Interview with Harold Kirby. Two


Interview with Harold Kirby. Two


Harold Kirby grew up in London and worked in an accounts department before joining the Royal Air Force. He served as a fitter with 460 Squadron at RAF Binbrook before remustering as a flight engineer. He flew two tours of operations with 467, 97 and 156 Squadrons. He describes the Stirling that was used for training and also the Lancaster in which he flew on operations. He also describes the preparations before an operation and the procedure for landing. He explains how window and how flares were used by the Pathfinders. Harold gives an account of an incident where his Lancaster was damaged by another Lancaster dropping its bombs from above but otherwise says his crew were very fortunate. After the war, he worked as a patent agent until he retired.







02:04:49 audio recording

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TO: This recording was recorded for the International Bomber Command Centre digital archive which owns the copyright for this performance. OK, so what year were you born in?
HK: 1923.
TO: And, er, where were you born?
HK: In Kilburn. Kingsgate Road, Kilburn.
TO: I live near there. I live near there at the moment. I’m in West Hampstead.
HK: Oh, right. OK.
TO: And, er, when were you a child were you interested in aircraft?
HK: Not particularly no, although we did go to the Hendon Air Mus— display on occasions, um, but not, not particularly interested when I was young.
TO: What, what kind of aircraft did they have at the display?
HK: I think they were, er, sort of two-winged planes, yes. I can’t really remember much about it.
TO: Right and were your parents in the First World War?
HK: Yes, my fa— yes, my father was in the Army but he managed to survive.
TO: Did you, er, did he ever talk about his time in the war?
HK: Very rarely. We did go to the, er, an Army museum somewhere and he did explain a bit what he did but not very much.
TO: Is that on? And, er, when did you leave school?
HK: When did I leave school? At sixteen. We had moved to Kingsbury by then and I went to Kingsbury County School.
TO: And, er, what were your favourite subjects at school?
HK: Maths.
TO: And, er, did you use maths in your first job?
HK: No, not really, no. My first job was in the accounts department of London Electrics Supply. That was in Waterloo but, er, maths didn’t really come into it much.
TO: And, er, in the 1930s did they, did the papers talk about what Hitler was doing in Europe?
HK: I think they must have done but I wasn’t really interested at that time.
TO: And did you go to the cinema much?
HK: Yes, quite often, yes. I usually went with my mother and brother. My father wasn’t terribly interested.
TO: Do you remember any specific films you saw? Are there any films you remember seeing?
HK: Not really, no. I remember seeing some silent films early on but, er, I remember a film called “Rin Tin Tin” about a dog but I can’t really remember much about it.
TO: I have heard about that film but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it but my grandmother mentioned it to me once. And, er, do remember hearing about the Munich Agreement?
HK: Oh, yes, yes. That was 1938 was it? Yes, oh yes. I was a bit older by then.
TO: And what did you think of Chamberlain appeasing Hitler?
HK: I’m not sure whether it was just to delay things or not or whether he really thought it would be appeasement. But, er, I just don’t know.
TO: And after the agreement were people making preparations for war?
HK: Yes. Oh, definitely, yes. They seemed to think it was definitely coming by then.
TO: Was there any preparations you were involved in?
HK: No, not until the war started and then we dug the garden for allotments but nothing much at the time.
TO: And do you think Britain could have made better preparations?
HK: I don’t think so, no. Oh, possibly got in a better store of food [slight laugh]. I don’t know.
TO: But were you surprised though when you heard that war had started?
HK: I think we knew it was coming. Yes. Yes. I heard the, um, broadcast by Neville Chamberlain.
TO: Do you remember how you felt when you heard it?
HK: I really felt that, er, we’d have to — well, I don’t really know at that time. I was only about sixteen so — but apprehensive probably.
TO: And did you have any relatives who were in the armed forces?
HK: I had some uncles in the First World War. Oh, a younger uncle, um, was in the fire service and then he went in the Army. Yes. That was all at the time.
TO: And, er, did, how did you feel when you heard that France had been defeated?
HK: Well, I thought we had our backs to the wall by then, yes. So, er, had to get down and try and preserve ourselves.
TO: Do you think France let Britain down?
HK: I don’t really think there was much they could do at the time. Germany was too powerful.
TO: And, er, when war had started did you think it would be a short war or a long war?
HK: Well, I had hoped it would be a short one but I, I really don’t know. I didn’t really have an opinion then.
TO: Were you living in London when the Luftwaffe started their bombing?
HK: In Kingsbury, yeah.
TO: And can you remember any specific occasions?
HK: We did have a, a bomb came down in the road but it didn’t explode but, er, it damaged houses, they — I think the toilets cracked or something and there was a house about three doors away that was more damaged and they had to leave it. But no, no explosions took place.
TO: Did you witness any aerial battles at that time?
HK: Oh yes, at the time, yes. I was quite interested.
TO: Were you worried that the Luftwaffe might win?
HK: What, what’s that?
TO: The Luftwaffe might defeat the RAF. Were you worried?
HK: Well, I suppose I was worried but, er, we seemed to have the upper hand at the end of the Battle of Britain.
TO: What did you think of RAF leaders at the time, like, er, Dowding?
HK: Well, I can’t say I had much opinion at that age, no.
TO: OK. Do you remember what kind of rations you had? [sound of rustling papers]
HK: I couldn’t say definitely but I knew we had rations. Things were in short supply, yes?
TO: Did you have better rations though when you were in the Air Force?
HK: Yes, definitely.
TO: And did you, did you have an air raid shelter where you lived?
HK: We had the indoor one, the Morrison shelter, yes. I don’t think we ever used it really.
TO: Would the Morrison have been much use do you think?
HK: The shelter?
TO: Yes.
HK: Well, it, it would have been but as I said I don’t think we really used it much.
TO: And as there much bomb damage near where you worked?
HK: Where I worked? Quite a bit, yes. This was up in Waterloo.
TO: And were you worried that Britain might surrender?
HK: I don’t think I was. No, I don’t think I was, no. I, if I thought about I thought we’d probably succeed which we did eventually.
TO: And did you ever see anyone behaving badly during the Blitz?
HK: I can’t that say I did. No.
TO: Do you think people pulled together?
HK: Yes.
TO: So, when exactly did you come to join the Air Force then? [sound of rustling papers]
HK: This is a bit of a long story. Two school friends and myself tried to get in early on flying duties. They got in, eventually became navigators, but I was turned down. I wasn’t fit for flying duties at the time but I was called up in ’42, initially trained as a, a flight mechanic, er, went on to do a training as a fitter and, um, while I was doing the courses they were calling for volunteers to become flight engineers. This time I passed the medical and eventually became a flight engineer.
TO: Do you remember what kind of medical tests they gave you?
HK: Well, I remember sort of blowing in a tube and holding the mercury up and the colour blindness test. I don’t really remember much else.
TO: Was there a certain, was there a certain kind of educational test you had to do?
HK: I’m pretty certain there was but I can’t remember it.
TO: And did your maths play a role with you being selected as a flight engineer?
HK: I think it helped, yes. [sound of rustling papers]
TO: And would you — did you ever consider trying to be a pilot or navigator?
