Interview with Kenneth Walter Prowse Symonds


Interview with Kenneth Walter Prowse Symonds


Ken Symonds was in the Air Training Corps when the unit was visited by a flight engineer. This meeting further inspired him, along with his cousin to join the RAF in a ground trade with the expectation of moving on to become a flight engineer. Ken’s cousin Ron Barnicoat was a year ahead of him in training. They met one final time before Ron went home on leave. Shortly after re-joining his squadron Ron was killed. Ken and his crew took part in Operation Exodus to repatriate prisoners of war.




Temporal Coverage





00:44:54 Audio Recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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ASymondsKWP210817, PSymondsKWP2103


RP: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. The interviewer is Rod Pickles. The interviewee is Ken Symonds. Also present is a friend of Mr Symond’s, Deborah Follett. The interview is taking place on the 17th of August 2021 at Mr Symond’s home near Dorchester in Dorset. Good afternoon, Mr Symonds. May I call you Ken?
KS: Indeed yes.
RP: I think we’d probably like to start the way we usually start these if you could tell us a bit about where you were born and your childhood.
KS: I was, I was born in Weymouth in 1924. My father in fact was a tent maker working for a firm called [Marsham Wright] and in those days of course most of the sewing was done by hand not by a big machine. We moved. I was born in my aunt’s house in Weymouth but after a short while we moved into our own house and the family my mother, father and myself into a house at Kitchener Road which is in a large council estate in Weymouth and we stayed. I had a daughter, no, I beg your pardon I had a sister born there. Her name was Betty and I insisted upon calling her Betty. I was four years old and I put my foot down and made sure she was called Betty. But unfortunately, when I was about, oh about nine years old my, my mother died. I assume it was TB. She died in the Isolation Hospital and unfortunately my father was out of work at the time and so we were a bit distressed for money at that time and of course we were talking about 1938 area. There was a Depression on anyway. So, life was a bit grim and at holiday time I was usually sent away to stay with an aunt and I stayed with an aunt who lived at Wareham for quite a few holidays and delightful for me of course. I didn’t have the, I didn’t know anything about all the responsibilities my dad had in trying to maintain a house for us. Eventually, he, he married again. I think possibly his reason was to have someone to care for me while he was out. Not necessarily working but looking for work because we were still on the, in a Depression and my father married again. Then of course around 1939 we had the outbreak of war when everything changed then. I was then working. Apprentice painter and decorator. Not that I necessarily wanted to be a painter and decorator but somebody, but I started work in order to add a few shillings to the family, the family budget. And anyway, when the war came obviously things started to change and we had to take on other jobs like fire watching and that sort of stuff. But one thing I did do was to join the Air Training Corps because I knew that eventually if I reached the age of eighteen and the war was still on I was going to be conscripted into one of the Services and so the one that I really chose was the Royal Air Force. And, and I did and I stayed in the Royal Air Force. I was made a corporal in fact.
RP: In the ATC?
KS: Pardon?
RP: That’s in the Air Training Corps.
KS: In the Air Training Corps. Yes. I was made a corporal. I had a, a book was given me as a prize a while ago and it was aero engines and I’ve given that away recently and I gave it to Debbie’s father because he’s an engineer and he was interested in these aircraft engines of 1939. And eventually it came to I was eighteen and I volunteered for the Royal Air Force as I wanted to be a flight engineer. Well, I was at air training, the Air Training Corps. One day a sergeant turned up and he was wearing a flying badge with the letters FE in the, in the badge itself which of course was later changed to just the letter E and that was it. That convinced me I wanted to be a flight engineer. But you couldn’t join direct entry from Civvy Street to be trained as a flight engineer. You had to be a ground tradesman.
RP: Oh right. Ok.
KS: So, I had, so my opinion was, what I decided to do, not only myself but my cousin Ron Barnicoat, he was in the Air Training Corps with me. We both decided that when we reached the age of eighteen we were going to volunteer for the Royal Air Force, be trained as a flight mechanic and then having been trained as a flight mechanic then apply to become flight engineers. And we both decided to do this and my cousin, Ron Barnicoat who was about a year older than me he went off a year before me. As soon as he was eighteen he went off and he started that process of being trained as a flight mechanic and then converting to a, to a flight engineer and I did the same. When I was eighteen I went off.
