Interview with Harry James


Interview with Harry James


Harry James grew up in Berkshire and after school began training as a plumber. He joined the RAF and carried out thirty three operations as a rear gunner with 166 squadron. After the war Harry returned to plumbing in Berkshire. He tells of his family, early life, his many escapades at various places in the RAF, as well as his crew and the relationship between aircrew and groundcrew, and the WAAFs he worked with during the war.




Temporal Coverage




02:09:38 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 12th of April 2017 and I am in Newbury with Harold George William James who was a rear gunner and we’re going to talk about his life. What are your earliest memories, Harry?
HJ: My first memory is, I was born in a two bedroomed thatched cottage, at West Street, Burghclere, and my first memory is sitting on a step there when we moved about fifty yards further down West Street into a three bedroomed house. Now the people that moved out of the three bedroomed house, their names were Ball, Mr and Mrs Ball, and they, Mr Ball was a retired as a farm worker, my father was a farm worker and retired as a farm worker, and I was sitting on the steps at this house we were moving from to cause I thought they was still living there, and my first memory is sitting on the step crying! And then moving on into the three bedroomed cottage, which incidentally at one time or another was a workhouse! [Laughter]. It dated back quite a long way. Yup, and then my next really clear memory is when I was five years old, I started school and I was dragged to school by my eldest sister. I was kicking her, sitting in the ditch, that is my clear, clear memory and then of course it was schooling, then. My mother was born in Herefordshire and her father, funnily enough her father lived into his eighties, early eighties, my mother died at eighty nine. But I was a bad traveller, now, funnily enough, apart from flying, I’ve always been a bad traveller. I can travel quite comfortably in a car while I’m driving, but as, I haven’t held a licence now for twenty years. When I was seventy three I had a, something go wrong in my eye and it sort of threw a curtain up in front of me and I, retinue [sic] of the eye, and I decided then had I been driving and not walking, could have caused an accident, so those days – I don’t know what they do nowadays – but those days you renewed your licence every three years, so when the three years was up on me seventy third birthday, I haven’t held a licence since.
CB: So where did you go to school, Harry?
HJ: Hmm?
CB: Where did you go to school?
HJ: Where did I go to school? Primary, from five until eleven, Burghclere Infants School, [pause] eleven till fourteen, Newbury Modern. That school’s not there now, it got bombed during the war. [Laughter] It was up by St John’s Road, or near St John’s Road, in Station Road actually, overlooking the railway.
CB: Oh right.
HJ: But it got bombed during the war. Sold it to the church, which is now St John’s Church, that was further up New Town Road, the old one. But I suppose, where’d I get to?
CB: You say left school at fourteen.
HJ: I left school at fourteen, yep. Now, getting away from that for a moment, there was a funny thing about when I was at school. When I was at school, eleven to fourteen, I sat next to a lad named Brookes, and he is still alive – he’s ninety two – his birthday is in June, he’ll be ninety three in June, and he lives, [laugh] I don’t know the exact number but I know where he lives, in that block!
CB: In the other block?
HJ: Downstairs.
CB: Is he really. Amazing.
HJ: But we’ve knocked into one another on and off for all our lives, but I’ve lived here for what, I think I’m in my twenty ninth year, you know – it was brand new when I come in. He’s lived there, from June ’89, I came, no, he’s lived there, I came here in May ’89, and he’s lived there about six months after me.
CB: Extraordinary, yes. Just in another block, nearby.
HJ: Another block, yeah. And he’s the only tenant there. We’re the two oldest tenants here. Well I left school at fourteen and immediately moved to an uncle and aunt living in Hinckley, Leicestershire. My fourteenth birthday was of course on the 27th of December that year and I started work in the January, as a mate to a plumber. The idea was, if I was suitable, I would get an apprenticeship six months after, but that never worked out quite because the war turned up, or was a racing certainty, but the reason I didn’t get the apprenticeship, was I was on ten shillings week as a plumber’s mate, but I was called an improver after six months and I went on to eight p an hour which was over two pounds a week [laughter] whereas I would have still been on ten shillings, plus the fact that if you were working away from home you never knew what time you could get back home! Actually when I was fifteen I appeared as a witness at Leicester Assizes, purely through work.
CB: Leicester Assizes?
HJ: Yeah. It, I worked for, my original employer was “Ewan H, Jones, 182 Coventry Road, Hinckley, Leicester for Dependability, Service and Satisfaction.” [Laugh] Well he was a comparatively young bloke in his middle twenties. He had a Diamond T wagon that was done out in red and gold and this is where the slogan came. But we, the plumber I was mate to, we were working at Chocolate Box, the Oadby Road, in Leicestershire, doing a bathroom conversion and er, we were taken there by the gov’nor in his car and then we were collected whatever time he had in the evening. This was on a Monday and it was really cold, it was January, and it was really cold, and we were still working, you just carried on work till you were picked up and the woman we were doing the conversion for, she came upstairs and said, told us to pack up and come down by the fire. That’s when there was a programme on the wireless “Monday Night at Eight O’clock” I think it was called, something like that. I know that, I was at Leicester Assizes, I was asked which came first, which came second and which came third on a programme. The bloke had a, the QC who was asking me, had a Radio Times in front of him, I hadn’t a clue which came, but the reason for this was on this particular Monday night we didn’t get picked up till after eight o’clock and we then stopped at a place called the Red Cow on the way home and we didn’t get home till ten o’clock, but the guv’nor had recently completed a job at Foldsworth Mill, in Leicestershire, about six miles out of Hinckley and there was some lovely timber there as didn’t belong to him and he set back that Monday night and picked the timber up. So he got accused of stealing the timber by the owner of the mill and he cross-sued the owner of the mill for defamation of character, so we had three days at Leicester Assizes on that and he finished up getting awarded five hundred pounds against the mill owner in the end, and had the timber as well, and that’s as true as I’m sat in this chair! [Laughter]
CB: No wonder he was successful.