HK: I did but, um, eventually when I was called for the medical, um, I did explain I had originally applied and they said at that time I was quite fit to become a navigator but as that was going to take longer I thought I’d persevere with being flight engineer.
TO: Once you got into a certain role, like flight engineer, could you reapply to be something else?
HK: Yes, certainly. Yes.
TO: And what did you relatives think of you being in the Air Force?
HK: My mother was very apprehensive, yes. But I don’t know what else, no.
TO: And so, er, can you describe a bit more about your training for being air crew?
HK: Yes, well after I’d become a fitter I was posted up to Binbrook and did six months, mainly repairing airplanes, and after the six months I was posted to St Athan to do my training as a flight engineer. Eventually I passed out, went to the heavy engineering, er, heavy aircraft place at Winthorpe where I crewed-up. The rest of the crew were all Australian. So, er, then we went to Waddington on 467 Squadron initially and later, after about sixteen operations we were transferred to, um, 97 Squadron, a Pathfinders squadron.
TO: And do you remember the first time you went up in a plane?
HK: Yes. That, that was when we had the old Stirling planes for training. That was the first time I went up, yeah, but I don’t really remember much about that.
TO: What did you, er, think of the Stirling?
HK: I think they were really clapped out by then. This was in, yes, early ’44. Actually, on the — my pilot’s first, um, solo on the Stirlings he couldn’t get the wheels down. I had to wind them down by hand which was a long job but then the, um, port one wouldn’t lock so we were advised to go to, um, one of the air, air stations that were — had damaged aircraft. That was in Suffolk somewhere. I forget the name and, er, we went there and the undercarriage collapsed on that, collapsed on that side. We spun round but no-one was hurt. Then the instructor came down with another aircraft and made my pilot fly it back. That was all the excitement we had on that station.
TO: Were most bombers, did most bombers have the same layout inside?
HK: No, not at all, no. They were quite different. The flight engineer on a Stirling was way back. I’m not sure what it was on the Halifax now but, er, with the Lancaster it was next to the pilot.
TO: I, a couple of years ago I spoke to a chap who had been a navigator in Lancasters and he said in the Halifax you had, the navigator had a separate office downstairs or something.
HK: I believe so, yes.
TO: Did you have a particular favourite aircraft of the war?
HK: A favourite one. Well that was the Lancaster. No doubt about it.
TO: Was it, was it, was it, did it feel different flying a Lancaster, flying in a Lancaster to other planes?
HK: What?
TO: You said you were flying in a Lancaster. Did it feel different on board a Stirling?
HK: Yes, yes, it was much better, yes. I can’t really remember much about the Stirling.
TO: Were you ever aboard a Halifax?
HK: No.
TO: Or a Wellington?
HK: No. No.
TO: OK. OK. So, er, when you were sent to the squadrons what, what did — were they mainly Lancasters?
HK: Yeah. They were all Lancasters where we were, at Waddington and then Coningsby.
TO: And as the flight engineer what would your duties be aboard the plane?
HK: Well, to assist the pilot in taking off, um, keeping an eye on the engine temperatures and oil pressures all the time, um, keeping a lookout on the starboard side, um, and doing any repairs which were possible on board. That was about it I think.
TO: Could you please describe the procedure for taking off in a Lancaster?
HK: Well [clears throat] initially we had to check, um, go round the aircraft and check the outside, then inside we had to run up the engines in turn to see how they were, watch there no significant [unclear] as they called it and, er, then we taxied to the start off point, run up the engines with the brakes on until we got the green light and then we were away. The only trouble was on one occasion, as we were going round the runway, um, the brakes failed and the pilot managed to guide it by the engines and at the start off point we couldn’t run up against the brakes as was normal. We just got to the start and pushed the throttle forwards and went off. But we got off OK then coming back we went — I’m trying to remember the name of the place where we first went with the, er, the Stirling, but they’d got a long runway so we flew there and so they repaired the brakes and we flew back.
TO: How reliable was the Lancaster?
HK: Very reliable generally, yes. We did have a bit of trouble with the intercom now and again but no, generally very reliable.
TO: And were you quite friendly with the ground crew?
HK: Yes, quite, quite friendly yes but, er, I think I ought to have been more friendly at the time but I was young, young and they were older people so, er, I, I don’t think I got as friendly as I should have done.
TO: How old were the people you were with?
HK: The, the ground crew? Oh, I reckon in their thirties, um, most, most of them I think were regulars. [beep sound]
TO: And what about the crew aboard the bomber. How old were they?
HK: Well, I was the youngest. The pilot was twenty-eight. I was just, just turned twenty-one. The bomb aimer was also early thirties and, um, the mid upper gunner and the wireless operator were quite young, um, mid mid-twenties I suppose but I got on very well with them.
TO: Did, were you, were you allowed to be friends with the — sorry, what was your rank?
HK: Rank? At the time I was just a sergeant, then flight sergeant and eventually warrant officer.
TO: Were there any rules about who you could be friends with?
HK: No, not, not really. I went about with some of the crew, yes. Of course though we were kept separate at the station, the officers and the NCOs separate.
TO: Was there ever any friction between the crew of the bomber?
HK: Not as far as I was concerned no. Never heard any.
TO: What did you think of Arthur Harris?
HK: I think he was just the man for the job at the time, yes.
TO: And, er, what did you think of the German aircraft of the war?
HK: Oh well, they — fortunately we didn’t have much of a contact with them. On our first, very first operation we were coming back and the rear gunner suddenly shouted to corkscrew and there was a plane. It was a twin-engine plane coming up behind and it let off a burst, and one bullet went through the rear turret and went through the rear gunner’s clothing and cut off his heating supply, which he was very aggrieved because it got very cold but we got back safely. The attacking aircraft I saw over— overtook us as we dived on the corkscrew and we never saw it again. So that was really a sort of a foretaste of what could have come but we were quite fortunate. We never saw any single or twin-engine aircraft again.
TO: And how do you feel about the Churchill deciding to order the bombing of Germany?
HK: How about —
TO: Churchill ordering Germany to be bombed?
HK: Well, I think it was war-time. I must say that in all our briefing we were all briefed to bomb military targets, um, not just towns, but at the time the accuracy of bombing was such that towns were destroyed, um, acc— well, not accidently, but I think the powers that be knew what was going on but, um, as I said we, we were briefed to bomb targets.
TO: I’ve, I’ve, er, I read, listened to an interview with Harris where he defended the tactics he used and he says that anyone who wants to criticise him for ordering the bombing of towns has never looked out of a window because if they had done they would know the cloud conditions over Europe means you can’t hit individual targets.
HK: That’s right, yeah.
TO: And were there ever any occasions where aircraft were damaged by the weather?
HK: By the weather?
TO: Like snow or thunderstorms?
HK: No, I don’t think so. Well, not as far as I was concerned, no.
TO: And, er, you just mentioned briefings. How did the briefings work?
HK: In what way?
TO: Well, how many people would you have in the room? Were you shown maps or photos?
HK: Yeah, well there was a big map at the front and with the target route marked. The pilot and the navigator had a separate briefing initially and then we all went together to the main briefing. I suppose, depending on the number of planes that were going, about seven crew, um, there must have been sort of getting on for seventy, possibly, in the main briefing, yeah. [clears throat] The commander got up and gave a brief talk and then the chief navigator and bomb— bomb— bombing instructor all gave a brief talk and we went for a pre-operational meal and got ready.
