Interview with George Crooks


Interview with George Crooks


George Crooks was an apprentice electrician before volunteering for the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen. After his training he served as an armourer with 50 Squadron at RAF Swinderby and later RAF Skellingthorpe. He later worked experimenting with blind bombing and Window. Upon leaving the Royal Air Force he had a holiday in Blackpool where he met his future wife.







00:34:05 audio recording

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JF: I’m John Fisher and it’s the 17th of August 2016. And I’m here to day with George Crooks, who was in 50 Squadron ground crew during the war and also with me is his daughter Janet and son-in-law Terry, and he’s had a rather rather lively war. Tell us about your lively war George. Now, you started off first as an apprentice electrician, didn’t you?
GC: That’s right, yeah, I was an apprentice electrician right from the age of fourteen until eighteen when I joined the RAF. I volunteered for that. They called me back twice, the factory did, called me back as a reserved occupation but I insisted so they let me go. I finished and went and joined up.
JF: And where did you go first?
GC: I went to Henlow, Henlow RAF College for electrics and, er, I served me course through there and was posted from there to 50 Squadron, yeah.
JF: And where were they based?
GC: 50 Squadron at that time was based at Swinderby and then, when Swinderby was improved by having new runways built, we moved to Skellingthorpe and that was our base then for quite a while but we was all in tents when we first moved there. They’d got no billets, it was all tents and it was in April. We had a standpipe outside the tents and everybody was outside washing in cold water at the standpipe and shaving, they had to shave every day with cold water, but ‒
JF: Which planes were you working on then?
GC: We was working on Hampdens, our first planes were Hampdens, and then we had the ‒, two or three Manchesters come in so we converted over to Manchesters, but before we got a squadron of Manchesters they were, er, were [pause] demolished, what would they say? Yeah, the Manchesters became unserviceable so we started to change over to Lancasters and then we ended up with a squadron of Lancasters.
JF: Which squadron was that? Do you know?
GC: 50 Squadron.
JF: Yeah.
GC: 50 Squadron, yeah.
JF: And they were part of 1 Group?
GC: 5 Group.
JF: 5 Group.
GC: Number 5 Group, yeah. Skellinghtorpe was only about two miles from Lincoln Cathedral. That used to be a landing point.
JF: Yeah. When you were doing Lancasters tell me about the time when you were doing rather long hours.
GC: Oh, yeah, yeah, that was when the first of the thousand bomber, thousand bomber raids was started and we was short-staffed and I was the only bomb armourer electrician there and I was doing ‒, I was on the airfield every bit of the day and I was only allowed two hours sleep per day and they used to bring my meals out on a truck and I used to have me dixie pan ready so when they come everything went into this dixie pan, mashed potatoes, and corned beef, or you might get a sausage and veg and then on top of that would go your sweet, your apple pie and custard [laughs]. All in one dixie pan, and ‒
JF: And did you carry on working while you were eating?
GC: Oh yeah, yeah, you had to carry on doing it. They allowed you five or ten minutes to get your meal down you.
JC: So what sort of work were you doing there?
GC: I was doing bomb racks, bomb racks, and incendiary canisters, repairing them all and making sure that they all worked electrically before they were put on the aircraft or before the bombs in the bomb dump, put the bombs on, and the racks on the bombs.
JF: One day you decided you’d had enough of two hours sleep a night, didn’t you?
GC: I reported sick. After nine weeks I reported sick. I could hardly stand on my legs and the MO said, ‘If you don’t get out of here and back to your work I’m going to put you on a charge of malingering’, [laughs]. So immediately I thought, ‘Well, you’re not going to defeat me’, so I reported back to the electrical officer and I demanded my course for the Group 1 Grade of Technicians so, surprisingly enough, within a week or so I was transferred to Nutsham [?] College and I did four or five months there at college and came out top of the class, and with the marks that I had they sent me to Bombing Development Unit at Feltwell in Norfolk and there I was doing experiments with the boffins from Farnborough, doing experiments with the window programme (which was dropping of silver paper to block out radar) and also we was experimenting with the blind bombing equipment radar over the Irish Sea and the Navy and they were dropping smoke bombs to test this equipment ‒
JF: Yeah, that must have been quite an exciting time?
GC: It was more exciting than ‒, and I got more pleasure out of that ‒
JF: You didn’t sign up did you for this sort of thing?
GC: No, no, not originally you know.
JF: You came there as an apprentice I think, didn’t you?