HJ: So, then as I say, things, it was a racing certainty in ‘38 that we were going to war, it was a racing certainty, it was only a matter of, it was only a matter of time. So, as you well know war broke out in the September wasn’t it, 3rd of September ’39 wasn’t it, yeah, hmm. So, not long after my seventeenth birthday, well about the April after my seventeenth birthday, I knew I was going to have to sign up on the dotted line and I decided that a I didn’t want to carry a pack on me back, b I couldn’t swim so I didn’t want to go in the Navy. I saw an advert for gunners in Bomber Command so I took a day off work and went to the Recruiting Office which was then in the London Road, Reading and signed on the dotted line and then, then I got, a while after that, I think in the Oct, I got notification from recruitment that I had to go to Uxbridge for three days for medicals and educational purposes and that, and I was selected for aircrew duties there and eventually I joined the Air Force and got sent to South Africa for training. And then I became a gunner, and I always favoured the rear turret, I never flew in anything else bar the rear. I did thirty three trips for 166 Squadron off Kirmington in Lincolnshire. We had our ups and downs, we wrote off three aircraft, that was [indecipherable] and when I was screened after thirty three, you could be compelled to do two tours, one of thirty and one of twenty but I went into, when I, the screening period, you had six months screening definitely, I went into drogue towing at a place called Aberporth in South Wales. I could write a book about that, if I was capable of writing a book, oh dear, but that was a hilarious time [much laughter]. Oh dear. I came off like with a bit of ear trouble, and the, mind you by then I had the old Tate and Lyle on the sleeve.
CB: Warrant Officer you mean. Yes.
HJ: But, there was a, Aberporth was just a grass drome. I believe it has a runway on it now, but the Catering Officer was a Warrant Officer and he’d been called back, he’d just retired when the war started, he’d been called back, they wanted, he was naturally first one out, and as I was a Warrant Officer, by then, I got told to do Catering Officer, [laughter] that was an hilarious time, I’d sit trying to get the books up to date in a [indecipherable] with a couple of dozen bottles of Guinness by the side of me. Once a month I would have two girls come up from [indecipherable] Swansea, and sort the bloody books out. Until the, all the unit transferred to Fairwood Common, I was the Catering Officer, what knew I do about catering [much laughter] was only [indecipherable]. It was hilarious. You could only get it in the Air Force.
CB: Yes, yes.
HJ: Yeah, but every Monday I used to get a, have to get the necessary paperwork and get a three ton harry, driven by a corporal WAAF, to take me to get bread for the week and then a request to get booze for the two messes, Roberts Brewery and Hancock’s Warehouse; [laugh] it was hilarious like, down there. I eventually got demobbed, again at Uxbridge, in October 1946, and then owing to the fact that you had to get a green card to get a job immediately after the war, and then into the fifties, I had a job lined up and they wouldn’t give me a green card for it. They said I had to take a six month course so I took a six month course and then became a plumber, a government course on plumbing, and I went to work for, and travel with, cor blimey, I’ve forgot the name of it [pause].
CB: Was it a big plumbing company, was it? He’s just looking up his notes.
HJ: Oh, I’ve forgotten the name.
CB: Well we’ll put it in in a bit. What were you doing for that company?
HJ: Hmm?
CB: What were you doing?
HJ: What was I doing?
CB: With this company?
HJ: As a plumber?
CB: Yes.
HJ: Just working on the tools, normal plumbing work, you know, lead work, and lead piping, and rolled joints, and then I got invited into the local government, to run the works section for water. In other words I was Water Foreman to start with, and I had so many men under me that did the mains and up to the stop cock, put in new connections, run new mains round housing estates and that sort of thing. Then I became, in 1960 I became the first Area Superintendent for the Thames Valley Water Board, at Newbury and took on first Lambourne, then Hungerford. I had the Newbury area which included Thatcham and Bucklebury Common, and I worked at that for a number of years and then 1960, my wife was seriously ill, and before they could do, she had a heart operation before they could do open surgery, so she was operated on through the rib cage and she had a cut right round, a hundred and eighty stitches inside and a hundred and eighty outside! So I gave up, er I don’t know, about ’62 I suppose I come out of the public water supply and went in to, partly looking after me wife and partly doing some work, more or less self employed. And then, of all things, I got divorced. Twenty nine years ago this November. So I’ve been here twenty nine years, I came here when I was sixty five, sixty five and about four months I think and I’ve been here ever since. And I was a very fortunate man as far as illness is concerned. I went virtually sixty years without an illness. Well I had one illness, in sixty years, I had flu once and believe you me, I’ve only ever had flu once in my life and it put me in bed for a fortnight with doctor the first three days the doctor came in twice a day.
CB: Amazing!
HJ: But, um, I haven’t worked since I’ve been here. Well, I say I haven’t worked, I did a bit part time work, you know, what you do. I am on income support by the way.
CB: Right.
HJ: But two to three years ago, my luck ran out as far as illness is concerned. I forget what, I was in hospital for two weeks about three years ago, I forget what that was about, but since then I’ve had three mini strokes, the last one was last July, that’s why I’m a bit on a, the, I can’t walk very well since the third one, it affected me knees and I, if I’m not careful, I get a bit of a [indecipherable]. I am not registered as alcoholic but I am registered as a very heavy drinker.
CB: What kind of lemonade do you like best? What type of lemonade do you like best?
HJ: Whisky! [Laugh]
CB: Oh, there’s a bottle down beside the chair. That’s nearly empty.
HJ: I’ve another two! [Laugh]
CB: It’s always good to have a supply, isn’t it, yes.
HJ: Mind you, I don’t drink a bottle a day now, [chuckle] a litre will keep me going for three to four days!