TO: What did you do to prepare yourselves for the mission?
HK: Well, just went, um, to the equipment room and got our parachutes and got dressed and waited around for the time to, to go off.
TO: And as you got on board the plane were you feeling nervous?
HK: Tiredness more than nervous, yes.
TO: And was there anyone who was actually showing any fear or were they all keeping it, keeping it to themselves?
HK: I think they were all keeping to themselves, yes.
TO: Do you know of anyone who during the war who wasn’t able — who just felt too nervous to get on board the plane?
HK: I don’t know of anyone, no. I knew there were people who decided they couldn’t go on but they were got off the stations as quickly as they could.
TO: So, if you can please could you describe your first ever mission over German?
HK: Well, as I said the first ever mission was the one in which we got shot at but survived that. The, er, worst trip was on the VI storage sites in France. This was a daylight raid and the mid upper gunner said, ‘There’s a Lanc immediately above us just opened his bomb doors.’ But before we could do anything we felt two thumps and one of the bombs went through the port wing and took away the port undercarriage and so I shut down the engine on that side because it was immediately behind the engine and, er, we came home on three engines and landed but our pilot decided to land on the grass runway, which we did, and again no one was hurt.
TO: Were you worried the plane would crash when the —
HK: Oh yes, yes. It came down. Our pilot was very successful in landing it. We did a belly landing because we lost all the hydraulics. We couldn’t get the other undercarriage down, couldn’t use the flaps on it. We just had to come in but, um, yeah, we were quite fortunate.
TO: And incidents like that ever — after that incident, were you reluctant to go on more missions?
HK: No, no, no. It was just a job.
TO: So, you mentioned that — was it VIs you were bombing?
HK: Yes, the VI storage sites, yes.
TO: Sorry can you describe what they are? I’m not familiar with them.
HK: The VI, the Doodlebugs, yes. They had storage places for them. This was at Trossy Saint Maximin. I don’t know where that is now but it’s in France somewhere.
TO: And what kind of pay load would the, would your Lancaster carry?
HK: Well, initially it was, er, thousand pounders and the incendiaries and then when we went to Pathfinders it was — we dropped flares initially to light up the target area as well as high explosives.
TO: Do you remember what kind of military targets you were generally after?
HK: What, um — the canal, Dortmund-Ems [?] canal, railway sidings, bridges, harbours, all sorts of things.
TO: And did you ever hear how, how successful your missions had been?
HK: Well, they did display photographs afterwards so we could see. I — definitely some of them were definitely successful. But, um, I don’t remember a lot about it, no.
TO: OK. So, was your first raid over Germany in 1943?
HK: No. ’44.
TO: OK and had you heard about the thousand bomber raids that —
HK: Yes. I had, had read about them, yes.
TO: And how many planes would generally accompany your Lancaster?
HK: I think it depended a lot, um, possibly upwards twenty, fifty, possibly a hundred. I, I don’t really know.
TO: Was there, were there any points on board a mission where you could relax to a degree?
HK: Well, we relaxed to a degree once we were on the North Sea on the way home but, um, we still had to keep a look-out. But, er, we didn’t really relax until we’d landed.
TO: And what was the procedure for coming into land?
HK: We had to call up the station and were given directions as to what height to circle and sort of gradually come down and then told we could go into land.
TO: Were landings scary at all?
HK: No, I don’t think so. I don’t recall.
TO: So, the incident where you mentioned with the — where had to shut down the engines, could, did you have control, does that mean you had control over the engines as you were the engineer?
HK: Yeah, it was, yes. I, I’m not sure I got the order to shut it down but I did it anyway because as the bomber had sort of taken all the bits behind the engine I thought there was a danger of petrol coming and catching fire and so that’s why I shut it down.
TO: But was the rest of the aircraft still working fine?
HK: It was, yes, yes. As I said we’d lost all the hydraulics. We couldn’t operate the flaps or what was left of the undercarriage but, um, the pilot did a good job.
TO: So, how many people would you normally have aboard the bomber?
HK: Seven altogether.
TO: And can you describe the conditions in general aboard the bomber?
HK: There wasn’t a lot of room I know that. Yes, well we had to get from the door up to the front of the aircraft, over the main spar and, er, but once we were in position it was quite OK.
TO: And how was morale in general amongst the crew?
HK: Generally pretty good, yes, yeah.
TO: And did your squadron suffer heavy losses?
HK: Occasionally yes, yes. I can’t recall any particular case but we did lose certainly some.
TO: Did you hear much about the American bombing of Germany?
HK: I didn’t hear much about it, no.
TO: And did the, your friends in the plane, did they talk much about their lives at home?
HK: Which, the friends?
TO: Your fellow crew members on the plane?
HK: Not a lot, no, no.
TO: And did the Lancasters get new bombs as the war went on?
HK: Sorry, did —
TO: Did the Lancasters get new bombs as the war went on?
HK: I suppose so. I don’t really know.
TO: And, er, were there any — do you remember any occasions where you were over major German cities?
HK: I remember going to Munich and Hamburg a number of times. We never went to Berlin but, er, yes. I don’t really remember much about that.
TO: Was there heavy anti-aircraft fire?
HK: Oh, plenty, yes. We could see them exploding in the air, yes.
TO: Did they ever come near the plane?
HK: We were fortunate. We didn’t have a lot of damage. We did have some shrapnel damage but not a lot, no.
TO: You mentioned was it the tail gunner who got the heating supply cut off? Did he seem traumatised at all by that?
HK: I don’t think he was traumatised but, er, he certainly remembered it because, um, when my wife and I went to Perth in Australia where he lived, we managed to meet him, he was telling my wife about it. He was most aggrieved about the heating supply going off [laugh].
TO: Was his reaction to it pretty normal?
HK: I think so, yes.
TO: And I’m sorry to ask this but do you know of anyone who died during the raids?
HK: During the Blitz, yes, distant, well, distant friends of my parents moved to a place. I lived in Kilburn initially and then moved to, um, a place near Barking and then one of the girls who was my age, um, was out doing fire watching or something but she was killed and, er, the others, one of the other sisters was wounded but I don’t know anyone else really close.
TO: Did you know anyone who, anyone in RAF who died on raids over Germany?
HK: Yes, yes, quite a number from the squadron we were on, yes.
TO: Did you ever talk about them?
HK: Not a lot, no. I remember we had two people from Ireland. One was a young chap, probably my age, and the other was a bit older and the older man was on his last mission, got shot down and killed, and this young chap was really upset about that. But, um, I don’t remember much about anyone else.
TO: And did you hear about the attack on the Ruhr dams?
HK: Heard about them, yes, yes.
TO: Did that have much effect on morale?
HK: I think it probably did but we were quite, um, happy that they had done it but we didn’t know a lot about it at the time.
TO: Do you think the raid was successful? [bleep sound]
HK: It was successful I think, yes.
TO: And were there any occasions when your squadron dropped leaflets?
HK: I can’t recall dropping actual leaflets, no. We did drop the window over — you’ve heard about that. Yes, but I don’t remember about leaflets, no.
