Interview with John Battison


Interview with John Battison


John Battison was a teenager in Skegness during the war and remembers the town being used to train Royal Air Force personnel. He describes hundreds of bombers gathering overhead before setting off on an operation. After the war he joined the Royal Air Force.








00:27:00 audio recording

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RP: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Rod Pickles. The interviewee is John Battison. The interview is taking place at Mr Battison’s home in Torquay, Devon on the 16th of January 2017. Also present in the room is John’s wife, Pearl. Good morning John and thank you for allowing me into your home to conduct this interview. Can we start by you telling me when and where and when you were born and a little bit about your early life, please?
JB: Yes. Good morning, Rod. I was born in Nottingham and moved from there at about the age of seven to Skegness which was a holiday resort on the east coast commonly called Nottingham by the Sea because so many people went there for their holidays from Nottingham and my father and mother were in the hotel business which is one reason why we moved there. I was nine when war broke out and so most of my teenage years were spent during the war itself and probably my first memories of that period were that the town was taken over as a training base for the Royal Air Force. All the hotels were taken over to use as billets for the airmen to live in and it was a basic training where they did their square bashing. Learning to march, fire rifles and all the rest of it using the main streets and the promenade as their square, the square for their square bashing.
RP: Yes. So was your hotel used as a - ?
JB: Yes.
RP: Oh right.
JB: Yes. It was taken over as were, I think all of the hotels were. Practically all of them anyway. So that was my first, sort of, inkling of the war was when all these airmen were in the town. And as it happens there was a Butlin’s holiday camp two or three miles north of the town, on the coast which was taken over by the navy for much the same sort of purpose and because of the concentration, I think, of the air force and the navy there were of course lots of soldiers all around so to defend the place in the unlikely event of an attack or an invasion I guess. The beaches of course were all barbed wired off with tank, anti-tank devices set up on the beach and so on. So the whole thing was a bit of a barracks in my early teenage years which as a youngster was great because there were interesting things to look at, plenty of things to see, things to climb on, hide behind and all the rest of it and of course we got chatting to and friendly with some of the soldiers. A friend of mine lived in a house whose garden went down to the beach, to the sand hills and there was in fact a sort of dugout built on the sand hills at the bottom of the garden which was manned with guns and so on, again in the case, in the event of invasion and this was a good playground as far as we were concerned and we got friendly with the soldiers. Learned quite a few new words which we shouldn’t have learned probably and had lots of fun generally speaking.
RP: But you were still going to school, of course, during this time.
JB: Oh yes. Yes. I was nine, ten, eleven years old then.
RP: Was Skegness ever attacked at all?
JB: Very, not really, there were two or three bombing raids but no, not to any extent and in fact one of the events on this soldier’s encampment, little camp, dugout thing, we were playing one day and we heard a couple of crunches and saw smoke a mile up the coast where some bombs had been dropped and very exciting because the German plane was flying along the coast towards us. This was great until we saw that he was shooting tracer bullets -
RP: Yes.
JB: Along. He was raking the sand hills as he was coming along so we dived in to the trench out of site and passed over so that was big excitement that was.
RP: And could you remember what the aeroplane was? Were you very good at recognition?
JB: It was a Dornier but what mark, which particular number I don’t know.
RP: Dornier is good. Dornier is good.
JB: And so this was my sort of introduction to the war but, and of course Lincolnshire, being flat, was used very much for the Bomber Command. You know, Lincolnshire being flat of course was used for many bomber bases and one was built I guess three, four miles away from Skegness called Firsby and the only thing that Firsby was famous for was a railway junction. There were no houses or anything there or anything it was just a railway junction. That was its name so this station was called Firsby and when it was built it was the introduction of things we’d never heard of before called bulldozers and as all schools one of the rumours floated around saying these bulldozers were reputed to be massive machines which scraped the earth and arms came out and you pulled trees out of the ground and knocked out buildings and so on, you know. They were fabulous creatures these bulldozers in people’s imagination but like everything else there was an essence of truth in it and another thing I think on that same theme - on a hilltop a few miles inland from Skegness a large tower was built which was a radar tower and again rumours were abounding on what it did and what it couldn’t do and what it could do and again the essence of it again was truth because it could hear planes coming in from Germany when they were miles and miles away but it was also said that they could listen to our conversations if they wanted to on the beach, you know. If there was two of us talking together they could listen to us if they wanted to. So again wildly exaggerated but in essence there was a basis of truth there.
