Interview with Philip James MBE


Interview with Philip James MBE


Philip James was a valet to Captain Fletcher at Margham Castle before joining the Royal Air Force. At the age of 19 he trained as a flight engineer at RAF St Athan, working on the Halifax. At RAF Dishforth in Yorkshire crews were formed and Philip joined a crew of Canadians. At the Heavy Conversion Unit they were flying Mk1 and Mk2 Halifaxes before being posted to 192 Squadron based in RAF Foulsham, Norfolk, to fly Halifax Mk 3. During his service Philip flew to France, Germany and Norway. When he had a 48 hour leave he would sometimes stay in the Salvation Army Hostel in Norwich or go to the flight engineers section to learn more about the aircraft. The crew also occasionally went to Sheffield, staying in the Albany Hotel and visiting a coal mine and a brewery. Philip recalled a trip near Saarbrücken when they were monitoring the V-2 rocket. He also mentioned a posting to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. He had done 33 operations with the squadron. When the war ended Philip worked clearing stations of vehicles to be taken to RAF Grafton Underwood. In 1982 Philip and the navigator, Bert, arranged a reunion in Canada. Philip received the MBE for his work as a welfare officer working with ex RAF personnel for over 40 years.







00:31:23 audio recording


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AJamesPAE170705, PJamesPAE1701