GC: Yeah, yeah, I got started off as an apprentice, and while I was there at Feltwell I got promoted to corporal, so I did well there but when the forces, or the army, moved out from Africa, after the desert war, they were going up through Italy, so our experiments and what not was becoming less needed at the time. So I was posted to West Germany [?] to pick up a desert uniform with little shorts and stockings, desert boots, we was trained down to Liverpool Docks and before I went up the gangway they called us out by name and there was about thirty of us and from there we went to West Germany [?] took back our desert equipment and picked up Icelandic equipment, fur coats, helmets, fur-lined boots and all the equipment that went with it.
JF: That was a shock.
GC: It was a shock, from desert equipment to Icelandic and we flew up to, went by train, to Alness in Scotland and we flew from there to Reykjavik in Iceland and that was in the August, no that was in the April, I believe it was in the April and I was brought back in the April the following year. While we was up there we used to service the Sunderland flying boats and all aircraft that was coming through from Canada, the Lancasters that were built in Canada, was coming in as a calling point, to refuel and then back up to Scotland or wherever they were going to be delivered. Mainly, mainly they was being flown by lady pilots, so we serviced those and sent them on their way, and also any other aircraft that came in. I remember the one time we had an emergency call, or an emergency landing by a Russian aircraft and by this Russian aircraft, there was a fellow waiting there to show me, I was called as being a senior electrician, to go and see what this problem was, so I took the little box with all the little tool kit, and testers in, a little wooden box with a handle on, and went out and this Russian, whether he was a pilot or one of the crew I don’t know ‘cause the conversation between him and me was non-existent virtually, he was gabbling on in Russian and I was gabbling on in English and neither one of us knew what each other was talking about, but by hand signals and pointing of hands and one thing or another he finally showed me that by putting this switch on the lights weren’t working on the instrument panel so I had to find the fuses and the connection for that, so I asked him by pointing at the sign which is international, the electric sign which is a flash of lightning in red paint, and I had to draw it out virtually and he immediately guessed what I was talking about. And he’d got a revolver in his hand while I was in there, he got a revolver in his hand and every time I went to touch something he’d tap the panel and say, ‘No, no’, waving his finger and we’d have a discussion again, him in Russian and me in English. It was like a comedy act and eventually I managed to find the fuse but my spares would not [emphasis] fit anything that the Russians had got so what I had to do was get me cigarette packet out, take a piece of silver, take a tiny strip of silver, and short out the fuse circuit and then ask him by pointing, ‘Switch the light on, see if its working’, and he immediately jumped up in the air ‘Good, good, good’ [laughs]. But the crew in the meantime they must have took off to the officers’ mess and they were being fed and whatever and I left them at that. I was anxious to get away. I’d never been so frightened in all my life. When he pointed this ruddy gun I was expecting the gun to go off any time, but he wouldn’t allow anybody else on the plane or around it, he shooed everybody away, he wouldn’t allow anybody on the plane, only me. So that was quite an experience.
JF: Well, did you spot anything on the plane that you didn’t think should be there?
GC: No, not really [laughs]. As I say, he took me straight to the cock pit like, and, demonstrated what was going on.
JF: How long did you stop at Reykjavik?
GC: I was there twelve months but apparently at that time they only allowed, the air force personnel, were only allowed to be there twelve months. ‘Cause they said, there was a threat of TB so if you’d been there twelve months they sent you back home again and they had a fresh batch of crews going there.
JF: So where did you go off to then?
GC: When I come back from there I was ‒, it was towards the end of the war then and I came back to Scotland and loaded off these Sunderlands and they sent me to Pershore, and I was at Pershore two or three months waiting discharge, so as soon as they offered me go find your civvy suit, I donned my civvy suit, threw uniform in the corner, I was glad to get off. I was in trouble several times ‘cause I didn’t claim my medals and at one stage when I was on a parade, at Swinderby, I was asked where me medals was, I said, ‘I wasn’t claiming any’, so I was in trouble again ‘cause if I didn’t get me medals put on for the next parade I’d be in trouble, I’d be on a charge again, but I never got round to doing me medals the whole time I came out, so I never got any medals at all while I was in the forces, but me family grew up and they said ‘You should have had your medals, you should have your medals’, so through the family, like, I claimed, I claimed me medals and I’ve worn them, like, every November and take me wreath to the cenotaph.
JF: Now, what was your wife’s name?
GC: Jean.
JF: And how did you come to meet?
GC: When I came out the forces I had a sum of seventy, with savings and whatever they had gave me, I had seventy pounds. That was a lot of money in them days so immediately I went out and bought a motorcycle. And I’d only been home a week and me mother during the war, she’d got two sons away in the Forces and a husband away in the Forces, so she was on her own all through the war, so it must have been terrible for her, like, during the air raids and such like, but I said to her, ‘I’m off to Blackpool, I’m going to have a holiday now’.
JF: And where were you living at that time?