RP: So how long did it take for Firsby to be built then? Were you, did you see it –
JB: Oh yes.
RP: Come into operation?
JB: No I didn’t actually see it because it was you know a couple of miles away but I guess a couple of years. Something like that.
RP: What, do you know what flew out of Firsby? What aircraft?
JB: No.
RP: No.
JB: No. It was just, it was Bomber Command but we weren’t, we weren’t allowed on the base obviously because it was an air force base which you just, you couldn’t go on to but like all Bomber Command I’d guess there were Lancasters, Stirlings, Wellingtons and -
RP: Yeah.
JB: All the rest of it.
RP: Did you see many of these flying over? Was Skegness a sighting point as they left?
JB: Yes. Well we saw quite a lot obviously with the, with A) with that one being so close but many of the Bomber Command flights flew over Skegness because it was more or less on the direct line east towards Germany from quite a few bases and that really is the basis of my main memory let’s say towards the, I guess it was ’43, ‘44 sort of period.
RP: Ok.
JB: Bomber Harris had decided on these what they called thousand bomber raids. I suspect that in reality very few of them were a thousand aircraft but there were certainly many hundreds of aircraft in these and quite a few of them used Skegness as a rendezvous point. I don’t know if it was because of the shape but Skegness is on a bit of a headland sticking out into the sea so it’s easily recognised from above and that may have been the reason. I don’t know. But the first time it happened was sort of something beyond belief. A four engine bomber came over. A four engine bomber came over the town which was not at all unusual but it started to circle which was a bit unusual. And then another one joined it, and another one and another one and very quickly there were four or five or six of them circling around the town which was as I say a bit unusual so people started coming out of their houses and looking up and saying, you know, ‘What’s happening up there?’ But more and more arrived and more and more and they were circling around in a sort of huge wheel at which Skegness was the centre and this wheel of aircraft was gradually getting larger and larger and quite unbelievable the noise because you know one or two four engine aircraft make quite a bit of noise but three or four four engine bombers make quite a bit of noise. Who knows? Stop it.
RP: Ok.
JB: Gradually more and more of these bombers arrived and this wheel just got larger and larger until there were literally many hundreds of planes.
RP: Gosh.
JB: Flying over and all just circling and circling. They were going on for perhaps fifteen, twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour. I can’t just remember as they built up because it took quite a while obviously to arrive but the noise was absolutely incredible.
RP: It must have rattled.
JB: If you can, if you can imagine.
RP: Yeah.
JB: A beehive.
RP: Yeah.
JB: Full of angry bees and then think of being in the middle of a hundred of these such hives that was some idea of what the noise was.
RP: Right.
JB: Quiet beyond belief.
RP: It must have rattled a few widows then?
JB: It certainly did. By this time of course nearly everybody in the town was out looking up and saying, ‘What’s all this?’ ‘Cause we hadn’t heard anything about thousand bomber raids at that stage.
RP: No.
JB: We didn’t know anything about them. And after a while, I guess say twenty minutes, half an hour the guy who was presumably the leader peeled off and started flying eastwards and then the rest followed him and the wheel got smaller and smaller and smaller until they all disappeared over the horizon and all was quiet again but that was really quite, you know, an amazing experience and that happened, I can’t remember, maybe three, four, five, six times altogether when Skegness was used as the rallying point for these huge raids.
RP: Did you ever read about the raids in the newspapers?
JB: Oh yes.
RP: You got feedback on it.
JB: Yes. I think probably after the first one and of course there was a big announcement in the papers and on the radio and so on. You know, “Britain has carried out a thousand bomber raid”, on, I don’t know whether it was Cologne or Dusseldorf or wherever but then a big hoo-ha was made over this big raid business and as I said earlier on I understand that it was rarely a thousand bombers but it was certainly many hundreds of bombers and, you know it doesn’t take many hundreds to make -
RP: No. No.
JB: To make a hell of a noise.
