Interview with Jeff Gray


Interview with Jeff Gray


Jeff Gray was a farm labourer in Aberdeenshire when he volunteered for the Royal Air Force. He trained to fly in Texas and completed 30 operations as a pilot with 61 Squadron. After leaving the RAF he worked for BOAC flying Yorks and VC10s.







00:57:16 audio recording


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DK: Right. This is David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Jeff Gray at his home on the 17th of October 2015. I’ll just leave that there and if you want to -
JG: Yes.
DK: Go through your pictures.
JG: I -
DK: If I can, one thing. If I keep looking down it’s just to check that the -
JG: Yeah. Yes. Running -
DK: Old machine’s working.
JG: I was very fortunate in my choice when I joined the RAF. I was packed off to Texas. To America. And -
DK: If I just take you back a little bit.
JG: Yes.
DK: What made you want to join the RAF? Did you have any -
JG: I was -
DK: Choice in the matter or –
JG: I was in the Home Guard. LDV which became the Home Guard and I decided that I would like to join up and so I asked the farm manager I was working for if I could have a day off.
DK: So you were working on the farms -
JG: Yes.
DK: At the time then.
JG: I’m a farm boy.
DK: Oh right. Ok.
JG: Still. And he said, ‘You want a day off?’ He said, ‘But you’ve got a day off. You’ve got New Year’s Day.’ So I said, ‘I think, I think I need more than that,’ so he let me go. I went to the recruiting centre, the combined recruiting centre in Aberdeen.
DK: Yeah.
JG: The army and the navy guys weren’t there. The RAF man was and I think he thought it would be fun if he stole the would-be Gordon Highlander away who had come to see if he could get a kilt and joined the RAF. He said, ‘You’d like the RAF better. They sleep between sheets at night.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I’d love to try that.’ But he didn’t realise that I was, anyway that led to another station in Edinburgh a few weeks later and I went to that two days so I had to say to Jake, the farm grieve, ‘I need a week off.’ He said, ‘You can’t go doing that,’ he said, ‘I’ve signed. You’re producing food and I’ve signed all the documents and you’re exempt from military service.’
DK: Was it considered a reserved occupation?
JG: Yes it was.
DK: What you were doing.
JG: It was reserved.
DK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
JG: And I said, ‘Well growing food isn’t going to be enough to stop this Hitler guy, I don’t think,’ so I went off. He gave me the week off. What defeated him was he said, he said, ‘I’ll have to take a week’s wages off you.’ My annual wage was ten pounds. I said, ‘Can you do the mathematics of that Jake?’ He said, ‘No. I can’t.’ So, so off I went and once again fortune smiled upon me. I was able to make a reasonable impression on the board but I failed the mathematics. The mathematics were truly, I hadn’t covered at my school. They said, can you retake this if we give you, if we postpone your date of joining till September can you take the, and I said, ‘I can, yes’. And so I came back and thought now how do I do this so I asked the headmaster, a chap I’d always liked, the domini and he said, ‘Well you can’t go into Aberdeen. You can’t do any of that. You’re going to join the classes here, you’re going to sit at the back,’ he said, ‘And I’ll teach you mathematics till it’s coming out of your ears.’ So that’s what I did and when eventually I was up to snuff took the exam and that was it but they had already set my date to go and so I was stuck with that and I had to earn a living for a little while and I found that there were more ways of earning a living as a farm labourer than I’d realised. It was harvest time. If I went south I could go to harvest and they would pay me five pounds. Come back to Aberdeenshire and get another five pounds for the next month and go north into the wilds -
DK: Nice one –
JG: And get another.
DK: Excellent.
JG: So in three months I’d got fifteen pounds and my annual wages was only ten. I said, ‘Jeff. I think you’ve made a discovery.’ I was never able to really put it into practice and when I reported to the Lord’s Cricket Ground they went through the training there and assembled us eventually and decided where we were going to go and they shipped us off across the Atlantic on a ship called the Banfora in a little convoy and although it was a horrible ship and I didn’t care much for it it was very useful because we had a destroyer on each side sending messages to each other so we spent the time taking down their messages, you know, from the Aldiss lamps and when we got there they assembled us in a hangar and told us where we were going. Texas.
DK: Oh.
JG: Well like every school boy of the time I’d read everything I had about you know adventure comics, all that stuff and what a wonderful thing that was. So here we are in Texas.
DK: Oh right.
JG: A photograph, and there’s Jeff Gray there.
DK: Ah.
JG: Yeah.
DK: So at this point, by the time you got to Texas there had been no flying at all. All your basic flying was done -
JG: I had to do a grading course on the Tiger Moth.
DK: Right. And that was in the UK.
JG: And that was in the UK.
DK: Right.
JG: And if you passed the grading course you could go.
DK: And then straight out -
JG: Failed that and -
DK: To America.
JG: You didn’t get anywhere.
DK: Ok.
JG: And so -
DK: So this was your class at the time then.
JG: It is yes. Here’s the full class all fortunately named Number One British Flying Training.
DK: So just, just for the recording so it’s Number One British Flying Training School.
JG: Yes. That’s -
DK: Number nine course.
JG: You will find the G men in a row here.
DK: Right.
JG: Gordon and Gray.
DK: Oh I see.
JG: And Guttridge.
DK: Yes. Yeah.