GC: I was living at Princes End in Tipton.
JF: Which is in the West Midlands, yeah.
GC: Yeah, so I went off motorcycling. I hadn’t even got a licence then, we didn’t bother about licences in them days, and put a suitcase strapped to the back of the bike and went off, found a ‒
JC: Bed and breakfast.
GC: Bed and breakfast and I met ‒. I had a problem with a whitlow on my fingers on that there, a whitlow, and I went to the hospital, and they extracted it, the whitlow out of there, and patched it up but stupidly I went to Derby Baths for a swim so it was wet through, all the bandages, so I asked three Scots fellas was there (and I always got on with Scots fellas in the Forces), I asked them if they’d re-bandage it and they said, ‘No, there’s a nurse upstairs. Upstairs there’s three lassies upstairs and one of them’s a nurse. Now you go up there and ask one of them to redress it’. So I knocked on the door and this lassie from Scotland, she came to the door, and I told her what I was wanted, I said, ‘There’s a nurse here, isn’t there?’, and she says, ‘Yes but she’d not here at the moment’, so I said, ‘Well, will you redress my finger?’ She says, ‘Oh no, I certainly won’t’, she says. So I asked her three times about something or other, I don’t know whether ‒. Oh, ‘When will the nurse be back’, ‘I don’t know’, and, ‘Do you think she’ll be back tonight’, ‘I don’t know’. So I thought ‘I’ve had enough of this. I think I’m dead’ ‒. But next day we met up, and there were all the lads and that there round the back looking at me motorbike and she came down and started talking about one thing or another, so I made a date then and we went off to the funfair. I went to the hotel, a hotel down on the front and we had a few drinks and we went to the funfair and then later we went to the ballroom, you know, the Tower Ballroom, and dancing and what not, that’s how we got together. We started writing to one another, yeah. So, then after writing I used to go up there at weekends like and met, met up with her.
JF: Good, that was nice.
GC: So we had sixty-five years together. She’s up there look, wee Scotch lassie.
JF: That’s lovely yeah.
GC: I’ve got family now, yeah, all spread out.
JF: Your father also had a heavy time, didn’t he?
GC: Oh yes.
JF: Tell us a bit about him.
GC: Yeah, as I say, he was brought up in Mansfield, Nottingham. Well, Mansfield, all around Mansfield there were five, five pits and they were all miners. The only job you could find in Mansfield was mining and I think somehow he was claustrophobic and he was never going to go down the mine. All his relations and what not went down the mines but he was not going to go down no mine and he did a bit of farm work and when he was of age he joined up. He wasn’t too keen on the farming and when the war broke out he joined up. Then he was with the Sherwood Foresters and they sent him straight over to the Somme and he went all through the Somme, like, but he was wounded at the Somme three times and they sent him home each time and I think he met me mum, me mother like during that period. Oh, as I say, they sent him back and when he’d finished the army, he said when the war was finished he said, ’Well, the army has broken me, took everything I’ve had virtually so they can replace me’, so instead of coming back into Civvy Street he joined up into the regular army for twenty one years. He had to sign on for twenty one years, and no alternative, twenty one years or no, so he signed up but he says, ‘I’m not staying with the Sherwood Foresters. I’m not going to be a ground slug’, he says, ’I’m going with the horses’. ‘Cause he’d been on the farms, like, so he took a fancy to the horses. So he joined the Lancers, so he changed regiments so he was with the Lancers, but he went from there, while he was with the Lancers, he went to India. He married me mother before he went and they had two years in India, he was on the Kaiber Pass [laughs] fighting the fuzzywuzzies [?] or whatever they called them and they came back to Teignmouth Barracks and at Teignmouth Barracks he was there for two or three years and we came along, me son, I came first, and then me brother, he was born in Teignmouth Barracks, but he was only two and I was four and we was sent to Egypt and so we were out in Egypt for eight years.
JF: What year would that be George?
GC: 1926 to 1934 [coughs]. Pardon me.
JF: Don’t worry.
GC: I’m talking too much [laughs]. Can you switch it off for a minute? Eight years out there and came back to Teignmouth Barracks and ‒, oh then he was disbanded then. He finished his service in 1936, in 1936 they found him a job here in Tipton as a works policeman, so while he was here they formed a territorial army unit at the works and then in 1939 he was called up and he served another three years in the Second World War but because he was too old to be sent overseas he had to join the anti-aircraft guns, so he was on anti-aircraft guns all during the war, and they decided he was too old even for that and after three years they discharged him.
JF: And how old was he then?
GC: Oh God, how old would he be then? He’d be well in his sixties, about sixty-five to seventy.
TC: 1889 he was born.
GC: In 1889 he was born.
