Interview with Gordon Catling


Interview with Gordon Catling


Gordon Catling grew up in Ipswich and lied about his age to join the Fire Service as a despatch rider. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1943 and flew operations as a rear gunner with 50 Squadron from RAF Skellingthorpe. He was posted to India after the war and left the Royal Air Force in 1947. In 1976 he formed and became Chairman of the Ipswich Air Gunners Association.




Temporal Coverage




00:26:31 audio recording

Conforms To


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SJ: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre my name is Sue Johnstone and the interviewee is Gordon Catling, the interview is taking place at Gordon’s home in Ipswich Suffolk on 21st November 2015. So we are recording now so it’s er just start from the beginning.
GC: Well as I said I was born in Suffolk born in Ipswich and er went to school in Ipswich and when the war broke out I was only er just turned fourteen and er I went to help in my friend’s father’s shop butchers shop I got fed up with that and I put my age up a year when I was fifteen to get a driving licence to drive a motorbike at sixteen the reason was so that I could join the fire service as a despatch rider they didn’t let me join straight away they let me go as a part time messenger boy and then I did finally get in there at the age sixteen at er that was when I was really sixteen I did manage to get in the fire service and I was a despatch rider there until 1943 when I joined the Royal Air Force, I went to ACRC at London from there we went to Bridlington for the ITW then we went on to Bridgnorth for the EATS and from Bridgnorth to Walney Island for the ATS Air Gunner School, I passed out there in er May forty four no forty three, er sorry.
SJ: That’s ok just take your time no rush.
GC: Passed out there in May forty four yes and I went on then to 14 OTU at Market Harborough where I was crewed up with four Canadians and my mid upper gunner who we’d done our training with which give us six of us in the crew for Wellington, we lost our Canadian bomb aimer and then we finally got a British bomb aimer and then from there we finished our training and we went to RAF Scampton er no sorry RAF Swinderby to do our heavy conversion on Stirlings and we met our engineer we finished out we went to Five Lane Finishing School at Syston and then in the October we got posted to 50 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe which is just outside of Lincoln, um we went on operations after about being there for a couple of weeks they sent us on our first operation um all I can say about it is we were looking forward to it but we were scared.
SJ: Yes
GC: And er one or two things did happen to us when we were doing a tour the first bad thing that happened to us was when we were going to Munich and the route to Munich used to be through Southern France then over the Alps then towards Munich we were flying in F for Freddy and in the middle of the going over the Alps the aircraft lost power and we stalled and of course instead of flying over we flew through them we didn’t carry on the skipper returned to base and we landed at Bardney still with a four thousand pounder on board, the next thing that happened to us was at we were bombing Politz I think Politz [unclear] and as we were leaving the target coming out there was a terrific bang we had been hit by a shell and um the intercom all went everything went the call light in the rear turret just flashed on and off and I thought that was the letter P which means parachute I was just getting myself ready to jump out of the aircraft when the bomb aimer came down and sought to see if I was all right at the end we got back from that all right, the next really bad thing we had was on 1st February 1944 we were briefed upon a placed called Seele[?] and er approximate seven o’clock night when we were just on our bombing run the rear upper gunner actually looked up and saw a bomb bay open on the aircraft above a bomb bay open with all the bombs on and he just shouted at skipper ‘Christ dive to port to port skipper’ and the cookie [?] [unclear] missed us but the incendiaries hit the side of the aircraft.
SJ: Oh gosh.
GC: And the aircraft was um a lot of incendiaries went off and they caught fire so the mid upper gunner and and the wireless operator used the extinguishers and also threw the bombs out of the aircraft ‘cos all the side of the aircraft was ripped open the rear doors gone the [unclear] gone as well and er that’s what they done and er I was looking up at the fuselage ‘cos my turret was US and ‘cos we’d lost and engine and the doors had gone and I looked up and saw something burning just outside the turret so I climbed out a bit got hold of it that was a couple of incendiaries threw them out the door just managed to get hold of them the end that wasn’t burning got back to the turret and I operated the turret by hand for the next three hours before we landed at a place called Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk just outside Norwich which was the B24 station after being there for three days we returned to Skellingthorpe and we assumed operations again nothing really happened to us much I know towards the end of tour we were I forget what town it was now we were attacked by Messerschmitts 262’s but they were so fast we just couldn’t do much about it, I enjoyed the life and we had a good crew in fact the best crew in the world I am the only survivor and I would never would say I wouldn’t missed it but wouldn’t missed it but I did you know I felt I had done something.
