Interview with Philip Bates


Interview with Philip Bates


Philip Bates grew up in Lancashire and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He served as ground crew with Coastal Command before remustering as aircrew. He flew operations as a flight engineer with 149 Squadron until his aircraft was shot down and he became a prisoner of war.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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02:13:03 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


BW: This is Brian Wright interviewing Mr Philip Bates at home in Urmston, Greater Manchester on Friday 9th of October at 2pm. Mr Bates could you please confirm your full name?
PB: Yes. Phillip Bates.
BW: And your rank.
PB: Sergeant when I was shot down but warrant officer when I returned back from being a prisoner of war.
BW: Ok. And do you recall your service number at all?
PB: Yes 1307447.
BW: It’s surprising how that -
PB: And I can tell you my prisoner of war number as well
BW: Ok.
PB: 222803
BW: 222803
PB: Stalag 4b.
BW: Ok. And what squadron were you on, sir?
PB: 149 at Lakenheath.
BW: Ok. So if you could just give us an idea of what your life was like prior to joining the air force so where you grew up and any sort of significant movements before joining the RAF and what prompted you to join.
PB: Yeah. Well I’m a native of Burnley, Lancashire, a cotton weaving town, until I was employed as a junior clerk with a local manufacturer but once the war started I was keen to get in and immediately after the fall of France I volunteered for the air force. And -
BW: So this would be May 1940.
PB: This would be May 1940 and went to Blackpool for a fortnight square bashing.
BW: Ok.
PB: Those of us who were on that particular course were then posted to Cosford and -
BW: Ok.
PB: Nobody thought about anything in those days except the imminent invasion of Britain and we who’d been in the air force a fortnight were given the job of defending Cosford against German paratroopers which was the most farcical thing you could ever imagine so a friend and I very quickly sneaked away to the orderly room and volunteered for training as flight mechanics and we both -
BW: Ok.
PB: Trained as flight mechanics and then as fitter 2E’s and my friend was posted to 149 squadron where I met up with him in 1943. I went to 86 squadron, Coastal Command flying the Beaufort torpedo bombers and moved from there to Scotland and eventually I was sent to Sealand to a huge maintenance depot on a six month potential NCO course with the intention that when I returned back to my unit I’d be made a corporal but whilst I was at Sealand a Manchester landed and this was June 1942 and I went to look at this Manchester. I’d never seen anything bigger than a, than a Wellington before and this thing was stood there with its bomb doors open and this was a few months after Butch Harris had taken charge and I looked up into that bomb bay and I said to myself. ‘Bomber Command is no longer a joke. It’s big. It’s getting bigger. I’ve got to be part of it,’ and so the next day I volunteered for training as a flight engineer.
BW: Ok.
PB: And I trained early in 1943. Posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Waterbeach where I was crewed up with a crew who had just finished their OTU on Wellingtons and we went from there.
BW: And so just thinking back to your decision to join Bomber Command. You’d already had some technical training -
PB: Yes.
BW: At that stage.
PB: Yes.
BW: And so you wanted to further that as a flight engineer.
PB: Well the obvious job for a fitter 2E was to be, was to be a flight engineer.
BW: Ok.
PB: And it didn’t require a great deal of training to bridge the gap of course.
BW: And there were a number of guys who went through Halton. Did you do any training for flight engineering at Halton or not? With [?]
PB: No. St Athan.
BW: Right.
PB: St Athan.
BW: So you weren’t one of Trenchard’s brats or anything?
PB: Oh no I wasn’t a brat. I was too old to be a brat [laughs].
BW: And so it was the sight of the Manchester that prompted you to join.
PB: Yes.
BW: Properly Bomber Command.
PB: Yes, yes.
BW: Were you able, at that stage, to volunteer for flying duties or did that come later? Did you foresee that as being part of that trade as a flight engineer?
PB: Once I became a flight, once I became a flight engineer obviously I was going to go into Bomber Command.
BW: Ok. And -
PB: When I arrived at St Athan I was given choices I could train to be. I could train to be on Stirlings or Halifaxes or Lancasters or Sunderland Flying Boats or Catalina Flying Boats. Now, as a fitter I’d always worked on radial engines and so I chose this, I chose the Stirling for the reason that it was Bomber Command and it had radial engines. It perhaps wasn’t the wisest choice. I’d have been better off on Lancasters probably but I I I liked the radial engine so that’s why I chose Stirlings.
BW: Speaking as an engineer how did you find the radials then? Were there, were there particular properties about them that you liked?
PB: Yes. They, they, they were more powerful than the Merlin for starters and they were more dependable and they could take more, they could take more damage.
BW: That’s er that -
PB: When I when I was a boy very keen on aircraft now to me the inline liquid cooled engine was just a big motor car engine. The radial was a proper aeroplane engine.
BW: Ok.
PB: That’s what it was all about for me. The radial was a proper aeroplane engine. The other was just a big motor car engine.
BW: I’m sensing there there’s a difference between the aerial engine and flying. Did you have a wish to fly at an early age?
PB: Well as a fitter whenever I worked on an aircraft and a pilot came along to do a test flight I invariably asked if I could go up with him so I flew on, I flew on Lysanders, Blenheims and Oxfords as a passenger.
BW: And which of those was your favourite? Which was -
PB: Oh the Lysander.
BW: Really?
PB: Oh gorgeous. You’re going, you’re going along and there’s a slow, you heard a terrible creaking noise and the slots and slats worked and the flaps come down.
BW: Ahum.
PB: And you could practically stand still. Wonderful aeroplane. Wonderful.
BW: They used that -
PB: Aeroplane.
BW: On special duties -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Squadrons.
PB: Short take off, short landings.
BW: Yeah.
PB: Yeah.
BW: But they were, they were a lovely aircraft to be a passenger in.
PB: Oh yes.
BW: Was it?
PB: It was a marvellous aeroplane was the Lysander. I loved it.
BW: Did you get many flights in those?
PB: Yes quite a few. Yes. I was on, I was on an ackack calibration unit. We worked in concert with the defences of Edinburgh the Forth Bridge and the Rosyth dockyard and I was once in a Lysander where we did dive bombing exercises on the Forth Bridge which was fantastic.
BW: Brilliant.
PB: Absolutely fantastic. It was like being in a JU87 almost.
BW: And this was just to calibrate the ackack guns as you say.
PB: Yes.
BW: To make sure they had the right sort of -
PB: Yes.
BW: Ranging or -
PB: Yes. Yes.
BW: Distance. There were no rounds fired in these -
PB: No. No. No just -
BW: Just to make sure.
PB: Calibration yeah.
BW: Right but either way the pilot imitated a dive bombing manoeuvre on a
PB: Yeah but we had a real clapped out aircraft.
BW: So having had some experience of Lysanders, a single engine aircraft and Oxfords the twin engine.
PB: Yeah.
BW: You then -
PB: All radial engines of course.
BW: And radial engines yeah you then opted while you were at St Athan to go forward for Stirlings.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And what was the course that lead you from St Athan to your squadron? How, how did you go about getting that?
PB: Well, we, we completed our course and we got our brevies and were posted to, to Waterbeach Heavy Conversion Unit and I was introduced to a pilot, a Pilot Officer Cotterill and he was my skipper and I then met the rest of the crew and we took it from there. Did our heavy conversion training.
BW: And how long did that take? Roughly.
PB: Not very long. Maybe about eight weeks I suppose. Something like that.
BW: And was most of that or all of it daylight sorties or were there night time -
PB: No.
BW: Ops involved as well?
PB: We did, we did two four hour sessions of daylight take offs and landings, circuits and bumps. Take of twenty minutes to take off and land for four hours. And having done eight hours of that in daytime we did another eight hours at night and then after that we did, we did cross country flights.
BW: And when you met your crew at this point did you stay together from the conversion unit through to, on operational squadron as the same crew or were the members interchanged?
PB: We lost two members. We lost two members shortly after we joined the squadron.
BW: And was there a reason behind that at all?
PB: Yes. Our first, our first navigator, Geoff was a regular soldier stationed in India when the war broke out. Browned off. To escape he volunteered for training as air crew. He had a stammer which didn’t help and he was a useless navigator and we knew he was useless and our first trip was a very simple mine laying in the North Sea and he flew us straight through the balloon barrage at Norwich coming back and the next day he packed his kit bags and left us.
BW: And was that his choice or -
PB: No. No, that was forced upon him.
BW: Right ok so it wasn’t something there like a moment of self-awareness. He decided to leave.
PB: No. No, he told, he told us he said, ‘They decided I’m not suitable for Bomber Command. I’m being posted to a Coastal Command station.’ Well I think that was just a face saver on his part. I can’t imagine what happened to him but he couldn’t navigate for toffee. Even, even, even with a Gee set he was useless.
BW: Ahum.
PB: And then we did two mine laying trips. We did a lot of fighter affiliation exercises and our mid upper gunner [Bolivar?] a Londoner was brilliant during, during fighter affiliation. Now, Len, Len the wireless operator was always sick. He spewed up everywhere and I sat there and think, ‘Why don’t you crash the bloody thing and get it over with.’ That’s how bad I felt and Bob was as happy as could be but we did two mine laying trips. One in the North Sea -
BW: Ahum.
PB: And one in the river estuary at Bordeaux and then our first target was the opening night of the Battle of Hamburg. 24th of July.
BW: This would be 24th of July 1943.
PB: Yeah. The next night we went to Essen. The next day our mid upper gunner reported sick with air sickness. Now, how he suddenly became air sick overnight I do not know but that was the end of him. So we had a new navigator and a new mid upper gunner.
BW: Sometimes after raids like that men would be removed if they were felt to perhaps have broken at some stage. Do you -
PB: Oh yes.
BW: Do you think that might have been an impact?
PB: Yes. He was still, he was still on the station when we were shot down and I’ve often wondered what he made of it that morning when he woke up and found five empty beds.
BW: And so if I can just touch again on the fighter affiliation. What kind of exercises were carried out there?
PB: Well either, either a Spitfire or a, or a Hurricane would make mock attacks on us and the gunners would give instructions to the skipper as to what evasive action to take and it was quite, it was quite, because our bomb aimer was a failed pilot who could fly, fly a Stirling perfectly well and the Stirling had dual controls so him and the pilot used to work together and we could really throw it about. Really throw it about. You could never have done that on a Lancaster what we did with a Stirling,
BW: No. There was only a single set of controls.
PB: Yeah. Oh it was a wonderful aircraft. Wonderful manoeuvrability aircraft. Couldn’t get very high but by George it could, it could manoeuvre.
BW: And so you mentioned about the raid on Hamburg. That was pretty close to being your first operational sortie.
PB: That was our first target yes after two mine laying trips.
BW: And what, what do you recall about that at all because it was Operation Gomorrah, the raid on Hamburg was pretty significant.
PB: It was operational. What, what, what was most fascinated me most was the colours. The colours of the lights. Reds, greens, yellows. Searchlights, blue searchlights, tracer shells, flak it was an incredible sight. An incredible sight and when you see, when you looked down and someone had just released a string of four pound incendiaries you’d get this brilliant white light like that and then it slowly turns red as the fire gets going. An incredible sight.
BW: So you’d see a sort of a line of white which would -
PB: Yes.
BW: Presumably be the magnesium -
PB: Yeah.
BW: In the incendiaries -
PB: Yes.
BW: Setting fire to the building which was then of course -
PB: Yes.
BW: Catch turn orange and burn.
PB: Yes it was quite remarkable.
BW: And did you only make the one raid on Hamburg or did you return because there was -
PB: We, we, we -
BW: Four days I think.
PB: In ten days this was our introduction to the target. In ten days we did four Hamburgs, an Essen and a [Remshite]
BW: Wow so you flew right through the raid on, or the operation against Hamburg -
PB: Yeah.
BW: In that case.
PB: And the second night of course. The night of the firestorm oh, deary deary me, that was terrible.
BW: Were you aware at all of what was, what was going on? It seems a lot of information has come out subsequently. What were you sort of aware of the damage at that time?
PB: Well where -
BW: While flying.