RP: So where did you enrol for the RAF then?
KS: Sorry?
RP: Where did you sign on to the RAF?
KS: I went to, first of all I went to Penarth in South Wales where I was issued with all my kit and that sort of thing and a load of jabs stuck in my arm. Then I went to Weston Super Mare where I did all the foot slogging and drill. That sort of stuff. So, all the signature and that must have been by that time. And then I had then to wait for my flight mechanics course and I was waiting for my flight mechanics course by being stationed at 16 Maintenance Unit at St Athan.
RP: St Athan. Yeah.
KS: Yeah. I [pause] I was just an odd job chap there waiting for the course as a flight mechanic and I used to act as armed guard on lorries that were delivering ammunition and guns, that sort of thing from the Maintenance Unit. But eventually I got sent up to Blackpool for one of the School of Technical Training. I’m not sure. I think it might have been possibly Number 2 School of Technical Training at Squire’s Gate. We were living at [pause] in the boarding houses at South Shore and I started my flight mechanics course but unfortunately I developed Cellulitis in the right ankle and I got put in the hospital. So, my course stopped and when I was released from hospital about four weeks later of course I had to re-start again. Meantime, my cousin Ron he was still carrying on with the plan we had made. He had done his flight mechanics course and then he’d been put on a fitter’s course so I never quite caught up with him. And anyway, I eventually finished my training as a flight mechanic and immediately volunteered for aircrew duties as a flight engineer because I now had a ground trade. But I was sent to a maintenance unit, I think it was in Sealand near Chester to wait for my course as a flight engineer to start. And eventually it came along and I got posted to St Athan’s and at long last I caught up with my cousin, Ron Barnicoat. He was, he had done the same as me but as I say he was about a year ahead of me and I met him on the day he received his flying badge and three stripes and we had a few beers in the NAAFI and the next morning he went off home on leave. Probably seven days leave to Weymouth, his family in Weymouth and I never saw him again because he went and joined a squadron, a Canadian squadron flying Halifaxes and eventually he was shot down over Hamburg and he still was just listed as missing. No known, no known grave.
RP: This was one of his first sorties, yeah?
KS: I don’t know.
RP: Right.
KS: I don’t know how many sorties he’s done. He’d done. He joined this, all I know is that he joined this Canadian squadron which was [pause] what was it? I’m not sure. Was it 2 Group? 2 Group I think they were. Can you remember Debbie? We did look it up, didn’t we?
DF: Yeah. We looked up —
RP: But he was, he was shot down. So obviously you heard about this, how long after he’d gone away then?
KS: Yeah. He went, he left me at St Athan’s.
RP: Yeah.
KS: To go down to, to [pause] on leave to Weymouth.
RP: Right.
KS: But I never saw him again. I don’t know how many ops and I can’t remember how long it was that he was flying before he got, before he got shot down.
RP: Yeah. I’ve got 29th of July ’44 he was, he died.
KS: 29th of July.
RP: 425 Squadron.
KS: Yeah.
RP: He’s on the Runnymede. Yeah. Yeah. It’s —
KS: Yeah.
RP: That’s where they put them. Yeah. Ok.
KS: But I never knew —
RP: But obviously you were on your course and you were heading to be the flight engineer then.
KS: That’s it. Yes. And I carried on with the course because I didn’t know about him being shot down. Well, I’d finished the course.
RP: Yeah.
KS: And in fact, I was trained to go on Stirlings and Stirlings at that time of course had been removed from the main Bomber Command.
RP: Yes.
KS: And so I was sent, having qualified as a flight engineer and got my flying badge I was sent to, I think it was Wratting Common which was a sort of training unit for, for Stirlings and then there I joined a crew for the first time and four of the crew were Australians. They were Tommy Hawkins, Abernethy, Ron Arnold, [Cabbie] Cable. Those were the four Australians. And we had two gunners. The mid-upper gunner, he was a Geordie and I can’t for the life of me think of his name. And then there was Taf Reakes. He was the rear gunner. And we crewed up and started our training flying the Stirling and eventually we got posted to North Africa because the Stirling was kitted out as supply dropping.
RP: Yes.
KS: And target towing. That sort of thing.
RP: Yeah.
