Interview with Gordon Mercier

Title

Interview with Gordon Mercier

Description

Cyril Mercier was born in Jersey in 1925. He joined the Home Guard in 1940 and the RAF in 1943. After initial training, and training on gunnery at Bridgnorth he joined 14 Operational training Unit at Abingdon, where he crewed up. He trained on Halifax, eventually joining 51 Squadron at RAF Snaith. On his second operation to Amiens his aircraft was damaged and the bomb aimer was injured. The pilot made a Darkie call and landed the damaged aircraft at RAF Dunsfold. On their journey across London on the Underground dressed in their flying gear, the passengers had a collection for them of 100 cigarettes. He and his crew joined 171 Special Duties Squadron which operated Lancasters using Mandrel jamming equipment. His last operation was to Leipzig. The aircraft was coned by searchlights and badly damaged. He was posted to RAF Hutton Cranswick as a controller’s assistant with 1 Spitfire Squadron. After being posted to RAF Llanbedr he was demobbed from the RAF.

Creator

Date

2021-10-21
2021-11-23

Temporal Coverage

Language

Type

Format

02:15:42 Audio Recording

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Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

AMercierCG211021
PMercierCG2101
PMercierCG2102

Transcription

HB: It’s Harry Bartlett interviewing Gordon Cyril Mercier on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre at Lincoln. It’s the 21st of October 2021. Gordon is ninety six and three quarters old, and he served from 1943 through to 1947 in Bomber Command and Gordon was a mid-upper gunner. Now, Gordon, now we can make a start? Can you, can you tell me a little bit about your early life please?
GM: Yeah. I was born in Jersey in 1925 and I had a very bad childhood. I was always ill. Always ill. I spent so much time in hospital it was unbelievable. My mother used to say when I was born, the doctor said, ‘You won’t have him long mother but he, but treasure him while you’ve got him.’ And here I am [laughs] ninety six. I came, I went to school in Birmingham, High Street Harborne in Birmingham and I was fourteen at the start of the war. And the moment the war started I helped the ARP people. I used to carry the stirrup pumps for them when I was fourteen. When Mr Churchill came on the phone, on the radio in 1940 to ask for volunteers to join the LDV which was the Local Defence Volunteers sixteen and over. I was fifteen and I went and joined the Home Guard. And I was in the Home Guard until I joined the RAF in 1943. My nickname in the Home Guard was Sealevel, and I spent all those years, and I was a very very good shot. It was amazing. I just, it didn’t matter. I could hit anything. Not with a revolver but with a rifle I could hit anything.
HB: I think just, just to explain your nickname. Do you want, do you want to tell us how tall you are?
GM: [laughs] I’m only about [laughs] I’ve shrunk. I was only about five foot two.
HB: Right.
GM: And I was —
HB: That explains Sealevel.
GM: I was eight stone. I used to, I was eight stone. I boxed at eight stone in the RAF. Anyway, I joined the Home Guard. And then I was in a Protected Occupation so I couldn’t join the forces. The only forces you could join in those days was the submarines or aircrew.
HB: What was your Protected Occupation, Gordon?
GM: I was, I worked in a factory making munitions.
HB: Was that, was that in Birmingham?
GM: In Birmingham. Yes. I worked in factory. From fourteen, I worked in, I was a fitter in the factory.
HB: Do you know the name of the factory?
GM: Belliss and Morcom.
HB: Ah right. Yeah.
GM: Belliss and Morcom. The factory. And I, I decided that I wanted to join the Air Force. I’d always been interested in the Air Force from the very, I’d always had the comics and everything all about the Air Force. I had, “Flight,” every week and all this sort of thing but, so I went to Cardington in March 1943 to take the exam to join the Air Force. I believe there was two hundred of us who came through and fifty two of us finished. And, and as we’d gone, as we’d gone through all the exams, exams, medicals and psychology and you had written exams, and all this sort of thing and you passed at the end. You passed and there was fifty two of us. We took the King’s Shilling on that day, and on that day I joined the Air Force in 1943 at seventeen and a quarter. I was called up very shortly afterwards and I started in the RAF in London. We, it was my first posting to London where we got kitted out and all this sort of thing. Three weeks in London. I did some boxing, got knocked out and decided I didn’t want to do any more boxing after that [laughs] So, and then I was posted to 14 OTU at Bridlington which was the Operational Training Unit at Bridlington, as an aircrew cadet. I believe we had about sixteen weeks there and you passed out [pause] You passed out and I was posted to Bridgnorth for a fortnight. Because it was Bridgnorth I used to come home at nights, at the weekends, and I got seven days jankers for being back late. But I never did the seven days jankers because I was posted the next day to Stormy Down in South Wales. And I’d been there a fortnight when they called me in to the adjutant’s office and said, ‘You were on jankers and you never did it. You start now.’ [laughs]