PB: On the second night when we were back over the sea I went up into the astrodome and looked back and there was only one fire in Hamburg that night. It looked to be about three miles across and it came straight up white, red and black smoke thousands of feet above us and I said over the intercom, ‘those poor bastards down there.’ I couldn’t help myself. It was a terrible, terrible sight. I’ve never seen anything like it on any other target.
BW: At once it’s a spectacular sight but it’s also when you see that sort of thing -
PB: We, we, we killed forty thousand people that night.
BW: When did that, when was that made aware to you? When did you become aware of that sort of statistic? Was it pretty soon after or was it -
PB: Well the newspapers reported it a couple of days later and gave the number of dead.
BW: Right.
PB: And quite honestly I was disappointed. I thought from I saw it must have killed more than that.
BW: It sounds like they might have underestimated.
PB: Yeah. But forty thousand people were killed that night.
BW: Ahum.
PB: Compare that to how many were killed in London in the entire period of the war. There was no comparison.
BW: No. It’s different isn’t it?
PB: But we never, we never, we never achieved anything like Hamburg again until Dresden of course and in Dresden it only killed twenty odd thousand.
BW: And so Hamburg has obviously made quite an impression for that reason.
PB: Hamburg, I think was undoubtedly Bomber Command’s greatest success of the war. I’ve just, I’ve just read a book by Adolf Galland who was in charge of the German night fighters and the things he says about what the consequences of Hamburg and what it meant to the High Command and the changes it was, it shattered them. Completely shattered them.
BW: So it had, it had certainly had ramifications on the ground but it had more ramifications for the Luftwaffe High Command is what you’re saying.
PB: Yes. Yes. It terrified the German fighter defence to pieces. Terrified them.
BW: And did you see many night fighters at this stage over Hamburg? Were they active?
PB: No because it was it was the first, it was just the introduction of Window and everything was at odds.
BW: And so Window was the anti-radar -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Jamming mechanism.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Where they chucked out strips of aluminium.
PB: But they recovered, they recovered from, from Window very very quickly and they got, they got a new form of defence which was more effective they forced it out before, before Window and I’ve read the German view that Window did more harm than good for Bomber Command in the long run because it completely organised their defences.
BW: But at least on that night or on those nights that you were flying over Hamburg the fighters were ineffective because -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Of the use of Window.
PB: The first night there were eight hundred aircraft and we lost twelve.
BW: Wow.
PB: And most of those were lost because they were off course. Separated away from the protection of Window.
BW: Were there any hits from the ackack below? German anti-aircraft fire was renowned as being very accurate. Did you feel that as you were flying over there?
PB: The one thing, the one thing that fascinated me about ackack was that the smell of cordite filled the aircraft. You were flying through clouds of the stuff but when we landed the bomb aimer and I always got our torches and we searched underneath the aircraft and if there was no damage we were disappointed. We expected to have been hit.
BW: So that, that, sort of, I suppose summarises or encompasses your first few trips on operations. What happened after Hamburg? What were the next -
PB: Well we flew on -
BW: Significant raids for you.
PB: We flew on the last two raids ever carried out on Northern Italy and we flew twice to Nuremburg which we always regarded as a particularly important Nazi target and we did a few other various towns in the Ruhr and then on the 31st of August we went to Berlin and that was something else. That was an absolute complete fiasco.
BW: And this was still 1943?
PB: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: In August ’43.
PB: Yeah. The raid on Berlin on the 31st of August. Well the trouble was we’d been, we’d been to Monchengladbach the night before and we quite often did two nights, two consecutive nights. Well, you do Monchengladbach you get very little sleep, you go for briefing and you’re told its Berlin. There were howls of rage from all the air crews and that manifested itself later because that night about eighty aircraft ditched their bombs in the North Sea and returned early. Biggest number ever ‘cause people weren’t prepared to go.
BW: That, that almost sounds a bit like a mutiny in a way doesn’t it?
PB: It’s not far off.
BW: Down tools.
PB: It’s not far off really but the raid was also badly planned. All the damage to Berlin had been in the west and it was intended that this raid should do damage in the east and so we were sent to a point south of Berlin. There was Berlin on our left. We expected to fly seventy miles east. Split our stern, fly seventy miles back and approach Berlin from, from the east. Now, nobody did it. The pathfinders put their markers down two miles south of where they should have been and we all approached from the south so the creepback extended miles and miles and miles. We killed less than a hundred people in Berlin. We lost over two hundred airmen killed and over a hundred prisoners of war. It was a complete and utter fiasco.
BW: Wow and that simply stemmed from, as you say, the pathfinder markers being dropped two miles south.
PB: And we’re coming from the south.
BW: Yeah.
PB: You can imagine it, practically no bombs and the Germans that night for the first time put down these parachute flares. It was like driving down the Mall with all the lights on. It was an incredible sight and it’s such a big place to get through. It takes forever.
BW: And so the gunners clearly with those parachute flares they could have a clear sight presumably of the bomber stream.
PB: And you’ve got day fighters looking down.
BW: Wow.
PB: As well as the night fighters looking up and you’ve got the schragemusik by this time as well.
BW: Which are the cannons in the back of an ME110 to fire vertically underneath the bomber yeah.
PB: Yeah or a JU88.
BW: Yeah.
PB: Or a Messerschmitt 110.
BW: Yeah.
PB: Seventy degree angle, in between the inborn engine and the fuselage hit the main tanks. All you’d see is a great big flash in the sky and that’s it. It was gone.
BW: The crews often said they didn’t know they were there.
PB: No.
BW: Those who survived didn’t see them.
PB: You could see an aircraft flying peacefully and then the next second it’s a ball of fire and you’ll see no tracer and a myth arose and the myth was that the Germans were firing a new type of bomb, a new type of shell which we called a scarecrow and it was designed not to shoot aircraft down but to explode and give the impression of an aircraft blowing up and for months navigators would log these and they weren’t scarecrows. The Germans never had a scarecrow. They were aircraft blowing up.
BW: Actually the aircraft themselves.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And -
PB: And the irony of that is that in the First World War the British had upward firing guns to attack zeppelins.
BW: Ahum Yeah.
PB: [laughs] They never learn.
BW: Because they were difficult to shoot down as well. But so ok from, from there that’s two operations on the trot really. Monchengladbach and Berlin.
PB: Yeah.
BW: You mentioned those airmen killed. Were any of those from the squadron? Did you know any of those guys at all? Were there Stirlings in that lot that were shot down?
PB: Er we there was a raid on Berlin on the 24th of August as well but we were on leave but a crew that we trained with went missing that night and a friend of mine got shot down on the night we were on. A fella called Lew Parsons. He was shot down on the 31st .
BW: Luke Parsons?
PB: Yeah. L E W, short for Lewis.
BW: Oh I see. Lew Parsons.
PB: He was a flight engineer.
BW: And he was shot down on the 31st of August.
PB: Yeah. Yeah. But it, it was a dreadful night. Anyway, the next day our skipper and our navigator were commissioned officers and so the next day we met up with the skipper and he said Johnny’s reported sick and Johnny was our navigator. Flying Officer Johnny [Turton ]. A fantastic navigator. Absolutely fantastic and he’d gone sick and later in the day we were given a replacement. Another flying officer but a New Zealander by the name of McLean and he was the exact opposite from Johnny. Johnny was a big outgoing personality who radiated confidence. This chap had no, no, no personality whatsoever. He was with us five days. We scarcely ever saw him. We scarcely ever spoke to him. We never even learned his Christian name. And he got us shot down.
BW: And that was, of course then going to be your last -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Last flight.
PB: Yeah 5th 5th of September. Mannheim.
BW: Ok. I was just going to ask a question there and it’s just gone from my memory but I’ll probably come back to it. So, oh yes how far into your tour were you at that point? It sounds -
PB: That was our fifteenth trip.
BW: So exactly halfway through.
PB: Exactly halfway. We knew with Johnny we could do, we could do the tour because he was so brilliant but without him we were lost and he finished his tour. He joined another crew, finished his tour got his DFC, survived the war. He was brilliant.
BW: It’s strange how fate goes isn’t it?
PB: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Before we move on to your experience of being shot down I would just like to ask about what it was like for you as a flight engineer in the sort of preparation and flying out. What sort of things you would do? Perhaps if you could give us a sense of preparation you would go through to -
PB: Yes.
BW: To board the aircraft.
PB: Yes.
BW: What it was like to then go up in a Stirling.
PB: Well to begin with once we got out the aircraft there were a great many pre-flight checks to do. One of them was to go up onto the main plane with a member of the ground crew. Now, we had fourteen petrol tanks on a Stirling. Sometimes we only had the four main ones. Sometimes we had fourteen. Sometimes we had a mixture but my job was to go up on to the main plane with a member of the ground crew and he would open up the filler caps on all the tanks that were supposed to be full and I had to check visually that they were full to the, to the brim. Now, every night I’m stood on the leading edge of a Stirling. I’m twenty feet above the ground. I think when he moves to the next one and I follow, if I slip I’ll roll down the main plane I’ll fall fifteen feet to the tarmac and at the very least I’ll break an ankle and I’ll be alive tomorrow morning and I always, always considered that thought. I never did it of course. The thought was always there. It was in our own power to be alive tomorrow morning [laughs]. But once, once in the air my two main jobs was one to monitoring engine performance making sure the pressures, temperature etcetera were as they should be and that we were flying at the right airspeed and the right revs and the other was calculating every twenty minutes I had to calculate the amount of petrol used from whichever tank doing the past every twenty minutes recorded so that I always knew how much petrol remained in each tank because they weren’t over generous with their petrol allowance and people did run short very often. So that was, that was important, to keep, to know exactly how much petrol you had and where it was.
BW: So even though you’d done inspections and the ground crew had correctly filled the tanks presumably you could encounter unknown winds and like a headwind.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And use your fuel more quickly.
PB: As I understand it the calculation was made. This is your track. It’s so many miles. You’ve so much petrol. We’ll give you so much and we’ll give you another three hundred and twenty gallons as a, as a reserve.
BW: Reserve.
PB: But of course you get off track, winds are against you, anything can happen. You can’t hold height, you’ve got to get into rich mixture to climb again. All sorts of things could happen to make you use more fuel.
BW: And that would include of course having to take evasive action over the target or anything like that.
PB: Yes, evasive, any time when you had to open up the engines and go into full fuel. We were using a gallon a minute.
BW: That’s pretty significant and that’s just through one engine. A gallon a minute through an engine.
PB: No. It’s, that’s the aircraft.
BW: Oh, the aircraft. Ok.
PB: A gallon a mile through the aircraft.
BW: Oh right.
PB: A gallon a minute through each engine yes.
BW: And I think you said the Stirling was a, was a lovely aircraft to fly. What was your experience generally of the environment in which you were having to work? Was it cramped or was there enough room to do your job?
PB: I’ve only been in a Lancaster once and it horrified me. There’s no space to breathe. You could hold a dance in a Stirling. It was huge and because of the short wingspan it was so highly manoeuvrable. It was a beautiful aeroplane but it couldn’t get any height. Couldn’t get any height.
BW: A limited ceiling.
PB: We had to fight to fly at thirteen thousand. On the last night at Hamburg. The night of the big storm we did two runs over Hamburg at eight thousand feet with the bomb doors frozen up.
BW: Wow.
PB: That was a terrible night.
BW: Just out of interest the air supply gets pretty thin around ten thousand feet. Did you ever have to use oxygen?
PB: It goes on automatically at ten thousand feet.
BW: Right.
PB: Ten thousand feet, oxygen on and skipper charges into S gear.
BW: Into S gear.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And does that give you extra boost through the engines?
PB: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Ok and were you able, in some cases crews had to stow their parachutes. Were you able to move around with your parachutes on or did you stow it?
PB: No it was always stowed. Always stowed away.
BW: How did it feel when you were actually bombed and fuelled up ready to go and you’re at the threshold of the runway and you’d got the green light. Could you just talk us through that?
PB: Well -
BW: What you were feeling there and what you were doing?
PB: I experienced three feelings. Between briefing and going out to the aircraft, absolute terror. Once we delivered the bombs and the photoflash had gone off, wonderful. Once back eating bacon and eggs very, very satisfied. Those were the three emotions that I suffered.
BW: How did it feel when you were given that that green light? Presumably as a flight engineer you followed the pilot through on the throttles.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And you feel this surge of power of the engines going.