RP: I mean it’s a good publicity idea to call it a thousand bomber raid isn’t it? It sounds you know, a thousand bomber raid, it could be eight hundred and seventy two but a thousand bombers is obviously a good, a good guise.
JB: The thing that occurred to me now that didn’t occur to me as a twelve or thirteen year old boy is that they were all carrying loads of deadly bombs and if something had gone wrong it could have been -
RP: Were there ever any crashes near Skegness that you witnessed? Anything you –
JB: No. Never, never remember anything crashing. I mean one read of, and heard of planes that came back flying on a wing and a prayer. That they’d crashed or crash landed or whatever but nothing in the town itself.
RP: And the only German aircraft you ever saw was the Dornier, yeah?
JB: Well, I think two or three altogether and bombs were dropped. I guess the Germans discovered that it was a military town in effect and I think there were two, maybe three bombing raids on the town which destroyed the odd hotel or something like that. Another interesting little bit is that as I said Butlin’s camp was a naval base called HMS Royal Arthur and there was a gentleman called Lord Haw-haw who was an Englishman that used to broadcast for the Germans and we were amused one day to hear him say that the German navy had sunk HMS Royal Arthur which of course was a holiday camp not a ship.
RP: A land, a land based -
JB: So –
RP: Naval station Yeah.
JB: That was a little bit of amusement. And –
RP: But so with all these people around and obviously the hotels were – in terms of daily life in Skegness was there any sort of impact on that? Did people just go about their business?
JB: They went about their business in the ordinary way. In some ways it was disrupted. Another thing which did happen that affected us quite a lot was, as well as the hotels, ordinary small houses were persuaded let’s say to take in airmen as residents and we lived in a three bedroom house and we had four airmen billeted on us for several years. They were there for their square bashing which was probably six or eight weeks or something like that and then they’d move out and somebody else would move in. We had a corporal with us who was permanent staff on the base and so he was with us for two or three years. Oh and another thing. There was a famous BBC broadcaster, newsreader called Alvar Lidell who came. He joined the air force, came to Skegness and our corporal used his influence to bring him to tea one day so we had Alvar Lidell to tea.
RP: Oh right.
JB: Which was a bit of -
RP: Well I’ve heard of him because he’s a famous voice from wartime isn’t he?
JB: Yeah.
RP: Yeah.
JB: And so -
RP: And so were they paying you any sort of subsistence were they?
JB: Oh yeah. Yes.
RP: For this that you -
JB: My mother, my mother got, I don’t know what she got but so much a week to feed -
RP: Obviously she provided food for them.
JB: To feed these guys. Yeah.
RP: So once the war was over and the family looked back was it seen as a difficult time, a happy time? How did you view it? Looking back.
JB: Well -
RP: Or even looking back now.
JB: Yeah. I guess a happy time on the whole because there was lots of interest. I’m sure my mother would have viewed it differently because father was away in the forces but I think on the whole -
RP: And what was your father serving -
JB: My father was in the air force also.
RP: Right.
JB: And he was a cook.
RP: Oh right.
JB: And I remember him often saying, ‘I shall be the last one to go hungry.’
JB: Well, yes we’d hope so wouldn’t you? He’d certainly, he’d certainly be kept very busy.
JB: Yeah.
RP: So if I could just take you back to when you said, the beginning of the war. I think you said you were nine years old. Can you actually remember the day war was declared?
JB: I can. I was at a friend’s house. It was a Sunday morning. I think it was 11 o’clock but I was at a friend’s house playing in the yard or whatever and his mother came out and said, ‘War had just been declared.’ And, you know it meant nothing to a nine year old really and didn’t cause any particular anxiety nor any particular excitement. It was just something that was happening.
RP: Another day. So, if we, if we advance to VE day that must be a bigger memory I would think. When the –
JB: Strangely it’s not.
RP: It’s not.
JB: I mean I can remember I think we were at school. I think that was announced in the afternoon. I’m not a hundred percent sure on that but I was at school then because by then I was fifteen and getting on with my schooling.
RP: So how long did it take for Skegness to return to normal after May 1945 then?