LD: Ok. This is an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Laura Dixon and the interviewee is Philip James. The interview is taking place in Port Talbot on the 5th of July 2017.
PJ: Right.
LD: Hello Philip. Thank you for having me. So, my first question. Can you tell me more about your life before you joined the Bomber Command? Before the Second World War.
PJ: I was working in a place called Margam Castle.
LD: Oh really?
PJ: I was a valet there to a gentleman called Captain Andrew Fletcher. I worked there for some time before I went to the Air Force. They did want me to go to Scotland with them because they were moving to Scotland but I said, ‘No. I want to go to the Air Force.’ So, that was my time just before going to the Air Force.
LD: So, how did you join the Bomber Command and why did you join the Bomber Command but not the navy or the army? Why did you choose the Bomber Command?
PJ: Because my two idols were Captain Scott of Antarctica and Douglas Bader, the fighter pilot with no legs. And I wanted to just go to the Air Force.
LD: Ok.
PJ: And I ended up at St Athans forty minutes away from where I lived and I trained as a flight engineer. I trained to be, to fly Halifaxes. So —
LD: So —
PJ: That’s it.
LD: So you were a flight engineer. So what does a flight engineer do? What’s the, what was your job?
PJ: My main job was to help the pilot, take off and landings. Monitor the fuel consumption. All the specifications for the engines like oil pressure, oil temperature. The temperature of the engines and make sure that I did the correct procedure with the petrol consumption and the correct procedure of using the different tanks. There were fourteen tanks on the aircraft all together and they had to be done in a proper sequence not to put any stress on the wings. Right.
LD: Yeah. Ok. So, what kind of places did you go to? Did you go to Europe or did you go further than Europe?
PJ: Yes. I did. I went to France, I went to Germany and I also flew up right to Northern Norway.
LD: Ok.
PJ: Ok.
LD: Ok. So how long would a mission take? Did you go there and then come back? Was it overnight?
PJ: The one at Norway took us about four days because the weather stopped us from flying back to Norfolk. Yeah.
LD: Ok. So what was your relationship like with your colleagues? With your crew members.
PJ: I think I’ll start the talk about my crew a little bit later on.
LD: Ok.
PJ: Because that’s, that’s how I will start my story then if you’d like to call it that.
LD: Yeah. Ok. Yeah. I’ll come back to that.
PJ: Right.
LD: That’ll be interesting. So, were there any problems with the plane or any injuries that you experienced at any point?
PJ: No. We were very lucky. We did have some slight damage but we’ll come to that later on.
LD: Ok.
PJ: Yeah.
LD: So, what did you do in your spare time when you weren’t flying? When you were on the ground with your colleagues. Would you go out in the evening?
PJ: Dependant on how much time I had spare like. I could have like forty eight hours and I would go in to Norwich and stay in the Salvation Army Hostel for about a half a crown a night. Two and sixpence.
LD: Yeah.
PJ: Two shillings and sixpence. I would also go to the flight engineer’s section and learn a bit more about the aircraft and what goes on in the, in the plane during the trips that we did.
LD: Ok. So, what would happen on a typical mission? What would the procedure be?
PJ: The procedure from where?
LD: Well, from the start and then to the end. From take-off and then to the finish.
PJ: Well, first of all you would have to go to the main briefing where you’d be shown a target and the weather conditions. The red spots on the map would be where the heavy defences were in Germany, particularly in Germany and you were routed usually bypassing them. But that wasn’t always the case. Ok.
LD: So, were you excited to start flying? Because you must have been very young when you started. So, what kind of feelings did you have? Were you excited or was it just something that you felt that you had to do?
PJ: I wouldn’t say that I was excited but you were sort of learning things every minute of the day. How can I say? We’d, the crew would probably get together and have a chat and discuss what we’d done or what we were going to do. It depended a lot on whatever time we were given. Like you could have a day off and you would go in to Norwich then. If you had like forty eight hours pass then you would go into Norwich and stay in the Salvation Army Hostel. Yeah. The crew used to go to Sheffield. They used to stay in a Temperance hotel called the Albany Hotel which is still in Sheffield today and they used to eat in a place called the Athol Bar. That’s where they used to eat. They were also treated very kindly by the master brewer of a brewery in Sheffield called Richdale’s Brewery. Yeah. And they organised them to visit a coal mine. The brewery of course [laughs] So, that’s that. That’s that little bit.
LD: Ok. So would you like to tell more about your little story about the friendship with your colleagues.
PJ: Right. I was at a place called Dishforth in Yorkshire. On this particular day about twenty flight engineers were told get into a hangar and there was about twenty Wellington crews which was, a two engine bomber, a crew of six and now they had to team up with a flight engineer. And the wireless operator of that crew was a Canadian Red Indian called John Yakimchuk. He came over to me and he said would I like to join his crew? I said, ‘I’ll come and have a chat with the crew and make up my mind.’ I went and had a chat with the crew and I decided that I would stick with them. They were all Canadians. So I became part of their crew ready to go flying in Halifaxes which was four engine bombers. So, as we were a crew now it was down the pub in the night to have a drink and sort of celebrate being made up into a full seven crew. So they asked me now what would I like to drink? And I said, ‘Orange juice.’ I was only nineteen at the time. So later on, later on I noticed that the crew were all chatting amongst themselves and not including me so I called John over, John Yakimchuk and I said, ‘What’s all this chatting going on and I’m not involved in it?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you what happened,’ he said, ‘We were looking around at the engineers and we decided that that bloke over there with ginger hair,’ me, ‘And a fresh complexion, he’s a drinking man. So we’ll have him for our flight engineer.’ So of course, that’s how I came to be crewed up with the Canadians. And they were a great bunch. A great bunch of chaps they were. The pilot, George Ward, he was a first class pilot and we had a first class navigator, Bert Taylor. I think the reason we were posted to 192 Squadron was because of the quality of the pilot and the navigator. So that’s as far as I go now. Right.
LD: Ok. So, when the war ended were you relieved? What was the, what was the feeling about leaving the Bomber Command?
PJ: Well, I was lost for a little while. I was given a job after I’d finished flying. I was given a job of clearing RAF stations of vehicles and I had about twenty German drivers and about half a dozen RAF drivers and we used to go around clearing all these RAF stations of vehicles. And we used to take the majority of them to a place called Grafton Underwood which used to be an American base. And I think that change of work style sort of made you sort of forget what you’d been doing for thirty three trips. That’s about it.
LD: Ok.
PJ: Yeah.
LD: So, have you kept in touch with your colleagues after the Bomber Command?
PJ: It was some years. It was about 1982. I was going to London and before I went I had a telephone call and it was my navigator, Bert Taylor. He was in London and I was going to a reunion in London that same weekend. So I told Bert, ‘Just get a taxi and go to an hotel called the Ritz,’ because we were all going to go for a tea at the Ritz. So I met up with Bert and his wife and between the two of us we came up with the idea of having a reunion out in Canada. So Bert got on the phone and we arranged to all meet up at my tail gunner’s farm. They called it a farm. I would call it a ranch more than that. He had five, no seven oil wells on his land. And we had a great reunion there. Aye. Ah yes. We had. I’d been down to Canada eight times. Western Canada because most of the crew came from Western Canada. I did two trips to Eastern Canada as well because I knew another pilot and a radio mechanic Hugh Home And they were two very good trips they were as well. There we are.