HB: Oh no.
HB: So, I had —
HB: A long memory.
GM: Yes. I did that, and I don’t know how many trips we did but we flew in Ansons and there were three of us in training. One sat in with the pilot and winded the undercarriage up, one sat in the rest position, and one sat in the turret and you fired two hundred shots. You had collected your two hundred bullets and you painted the bullets a colour. Red, blue and green. And you put your bullets in, and the plane would fly out and you’d shoot the drogue. And you all had a go and you swapped over until you all three had fired and then they dropped the drogue and you had to collect it on the, on the airfield and count your shots, because the, how many red bullets holes, and blue bullet holes, and green bullet holes there were.
HB: Right.
GM: And you got a, you got a score from those bullet holes and we did a lot of flights. They didn’t stint of the training. We did an awful lot of flights. I don’t know. It’s in my logbook but I did an awful lot of flights.
HB: Yeah. Your logbook does list a lot of training flights.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Right, right through.
GM: Right through.
HB: All through the —
GM: Yeah. And after training you passed out as a sergeant, and I passed out and I had passed out at Christmas. Christmas ’43. I came home on leave as a sergeant.
HB: Right.
GM: And then I had a week, a fortnights’ leave, and I was posted to 14 OTU, Bridlington. No. Not Bridlington. Abingdon. 14 Operational Training Unit where you got crewed up. The system for crewing up was very strange. All the officers and men shared the same dining room. You were given a fortnight to form a crew. It was the pilot’s job to find a crew, and I met a fellow called Ken Adams who said, ‘Shall we go and find a pilot?’ And we walked round, and we met Warrant Officer Digby. He was the pilot, and said to Mr Digby, ‘Would you like a pair of gunners?’ He said, ‘Certainly.’ And when you’d finished, after the three weeks they had a crewing up meeting in the hangar. Seven seats. Rows of seven seats all the way along. All the way through the hangar. Pilot, bomb aimer, navigator, wireless operator, flight engineer, mid-upper gunner, rear gunner, and those were the, and you sat in those seats as a crew. But not all the seats were full. All the people who were standing at the back that hadn’t crewed up had to fill in the places.
HB: Right. Yeah.
GM: To fill in the places. But we were. We had formed a crew.
HB: So, you’d got the full seven.
GM: We’d got the full seven. Yes. My skipper’s name was Warrant Officer Digby, the bomb aimer was named [Wamm] and he was a southern Rhodesian, white. The navigator was Johnny Dibbs. The wireless operator was Brown. I can’t remember his first name. The flight engineer was [pause] oh dear.
HB: Robertson?
GM: Robertson. Yes. Robertson, and he was quite, he was forty so he was quite old. The rear gunner was Ken Adams and, have I missed anybody out?
HB: Well, there’s one missing. Yeah.
GM: The bomb aimer.
HB: He’s a bloke who used to stay in the middle of the aircraft and man a gun there.
GM: No. The mid-upper. Me.
HB: Exactly [laughs]
GM: Yes. And then there was me.
HB: You remembered everybody bar yourself.
GM: That was me.
HB: [unclear]
GB: Yeah.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Then we started flying in Ansons, in err Whitleys, and on our second trip in the Whitley, I think it was our second trip we went, we bombed the, the hill in the middle of the Irish Sea. What’s that mountain called? Rockall.
HB: Rockall. Yeah.
GM: We bombed it with, with nine pound bombs, and on the way back an engine packed up so we landed in the Isle of Man.
HB: Oh right.
GM: At Jurby.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We landed in Jurby. So that was the first time that we didn’t get back to camp. This happened a lot of times, and we were known as, ‘Land away Digby and his crew.’ We finished our training at 14 OTU, and we were posted to Riccall for conversion to Halifaxes. And, so you went from two engines to four engines and you all flew together. And we weren’t at Riccall very long, and we passed out at Riccall, and we were sent to 51 Squadron, Snaith, and we started our bombing career on the 9th of June. And our first trip was Amiens. Is it there?
HB: Yes. Yes, it’s there.
GM: And our second trip was a disaster.
HB: Oh, no. Sorry. You’ve, on your logbook you’ve got Massy Palaiseau.
GM: Massy Palaiseau, oh that’s, sorry.
HB: That was your first one. Yeah.
GM: That’s right. That was Paris.
HB: And it was Amiens.
GM: Paris.
HB: Amiens. That was your second.