KS: It had a big hole in the floor, you know for the parachutists to jump out of that sort of thing and we got sent out to, to North Africa and we went via Rabat. Rabat Salé. Directed there and then across to I think the name of the airfield was Blida.
RP: Yeah. In Algeria. Yeah.
KS: In Algeria. Yes. Near, just outside of Algiers.
RP: Yeah.
KS: And we were there but by the time we got there the requirement for supply dropping in the south of France was no longer needed because the French, the Free French, the American Army and the Maquis had taken over the south so they were no longer needed. And so the Stirlings were, were sort of almost, well the squadron was disbanded. I’m not sure of the number of the squadron. It was a number like 624 or something like that.
RP: Yeah.
KS: A large name. So, our crew, we were kept together and just moved about wondering, wondering what was going to happen to us. And eventually we finished up at a squadron in southern Italy at Brindisi, 148 Squadron. And they were supplying people like Tito up in in Yugoslavia.
RP: Oh yes.
KS: And they were using Halifaxes and but of course, the Stirlings that we had had been modified for North, North Africa work. Low level. They had no oxygen system and they had great big oil coolers to keep the engines cool and [pause] but couldn’t be expected to fly over the mountains to supply Tito so we were decided we weren’t needed there at 148 Squadron and we were sent home to, home to Great Britain with a Stirling thinking it was going to be modified up with oxygen and that sort of thing. But we landed. I’m not sure whether it was, it might have been St Mawgan. You had a problem with the, the big oil coolers. They used to get a thing called coring. Flying in the cold weather. The centre of the, the centre of the oil cooler would freeze.
RP: Oh God.
KS: And the core would build up, build up, build up.
RP: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
KS: And the only way you could clear it was to belt your engines. Well, of course if you belted your engines you were using up fuel.
RP: Yeah.
KS: That you needed to get to your destination. So, it was a bit of a problem and I think we, we didn’t land in an emergency but the pilot decided we had gone far enough and we landed. I’m not sure whether it was in Cornwall or South Wales, it will probably be in my logbook and we were sent home on leave. Or I was sent home on leave. The Australians went to see their relatives in in Great Britain assuming that we were going to go back and have this Stirling modified and then go back to the Middle East again. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, we got sent to the Lanc Finishing School at Syerston and converted on to Lancasters. And we converted on to the Lancasters and then we got posted to Fulbeck where we did four bombing raids over Germany. And then we were sent on leave and at that time there was a Nuffield Scheme going and aircrew got extra warrants for going on leave. They also got extra ration cards for going on leave. All paid for by Lord Nuffield, I think. It was a long time ago. I can’t remember it. Anyway, I I went on my leave and I returned from leave. As I say we’d done four bombing operations and I went back to Fulbeck to find that in my absence 49 Squadron had been moved to Syerston. So, I went and moved over to Syerston and it came to then the time of the year was ready for the last bombing raid of the war which was Berchtesgaden. And we went on the bombing raid to Berchtesgaden and we completed our bombing run and we got hit on number, number four engine I think it was and so we had to feather the prop. We came back on three and we were the last ones. The last crew of 49 Squadron to land because we came back with three engines and before I’d got to the crew bus the engine fitter had run after me with a piece of flak that had hit the engine. He said it cut straight through an oil pipe.
RP: Oh right.
KS: And the piece of flak was about as big as your thumb.
RP: Yeah. That’s all it needs, I guess.
KS: And I had it in this house.
RP: Oh right.
KS: And we’ve searched everywhere. We can’t find it anywhere.
RP: You haven’t got a fire to put it on. No.
KS: We, you have to remember we were flooded out of the house.
RP: Yes. Yeah.
KS: And it could well have got swept away.
RP: It could be floating down someday.
KS: It’s only, you know a bit.
RP: Yeah. Just need a small piece.
KS: About as big as your thumb.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Anyway —
RP: Well, at least, at least you got back. That’s the main thing.
KS: Oh, we got back. Yes. And we, we landed back at Syerston and, and I think in my logbook we did a training, a training exercise. Fighter affiliation. That sort of thing. And then, then it came to May the 2nd when we all jumped in our aeroplanes and flew to Brussels to bring back our prisoners of war.
RP: That was, that was a nice flight then.
KS: Yeah.
RP: Bringing back all the —
KS: Yes.
RP: It must have been a bit of a sight, I suppose.