CB: Right. Well you’ve got to have some, you’ve got to do something in your life, haven’t you. Shall we just take a break there for a moment, stop for a moment. So after joining and medical at Uxbridge, what did you do?
HJ: When I was called up, get the exact date of that, but it would be in ’41, late ’41 I think, the first place I went to was flats in London that’d been taken over by the Air Force. Viceroy Court was where I was first at, that was Regent’s Park, and you walk from, across from Regent’s Park Canal up to the zoo and you fed at the zoo [laugh]. The Air Force took over the bottom part of the, it was the catering side of the zoo, but, as their kitchen, so you, if you wanted breakfast you had about half a mile to go: so you didn’t have breakfast. But and then I had a bit of eye trouble – lazy eye they called it those days – in the right eye, I think it was the right eye, and I had to have some eye training. This eye training was you’d look in to, you’d have two lenses to look in to and in one would be a cage and in the other a lion, you had to put the lion in the cage. And there was a girl sat opposite you looking in the, the, oh, anyway she’d take notes and once your eyes were back to normal then you, and then it was out to South Africa.
CB: Before you went to South Africa, you must have gone to Initial Training Wing.
HJ: Hmm?
CB: Before you went to South Africa, you went to an Initial Training Wing, where was that?
HJ: The initial training was six weeks at Viceroy Court.
CB: Oh.
HJ: That was, after that, being as you were going to be trained into aircrew, you went from AC2 to LAC, and I was only an AC2 for six weeks, I was then LAC until I passed out as a gunner.
CB: Where did you go?
HJ: To, it was known as Rhodesia those days, buggered if I know what it’s called now, but still, Southern Rhodesia, I was originally at a place called Hillside, which is just outside Bulawayo, and I actually trained at a place just outside Gwelo, which is half way to Salisbury, which is Zimbabwe now i’n it, or something like that named after the bloody [telephone ringing] ruins.
CB: What training were you doing there, what training were you doing?
HJ: I was, originally I had to try and train as a pilot but I wasn’t, hmm, and then they wanted me to go as a navigator but I failed the, but I wouldn’t, I wanted to get back to England before the war ended, so I took a shorter course of training as a gunner and I became a rear gunner and back to this country and then you, when you come back to this country you had to go through further training and then OTU and all that.
CB: Where did you do your gunnery training?
HJ: In this country? Er, let’s see, when I came back to this country, first I went to Hixon, oh, then from Hixon, up to, to Seighford in Staffordshire [coughing] [pause].
CB: So you went to Hixon.
HJ: That was on Wimpeys.
CB: Yup. Where was the OTU?
HJ: What was?
CB: Where was the OTU? [Throat clearing]
HJ: OTU. [Pause] In Staffordshire, I know it was.
CB: Okay.
HJ: Partly, probably partly at Seighford. The, and then Heavy Conversion, two to four engines.
CB: Where was that?
HJ: Somewhere in that area, I don’t know. Then it was to 166 Squadron in Lincolnshire – oh the Heavy Conversion was somewhere in Lincolnshire too. Mm. I forget where that was.
CB: On to Lancasters.
HJ: Oh, from the Wellingtons onto Lancasters. Yes, we did one papering trip on, dropping leaflets on Paris, in the old Wellington [coughing] [laugh]. Five of us went and four of us came back [cough], one got shot down, fortunately all the crew baled out, buggered if they weren’t back. They were picked up by the French Underground and took out through Spain and they were back in England in about six weeks.
CB: Were they really?
HJ: But as I say that was a, dropping leaflets on Paris.
CB: Crazy.
HJ: But I did drop a leaflet, [laugh] through the back of the turret. You know what a clear vision panel is, fuck all there [laugh] in the rear turret. When on point threes, you had two point threes on your right hand side, two point threes on your left hand side and then you had two more at your feet with your clear vision panel you could bale out, provided you remembered to open the door and get the parachute from behind you, you could have baled out.
CB: Because you weren’t wearing the parachute were you?
HJ: But, that’s where you had to dress up. Do you know what the normal dress was?
CB: What were you wearing?
HJ: Hmm?
CB: So, what were you wearing – clothes – what clothes did you wear?
HJ: I was just going to tell you: on your feet you had silk, woollen socks and then flying boots. On your gloves you had silk woollen gauntlet, three gloves, and then you had silk vest and whatever you wanted put on in between and then your battle dress blouse and then you had a kapok suit, a waterproof suit and then your Mae West and then your parachute harness: and that was your dress. So you could sweat like hell or freeze like hell in the air [laugh]. But, cause, almost always, from briefing you had quite a period before you actually, you went directly from briefing to your own aircraft but you waited at your aircraft until you got the signal to get on, get into your aircraft and then the signal to taxy out and you taxied out in, let’s see, most of the time I was on P, so O P Q was three dispersal with their own groundcrew doing the three kites. Well, you start off A B C, C, D, E and that, and that was P it was P – Peter those days, I don’t think it’s that now, god knows what it is now, but it was O -Orange and that sort of thing.
CB: P – Papa, it’s now P-Papa.
HJ: But yeah, so as I say, that’s more or less.
CB: So when you went, you did thirty three ops, you did thirty three ops but you haven’t got your log books so, tell us about the ops you went on. The ops, you did thirty three, you did thirty three ops
HJ: I did thirty three, yup. The reason for the odd three was that, I was, funnily enough I flew mostly with colonials. When I was at 166 for instance, the skipper, the navigator and the bomb aimer were Canadians; the wireless op, Frank Perkins, was Australian; the mid upper gunner was Newfoundland, rear gunner was me of course, and then when we took on with Lancs, and we took on a flight engineer and he was English. So that was the seven of us. Three Canadians, one Newfoundland and one Australian and two English, I think that adds up to seven. Actually, mind you, all this time I was single, I didn’t get married until, well, after I was demobbed. But I shouldn’t ever have got married, but there again I wouldn’t have the family I have got now. I’ve got one daughter, she’ll be seventy in December, I’ve got two grandsons, the youngest is forty, he was forty a week ago, the oldest is forty three I think, and then I’ve got three great grandsons and one great granddaughter, the granddaughter is the oldest at eleven. The eldest of the grandsons was eight last week, the second grandson, which is that one, he’ll be eight next month, and the youngest grandson is five. Great-grandsons I mean, great grandsons.