PB: Yeah all all the while was concentrating on getting the thing up because the Stirling had a violent swing. It had this ridiculous undercarriage and because of the torque of the engines it swung to starboard and you had to correct that swing either on the throttles or the stick. Now, if you got a cross wind as well that swing could be quite dramatic and it went like that and then like that.
BW: So a violent swerve either way.
PB: The undercarriage just collapsed you don’t want an undercarriage collapsing when you’ve got a thousand -
BW: No.
PB: Incendiary bombs stuck in the belly [laughs].
BW: Were there any incidents where aircraft were unable to take off because of that? They perhaps didn’t control the swing or there was a cross wind.
PB: Oh yeah. The very first Stirling on its very first flight in the hands of a very skilled test pilot on its very first landing wrote its undercarriage off.
BW: Simply because of the swing due the power in the engines.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And the imbalance.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And yet it looks from, as you say, the size of it -
PB: Yeah.
BW: It looks a very stable beast to fly.
PB: It’s incredibly strong that way. It’s not very strong that way.
BW: So longitudinally strength.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And laterally not so good.
PB: It was a very strong undercarriage but it’s so tall it [put a side strain on it] like that.
BW: Yeah.
PB: It goes. Time and time again.
BW: And of course these are pure manual controls. They’re not power assisted in any way.
PB: Oh no. No.
BW: So, but it was generally very smooth to fly and very easy to fly once you were airborne.
PB: Oh it was a beautiful aeroplane to fly. Beautiful. It really was. It was like a [? ] You could do anything with it.
BW: How many were, were in your crew? There were normally seven in a Lancaster.
PB: Seven yeah.
BW: The same in the Stirling.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And you had initially for your first part of your tour you had Johnnie [Turton] as your navigator.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And your pilot. Who was your pilot?
PB: Pilot. When I joined him in May it was Pilot Officer Bernard Cotterell.
BW: That’s right.
PB: By the time we were shot down he was Acting Flight Lieutenant Bernard Cotterell.
BW: Is that C O T T E R -
PB: Yeah.
BW: I L L?
PB: Yeah. E L L.
BW: E L L. And so who are the, you mentioned your wireless op.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Um, who was Len -
PB: Len Smith. Bomb aimer was Alan Crowther.
BW: Alan Crowther.
PB: Yeah the rear gunner was John [Carp?] a Scotsman.
BW: John [Carp?]
PB: He was always known as Jock rather than John.
BW: Jock.
PB: And the new, the new mid upper gunner was a Newcastle lad called Ray Wall.
BW: Ray Wall.
PB: Yeah, Ray Wall. There were only five of us, as I say, left from the original crew and of those five I was the only survivor. The mid upper, the mid upper survived and this new navigator survived?
BW: And so from there we’ve looked at sort of the raids and the preparation for them. What sort of things would happen on the return to base? You’d obviously be debriefed but what form would that take?
PB: Well, we, we, we always flew at the recommended airspeeds which got you the most miles per gallon. A lot of people just simply flew back as fast as they could regardless of wasting petrol so we were invariably the last aircraft to land which meant we always had to queue up to wait to be de debriefed which was a nuisance but then of course it was the bacon and egg lark. Bacon and egg time and off to bed.
BW: And what, what was the accommodation like? You were all crewed up. Were they in nissen huts. Was there a crews either side or was it -
PB: We, we, we were in a nissen -
BW: Different.
PB: Hut and I think we shared it with two other crews and one morning, one morning you would find that half the beds are made up and all everything’s gone because they had disappeared but the thing is you never, you never associated with anybody outside your crew. There was no point to it.
BW: Really.
PB: No point to it at all. A crew was a very. very tight little, little group. We did everything together.
BW: And so even though there would be two other crews in the, in the nissen hut with you you would still socialise only with your own crew.
PB: Oh yeah we never bothered with anybody else. Very rarely spoke to anybody else even.
BW: And where did you go during your off-duty hours? Where did you socialise?
PB: Oh the village pub in Lakenheath.
BW: Do you recall the name?
PB: No, I don’t actually. No.
BW: Ah.
PB: But I do remember there was a Mrs Philips who used to provide us with suppers some times. Just across the road. She used to put on bacon and egg suppers. I don’t know where she got the bacon and eggs from but she used to put on bacon and egg suppers.
BW: Just as a special treat for you.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And the rest of the crew.
PB: But you know you sit in the village pub at night and you were surrounded by farmers and butchers and bakers and all the rest of it. People for whom the war was just something they read about in the newspapers and you were just so happy, you’re so happy. It’s wonderful. There’s nothing like a crew. Nothing. Incredible relationship. Incredible.
BW: And did you have opportunity to mix with other locals? Not just the, the tradesman there, if you like, the farmers and the bakers or whatever?
PB: No. The only time we went out, off the camp was to go in to the little pub. On the nights we weren’t flying. We were in there every night we weren’t flying.
BW: Were there station dances at all or anything like that?
PB: No. There was no station. You’d the airfield there, you’ve the mess here and your billet over there and something else over there. If you didn’t have a bicycle you couldn’t exist in Lakenheath.
BW: So quite a distance between -
PB: Distances are immense. And I’ve visited it since the war. It’s an American town now.
BW: Yeah. It’s, it’s a huge place.
PB: Oh it’s a big place and when I, when I was there talking to them they produced some information about the wartime use and they spelt Stirling as if, as if it was the bloody currency [laughs].
BW: Were there, just out of interest, were there other crews in the pub where you went or was it pretty much just you guys?
PB: Well no doubt there were.
BW: Right.
PB: But we just sat in our corner and nothing else existed.
BW: Right.
PB: Nothing else existed.
BW: So tucked away in your own -
PB: Yeah.
BW: In your own little world.
PB: And there my skipper named my first daughter.
BW: Right.
PB: My skipper. I don’t know how we got on, how the conversation got around to that actually but one evening for some reason the skipper said if my wife and I were to ever have a daughter we were going to call her Penelope. I never forgot that and so very many years later when my first daughter was born she simply had to be Penelope. I had no choice.
BW: Well. As you say it obviously comes from being a tight crew.
PB: Yes.
BW: And that connection.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Ok. You mention then about your trip to Mannheim and this New Zealand navigator.
PB: Yeah.
BW: About your, of your crew.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Who, who got you shot down?
PB: Yeah.
BW: Just talk us through that if you would, please.
PB: Well we had a full petrol load which means a minimum bomb load of course. We were briefed for Munich and when briefing had been completed the CO said there’s a Mosquito on its way to Munich at the moment because it’s feared the weather may break down there so we’re going brief you for a possible alternative for Mannheim. So we had a second briefing then. Now, we’d no idea where we were going which meant of course the navigators had two flight plans to prepare. They’d doubled the work in the limited amount of time so they were under stress from the start. So we, we, we retire to our aircraft. Do all our pre-flight checks and the CO comes around in his van and says Munich is scrubbed. You’re going to Mannheim. So off we go. Immediately we cross enemy coast we were hit by flack. Now this had never ever happened to us before. He’d taken us straight over a, straight over a gun batt. I was shocked and I thought I’m going to spend, I’m going to spend the next hour checking the fuel in the hope we were losing fuel and we could turn back. And I went and did a meticulous check on the fuel but we weren’t losing fuel of course. Now, the raid was cleverly designed. You’ve got Ludwigshafen, the Rhine, Mannheim. If you fly over Ludwigshafen into Mannheim a creepback occurs. You get two targets for the price of one. And so that was the way we were to enter. So, to make sure we got it right for each wave of the attack the pathfinders was putting down a red marker. Now if you turn on a red marker on to the right course you flew straight over Ludwigshafen straight to Mannheim. So as we, as we were approaching the point where we could expect to see the flare the navigator says, ‘Keep your eyes open now. You should be seeing a red flare any time now.’ And suddenly there’s a red flare there and another red flare over there.
BW: So one to your left and one to your right.
PB: Yeah. So which, which is, which is the correct one? Only the navigator knows which is the correct one. ‘That one,’ he says.
BW: On the left.
PB: Nearer to the target. We get to the target five minutes early. The skipper makes what I still think was the right decision. He said we’d been hit by a bomb once at Nuremburg so we knew that. You’re either the only one over the target or the bombs are coming down from Lancasters. The skipper did an orbit but unfortunately the radar picked us up and as soon as we start to go in a blue searchlight comes straight on.
BW: Which is the radar guided one.
PB: Yeah and then then the column builds up and we’re flying straight over with the bomb doors open. So we continued like that until the bomb aimer got a sight and then you let the lot go in one go and we didn’t wait for a photograph. And over a target I always went up in to the astrodome facing backwards to help the gunner search for fighters and I was up there [ and we slowly began to pull away? ] and there were only a couple of searchlights on us and I thought I’d better check on my engines cause they’re getting a terrible thrashing. You’re only allowed a few minutes on full power so I get down, I get down from the pyramid and have a very long, I have a very long lead on my intercom so I can, don’t have to keep plugging and unplugging and I get down and I’m just going over to the instrument panel and suddenly there’s a terrible screaming and Len, Len the wireless operator had been just behind the main spar pushing out pushing out the window came running up through the main spar screaming, tripped over the pyramid, fell across my lead, pulled it out so I lost all communication and he fell at my feet and then this huge fire broke out in the fuselage and I’m steeling myself to stand and step over Leonard’s body to get to the fire extinguisher and out of the corner of my eye I see the mid upper gunner get out and put his chute on. I turn around. The navigator’s already on his way down the steps so instead of going for the extinguisher I go for my parachute and follow the navigator. I get to the top of the steps, the hatch is open. The navigator’s gone. I slide down. I get my feet through. The bomb aimer had gone up in to the second pilot’s seat to help the skipper. He started to clamber down from the, from the seat as I go past. I get my legs through. I feel a pressure on my back. I turn. Alan’s got his knees pressing in my back, tap him on the knee and go and as I go I feel the aircraft break in two and Alan never got out. So the rear gunner and Len were killed by the fighter. The skipper was wounded by flak that also set the port inner on fire and the skipper and Alan never had a chance of getting out because the aircraft had broken in two. The tail unit with the rear gunner’s body in it landed a considerable distance away. The main wreck landed right on the German Grand Prix racing track at Hockenheim.
BW: Wow.
PB: I have the map. I have a map showing the exact position and I saw the fire. It was a huge. We’d over a thousand gallons of petrol on board. We had enough petrol for Munich and the three in the aircraft were completely destroyed. Only, only fragments of bone left. The air gunners body was complete and so in the cemetery now at [Bad Tolz?] there’s a, there’s the rear gunners grave there, then there’s a headstone for Len, a headstone for the skipper, a headstone for Alan but what bits of fragments of bone there were are all buried in front of the skipper I’m sure. It was just symbolic. Never, never let the relatives know that of course. Never mention fire to the relatives but those two graves were empty and what bits there were were in front of the skipper which is right and proper.
BW: And you, you must have been pretty close to the ground when you baled out yourself.
PB: No. Oh, no. I was about ten thousand feet.
BW: Oh right. It was, it was the sense I was getting that it was almost a last minute sort of thing where you were able to escape.
PB: No. No, the aircraft broke in two very quickly. It was a tremendous. What happened I think the JU88 killed the rear gunner and then from, there’s a pump on the starboard engine, and dual pipelines to the rear turret that power the turret. Now I think it hit those pipelines. You’ve got hydraulic oil pressure, high pressure, high temperature came out and that’s what caught fire. The fire then came underneath the mid upper gunner, hit Len when he was doing the window in and stopped before it reached me but it was, it was a terror, it certainly was a fire and although I didn’t know till much later virtually simultaneously flak knocked out the port engine and the port inner engine and wounded the skipper and Ray, Ray told me later that when the skipper gave the order to bail out he [signed to say] as if he was badly hurt.
BW: And then at that point, the stricken aircraft, it must be almost I guess vertical if it’s broken up at that point.
PB: It didn’t, it didn’t go like that when it hit the ground it was it just come straight down like that.
BW: Yeah.
PB: I dare say some of it is still there buried under that racetrack. Some of the engine. But later I had a friend in Germany who was, who was in Ludwigshafen. He lived in Ludwigshafen. He was a schoolboy in Ludwigshofen. He may well have been on the flak gun that night for all I know.