KS: It was. It was a bit of a strange do really because we’d switched off our engines at Brussels and of course there were no ground crew there to assist us at all. Just to tell us where to park and we loaded up the, loaded up the Lancaster with our ex-prisoners of war and we were going to get a bit of a problem restarting our engines so I was told to go out and prime them because in a Lancaster you could. In the undercarriage bay there was a priming button.
RP: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
KS: And I was told to get out and do it but the aircraft was full of prisoners of war. But behind me, standing behind me was, I can remember standing because the flight engineer didn’t have anywhere to sit. He stood by the side of the pilot.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Anyway, standing beside me was a regimental sergeant major and he said, ‘Make yourself stiff, lad.’ So, I did and they passed me over hand over hand down through the fuselage and I went up into the undercarriage bay and primed the engines. Then hand over hand back, back to my place and we started the engines and brought them back to, brought the ex-prisoners of war back home. Yeah.
RP: Pity you haven’t got a photograph of that.
KS: It was wonderful and it’s a grand story to tell too.
RP: It is.
KS: Perfectly true.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Whether it was necessary for me to do it. You didn’t want, you see I think the pilot was getting a bit concerned because we had no external trolley acc. No external electrical supply for, for running your starter motors.
RP: That’s right.
KS: You had to do it entirely upon your aircraft batteries and if your, if the engine is on fire and your batteries were flat you were done.
RP: Yeah.
KS: You had to sit there and wait for some poor chap to go all the way from England with some batteries for you. So, I think as a special precaution I was told to go and prime the engines.
RP: Yeah. Make sure they go.
KS: Yeah.
RP: And they obviously fired up then.
KS: Yes.
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
KS: And they all worked well and of course it’s a grand story to tell.
RP: Yeah.
KS: And it’s perfectly true.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Yeah. Anyway, we, we, we came back. That was on the 2nd of May and of course by the 8th of May peace was declared and we carried on then. After that we carried on supposedly training to go out to the Far East with the Lancasters. The Australians, and I was, four of the crew were the Australians they were almost told immediately you know return home. And I think they did. Most of them. Certainly, I remember seeing the pilot afterwards because he was engaged to marry one of our WAAFs and [pause] What was her name? I can’t think of her name now. Anyway, she lived at Lincoln and, and Tommy our pilot he stayed with her parents for a little while. But I think the, the problem arose because the Australians went back home to Australia to continue the Far Eastern war which then suddenly came to an end with the atom bomb. And then there was an awful lot of servicemen in Australia who were no longer required and there were an awful lot of people looking for work and I think the case finished up with Tommy just you know, he was looking for work rather than having a young bride coming out from England. Well, they hadn’t got married and so they didn’t get married. Dot Everitt. That was her name. Yeah. But I never met her after that but Tommy Hawkins turned up and when he was telling me the story that’s how it happened. Fearing that he was no longer employable when he got back home. He, he tried to join the RAF but he couldn’t afford the fare to get here.
RP: Oh right.
KS: So, it was a bit tight. Me. I got in to 49 Squadron. I stayed with them for a while and then I got posted up to the Empire Air Navigation School at Shawbury near Shrewsbury still flying Lancasters, and they were improving the training of navigators, that sort of thing. And while I was up there my wife, Flora and I decided to get married. And the week before we were due to get married which was October the 21st, Trafalgar Day there was no flying on the week before and somebody said, ‘Let’s go and have a game of basketball.’ So, we went down to the gym for a game of basketball and I finished up laying on the floor with a broken cheek bone.
RP: Oh no.
KS: So that was the week. They whipped me off into hospital and all I could say was, ‘I’m getting married next week.’ [laughs] Anyway, I was eventually whipped all the way across the country to the RAF hospital at Halton and they fixed up my broken cheekbone and I finished up with a big black eye and five stitches in the side of my head where they’d put the —
RP: Right.
KS: Whatever they needed to click my cheekbone back into place.
RP: That, that was a violent game of basketball wasn’t it?
KS: Eh?
RP: That was a violent game of basketball.