JG: And -
DK: All alphabetically -
JG: We were the G men. Eventually, they, I was the only one who survived the course.
DK: Really.
JG: Which was, but they all had a career. Gordon for instance had been a policeman. He, I forget what he did in the RAF but he went back to his native Glasgow and became chief of police there.
DK: Really.
JG: Had a splendid career and Guttridge who never got over failing the course went and did something. A replica trip of Shackleton when they sailed across that ocean and across -
DK: Oh.
JG: And so he wasn’t lacking in courage.
DK: No.
JG: So there we are. So there are a number of pictures of aeroplanes. The Wellington.
DK: Wellington.
JG: Which, of course, I spent a lot of time on the Wellington as an instructor and a picture of the -
DK: Manchester.
JG: The Manchester.
DK: Manchester. Yes. Yes.
JG: You will recognise the Manchester was the most deadly of aeroplanes. It had these unreliable engines.
DK: Yes.
JG: It was simply awful.
DK: So how long were actually in America for?
JG: I think it took nearly a year altogether you know as a journey time and what have you.
DK: Ok.
JG: Yes. And when I came back of course they said we’ve got to knock you guys into shape again you know and you’re not allowed to wear shoes because you’re not commissioned and only commissioned officers can wear shoes and these lovely shoes we’d brought back with us from the States had to be scrapped.
DK: Oh no.
JG: Very foolish but anyway this aeroplane, the Manchester, you can see from the tail unit that it became the Lancaster.
DK: Yes.
JG: Just as it was. It is in fact a Lanc with new wings and new engines.
DK: The four, four engines.
JG: And so became a, I’ve got a picture here. I don’t think anyone recognises who she is. She was one of my childhood, school heroines.
DK: Oh it’s not Amy Johnson.
JG: Amy Johnson.
DK: It is Amy Johnson yes. Yeah
JG: Yes. Yeah. And at that -
DK: Did you, did you -
JG: Meeting in Lincoln I passed that around the table and -
DK: Did you ever -
JG: So much for fame. No one recognised her.
DK: Did you ever, did you ever meet her?
JG: I never did get to met her.
DK: You never met her.
JG: No. No.
DK: No.
JG: Our paths did cross at some time when she, I arrived in a Comet, flying a Comet to Australia down to Melbourne and, by chance on the date when she had done her flight.
DK: Right.
JG: Now there’s always this rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne said Sydney doesn’t count. She finished here. And she was carried ashore, down the street by the staff of the Menzies Hotel and when I got there the street was crowded and there was a guy who’d been a nobody on that occasion, now he’s the chief porter and he said, ‘We’re going to make you re-enact this. You’re going to be carried.’
DK: Did, did people like Amy Johnson influence you in to sort of a career in aviation? Is it -
JG: I think it was one of those things that yes you form these impressions.
DK: Yeah.
JG: And yeah. So -
DK: So when you got back from America, from your training there and you, what happened then? Did you join, go straight to a squadron or was there further training?
JG: No. No. There was a lot of training. We’d only flown single-engined aeroplanes. We had to be checked out on, on Ansons and the like to -
DK: Right.
JG: To multi-engined aeroplanes and then we wound up at an Operational Training Unit at Cottesmore. Number 14 OTU and where we flew the Wellington.
DK: Right.
JG: And when we’d done that we had to be converted to the four engine Lancasters and there was a -
DK: Did you, did you have to –
JG: Conversion Unit at Wigsley which we did that.
DK: Wigsley. Yes.
JG: And we flew Halifaxes and Lancasters because they were running low on the Lancasters and they still had a few Halifaxes so -
DK: So that was the Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley.
JG: That was the Heavy -
DK: Yeah.
JG: Conversion Unit. Yes.
DK: Did you ever get to fly the Manchester?
JG: No. No.
DK: No.
JG: No. I just, someone sent me some pictures of it and I kept them because it seemed to me to be such an intriguing tale of this very unsuccessful, unreliable aeroplane.
DK: Such a successful -
JG: Which turned into the most successful ever.
DK: Can you, can you remember much about the Wellingtons and Halifaxes? What they were like as aircraft to fly.
JG: I loved the Wellington. Oh yes. A great aeroplane really. It had no vices at all except maybe one thing. It had an automatic trim that when you put down the flap the automatic trim readjusted the attitude.
DK: Yeah.
JG: And if that didn’t work you had to be the automatic trim, [laughs] if it didn’t work and you had to catch on quickly but apart from that as a defect I thought it was a great aeroplane to be able to fly and it was robust, and Barnes Wallis, of course, again. Yeah.
DK: What about the Halifax? Was that -
JG: Well I don’t have much impression of the Halifax except it was very similar and the instructor pretended that it was a Lancaster.
DK: Right.
JG: And you called for the power settings you would call on a Lancaster and he set the power for the Halifax.
DK: Right.
JG: So this was very confusing [laughs] I found.
DK: I can imagine.
JG: I’m not sure I cared a lot for it.
DK: So, so although your training was on the Halifax. They were really preparing you for the Lancaster.
JG: Yes. Yes. It was just they had run out of Lancasters and they’d substituted Halifaxes which at the time they seemed to have plenty of them. Yeah.
DK: So, from, from heavy conversion unit then was it straight to your squadron.