TO: Can you please describe what the procedure was for deploying window.
HK: Well, there was the chutes near where I was and it was just unpacking the, er, packets and dropping them sort of shortly before went into Germany. But, er, I don’t think we had them all that much.
TO: Do you think window was effective?
HK: I think it probably was, well initially anyway. Later on I don’t know. There was a chute next to my position where I could drop them through.
TO: So it was your duty and not the bomb aimer?
HK: Yes.
TO: Can you explain how, what impact window had on the Germans?
HK: Well, initially it upset their radar quite a bit but then eventually they got used to it and I think that was probably why we stopped.
TO: I’m not sure if you’re aware but I think that just before Hamburg when they first used window Germany actually had developed the same thing but didn’t want to used it on Britain in case Britain used it on Germany. So both sides had window but both sides didn’t want to use it. [slight laughter] And you mentioned you only saw that twin-engine plane on that one occasion, did you ever see other German planes?
HK: In the distance, yes, yes, or near a target we saw a couple way below us. I don’t remember seeing any, any more, no.
TO: When you saw them were you worried that they would come near you?
HK: Was I what?
TO: When you saw the planes below you were you worried that they would come and attack?
HK: Well, they were well below us. I, I don’t know what they were doing but they were coming cross-wise but, um, two of them together, but whether they were after a particular target or not I don’t know.
TO: And were you sat in the cockpit the whole time?
HK: Yes, well mainly, yes.
TO: What would you do if you had to move around the bomber?
HK: Well, we had portable oxygen bottles we had to take. I did have to go back to the rear gunner once because his, um, the fluid was leaking from his supply line that operated the turret. I managed to put one of these circuits round because it, it had come off the supply, but he had to be very careful ultimate.
TO: Can you describe what kind of equipment you — sorry, what kind of clothes would you wear on board the bomber?
HK: A very thick jumper, um, some form of outer coat of some sort. I don’t really remember. Then a Mae West. I remember it was very bulky getting through the aircraft at the time.
TO: And did you wear an oxygen mask at all times?
HK: Yes. Pretty well all the time, yes. [cough]
TO: And where did you keep the parachutes?
HK: The parachutes. Well, my parachute was stored just behind me. The pilot had a, er, sit-on one as did the rear gunner I think. The rest of the crew had the parachutes as near as they could get them.
TO: And did the Lancaster have escape hatches?
HK: Yes, yes. There was one by the bomb aimer down in the front and then there was the door at the back and hatches in the roof.
TO: Were you ever told what to do it you ever had to bail out?
HK: Well, yes. We had to practice getting out.
TO: How did that practice work?
HK: Well it wasn’t in the air. It was on the ground, just getting through the front hatch.
TO: Were you ever worried about being shot down?
HK: I can’t say that I was particularly worried, no?
TO: And what kind of instruments did you have in front of you when you were sat in the cockpit?
HK: Well, the instruments at the side were the oil pressures and temperatures etcetera. In the front you had the normal — you know, I can’t really remember. I know we had the, um, all the knobs for pressing to cut off the engines but I wasn’t so much concerned with the flight controls as the engine temperatures and pressures that was at the side.
TO: Can you remember what would happen aboard the plane when you reached the targets and had to drop the bombs?
HK: Well, the bomb aimer gave directions and, er, and had to fly straight and level for a certain length of time and then he said, ‘Bombs gone.’ And immediately closed the bomb doors and got off as quickly as we could.
TO: Did your Lancaster ever carry a cookie?
HK: That’s the four thousand pound. Yes, I think it did on occasions but I can’t really remember now.
TO: Could you actually feel the bombs leaving the plane?
HK: Did —
TO: Could you feel the bombs leaving the plane?
HK: Oh, well when they were dropped yes. We did sort of go up quite suddenly.
TO: And were there any times when engines, when, not when damaged but when the engines just malfunctioned without warning?
HK: No, no. The engines were pretty good on the whole, yes.
TO: Merlins weren’t they?
HK: Merlins yes.
TO: [unclear] And did you ever go on — were your missions mainly at night?
HK: Mainly at night although we did do some daylight ones. These were mainly, as I said, over the storage sites of — in France.
TO: Did you prefer daylight or night missions?
HK: I think night because we couldn’t see what was going on.
TO: Could you ever see the cities below you?
HK: Yes, we could especially when we were doing dropping the flares, yes.
TO: And can you explain, can you explain what the, how the other Pathfinder missions worked?
HK: Yes, there was Flare Force 1, which was — went out early when the bombing was due to start and we dropped flares then, er, if necessary, the master bomber called out for more flares and then there was the Flare Force 2 which was sort of circling around and then came in and dropped the other flares, and that’s really mainly what I can remember.
TO: When did they actually invent the Pathfinders, if you like?
HK: I think it came into force in 1942 because, um, they were worried about the, er, the bombing wasn’t very accurate at the time and, er, I think it did improve with the Pathfinders.
TO: So just to make sure I’ve got this right, the Pathfinders dropped the flares and the other main bombers would follow the flares?
HK: That’s right, yes.
TO: And was Pathfinding just as dangerous as other bombing?
HK: I think it was but we didn’t know much about it at the time.
TO: I don’t know if you can answer this question but how long did the missions tend to last, usually?
HK: From about five hours up to about ten depending on where the target was.
TO: How far into Germany would you tend to go?
HK: I think the furthest was a place called — I’ve got the, er, name of the place here.
TO: Do you want me to get it? Shall I get it? [background noises]
HK: No. [background noises] Yes, Trondheim in Norway but I don’t remember what the target was? That was ten hours.
TO: Would that have been the Tirpitz? The Tirpitz?
HK: Sorry?
TO: Would that have been the battleship, Tirpitz?
HK: Yes. Yes.
TO: Because that was around Trondheim or Tromso or something when it was sunk by 617 Squadron I think when they were dropping Barnes Wallis’s tallboys.
HK: Yes, yes. I think that was the longest one, ten hours.
TO: So, so were you on a pathfinding mission for the Tirpitz do you think?
HK: Yes. I, I don’t really remember what we were doing over Trondheim.
TO: I could be entirely wrong when I say the Tirpitz but I know that the RAF did go after it and finally got it in November 1944 so, so I don’t know if that’s adds up or — did you hear about the sinking of the Tirpitz though?
HK: Yes, I heard about it, yes.
TO: And do you feel glad to have had a role in it be destroyed?
HK: I, I don’t remember much about that raid, no. I think we had to go to Scotland and refuel before we took off but I don’t, don’t remember much about it.
TO: And what do you think about the bombing of Hamburg in 1943?
HK: We didn’t hear much about it at the time, no, so I can’t really say.
TO: And what about the bombing of Berlin?
HK: Well, there again I said we never went to Berlin so there again I can’t really say.
TO: And what about Dresden?
HK: Well, Dresden we were briefed to bomb the railway sidings. There, there was supposed to be a lot of German concentrations ready to go to the Eastern Front, er, which was what we did. We didn’t really know at the time how the town was devastated.
TO: Were you still on Pathfinders at that point?
HK: Sorry?
TO: Were you still on Pathfinders at that point?
HK: Oh yes, yes.
