll tell you the exact day. We’d, I’d been out a cross country to check the pilot for engine handling on the 19th of February ‘45 and we took off at 12 o’clock and we’d been diverted to Husband Bosworth. And by the time we got back it was 16.35. I was pulled up for entering the Mess in battle dress and not allowed to have a meal, my evening meal until I had changed. And the evening meal finished at 19.00 hours which is 7 o’clock and I didn’t get in as I say until 16 —
I: Twenty five you said.
GB: That’s how bad, that’s how bad the bull was.
I: You also were telling me about another job you had I think in ’46 of having to deal with airmen’s possessions who had been killed.
GB: Yes.
I: In accidents.
GB: That was the, I did that at 29 OTU. The last job I had was on for in the July 1946 was Dakota KN585 was hit by lightning and crashed in to the Irrawaddy Delta at Bassein. The death roll was twenty two. By the time we got the bodies they were four days old and I had to [pause] another flight lieutenant and the local police identified the bodies and arranged burial which was a very distressing thing to do especially as five days later I was on my home.
I: How were the possessions dealt with?
GB: Well, most of the possessions that they had I had to burn because they’d been on the bodies and they had been five days in the swamp and they smelled terribly and there was very very little went home. And of the twenty two they had no identification. They were all just interred with no headstone. No one knew who they were. They were interred at the European Cemetery at that time in Bassein. They would later be moved to the War Graves.
I: But you were telling me about your special problem you had with the possessions of Australians.
GB: When I was at 29 OTU. Yes. With the letters I mean the Aussie boys would have two or three girlfriends and the trouble was sorting out the letters to make sure that the right ones went home and the other ones were destroyed. Of the, we had two crews killed whilst I was there. Eleven men died.
I: Would any of them leave wills?
GB: No. There was no wills. I never found a will in the, any of the airmen who I buried. I went through their personal effects.


G H A Bilton, “War Memoir - George Bilton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/33328.

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