KS: Printed on my cheek [laughs] then somebody used a little rubber stamp saying, stamp saying, “Do not press here.” And I was sent home on leave to get married like that. I had a uniform. Someone had thrown a uniform in the back of the ambulance but there was no wallet so I had no money and worst of all of course I had no wedding ring. I’d bought one. Anyway, I got home. I didn’t have, and they let me in to hospital on the Thursday at Halton and I had to get to Weymouth to get married and I went. I got to Weymouth to get married. I’m greeted by Flora came out to greet me to see this great black eye and she also informed me that the doctors had just been to the house and her mother had three days to live.
RP: Oh no.
KS: This is absolutely true. She was upstairs in her bedroom.
RP: Crikey.
KS: But the doctors told Flora and I to carry on with our procedures. Fortunately, we had agreed to have a quiet wedding but what are we going to do with our wedding ring? We had to go and prise it off of her mother who was lying up in her bed. Anyway, we got married and we had a honeymoon. That was a lovely afternoon, you know [laughs] We didn’t have a honeymoon at all.
RP: No.
KS: We had, we went to the Registry Office and got married and came back home. A few friends came home. Came in. Flora had made a lovely wedding cake. And I’ve got photographs of her cutting it and that was on the Sat [pause] Yes, it was a Saturday we got married. I think on the Sunday the doctors came again and, and said to us that it would be far better if they took Flora’s mother into hospital. They could make her more comfortable and they said, the surgeon said we wish to do this and then I suggest, he suggested we, Flora and I went away for two or three days which we did. But and there was me you see in my old battledress with my black eye and we went to stay with some friends who lived at Godalming. But after two or three days we, we came home again to find that Flora’s mother had been operated on. Now, what they did I don’t know but she had dreadful stomach trouble and that sort of thing and she was recovering. So, from death, from death’s door she was now recovering but of course we hadn’t given her her wedding ring back yet. This is absolutely true. It’s incredible, isn’t it?
RP: Yeah.
KS: Yeah. You almost have a Laurel and Hardy film that at the end of the week was the end of my leave so I went back to Shawbury and of course and then immediately posted the wedding ring back that I had there.
RP: Right.
KS: Posted it back to Flora and also some money to pay her brother who’d loaned us money to get married.
RP: So, did her mother know that the ring had gone then?
KS: I’m sorry?
RP: Did her mother know she’d lost the ring?
KS: No.
RP: No. She didn’t know.
KS: She didn’t. She didn’t know anything.
RP: Oh.
KS: She didn’t know anything at all. No. but anyway, we trundled along like that. I stayed at Shawbury for about oh I suppose about a month and then I left the Air Force for a while. And flora’s mother was in hospital and we used to go up and visit her and she recovered. She was a tough Scot. She spent her childhood I think or girlhood on the Red Clyde and so she knew what was going on. And I came out in to Civvy Street and it wasn’t right for me and it wasn’t right for Flora and we sat down one day and had a long talk and she said that if the man of the house is not doing a job he’s interested in the wedding is, the marriage is going to fail. It’s the most important thing that the man of the house and we sat down and we both decided that the job I wanted to do was to be a flight engineer in the RAF. And so I, at the time I was a foreman painter on a building site and we agreed that I would apply to go back in the RAF to be a flight engineer and so I did this and I was accepted and I remember Flora saying to me, ‘If you’re going back in to the RAF as a flight engineer you’re going to be the best.’ So, I had to live up to her and try to do the best but that’s, that’s why I got back in to the RAF. And I spent a tour then at Lyneham which wasn’t far from Weymouth on Hastings and from there I did a tour at Boscombe Down which was even closer to home and at that time, around about 1953 I suppose the RAF were getting lots of new aeroplanes. For example, a new mark, the Mark 3 Shackleton, the Beverley, the three V bombers and they all came through Boscombe Down being trained err being tested and I was fortunate enough to fly in them. I flew in all three V bombers and I did a flight re-fuelling course at Tarrant Rushton, the Alan’s Cobham’s factory. And I flew on the Valiant as the drogue operator for the flight refuelling. It was such an interesting job. Yeah. But from there I got, when I’d finished that job I got posted to Kinloss and, to be trained to fly on the Shackleton. We had the Mark 1 Shackletons there. and when I finished the course I was asked to stay on the staff. So, I stayed there for some time. An awful long way away from Weymouth but it was on a job I was doing and I enjoyed instructing and from there I got recommended for a commission. And I did, I went to the, OCTU at the time was at, on the Isle of Man and I got to, I got a commission and I was already, being a warrant officer I went straight to the rank of flying officer and I was posted to 201 Squadron at St Mawgan. There’s a picture of the Nimrod err of the Shackleton up there that we were flying on.