GB: Paris.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Amiens was the second.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And on my second trip, Amiens, we were flying over, towards the target and I said to the skipper, ‘There’s a plane being attacked below us,’ because I could see tracer, and that plane that was attacking the plane below us, as he broke away, he must have seen us and he managed to get one shot in to our nose. The bomb aimer was sitting in the nose, and it blew his behind off. And the plane was flying like this [pause] because it was gulping air in.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Due to its form.
HB: So, the nose.
GM: Yeah.
HB: The nose having disappeared.
GM: Yeah. Yeah.
HB: It was sucking air in.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We got back to England and that was the first time I’d ever heard of Darkie. The pilot used Darkie. ‘Hello Darkie. Hello Darkie.’ And all the amateur radio operators in the country was, were called Darkie, and they had to listen out every night, and if you got a bomber you were fifteen miles away from him.
HB: Right.
GM: Because he couldn’t hear more than fifteen miles. And he had all the aerodromes in his book. ‘Hello Darkie. Hello Darkie. Can you find us an aerodrome please?’ And an aerodrome lit up over there, and it was called Dunsfold, and we landed at Dunsfold. They didn’t bother about us. I had to run to the control tower to ask for a doctor and an ambulance and the bomb aimer was very badly injured and the navigator had got a bit of shrapnel. A bit of stuff, metal in his leg but he, no not the bomb aimer. The navigator had got a bit of stuff in his leg. They were seen to. So, we had to go back by train.
HB: Right.
GM: Which was quite an experience in those days.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We got to London and we got in the Tube with all our gear, and they had a collection for us on the train and they gave us about a hundred fags. They’d been all the way down the train collecting for a crew that had crashed and they gave us the hundred fags we got. Packets of fags.
HB: Blimey.
GM: And then we got back to Snaith.
HB: Yeah, that was in [pause] that was C6 E-Easy. Yeah. What happened to the, what happened to the aircraft?
GM: Oh, I don’t know what happened to the aircraft.
HB: So, you never, that never —
GM: No. No.
HB: You never saw that back again.
GM: No.
HB: No.
GM: He put the wheel in, he put the wheel in a trench so, but the plane was fine.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Except for this one hole.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You know.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And the bomb aimer went to McIndoe’s hospital.
HB: Right. Yeah.
GM: Had sixty skin graft operations and he lived. He came back to visit us. We went for a drink in the pub. Put him on a, put him on a bike. Took the pedals off, put him on a bike, his crutch went through the wheel and he fell off and broke his arm. His name was [Wamm].
HB: Yeah.
GM: And he was the bomb aimer. We had a new bomb aimer. Eventually we got a new bomb aimer called Smith. Ted Smith. Oh no, I can’t remember his first name. Smith he was, and he flew all the rest of the trips with us. I flew spare. That’s why I did more than the rest of the crew.
HB: Right. Yeah.
GM: I flew with a Flight Lieutenant Gilchrist, I think.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Like that. Yeah. I flew a couple of spare trips because we hadn’t got a crew and then when we got a crew we, because in those days you get a weeks’ leave every month you know because there was, two crews to every plane.
HB: Oh, right. Yeah.
GM: But only if you lost a crew. You didn’t get your leave. If you lost a crew, you didn’t get your leave.
HB: Yes. So that’s, that’s around June. You’ve got Gilchrist as your pilot.
GM: Yeah.
HB: That’s, that’s towards the end of June.
GM: Yeah.
HB: That one. But, blimey. Yeah. Right.
GM: What? What happened?
HB: It’s alright. You just have that and then at the end of June you fly a daylight operation to the Maquis at Mimoyecques.
GM: Mimoyecques. Mimoyecques.
HB: Yeah. And you’re hit by flak again.
GM: Yes. We got hit by flak but only hit. Nobody was hurt. Just holes. There was, always holes in our plane. And then we came to the fateful day of our last trip. No. Something nasty happened. We were due to fly to Kiel. We were due to fly to Kiel and there was something wrong with the plane and we turned back. The CO was very, very angry about us turning back and we went to bed and they woke us up at half past six in the morning. We’d only just, we didn’t get to bed ‘til about two. They woke us up at half past six and said, ‘You’re flying.’ And we were briefed to go and attack the Gneisenau ship in Brest Harbour. As we took off, we hit the bump on the end of the runway. The plane wouldn’t come off the runway, we went through the trees. An engine, engine went rogue. It wouldn’t stop. Got faster and faster. The plane was shaking to bits. We asked for an emergency landing. We dropped the bombs in a reservoir and we came down to land on the runway. Because we were, the plane slewed off the runway and we were heading for the petrol dump and so the skipper opened up another engine and turned the, slewed the plane around and we hit the bomb dump, the side of the bomb dump. Right there. The big, they’d got a big [pause] We hit the side of the bomb dump. The CO came out in his, in his [pause] ‘You’re all posted. Get off my ‘drome.’ That was his exact words, and there were three people injured. Only slightly. Only slightly. They all went to the, they were taken to the, but they all came back with no problem. The only time a clearance chit got signed in one hour. It used to take two days to get a clearance chit signed because you had to sign. It had to be signed.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You had to hand your bike in. You had to do this and do that and you had to find everything and our, our clearance was and we were at, by 2 o’clock in the afternoon we were at the bus stop waiting for a bus to take us somewhere.
HB: And the whole crew.
GM: The whole crew. Yes. Because the ones that were, they were only slightly injured. We were all in the rest position when we crashed. We were all in the rest position, you know. Ruined the aeroplane anyway.
HB: Do you know that in your logbook?
GM: Yeah.
HB: This is purely for the purposes of the tape.
GM: Yeah.
HB: For people listening to this. In your logbook on the 17th of August 1944.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You did an operation to Brest. DNCO.
GM: Not carried out.
HB: And it says, “One engine u/s [pranged].”
GM: That’s all.
HB: That’s all it says in your logbook.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And that is the story you just told me.
GM: Yeah. Anyway, he sent us back to Riccall again.
HB: Right.
GM: To the Conversion Unit, and the skipper said, the CO said, ‘Oh, it’s nice to have a crew that have got experience. Do a couple of trips for us.’ And we, we flew a couple of trips, I think it was, at Riccall. I don’t know. They were only training trips.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And the pilot, the CO said, ‘You’re fully trained. There’s nothing wrong with you. You can go back on ops. Where do you want to go to?’ ‘51 Squadron,’ we all said because we’d got friends. He picks the phone up [laughs] speaks to the wing commander. No. Group captain he was. Speaks to the group captain, ‘I’ve got a fully trained crew that want to come back to you.’ ‘What’s the pilot’s name?’ ‘Digby.’ ‘Don’t send him here. Send him somewhere else.’
HB: No.
GM: He said, ‘You can’t go there.’ So, he sent us to Breighton. 78 Squadron, Breighton.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And our first trip at Breighton, believe it or not was Kiel. It’s almost, it’s almost poetic.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And I can remember the skipper saying, ‘We’re going. We’re not turning back.’ And we went to Kiel, and we were the last wave and you could see the, you could see the fires for miles. You could see the fires from two hundred miles back, on the way back, because the whole place was, the whole of Kiel was ablaze. We got, we, the Master Bomber told us to bomb on the edges. ‘Bomb on the edges. Bomb on the edges. Don’t bomb in the middle. Bomb on the edges.’ And we went to Kiel. We did five trips at Snaith. I think it was five, and the CO called us in the office and sat us down and said, ‘You’re posted.’ And the skip, I can remember the skipper saying, ‘What have we done wrong?’ He said, ‘You’ve done nothing wrong but you’re the, you’re the, most experienced crew and we’ve been told to choose the most experienced crew to send them to a new squadron being formed called 171 Squadron in Norfolk.
HB: Can I just ask you —
GM: Special duties.
HB: Can I just ask you something Gordon?
GM: Yes.
HB: In your logbook.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I’m, I’m just curious really. You’ve done the Kiel operation on the 15th of September.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Which was a night op.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And then on the 17th of September you do a daytime op to Boulogne.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And you’ve got a little note in your book saying —
GM: We saw a dinghy.
HB: Gun positions which are obviously Boulogne.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And then you’ve got dinghy sighted and reported.
GM: That’s right. We found, we sighted a dinghy. We went around and around it. Got it and sent a message back.
HB: And did you know, did you ever find out what happened?
GM: No. No. We never found out.
HB: No.
GM: But we did report it. We found a dinghy.
HB: Right.
GM: You know.
HB: Yeah, you, yeah you were at, you were at Breighton ‘til the end of September. You’re right, you only flew —
GM: Yeah.
HB: Five ops.
GM: Can I tell, tell you a very special story now?