LD: Very nice. Ok. So, I know you have an MBE. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how you got it?
PJ: The MBE. I was a welfare officer looking after ex-RAF and I did that for about forty, fifty years and it was decided that I should have an MBE for doing that work.
LD: Oh, ok.
PJ: So we were all getting geared up to go to the palace and the Queen had an operation on her knee. I don’t know if you remember that.
LD: No. I don’t think so.
PJ: Anyway, she had an operation on her knee so we were transferred to Cardiff University and Prince Charles did the presentation instead of the Queen.
LD: Ok. So, when did you get that MBE? When was it? How long ago was it?
PJ: How many years ago, Pete?
LD: So, how do you think the Bomber Command is being perceived now?
PJ: What love?
LD: How do you think the Bomber Command is being perceived? Do you think it’s being, do you think it gets the recognition it deserves or do you think it’s not recognised enough?
PJ: Well, I flew with 192 Squadron which was part of 100 Group which was all secret in World War Two. Our mail was censored and no cameras were allowed on the squadron. So, that was —
[recording paused]
PJ: Fifteen years ago, Pete. Goodness me alive. Goodness me.
Other: Time marches on.
PJ: Fifteen years ago.
LD: Ok. Is there anything else you can think of that you’d like to tell me? Anything else?
PJ: When I was at Dishforth we were being converted from a twin engine. The crew, I hadn’t flown with them in Wellingtons so we were being trained there then. It was called an Heavy Conversion Unit and we were flying clapped out Mark 1s and 2s. Halifaxes with Rolls Royce engines. But they say that if you could get through Heavy Conversion Unit you was very lucky but we got through then ok. And it came to the day when the notice board would have then where all the crews that had passed would be posted to. So we had a look and it said George Ward’s crew posted to 192 Squadron. And everybody said, ‘192 Squadron? Never heard of it. Never heard of Foulsham.’ That’s where we were based in Norfolk. So, we thought, ‘Oh well we’ll just have to go.’ So we arrived at Foulsham. Everything was all hush hush. And the first thing that we had to do then when we got to Foulsham was to learn to fly the latest Halifaxes. A brand new Mark 3 with Bristol Hercules engines. Radial engines. In your car your engine is inline. You know like the cylinders are inline. But with a Bristol Hercules engines they’re in a circle and they’re air cooled. Rolls Royce engines are liquid cooled. Hercules are air cooled. That was another job that I had to watch was the temperature of the engines. There was cowls which you could open and decide where the setting would be to keep the engine at the right temperature. So the first thing we had to do we had an Australian pilot and his flight engineer who came with us to an aircraft. A brand new Halifax. And the Australian pilot did two or three [pause] the Australian pilot and his engineer did three or four circuits and bumps. That means taking off, fly around and come back down and land and take off and go around again. And then he said to my pilot, ‘Are you ok now?’ My pilot said, ‘Yes. I think I’m ok now.’ [overhead plane noise] So he did a take-off and coming in to land one of the tyres burst and we slewed off, off the runway on to the grass and then the undercarriage at one side collapsed and the plane tilted and finally stopped on the grass. Anyway, that was sorted out and then we were allocated a brand new Mark 3 Halifax called DT-O. DT was the squadron and O was the aircraft. All the aircraft were numbered DT-O or A B C D. That’s how they numbered the aircraft. With letters. So we were allocated DT-O. So now do you want me to go and talk about a couple of trips or something like that?
LD: Oh yes. That would be great. Ok.
PJ: The first trip that I’ll talk to you about we were sent somewhere near Saarbrucken. Just us. Just one aircraft and we had to do a patrol there. In other words fly back and forth. So when we got back you were interviewed by the intelligence officer and we told him we had seen vertical vapour trails and he said, ‘What you saw was the new German fighter. The jet engined ME262,’ I think it was called. And he said, ‘Yes. That was the ME 262 that you saw.’ But they found out later that what we were doing, we were monitoring the V-2s. Do you know what a V-2 is?
LD: No.
PJ: It was a rocket. The first few were radio controlled. All the rest were just fuelled up, pointed in the direction of London or where ever they wanted to send it and they were shot up and they would go up into the atmosphere. I forget how high they used to go. Then they would come down, usually on London faster than the speed of sound. They would explode on the ground and then you would hear it come in after it had blown up because it was travelling faster than sound. That was one trip we did. Another trip although we didn’t do it we found out about it. We used to use the two engine aircraft that we had on the station. They used to go down to the Bay of Biscay and monitor a wavelength that the Germans used to send out into the Atlantic so that the U-boats could home in on it and go to the French ports that had the U-boat pens with twelve foot thick concrete roofs. The only bombs that could get through that were the twelve thousand pounders. Anyway, I said, ‘Why have we got to keep monitoring this wavelength?’ ‘Because we use it as well.’ Our submarines and our ships would use it as well. But of course instead of going into the French ports they were quite near home now and they would come up the English Channel or the Bristol Channel whatever. And we had to keep monitoring it because the Germans used to change the wavelength and we had to keep tabs on it to make sure we had the right wavelength all the time. And that’s what the Wellingtons used to do. Some of the Halifaxes used to do it as well. The most important trip I think that we did we were based as I said in Foulsham in Norfolk, up in the corner of Norfolk and we were sent to an Air Force base called Lossiemouth which was right at the very top of Scotland. I don’t know if you know that. It’s right at the top of Scotland and we flew from there under a thousand feet to avoid being picked up by the German radar. We flew over the Arctic Circle and we came to a certain spot. The navigator and the pilot would probably know where this spot was. And at that spot we went up to five thousand feet and by doing that the German battleship the Tirpitz, Germany’s finest battleship, its sister ship called the Bismarck they’d already sunk that but this Tirpitz would put on its radar. But unknown to them we carried a special operator and special equipment that was recording the gaps and the weaknesses in the Tirpitz radar stream. And the reason why there was gaps and weaknesses? It was the lie of the land up in Norway. Steep sided fjords etcetera. And that information then was sent to planning and they sent the Lancasters in to Swedish air space, they rendezvoused at a Swedish lake and flew out and sunk the Tirpitz with twelve thousand pound bombs. That trip took us nine hours five minutes, hence two bloody hearing aids [laughs] excuse that [laughs] and about two and a half thousand gallons of petrol each plane with four planes doing this. And that’s the longest flight I ever did. And I did thirty three trips altogether. End of my story.
LD: Ok.
PJ: Life. Life style.
LD: Thank you very much. That’s very interesting. Thank you. I’ll end it there.


Laura Dixon, “Interview with Philip James MBE,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 22, 2023,

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