RP: Oh yeah. Yeah.
KS: Yeah. And I was with a pilot there, he was Wing commander George Chesworth. I’d met him several times. Unfortunately, he’s died now but I met him when he was a wing commander there. I met him when he was a group captain and station commander at Kinloss and then he was an air commodore at Strike Command Headquarters. That sort of thing. And from then on I flew on the Shackletons. And I was then, went to Ballykelly on the Shackletons and eventually of course we started to get the Nimrod through and I spent a fair bit of time then on the acceptance of the Nimrod flight simulator. And we used to, we were, I was stationed at Halton there and because the builders of the, of the Nimrod simulator were Redifon and their factory was in Aylesbury so —
RP: Yeah.
KS: So, living in Halton. And then what happened? Oh, of course when I was an NCO at Boscombe Down I got, I got, I was awarded the AFM by the, and Flora and I had to go up to Buckingham Palace.
RP: That was good so what, what was that?
KS: To see the queen.
RP: What was, what was the citation for that then?
KS: I’ve never seen a citation.
RP: No?
KS: No. It’s something we ought to look in to it really, I suppose Debbie, isn’t it?
RP: There was no citation?
KS: I haven’t seen it. The only, the only information I had was, were the newspaper reports and an official form telling me the way to present myself at Buckingham Palace.
RP: Oh right.
KS: I remember one thing. I wasn’t allowed to carry a sword [laughs] I remember that.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Yeah.
RP: Oh, well, that was nice to receive it then but —
KS: Yeah.
RP: It’s a recognition then obviously of your work.
KS: Yeah. I suppose so to.
RP: But I would have thought there would have been a citation.
KS: Yes. Yes. There must have been some where. Have we got one Debbie? Did we?
DF: I got, let me have a look.
KS: Sorry.
DF: No. It’s ok. You got it for devotion to duty.
RP: You were promoted on my birthday I see.
KS: Was I?
RP: 26th of October 1964. Flying officer to flight lieutenant. Oh, that’s good. Very good.
KS: No.
RP: Then on 1st July ‘74 you became a squadron leader.
DF: That’s the one she signed.
RP: Thank you. [pause] Oh, that’s impressive, isn’t it? Ah. Now, they spelt Prowse with a U.
DF: Oh.
RP: They spelt it with a U. Is that correct?
KS: Do they?
DF: That’s wrong.
KS: Do they?
RP: That’s wrong.
KS: Well, that’s not correct.
DF: If you look at his warrant.
RP: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah.
DF: For that one. It’s got —
RP: Yeah. They’ve got it wrong. Fancy Buckingham Palace getting your name wrong. I’d send it back.
KS: Dear queen [pause] It was a tremendous event I might add.
RP: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Really lovely. I love it.
DF: And the warrant is —
RP: That’s lovely.
DF: Dated the 6th day of September 1959.
RP: That’s brilliant, isn’t it? Have they got your name right there then?
DF: They’ve got his name right on that one.
RP: They’re right on that one. That’s good. That’s lovely. So, you, you became a squadron leader when you were almost fifty then. Yes? And still in the RAF. So —
KS: Yeah. I got commissioned but I went on various jobs within Coastal Command and eventually came to being on the acceptance of the Nimrod.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Flight simulator. I was at the factory. There was a pilot and myself on this and then I got posted down to the training unit for Nimrods at, at St Mawgan and I think it was there I got promoted to squadron leader. And then my last tour in the, in the Royal Air Force I was posted back to Boscombe Down which was still the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Unit and the aircraft that I was concerned with there and the ones I flew in in fact was the, was the Comet 4, the Nimrod and an Argosy.
RP: An Argosy.
KS: And that’s what I finished my service on. Finished.
RP: You finished on an Argosy. That was an experience. I haven’t, I haven’t flown one but I’ve flown in one.
KS: Yeah. Yes. Yeah.
RP: Between Malta and Cyprus. Ok.
KS: Yeah. But we had the Argosy there for, because one of the tasks that Boscombe Down had of course was testing parachutes.
RP: Yes. Yes.
KS: And if you had a parachute —
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
KS: If you had a modification of any sort.
RP: Yeah.