TO: So did Pathfinders actually carry bombs or just flares?
HK: We did carry bombs as well, yes.
TO: And were some cities more heavily defended than others?
HK: Yes. Those in the Ruhr were quite heavily defended, yes. Others not so much.
TO: Was Dresden heavily defended?
HK: That I can’t remember. I don’t think it was, no.
TO: When, was the, was the, was the AK 88 the main anti-aircraft weapon the Germans have?
HK: Yes.
TO: Were the crews afraid of it or was the firing generally inaccurate?
HK: I don’t know that we thought about it all that much and just hoped it didn’t get too close.
TO: Did you ever — I know you were at night but could you ever actually make out other RAF bombers nearby?
HK: Not usually, now and again, yes, we saw — yes. Some got very close.
TO: Was that — you probably don’t know but was the, the bomb aimer or pilot of that was above you when it bumped into the wing, do you think they would have been reprimanded for what happened?
HK: I don’t think they would have known because the bomb aimer would have been looking forward. I don’t suppose they realised what was happening but we never found out who it was.
TO: Would you hold it against them if you found out then?
HK: It was just one of those things. I don’t think they — well they obviously didn’t do it on purpose.
TO: How much do you think a Lancaster could take and still get home?
HK: Quite a bit, yes. I have pictures of the hole in the Lancaster the bomb went through if you would like to see it?
TO: We can see that later. Can we see that later? I’d love to see that. And ss the war went on did you, did you think the bombing campaign was being successful.
HK: I think, as far as I was concerned I thought it was, yes.
TO: And was there anyone claiming that the tactics weren’t working?
HK: I didn’t hear any, no.
TO: And, this is a strange question probably but when you’re, or not when you’re on missions but when you’re just sitting in the cockpit of the aircraft, did you ever get the chance just to admire the view down below?
HK: Yes, um, on one of the missions to Munich we were briefed to fly over the Alps and it was moonlight and that was a sight to see I must admit and, er, when we went to some of the eastern European count— towns we had to fly over Sweden, which was all lit up, and that was a sight to see as well. They did, well, we were told they would shoot at us but not to be too near. I don’t think anyone was shot down over Sweden.
TO: My, the navigator I mentioned earlier he mentioned that there was a crew of his that used to fly over Switzerland and said the Swiss would fire anti-aircraft guns but they would deliberately fire them too far away so —
HK: I think that was the same with Sweden, yeah.
TO: Was that strange to see towns that were lit rather than in black-out?
HK: Yes, it was certainly a sight to see [laugh].
TO: And did your plane, did the navigator, or not necessarily the navigator, but did your plane ever get lost, as in not sure where they were going?
HK: No, I don’t think so, no. I don’t recall that.
TO: So, again there was a pilot whose plane got lost because the navigation equipment got broken or something. Was it quite cold on board the plane?
HK: It wasn’t too bad where we were up near the front but it got cold further back but the mid gunner and the rear gunner had a heated suit but yes it was pretty cold back there.
TO: Do you know any Lancaster gunners who successfully shot down fighters?
HK: No, I don’t know any definitely, no.
TO: Do you think they were much use against fighters?
HK: I think so, probably helpful in, in keeping the fighters away, even if they were just looking out.
TO: Did you carry any food aboard the plane with you?
HK: Yes we had some rations. On the long, long operations but I don’t remember much about what we had except they were — we did have tins of juice, er, vacuum flask of coffee, some food of some sort but I don’t remember what it was.
TO: Do you remember if anyone had a firearm aboard the plane?
HK: No.
TO: And were you ever given instruction on how to evade capture if you were shot down?
HK: Oh, we did had some instruction, yes. Try and keep low and if we were over a country other than Germany trying to get hold of some local people if we could.
TO: Did anyone on board the plane actually speak German?
HK: Not as far as I know, no.
TO: How many missions did you go on during the war?
HK: Forty-four altogether.
TO: Was that a lot by RAF standards?
HK: Well, with the Pathfinders the normal tour was forty-four. You did the normal thirty and then there was another fifteen so we were one short of the total.
TO: How often would you go on a mission would you say?
HK: Sometimes it might be two or three times in a week. Other times it might be sort of a few weeks before we went on an operation, depending possibly on the weather or the targets, I don’t know.
TO: When you were on bombing raids could you ever see the fires below?
HK: I remember seeing when we were over some sort of harbour. I don’t know where it was. I saw one of the ships that appeared to be burning but it might have been a smokescreen. But apart from that I, I don’t remember because, er, we were usually the first in and then away.
TO: So, when, when you did go on missions were you told to — were you generally aiming as you said earlier only for certain targets, like the railways?
HK: Yes, we were always, um, given a briefing like that, not just a town, but definitely some sort of target.
TO: And was there anyone in the crew who just deliberately didn’t pay attention in the briefings?
HK: I can’t say that I know, no.
TO: Because I was just thinking well that if a gunner was at a briefing they probably thought it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I’ve just got to shoot at the planes.
HK: I suppose they were.
TO: I don’t know.
HK: I suppose the gunners were at the briefings. I can’t remember.
TO: That’s just speculation by me. They might have been very interested but, sorry, it’s just that I think that’s what I would have done if I was a gunner. And what kind of entertainment did you have in the squadron?
HK: In the squadron? I can’t say that I remember much about any entertainment [slight laugh] at all, no. I suppose there must have been some but, no, it’s not something I remember.
TO: Did you ever go out to pubs or dances?
HK: The crew weren’t very, er, pub-minded and neither was I. We did go on some outings, um, some of the crew together. When we were doing the training for Pathfinders we went into Cambridge and out there. In truth there we had more interest in museums, which suited me, yes.
TO: Which museums did you like?
HK: I don’t remember now [laugh] but I remember going to some and — yes.
TO: I was recently in a few museums myself and looking round the Lancaster they have, or rather the Lancaster cabin, that they have at the, in the Imperial War Museum. I think they put it back as far as the navigator’s positon so you can, you can see into where everyone was sitting, sort of thing.
HK: Oh yeah.
TO: And other than the other ones you’ve mentioned to me already were there other missions that you remember very clearly?
HK: I think I’ve told you the ones that, er, I really remember but, um, I can’t say that I remember any others. We were quite fortunate really over all.
TO: You mentioned earlier on that — was it a gunner? One of the gunners shouted, ‘Corkscrew,’ when the plane, the fighter arrived. What kind of basic manoeuvres did the planes have?
HK: Well, we immediately dived and up and around and that’s why it’s called a corkscrew and, anyway we dived in one direction and up in another and so on but, er, we didn’t have to do that much and, as I said, the plane overshot us and —
TO: I remember reading I think that even though the Stirling wasn’t as good as a Lancaster it was decent at turning or something when it came to manoeuvres.
HK: It was too heavy I think.
TO: It was quite good at climbing but wasn’t good at turning or something.
HK: Oh yeah.
TO: Were you ever — was there any time when they brought in new equipment and you were confused by it?
HK: Yes. We had some new equipment, some cathode ray tubes, um, which the bomb aimer used to sit next to the navigator and assist him with the navigating and, er, that was towards the end of the war and, um, I was doing the bomb aiming then.
TO: So, what did you do as a bomb aimer?