BW: That would have been a coincidence wouldn’t it?
PB: Well after, he worked for the postal service after the war and when he retired he set himself up as what he called an air historian and he excavated a lot of shot down bombers and he was very keen on Bomber Command and he provided me with a lot of information and he produced a woman who’d been a schoolgirl in Hockenheim and on the morning after we crashed, after we were shot down, a neighbouring woman knocked on her door and she had what they described as a Canadian airman with them. It was in fact a New Zealander and the girl’s mother gave him a drink of water and later in the day the girl’s interest was aroused and she and a girlfriend went out to look at the crash and she provided me with a map of the actual crash site just by the, so whenever the German Grand Prix comes on I always, always watch it for a few minutes. I don’t like grand prix racing but I always watch it for a few minutes.
BW: Just that particular one.
PB: Yeah. That’s where it crashed.
BW: And have you been back to Hockenheim at all?
PB: No. No, I’ve not. No, I’ve not.
BW: But the information’s come through to you.
PB: Yeah.
BW: As to what’s happened.
PB: Peter provided me with a lot of information.
BW: What’s the air historian’s name? Do you recall?
PB: Peter Mengas M E N Mengas G A S.
BW: G A S.
PB: Peter.
BW: And is he still around?
PB: I don’t know. I’ve not, I’ve not heard from him for a year or two now.
BW: So you’ve managed to get out of the aircraft yourself.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And this is night-time. About ten thousand feet over Germany.
PB: Yeah 1 o’clock. It was just about midnight on my watch. It was 1 o’clock in the morning German time.
BW: And you pulled the rip cord and -
PB: Well, no. This was the problem when I, when I first joined the squadron I got a harness which could be adjusted. Now, I moved about a lot in the Stirling. I’ve controls there, there, there and there.
BW: All around the -
PB: And I used to [bend down?] around number seven tank and the shoulder strap would fall off and I thought I’ll get this fixed but I never did of course so when I baled out I was terrified of falling out of my parachute so I daren’t open it until I got myself you know [? ] as I could.
BW: Sort of braced against the straps were they?
PB: And when I opened it and I felt oh that’s it but it wasn’t that was just the parachute pulling the pack off my chest and then bang.
BW: The snap of the canopy.
PB: And I took all the weight there. The shoulder straps were up here. I came down in agony. I don’t know why it didn’t castrate me.
BW: Because of the tight grip around the -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Groin area where the -
PB: And then when I eventually I saw the ground rushing up and I rolled myself into a ball as I’d been taught and this buckle took two ribs with it.
BW: On the left hip.
PB: Yeah. Broke, broke two, broke two of my ribs and so I, it was, it was very painful. Very painful. And this is funny really by the next day my left side had seized up and I’m walking in a westerly direction trying to get to France [laughs] and, I don’t know and there was just one house which I had to pass and I thought, I thought a girl stood in the window had spotted me. I wasn’t certain but I thought she had. Anyway, I kept going and suddenly I hear a shout and I turn around and there’s this chappy running towards me and running behind him is a woman, presumably his wife and the two things I didn’t believe. I didn’t believe that fighting men put their hands above their heads like the baddies in the cowboy films and I didn’t believe the Germans went around saying. ‘Heil Hitler,’ to each other but as this chappy approached without any conscious effort on my part my hands went up. This one went up. This one wouldn’t.
BW: Your right one.
PB: He saw me like. He stopped running [?]and, ‘Heil Hitler.’
BW: So because you can’t raise your left arm you can only raise your right arm he thinks you’re doing the salute.
PB: He thought I was a Luftwaffe chappy. ‘Heil Hitler,’ he said [laughs] Well, I just I was in a pretty perilous state by this time. I just collapsed in to hysterical laughter. I just stood there and laughed and laughed and laughed and his wife came along and she sized up the situation immediately. She put her arm around me, took my weight on her shoulder and led me towards the town and the very first house we came to she made a very, very cross old woman let me into her kitchen, sit me down and made me a cup of coffee. So this woman very unwillingly gave me a cup of coffee. I hadn’t drunk anything for twenty four hours and I took a sip and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I can’t drink this. It’s absolutely disgusting,’ and I thought, ‘Well if I don’t drink it it’s a great insult to this woman who’s been so incredibly kind to me,’ so I had to drink it. That was my introduction to the German diet oooph [laughs].
BW: And so you managed from a rough landing in a loose parachute in God knows where -
PB: Yeah.
BW: To get yourself together. You didn’t meet any of the other crew at this point because you obviously talked about -
PB: The -
BW: Yourself.
PB: The mid upper gunner landed right next to a railway signal box and was arrested within seconds. The navigator landed in a tree and had to be rescued. So they were captured very quickly. Both of them.
BW: So there was just you on your own at this point.
PB: I was on my own.
BW: Were you knocked unconscious or, or did it take some time to come around? I mean you’ve obviously had to get rid of your chute and -
PB: No I, I, I was shocked. I was shocked obviously and I was in pain from these ribs but I said I’ve a duty to the RAF and that was to get to Gibraltar. [Laughs] It’s a long way away.
BW: Yeah.
PB: I’d got the Rhine to cross for one thing. That’s not, that’s not easy. [laughs].
BW: And so the, the people that, that met you I mean you talk about heading west towards France and Mannheim is, is quite deep in western Germany.
PB: Yeah.
BW: So you’re actually being met by Germans at this point.
PB: Yeah.
BW: But they assist you.
PB: Yeah.
BW: So what then happened? Did they, they pass you on? Or -
PB: Well this couple took me to the police station where the other two were already held although I didn’t know it and we were kept there for about three days and a couple of Luftwaffe chappies arrived to take us up to Frankfurt to Dulag Luft interrogation camp and when we left we were given a bundle of the rear gunner’s clothing and his flying suit had hundreds of holes in it. The cannon shells must have hit the turret and exploded, it was absolutely riddled and his helmet and his, his oxygen mask was soaked in blood and there were the four guns from the rear turret as well. So we had that to carry. And we had, we had an adventurous journey. We couldn’t, it, this was the most successful raid on Mannheim Ludwigshafen at that time and it was complete chaos and we had to go by train in to a big detour so we travelled that day and went to a Luftwaffe camp and stayed the night in the guard room there and the next day we go back to the railway station and it was a, it’s a station something like Victoria in Manchester. A long corridor with steps going up to the various platforms. We were on the platform and what I call a typical Daily Express German came along, feather in his hat and oh he was furious he was furious and Hitler had issued an order to all military and police units that if civilians get hold of airmen before the authorities do the authorities were not to interfere. They must leave it to the discretion of the civilians what to do with them and this one was stark raving, oh he was angry. And in the air force there’s an offence known as silent contempt. You don’t do anything but you look at an officer who’s ticking you off and look at him and make it obvious you think he’s [lowly?] and it’s a serious crime in the air force. Well Ray and I were giving this chappy the silent cont and the navigator said, ‘Stop being a bloody fool.’ He was a good deal older than we were and eventually this chap storms off and we thought, ‘Oh that’s shown him.’ A few minutes later he’s back at the head, the head of a posse and they’re obviously, obviously intent on doing us serious bodily harm but fortunately there was, there was a train on the other side of the platform. Now, whether it was a troop train or not I don’t know but half a dozen soldiers got out and ranged themselves between us and the, and this crowd and our two Luftwaffe chappies whipped us down the stairs, along the corridor and up another platform and hid us in a room that was obviously used by guards full of red and green lamps and flags and so on and we hid in there until our train arrived and then ran back as fast as we could and got put on the train. But it was, when we thought about it later we were very nearly hanged or beaten to death or kicked to death or something very near but it was only, it was only those soldiers who saved us and that was contrary to Hitler’s orders.
BW: Because the RAF crews at this time presumably were being christened terror flieger.
PB: Yeah. Oh yeah.
BW: And so the civilians were -
PB: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Properly against them.
PB: Well there were a hundred Bomber Command people were killed by Germans and more than two hundred Americans because Americans, there were a lot more Americans. They had ten to a crew.
BW: And at this point in a station as you mention they’ve reunited you with the navigator and -
PB: Yeah. Well they were in the police station. Unknown to me at the time.
BW: Yeah.
PB: I met them when we got out of the police station. But before I left they gave me a shave. A fierce little barber came in and then he got out this razor and I thought, ‘I hope to God the air raid sirens don’t go off.’ [laughs]
BW: Yeah ‘cause he might, he might stop shaving you and decide to use the razor for something else.
[laughs]That’s the only time I’ve been shaved with a cut throat razor. I don’t want to ever experience it again. [laughs]
BW: So they’ve tidied you up and reunited you as a crew.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Presumably they didn’t interrogate you at this point even though you were in a police station. The Luftwaffe officers took you over and put you in a transport. Is that right?
PB: Yeah. We were taken, we were taken to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt and there I was put in a cell there. Quite a big cell really. It had, it had, it had a very long radiator attached to one wall and there was a bed attached to the floor alongside a radiator and there was a table and two chairs and there’s a bucket in the corner and two windows with shutters on from outside and a very dim light. No ventilation and all I could do was lie flat on my back with these ribs and although it was mid-September the heat on the radiator was turned up full. So I lay there for three days getting hotter and dirtier and stickier and the air getting fouler and fouler and then suddenly somebody opened the shutters. A very smart Luftwaffe officer walked in with a couple of files under his arm, put them on the table opened the windows wide and motioned for me to join him, poured two cups of English tea, a plate of English biscuits, a packet of English cigarettes and then the interrogation started.
BW: And at this point is there just you and this Luftwaffe officer?
PB: Yeah.
BW: In this cell?
PB: Yeah.
BW: And so he’s expected you to get up from the floor to the chair to sit in front of him. Nobody has assisted you at this point?
PB: No. No. No.
BW: So presumably your body’s quite stiff as well.
PB: Very very stiff indeed. Very stiff. I never -
BW: Well -
PB: I never had any medical attention at all. Never. I’ve got a great knob of bone there that will never heal.
BW: And so the interrogation begins and presumably, from what you’re staying, this is daytime at this point.
PB: Yeah. When he put these files down on the table there were two of them and the top one said Royal Air Force Bomber Command 149 squadron. I thought, ‘How the hell does he know 149?’ I said, ‘I wonder if the others had been forced to talk,’ and I had pictures of Humphrey Bogart being tortured by [laughs] but it was obvious the rear part of the fuselage wasn’t burned and the letters OJ. So, he gave me, he have me a great deal of information. First, generally about the air force and then specifically about 149 squadron.
BW: And because the letters on the aircraft had not burned through.
PB: No the -
BW: So the squadron’s code OJ were still visible.
PB: OJ means 149. They knew that so as I understood it he was trying to do two things. He was giving me a lot of information most of it factual but some which he picked up and he hadn’t had checked yet [or someone had corrected] and from my reaction [he got?] and then he picked up bits from me that he could put. That was the whole purpose of it. I don’t know what did affect the war effort. I don’t think very much. Anyway, eventually he finished and this was the middle of September and he said, ‘Are there any questions you want to ask me?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘What’s been happening in the war in the last few days?’ He said, ‘Italy has surrendered.’ I said, ‘Oh good. One down, one to go.’ [laughs] Well he didn’t like that [laughs] so he picked up his files and he left.
BW: You weren’t tempted to salute him either.
PB: But when we, when we were being transferred by cattle truck from Dulag Luft to Saxony to Stalag 4b we were in these cattle trucks and we had a German guard in with us and we had with us at one stage the only German I ever felt sorry for. He’d been born in Germany and when he was a very small child his people had gone to America. He’d been brought up in Brooklyn. He had a tremendous Brooklyn accent and he’d, they’d never taken American nationality and early in ‘39 or late in ‘38 they’d come to Germany on holiday and he was immediately conscripted and there he was [laughs]. Oh dear. So I’d never known anybody feel as sorry for himself as that poor fella. He said, he described his comrades, he said, ‘Bloody mother f***ing, c**k s***ng krauts,’ and those were his comrades [laughs].
BW: And they didn’t speak American -
PB: Deary, deary me,
BW: So he got away with it.