JG: Yes. They said, they took us, they put us in a hangar and we were assembled there and told to choose our crew and we were handed a list. When that had been done that would be your crew and if you couldn’t do it they would make up your mind. They would give you a list.
DK: I’ve often heard about this where you were put in to a hangar. I find it very unusual because -
JG: Absolutely weird. Yeah.
DK: Because the military is normally you do this, you do that.
JG: It was.
DK: And this is very different to sort of the military thinking where you got -
JG: I thought it was a very clever move indeed.
DK: Really.
JG: And I stood there like an idiot. I didn’t know where to start and this scruffy Yorkshireman came up. An aggressive, little, scruffy Yorkshireman come. He said, ‘Have you got a navigator yet?’ ‘No,’ I said. He said, ‘Well you have now. Let’s go and find the rest of them.’ [laughs] So that was my first impression of Jeff Ward the Yorkshireman and we were buddies from then on.
DK: So this, this forming your own crew in a hangar, you think it was a good idea then. It seemed to, it seemed to work.
JG: It was a very smart move. Yes. It meant there was no objection. It was your choice. You’d done the rounds there and you’d picked them all and that was it. If you couldn’t decide they decided for you but mostly people were able to pick guys they liked the look of or whatever. Yeah.
DK: So after that it was then the posting to 61 squadron.
JG: No. I think, I think we did the OTU after that but -
DK: Alright. Ok.
JG: I’m not quite sure. Yes. And the 61 squadron, I don’t know, was the luck of the draw I suppose. Yes. And that’s what brought me into contact with Lincoln and the cathedral.
DK: So where were you based with 61?
JG: We started at Syerston.
DK: Syerston.
JG: In Nottingham and we were very displeased to be moved because we were just getting to know all the pubs there and [laughs] all the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem and all those and suddenly we were shifted off to Lincoln and that seemed, and then and then from Skellingthorpe they sent us to Coningsby and that I liked. Coningsby was a great place to be.
DK: So you went to Coningsby next then.
JG: Yeah.
DK: Right.
JG: And then back to Skellingthorpe.
DK: Skellingthorpe.
JG: And Skelly was a cold and sad place in a way because it was very basic where the others, Syerston and Coningsby were regular accommodation and a good style.
DK: It’s a housing estate now.
JG: Yeah but I think if, if you’re in a group and you’re living in the same nissen hut and you’re eating in the same mess and everything you all become pals.
DK: Sure.
JG: It pulls you all together. Yes. Yes. So and I was interviewed just before I went there for a commission and I was interviewed by a chap called Bonham Carter and I took a very poor, I have a very poor opinion of Bonham Carter because my school in Scotland was [Raine?] North Public School. To his mind I had defrauded someone. It was not a public school. So I had to explain to him that the Scottish educational system was better and greater than the English and when we said it was a public school the public could attend. I said, ‘When you talk about a public school -
DK: Yeah.
JG: The public may not attend.’ And he put down on my documents, “Not officer material.” Quite right too. [laughs]
DK: Oh dear.
JG: He got that right but he did me a great favour in fact in that I went as an NCO and we were a crew of NCOs and were all mucking in together as it were.
DK: Did you find on a squadron a bit difficult though that some of the pilots were obviously officers?
JG: Yes.
DK: And some of them weren’t so you didn’t necessarily mix with all of the pilots.
JG: No.
DK: Was that an issue or –
JG: I don’t think it was really.
DK: No.
JG: People seemed able to cope with that. I think I felt sorry for chaps who were allocated to senior officers because that sort of changed the relationship altogether.
DK: So the dynamics of the crew sort of –
JG: Yes. Yes.
DK: Yeah
JG: But they seemed to be able to bond quite well but I think it took them a little bit longer and we had, I always felt that this Bonham Carter had done me a favour.
DK: Yeah.
JG: Because we bonded straight away and shared everything.
DK: So your crew were all sergeants.
JG: Yeah.
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JG: As in that -
DK: A picture here. Yeah.
JG: [?] I showed you.
DK: Oh.
JG: Yeah, that one. Yes. There we are. Yes. So – and I’ve kept a number of things that impressed me. There’s a plot of, there’s a bomb plot for Stettin which seemed to me to be self-evident that all this scatter coming in from this direction that what they needed to do was to, instead of picking the target they should have -
DK: Yeah. Yeah.
JG: Moved the target a bit beyond it and then they would have got most of the bombs falling where –
DK: Yeah.
JG: They wanted instead of wasted out here.
DK: It was known as creep back wasn’t it?
JG: Creep back. Yes.
DK: Creep back. Yeah.
JG: And it seemed to me there was a very simple solution to that rather than master bombers and that nonsense but, so I think that was why I kept that because no one paid any attention to it really [laughs].
DK: So you put the aiming point about there.
JG: Yeah. Put the aiming point -
DK: And then that would move –
JG: About a mile further on. Yes.
DK: Yeah.
JG: Yeah. An imaginary point the Pathfinder guys could find the area and identify it but then move the pretend and you would get a lot more of these bombs where you wanted them.
DK: Was it at 61 squadron then the first time that you saw the Lancaster and flew the Lancaster?
JG: Well yes. Yes that’s right. Yes.
DK: So -
JG: We had the Conversion Unit.
DK: Right. Ok. So what were your, after the Wellington and the Halifax what were your feelings about the Lancaster?