CB: Stopping just for a moment. So crewing up.
HJ: To get together as a crew [microphone thumps] you’re just a given number of each trade in a crew were just thrown together and you walked round and round chatting, and you gradually made a crew, yeah. First and foremost you, when you were walking around there could have been, for sake of argument twenty pilots, now they would start making their crew, they’d pick navigator, you just kept walking round and chatting and gradually discovered you’re in a crew! But hmm, as I say, my skipper I did most of the trips with, was a Canadian, Shorty Blake, he was short-arsed bugger [laughter] when we were on Wimpeys he had to have blocks put on the pedals [laughter].
CB: On the rudder bar, he means, yes, blocks on the rudder bar.
HJ: He was a, when I first knew him he was a sergeant and we got on quite well, and then they decided that all pilots would have to be commissioned. So, when you were flying you used to get five days leave every six weeks, not necessarily in that order, you could go ten weeks, but you always [emphasis] got, provided you lived of course, you always got the equivalent of five days every six weeks. Believe this lot but it’s absolutely true, when Shorty Blake was getting his commission, his wages automatically stopped until he actually was commissioned and then his commission dated back to when his wages were stopped, and we had five days leave coming up and we’d already agreed that he and I would go and have leave together and we were going to stop with his great aunt and his uncle at Wood Green, and he had no money so I drew every penny I could get, and I finished up with ninety eight pounds something, for five days. After three days we were bloke, [laugh] we were coming home from the West End, of London, when his uncle was going to work in the morning, having about four hours in bed, and that was supposed to be five days rent [laugh]. Mind you, you always worked it so you got a weekend in and made it seven. So he decides to go to Canadian Pay Accounts. We totalled up how much money we had between us, and we had enough for a pint of bitter, so I sat in the pub with a pint of beer while he was at Canadian Pay Accounts, and he managed to draw a hundred pounds. We still had, still had three days of our leave. We got back to camp and we had about two or three buttons between us, we’d worked our way through nearly two hundreds pounds! Oh dear!
CB: Huge amount of money in those days!
HJ: Mind you, a lot of that went on women. [Laugh] It was bloody hilarious. What you’ve got to bear in mind is, you didn’t know how long you’d got – if I’d have known I was gonna live till ninety three! [Laugh] I doubt it though. I remember on that particular leave I remember we picked up a couple of bloody girls one evening and we went home with them and they opened up a bloody shop and sub post office we walked in the back, behind, and we’d only met what, a couple or hours before, we could have hit ‘em over the head with a bloody [indecipherable] for all they knew!
CB: It was their shop was it? It was their shop?
HJ: Yes, well it was one of their shop, yes, one was, what they call a sub post office, yes, she opened it, but this bloody, yeah, you wouldn’t believe it really, we could, it was a, they were probably.
CB: What ages were they?
HJ: Twenty eight to thirty and we were down around twenty one!
CB: Tales of the unexpected!
HJ: But I say, you didn’t know whether you were going to be alive the following bloody week or not, so you didn’t kid. I was going to say you just didn’t care, but naturally you did care to a certain extent, you took your enjoyment as and when you’d get it. Oh dear. It was crazy, life those days.
CB: Where did you meet the women? Where? Where did you meet them?
HJ: We used to go, it could have been anywhere, Baker Street or Oxford Street, or somewhere that. We spent the evenings -
CB: In pubs.
HJ: In pubs, yes, by and large. Well, it was blackout and all that, you know; there was no street lighting, if there was a lamp post on the pavement it was likely to walk into one, cause it was full blackout, during the war. So, by and large if you wanted go to pictures, they turned out by about half nine, so from that on it was pub, but I’ve never, to be quite honest with you, I’ve, the last time I went to the pictures, my daughter was about seven years old and I took her to see “The Dambusters”, and my daughter in December will be seventy, [laugh] so I say about sixty three years ago! I’ve got a television in the corner, and the only reason I, don’t worry it doesn’t work. I had it converted, but I had so many worries running, so I just use it to put me fruit on! But I’ve never been one for watching telly and I haven’t got a wireless, but I have got books; I do quite a lot of reading. I enjoy reading, but I don’t do much now because I’ve got double vision, and when you’ve got double vision there’s no cure for it.
CB: No. Just stopping for a mo. Where did you go on the ops?
HJ: Well, first and foremost, the majority of bombing ops were to the Ruhr Valley [paper turning] – Happy Valley – that includes what, Dusseldorf, Duisburg, Cologne, is it Cologne? Yeah, I think, Bochum, those sort of places, but as far as we were concerned it was the Happy Valley, well depending where you were bombing there you could get fired at half hour in, and half hour out. In other words, a good hour [laugh]. Mind you, of course, anti-aircraft fire wasn’t particularly accurate. It’s fired visually, but the shell has to be set at a given height to go off, at a given height or else it’d explode back there, and to get the given heights which wasn’t all that accurate, particularly at night, because Bomber Command never flew in formation, they always streamed. You do, either do a three flight raid or a five flight raid. You, most of the time they always called it a thousand bomber raid on the BBC and that. But I’m not saying the very first one because they checked, the very first thousand bomber was probably a thousand bombers because they put everything they could get into the air on that one, but after that so-called thousand bomber raid was no more than about seven hundred, thereabouts. When you consider a two flight squadron could only put twenty aircraft into the air, so for a hundred aircraft you’d want five squadrons, for a thousand you’d want fifty and I’m bloody sure there was fifty in the RAF, but a three flight squadron you could put thirty into the air. 166 was a three flight squadron, A, B, and C. I was in B flight, which included three on our dispersals, O P Q, and we were P. I can still remember the names of most of the crew.