PB: Oh he did feel sorry for himself. And I’ve often wondered what happened to him because when the Ardennes offensive took place Hitler put a lot of American speaking Germans into American uniforms and of course they were shot immediately if they were captured. He was an absolutely perfect candidate for that job.
BW: Yeah. Quite possible.
PB: So I don’t know what happened to him but oh deary me he did feel sorry for himself
BW: And so it seems a fairly, alright it’s uncomfortable but it seems a fairly civil interrogation from the Luftwaffe officer before you -
PB: Oh it was very friendly. Very friendly very friendly. I mean I’d been lying in there for three days thinking about Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and it was nothing like that [laughs]. No, he was charming. Really charming.
BW: And how soon after the interrogation ended and he stormed out did you then leave for er -
PB: Well I left the cell then went to the main part of the camp and stayed there for about a week until there was enough of us to make up a wagon load.
BW: And this was still at Dulag Luft.
PB: Yeah.
BW: In Frankfurt.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And so you’re there a little while longer transferred to Saxony.
PB: Yeah and we were lucky and we were unlucky. We were unlucky in the fact that all the luft camps run by the Luftwaffe were full and so we were sent to the biggest prison camp in Germany which was run by the army. It contained about ten thousand permanently and it had scores of working parties attached to it so that prisoners used to come in and get recorded and then sent out to work in mines or factories or quarries or whatever so there was a regular turnover. There was about ten thousand of us there permanently but a tremendous lot of Frenchmen, a couple of thousand Russians who were starving to death and various other nationalities and of course the German army didn’t have the same relationship with us that the Luftwaffe personnel would have had. In fact they hated us.
BW: Was there any, any ill will directed towards you because you were air force?
PB: They didn’t like us. They told us, they said, ‘When Germany wins the war you’ll spend the rest of your lives building the cities that you’ve destroyed but if Germany lose the war you’re soon to be shot.’ That was their attitude.
BW: And even though this was an army camp they, it sounds as though they weren’t just, were they just military personnel? The ten thousand French and Russians were they soldiers that were captured?
PB: Well I don’t know what they were.
BW: So they could have been.
PB: They were dressed in civilian, some in civilian clothes,
BW: Yeah.
PB: Some in bits of clothes. Some were in military uniform but we were lucky too because this was September. Italy had retired from the war. The Germans had taken over the Italian prison camps and they set up two new compounds in 4b. An RAF compound and an army compound. Now, a couple of thousand Desert Rats who’d been prisoners in Italy came in just as we did. Now, without them we’d have been in a right mess because the Germans gave us nothing.
BW: So you were on low rations and you were, were you made to work at this stage as well?
PB: No. No. They couldn’t make us work. Not with our ranks.
BW: Right.
PB: But you know we were put into a hut which has three tier bunks to sleep a hundred and eighty men. They gave us a sack which contained something or other which was supposed to be a mattress, two pre- First World War blankets and that was, that was all they gave us. No knife, fork, spoon, no cup, no plate. Nothing. And yet the food comes up, a great big vat of soup and all you’ve got’s your bare hands. So the army helped us a lot there.
BW: Presumably because they were allowed or brought with them their kit and they shared it.
PB: They brought with all their kit, yeah. Yeah. I mean they’d been prisoners years some of them.
BW: So they knew, they knew how it worked.
PB: They knew the ropes so yeah they knew the ropes alright but the difference between the army and the air force was, was, was incredible. The army compound was run like a barracks. There was a sergeant major in charge of each hut. Total control. And each morning at 7 o’clock there was roll calls outside in decent weather. The roll call in the army compound took fifteen minutes. The roll call in the RAF compound could take two hours. That was the difference in our attitudes. The army would say, ‘We’ll show them what real soldiers look like.’ and we’d say, ‘We’ll cause them so much bloody trouble they’ll wish they’d never been born.’ Different attitude of mind altogether.
BW: And so this is the, the British army in their compound.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Organising themselves to do their roll calls -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Like that.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And the RAF took the view well we’re there to -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Make a nuisance of ourselves.
PB: That’s it exactly. One day the Germans got so exasperated they brought the senior sergeant major and they stood him there and we’re all lined up in fives and he starts telling us we’re a disgrace to the bloody nation, we’re a disgrace to the air force and the replies he got. He’d never been spoken to like that in his life before. Never, ever, ever. He just went redder and redder and redder. Eventually, he turned on his heel and went and we never saw him again.
BW: Gave that one up as well.
PB: I know we really, we really did everything we could and we tamed the Germans eventually and it went whenever a German entered our hut whoever saw him first would shout, ‘Jerry up’ and whatever you were doing you could get away. At the end of the war the German would walk in to the hut, he’d stand at the door and shout, ‘Jerry up’ and wait two minutes before he walked in.
BW: It’s interesting you, you made a comment just before that although the Germans gave you nothing they didn’t make you work either because of your rank.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And the thinking was in the, in the early days with the RAF aircrew was that if they were all sergeants they would be treated better in prisoner of war camps.
PB: Not treated better, just treated differently in that they didn’t work.
BW: Right. So it was a case of you’re not made to work you were just -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Well you were just there and you exist, sort of thing.
PB: Yeah and the food of course was disgusting. The flour was ten percent what the Germans optimistically called wood flour. Which was sawdust. We, we, we had soup at lunchtime. A great vat of soup. We had [minute?] soup which was disgusting. We had [mara?] soup which was even more disgusting and most disgusting of all we had a soup that apparently was made from what was left of sugar beet after the beet er after the sugar had been extracted and we got a handful of boiled potatoes, usually rotten. That was the midday meal and then in the late afternoon you got a piece of bread to be divided between five people and a blob of white stuff which was supposed to be butter, it was about ninety percent water, and a spoonful of jam apparently made from beetroot or swede or some such and you’d get this piece of bread and it’s not a big piece of bread and it’s got to be shared between five people and every, every one of the five pieces had to be absolutely identical with the other four so we picked the man with the best irons and steadiest hand and he cuts the bread up and he gets last choice and the five pieces and he gets the last choice.
BW: And it went on like that for days.
PB: But we had the Red Cross parcels fortunately.
BW: How often were they delivered? Were they regular?
PB: Every Monday we got a Red Cross parcel.
BW: And were they delivered intact or were they interfered and inspected by the Germans.
PB: They were delivered intact until it was decided that they were being used in escapes and so after that they were all opened and every tin was punctured so that it had a limited lifespan. You couldn’t, you couldn’t store it up.
BW: And you see in war films, popular war films, the sort of black market operating in a prison camp and trading and bartering. Does that, did that ever happen?
PB: Oh yes, it was all, with cigarettes you could buy anything. Now in the RAF compound we had two people. We had an English and an Italian name. A chappy called [Gargini]
BW: [Gargini]
PB: Now he was, he was a skilled technician in British, in BBC television and he was an absolute wizard with the electricity. He built at least two radio sets and he also made a succession of heaters, immersion heaters, which you could put in a cup of cold water and fire up in no time at all. And we had another chap who was in fact was a civilian. Terry Hunt his name was. He worked for British Movietone news or some similar company and if you went to the cinema in England during the war from time to time to time on the newsreel you’d see shots taken from the nose of a light bomber during attacks on France. Now Terry was one of the men who took those photographs. He was given a degree of training. He was given an RAF uniform, he was given a RAF number, an RAF rank just in case he was shot down and captured and he had a camera. He had it inside a hollowed out bible with a little hole in the spine through which he took his photographs. Two quite remarkable men there.
BW: And that, that bible with the camera in he used in the aircraft and he kept with him in the prison camp did he?
PB: No. He got it whilst he was in the prisoner.
BW: Oh made it in the prison right.
PB: How he got through well cigarettes you could get anything with cigarettes. You could buy a woman for three cigarettes but there were no women.
BW: And in that case there must have been some sort of interaction with the German guards at that point -
PB: Oh yes.
BW: To be able to bribe.
PB: You waited. You waited until after dark and then you went out and found a guard and said [?] ‘Yah yah yah,’ out it came from a bag in his gas mask case gave him this bit of bread ‘[?] cigarettes?’ ‘Nein. [?]Nein. Deutschland caput’ [laughs]
BW: A piece of bread for twenty cigarettes.
PB: But you could buy anything with cigarettes.
BW: And did you partake in that yourself, did you?
PB: Oh yeah I was out most nights if I had cigarettes buying bread. It was, it was much better bread than we had. It was rotten bread but it was much better bread than we had.
BW: And did you, did you feel able to strike up a rapport or even an element of trust with some of these guards. Were you always meeting the same one or did you have to interact with others?
PB: No, whoever happened to be walking around the compound at the time. Some relationships must have been, must have been formed because big items were bought and of course if there were ever workmen in the camp all their tools were raided. They soon [? ] their tools.
BW: So there were, there were guys in the camp who were raiding the Germans’ tool sets.
PB: Yeah you see we, we had, you know, you got hundreds of air crew. You’ve got a couple of thousand senior NCOs in the army. You’ve got every talent. You’ve got architects, musicians, dancers, journalists. You got all sorts of people and it was amazing what could be done.
BW: And I believe they had classes in the prisoner of war camps as well to keep the men occupied.
PB: Oh yes. We, we had a little library in each hut. Some of them manned by professional librarians, we had lecturers. We had, we had a theatre group and a radio theatre group. We had people who went around individually giving lectures. The most popular lecturer was a chappy, an army man, who’d worked for a very prestigious London undertaking firm and the stories he had. Oh deary me. Deary, deary me. He was a popular lecturer he was.
BW: And so was your days, were your days regulated in any sense? Was there a structure put to you?
PB: No. You had a roll call in the morning, a roll call in the evening. That was it. And then you had the food arriving at mid-day and again about tea time and other than that you were on your own.
BW: So would you have about two meals a day then? Your main midday meal and a meal in the evening?
PB: I don’t think we ever had a meal at all really [laughs].
BW: Well, yeah.
PB: But yeah that’s the way it worked.
BW: Yeah.
PB: On Fridays, on Fridays, Friday was a big day. On Friday you got pea soup and pea soup was so good we didn’t get any potatoes on Friday. Well pea soup was the only soup we ever really ate. The pea soup was quite good.
BW: And do you still like it to this day or does that remind you?
PB: I like pea soup. Yes.
BW: Yeah.
PB: But we Lancastrians had a Red Rose Society. The Yorkists had a White Rose Society and there was a motoring club for people interested in cars or motorbikes. There were all sorts, all sorts of things set up. Every hut was given the name of a British football team. My hut was Wolverhampton Wanderers and a league was set up and matches were played and points scored and then in the RAF compound we formed the rugby pitch as well, I played a lot of rugby.
BW: Even, even though you’d had a bad injury from parachuting you were still able to play rugby.
PB: Eventually. It took, it took, it took about six months until I felt really free but -
BW: Did you manage to get any medical treatment from the British -
PB: No.
BW: While you were in the camp?
PB: Never. Never. I never bothered the British. By then it was healing. They even, even tried to play cricket but that didn’t work. The ground was too soft.
BW: What sort of ground was it? Was it sandy?
PB: It was sort of sandy soil, yeah.
BW: So and we’ve probably all have an image here of Sagan and the Great Escape -
PB: Yeah.
BW: And the sandy -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Sort of soil
PB: Yeah.
BW: And it was pretty much like that was it?
PB: When I played rugby every time I I got a graze and there was any blood it always went, always went rotten. I always had to go and get it, get it drugged up always, always went rotten.
BW: And what sort of drugs could they give you? Was there penicillin?
PB: Red Cross. Red Cross I don’t know what they were but the Red Cross provided drugs and we had, we had certain medical. We had a couple of army doctors as well. We had an English woman in the camp.
BW: Do you recall her name at all?
PB: Well we knew her as Mrs Barrington. She was an English woman. I don’t know whether she was divorced or widowed but sometime in the 20s or very early 30s she had a son called Winston and they had a holiday in Switzerland and met a German who got on very well with and they went back again a few months later and she married him and she and her son went to live in Germany. And then when, when 1938, ‘39 came along and war was obviously imminent she sent her son back to England to live with her parents and in due course he joined the air force in Bomber Command, got shot down, wrote to her where she was living in Vienna and she wrote back and eventually she decided she wanted to be nearer to him then that so she left Vienna and went to live in Muhlburg which was about five kilometres from the camp.