SJ: Yes.
GC: Um but there again I wasn’t the only one and I survived, after that I volunteered to go on to Tiger Force and I thought oh yes but instead I was sent out to India and I stayed in India.
SJ: Still in the RAF?
GC: In the RAF, came out the RAF in 1947 and been as you know I hadn’t seen civvy street a lot I stayed out the air force for a little while got fed up and went back in again I couldn’t get back on flying straight away so I was on air traffic control for a few years and then as runway controller and then I managed to get back on flying as er air load master and I finished up flying in transport command, air support command, helicopters [unclear] and then in 1970 I got grounded in Hong Kong and then I returned to England in 1971 on recruiting and then in 1973 I should have returned back on flying again on VC10’s but er didn’t [unclear] so I was grounded again and I finished up back on then recruiting then they asked for redundancies and I volunteered to come out of the Air Force in 1975.
SJ: Mmm so you did a good old time in the RAF didn’t you?
GC: Yes I did.
SJ: Yeah a good old thirty thirty odd years?
GC: Yes yes it is. Recently I’ve just been given the honour I’ll show you the paper.
SJ: Yeah.
GC: And er and I wear it.
SJ: Region DI yeah
GC: And I wore it at the Bomber Command Memorial I think I was the only one up there wearing it and a lot of people asked me what it was but er when I told them but I wear it not for myself but for the crew.
SJ: Yeah
GC: That is for our crew.
SJ: That’s it, it’s very special isn’t it yeah.
GC: [unclear]
SJ: No that’s very special.
GC: Here’s the er operations list for that raid [shuffles through some papers].
SJ: Oh I see yeah. What did you do when you left the RAF for a little while before you joined back up?
GC: Er I was I worked for a firm in Ipswich for a little while and I had a little warning I’d pack it in and then um I went on er insurance and er I had that for a little while and then I had that for a little while and then I had another little warning and I packed that in so the time I was sixty five er fifty five I was practically retired completely through ill health.
SJ: Yeah.
GC: And I ain’t worked since I’m nearly ninety odd so I wouldn’t worry.
SJ: [Laughs]. Yeah you enjoyed your time in the RAF?
GC: I enjoyed my time in the RAF and then I lost my wife in 89 and then I was on my own until 19 until 1992 when my wife now Joy she lost her husband and er she wanted some help and she managed to get hold of me and I went and helped her and of course been as we had known each other since 1942.
SJ: Gosh long time.
GC: And we used to socialise a bit with her husband and my wife and that and we got together and now we got married in 93 twenty two years ago in’t it come Friday.
SJ: Yeah.
GC: And that’s it and of course she’s never had all this trouble with her first husband Gordon he was these places sort themselves out [unclear] she’s bearing up on it and I’m proud of the way she’s taken it.
SJ: [Laughs]
GC: Ah well.
SJ: It’s good that you’ve got the history together I know you were obviously married to different people but it is nice isn’t it.
GC: Mmm oh yes we knew each other.
SJ: The memories haven’t you?
JC: Oh yes.
GC: Well she worked with my brother and everything see.
SJ: Mmm yeah.
JC: Yes I was a nurse for thirty five years.
GC: Yes.
JC: Yes.
GC: So there is not much to say really I’ve enjoyed my life and
SJ: Yes, no that’s good.
GC: I’m lucky to be alive you can say that again because we could have had that bomb on top of us and we wouldn’t be here now.
SJ: I know that was a pretty scary moment.
GC: It was yes, and er you see that was in the Canadian papers [showing a copy of the paper to SJ].
SJ: Okay yeah, you had a safe landing?
GC: Oh yeah we landed at um Horsham St. Faith in er just outside Norwich which is now Norwich Airport.
SJ: Oh okay yeah.
GC: That used to be 24 base.
SJ: So you’ve been quite all over the place in the RAF then?
GC: Mmm oh yes travelled around a bit.
SJ: Yeah you sound like you have yeah.
GC: Mmm I enjoyed it.
SJ: Yeah. What was the training like I’ve always wondered how the in war time what was your training like?
GC: Ooh I enjoyed it um especially aircraft recognition ‘cos that was one of my favourites and also pyrotechnics guns and other things.
SJ: Yes.
GC: Um I got top marks for gunnery in the Gunnery School and er as I say I always enjoyed the sort of thing I don’t know why but I never wanted to be anything else but a Warrant Office Rear Gunner I don’t know why a Warrant Officer but yes I did get Warrant Officer but that was way back after I’d finished and everything but.
SJ: Yeah that was the trade you wanted to do was it?
GC: It was during the war because I think what it was a friend of mine his brother was an air gunner was an air gunner on er Blenheims at RAF Horsham at the beginning of the war and I think this friend I don’t know why he used to talk things and maybe that’s what I want to be I didn’t want to be anything else.
