Interview with Bernie Harris. One


Interview with Bernie Harris. One


Bernie Harris joined the Royal Air Force in 1943 and trained to become an air gunner. His first operation was Operation Manna, dropping food on Holland at the end of the war.



IBCC Digital Archive




Christine Kavanagh


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00:29:17 audio recording





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Temporal Coverage


AS: So, I think we’re ready to go. So this is Andrew Sadler interviewing Bernie, Bernie Harris for the Bomber Command Archive at his home in Ilford on Monday the 8th of May 2016. Bernie, can we start by talking about your background? Where you were born and when and —?
BH: Yeah. I was born in Shoreditch, so near to the sound of Bow bells, so I’m an official cockney ‘cause I was born [slight laugh]. So I was born on May 17th 1925.
AS: And can you tell me a bit about your early life?
BH: Er, yep. I was always, always interested in flying but my father was in the Flying Corps, Royal Flying Corps, during the First World War and, I suppose, in the genes anyway. I went to various schools because we were more or less an itinerant family, kept on moving, so we went to different schools. So, as far as an education was concerned, it was elementary because there was no consistency whatsoever. So I left school at fourteen. Um, my mother and father with my two sisters and brother were evacuated to, of all places, in 1939, to Chelmsford [emphasis], which was nearer for the German raids than anywhere else I think because the er, the, they had factories there. So anyway, that didn’t suit me there so I went home and got a little job and um, after a while the, the Air Training Corps was formed. I joined the Air Training Corps. We had no uniforms yet. At sixteen and a half I was working at different places up to sixteen and a half and went to Romford nearby and signed on, volunteered for aircrew, was obviously too young. I used to go every Thursday, cycle up there, make sure I was still —. And they used to say, ‘Don’t worry son. We’ll still call for you.’ Um, which they did just before my eighteenth birthday and they had then what they called their preliminary aircrew training scheme at different places, universities and what have you, and I was sent up to the Manchester School of Commerce er, to upgrade my education, if you like. But anyway, in between that, I went to Cardington for a three-day assessment and if you come out of there with, with, your badge, RAFVR, you know you were good. And I was then classed at PNB (pilot, navigator, bomb aimer) which meant that I was going to be trained either as a pilot, navigator or bomb aimer because my education had now reached a level I could do that and because, in any case, I was going to evening classes when I left school anyway to, to increase my education. I knew there was a gap between what I wanted to do and what the, the qualifications that I should have. So anyway, after vacating that, right next door to the Marconi factory which was a target for the Germans anyway, eventually. Anyway, so I finished the, the PAT course, Preliminary Aircrew Training, and went back to St John’s Wood where St John’s Wood, of course, is where we reported to in the first instance and we were received into the Lord’s Cricket Ground where we got a plate of soup and a long arm inspection which took place under the portrait of WG Grace. I always remember that anyway. So anyway, back to St John’s Wood and then to initial training wing, in Newquay, which was a three month course (in peacetime it’s three years), and from there I went to elementary flying training school, on Tiger Moths, at a place called Burnaston, outside Derby, where there’s one of the Honda factories on it I think now anyway, and done very well with that, but the weather was so bad I couldn’t get the flying hours in to go solo. But I had a very good instructor, Rhodesian, but he used to love aerobatics anyway. But I couldn’t get the hours in because the weather come down and I was allotted so much time at EFTS. So, after that, we were posted up to Eaton Park. Now, Eaton Park was a holding centre for potential aircrews to go to the Empire training scheme, via Canada, Texas or South Africa and, there again, we come up against holdups, so a few of us went to the CO and said, you know, ‘What’s happening? When will we get in? How long’s it going to take for us to get into the war?’ Well, he said, ‘There’s a hell of a holdup. If you want to get into the war go as gunners.’ So we did. So we went straight up to Morpeth, flying, air gunnery school, flying on Ansons, and we’d done all the preparatory work and anyway, for aircrew, so we, we were only there for three weeks, whereas the course was about six months, I think. And then from there, er, posted to operation training unit, Wellingtons, where we were all crewed up. That’s the photograph of the crew, the original crew there, on Wellingtons, and then from there having done that —. And there again we had bad weather and held up and so a continuation of bad weather and from there went to the heavy op, heavy unit, conversion unit. That was a place called Woolfox Lodge, between Stamford and Grantham on the A1. Still there. You can see the, the control tower. Er, and then from there we went onto Mildenhall, 622 Squadron, and we didn’t arrive there ‘til the middle of April. So we had to do quite a lot of things, familiarisation, and then they put us on some testing gunsights and other things like that. And finally on May 8th they put us on the Operation Manna, where we were dropping food over Holland, which was the last day of the war anyway. So we dropped the food at Ypenburg and went back. Then we done a bit more flying, one thing or another, experiments, and work for the Air Ministry, and then in August 19— we were earmarked to go to California to convert onto Liberators for the Far East but the pilot being Australian, the bomb aimer being Australian, in ’45, August ’45, the Australian Government said, ‘No. Our boys are going home.’ So the crew was split up and up popped the word “redundancy”. So, so we were knocked about from pillar to post, wouldn’t de-mob us. Um, a very interesting story. I don’t know whether you can record this but what we said at the time, you know when Churchill said, ‘In the field of humanity there’s so much been owed to so few,’ we said, ‘In the field of humanity has so many been buggered about by so few’ [laugh] . So we gunners, we found ourselves up in Burn, ex-RAF aircrew, full of aircrew, ex-aircrew, and they gave us the choice of three different trades rather than de-mob us and the trades were: learn to drive, a radar and wireless mechanic, or radar operator. And then again three guys, ex-aircrew, sitting back, with their feet up on the table, ‘OK Bernie, what you wanna to do?’ So I said, ‘I’d like to learn to drive.’ So, ‘No. You don’t want that. You won’t be in the Air Force long enough for that.’ So, I says, ‘Well, what about radar wireless mechanic?’ ‘That’s a year’s course. Don’t be daft.’ They said, ‘Go as a radar operator.’ So, ‘Oh, alright then.’ Anyway, the upshot was sent down to Ayls—, down to Wiltshire, for this course, which we did, all aircrew, ex-aircrew, one was Rayner [?] Goff [?] he was with Nicholson and he was mad as a hatter he was. When we finished the course the signal came from the Air Ministry that all ex-aircrew that had taken the radar course are now redundant and report back to St John’s Wood. So we did. So then we were sent back to Burn. Same procedure, ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I want to be —.’ ‘Oh, alright. We’ll teach you to drive.’ So they sent me up to Blackpool, Warton, to learn to drive.
AS: And so what year did you actually go in then?
BH: Pardon?
AS: What year did you actually go into the RAF?
BH: Er, 19—, April ’43.
AS: Oh, right.
BH: Um. On the 23rd of April. That was before my eighteenth birthday.
AS: And you were de-mobbed in —, you were de-mobbed in ’45 were you?
BH: No, ’46.
AS: ’46.
BH: No, wait a minute. ’47. January ’47 [emphasis] ‘cause I was then sent to Italy to join, what they called the “chechiduderci” [?] Squadron, 112 Squadron, Mustangs, they had the sharks on their cowls and I got into helping with drogue towing, propellers, over the Adriatic, in a Harvard, noisy aircraft, and then they asked me to take charge of the hotel, at a place called Grado on the Adriatic, so I just made sure everything’s alright, got myself a big Q-type dinghy, and made sure I was very comfortable. I had my own room in the hotel, made sure all the supplies were there and staff were alright, go down to the beach, read a book, and then go floating in the dinghy. I was completely blonde. And then I was de-mobbed in January ’47.
AS: And what did you do when you were de-mobbed?
BH: Well, a mixture of things really because I was a bit, very unsettled, like most of the aircrew. Most of the aircrew that I’ve met were totally unsettled. Some stayed in the Air Force. Some went their different ways. Er, my father wrote and told me that he’s found me a job with an agency, so when I returned home the agency turned out to be Prudential, [slight laugh] selling insurance, which didn’t suit me. That didn’t last long. So then I started working on my own as a sort of um, agent for, working on commission, of goods and one thing and the other and I got very friendly with a guy, well not friendly, he contacted me eventually, by the name of Harry Alper [?] and he had a vast warehouse of ex-wartime stuff: tyres, pyrotechnics and dinghies. So, I used to go round there merrily, selling, and I was earning a very good living. [Slight laugh] And then fate takes place, yeah? He had £20,000, no £50,000 worth of tyres, new tyres, and I had no car in those days and I used to use the buses, and I had this list of these tyres on me, and there was a guy by the name of um —, it’ll come to me in a minute, in Putney. Um, and they used to go to him and one day we were talking. I said, ‘What about some tyres?’ ‘No, no, no. I don’t have time.’ So, ‘I’ll leave you the list.’ So he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ Well, two days later he rang me. He wanted a sample of these tyres. So I said to Harry Alper, ‘I’ll take it.’ No car. The 96 bus used to go from Stratford to Putney. Anyway, I gave the driver, the conductor, a couple of bob, said ‘Can I bring this on?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Anyway, the upshot was, the guy who wanted them, he wanted the lot. So I was on ten per cent. The next day I thought, well, I’ll take this deal [?]. I’ll get a coach to Margate, you know, have a day out. Try to sell a few bob, pay my expenses. Well, I lived on Forest Gate at that time and all along the kerb were hosepipes. Have you ever had a premonition? An anti-Semitic policeman got into that warehouse and set it alight and the whole lot had gone up in flames. He’d also gone to George Cohen. They used to do tyres and everything like that, over in Canning Town, and he’d set light to that as well. Now I was on commission, £5,000 in those days, so it was a real shocker. So, being green I didn’t —, a few years later I leant, but being green, I had the order, I could have claimed my commission from the insurance. But there you are. I think I got about £5 out of it. So that was that. So after that I started up my own business in —, not my own business, but working by myself, for a company called Hawker Sidley, who were making vending machines, and I had part of the city and I was doing very well selling these vending machines. I met a guy named Brendan Feeley, er, Richard Feeley. He was doing the same thing in —. He had one part of the city and I had one other. Anyway we came together and we formed this company ‘Value Vendors’ which we were leasing vending machines to people, in the city, only nothing to do with industry. And those were the days like accountants, solicitors, everybody involved in professional work, you could shake hands in those days and do a deal. But along came the people from the —, the, the graduates from —, who pretended they knew about business and you couldn’t trust them then and there unless they signed a bit of paper, you know what I mean? Anyway, we built the business up and finally, when I was sixty-five, sold the business and retired, and then I got involved with Operation Manna.
AS: Can you tell me about Operation Manna?
BH: Operation Manna started in 1981. There was an advertisement put in the, the RAF Manual, airmail from RAF Association, Aircrew Association, Air Gunner’s Association, ‘Anybody interested in going to Holland to view, visit, the dropping zones where we dropped the food?’ Mine was in Ypenburg. ‘If you’re interested we’ll go for a weekend. It costs £100.’ Right? ‘We’ll get a coach from Gravesend and go to Holland and —.’ So I said to my wife at the time, ‘Would you like to do that?’ Well I mean £100 for a weekend, in those days it wasn’t bad, so she agreed. Anyway, I applied and that was fine, and accepted. One day I was out, I’d been to a vending exhibition in Hammersmith, I got home late and when I got home, my wife said to me, ‘You’ve had a call from I think it’s the guy that’s organising the trip to Holland.’ So I says, ‘Oh yeah. What’s his name?’ She says, ‘Hallam.’ I says, ‘Arthur Hallam?’ Now this is thirty-six years later, my navigator, right? So she says, ‘Yeah, he’s left his number.’ So I rang him back and we were chatting, chatting, away and I said to him, ‘Did you finish with the accountancy?’ ‘Cause he was an articled clerk. He said, ‘Yes, I’m now the Director of the Whitbread’s pension fund.’ So I says, ‘In Chiswell Street?’ And when I said Chiswell Street my wife said, ‘Arthur Hallam? I’ve been dealing with him for years in the Abbey National round in Sidney Road.’ [Slight laugh] What do you think of that?
AS: Gosh. And she didn’t know he was in the crew with you?