BW: Muhlberg.
PB: Muhlberg yeah and by this time her husband was a very high ranking Luftwaffe officer and when she moved to Muhlberg her husband came with her and we know that he visited the camp and we know that he met the commandant but we don’t know what happened there of course. We don’t know whether some informal arrangement was agreed between them or whatever but it was a fact that airmen were never allowed outside the camp because they’d just disappear but Barrington got outside the camp with French working parties several times, met his mother in Muhlberg and by early 1945 she was getting worried about what her fate would be when the Russians arrived and he reported that to the, to the escape committee and they decided she should be brought into the camp and the next time he went out he took some spare clothes [and met her] she came in to the camp, put in to RAF battledress and was hidden away under the stage in the theatre and stayed there for a few weeks till the end of the war. Not only until the end of the war but until we got away from the Russians but it took us a month to get away from the Russians.
BW: So you mention there about hiding her under the stage in the theatre -
PB: Yeah.
BW: In RAF battle dress uniform.
PB: Yeah.
BW: How did the, the tide of war affect you because many prisoners were forced on the long march but presumably if you were in Saxony in sort of lower -
PB: Yeah.
BW: South eastern Germany. Were you part of that of that -
PB: No.
BW: To evacuate the camps.
PB: No we weren’t in Poland. We were in Germany. Now, by this time the air was full of British and American fighter bombers. Everything that moved was attacked and the commandant gave us the opportunity, ‘If you want to be marched west across the Elbe we’ll take you,’ and the Poles of course jumped at that chance. They didn’t want to be with the Russians. And we said, ‘No. We’ll stay where we are until our allies arrive.’ [Laughs] Our allies.
BW: So you all managed to stay in the camp without being evacuated.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And so this Mrs Barrington stayed in the -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Theatre at this time.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Under your protection.
PB: Yeah she kept hidden. Eventually, when the, when the Russians arrived they made no arrangements whatever for us and so all we could do was break down this perimeter fence and stream out into the countryside to search for food and that went on for about three days and then the Russians got themselves organised and clamped down on it. We came and got a bargaining counter. They held thousands of British and Americans and there were tens of hundreds of thousands of Russians in the west and the Russians wanted them back. Many, many of them even wore German uniforms and they knew if they went back they knew what their fate would be so they didn’t want to go back so there was a lot of bargaining and we were part of the Russians strong hand and then they marched us out of the camp, marched quite a considerable distance and they put us into what was obviously a big maintenance depot full of huge workshops and we were billeted there and still nothing was happening so we began to drift off in twos and threes and tried to make our way across the river on our own which eventually we did. We, we were relieved by the Russians on St George’s Day, the 23rd of April and I reached the American lines on my 24th birthday. The 23rd of May. Exactly one month later. And then it was like moving from hell in to heaven. I lived for a week on steak and ice cream.
BW: You didn’t, you’d been on such bad rations there was no problem moving to that sort of -
PB: No. No. Never had any -
BW: High protein diet.
PB: A lot of people spent a lot of time sat down with their trousers around their ankles [laughs]
BW: You obviously had a tougher constitution.
PB: Yeah -
BW: So it didn’t affect you.
PB: It didn’t affect me. But oh it was great with the Americans. Even went to the cinema. They had a mobile cinema. I saw a film about a book which I’d read whilst in Germany. And then, then we were flown by Dakota to Brussels and handed over to the British. We arrived in Brussels on a Saturday afternoon. The British gave us a ten shilling note and a handful of Belgian coins and turned us loose on Brussels for a Saturday night [laughs]. And the next day we climbed on board a Stirling and flew back to Kent and from Kent we went up to Cosford which was a receiving centre and Cosford had been my first station in 1940.
BW: So this was almost a reverse of your trip out there because you’d gone out on a Stirling.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And then you were flown back from Brussels to Kent in a Stirling.
PB: In a Stirling.
BW: How did it feel to be back on your old sort of type of plane again?
PB: Oh it was funny really. About, about four Stirlings and one Lancaster landed and everybody but me and two other fellas ran for the one Lancaster. [laughs] I was more than happy to get into a Stirling.
BW: And that, that night in Brussels when you’d got a ten shilling note in your hand.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And a few Belgian pennies that must have been pretty memorable. How did it, how did it feel?
PB: I had a terrible emotional shock. There was a great big underground convenience and I was stood in there weeing away and in walked two women cleaners [laughs] and that rather set me back. I don’t remember much about what happened that night actually. I know I’d no money left at the end of it.
BW: Justifiably lost in celebration I think.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And so you were only twenty four at that stage.
PB: I’d just had my twenty fourth birthday, yes.
BW: And you, I guess you got, in retrospect, you got back to the UK pretty quick. I mean the war had only been over sort of three weeks when you were then passed over to the, to the British.
PB: Yeah.
BW: In May.
PB: Yeah.
BW: ‘Cause obviously some guys in service had to wait a long time to be repatriated.
PB: Oh some didn’t get back until well after the September.
BW: And so when you get back to Cosford.
PB: Yeah.
BW: What happened then? Were you able to, I mean, were you still in touch with your other crewmates at this point in your -
PB: No. No. Long lost them somewhere along the way. We were, first of all we were made to give a written description of how we were shot down which seemed to me to be to be a waste of time and then we were medically examined and bathed and haircuts and kitted out with new uniform and then we were sent on six weeks leave on double rations and by this time of course I’d been, I’d been qualified long enough to have become a warrant officer. And I had a lot of back pay. Got paid all the time.
BW: And how, how did they pay you? ‘Cause now it goes straight into your bank account but then did they give you cash?
PB: Cash.
BW: Or did they give you a cheque?
PB: I can’t remember. I can’t remember. I didn’t have a bank account so I don’t, I don’t really know. I know I had a lot of money to come. Several hundred pounds. I’d earned it. [laughs]
BW: Absolutely.
PB: I’d done more damage to German morale as a prisoner than I ever did as - [laughs]
BW: If I can, if I can just hop back to a point you made in the camp. You said there was an escape committee.
PB: Yes.
BW: And as I say they’re sort of impressions of, of “The Great Escape” come to mind. Were there any escape attempts made there?
PB: Oh yes there were people escaping all the time.
BW: Successfully?
PB: A couple of hours, two days. Maybe a week if you were lucky.
BW: So there was quite an active escape -
PB: Oh yes, yes.
BW: Committee from the RAF there.
PB: Oh yes there was a lot of escaping. What, what, what was a popular thing from time to time a British soldiers would come through the camp to be registered and recorded and photographed etcetera and then sent out on working parties and some airmen got the idea it would be easier to escape from a working party then from the camp and so they exchanged identities and this in the end caused tremendous confusion to the Germans because there was a New Zealand soldier, a Desert Rat who’d been captured and held in prison in Italy and he’d escaped and got in with a with a group of partisans and as he was the only professional as it were amongst the partisans he soon became their leader and he carried out minor acts of sabotage and he became a sort of Robin Hood and rumours were circulated about this new Zealander who was doing this, that and the other and the Germans got to learn of this and eventually they captured him and they decided to send him to Germany for trial but it wasn’t known whether he was to go to Berlin or to Leipzig so as 4b was about halfway between the two he came to 4b and was locked up in the [straflagge] and there he made contact with French working parties. French used to work in there regularly and the French notified the British and it was known that if he went to either Berlin or Leipzig and was put on trial he’d be found guilty and he’d be shot and so they decided that he had to be rescued and a plot was formed and the French removed a window from the room where the showers were in the [straflagge] and put it back in a temporary position and he was briefed that when it was known that he was going to leave he was to insist upon having a shower and he was to go in to the shower room and escape from this window and be smuggled in to the camp and one day quite out of the blue we were all told to get over to the French compound as quickly as we could and to start a riot and we all got there and started fighting and jostling and messing and shouting and all the German cars were rushing to the French compound and this chappie escaped and he was hidden above a ceiling in a hut up in the dark, in the rafters and remained hidden until the end of the war. And the gestapo arrived and they made our lives hell for a week and they tore the camp to pieces and eventually we put about the rumour that he’d now left the camp and was on a train going to Switzerland so they all moved out to Switzerland [laughs] to the railway lines then and we were left in peace but he remained in the camp until the end of the war and eventually got back to New Zealand.
BW: Wow.
PB: Remarkable story.
BW: I mean yeah he was -
PB: I’ve got his name somewhere in a book but I can’t remember it off hand.
BW: It would be interesting to, to find his name and look him up.
PB: Well I can get it for you.
BW: Doesn’t, doesn’t need to be straightaway. We can get that afterwards.
PB: I can get it for you in a flash.
BW: Ok well just pause the recording for a moment.
PB: So we’re just looking at a book here called “Survival In Stalag Luft 4b”
BW: Yeah.
PB: And his name is Tony Hunt.
BW: Terry.
PB: Terry.
BW: Terry Hunt.
PB: 136
PB: Frederick William Ward he’s called.
BW: Frederick William Ward.
PB: Yeah. Born in February 1912. Captured in North Africa in July ‘42. [pause] That will tell you about him there.
BW: Yeah.
PB: Fred Ward and this is, this is in the book by Tony Vercoe um which I’ll look up.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Um it says that he, he was captured and then interrogated and then will go into more detail about the activities with the French workers as you say. There’s a description there.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And then this lady you mentioned is called Florence Barrington.
PB: That’s right. Mrs Barrington.
BW: With a thirteen year old son, married a German photographer and that also gives us the correct name of, just so that I’ve got it right, Muhlberg M U H L B E R G so that helps identify -
PB: Yeah. Muhlberg.
BW: The camp.
PB: Muhlberg on the Elbe.
BW: Yeah. What I’ll do if you don’t mind I’ll have a look at this separately and sort of off air of the recording.
PB: Yeah.
BW: But that, that’s great that is good information.
PB: Yes. You’ve got the full story there.
BW: So we were talking just briefly before about some of the escape attempts and how you’d helped to rescue this New Zealander from, from being shot.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Were there any other memorable attempts at all?
PB: Yes. Yes, there was one other memorable one. I had a friend, Fred Heathfield, who was a Halifax pilot with 51 squadron. He’d been shot, he’d crashed landed a Halifax on three engines in the pitch dark in Belgium and lived to tell the tale and I think the only thing that kept him alive was that he had his parachute on his chest and that took the main force of the impact. He got two black eyes and a broken nose. He was eventually captured in an hotel in Paris but he was, he was a pilot. I was a flight engineer. There was a Luftwaffe field a few kilometres away from the camp and Fred and I decided that if we could steal a JU88 we could fly at low level to Sweden and we, we started to try to get some information about German aircraft but by this time the Germans had issued a warning to all prison camps saying that because of the seriousness of the war situation there were certain areas of Germany which could not be identified but which were of importance to the, to the safety of the country and anybody caught in such an area without authority would be shot out of hand so we decided not to bother and we gave what information we had to an Australian pilot. What was his name? I’ve got a book by him in there. Anyway, this Australian pilot had a Canadian bomb aimer in his crew and I think he’d been brought up in the French speaking part of Canada because he spoke French like a native and also had quite a good knowledge of German and they decided that they would put this plan into operation but instead of flying to Sweden they would fly east and land behind Russian lines and give themselves over which to me sounded like a suicide note. And they left the camp. They went they went out with a work, we agreed to provide cover for three days so for three days the Germans wouldn’t know they were missing and they went out with a working party and disappeared and it was the night of Dresden. The night they went out was the night of Dresden and they, they, they walked. They were stopped several times and were able to convince whoever stopped them that they were French volunteers who were being moved from one job to another job and were on their way there and they got to this airfield and they lay up in the woods surrounding the airfield to watch what was going on and a JU88 landed and it was refuelled and they thought that’s it. So they find a log of wood and they picked it up and put it on their shoulders and marched to the edge of the airfield, put it down, got inside the JU and, what was his name? Anyway, he sat in the cockpit looking at the instruments and the controls and sorting out what’s what and the ground crew come back and said, ‘What are you doing in here? Foreign workers aren’t allowed in German aircraft. Clear off.’ And they got out, they picked up their log of wood. They walked back to the camp and I remember it plainly I was stood at one end of the hut and the door was at the far end and suddenly, Geoff his name was, Geoff and his bomb aimer Smith come walking down the hut and the Germans never knew they’d been away. Never knew they’d been away. And they’d been sat in a JU88.
