Interview with Laurence Sidney Fisher

Title

Interview with Laurence Sidney Fisher

Description

Laurence Fisher grew up in Peterborough and served in the Home Guard before joining the Royal Air Force. He served as ground personnel before remustering as aircrew. He flew operations from Italy before his aircraft was shot down and he became a prisoner of war.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-08-14

Contributor

Julie Williams

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

00:50:01 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AFisherLS150814

Coverage

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

SB: This is Sheila Bibb interviewing Laurence Fisher on 14th of August 2015 at his home in Canterbury. Laurence, to start off with can you just give me some general background to family life, where you were born, and how you came to join the RAF?
LF: I was born in Peterborough which was then the Soke of Peterborough and a friend of ours was a pilot in the RAF in France and came to stay overnight when he was travelling and I was in the Home Guard as a lance corporal and he advised us to volunteer for the air force so my friends and I went over to Northampton where we volunteered in advance of being called up. One of the options open to me was armourer. I wanted to be air crew but I was colour blind and as an armourer I needed some colour vision but not sufficient to bar me. When I was posted to the Middle East to Number 4 Re-Arming And Refuelling Unit but that in fact was left at 235 Wing which was at Sidi Barrani where I volunteered for air crew because I knew that they wouldn’t have the colour book and my colour test was map colours which I’d learned at school, the colour of a royal sovereign pencil which was bright scarlet and the colour of the orderly’s hair which was bright ginger so I was sent back to South Africa and trained there for about a year when we were required for first priority in the Middle East. So we were flown up the middle of Africa and stopped at Ndola in Northern Rhodesia as it was then where I was able to call in on friends who came back in their little car with the golf clubs in the back. Seeing me on their veranda said, ‘Whatever you do don’t tell daddy we’ve been golfing on a Sunday.’ So we flew on. Landed at Kisumu. Then on to Cairo where we were divided into two halves and our half was sent straight to the squadrons. I flew via El Adem to Naples where we had the pleasure of staying in a marble hotel and sleeping on marble isn’t ideal. Then on to Foggia. Now, 167 squadron was an elite squadron. The day after we left them they dropped arms to the insurgent Poles in Warsaw but to return to my story we didn’t like the idea of being sent back without doing any operations so I was deputed to go to the flight commander and, but I persuaded him to let us have the COs aircraft. The first op we did went well and we attacked Verona martialling yards. The second night we were sent out in bright moonlight to attack the Weibersbrunn German fighter station and they didn’t like it much but on our return we were jumped by a radar guided ME109 and its cannon fire and other armaments soon killed half of the crew but fortunately the aircraft was flying on George and so there was an opportunity to get out. Now of course I hadn’t been fitted into my parachute harness so I folded my arms across my chest and just hoped for the best and of course as the chute opened my arms were flung to one side. As I went down I was rotating in the air and could see the aircraft on fire gliding into a, a clearing between two stands of trees which stripped the burning wings off and put out the fire but by that time I was rather close to the ground because jumping from two thousand feet is not ideal and I guided myself in to the middle of a potato patch but a strong wind at ground level coming up the mountain blew me into a pine tree where I fell horizontally, breaking a branch with my shoulder and my head so that my flying helmet was full of blood. I had a look in my evasion kit but felt that the odds were too much against me particularly as I’d got rather loose flying boots on so I made the decision to go to the farmhouse and on my knocking at the door they opened a little flap and offered me seeded bread and some milk. I accepted these but I showed them the blood on my hand from my bleeding head and they let me in and sent for the landmacht so I met up with two other members of my crew in the police station the following morning. And then from Graz we were taken to Vienna by rail in a very crowded train and then on to the lens factory which was next door to the prisoner of war reception centre and there we were kitted out and sent off to Bankau in Upper Silesia by train. Cattle trucks of course. That was fine as far as it went but the Russian advance meant that we had to be moved so we were marched two hundred and fifty miles via the outskirts of Breslau to Cottbus just outside Berlin and there the camp contained Southern Irishmen who were all Welsh Guards. Naturally being Irish they’d be in the Welsh Guards and they were very good to us indeed. Gave us free, things that normally they would have charged cigarettes for. In the end we were liberated by the Russians and on the Americans giving the Russians the lorries we were transported to the River Elbe where we walked over a narrow footbridge with rather itching backs out of the Russian zone into the American zone where Lancaster bombers were used to fly us back to Oxford.