JG: I liked it from the beginning. Yeah. I thought it was a great aeroplane. It was a natural aeroplane. It didn’t have any defects that I, except getting in and out of it was a bit of a squeeze but it was a very bad aeroplane to escape from but otherwise it seemed robust and it, yeah I liked it. I thought it was great. And the sad thing is that it’s only recently that it’s sort of come into its own. Up till just recently and perhaps that Memorial it was the fighter boys, the Battle of Britain boys, they were the glamour boys. Bomber Command were nowhere and they’d rather blotted their copy books towards the end with that bombing raid on Dresden but then that Memorial seemed to change something quiet subtly in the minds of the British people and so the Lancaster has now become the aeroplane to have been on [laughs]. So -
DK: Strange that isn’t it?
JG: Yeah. I feel -
DK: So, can, can you recall your, your first mission then? Where that was to?
JG: Modane was the first one we did.
DK: That was the first one, to -
JG: And then the next one was Dusseldorf when Bill Reid got his, his Victoria Cross.
DK: So did you know Bill Reid then?
JG: Oh yes. Yes.
DK: Yeah.
JG: I knew Bill Reid fairly well because we were fellow countrymen, you see.
DK: Sure. Sure.
JG: I met him. He’d just got his medal ribbon up and he was out celebrating with his crew in Boston and we’d been to the Assembly Rooms to a dance and he wasn’t the sort of guy who danced. He was one of the guys who just looked on from the doorway and I was often one of the guys who missed the transport back to camp but I’d found a lady who would give me bed and breakfast so I’m on my way there when I come across [Ellis] and it was his radio officer [both?] looking for somewhere to sleep the night. I said, ‘Come with me to this lodging house,’ and the landlady answered the door, ‘Oh Jeff,’ she said, ‘Come in. Not him,’ she said, ‘He’s drunk. He will make a mess of my beds.’ ‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘Mrs. You will be the only landlady in Lincolnshire, perhaps in the country who has turned away a man who has just won a Victoria Cross.’
DK: Oh no.
JG: ‘Get off,’ she said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ But it was true and he behaved himself. I said, ‘He’ll pay for any damage anyway.’
DK: She let him in then did she?
JG: So she let him in. So every time I met him I would tease him a little bit about his days when he was dancing and so on and his wife really never quite followed it. He doesn’t dance, he can’t dance, he thinks it’s a route march.
DK: I’ve always heard the story, I don’t know how true it was that when he met his wife it was some years before he mentioned that he’d been awarded the Victoria Cross.
JG: Oh I don’t know about that but quite possible yes. He had quite a career after that. The MacRobert’s family took him up and sent him through university.
DK: Right.
JG: And where he got a degree which and the MacRobert’s family they’d bought a Spitfire and I think they spent money on a Stirling -
DK: Stirling.
JG: Of all things. And he was given employment with them on their fertiliser division.
DK: Right.
JG: And so every time I met him at these get-togethers I said, ‘You’re still are pushing the bull shit then.’ [laughs]. ‘You’re selling horse shit.’ [laughs] I think I’ve kept some -
DK: Yes.
JG: I think I’ve kept. There he is, a piece of information there.
DK: I did meet him actually about fifteen years ago.
JG: Yeah. Yeah that’s -
DK: Because he ended up a prisoner of war didn’t he? I believe he was shot down later on.
JG: Yes. Yes. Yes. There. What else have we got here? I went from Bomber Command to Transport Command and that’s a BOAC York. That’s a York which was a development of the Lancaster.
DK: So you flew, you flew the York as well.
JG: Yeah. I, I flew the guys back from the Far East.
DK: Right.
JG: Who had been prisoners at Changi jail and all that dreadful railway and the guys who couldn’t be shipped back were flown back and I had to sign up to do that. My demob was cancelled until we’d finished this particular project. What I didn’t realise because I was enjoying myself I told the other guys around me pick me up the best of the jobs.] [laughs] So -
DK: So how many, just stepping back a little bit, how many operations did you actually do with Bomber Command?
JG: Thirty.
DK: Thirty.
JG: Yes.
DK: So one tour.
JG: We were, we were pulled off after that dreadful Nuremberg trip.
DK: Right.
JG: And I think Bomber Command decided, I think, at that stage they weren’t going to be able to bomb the Germans into submission and that start the preparation, preparing for the invasion.
DK: Were you actually on the Nuremberg -
JG: Yes. I was.
DK: You was.