KS: Say a change of rigging line, that sort of thing the parachute had to be tested a certain number of times before it could be issued generally.
RP: And the Argosy you could just go out the back, couldn’t you?
KS: That’s it. Yes. We used to go out to Cyprus in the spring and the, spring and autumn for maybe three weeks or a month. Our own parachutists in the Argosy and we climbed out and they’d jump and test the parachute. You had to get an awful lot of jumps to prove it before it could be issued generally you know. It was a very interesting job.
RP: So, what year did you leave the RAF then?
KS: 1982.
RP: 1982.
KS: I joined in 1942.
RP: Yeah.
KS: And I left in 1982. My birthday was, I was, I was serving until my, ah I was due to leave at the age of fifty five.
RP: That was going to be my next question.
KS: Yeah.
RP: You obviously went beyond fifty five.
KS: I was ready to leave at fifty five. I was stationed at Boscombe Down and I received a phone call to ask me if I would serve the extra. An extra three years because they were short of experienced air crew. So, I came home and had a word with Flora and we agreed that it would be alright and I got back to this telephone number and I said, ‘But there are one or two things. You want me to do an extra three years. Where do you want me to do them?’ And they said, ‘Where you are stationed now at Boscombe Down doing exactly the same job.’ And I said, ‘Ah, but at the age of fifty five I was entitled to a terminal grant.’
RP: Yes. Yes.
KS: Three times your salary. And they said, ‘You will get that on your birthday.’
RP: Crikey. They must have, they must have wanted you then.
DF: He was very skilled.
KS: And so, I said, ‘Certainly,’ I said, ‘I’ll settle down for the next three years.’ As it happened, on my birthday, my wife and I were in our caravan up in the Forest of Dean and we said, and we woke up in the morning, we both said, ‘I wonder if it’s in yet?’ Because it’s an awful lot of money you see. Three times your salary.
RP: Yes.
KS: And the squadron leader’s salary and flying pay, you see.
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
KS: So, we wondered how, how we were going to find out. So, in the end Flora and I decided we’d go down in to Lydney where there was a small branch of Barclays bank and we’d have a word with the bank manager and we went in and we saw him. He said, ‘There’s no problem.’ He said, ‘There’s no problem,’ He said, ‘I’ll phone my friend the manager of the Barclays branch in Dorchester and ask for a bank statement which he did and he came and wrote it out and we knew obviously the money had gone in. So, we went next door and loaded up with wine and whisky.
RP: And went to celebrate. Well —
KS: Yeah.
RP: I think I’d like to, like to bring this to an end by asking the question I usually ask. Your RAF career —
KS: Yeah.
RP: If you had to do it all again, would you?
KS: Indeed. Certainly.
RP: Even during the wartime?
KS: The wartime was difficult to say, isn’t it? If you could guarantee I was going to survive, shall we say.
RP: Oh, in this world yes. I’ll guarantee it. Yes. For my question I’ll guarantee you’d survive. But you obviously enjoyed your time in the RAF.
KS: I did. Tremendously. Yes. My life was changed completely. What was I going to finish up doing as a young lad? An apprentice painter and decorator. During the wartime what painting and decorating went on? Very little.
RP: Yes.
KS: Most of the painting was using camouflage on some Nissen huts that sort of thing and the decorating side was replacing broken windows. What was that, what sort of a career was that going to be?
RP: Oh, I can see that.
KS: Yeah.
RP: Anyway, thank you. It’s been a privilege talking to you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.
KS: So have I.
RP: It’s good to —
KS: I hope I didn’t swear.
RP: Certainly not. Thank you very much. It’s been brilliant. Thank you.
[recording paused]
DF: The Channel Islands when it was still occupied.
KS: Oh, that was in the Stirling. Yes. Yes.
DF: When you got shot at.
[recording paused]
RP: These are additional recordings with Ken Symonds on the 17th of August. Ken, you were going to tell us about what happened on the outbreak of war.