BH: No. So, so we all got together? So yeah, so then anyway, the Dutch, also the guy by the name of Hans Underwater heard about this and said to Ted Levis and Phil Irvine, who organised the whole thing, ‘If you are willing to go to Hull on your coach North Sea Ferries will take you across for nothing.’ (North Sea Ferries are a Dutch firm.) Which we did except it landed and when we got to Holland we were blown out of the water. We didn’t know the depth of feeling of the Dutch. They were in what they called the hunger winter ’44 ’45 and three million nine hundred thousand of the population got isolated because this Nazi, because, one thing because of Arnhem, Operation Market Garden, was a failure so he was so incensed by this that he stopped all food coming in from the agricultural east into western Holland. Further to that Queen Wilhelmina, who was here in exile, called the railway people in to come out on strike so Seysss-Inquart, this Nazi, who did other things and was actually tried as a war criminal and hanged after the war. Er, the railway people went on strike so he ordered the, the sea lochs to be opened which flooded [emphasis] most of western Holland so there was wretches there were starving and the dykes were filled and everything else and as I say, out of the population of three million nine hundred thousand, twenty thousand died of starvation and um, millions suffered malnutrition. Anyway, apparently, in January ‘45 Wilhelmina appealed to Churchill, the American President of that time and Eisenhower, to do something about it and they said, ‘We can’t do anything about it. There’s six thousand German troops still in western Holland and if we landed by sea it would be too costly, they’d have to wait.’ So anyway, a little later on in the year apparently Queen Wilhelmina appealed to Churchill and the allies to do something and this guy, Air Commodore Andrew Geddes —. Am I going on too long?
AS: No.
BH: Andrew Geddes was summoned by Eisenhower. Er, and he said caught [?] us in Reims to do —, for an urgent engagement. Anyway, he met Bedell Smith, General Bedell Smith, who put him in the picture so —. This is in a talk I gave last week so it’s still there. He met Bedell Smith and Bedell Smith who, who had been asked by the Dutch Government, and then pushed by Churchill, got to do something about it, ‘I want you to come back with a plan to feed three million nine hundred thousand people by air.’ Right? So Bert Harris, who was Bomber Harris, had been asked to give two groups, 1 and 3 Group, and 8 Group the Pathfinders. So, ‘Go away, make a plan, come back to me with a plan,’ which he did. So anyway the whole plan was, to cut it short, that Geddes presented his plan and what he would do, and dropping zones, and then went to Holland to meet this Nazi. He was a Reichskommissar. He wasn’t military but he was a real Nazi. He had people shot as hostages and God knows what throughout Europe. Anyway, he met him and showed the plan to which he objected to. So Geddes said to him, ‘You may object to it but we’re doing it and any attempt by you to disrupt this mercy, these flights of mercy, you’ll be charged as a war criminal.’ And so on the 29th of April, 28th of April it should have started er, but the weather was bad so it started on 29th of April. Pathfinders went in. The Dutch population had been told to watch out for flares, keep away, and the bombers are now leaving England to drop food and that was the start of Operation Manna but the agreement wasn’t signed until the next day so the Germans could have shot at us quite easily and been — and legally. Anyway, they kept quiet except a few irate Germans fired off their rifles and one pilot had a bullet through his foot but in most part it was alright. So all went well and er, Geddes, he was actually revered by the, by the, the Dutch. A big memorial is made to him, a street named after him and there’s three memorials, one in Rotterdam, one Duindigt was this race course and one in Zeebrugge to Manna and Chowhound. Chowhound was the American part of it. They came in May 1st to May 7th and ever since then, so from 1983, ‘85, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2005, right up to 2015 last year, the 70th anniversary, we’ve always gone back to Holland and always the same. People would come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’ ‘Thank you for saving my mother’s life,’ ‘Thank you for saving my father’s life.’ Incredible. And the feeling is still there. The whole story is still taught in schools, right? And ‘cause some little stories also. We had a bit of a wit with us and when we visited Gouda, and wherever we went we were hosted and everything else, and he was talking to our group, and he said, ‘Yeah, we came in so low,’ he said, ‘your clock on your tower the minute hand was twenty minutes fast so we clipped it with our wing and put it right.’ So, [laugh] so a bit, bit of a wit. And that’s the whole story.
AS: Fascinating.
BH: So out of that, you know, came a great friendship. Arthur, he died from, not long after we met, cancer, and now I think all my crew except for myself have all gone and these are the photographs of them.
AS: Gosh.
BH: Oh yes. I was also —. Arthur was the treasurer but when he died I became treasurer and the secretary. Geddes was honorary chairman, Prince Bernhard was our president and that’s it.
AS: Mmm.
BH: Any good?
AS: Yeah, excellent.
BH: Do I get a copy?



Andrew Sadler, “Interview with Bernie Harris. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 18, 2019,

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