JG: Yes. It was, it was a beautiful clear night. It was going to be cloudy all the way until we got to the target when it would be clear but the reverse was true. They’d picked a southerly route. It was moonlight. It was like clear as day and I think we were in real difficulty with the, with the routing and on that occasion we quickly found ourselves with an enemy on each side. Now that is the trap. You can’t beat these two if they’re working together ‘cause you turn towards one and you’ve given the other a non-deflection shot. You’re dead men really if you try and corkscrew your way out of that one and I thought we’ll try and outrun them. I put on full power. Well of course that was useless and I knew it would be ‘cause they had twenty knots faster than we were. They could catch us at any time so they just kept position and kept signalling each other and so I then pulled off the power, put down some flap which was illegal and said, ‘You’re not going to enjoy this bit guys because we are going to see the,’ our stalling speed will be lower than theirs. ‘They’re not going to enjoy following us now,’ and sure as hell they didn’t. Their stalling speed was much higher. They daren’t risk it and I was just on this, but anyway once I’d seen them off we straightened up, put on the power and climbed back up again and, got it, ‘Done it Jeff,’ I said the other Jeff and blow me down, there they were again and I said, ‘Well I’m going to pick this guy on the left. He’s the leader I think. I’m going to ram him so stand by. We’ll hit him with the nose. We might lose a bit of the aeroplane but he will lose his starboard wing.’ ‘Yes,’ they said and we headed for him and I think the guy realised it. He shot off. He disappeared. They both did. And my navigator said, ‘I haven’t been able to follow that,’ he said, ‘I think we’re lost.’ ‘No, no, Jeff we’re never lost. We’re uncertain of our position.’ ‘So what will you do?’ I said, ‘We will add ten minutes to the eta,’ and I goofed. I should have added ten minutes to the end of that route because the last leg was down to the southeast but I added it to the run so I turned on eta and of course we were well short and we were getting to the end of this ten minutes when some searchlights came on looking for us. ‘Davvy.’ I said, ‘We’re going to give them a surprise. Bomb doors open. Let them have it.’ So we bombed that bloody searchlight battery and the lights went out but there were a lot of guys in the same position. I didn’t know until afterwards who saw the incendiaries burning and they started bombing and in fact we’d hit Schweinfurt.
DK: No.
JG: And we didn’t know until it was back plotted the next day but at that stage by the end of it I could see sixty, seventy, eighty miles away in the distance the show was beginning and we’d missed it. They’re going to be, blotted our copy book. We’ve bombed the wrong bloody target. We’ve made a horse. When I got back I was astonished. They greeted us with open arms there were so few coming back [laughs]
DK: So you -
JG: And they were trying to keep the number below the magic hundred. Yeah. They were cheating. They weren’t including the guys who crashed.
DK: Ok.
JG: [who never came back]
DK: ‘Cause it was over a hundred wasn’t it?
JG: It was over a hundred. No doubt about that.
DK: Did you see many of the aircraft go down at –
JG: No. I don’t think I did. No. We, it was only very occasionally that you saw someone being blown up. We had what were known as scarecrews which was something that we’d invented that didn’t bloody exist. We thought it was some German pyrotechnic. No it wasn’t. It was some guy, usually a pathfinder carrying all the coloured flares.
DK: I’ve heard, I’ve heard the stories of the scarecrows.
JG: Yeah.
DK: So you’re saying they were actually -
JG: They were.
DK: Pathfinder aircraft going up.
JG: Yeah. They were but we believed at the time that it was a pyrotechnic that the Germans were using.
DK: Was that a story that was purposefully put around do you think?
JG: I think it was a story that the Bomber Command guys like myself invented and the bosses decided to keep quiet about it. I think they knew but they didn’t deceive us. They just let us go on thinking what we already thought.
DK: So you weren’t in any trouble then for hitting the wrong town.
JG: There was no question, there was no question of it. No. They were just so bloody pleased to see us they didn’t give a monkey about where we’d been -
DK: No.
JG: Or what we’d done.
DK: How did you feel knowing that there was those losses and the way the route had been drawn that you were going in a long straight line for several hundred miles in, in full, it was full moonlight wasn’t it?
JG: Yeah I think the winds were a nonsense, the weather forecast was completely the opposite. When they said it was going to be cloudy all the way, we’d have cloud cover, it was clear all the way except the target was cloudy and so I think the actual attack on the target was not very clever but in a way it’s helped the end of an era. They switched us to the French targets and the French targets were such a piece of duff they were only going to count as a third of a trip but it turned out that that was not correct because to bomb a French target we could not bomb a French target while there were French workers there in the marshalling yard or the factory and we had to wait for some system of someone in the resistance would send a signal to the UK who would send a signal to us to tell us when we could start bombing so we were circling around you know with nothing to do except wait and the Luftwaffe -
DK: While you were being shot at.
JG: Began to take an interest in us and come up and shoot people down and on one of the worst of those Mailly le Camp in Belgium they shot down I think it was forty two aeroplanes.
DK: Were you on that operation?
JG: I was on that one, yes. Yes. I claimed to be the guy who put out the spot fires. I may be mistaken. It was disputed by everybody except I continued to say it and I can still to say it now the others have gone [laughs]
DK: So the spot fire?
JG: It was being marked by Cheshire.
DK: Right.
JG: And he had developed this idea of low level marking and of using these red spot fires and he had everybody waiting with the flares that his colleagues had circled this and I took one look at that and said to Jeff Ward, ‘We are not joining that. We’re heading into the darkest place we can find and then we’ll come back now and again and see what’s happening.’ And just as it happened, as we got back he had it marked and we went in and when we pulled away my rear gunner Jock [Haye] said, ‘We put the bloody red spot fires out.’ I said, ‘Jock, I don’t care we’re on our way home,’ and we could hear these arguments going on. I think it was either a Canadian or an Australian and they were giving him a hard time because he wanted to remark the target, ‘Stop bombing, stop bombing,’ and they wouldn’t because -
DK: Wanted to go.
JG: They could see what we’d done and I think it was forty two aeroplanes lost and we killed one German. They’d left an NCO to guard the camp and that was their only casualty. Our chaps busy with the crosswords and whatever, some of their intelligence was a bit duff. They thought there was a whole army there at this tank training school but they’d left the week before. So -
DK: Yeah.