KS: Oh, that, that was the day there was around about half a dozen of us young fellas and I think there were a couple of girls with us. In fact, I think two of the girls were evacuees from London. They’d started evacuating early and we were walking along a road in Weymouth called Radipole Lane. And on the left of Radipole Lane then was a huge great field which was known then as Chickerell flying, Chickerell Airfield. Nowadays, it’s just a huge industrial estate. But we were wandering along there just larking about and just a wander around on a Sunday morning and as walked past this, a hut which was on this Chickerell Airfield there were two young chaps there in Air Force uniform and they were filling sandbags and they said, ‘You know we’re at war.’ And that’s how we learned in fact, this must have been the Sunday in, the Sunday the 9th or 8th or something like that in 1939. War broke out and that’s how we learned about it. And of course, we went home and by this time the family had learned that the war, we were now at war and of course, my dad was an old soldier and he was a bit concerned. But of course, all our parents were concerned. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us but that was the start of it.
RP: Ok. Another thing you were going to tell us I think was the story of one your crewmen Taf Reakes.
KS: Oh yes. Yes. Our rear gunner was a Welshman Taf Reakes and he when we [pause] the end of the war the Australians that was the bomb aimer, navigator, mid up err bomb aimer, navigator, pilot and wireless operator they all went back to Australia and we, other crew members split up and went our various ways. After a while I got posted up to Shawbury so I never really knew what happened to Taf Reakes. I did on one occasion call an address in Wales but I got no reply so I had no contact with him. And then after many years Tommy Hawkins, the pilot turned up on a visit here and he told me that Taf had been killed. And he said he was been training as a pilot and we got the impression he was training as a pilot on a Lancaster. And it wasn’t until a few months ago that we were looking through papers, sorting them, papers in the house and we found a long letter written by Tommy Hawkins about, he had died by this time but we found this long letter which took a bit of translating because his writing was dreadful and it was about, one of the things he was speaking about was trying to find out Taf Reakes’ grave. And we found in fact that he was looking for the wrong, we knew Taf had crashed but Tommy was looking at the wrong village in Wales. He’d got one letter wrong in the, in the name of the village and when we tried the second village we found all the information. That he was travelling, flying in a Washington. One is, one is, what part of the crew he was I don’t know. I can only assume he was training as a pilot but a part of the aircraft disintegrated and the whole aircraft crashed. And there is this small village in Wales where they were buried in the, in the cemetery, I think the crew of ten or twelve and the villagers had put up a resting chair there in memory of what they called, “Our brave aircrew.” And that’s all we know about Taf Reakes. That’s where he ended up. Our gunner.
RP: Thank you for that one. Ok, Ken and finally I think you were going to tell us about your escapade with the Channel Islands.
KS: Well, this was January 1945. The crew I was with. The same crew, you know. Mainly the Australians. We were tasked with the job of bringing a Stirling back from Morocco. A place called Rabat-Salé just up from Casablanca and of course France had been liberated so we flew right up low level virtually up across France. Up the Champs Elysee. It was grand. And somebody said, ‘Oh look, there’s the Channel Islands. Let’s go and have a look.’ So, we did and they started firing at us because we didn’t know that the Germans were still, we’d forgotten that the Germans were still occupying the Channel Islands. So, I think the pilot said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ So, we shot very quickly away from the Channel Islands and also we landed at Athan’s or St Mawgan. Yeah.
RP: Was the incident reported officially? Or did nobody know?
KS: I don’t know. I don’t know. That would be an Australian question.
RP: If I meet any Australians I’ll ask them.
KS: Yeah.
DF: Did he fly up Pall Mall?
RP: Oh, and the other thing finally I think there was a story I think you’ve mentioned before about Pall Mall. Flying up Pall Mall in London.
KS: Oh, that was only, it was the fly past.
RP: And what was the occasion?
KS: Well, after the war we had, we had we had a fly past up the, formation flying up the Pall Mall. In preparation I assume, practice for the big parade which was on June the 6th, I think. 1946.
RP: So, what aircraft were you in?
KS: A Lancaster.
RP: And how many aircraft took part then? Was it quite a lot?
KS: I think there was possibly three Lancasters.
RP: Oh right.
KS: But the Hurricanes were there and, and the Spitfires were there and if I remember a Dakota was there but it’s so long ago you know and of course I was the flight engineer. I was mainly concerned about safety without looking at all the other aircraft. Yes.
RP: So, you never saw the crowds below then.
KS: Oh, no. No. No.
RP: Ok. Thanks very much for that. Thank you.
KS: Yeah.
RP: Thank you.


Rod Pickles, “Interview with Kenneth Walter Prowse Symonds,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 25, 2022,

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