CB: Who were, who were they?
HJ: Skipper – Shorty Blake.
CB: Nav?
HJ: Do you know, I don’t think I ever called him anything other than Shorty. But the navigator, Canadian, Frank Fish. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Army, doing this medical effort, you know, when putting masks on, that was his job in Canada, the navigator’s father.
CB: Gas masks.
HJ: But let’s see, I’ve got to the navigator. Frank Russell was the bomb aimer, Canadian. [Pause] Er, Frank Perkins, Australian, was wireless op. Johnny Cole was mid upper gunner – a Newfoundland. [Pause] No, the flight engineer, his surname was Stewart, for the life of me I can’t think of his first name now, but his surname was Stewart. And then of course there was me, in the tail turret. I think that’s seven, isn’t it.
CB: How often did you shoot at aircraft?
HJ: How often did you fly?
CB: How often did you use your guns?
HJ: Now what you’ve got to bear in mind is, a rear gunner’s job was not to shoot down enemy aircraft, it was to bring your own aircraft back home if humanly possible. One of the reasons for it is a Browning 303 would fire one thousand one hundred rounds a minute and you only had a thousand rounds to each gun. So you only had a, if you fired you had to be more or less certain that you’ll, there was no other way. Normally, you’d, when you were on Lancs, normally you would pick up a fighter and watch him. If he knew you were watching him, they rarely ever, they’d look for something bit easier. But almost always you’d, the fighter would be either on your starboard or port wing at approximately five hundred yards perhaps, and it was as safe as houses until he turned and looked at you and then went over and they’d skid behind you. But with the Lanc, as soon as he started to go into his firing position you automatically ordered the pilot to go into a corkscrew. Well it was originally a dive towards the aircraft. If the aircraft was on the starboard side the corkscrew was dive starboard, roll, dive port, roll, climb port, climb, you know starboard, climb port, roll, and climb and theoretically you’re more or less back on the course you set off on. [Pause] But once you ordered the pilot to corkscrew, he immediately threw the aircraft into the original dive, whether it was port or starboard, and then of course the pilot was in complete control. Up until that point - when you’d spotted a fighter - the gunner was more or less in control, the pilot obeyed whatever the pilot, gunner wanted him to do, but the second you said “Go!” then he was in full control and naturally he was in control when he levelled off which theoretically on the old course and he’d consult the navigator and that was it, so was an adjustment of course, navigator would give him alter course three or four degrees port or couple of degrees starboard and between the gunner only, to all intents and purposes, the rear gunner’d gone to sleep, [chuckle] but he didn’t.
CB: Why did you always want to be a rear gunner?
HJ: I never, ever had a fancy for the mid upper, I’ve only ever stood in the mid upper position when the kite’s been on the ground. I never, ever, the mid upper gunner was virtually surplus. Cause as I say you never, well it would be once in a blue moon you had somebody diving on you, they prefer to be more or less on a level with you. But, it wasn’t a bad life.
CB: How often did the plane get damaged?
HJ: Ah, now, you were lucky not to pick up a hole or two each time you flew. Probably we, out of the thirty three, possibly about three with no damage at all. The second you landed and taxied to your dispersal, the second you were in dispersal and switched off, the groundcrew were there and they would go over and if you didn’t have a hole or two in you they reckoned you’d only gone as far as the North Sea!
CB: Never been to the target.
HJ: And if you had quite a bit of damage they’d moan like hell cause they had to repair it! But provided you treated your groundcrew right, the groundcrew were exceptional. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that if you got the back of the groundcrew up, you didn’t last. I’m not saying they did, they, I’m not saying they did it deliberate but I’m convinced that there was more than one kite went down because they skimped on the maintenance and they’d do it deliberate if you were bloody minded to them. They’d do the maintenance, but they wouldn’t do it as thorough as they’d do it normal. But that’s something which is impossible to prove one way or the other. But it wouldn’t surprise me. But if you looked after ‘em, in other words when you got a bit of spare time, take them out for an evening out, all expenses paid by the crew. No more, if you did the complete tour, which was minimum of thirty from the first, you wouldn’t take them out more than about four times during the third, you know, three or four times, but providing you give them a good night out now and again, they’d look after you. But if, if you were a bit toffee-nosed with ‘em, whether they would be as thorough, I don’t think so. Of course you know the Air Force suffered more losses than any other, such as Army battalion or Navy.
CB: In relation to the numbers, yes.
HJ: Somewhere around about fifty odd thousand I think, aircrew were lost, every man a volunteer, aircrew rules, every man was always a volunteer: there was no conscription, but there was never any shortage.
CB: What about the morale of the crew? How was that?
HJ: Morale was, now morale was top class, there’s no doubt about that. Even when we became, when I was on 166, we became what was known as a crack crew and we did quite a lot of sea mining at Skattegat and Stettin Bay. Stettin Bay was a bloody long haul: ten hours thirty. But when you were on, only five crews used to go on the mining effort but by and large they would try and give you top cover. For instance, if you were mine laying, well if I say we were one of five on mine laying, you always took off half an hour before the main force. If you were going to do, if you were going to the Baltic, they put on a thousand bomber raid to Stettin, well, they called, well it was called, as I told you, about seven hundred made up the so called thousand, but it was always announced as a thousand bomber raid by the BBC, but, but er, [sigh] only once did I ever know somebody that nerve broke, and the way they get treated, or the way he got treated, you wouldn’t do it. He was, because his nerve broke and he wouldn’t fly again he was cashiered and drummed out of the service. If it, if it was a sergeant his tapes were taken off and just one stitch back and then dropped, and that was before the whole of the squadron. All of the squadron was paraded to see it. I only ever saw one. There was no excuse for that sort of thing, because it’s just human nature broke him, not everyone had the temperament to – you had to be miserable bloody fool like me, see.