SJ: No. How old was you when you joined?
GC: Well The first time I was er just seventeen I joined up and they well had the um went to Car [?] to be assessed for air crew I was okay ‘cos I put my age up six months to get there [laughs] and er somehow they found out my age and they scrubbed it all so I had to volunteer again for it again.
SJ: Oh yes.
GC: When I was it did upset me you know it wasn’t until I was nearly eighteen when I was doing it the next time and er I was on deferred service for a little while then I got called up and er I’m lucky enough to have got right through it all and I done my training and I enjoyed it always just above average and that was it.
SJ: Yes.
GC: I managed to keep above average all the time.
SJ: That’s good.
GC: Because that was the thing that I did enjoy doing.
SJ: And you were obviously good at it?
GC: I had I used to be able to strip a Browning 303 down and assemble it again blindfolded that’s how I used to really love it.
SJ: Mmm well when you find your love for it it’s interesting.
GC: Yes its something.
SJ: You do well at it don’t you yeah.
GC: Yes I was [unclear] it’s gone now and as I say everything I do anything that’s for my crew.
SJ: Is that how you feel about doing interviews and things?
GC: Well I do you see I, I met five of our crew after the war in 1946 I met the engineer in India, in 1989 at the unveiling of the Birchwood Memorial failed to return 50 and 51 Squadron I met my mid upper gunner, now John Bridger he got the DFM for that for putting the fires out in the aircraft John and I actually done our training right from the start we even flew together when we were training at Walney Island and I saw him in 89 and that’s fifty four that was fifty years fifty four years and then in er no forty four years sorry and in er 19 no in 1999 wasn’t it?
JC: 1999
GC: We went to Canada and we stayed with the navigator and the pilot came over to see me so the three of us met up at the end in 99 and yes a lovely fortnight over there with them.
SJ: Oh lovely.
GC: And then they all died after that I come back and phoned John Bridger up and told him I’d been over and met them and er he was quite thrilled and then he died of cancer then Gordon the navigator he died was that cancer he had dear I forget?
JC: Gordon died first and then Danny.
GC: Then Danny died yeah so now I’m the only one left.
JC: And you hadn’t seen each other when we went for fifty four years.
GC: Fifty four years.
JC: Fifty four years.
GC: We still recognised each other.
SJ: Yeah I bet well you don’t go through something like that and not recognise each other do you?
JC: Amazing really because when we got to the airport they’d got he’d got our names up you know so we could see him, him and his wife fifty four years is a long time.
SJ: Yes it is, I bet it took you right back though didn’t it?
GC: It did, I even went and saw the Lancaster at Hamilton and even got in the rear turret [laughs].
JC: Yes he did.
GC: I managed to get in it.
SJ: Did you see it when it came over here the Canadian?
GC: No I didn’t see it because I as I say I am handicapped now I’m I have to walk with crutches and I can’t walk very far even with them er when we went up to Lincoln to the unveiling of the Memorial my daughter my and her partner they even got hired a wheelchair to take with us and they pushed me around a bit but that was too rough to push round in the wheelchair so I didn’t see a lot of what I would have liked to see and I am hoping and praying that when it’s open I don’t know when it will be next year some time I understand I will be able to go up again and see it properly and er I have been promised on Friday Thursday night a presenter from Radio Suffolk said he’d take me up there.
SJ: Oh brilliant [laughs]. So what was the Special Recognition Award for?
GC: For the war time.
JC: For the war time.
GC: There was three of us there was this Navy chap he’d been torpedoed and then taken prisoner of war in Japanese hands, the other one was in the Army captain in the tank corp he went to Auschwitz and he was saying about he should have come home to England but been as he was single he was he stayed there because they said all married men home first and they kept him there he went there and [unclear] it was terrible and as I say the three of us were all recommended and they said right we will give you one each and we did and that’s what we got.
SJ: Lovely isn’t it.
JC: Yes it is it was nice to see the three of them together it really was.
SJ: Had you met them before?
GC: No never seen them before.
JC: No not till then.
SJ: No.
GC: In fact I don’t see anybody near where I was living ‘cos I moved around but I did form the Air Gunners Association in Ipswich when I came out of the Air Force in 1976 I formed that and um I was chairman there for quite a while until I had as I say I had me first warning and that told me I had to pack up the things that I used to but er.
SJ: Is the Association still going here In Lincolnshire.
GC: No it’s all finished.
SJ: It’s all finished.