HK: Well, the — I merely had to go down into the bay and press the tips when the graticule showed the marker but the bombs were all pre-set to go off at a particular time, um, but that was all done by the bomb aimer. He set up the equipment initially and all I had to do was press the tip when the target came into view.
TO: Was that to drop, release the bombs then?
HK: Yes.
TO: OK and did you do that often?
HK: I did about four or five times towards the end of the war, yes.
TO: And did you find out roughly how much damage the raids were causing?
HK: No, not really, no. We did have pictures taken by the later aircraft going over but I can’t say that I recall.
TO: And was there ever any occasions where your plane had to return early before it reached the target?
HK: No, apart from the fact that once we were all recalled because the target had been overrun by our troops so, um, but no, we, we carried on although I said once when we had the intercom equipment went the — we were told not to use it because the, the rear gunner, pilot were in contact but it was too weak to let anyone else but we decided to carry on anyway.
TO: So, how did the, er, communication work aboard the aircraft?
HK: Well, we had the speakers in the, er, speakers in the helmets plus microphones and you had to switch on the microphone if you wanted to speak. That’s all, pretty well.
TO: Was it very noisy aboard those planes?
HK: It was very noisy, yes, yes. So when we didn’t have the intercom it meant really shouting at the pilot.
TO: Was the noise mainly from the engines?
HK: Yeah.
TO: Were there any other occasions when you went to a target and found it was too cloudy to see the city?
HK: That I can’t really recall now, no.
TO: So, just going back, I’m keen to go back this one, the one over France with the VIs, did you actually get the chance to drop your [emphasis] bombs at the time?
HK: Yes. We did drop them, yep.
TO: So, so if I get this right. So even though you had a hole in the wing you were still able to go on with the mission or had you already dropped them?
HK: No, we hadn’t already dropped them. We were on the bombing run and we did actually drop them but, er, I don’t remember much about it, no.
TO: That’s fine, fine.
HK: I know we had to and I was watching out of the — because in case the wing was moving up and down more than it should but, er, fortunately we didn’t have to — if it had gone [laugh] we wouldn’t have done anything about it anyway.
TO: Would the, er, the pilot of the plane, would he ever be speaking to other aircraft in the squadron?
HK: Would he be?
TO: On the radio, would he ever speak to other aircraft?
HK: I don’t think so. Not generally no, no, I wouldn’t think so, no?
TO: Was it possible to communicate with them?
HK: It would be possible I think [unclear] had the necessary permission to do so. I don’t think it was normal, no.
TO: And did you ever attack coastal targets?
HK: Yes but I don’t remember where but I know we did have some, er, harbours and shipping there.
TO: What did you think of the — I know you weren’t on it — but what did you think of bombers like the Halifax?
HK: Well, some people that, er, flew the Halifax thought they were OK but I, I don’t think they had the — I don’t think they were as good as the Lancaster anyway but it is a matter of opinion.
TO: I do remember reading that a Lanc, a Halifax couldn’t carry a cookie because they didn’t have the space.
HK: Couldn’t carry them because of the load, no.
TO: So, er, did you hear about how — other events of the war, like the invasion of Normandy?
HK: Only on the radio I think. I don’t think we heard a lot internally about what went on.
TO: But when you heard that Normandy had been invaded did you think the war was in its final stages?
HK: Well, certainly thought so. We hadn’t actually started operations then. We were still at the Heavy Conversion Unit when we heard all the planes going over one night and, er, we realised what it was, yes.
TO: So, did you ever drop bombs around Normandy?
HK: Drop bombs?
TO: Around Normandy to help with the invasion?
HK: Oh yes, yes, yes.
TO: Was that area less heavily defended than Germany? Was there less anti-aircraft fire in Normandy than Germany?
HK: Oh yes, less, definitely less.
TO: And did you hear of events like Japan attacking Pearl Harbour?
HK: Heard about it only on the news.
TO: And do, did you ever hear about other cases that happened where, where planes got damaged by overhead bombs?
HK: Not at the time. Although I believe it did happen on occasions.
TO: I know it happened to William Read, one of the VCs in Bomber Command, I think on a Norway mission or something.
HK: Yeah.
TO: And were there, was there anyone you know in your squadron who was shot down and became a prisoner?
HK: I didn’t know of anyone, no.
TO: And at the time of the war were you aware that Bomber Command had a fifty per cent casualty rate?
HK: Bomber Command?
TO: Had a fifty per cent casualty rate?
HK: No. We didn’t know at the time, no.
TO: This is a slightly odd question but if had you known at the time would you have volunteered for the Air Force?
HK: Maybe not but, er, once I was in — yes, it, it became just a job. I didn’t really didn’t take much notice. We didn’t hear of the, the losses at the time. I didn’t realise they were so great.
TO: Do you think they might have been keeping it quiet deliberately?
HK: I think they would, yes. I think that was definitely.
TO: Did you hear about, er, certain stories about the war and just dismissed them as propaganda?
HK: Yes, I’m not sure. I don’t remember any, no.
TO: And was there, was there a, a certain type of single-engine German fighter that was very feared by the crew?
HK: Oh, the Messerschmitt but, um, I didn’t think we were worried one way or the other, no.
TO: [background noise] So I’m just seeing which ones are nice. I’m just seeing which ones are nicer.
HK: [slight laugh] Thanks.
TO: Did you ever regret joining the Air Force?
HK: No. No. It was, in a way it was a university to me.
TO: And when, when you joined the Air Force was it possible, did you get a choice as to what duty, whether you went to Bomber Command or Fighter Command?
HK: It would have been Bomber Command, yes. As I say, when I was called up initially I was trained as a flight mechanic and, er, it was mainly for the Bomber Command.
TO: Do you remember when you receiv— received your call-up papers?
HK: Well, I only vaguely remember, yeah.
TO: And do you think there was a reason why, do you think there might have been a certain reason why you were put in the RAF and not the Army?
HK: I don’t know whether it was the education at the time. I don’t know. It may have had something to do with it, yes.
TO: Do you think you were properly trained enough before you were sent on missions?
HK: I think so. We had quite a good training, yes.
TO: And did you feel ready for war when it finished?
HK: Yes, I think so, yes.
TO: And were you ever stationed anywhere other than Britain?
HK: No, no.
TO: Do you know of anyone who was sent abroad?
HK: I know that some in [beep noise] [unclear] Association Branch were abroad. I didn’t know at the time but heard about it afterwards.
TO: And were you ever escorted by allied fighters?
HK: Only, only once I remember. That was when we were coming back on three engines. The rear gunner said, ‘There’s two single-engine aircraft approaching from the starboard quarter.’ But only a couple of seconds later he said, ‘It’s alright, they’re Spitfires.’ And one of them did escort us back to the coast.
TO: Do you think maybe the pilot of that Spitfire could see the damage on your plane?
HK: Probably. Well, could see we’d only three engines going, yeah.
TO: I think there was one time, I was reading about it recently, during the war a German fighter actually saw a damaged American bomber and deliberately decided not to attack it because he could see how damaged it was and let it fly back. How did you actually feel about Germany during the war?
HK: Well, we knew it was the enemy and we had to do what we were instructed to do. I didn’t really think much about it at the time.
TO: Did you ever feel animosity against the German people?