JB: Many years I guess and it was a very gradual process. Inevitably the reclaiming of the hotels or people buying the hotels and starting up their businesses again. People being able to afford holidays again. You know, it all takes time and of course food rationing was another big problem for hoteliers. I remember just after the war my father, as I said, was in the hotel business. We went on holiday. I guess I was sixteen, seventeen at the time and we went to Bournemouth and my father took some eggs and bacon with him and when we arrived at the hotel he got hold of the head waiter and gave him the eggs and the bacon and a five pound note and said, ‘I will tell you when I want eggs and bacon in the morning.’
RP: That’s the way to do it. So how long, how long before your dad came back from the war as it were? Was he -
JB: Oh soon after. ’46, something like that.
RP: Was his war in England then? Was he -
JB: He was in North Africa.
RP: Right.
JB: Mainly he was in a department, I don’t know what they call them nowadays but it was an airfield maintenance unit.
RP: Right.
JB: That he was on and he spent much of his time in the Hebrides and other places north.
RP: Gosh.
JB: In the north.
RP: Yeah.
JB: Cooking for the guys that were repairing runways and building runways and what have you.
RP: Yeah. So having done all that experience was that what persuaded you to join the RAF then, do you think? ‘Cause you had a choice.
JB: It seemed the easiest of the options and looking at the options the army, the navy and the air force I didn’t want to be a foot soldier. I didn’t particularly want to go to sea so the air force seemed the best option. And as I say when I joined I had visions of being a photographer and went through all the training. Typical of the forces generally, I guess, at the end of the square bashing they gave us aptitude tests. There were about four or five tests. One was on writing, one was on maths, one was on aptitude for fitting patterns together and so on and I don’t want to sound boastful but I got ninety eight percent. One question I got wrong. So I thought oh that’s good and so I thought I can be any trade I like now. I want to be a photographer. ‘Sorry mate, we’re not taking photographers on national service.’ And as I said earlier I wanted, they decided I was going to be a clerk, general duties. I didn’t fancy being a pen pusher for two years so I signed on for five years which gave me the option to choose the trade I wanted. So I was then posted down to Cardington which was the reception camp for regulars where I went through the same tests again and of course I knew which question I’d got wrong the previous time so I got a hundred percent this time and and the careers guy was talking to me, ‘You can be any trade you want.’ So I said, ‘I want to be a photographer.’ ‘Oh no. No, no he said, ‘That’s a grade two trade. You can be a grade one trade and earn a bit more money.’ An extra two shilling a week or something like that. So, I said, ‘No. I want to be a photographer.’ And he could not understand that this is what I signed on to be. A photographer in the air force which I duly was you know because I could please myself. Went to the photography training school and after that I never handled an ordinary camera for the rest of the five years.
RP: Good grief.
JB: Never once did I take a photograph of that sort. I was stationed at a, first of all at Benson which was RAF Central Photographic Unit where I was printing aerial photographs for days on end. Then I went to the Far East when I was put on to a photographic reconnaissance squadron.
RP: Where was that?
JB: Singapore. And my job there was to fit aerial cameras into the aircraft, load the film, put it in, hand it over, check it, check the [?]. Ok off you go and the pilot would operate the cameras. They were sort of semi-automatic and we had Spitfires and Mosquitos and they went off and did their aerial photography, came back. It was my job then to take the cameras out of the aircraft, take the film out, send it across to the dark rooms for developing, clean the camera, get it ready for the next flight and so on and so I spent the rest of my five years handling that sort of camera.
RP: So you’ve had experience of viewing the RAF and joining the RAF. If I could take you back to 1943 the one big raid out of Lincolnshire that year of course was the Dambusters raid. Was there much news of that in Skegness coming when it -
JB: I don’t recall it.
RP: It’s not what -
JB: No. I don’t remember it as such. I’m sure.
RP: There was no -
JB: It would have been on the newspapers but there was no particular connection with Skegness as far as I know. That was, was that Scampton?
RP: Scampton. They flew out of Scampton, yeah.
JB: Yeah. So I mean it wasn’t far away.
RP: It obviously didn’t -
JB: Forty miles away.
RP: Sort of spread across Lincolnshire.
JB: No.
RP: It was nothing of -
JB: Nothing that I remember at all.
RP: At all.
JB: Other than the obvious publicity afterwards.
RP: Yes.