CB: So that was in 166 was it? That was in 166. In 166, in your squadron. The LMF man was in your squadron was he? [Rumbling sounds]
HJ: Yup.
CB: And what was he? Just thinking.
HJ: I think he was a bomb aimer to be quite honest with you, he was in the front. Certainly he wasn’t the skipper and certainly it wasn’t the navigator: think it was the bomb aimer. But by and large you only, you were only really close to the three crews that was on your dispersal. Cause you were dispersed into woods and all sorts of things. It was nothing to have half, three quarter of a mile to walk to the mess. By and large, you were only on nodding terms to quite a lot of the actual squadron, but to the three on dispersal, you were all good friends, cause the next dispersal site might be half a mile from you. So you, you only stuck and once you finished you weren’t kept on the squadron, you were within forty eight hours you were moved to a dispersal or a permanent posting dispersal. I went drogue towing, down in Aberporth.
CB: Just going back to this experience of the man. What was the reaction of the squadron in the parade?
HJ: What was the?
CB: What was the reaction of the members of the squadron?
HJ: What was the reaction? [Pause] I’m really not, you only knew the reaction of more or less the ones that you were close to on dispersal. Course what you’ve got to bear in mind is, like when I was at 166 originally, there was, of the original crew, when it was crewed, before any operation there was only two commissioned. That was, they were both Canadian, the bomb aimer and the navigator, the skipper was Canadian, he was only a sergeant, and then the rest of us were non-commissioned. [Tearing sound] But then they commissioned all pilots so we actually had three commissioned and four non-commissioned. There was talk at one time, which was silly really, that they would commission all aircrew. That never worked out, never, it wouldn’t have worked, I mean it would have put too many in the officers mess. Well by and large they would have had to enlarge the officers mess. If you were a three flight you would have a minimum of about three hundred and thirty crew members cause you always had a couple of spare, but if we were all commissioned, with seven man crew, you take seven times, for the sake of argument, seven times thirty two. Plus there would be the ground officers. It worked the way it worked.
CB: What sort of damage did you see of other aircraft?
HJ: You could have, now, I’ll give you two incidences on the aircraft I flew. In one instance we had a starboard, whatever, engine taken out by a bomb, in the second instance we had a five hundred pound delay come into the cabin, from an aircraft above!
CB: Whereabouts? Where?
HJ: It came in behind the navigator, between the navigator and the mid upper, but all it needed -
CB: By the mind spar.
HJ: Mind you, it was a five hour delay anyway, you could have, if the old propellor had wound out, but the propellor was on a spindle like that, and the little propellor and it didn’t come live until that was completely out. So all you did was you wind the bugger back in! There was hopes that [indecipherable]. No, we brought that bugger back, groundcrew well. [Laugh] But when you were on sea mining, once the mines were on the aircraft they’d never take ‘em back off, they, the groundcrew, wouldn’t have that. So if something wasn’t quite right where you were gonna mine, you could wait about two or three weeks to do a trip. But you usually dropped a mine from about eight thousand feet, check so as the parachute opened immediately and it’d go down and as I say most of the mining we did was into the bloody Baltic, Stettin Bay. But course there, the, Stettin was only just inside the Baltic so the travelling was, wasn’t like the Atlantic or something like that, it was comparatively narrow, perhaps no more than, well most of the mining was done probably no more than three four hundred feet. But the mines that were dropped on parachute, the first ship over activated them over, the second ship over – bang! That was a bit dodgy, the ship [indecipherable]. Cause if they were in, following one another, the first ship goes in no trouble at all, everything’s all right, the second one goes bang!
CB: These were acoustic mines, yeah.
HJ: But on a bombing raid we always carried a four thousand pounder, and mostly [emphasis] all the rest was four pound incendiary, incendiary containers and they would, the incendiary containers were rigged so that they’d open about a thousand foot up and scatter so that they covered a, and then you had the, but from a bombing point of view, the, when you had markers put down, they were TIs, either red, green or various coloured.
CB: Target Indicators.
HJ: And the Master Bomber or his deputy or Master Bomber on the second would, you’d pick him up on the radio when you were nearing there and bomb the reds and yellows, or he’d tell you what colour to bomb. But the object of bombing was not to bomb a particular place, but do as much damage as could be.
CB: To the whole area.
HJ: Yeah. In other words if you could blow the whole of the town up while you’re there, various bombs [indecipherable]. It was, but of course poor old Bomber Harris, he, course Bomber Command got blamed for everything immediately after the war and it’s only comparatively recent that they’ve come out of the dog house. It’s only comparatively recent that they’ve built the Bomber’s Memorial, Green Park I think it is.
CB: Yes. You’ve got your Bomber Clasp, haven’t you, you’ve got your Clasp. You’ve got that.
HJ: When that came. Yeah. I’ve got a Clasp. The Clasp is, where the medals are, it’s on the right one up there.
CB: So your crew was a mixture of commissioned and non-commissioned.
HJ: Well, all, all went together, no problem, no problem. To be quite honest with you, towards the end, the Australian wireless op, Frank Perkins, he bought a clapped out bloody car! Mind you, that was run on Air Force petrol [laugh]. But they could trace that, cause the, it was the colour, but it was a clapped out old car going on a hundred octane.
CB: So that blew the engine.
HJ: So prior to that, we could go a bit further afield but aircrew had to walk, groundcrew had bicycles! [Laugh] Aircrew weren’t trusted with a bicycle [indecipherable] [laugh]. That’s the, the Clasp.
CB: The campaign medal, yes.