JG: So it was a sad tale that one and there was nothing happy about it.
DK: What was your opinions of Cheshire at that time was he well known throughout Bomber Command or -
JG: Yes he was and I got to know him after that because when he left and he inherited this property he set up these Cheshire Homes.
DK: Yeah.
JG: Some guy that, you know, had nowhere to go he took with him and he said anyone who came along would be taken in provided they could do something useful. There was no charge. He paid for it. Yeah. And I thought he’s taken leave of his senses but then I realised afterwards that he was the first to come to his senses and I was flying this time in BOAC and on a VC10 and he was a passenger on one occasion and I talked to him at Heathrow in the VIP lounge and he was grumbling about the coffee and I said, ‘Put a shot of this in with it,’ and of course he was teetotal [laughs] Poisonous you see. And I said, ‘Do you remember a place called Mailly le Camp?’ And he said, ‘Shall I ever forget?’ So I chatted to him on this trip and I found, yeah he was the first guy to come to his senses and we became not exactly friends but I got to know him afterwards though I didn’t know him at the time. Yeah.
DK: Interesting. So is he someone you’ve got the respect for of that post war [chain of who was?]?
JG: Oh yes. I think what he did he went around after that every year visiting places where they had been bombed and delivering the cross of nails which I think I’ve got a picture here of one of the German newspaper. There I am with the chairman and that’s the cross of nails. The Coventry.
DK: Ok.
JG: [?] whatever.
DK: Yes.
JG: And every year and he visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
DK: Yes. Yes because he was-
JG: Check that they’d got them there.
DK: He was actually on the Nagasaki raid wasn’t he?
JG: Yeah.
DK: He was the British observer.
JG: Yeah so that’s, that’s in Germany that’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church that we destroyed.
DK: That’s Berlin isn’t it? I have seen that.
JG: Yes.
DK: Well not that. I’ve seen the church.
JG: Yeah. Yes. [pause] So that’s my favourite aeroplane.
DK: Ah the VC10.
JG: The VC10. I liked that beast. I liked the Comet as well but I like the beast. Yeah.
DK: The first aeroplane I ever flew on was a VC10.
JG: What?
DK: The first aeroplane I ever flew on was a VC10.
JG: Oh was it really? Yes.
DK: 1981. British Airways.
JG: Yeah. Yeah. That’s one. Yes.
DK: So, you, you were in Transport Command then.
JG: I was in Transport Command. Missed this lot.
DK: Right.
JG: You know. I struggled to get a job. When we were on 61 I did have an offer from Bennett to join the Pathfinders.
DK: Right.
JG: And I called a get-together with the crew where we would vote on the issue as to whether we stayed with 61 or if we went to the Pathfinders and it was a bit of a set up because I had got this, with this DFM I’d got twenty five quid and it was the only twenty five quid that I had at the time.
DK: Yeah.
JG: I spent it all in Leagate public house and of course it snowballed on me. Not just my crew but the ground crew and the girls from the parachute, they all came and anyone who came in the pub the bartender was saying, ‘Are you with Jeff Gray’s crew?’ And they said, ‘No. Why?’ ‘Well there’s free beer if you are.’ ‘Oh, yes, good old Jeff.’ [laughs] And so the vote was stay 61.
DK: Ok.
JG: It could hardly have been anything else but I don’t know if he forgave me or, ‘cause I didn’t ever meet him personally but after the war when I came out I missed this lot. The one guy who offered me a job was Bennett and, but he said, ‘You won’t be flying as a pilot. We’re taking off all the navigators on this British/South American route we’re starting and you will be acting as navigator.’ And I said, ‘Oh God. Never. I think it’s a dreadful mistake. A recipe for disaster.’ And it was of course.
DK: He lost a couple of aircraft didn’t he, in South America?
JG: He did and he did try to take the top off the Pyrenees.
DK: Yeah.
JG: And they cancelled the airline. Put him out of business.
DK: And it was at the point you joined BOAC then.
JG: Yes. Yes. That was about all that was left. [laughs] I looked at Quantas and I foolishly turned that down because they were the worst paid in the business but today the top but, and I knew that I couldn’t join any of the continentals because I was hopeless at language but so the BOAC as a very humble first officer was where I got to.
DK: So what did you start flying on with BOAC then at the beginning?
JG: Oh dear. I’m hopeless on dates. I don’t have that.
DK: Or the type of aircraft.
JG: On the, on the Yorks to start with.
DK: Avro Yorks.
JG: And then we moved up to the Comets and the VC10s and then one day I wound up when I didn’t go on the Jumbo which I really should have done as everybody else did but what I had in mind I knew that the Concorde was coming along and I thought that’s for me and, but when it came to it and I was interviewed for that they said you have to have three years clear service before you can repay the cost of the training and you haven’t got three years clear so there I was on this bloody tripwire that they’d set for me. I couldn’t get on the Concorde.
DK: That was a shame.
JG: And, however, as one door shuts another one opens. The Gulf Aviation in Bahrain were buying some of these VC10s and I was offered a job straightaway to train their guys because at this stage I was an instructor, an examiner and all the rest of the stuff so I went to Bahrain for two years and stayed for six.
DK: Ah.
JG: Yeah.