BW: And they’d nearly got away with it.
PB: If they’d landed. I mean the Russians didn’t ask questions. If you got out of a German aircraft they shot you.
BW: Yeah.
PB: It was the daftest idea I’ve ever come across in my life but that’s what they’d decided on. Geoff Taylor. He was, he was, he was a journalist in Australia and he wrote a book called “Piece of Cake” which had a forward by Butch Harris of all people. I’ve got a copy in there and that was the most audacious escape but of course like all other escapes it came to nothing in the end.
BW: And were there quite a few others who tried and -
PB: Oh yes. It was sport.
BW: Captured.
PB: It was sport. This notice that the Germans issued said escaping is no longer a sport but that’s what it had been. When you read about people who spend all their time organising an escape they’re just a bloody nuisance to everybody. They ruin life in the camp. Everybody has to give way to them. They’re not going anywhere. They might be out for a week but they’re back.
BW: And in the meantime everybody else is perhaps suffering.
PB: Everybody’s inconvenienced, yeah.
BW: Yeah but they’re getting more inspections presumably.
PB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. To have a fella like Bader in your camp must have been hell. Absolute hell.
BW: That’s why they decided to put him in Colditz.
BW: And you hadn’t been tempted to try yourself. You were making yourself a nuisance in the camp you made life -
PB: Only this -
BW: Miserable for the Germans.
PB: Mad plan we had to fly to Sweden which we gave up on. It was impossible. But we had an Australian pilot killed in the camp in a flying accident. This Luftwaffe camp was only a few kilometres away and once the airmen there realised that there were now airmen in 4b occasionally they’d come over and give us a bit of a, a bit of a thrill. They did and they’d come across in a JU86 which was an obsolete bomber based on a, on a civil aircraft. It was a bit like a Hudson it was and it were coming over the camp in a shallow dive right along the full length of the French compound which was the biggest and climb away and all the airmen in the compound would be going like this.
BW: Waving.
PB: And the army went mad. The army said, ‘You’re going to kill us all the way you’re going.’ You know, these lads know what they’re doing. Anyway, one came over one day and it wasn’t an 86 it was an 88 a powerful, big, powerful machine and he came perhaps a bit steeper than usual and when he pulled up his tail mushed in and his tail went into a wire fence and it dragged about twenty feet of wire and two or three fence posts with it. The tail plane hit this, hit this Canadian pilot who was walking around the compound. Killed him instantly. One of the posts hit his companion and badly injured him and I was in our own compound and I could see through the French huts and I saw this thing. It was no higher than that. I don’t know why the airstream wasn’t tucked in the ground and eventually it climbed away with all this wire streaming behind him and the Luftwaffe gave a splendid funeral to this Australian and we were told that the pilot had been stripped of his brevvy, stripped of his rank, and posted to the eastern front as a common foot soldier. I think, it think they just told us that to pacify us. I can’t believe for a moment that that’s what happened but that’s the story they gave us but to be killed in a flying accident walking around a prison compound it’s a bit much isn’t it?
BW: Yeah and as you say there’s got to be some for the tail wheel to be that close to the ground that there’s got to be the plane itself has got to be very, very low.
PB: It was no higher -
BW: Ten feet or less
PB: Than that. I don’t know why the airstream wasn’t hitting the ground.
BW: And that you’re indicating’s about two foot -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Three foot.
PB: Yeah I just saw it go I could see it between the huts.
BW: Wow.
PB: And then it just climbed away with all the stuff just trailing behind it. Beautiful piece of flying. Wonderful skilled bit of flying.
BW: Just unfortunate consequence.
PB: Yeah. So we did get excitement from time to time.
BW: How did it feel when the Russians came to liberate? I mean -
PB: Oh -
BW: You must have had a pretty limited amount of information getting through and an impression of what the Russian forces were like. How did it feel when they -
PB: Well -
BW: Came into the camp?
PB: Well the first thing on the newsreels I’d seen pictures of refugees in France and suddenly early in April we got German refugees going past the camp and it was, it was an incredible sightseeing German refugees like that and they were streaming past the camp to get over the Elbe. And then we could -
BW: The Elbe must have been quite close to the camp
PB: Oh it was only about five kilometres and then we heard gunfire and then on St George ’s day early in the morning someone rushed into our hut shouting, ‘The Cossacks are here,’ and we went out and on the main road there were four of the scruffiest most dreadful looking men I’ve ever seen in my life. On horseback. Oh they did, they looked murderous, every one and they were loaded down with sandbags full of food and ammunition and God knows what and they just sat there and later in the day the infantry arrived and they made no provision for us whatsoever. Nothing. So we just broke out of the camp to steal food and steal drink as well and steal women as well no doubt but the Russians clamped on that and then they started to register us and they were going to send us to a Black Sea port, Odessa or some sort of place, and sail us home from there they said. When the Americans are only five miles away. The other side of the river. And they started to register us and they had great big women, great big fat women, tables outside, taking the records, and they got some funny ones. There was a Micky Mouse and James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and it became chaotic and eventually we just said oh blow this and they packed it in and then they moved us, as I say, out of the camp and up into this maintenance depot.
BW: So they realised you were giving them some spoof names -
PB: Yeah.
BW: And not helping at all
PB: We sat in this maintenance depot about five of us who were all together and suddenly the most horrible screaming and I said the Russians have either got a woman or they’ve got a pig let’s go and to find out which it is. So we followed the noise and we came to a place and there were two Russians. There was one dead pig lying down and there’s another Russian with a pig like a cello with his hand way inside of it and the pig screaming away and we sit and we watch all this and we’re thinking they’ll give us something and we watch and we wait and eventually they killed it and they cut off the ears and gave us the ears. They took two pigs and gave us the bloody ears off one of pig.
BW: And kept the rest for themselves. And in general when they, as you put it, got their act together in terms of organising the camp presumably they re-erected the fence post that had been torn down.
PB: It became a far, far, far worse place than it had ever been.
BW: Yeah.
PB: They turned it into a punishment camp for German civilians. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans died in that camp over the next five years and so the natives at Muelburg are attached to us really. We both suffered in that camp. It was a dreadful place. What it must have been like when it was dreadful when we were there. What it must have been like.
BW: And they weren’t bringing the civilians in while you were there?
PB: No, no.
BW: They presumably -
PB: No. It was after, after they’d repaired it and repaired all the damage we’d done.
BW: Yeah.
PB: And I think it was about five years they had it as a punishment camp. Must have been hell on earth. Hell on earth. Hundreds if not thousands died and this was just because of complaining about some regulation or other that the Russians had imposed. Anything at all, straight in there. Shocking that.
BW: But they didn’t, did they impose a regime on you as RAF crew waiting to be repatriated during that sort of interim period of April, May.
PB: Well it was all chaos. It was all chaos. I had quite an experience on VE day. They had their VE day a day later than ours because apparently they weren’t satisfied with the arrangements that the west had made so they decided to have their own, their own VE day the next day and I was, I was walking in the German town. Why I was alone and not with any of my friends I don’t know but I was alone and I was walking through this town and suddenly two Russian officers grabbed me and took me to their mess and gave me a huge meal. All, all looted German property of course. Animals, vegetables. The lot. And a particular sweet which I learned later was made from sour milk and it was absolutely gorgeous and after the meal they took me to a public hall where there was to be an address by a general followed by a concert and it was full of full of Russian soldiers, men and women, in all sorts of different uniforms and this general came onto the stage and I got, I got an example of what it was it was like being in a totalitarian state. He made a speech and the only words I heard were Churchill and Roosevelt every now and again he’d pause and somewhere at the very back of the, of the gallery [clapping sound] and immediately everybody’s clapping and immediately they all stopped like that.
BW: As if somebody was coordinating it.
PB: Someone’s coordinating. The whole thing was coordinated and eventually the speech finishes and we had this concert and it was absolutely fantastic. Oh the music and the dancing and the singing unbelievable. Unbelievable concert. It was terrific. Now what happened when it finished I’ve no idea. I haven’t a clue what happened to me that night. Not a clue. Not the slightest idea. I know I joined up with my friends the next day but what happened that night I don’t, I’ve no idea but I’ve never seen anything like the performance that these women who seemed to just move like that.
BW: Gracefully across -
PB: No, no leg movement at all.
BW: The stage yeah.
PB: And the Cossacks down on their heels kicking. Oh it was a fantastic concert and the singing and the balalaika playing. A night to remember that was. And that was VE day. VE day Russian version.
BW: How had you managed to celebrate it in the camp at all? You mentioned it was quite different to our celebration were there any –
PB: Well we didn’t know. We didn’t know it was VE day.
BW: So the only indication you got was from the Russians when they -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Held their celebrations.
PB: And as I say by this time we weren’t in the camp and in fact we’d broken and were trying to get across to the Americans on our own.
BW: And you mention you were in the town at this stage in Muhlberg.
PB: Ahum.
BW: What, what was it like what was your sense of being in the town? Were there, firstly, was it damaged but also were there German civilians who might be hostile.
PB: No.
BW: To the RAF at all.
PB: The civilians couldn’t get us in to their houses fast enough. We were never we were never short of somewhere to sleep or somewhere to wash.
BW: Right.
PB: Because I think the theory was if ten drunken Russians hammered on the door at midnight looking for women we would go to the door and say it was under British occupation you’ll have to go next door. It never worked out in practice [thank God] but that was the theory I think. They couldn’t get us into their houses fast enough.
BW: So a bit I suppose a bit of a protection there for them if the -
PB: Yeah.
BW: If the Russians had seen western RAF aircrew in a house -
PB: Yeah.
BW: They would be less likely -
PB: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: To interfere with it.
PB: And we slept we slept on a feather bed with a feather bed on top of us with a great big bed oh it was wonderful.
BW: And the Germans managed to put you up in the sense that they would feed you as well.
PB: Yes. Yes,
BW: Even though they would have probably been rationed at this stage and -
PB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, they couldn’t do enough for us.
BW: And did you get to go back to Muhlberg in the intervening years?
PB: No, because I don’t know where we were. I don’t know where the Russians had moved us to.
BW: Right.
PB: The, the Stalag 4b Association organised trips to Muhlberg later and they became very popular because the Muhlberg people themselves were in the same boat but I never went. In fact they had a trip this year starting off in Berlin and moving down to Muhlberg.
BW: And when you came back to the UK we picked up the story at Cosford and we picked up the extra pay that you’d been awarded.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And you were washed and brushed up. What then happened to you sort of post war from Cosford?
PB: Well I was given three options. I could come out immediately or I could go to oh what’s the Yorkshire town, the spa town?
BW: Harrogate.
PB: Harrogate. On a rehabilitation course and then come out or I could opt to stay in until my normal release date. Well I thought there was still a chance of getting back on flying and getting out east and bombing Japan so I opted to stay in and I got posted to a, to a Mosquito squadron near, near Newcastle and there, there I became in effect the squadron warrant officer. I sat in an office all day doing nothing but we had a very, very good rugby team. Our sports, our sports officer was a first class scrub half and we had a very good rugby team and we won the group cup without any difficulty and we got drawn in for the semi-final of the national cup and we got drawn away against Ringway and we came down to Ringway and we found that although paratroopers are army the people who trained them were airmen and practically every one of them was a rugby league professional. So, we turned out on a rugby pitch at Ringway about six hundred red cap paratroopers lying around the pitch cheering their side on. We were up against these great hulking fellas who were fit like butchers dogs. Oh they murdered us. Absolutely murdered us.
BW: And do you still retain an interest in rugby league despite that? Do you follow -
PB: Not rugby league. I don’t like rugby league but we were, they were playing rugby union but they were rugby league professionals.
BW: Right.
PB: But when we got back, when we got back to Acklington I thought that’s it. There’s nothing, nothing doing for me now so I asked to be released and I was released within days.
BW: And was that in 1945?
PB: That would, no, it would be 1946.
BW: ’46.
PB: Yeah.
BW: From Acklington and from then on what happened in your civilian life?
PB: Well, I couldn’t settle.