SB: Very good. What were your feelings when, when you were handed over to the police etcetera?
LF: When I was handed over to the police I had injured my foot slightly and was limping so I was left in the police station guarded by a landmacht and the other two members of the crew were taken off to the site of the crash where they saw the flight engineer lying on the ground. He had landed with the aircraft, probably in his seat and the impact had broken his neck. He didn’t know this, climbed out of the aircraft, walked a few paces and then fell dead and that was, that was a very sad thing really. My South African navigator, bomb aimer didn’t want the Germans to know that he could speak German so my school boy German came in to recover the pencil his wife had given him that the Germans had taken away with all the rest of our possessions. Then we were put into a German air, air force camp where we were all confined to one room and anything remaining of our aircrew equipment was taken away from us. We were rather afraid of not having sufficient clothing because we were in tropical kit but we were well equipped at Breslau by the, by the Red Cross. Yeah.
SB: It’s interesting there you mention the Red Cross. Had you had any other dealings with them earlier in the war or not?
LF: No.
SB: That was the first time.
LF: We had had no dealings with them earlier in the war but of course when we were prisoners of war we subsisted on Red Cross parcels and they arrived regularly until the RAF bombed the rail system so much that it broke down and we didn’t get any more. That lasted for about the last two months or three months of our captivity. We were fed as troops in barracks which meant a pint of so-called soup a day which was mainly cabbage and a slice of bread. That, that was the entire ration the consequence of which was I, a normal eight stone came back home weighing only five stone. During that time, during the march I was turned out of a straw field barn at gunpoint because it was too full according to the German regulations and had to sleep on an upper floor in chaff. Now, if you bury yourself in chaff it can kill you and I knew this so I was careful but during the night the temperature fell very low and I received what I think is called frost nip so that a certain disability exists but apart from that I, being young of course, survived far better than some of the older members.
SB: Did you, you say you had schoolboy German. Did you have any problems with communicating at all? Or -
LF: We were not allowed to learn German during our captivity. Although some people learned Italian. Learning German was considered a collaboration with the enemy but most of our goons who walked about among us spoke quite good English and I asked one what he was going to do after the war to which he replied, ‘Watch you rebuilding Berlin.’ That never happened fortunately.
SB: Did you have any idea how things were going?
LF: Ah. As among air crew there are wireless operators who could also make wireless sets in our camps we had several wireless sets and we got daily bulletins broadcast by the BBC which were read out to us. During one of these sessions a German officer came into the barrack to find about three hundred men standing stock still and silent which must have surprised him but of course the newsreader was warned of his coming and we soon began a normal buzz of conversation until he had gone when we listened to the rest of the news bulletin which included the American capture of Iwo Jima I remember.
SB: How did that affect you?
LF: Well we were certain. Well, our morale was high. Bear in mind this was 1944/45 and we received orders from London that we were not to try to escape because that would simply clutter things up unnecessarily but our morale was high because we could see that it was obvious that we were winning the war. We were lucky that we did. [laughs]
SB: Were there times that you wondered how long you’d be there?
LF: Well in those circumstances you live one day at a time because the need to know is one of the things that stops you learning a great deal about your fellows and telling them anything much about yourself so we had card schools. I myself taught English composition in the camp school. One of my friends took banking exams through the Red Cross until that was cut off but every day of course we always did a certain routine amount of walking in order to keep fit and that was an essential part of it and one thing, it passed the time and another thing it enabled us to remain fit enough to survive.
SB: Were there many outbreaks of illness at all?
LF: No. There were very few. We had a medical officer and his sole medical kit consisted of aspirin. The Germans themselves were very short of medications and their people fared no better than we did but I think our limited diet was a very healthy one and of course Breslau was in Southern Poland so that it was a fairly isolated camp on sandy soil which is obviously well drained. Chosen by the Germans because it was difficult to tunnel in and so mostly being young men we were very healthy.
SB: Going back to your time before you were actually captured, when you, first of all you said you were in Egypt. How long were you there for?