DK: So did you actually fly the Gulf Air VC10s or were you just training?
JG: Yes I flew the Gulf Air VC10s and then when they got the Tristar
DK: Tristars. Yeah.
JG: I flew that. And it was at that stage that I had to, I’d promised myself with the old Atlantic boys that I met on the Atlantic you mustn’t stay too long. There comes a time when you begin to lose it and don’t stay till then. Go just before. Always leave the party when it’s at its height and I thought this aeroplane can do everything I can do except it does it better. It flies, the autopilot flies better than I can. It does the navigation which was always my weak point, it’ll do the communication. What the hell am I doing here? Time to go. So I quit. Yeah.
DK: So what year would that have been?
JG: That was -
DK: That you stopped flying?
JG: ’74. I came back from Bahrain. It was 1980 I think. Yes.
DK: 1980
JG: Yeah. Came back in time for Christmas and I’ve stayed away from aviation ever since. From that time I had staff travel but they then brought me out of that.
DK: Did you ever get to fly on Concorde?
JG: No.
DK: You didn’t. Oh.
JG: No. Sadly. When I was in Bahrain one of the first flights I did was to Bahrain. I was able to see it and talk to some of the guys that were on it but I really didn’t want to know. I was really very, I was still very huffy about it. [laughs]
DK: So what did you think about the VC10? What was, what was that as an aircraft?
JG: Yes the VC10 was a lovely aeroplane, yes. Really. A winner. It was a shame that they didn’t continue the development but they didn’t. They went all American. So, yes. I was involved very briefly in the saga of the material that Rolls invented. This new, what do you call it? The new -
DK: The engine. The alloys. The -
JG: Yes. Yes.
DK: Yeah.
JG: They were making the blades of this new –
DK: Alloys yeah, yeah.
JG: And we had number four engine was fitted with that on the VC10 with these new turbine blades and they were looking for a favourable report on it and we went down to Lagos. The weather was bad and we diverted to Akra. We ran through some thunder storms and heavy rain and we had to shut the engine down. This number four. And as I walked ashore a guy at the aeroplane was shouting at me to come back. It was the engineer. ‘Come and look at this,’ he said, ‘skipper.’ And it was hanging like knitting. It had shredded. The material was no damned good.
DK: Wasn’t any good.
JG: And I did myself no good by sending in a voidance report saying, ‘Any of you guys with Rolls Royce shares, sell today.’ [laughs] The Americans took up the material and perfected it.
DK: It’s the old story isn’t it?
JG: The old story and they’ve been scoring on it ever since. Yes. And now the whole aeroplane’s made in America.
DK: Yes. So looking back on your time in the RAF particularly your time on Bomber Command how do you look back on it now all these years later? Is it -
JG: I regret to say that I have some misgivings. I had at the time, I think it was Lincoln Cathedral did it for me when I first saw that and I thought armies of men came here and built this thing and what do we do? We try and knock them all down.
DK: Destroy them.
JG: It seemed all wrong to me but that’s the business we were in and I think I kept that idea in mind and I got involved with, let me look and see what I’ve got on that. Oh I think that the, that church there is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. My wife and I set about that to see if we could do something about it and I thought I’d go down there what else have I got? Have I got anything on it?
DK: It’s not it there is it?
JG: Oh that’s it. Thanks very much.
DK: Ok.
JG: Yes. I decided that this is the -
DK: Yes I recognise that from my trips to Berlin.
JG: That is the church which we destroyed that but the bell tower is still stood and they kept it as a symbol of defiance. They’d defied the bombing, they’d defied the Russians, they’d defied, defied the partition of the city. Everything. And the bell tower stood and, but it will have to be demolished because bits were falling off it and people were objecting and the council said it would have to be demolished or rebuilt but they had no money so I wrote to them and said why not set up a fund and ask the guys who did the damage to pay for it and I think I’ve got all that here. [London Times?] of your dilemma. You should try to save it. Why not ask the guys who did the damage to make a contribution to a restoration fund and so on and I took part in a number of raids against Berlin starting on the 2nd of December 1943 and on their behalf I would like to make a contribution to the fund of five hundred pounds to start the ball rolling. To my astonishment they took it up. There is the reply from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and so the fund was successful. We raised quite a lot of money by giving the sole story to the Berlin newspaper chain that, there we are being interviewed for that. That’s the picture -
DK: Yeah.
JG: Being copied here and so they did it and there we are. That’s myself, my wife and my grand-daughter, my son’s wife Gerlinde. And ‘English bomber pilot triggers off fund raising’ and I’ve, there’s the, it stalled for a bit and then the, raising funds. The guys in this country didn’t want to join in I’m afraid.
DK: No.
JG: They were all raising money for the Bomber Command Memorial here and didn’t want to know about this one. Then, but the National Lottery came in with money and then Angela Merkel -
DK: Oh yeah.
JG: Moved in.
DK: Yes. Yes.
JG: Topped the fund out so -
DK: Yeah.
JG: The restoration started and I think it’s complete as far as I know and I would like to think there might be a big ceremony of some kind but nothing has happened.
DK: No.
JG: It should have been ready last year but then they were celebrating the Berlin wall taken, took everything. I should think if they do it it will be the 26th of November when we destroyed it so -
DK: So, how, how do you feel this is the, you obviously do, it might sound a silly question, is this an important part of your, your life and in some ways a response to your time in Bomber Command?