HK: No. I can’t say that I did.
TO: Were any of your airfields ever attacked by German bombers?
HK: Not while I was there, no.
TO: And did any of the airfields ever run short of bombs or fuel?
HK: I don’t know, no.
TO: Sorry, I’m asking difficult questions here. And how many squadrons were you in during the war?
HK: Well, operational squadrons, two. That was 467 Squadron at Waddington and then 97 Squadron at Coningsby.
TO: Were there any times when actually your bombers were asked to attack German armies?
HK: The armies, German armies?
TO: Yeah.
HK: No, I don’t think so, no.
TO: And do you remember if the airfields you were stationed at had anti-aircraft defences?
HK: I think they must have done but I can’t say definitely.
TO: After Dunkirk were people in Britain afraid that Hitler would invade?
HK: I think they were yes, yes. Yes, we were very fortunate with the, er, the Battle of Britain fighters.
TO: Do you actually feel glad that you’d been put in the RAF?
HK: I what?
TO: Glad you were called up for the RAF?
HK: Glad it wasn’t the Army. Yes, certainly.
TO: Do you know anyone who was in or have any friends who were in the Army?
HK: I didn’t know anyone though definitely there were some from school who were in the Army, yes, joined the Army. Also at the time I think quite a few of them were called up for the RAF but I didn’t keep in contact.
TO: And what do you think was the most important battle of the war?
HK: Possibly what was known as the Battle of the Bulge was quite important at the time but I can’t say that I knew much about it at that time. I only read about it later.
TO: Was there heavy snow in Britain at that time?
HK: There was quite a lot of snow. We had to clear the aircraft and the runways.
TO: Did that ever effect operations much?
HK: I think it must have done to a certain extent but I don’t know details.
TO: OK. So what do you think was the best plane that the RAF had, in general?
HK: Well, as far as the Bomber Command was concerned the Lancaster but of course during the early part of the war the Hurricanes and Spitfires were the best.
TO: Did you know much about Wellington bombers?
HK: I didn’t know much about them, no.
TO: Was there ever any bullying in the Air Force?
HK: What?
TO: Bullying.
HK: What? Sorry I’m not with you.
TO: Was there any bullying in the Air force?
HK: Bullying? I didn’t know of any. No, I can’t say that I did.
TO: And were there particular songs the crew liked to sing at all?
HK: There was one that the bomb-aimer came out with. It was an Australian one presumably. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It was about a — yes, something like “I put my finger in a woodpecker’s hole. The woodpecker said, ‘God bless my soul, take it out, take it out, remove it.’”And then it was, “Put it back, put it back, replace it” and it went on like that but I’ve never heard it before or since.
TO: I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it. [slight laugh] I guess I was lucky. Was most of your, was anyone else in the crew Australian?
HK: They were all Australian, yes.
TO: And did they, did anyone bring any kind of souvenirs aboard the plane, like personal possessions?
HK: I don’t know of any, no.
TO: Were you allowed to, I don’t know, decorate your own plane at all, that you could bring, I don’t know, if you wanted to bring an ornament with you could you bring that onto the plane?
HK: We could have done, yes, yes. The only things we were not allowed to take was money or things that could, um, easily tell the captors if we had to bail out where we’d come from, in case we had to try and have an identity of some other country.
TO: Were you ever told what you — did the RAF ever tell you how much information you could give if you were ever captured?
HK: Yeah. Name, rank and number. That was all we were supposed to say. [pause]
TO: So, when did the Lancaster actually become the main bomber of the RAF?
HK: It started in 1942 and it gradually built up from there so it was definitely the main plane of Bomber Command by the end of the war.
TO: What did you think of the bombers the Americans were using?
HK: Well, they — I think they did quite a good job but the aircraft weren’t any patch on the Lancasters. They couldn’t carry the, the load but, er, going as they did all alone at daytime I think they were very brave to do it.
TO: Did, er, did your squadron ever try and fly in formation when you were on missions?
HK: No, no formation. I know that when we went on to the daylight raids we were just more or less in a gaggle, not as a formation.
TO: Were there any ever any times when a bomb you were carrying failed to be released?
HK: Yes, there was one, which unfortunately got stuck up and we brought it back. We didn’t realise it at the time but no, no damage was done.
TO: So, what did they do with that bomb then?
HK: Oh, released it. It was up to the armourers. I think they released it and took it away. I don’t know what happened to it. It was a five hundred pounder apparently.
TO: Did you ever attack ships at all while they were at sea?
HK: Not at sea, no.
TO: [background noise] Sorry, you’ve answered a lot of my questions. I’m just trying to find some other ones. Did anyone, did the pilot try and tell anyone what would happen if he ever happened to get killed?
HK: Well, I was the one that had to take over it as necessary and I on training flights I was able to take over the controls and keep the plane more or less straight and level although the rear gunner said when I did it was more like a switchback [slight laugh]. But that was all.
TO: So, did the Lancaster have two steering columns or just one?
HK: No, we just had the one so I would have had to get the pilot out of the, his seat and get in myself.
TO: Was he allowed to teach you to do that?
HK: Yes.
TO: And would you have been able to land it at all?
HK: I don’t know [laugh]. I wasn’t taught how to do that.
TO: So, I’m just a bit puzzled why, why wouldn’t they teach you to land if you ever happened take over. It seems to kind of defeat the object of teaching —
HK: I think it was just that I had to try and keep it in the air while the rest of the crew got out.
TO: How did it feel to be in control of the plane though when you had it?
HK: I quite enjoyed it.
TO: Did you get a sense of pride doing that?
HK: Yes.
TO: What’s your best memory of your time during the war?
HK: I suppose the best memory was, um, when I heard that I was medically fit to fly.
TO: So, er, do you remember why they turned you down during your first medical test?
HK: I was slightly short sighted in one eye. At the time, um, that was quite important but it ceased to be important when I wanted to be a flight engineer, although as I ended up doing bomb aiming I don’t know. [laugh]
TO: Well did it ever, did your eyesight ever effect your performance?
HK: No, no. It wasn’t bad enough.
TO: Do you know whether the gunners had to have the same education as the other members of the aircraft?
HK: I don’t think they did, no. I’m sure they didn’t.
TO: Did you ever meet any famous people during the war as in senior commanders or leaders?
HK: I don’t remember, no.
TO: Did you listen to the radio very much?
HK: Quite a bit, yeah.
TO: And again, sorry for asking you this, but was the scariest thing that happened to you during the war?
HK: I think it was when the bombs came through the wing, yes.
TO: Did you think the plane was going to crash or did you think it could survive?
HK: I wasn’t sure whether the wing was going to fall off or not [slight laugh] but, er, so we were fortunate. Another few inches one way or the other it would have hit the front or rear spar.
TO: So, how far, how close to the fuselage was the hole?
HK: Well, it wasn’t very far away. It was the inner engine that got hit or just behind the inner engine. No, it couldn’t happen at a better place actually [slight laugh].
TO: And did it send a big shock wave through the aircraft when that happened?
HK: Well, certainly, yes. There was a big thump, yes.
TO: And when they said the Lancaster was overhead was everyone expecting a bomb?