LF: I was there for a matter of a few weeks really. About two or three months because it was the time Rommel was approaching El Alamein and so although we were at Sidi Barrani which is 05 which is five kilometres from Alexandria I think we weren’t very far into the blue. We were moved back to a holding camp at Kasfareet and our unit, Number 5 Re-Arming and Refuelling Party was disbanded as being no longer needed. My experience of Kasfareet was of a padre wanting to involve me in Christmas celebrations upon which I told him that by Christmas I should be in South Africa of which he was rather envious.
SB: And when you got to Foggia what did you think of that as a place? At that time?
LF: Foggia was an enormous, ancient crater the whole of which had been turned into an airfield as far as I could tell. There were American squadrons as well as British squadrons there. As our stay there was so brief and as our tents were on the outskirts of the occupied zone I really know very little about it because when I arrived back I arrived back in the middle of the night of course so if you miss the [Garry?] taking you back to quarters you just didn’t know which way to walk. [laughs]
SB: So how long were you in Foggia before the fateful mission?
LF: I think we were there about a fortnight in all. Yes. [laughs]
SB: A short sweet stay then.
LF: Yes, that’s right.
SB: Right. If we think then to once you were brought back to Oxford what happened at that stage?
LF: Well, we were, when we were brought back to Oxford we were kept hanging about until it was getting dark at night when we were directed to our billets but the director had a sense of humour because in common with other flights we were directed to the WAAF billets and disturbed those poor girls in the middle of the night. They were able to direct us to our proper billets in no uncertain terms. So having, we were then disbursed to re-arming, to rehabilitation camp and I was there until I gained weight and until they were reasonably sure that there was nothing physically wrong with me. The whole experience took about two months and it was a really excellently run and excellently organised piece of work. After that we were taken around various firms which might lead to employing us but none of that was of any use to me as it happened.
SB: So when you were finally given the all clear where did you go and what did you do?
LF: Ah. After, after rehabilitation I was sent on ninety days leave and fortunately while I’d been a prisoner of war I’d still been paid so I had ninety pounds which was a lot of money in those days and I was able to go home and then think about what a future career might hold. I had the opportunity of remaining in the RAF but as a peace loving person I didn’t see I had a role in a fighting force in peacetime.
SB: So what career did you take up in the end?
LF: Ah I trained as, in emergency training in teaching and ended up at Christchurch College in Canterbury training teachers. Fortunately, I was able to take early retirement three or four years before I was sixty five and before I was quite outdated as far as the students were concerned.
SB: During your time in Italy and then in Germany and so on were you still able to get news from home at all from the family?
LF: I can’t recall having more than one or two letters from home but I wrote regularly. That I became quite used to. Nor did I receive any parcels from home as longer term prisoners did. Some prisoners had been in the cage for five years so the lines of communication had become established but as we were a newly formed camp just for air crew no lines of communication got established for us and we were lucky to get the Red Cross parcels that came. They were, you know, a valuable communication themselves although of course they received, they had no messages in them but the fact that they were the sorts of food we were used to was very important.
SB: So what did those parcels contain? Can you remember?
LF: Mostly, they were, the ones we received were American so we had a tin of Klim which is perhaps an anagram for milk, a tin of meat, a bar of chocolate which the Germans removed because they said it might be used in an attempt to escape. I don’t know whether the chocolate escaped eating but there was a pack, a pack of tea and very valuable to the Polish among us [vitaminski pilioul?] which were quite palatable but not very high food value and of course butter or margarine and the margarine was called Oleomargarine and I think oleo stands for oil. Tasted rather like that too. We used to trade with the Germans because cigarettes were also contained in the parcels and so was soap. Now those were very valuable commodities and we traded soap with the goons and once we’d traded with them we could report them and this would have led to dire consequences for them so that enabled us to build up trade and we got a certain amount of loaves of bread. The well organised among the escape committee got other things that would be useful in escape and one man even got a camera with some film but that cost a lot of cigarettes but we had a good supply of cigarettes and they were a powerful tool in trading with the Germans.
SB: So you’ve talked about the physical aspects of this. The injuries and the weight loss etcetera. How did you feel emotionally and mentally?