JB: And of course when they made the film the, one of the shots where they were testing the bomb was shot near Skegness and Richard Todd I think was –
RP: Yes.
JB: The film star. Of course the most excitement among the ladies of the town because he was around the town for a few days.
RP: Cause there’s a bombing range near, near Skegness isn’t there? Is it Wainfleet? Is it?
JB: Yes.
RP: Yes.
JB: Yes. That’s Wainfleet, yes.
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
JB: That’s near there.
RP: Yeah.
JB: And it was mud flats which was where they did the shooting and that caused a bit of excitement in the town at the time but that was the only connection that I know of Skegness and the Dambusters.
RP: Right. So the other question for you. You mentioned that obviously the navy, the RAF and soldiers. Did you ever pick up any memorabilia from them? Anything you saved from the war. Any, any pieces of equipment that you have. Have you gathered anything? Kept as a memento.
JB: Yeah. No.
RP: You were an honest young man were you?
JB: [laughs] I wouldn’t say I was honest but five years undetected crime in those days.
RP: Absolutely. Yeah. Yes.
JB: And, no, no it didn’t, certainly nothing I’ve got now. I don’t remember keeping. I guess we had odd things. Bullet cases and that sort of thing one would pick up perhaps but there’s nothing particular that I remember.
RP: You mentioned the Dornier coming over and the only sort of and a couple of other bombing raids but was there any feeling in the town that, like you said go east and there you were in occupied Europe. There was never any sort of fear of invasion at all. Were you ever worried about that?
JB: No, I don’t think so.
RP: It was never an issue.
JB: As a teenager one didn’t worry about that sort of thing. That was for the old ones to worry about.
RP: Yeah. So what would you say looking back then is your main memory looking back from that? Was it the thousand bomber raids do you think?
JB: That’s certainly the most memorable event of the war without a doubt and I guess that and the airmen filling the town were the two main memories I have of the time.
RP: Given all that military presence was there ever much trouble in the town then? Did you ever -
JB: I don’t remember it.
RP: You don’t, it was never -
JB: No. I don’t remember it.
RP: There was no policemen knocking on your door to have a word with your guests.
JB: No.
RP: No. Nothing like that.
JB: I’m sure there were a few occasions happened which I didn’t hear about but -
RP: Of course you’d -
JB: It wasn’t a big thing.
RP: You’d be far too young to be partaking I guess. Were you?
JB: Oh yes.
RP: Ok. So, anything else you’d like to to give us from Skegness, John before I -
JB: I can’t think of anything else.
RP: Oh well it’s, ok, John, we’re nearly at the end is there one amusing anecdote you can give us from your time during the war in Skegness that you sort of remember with a smile?
JB: Yes, I think so. Not really amusing but a friend of mine, same age as me, in the same class at school as me who was learning to play the piano and to me he seemed to be pretty good and he had a grand piano. Unfortunately their house, the house where he lived was damaged by a bomb that fell near and so they had to evacuate the house and live elsewhere and he still went back occasionally to practice on his piano and I’d go with him and listen to him playing and it was quite spooky to sit there in this house which was partly damaged, everything covered in plaster dust. Bits of plaster all over the place including on top of his grand piano and he would sit there playing away and the piece that he frequently played which always struck me as being quite wonderful was “The Rustle of Spring” and so whenever I hear that piece of music now I think back to an empty house full of plaster and him playing on the piano and just out of interest I learned quite recently that in fact he turned out to be a good pianist because I tried to contact him. I looked for him on good old Google and found him and got in touch with him and learned that he had been a professional pianist all his life so he did in fact turn out to be a good pianist. He played accompanying many famous people and since getting in touch with him I’ve both seen him and contacted him, letter and phone two or three times so that, that has sort of brought full circle my memories -
RP: That’s lovely.
JB: Of the war period.
RP: I mean that would make a really evocative photograph wouldn’t it? A wonderful grand piano in a damaged house. Do we know what happened to the piano?
JB: No.
RP: It would have been lovely, yes I went back and moved it out but thank you for that John. That’s lovely. And thank you for allowing me into your home today for this interview. It’s been lovely listening to your memories of your time in Lincolnshire. Thank you very much.
JB: A pleasure.



Rod Pickles, “Interview with John Battison,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 16, 2024,

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