HJ: But no, aircrew weren’t, we had a sergeant who was in charge of the groundcrew for the three aircraft. He used to go out on the tiddly most nights. He used to ride a bike out and ride the bike back and where he come off the bike he spent the night, the rest of the night, and it was nothing to see him coming cycling in about eight o’clock in the morning. [Laugh] He come off, where he was, [burp] bit of a strong thing there coming up, but they had Special Police as much as ordinary Police Forces and this was, the Special in that particular area was a small bloke, and he, partly deformed, he come across this groundcrew sergeant passed out in the middle of the road and he told him after, he could only roll him onto the side of the road. He said if he could carry him he would have carried him to the Police Station! If he could’ve got him to ride, brought him around and but he said for safety’s sake he rolled him to the kerb, well to the grass verge.
CB: Now there were always a lot of WAAFs on the airfield. How did you liaise with them?
HJ: Now, we had a, [pause] the, as far as squadron life was concerned, the WAAFs you really came into contact with was in the Parachute Section and they had the job of packing chutes. Mind you, at least once during the tour you had to pull your parachute and pack it yourself, but I’ve never seen a man that didn’t pull it twice after they’d packed their own chute, pull the bugger [indecipherable] they didn’t trust their own packing, that’s for sure! I know I never did! But it worked where they had these little sandbags, you know, they fetch ‘em out and hauled them over but when you consider how much silk there is, well they weren’t a hundred percent silk, they were only a part silk, a mixture of cotton and silk I suppose, but when you consider how much there was and it finished up as no more than what. But when I was at Aberporth, that’s when you really came into contact with the WAAFs. Now in the Sergeant’s Mess at Aberporth there was a particular WAAF girl, cook, she was about, no more than twenty, I know I took her out once or twice, she had the biggest breasts I’ve ever seen – they were colossal! Whoar! She had, you know there white foldover doings cooks had, she’d have nothing else on and every now and again when she was bending down, one or the other of these colossal tits would pop out. [Laugh] I stood behind her time to tuck it back in! [Laugh]
CB: So not only did you get two black eyes but you couldn’t hear anything either!
HJ: Oh gawd, you know she loved this [indecipherable]. Mind you, [pause] I must admit that to my certain knowledge, I put at least one WAAF into the family way, because the son by me has seen both my daughter and my late wife, but I was always out.
CB: Where did you meet your wife?
HJ: Where did I?
CB: Where did you meet your wife?
HJ: One I got pregnant in Aberporth, she was a corporal, Joyce Humphries her name was, she lived at Ystradygnlais, six miles out of Swansea. She was at Aberporth and she drove the Monday delivery wagon that I used when I joined in the catering office, I’d take to get the bread and get the booze, so we’d spend more or less all day Monday together, either in the summer sat out on the hills or on the way back having a swig out of a, a glass of stout. Wife.
CB: Where did you meet her, your wife?
HJ: Probably, in Newbury, yes. Got tired, I got tired running I think, just, I’d known her quite some time, on and off, and I suppose after, I suppose really speaking, I eventually got her pregnant and decided to make an honest woman of her. Hmm, yes. My daughter was born in December and we were married in June. [Laugh] But in 1960 she had her operation, but had this valve put in her heart and she lived another forty years after that. She died, I think she’s been dead somewhere in the region of sixteen years. Mind you, we divorced twenty nine years ago this November. I don’t know why she divorced me, probably get me money, cost me a fair bit.
CB: After the assessment.
HJ: If the war had continued, I would almost certainly have gone back for a second tour. You could be forced on to your second tour by them just calling you in, from whatever you were doing. For instance, when your tour was finished, I went to, oh, near Aviemore, in Scotland, yes, near Nairn I think, and from there you chose what you wanted to do, on what was available. So they, If you wanted to go into office work and if office work was available and you were suitable for it then, but I decided to go on to drogue towing and I got posted, originally for a short time, to Valley and I was only at Valley for no more than three weeks, and from there I went to a little place also on Anglesey, called Bodorgan I think it was. And from Bodorgan I went, I was only at Bodorgan about month and then I went direct to Aberporth, and I was at Aberporth to within a couple of months of getting demobbed. From Aberporth I went to somewhere in Worcestershire. I got demobbed from, I got demobbed at Uxbridge but I went from this place in Worcestershire to Uxbridge, to get demobbed, that’s when me number came up. I was on a, aircrew were on special release, they were on G Reserve, not paid Reserve. But I was on G Reserve, possible that, if necessary they could call you up, but if a war had broken out, serious war broke out, anything up to perhaps ten years after I was demobbed, they could call me up on this G Reserve without me having to, without waiting for the number to come up.
CB: Okay. When you got to Aberporth –
HJ: Well, now it was a lazy life: you didn’t start till nine in the morning. You just go to flight and by half past nine, ten o’clock you knew whether the, either the Army or the Navy wanted a drogue towing. Nine times out of ten they didn’t so you had the rest of the day off. You just caught bus and go into town.
CB: But what was your job?
HJ: What was? [Bumping on microphone]
CB: You were in a Martinet there?
HJ: Was a Naval aircraft, single engine –
CB: It was a Martinet.
HJ: Martinet, that’s it. Your position was immediately behind the pilot and you had a square out the bottom and you just threw the drogue out through the square and it had sufficient cable on it to clear the tail by a few feet before it, and it drove itself, probably about ten foot long, when it was fully adrift, and then you just let out a thousand foot of cable, and then you had a little propellor outside to bring it back in and you wound the propellor down into wind so it, and that would bring it back in and you’d wait till the connection and that, it had a cord connection from the cable to the drogue cable, and then you cut that with a knife when you flew over where they, skipper’d take it down to about forty, fifty feet perhaps bit lower, and then you’d cut it right in front of the arrow doors and it dropped on the apron.
CB: Of the apron.