LF: When you’re on such a low diet you tend just to exist. Emotionally you kept on a very even keel because to be emotional cost effort. One of the things I did was to get hold of some Red Cross wool and needles and to re-finger a pair of gloves which were very useful in the German winter. But we had, we organised regular discussions and one of those I contributed to was to do with space travel in which I happened to be very interested. Of course our knowledge of space travel in those days was very limited indeed and one of the things I remember saying was that astronauts would have to have magnetic boots which I don’t think is the case. We also got the medical officer to talk about sex and his briefing was that he should tell us about the birds and the bees but he didn’t spend long on that fortunately [laughs]. But the school also occupied time and cooking for ourselves on the stoves in each barrack room with the potatoes from our soup was another occupation and also keeping the fire going with pieces of wood from our bed rolls but the time didn’t pass too slowly because there were card games and other games supplied by the Red Cross which were available.
SB: You mention the school. Who were you teaching there?
LF: Well, many of the men hadn’t taken more than elementary education and they wanted to keep their standards up in order to take exams either through the Red Cross if there was time or when they got back into England again so as a time passer the school was really very popular and it covered quite a wide range of subjects according to the qualifications of fellow prisoners of war but I, again, in the need to know, I only knew about the English section and a friend of mine took English grammar but he didn’t want to do English composition but I got sufficient paper from the man of confidence to enable those of my class which consisted of about fifteen men to write essays which I then criticised.
SB: Taking that on a bit further did the men actually write about their experiences or did they just write about things in general?
LF: Of course we were limited in to the subjects of composition and we stuck to the sort of compositions that would have been set in an English school. Nothing about their war service. Nothing about camp conditions. Nothing that could have been of possible use to the Germans had they seen it so that the compositions were rather literary really.
SB: Did they appreciate it?
LF: Oh the school was very popular. Very popular indeed and of course in those circumstances the authority of the teacher doesn’t always count for much. It was very much a matter of cooperation so that you can’t give orders as you can in an ordinary school. [laughs]This experience came, became quite valuable later in life when I taught adults.
SB: So, what, for you, was the highlight of your war experience?
LF: I think the highlight was knowing that the raid in which I had been involved had helped the Americans to reduce the output of the Ploiesti oilfields by about a third and the constant raids kept the oil down to that figure and while we were on the march from Breslau to Cottbus we passed a German tank of the latest mark stuck in a village, run out of a fuel and that again was heartening although we were careful not to show our appreciation to our German guards who were a bit touchy and didn’t like the idea of the march very much. The farms that we were quartered in were very limited in the amount of stock they had and they had to account for everything of course but we made sure they were a few chickens short by the time we left and they were very fed up because they knew they’d be paid for any damage we did in deutschmarks which wouldn’t hold their value very long.
SB: How long did the march take?
LF: The march was about two hundred and fifty miles and took three weeks. We had at the rear of the column, pulled along by those of us who were fitter than others a flat, a flat wheeled vehicle for those who just couldn’t walk any further and among those was the rear gunner of one of my opos who had hurt his back on coming down by parachute and he went into a German hospital because he could no longer stand the conditions. I wonder what happened to him?
SB: How many actually survived your crash?
LF: Half my crew were killed. Yes. The pilot I think was killed outright and so was the upper gunner. And the rear gunner, the navigator, bomb aimer and myself came down by parachute. The flight engineer I’ve already described. Probably broke his neck, got out of the aircraft and fell down dead as soon as he tried to turn his head which is what can happen apparently.
SB: You said two of them were sent on ahead of you because you’d hurt your feet, your foot when you -
LF: Yes.
SB: Were taken so did you catch up with them at all later?
LF: Yes. They were returned to the police station and of course the rear gunner and myself went to one camp but the navigator, being an officer went to an offlag and we saw no more of him.
SB: Did you have any contact with them after it was all over?
LF: I wrote to him because he was a South African mining engineer but I never got a letter back again.
SB: And thinking back now to your family when you finally got back how much had they been aware of what was happening?
LF: They’d received my letters but none of theirs had got through to me and I think they were very relieved to see me back especially as I was placed on double rations and had two ration books. When I got married, before rationing ended that didn’t allow me two wives. [laughs]
SB: Good try [laughs]. So if you think back over the whole, the war and your time afterwards how did your involvement in the war affect your later life? Or didn’t it?