HK: Well, we were expecting it but we didn’t have any time to do any manoeuvres. As soon as the mid-upper called out we heard the bumps. That was it.
TO: Did you think for a minute you might have to bail out?
HK: I thought that might be a possibility, yeah.
TO: And what about when you saw the German night fighter?
HK: Well, we were glad to see it disappear but, er, yes —
TO: Is there anything else you can add about that mission, about where you were going at the time?
HK: No. I can’t really remember.
TO: That’s fine. So, when — you mentioned as the flight engineer you might have to take over from the plane sometimes. Was it hard to learn how to take over or was it quite easy?
HK: No. We had training on the Link trainer so I knew what to do.
TO: So, did you volunteer for the Pathfinders or were you assigned?
HK: I heard after the war that the pilot, my pilot, had volunteered because he got extra pay for being — but whether that was true or not I don’t know but yes he volunteered first and we all agreed to go.
TO: Did you get extra pay for that?
HK: I think we did but I can’t remember that but I think we did.
TO: What was the average pay in the RAF?
HK: It was a few shillings a day I think. I don’t remember that, no. I know some people can remember these details but I don’t.
TO: That’s fine. And how do you feel about Japan and Germany today for the war?
HK: I think we should have lost the war [laugh] and we would have been better off than — yes. I don’t know.
TO: And why do you think that?
HK: Well, Germany and Japan seem to have done very well but—
TO: And do you think the war was worth the price?
HK: Sorry?
TO: Do you think the war was worth the price?
HK: Probably wasn’t but I don’t know how things would have turned out if it —
TO: And what did you think of the memorial that they built in Green Park a few years ago?
HK: It’s a very good memorial, certainly. I wasn’t able to go up to the unveiling.
TO: They’re having a service in a couple of weekends there and going to be recording that as well. Did you hear about the holocaust?
HK: I can’t say I did during the war, no.
TO: And do you think Bomber Command was treated unfairly after the war?
HK: I certainly think so, yes. I think Harris was given a bad, was bad, er, treated badly. That was — everyone thought Dresden was his idea but in fact it came direct from Churchill originally.
TO: Did you ever happen to meet Harris after the war?
HK: No, no.
TO: And do you think the RAF played a critical role in Britain’s victory?
HK: Oh, definitely, yes.
TO: And do you think there was anything that happened to you during the war which affected you later in your life? [beeping sound]
HK: Oh, yes. I think the fact that, um, I did some technical training during my life in the RAF was — before I was called up I was working at the, er, an accounts department in Electrics Supply but after the war I wanted to do something more technical and the GEC were advertising for people in their, um, research laboratories in Wembley and I applied and joined and came a patent agent so, yes, it made quite a bit of difference.
TO: And what did you do in your career after that?
HK: Well I trained as — initially I got a science degree and did the patent office, patent agent examination and I actually stayed with the research laboratories, um, until I, my official retirement and then I went on a couple of days a week after that until they moved the whole thing to Chelmsford and I decided that was enough.
TO: And, sorry to ask this, but what, what was the saddest thing you’d say that happened during the war?
HK: During the war? That I can’t really say. I suppose the saddest thing was, um, losing a very close cousin, who I was sort of brought up with, and caught diabetes and there wasn’t so much they could do about it at the time and she died. But that was during the war. It wasn’t anything to do with the war itself. I don’t know of anything connected with the war but it was so sad.
TO: And do you remember what you were doing the day the war ended?
HK: Yes. I was at, stationed at Coningsby, um, then we were sent home on leave, um, but the rest of the crew as they were all Australian were called back before me to be sent back to Australia, so I never really got a chance to say a proper goodbye, and it was only after the war when I went to Perth and saw the rear gunner’s name in the telephone directory that I got in touch with him. So, I don’t know if there’s anything else.
TO: So did everyone who were on that bomber meet again would you say?
HK: No, no.
TO: Did you get involved in any of the VE Day celebrations?
HK: No. I don’t remember any, no.
TO: Or did you listen to Churchill’s victory speech?
HK: I’m sure I did, yes, but I can’t remember it.
TO: Were you bothered by the fact that he didn’t mention Bomber Command?
HK: He what, sorry?
TO: In Churchill’s victory speech he didn’t mention Bomber Command.
HK: Oh yeah. I read about that afterwards, yes.
TO: But did that bother you when you heard the speech?
HK: Well, I can’t say I remember if I heard the speech. I must have missed it. I don’t know.
TO: And how do you feel today about your war-time service?
HK: Well, my particular service, I think I was quite fortunate and overall I had quite a reasonable time.
TO: Have you ever watched any films about the war?
HK: Some, certainly, yes.
TO: And what do you think of them?
HK: Some of them are quite good otherwise some aren’t.
TO: Any ones in particular that you liked?
HK: I think the one, the first one about “The Dambusters” was excellent, yes.
TO: And, er, do you think the atomic bombs were necessary against Japan?
HK: I think overall probably, yes, but if it had gone on we would have lost many more people, both Japanese and American and our country, so I suppose it, it was necessary. I think in a way it was a pity because it really put a shadow on nuclear reactors. I think if it hadn’t happened there wouldn’t have been quite an outcry on reactors that there is today.
TO: Were you involved in nuclear reactors after the war?
HK: Not directly but, um, the — our department was involved in patents for nuclear reactors and they did quite a bit of work.
TO: And, er, how do you feel about Britain’s involvement in events like Iraq and Afghanistan?
HK: In?
TO: In Afghanistan and Iraq?
HK: I think we probably should have kept out. I don’t think it really helps in any way. I just think it’s just made things worse.
TO: Is there anything you want to add at all about you war-time service?
HK: No, I don’t think so. I was quite fortunate overall and had quite a reasonable time.
TO: OK. Or is there anything you want to add which was important to you at the time which you‘ve not mentioned?
HK: No, I don’t think so, no.
TO: OK. Well, er, thank you very much for telling me about your experiences. It was really fascinating.
HK: I hope it’s not been a bit too boring. I couldn’t remember lots of things.
TO: It’s not boring at all. It’s amazing. No, no. What you could remember is amazing. Can I just, er, there is something I showed to another RAF veteran and you can either read yourself or if you want I can read it out for you now. This is a speech that Arthur Harris gave at an RAF reunion in 1977.
HK: Oh right.
TO: And he just basically talks about the role, basically pointing out, explaining what Bomber Command did and why it was so important now. If you like I can read it out but if you’d rather read it yourself out in your own time you can, whichever you prefer.
HK: Can I?
TO: Yes. You can read it out now if you want.
HK: Well, can I keep this?
TO: Of course. That’s why I bought it for you.
HK: Right, thank you.
TO: If you want to read it now you can or if you want me to read it out I can, whichever.
HK: Yeah. Well, I’d like to read it later.
TO: OK. OK. Right, thank you very much.
HK: Not at all.
TO: Sorry, I should have explained at the start, er, as an introduction that I’m supposed to do but because I was, because I was getting so many interviews done I forgot it. I just wanted to end by saying that we’ve recorded this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. My name’s Thomas Ozel and we were interviewing Mr Harold Kirby in London on the 10th of June 2016. Sorry, that’s the 11th of June. Thank you for this.



Tom Ozel, “Interview with Harold Kirby. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

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