HJ: But the only part that was damaged was this bit of cord, and of course that’s no problem at all, probably no more than six inches when it was, of cord, and that’s no problem, not that way, but it was sort of doubled for when you would, pull it. But oh, at Aberporth there was an Army camp - Artillery I suppose - and also a private, not private, a government development attached to the Army camp, and I expect you’ve heard of this, they were doing a nose instantaneous job to go with Blue Streak, I expect you’ve heard about Blue Streak.
CB: The rocket.
HJ: Well I actually dropped fifty of these nose instantaneous efforts; they were about this high.
CB: Couple of feet.
HJ: ‘Bout so big round.
CB: Four inches.
HJ: The skipper’d line the wing of the aircraft up against the headland, put his thumb up and I had let it go through the [indecipherable] these scientists were watching, [laugh] taking photos of it and nine times out of ten the bugger went straight into the sea [laugh] and didn’t explode. And we did fifty of those, about twenty five drops, ten, but you should have seen it. They were brought by armed personnel and they jumped out of the back of the wagon and stood, rifles on guard, just handed them over to me and we just sort of walk off, no guard at all! It was, but it never come of anything, Blue Streak, I don’t think.
CB: No.
HJ: Instantaneous. The pressure built up on the nose as it fell, that was the idea of it. Pressure building on the nose.
CB: And explode above the water.
HJ: And the pressure, nine times out of ten they went straight in. [Indecipherable] probably eight out of ten the people were [indecipherable]. They could, they could explode almost as soon as you dropped on the water. And you were dropping them off, I, probably from six thousand feet.
CB: Oh, as high as that!
HJ: Yes, cause theoretically you’re not allowed to fly under six thousand feet, so could have been, didn’t matter the height you dropped ‘em from, could have been eight thousand, cause as I say they were only supposed to go off hundred feet above the water.
CB: Right. In 166 three aircraft were written off. What was that?
HJ: One was written off, let’s see, one was written off because we lost a bit of the wing, and the wing was, a bomb caught the outer side of the wing, took about six foot off and put the wing as a whole out of alignment, so that became a write off. Then there was excessive damage between the rear turret and mid upper turret on another one, bloody great hole in the side of the kite, so that caused, well, as far as we were concerned it was written off, whether they got round to repairing it, was a major repair based on that, but as far as the squadron was concerned it was written off. And the other was a tailplane, aileron damage. That was, it was written off as far as the squadron was concerned, it could have been taken but a lot of these, a lot of the Lancs were made in Canada, women used to fly them, via Iceland, no, yeah, Iceland wasn’t it, and refuel there and fly them into wherever they were needed in England. Whats’er name lost her life on that, didn’t she. Before the war she did long distance.
CB: Amy Johnson.
HJ: Amy somebody.
CB: Johnson.
HJ: Johnson. She lost her life and they never did find what happened to her.
CB: No.
HJ: I don’t know whether it was, could have been a Lanc, she was flying it from north to south.
CB: What caused this aileron damage?
HJ: Usually aircraft fire, anti-aircraft usually ground fire.
CB: Flak?
HJ: Yeah, but if it caused enough damage it couldn’t be repaired by, immediately by the groundcrew, it was virtually, as far as the squadron was concerned it was taken out of action and transported wherever they wanted it, going for scrap, transported for scrap.
CB: Okay, what was the most memorable thing about being in the Air Force in the war?
HJ: What a nice lazy life it was, I suppose! It was a lazy life, I tell you that. You could only commit one crime, well, oh, I don’t think you’d get away with murder, but I think you’d have got away with almost anything else. The major crime was if you refused to fly and then of course you got court martialled and out of the service. But [pause] I think, I think really, the camaraderie of the crew. You see every man in the crew trusted all the others. There was no, you were all convinced each crew member could do its own job. You didn’t, certainly was no criticism of anything, you were just, just admired one another I suppose, as whatever their job was. God help anybody that said, said that your, for the sake of argument, wireless operator was no good, cause as far as you were concerned he were the best, I say wireless operator but we had a lazy bugger! He’d often go to sleep. [laugh] He kept, course as far as the wireless operator was concerned, he was supposed to take both, two broadcasts an hour, Group broadcast and some other broadcast, but this Australian we had, Frank Perkins, he’d put his feet up and go to asleep and crib off another fellow after landing, [laughter] you could see him writing up his log at the debriefing!
CB: How many, did you keep in touch with your crew after the end?
HJ: By and large you, I only kept in touch with the wireless op. By and large, once you’d finished, you preferred to let it go – you knew you wouldn’t be seeing them again. Oh God. As I say, I was always with colonials, I mean except, as I say, when we took on a flight engineer, he was the only other Englishman. So you knew full well, by and large, that you wouldn’t see them again, so there was no point really, plus the fact you didn’t know how long the war was going to go on, what you’d be doing. But whereas English could be forced to a second tour, a second tour was always a minimum of twenty, the first was a minimum of thirty. And as I say, I got three extra in, simply because on three occasions I was there and it was required. The reason I got spares often was because we was mining and quite often, as I say, anything up to three weeks were standing, I think three weeks was the longest we went between actually having the mines put on the aircraft and going on a mining job, but it, it wasn’t really. But as I say, you had the utmost of respect for all your crew members and God help anybody who criticised them. But oh, Frank Fish, who was the navigator, never ever flew without being airsick. He always carried a little bucket with him, and he was always airsick.
CB: Do you know why?
HJ: Hmm?
CB: Do you know why? Was it nerves?
HJ: He wasn’t continuously sick, you know, he just, but almost always, even if you only went cross country, he was just as likely to be sick, but once he’d been sick he was all right again. As I say he had his little bucket.
CB: Amazing.
HJ: Which he kept down by the side of him.
CB: The HCU was in Lincolnshire.
HJ: The heavy conversion, that was done in Lincolnshire, just prior to joining the squadron.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Harry James,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed August 10, 2022,

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