LF: Well I think having seen so much of the world and such a variety of people with whom I had to get on when I was sitting the examination in armament for air crew having been an armourer I knew the Browning machine gun very well and in my examination answer mentioned a part that the examiner didn’t know of but he found it and as a consequence I was put to lecturing to other members of the flight who hadn’t done so well on the Browning gun by the armament officer and also to taking a group of Polish airmen who needed help in learning about armament and I think this led to my promotion from sergeant to flight sergeant within twenty two days which made me senior man which isn’t always uncomfortable, which isn’t always comfortable in the groups I was in but the Polish airmen when it came to the exam said they just couldn’t understand the questions which was very sensible of them. My experience of lecturing to the other members of my flight had followed my promotion in the Home Guard because I lectured to those who didn’t know, from a First World War army manual which I was given on armament. Ok.
SB: Yeah. So it seems to me that throughout your career at some point you ended up lecturing.
LF: [laughs] Yes.
SB: So it was perhaps natural that you went on -
LF: That’s right.
SB: To take that as a career.
LF: Yes. Yes I think that’s very likely. Yes. Always have had the gift of the gab I think.
SB: And do you think it had any impact on your family life when you married and had your own family?
LF: Well I think when you’ve been through near death experiences it concentrates the mind on the essentials of life and in bringing up my own children I’ve tried to look ahead to taking account what their qualities were, what they would be likely to be fitted for and my second son, he became a computer expert and my daughter became a social worker so that I think they followed in keeping to the basics of life as well.
SB: And you say your, one son was an MOD worker.
LF: Yes. Yes he was an electronics engineer in the Ministry of Defence. My daughter was first of all involved in Southwark, which isn’t the easiest place to work in, in adoptions and then in supervising adoptions in Southwark and has recently retired. She deserves a medal too I think. [laughs]
SB: Ok well thank you very much for that it’s been very interesting.
LF: [laughs] I love shooting a line. [laughs]
[machine paused]
LF: No I don’t think so. It’s too general to be -
SB: Well just explain -
LF: Really of interest.
SB: Just explain a little bit about it to me then.
LF: Right. Hang on a moment.
[pause]
LF: Upon arrival in prisoner of war camp one of the early things that one should do is to have a private conversation with the man of confidence. The man of confidence is a prisoner of war in whom his fellow prisoners of war have absolute confidence that he will not betray what they say and it’s a way of ensuring that all prisoners of war are in fact genuine ex-service men, prisoners of war and not German stooges. To the man of confidence you’re allowed to say things that you mustn’t say to fellow prisoners of war. In fact all the detail of your training and whatever and any observations you had about being shot down which might be useful to people who are still fighting. Now this was really quite important and I think it also gave people a sense of the cohesion of all being prisoners together on the same level. Now, I’ve spoken of wireless sets. The man of confidence was in communication with the Air Ministry. So we were told. And I think this was born out because through him came the message that we were no longer to attempt to escape and daily orders could come through which were quite secret from the Germans. How this was done of course I don’t know because I didn’t need to know but the Germans constantly searched of course for wireless sets but because these could be made up, for example, using the solder from the sealings on tins of food using wire and crystals supplied quite openly by the Red Cross which the Germans didn’t bar. Wireless sets would not appear to the uninitiated to be anything at all because they were dismembered and hidden as soon as the broadcast was finished. No prisoners, apart from those actually operating the wireless sets knew where they were except by misadventure and that’s the way it was kept so that interrogation by the Germans would not have been likely to have broken the secrecy.
SB: So the man of confidence, who put him in that position?
LF: The man of confidence was put in that position by the early members starting the new prisoner of war camp and they, there was a camp leader elected as well. In our case it was an Australian airman but, but because during his captivity he was promoted to officer rank he was removed by the Germans and we needed to elect another one which we did by an open ballot. There was also an office run by three or four senior prisoners who were responsible for all contacts with the Germans and some of those were selected because they were able to speak German. Of course we had daily parades and counting and it was against our interests to try and trick the Germans into miscounting and we didn’t do so because we had no need in our camp to conceal the fact that anybody had escaped. Yeah. I think that’s the lot.

Citation

Sheila Bibb, “Interview with Laurence Sidney Fisher,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 24, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/3401.

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