GC: Even the National ones gone now so um we used to go round a lot one time when we went on different little holidays we went on we went and had a look at the air gunners room at um York at Elvington isn’t it.
SJ: Elvington yes.
GC: And there is a special room there for air gunners and my beloved was looking at some photographs there and she said ‘aye come here’ I said ‘what’s wrong’ she said ‘there’s a photograph of you’ [laughs] that was a photograph that was taken at Walney Island yeah at the Air Gunners School yeah but we used but we went to most of the museums don’t we dear.
JC: We have dear yes.
GC: Yes we’ve been to them all.
JC: We fitted in quite a lot while we could didn’t we.
GC: We did when I was going around.
SJ: When you were a bit more mobile?
JC: Yes.
GC: Of course now I’m lucky I can still drive but I can’t walk.
SJ: You still get about?
GC: Oh yes.
JC: We get from A to B and
GC: Get out the car.
JC: We try and get out as much as we can don’t we otherwise you.
GC: Otherwise we’d be stagnating that’s it.
JC: Like a vegetable [laughs] you’ve got to got to keep your brain ticking over.
SJ: Well hopefully you’ll get to see up to the Bomber Command Memorial next year.
GC: I hope to get there.
JC: I hope so I hope so.
GC: ‘Cos I was disappointed when the unveiled the one in London I phoned up to see if I could get some seats to see it unveiled and the woman at the Bomber Command Association who was doing this she said ‘are you a member of the Association?’ I said ‘no not now but I was on the Bomber Command list years ago’ and she said ‘oh I’m sorry there’s no seats there’s nothing available’ and I said ‘oh thank you’ there’s so many other people there who’d nothing to do with the Royal Air Force and they had everything and I couldn’t get a seat and my daughter she is one of these types she really went to town but um I was very very disappointed over that.
JC: Yes but still you went to Lincoln.
GC: Oh we went to Lincoln we went.
JC: To see that which you really wanted to do.
GC: Yes we used to go to call in at Birchwood quite often didn’t we take a wreath out there when we used to go on these coach trips to do with Bomber Command Battle of Britain Weekend and they used to take you all round and we always used to call in at Birchwood to see the memorial there and always take a wreath up there which was from the crew but and I’m sorry I can’t even do that now.
SJ: How do you feel about the Bomber Command Centre project?
GC: I thought it’s really good and er I think that um it’s long delayed and have to and people like yourselves and other people and I think the University has got something to do with it.
SJ: Yes they have yeah.
GC: They really done themselves proud and they’ve done us proud.
JC: Also we think where it is situated when you look out you can see the Cathedral.
SJ: Yes lovely.
JC: I think that is really beautiful.
SJ: It is it’s very poignant isn’t it.
JC: Oh I think it’s lovely.
SJ: Yeah.
JC: And the thing is that it had been raining the weather had been shocking and we thought well you know what’s it going to like going and that particular day it was a beautiful sunny day it was really really lovely and I mean obviously all round it was a bit muddy and whatever because they had so much rain but the actual day itself the sun was absolutely beautiful and as you stood and looked down you could see the Cathedral and I thought how beautiful where it was situated.
SJ: It is it’s lovely isn’t it.
GC: It is it’s an ideal situation because that’s the first thing we used to see was the Cathedral you see when we came back.
SJ: Yeah that’s what they said that’s why they put it up there.
GC: Mmm I know that’s the first thing, by the way get the medal over and show her.
JC: Yes
GC: Syria
JC: We were so lucky.
GC: I don’t know if you’ve see one of these have you?
SJ: I’ve seen pictures of them not one
GC: That’s the legion of honour.
SJ: Yes it is yeah I’ve seen photos of someone who received one the other day so for I’ve seen the photo the other day but they received it a while ago yeah, would you mind if I take a photo of this?
GC: I don’t mind?
SJ: To keep to keep with your archive no I will do that will be lovely. Is there any more stories and things that you want to say?
GC: Not really as I say that the only regret I have is that I never had my pint with old Baker [laughs].
SJ: Well when you get up there next year you’ll be able to see his name up there so it’s in alphabetical order so.
GC: No don’t matter really as I say I enjoyed my life in the Royal Air Force I enjoyed what we were doing I was scared yeah this was what I was saying we were all scared and if anybody said they weren’t they were bloody liars.
SJ: Yes I can imagine mmm, scary times I bet you worked hard and played hard?
GC: Yes I did I played all sorts of sports and this was what’s the result [laughs].
SJ: What was the social life like in the RAF?
GC: Very good.
SJ: Yeah I bet you’ve got loads of stories to say there haven’t you or?
GC: No I haven’t [laughs].
SJ: Not for recording?
GC: No there not [laughs].
SJ: Okay so well thank you very much.
GC: That’s all right.
JC: You’ve got to go back to Lincoln tonight?



Sue Johnstone, “Interview with Gordon Catling,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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