JF: So, your father and you had really interesting wars.
GC: And me brother, he ‒, I think he volunteered, but he ended up in the Royal Corps of Signals and when the ‒, ‘cause that was later on during the war, but he was in the D-Day landings and he was a despatch rider.
JF: Yeah?
GC: And he used to, like, travel to the front, backwards and forwards, front and back, like, with messages and such like, and he said he was a good target for the snipers, but he travelled all through France, Belgium, Holland, into Germany and he went right the way through to Berlin. So he had a pretty stiff life, yeah.
JF: George, thank you very much. You’ve been most interesting and as they say you had a lively war.
GC: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Oh in Iceland, that was terrible. You used to have the aircraft coming through, get the Lancasters and what not coming through, and sometimes you’d have to get everybody to open up the engine. I mean, they used to have to anchor the aircraft stair with wire hoses, put the wings into concrete loopholes in the concrete, they used to tie them down because when the blizzards come it would blow them off the island and into the fjord at the bottom of Sidwell [?]. And American aircraft went down there, it had blew the aircraft off the fjord and it blew it down into the fjord so ‒, but if you wanted to work on an aircraft eight of you used to get together, used to have the fitters and whoever who was available like, the electricians, we had to put [unclear] up with a ladder up one side and then a platform and then a ladder down the other side. You’d all be wearing all fur-lined clothes, five pairs of gloves and what not, your big boots, and you’d trudge through the snow onto the platform and then one behind the other you’d have to tie white ribbon, white tapes, white tapes we used to have round our necks and on the end of each tape you had your tools tied and then you went up the ladder one behind the other eight of yer, one behind the other ‘til you got to the platform and then you’d wip one of these gloves off, or maybe you’d wip two off but you’d wip these gloves off ‘til you were only left with your silk gloves, the silk gloves on and then you’d start undoing the cowlings, one at a time, and you’d go round and round in a circle ‘til eventually you’d got all the cowlings off and then you’d have to take the generator off so you’d have to go round again, and if it was a fellow who didn’t understand what we were working on you had to explain to him, ‘You got to get them nuts off there, you got to get them things off there, don’t do that one, do the other one first’, so you’d go round and round in a circle until eventually you got the equipment off the engine [laughs], mind you’d have to put your gloves back on again ‒.
JF: How cold was it?
GC: Oh, bitterly cold, yeah, and we used to have a little stove, it was just Nissen huts we had out there and they were lined with plaster board, but in the middle of this there were twelve of us in a Nissen hut and in the middle of the Nissen hut there was this Reece [?] coal stove and it was only that high and about twelve inches round and the chimney up the middle, and we used to stoke it up with coal, and at night time there’d be twelve of yer sitting round this coal fire trying to get warm [laughs] and then in the morning when you managed to get out of bed, you had no end of blankets and whatnot, get out of bed and get dressed and you, we had to go to the washhouse so the first one out the door used to open the door gingerly, but as soon as he opened the door down came a great bulk of snow right down on to yer. If you were unlucky you went out like it’d probably drop on top on yer, and then down the centre between the huts they used to have spikes all the way down to your quarters, the canteen and the cookhouse and whatnot, the officers at the bottom, they had this rope all on steel pickets and you had to go out the hut and you got your goggles on and everything and you grabbed the rope, and some days ‘cause of the snow and the blizzard you had to follow this rope up until you got to the cookhouse, dining hall, yeah.
JF: How did the planes manage to land and take off?
GC: Well, they didn’t actually, when the blizzard was blowing like, and generally, I don’t know why, but every Tuesday and every Thursday you seem to have the blizzard blow. It was like clockwork and the blizzards used to come up and you was virtually stuck but all the Sunderland flying boats they weren’t allowed. As soon as the seas started to freeze up, they sent them back home, but then there was times come when even the ships couldn’t get in ‘cause the sea had frozen up so we had to rely on the Americans for our food virtually. If it hadn’t been for the Americans at the next station up [unclear] but they were pretty good. They used to send over tubs of ice cream which we’d never even seen but their idea was to build up the temperature inside your body the same as what’s outside so if you got ice cream in your body, like, it brought your temperature down in your body and you didn’t feel the outside temperature so much.
JF: Well I haven’t heard that one before George.
GC: Well, it’s the same in India though, isn’t it? If you’re out in India they feed you with curries and all hot spices and what not, don’t they? So, it’s just to even the temperature in your body, your body temperature up with the outside.
JF: George, thank you very much. You’ve been really interesting. Thank you.
GC: You’ll never get all that down on paper [laughs].
JF: Thanks a lot. Thank you.
GC: Oh yes ‒



John Fisher, “Interview with George Crooks,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 14, 2024,

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