BW: Your post war life.
PB: I couldn’t settle. I got I got a job as a clerk with a, with a big chemical manufacturing company and I was in this office with about six other people who were as dull as ditchwater, been there forever and all I was doing was calculating lorry loads [eight car loads used to go there and six car loads to go there?] making up that and oh it was absolutely soul destroying. I stuck it I think for three months and then I thought I can’t, I can’t, I can’t settle to this so I then decided I thought the only way to get some companionship again, get some comradeship again was if I joined the police force so I went to, I went to the police station in Burnley and they said, ‘We’ve no, we’ve no vacancies but we can put you in touch with our central organisation.’ So they did and I was called for interview at Wallasey and got into the Wallasey force with three other people and when we went to the police training school we found that three people on the course were Burnley recruits. Burnley. But this gave me my first insight into the police they were recruiting people but they wouldn’t recruit Burnley people. They wouldn’t have anybody who lived in the town going into the police force. So that was the first lie from the police. I worked hard. I came out top of the class and we got to Wallasey and for the first fortnight I was sent out on patrol with another policeman who’d been on patrol for years and I learned how to, I learned which cafes you could sit in the back rooms of and drink coffee and I learned all sort of tricks that really you shouldn’t be doing and it was a complete and utter waste of time and in a small force like Wallasey the opportunity for promotion were very, very few and far between. You had people who had been pounding the beat for fifteen years. They’d passed their sergeants examinations, they passed their inspectors examinations and they were still pounding the beat and the only way you could get on was to curry favour. Start oozing up to some officers and telling tales. It was the exact opposite of comradeship. Everybody’s telling tales about everybody. I thought I can’t stick this so I resigned from that and I was playing rugby in Burnley then and one of the team was a cotton mill owner and he said, ‘If you ever want a proper job I’ll give you a job in a cotton mill,’ so I went to work in his cotton mill and that was no good. And all the time I’m in touch with my bomb aimer’s father. Had regular correspondence and I said to him, ‘I can’t settle I’m going to go back into the air force.’ And he said, ‘Well don’t do anything for the next fortnight,’ and I received a letter -
[interview transmission interrupted]
BW: Alright, so we’re only, we’re only a couple of minutes from the end and I was just asking Mr Phillip Bates that after the end of the war in conclusion he’d said that he’d had a good war but it had had its moments um that were not entirely enjoyable but that overall he’d enjoyed it, his service in the RAF but I was asking just about the commemorations and the national, now centre, at Lincoln and you mentioned that you’d been down to London for the unveiling of the memorial there.
PB: Yeah.
BW: At Green Park.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And you got to meet Camilla as well did you say?
PB: Yes Camilla and the Prince of Wales. I got to shake both their hands. The Prince of Wales surprised me really. It was probably, it was probably the hottest day of the year and everybody had taken his blazer off and I was wearing my Raf Ex-Pow Association tie and the Prince of Wales came along and immediately recognised my tie which surprised me. And as he shook my hand he said, ‘Where did they keep you?’ I said, ‘Stalag 4b, sir.’ He said, ‘Were you a digger?’ I said, ‘Oh no I wasn’t a digger, sir. No. I left that to other people,’ and he was quite jovial and then of course he moved on and made his way down the line but I was amazed that he recognised my tie instantly.
BW: That’s a very nice point that, you know, he’s identified you by that.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And spoke to you particularly because of it.
PB: And part of the Royal Air Force. I’ve got photographs of it all.
BW: And how about now that there’s a centre for Bomber Command in Lincoln?
PB: Well yes he’s lost his football again. I was due to go there and a friend of mine, Dominic was taking me but when it came to it I wasn’t fit to go. I couldn’t have sat in a car for three hours. I just couldn’t. And then another three hours coming back. And Dominic also had a cold so we were ashamed to admit it and then again it’s Lincoln. It’s Lancasters. Bugger the Lancasters I say.
BW: Well perhaps it didn’t prove as reliable as the Stirling because it didn’t fly. They were trying to get the Lancaster flying for the Friday unveiling but they didn’t and I think it may have flown -
PB: Yeah.
BW: The day after but -
PB: What annoys me they chopped up every Stirling. Now, you think they could, it was the first four engine aircraft we had. You’d think they could have had two or three for museums wouldn’t you?
BW: Ahum.
PB: But no they chopped up the lot and that really does grieve me.
BW: And even now they’ve got a Halifax in Elvington.
PB: Oh I’ve seen that.
BW: Which is nicely renovated and so on.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Doesn’t fly.
PB: And it’s got, it’s got the Stirling’s engines in it as well. It hasn’t got Rolls Royce in it it’s got Hercules. It’s a mark iii. It’s that one. The mark iii.
BW: That’s the picture on the wall yeah. And there is a Halifax that they dug out or pulled out of a Norwegian fjord in 1973.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And that is in the Royal Air Force Museum in London.
PB: Yeah. Well for years we hoped that they’d would find a Stirling somewhere but er somewhere in Holland but they never did.
BW: Ahum ahum.
PB: A great shame because it was a beautiful aeroplane.
BW: Could take, from what you were saying, could take a fair bit of punishment and keep flying.
PB: Yeah it was a lot bigger than a Lancaster of course but it had some disadvantages you see. It couldn’t fly high and it couldn’t carry big bombs. It didn’t have a bomb bay. It had three separate ones which gave immense strength to the fuselage because you had these girders running the full length but you could only get a two thousand pound bomb in it so we mostly carried incendiaries.
BW: So just thinking in brief terms about the structure of a bomber formation in that case because you’d see that the pathfinders were going first to mark the target.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Presumably the Stirlings would then go in with the incendiaries.
PB: No. No, we were our main raid was either five or sometimes six waves.
BW: Right.
PB: And the Stirlings were always in the third wave. We got some protection from the first two waves going out and some protection from the last two waves coming back because we were a bit slower than they were. So we were always in the third wave.
BW: Right.
PB: Except, except Peenemunde. Now, that, that’s a terrible story. The night before Peenemunde we went to, we went to Turin and somewhere our radio packed in and we didn’t get the message telling us that East Anglia was fogged up and we had to land in Kent or Sussex. Wherever we could. We didn’t get that message so we arrived back at Lakenheath and asked for instructions to land and they said. ‘You can’t land here. It’s totally fogbound but if you get over to Oakington you might just get down.’ Well, we got over to Oakington, the other side of Cambridge and we just landed. They closed the, closed the airfield immediately we landed and they debriefed us and fed us and provided us with beds and in the early afternoon we went down to the airfield and the Lancasters of seven group were being bombed up and we knew we were on again that night and we were going on leave the so next day so we weren’t anxious to go bombing that night. Anyway, we’d no choice we started the port outer. Come to the port inner, nothing. The starter motor was dead. The starter motors they had in Oakington would fit a Lancaster, it wouldn’t have fit us so we rang Lakenheath to tell them. Eventually a lorry arrives with some fitters and a new starter motor and we landed at Lakenheath just as the squadron is taxiing out for take-off and we were very, very happy because we were going on leave the next day and then I discover we’d missed bloody Peenemunde and at Peenemunde the Stirlings went in first at five thousand feet in brilliant moonlight and all the fighters were circling in Berlin because Mosquitos were dropping target indicators on Berlin. The Germans got away scot free. Eventually the Germans twigged what was happening and got the fighters over and shoot down forty Lancasters and Halifaxes. Stirlings, scot free.
BW: And because you, they’d have been in the first wave.
PB: Yeah.
BW: They got away with it.
PB: There were three, there were three targets. The first one was at the very southern end was all the housing and the Stirlings destroyed that and then the next waves destroyed the science laboratories and then the assembly works and we missed it and it’s grieved me the rest of my life. I’d have given anything to have been on that raid and we were so happy that we weren’t. Oh, a friend of mine got shot down that night. No. I’d have loved to have been on Peenemunde.
BW: I mean that was, that was announced at fairly short notice. It was, you know sometimes a raid has to be planned quite well in advance.
PB: Yeah.
BW: But this was because of the intelligence about the weapons.
PB: Yeah.
BW: They were developing their short notice.
PB: The crews weren’t told, they were told that they were attacking an experimental place for new radar [and the better job of the radar they’d better defend themselves because they destroy all the latest airborne radar] that was the story that was given to aircrews.
BW: Interesting.
PB: Oh I’d have given anything to have been on that raid. Anything. Five thousand feet, brilliant moonlight and you were the first in.
BW: As you say it’s how fate goes isn’t it?
PB: Yeah.
BW: But -
PB: I’ve just been to the funeral of a friend of mine. George. He trained in Canada as a navigator. As a Mosquito navigator which is a specialised navigation job. He qualifies, he gets his brevvy, he’s ready to join the squadron and the war stops. They never even, he never even saw a Mosquito. Oh what a terrible thing to have happen to you. Terrible.
BW: Gone through all that. Well, I was reading in the prep really that they launched a raid on Peenemunde.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And just looking here at some of this um yeah it says here that 149 squadron took part in the early offensive against Germany.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And took part in the first thousand bomber raids with Stirlings.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Made a significant contribution to the battle of the Ruhr, Battle of Hamburg and the raid against the V weapons experimental station at Peenemunde.
PB: Yeah.
BW: And then between February and July ‘44 and in addition to dropping high explosives on the enemy the squadron helped supply the French maquis with supplies, arms and ammunition by parachute.
PB: Yeah.
BW: Of course that would be after you’d been shot down.
PB: About eight weeks after we were shot down Stirlings were taken off German targets completely. Some of them converted to Lancasters. Those that kept their Stirlings were used to drop supplies in France and to do mine laying and later to tow, to tow gliders but they never went to Germany again. The loss rate was unsustainable. I’d been on raids where we lost one in every five Stirlings. You can’t, you can’t keep that up for very long.
BW: No. No. Not at all. Do you think there was a particular weakness perhaps in the Stirling that the losses were so high or was it just good -
PB: You couldn’t get any altitude.
BW: Just because they were restricted to -
PB: Yeah, yeah.
BW: Low ceiling.
PB: Altitude. I mean, I had friends who flew at twenty two thousand feet. On a good night we would get thirteen. On a poor night we would get eleven. Everything that was thrown up reached the Stirlings and everything that was coming down reached the Stirling as well [laughs].
BW: I think you mentioned at one point a bomb hit your aircraft. A bomb -
PB: Yeah.
BW: Dropped from the aircraft above.
PB: This was the Nuremberg. I think it must have been a thirty pound incendiary because it went straight through. If it had been a four pound I think it would have stayed in the wing and burned. If it had been [eighty] it would have taken the wing off. Left quite a sizable hole.
BW: I would just like to show you this. There’s a photo here of a Stirling crew of 149 squadron based at Lakenheath.
PB: Oh.
BW: And I just wonder whether you might recognise any of the names. It’s only a longshot.
PB: Oh.
BW: But there’s -
PB: As I say we never bothered with other crews really.
BW: No.
PB: Except the ones we trained with at -
BW: But it looks like it’s outside the mess at Lakenheath that picture.
PB: Yeah I don’t recognise the photograph. Crowe, that’s a familiar name, Crowe. Oh he was a POW that’s why I know him. Was he a flight engineer? I knew a Tweedy in prison but he was a soldier. I don’t recognise the faces at all. Don’t know why their wearing uniform instead of battledress but there we are. Battledress were far more comfortable. That’s interesting. 27th of September. Oh well they would have been newcomers on the squadron when we were there. The average life expectancy was only six weeks. I had two friends, both on Halifaxes -
BW: Thank you.
PB: Both shot down on their first trip and my friend who were in training, a flight engineer on 15 squadron did four operations and got shot down twice.
BW: Right. I think that sort of brings us to the end as I say unless there is anything else you want to say.
PB: Well I hope I haven’t bored you.
BW: Not at all sir. No not at all there’s plenty of information. Some really interesting and diverse experiences. It’s been very kind of you to share those with me.
PB: It’s a pleasure.
BW: So thank you very much -
PB: A pleasure.
BW: For your time um what I’ll do is I’ll come to the signing of the release form now and a couple of photos so I’ll end the recording there and we’ll sort out the paperwork.



Brian Wright, “Interview with Philip Bates,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 22, 2019,

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