JG: Yes I think it was. Yes. I think it was. These are a number of smaller shots.
DK: Yeah.
JG: I had made if you want to and, yeah I think it was a reaction to that, a guilty conscience I don’t know.
DK: Did you –
JG: But anyway I’m very pleased that it succeeded.
DK: Yeah. Did you manage to get many more, any more RAF -
JG: No.
DK: Guys.
JG: Very few.
DK: Very few.
JG: I was very fortunate in that the ones I knew and I was able to ring up and talk to them or to their widow they would say, ‘Sorry Jeff. I think you’re a bit off your trolley. It’s not going to work.’ And they were quite right so I said, ‘Ok. I’ll have to do it without,’ and we did get, my wife and I did get invited to the, when they got the glockenspiel working and ringing mid-day but she wasn’t well enough to go.
DK: No.
JG: And so I didn’t get to that.
DK: Ok.
JG: But I have lost touch with them a bit since then. Yes.
DK: Ok.
JG: I’m really hopeful that this crazy Scotswoman who has appeared, Nicola Sturgeon.
DK: Sturgeon. Yes. Yes.
JG: Is moving in everywhere she can. I’ve been in touch with her because I think she’s got some good ideas and she’s one of the people who gets things done. You may not like her or like what she’s doing.
DK: No well. Yeah. Yeah.
JG: As a fellow Scot and she wrote in very sympathetic vein and so I think that I will be in touch with her again to see if there is anything is happening. If there’s going to be a ceremony could she get in touch with Angela Merkel and see if we could arrange a ceremony because having separated Scotland -
DK: Having got that far
JG: She might like to make a fuss of it.
DK: Yeah. Definitely.
JG: So wait and see.
DK: Hope something comes about.
JG: Some of these pictures I’ve got that have been made up are for her attention.
DK: Right.
JG: Because if you hit people with pictures like that they pay attention.
DK: Yeah. Definitely. So how many raids on Berlin did you actually -
JG: Nine.
DK: Actually do. Nine.
JG: Yeah. I met people who did ten and I met people who did dozens more but not of the big sixteen you see. Yeah. And that first one that they did in November which destroyed the church did a lot of damage, you know. It destroyed the zoo and there were wild animals rushing about everywhere and had to be rounded up and that. I think that rather misled the guys in Bomber Command into thinking this was going to be easy but it wasn’t and I think we set off with the wrong kit. The stuff they’d done on the short range, the Cologne and the like, medieval cities, wooden frames, narrow streets.
DK: Burnt.
JG: You set up a fire storm with a bomb that shatters the tiles and the windows and the incendiaries, you know, get into the building and people die in the fire. Lack of, suffocate. But none of us had been to Berlin. It’s not like that. Great wide boulevards and the tall buildings made of stone and brick and steel with sloping roofs and we had the wrong kit. We were never going to set that on fire. Ruined the plane trees in the street, they all burned, you know but the nature of the buildings they were sheltering in they had made passages through from one to the other so if that one caught fire they went -
DK: Yeah.
JG: Into the next one. Yeah. And in the morning they cleared up the rubbish and tidied the street and went back to work and I think the real thing that defeated us was the fact that in the blitz in the UK in Coventry and London it produced a spirit of defiance. And I think if you produce that in people you can’t defeat them.
DK: No. No.
JG: So -
DK: No.
JG: Anyway, so -
DK: And what’s, what’s the German, the Germans you’ve met there, what’s their, been their reaction to this? Has it been favourable?
JG: I think they quite like the idea of their symbol of defiance being turned into a symbol of reconciliation.
DK: Reconciliation.
JG: That’s the theme I pedal. A symbol of reconciliation and I think of late we’ve had programmes showing us Germany and some of the bombing and some of the damage that was done and showing us the places and the people who were affected and being told their stories and, yeah. And I think they’ve been doing a lot on the Dambusters of course who were, became famous because of the wonderful film they made you know and playing with those bombs and it wasn’t until recently that I realised that Churchill was worried about the bombs that hadn’t gone off and that the Germans were able to examine and began making a list of the dams in the -
JG: In the UK that they could bomb. Yes. Yes. So you learn these things eventually that you didn’t know at the time but I do think that if you get that spirit going among the public that they will not, they will defy you, you’ve lost it. Yeah. You’ve lost it.
DK: Yeah.
JG: Yes.
DK: And did you meet many Germans who were there at the time, when you went out there?
JG: No. I haven’t. No.
DK: Ok.
JG: No. Of course I rely on Gerlinde as my interpreter because I’ve only got a few words -
DK: Oh right.
JG: In German.
DK: So scrape by on -
JG: She can speak German then.
DK: Yes. She’s a Bavarian. Yes.
JG: Oh I see. Right. She’s, right, ok. She’s German.
DK: So -
JG: Or Bavarian I should say.
DK: Yes she would say she’s a Bavarian.
JG: Bavarian.
DK: Yes. Quite right. She’s not German. She’s Bavarian. I’ve made that mistake before.
JG: Yeah. So -
DK: Ok. I think I’ll stop there.
JG: Yes.
DK: It seems a sensible place to stop so thanks very much for that. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour.
JG: It’s been a pleasure anyway. Yes. Yes.



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Jeff Gray,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 15, 2024,

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