HB: Of course, you can. Yeah.
GM: This is absolutely, I used to live with my aunt. I did not live with my father. I used to live with my aunt and she had a brother. His name was Jack [Elson], and he flew in Lancasters as a gunner and I had a weeks’ leave while we were at Breighton, and he had a weeks’ leave, and he came to his aunt’s and I went to my aunt’s and we had a weeks’ leave together. On the first day we went to the pictures and the girl that took us to the seat, her name was Mona, he chatted her up and they were friends. And by the end of the week, they were in love. We both went back to camp on the Friday. Both. He left on that platform and I left on that platform. We were both flying on Tuesday and he was killed. He was killed on the Tuesday and he’s buried in Lyons, in France.
HB: Oh, sad.
GM: Yeah. But that’s just by the by.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah.
HB: But that’s there, you know.
GM: There but by the Grace of God go me, you know. Yeah. Anyway, then we were sent to special duties, 171 Squadron and all brand new aircraft. Never been flown other than their delivery with this very special wireless equipment in the, in the, in the middle. Two great big things, and we had a new wireless operator. A special wireless operator and his name was [pause]
HB: A Scottish name.
GM: A Scottish name. Yes. Yes. He lived in —
HB: MacDonald.
GM: MacDonald. That’s right.
HB: Can I just say for the purposes of this interview —
GM: Yeah.
HB: You have written some brilliant notes and I’ve abandoned doing notes. I’m following yours because they are far better than mine. Yes. Sergeant Macdonald who operated the —
GM: Well, I did that a long time ago.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Because I thought I might forget.
HB: Yeah. Well, you’ve got him down as he operated the secret wireless jamming equipment.
GM: That’s right. And the operations we did were the strangest operations you ever flew because you flew out in to the North Sea and you flew around an oblong course for two hours. And there would be two planes, two planes, two planes, two planes, two planes, two planes, and we always flew at eighteen thousand feet and the other plane flew at eighteen thousand five hundred feet so that you didn’t, and you were both in the same place going up and down while he operated the Mandrel. I know the name of the one equipment was called Mandrel, and he operated these jamming, and while these formed on the screen that the Germans could not see the planes lifting off from England. The first time they’d see them was when they went through the screen. So, all, all the people were told not to fly at eighteen thousand or eighteen thousand five hundred feet. And then when our stint was finished, we used to go and bomb a place. We had a, we had a small bombing. Some, a few bombs to take and we used to go and bomb. I think a lot of them were holiday places on the coast although we went to Monchengladbach once I think. And the, we did thirteen trips and our last trip, which was our worst trip was Leipzig. Why we were sent to Leipzig I do not know.
HB: It’s alright. I’m just having a quick look to see if I can find that [pause] Leipzig. Leipzig. Oh sorry. Was that your last trip with 171?
GM: That was my last trip altogether. As we approached the target at Leipzig, we were coned by about fifty searchlights and all hell broke loose. The skipper chose one searchlight and we went straight down it. Straight down the searchlight. When we were at about three thousand feet from the ground I started firing my guns at the searchlight, and believe it or not it went out. There was no side of the plane left. All the side, the whole side of, the whole side of the plane was missing. It was draughty and the skipper said to the navigator, ‘Give us a trip home, and we don’t want to go near any mountains.’ He said, ‘I don’t even know where we are.’ And we got back. Got back to camp and we landed and the CO came out and he looked at the plane. He said, ‘You’ve ruined another one.’ He said, ‘Digby, you’ve finished.’ He said, ‘You’re finished. Don’t do any more.’ And so that was —
HB: That was your stand down.
GM: That was our stand down and we finished.
HB: And that was, sorry that was the whole crew stood down then.
GM: Yes. No. Except for, except for the flight, the special wireless operator.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Because he had to carry on.
HB: MacDonald. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: He got another crew. He died. He died at Christmas.
HB: Oh.
GM: This Christmas just gone. Last Christmas. Yeah.
HB: And did you, did you keep in touch with him?
GM: No. No. But my flight engineer’s son did.
HB: Oh right. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Kept in touch with him. I kept in touch with my skipper’s daughter, and I know his granddaughter and his grandson. They kept in touch with me.
HB: Did the whole crew survive the war?
GM: Oh yes. We all survived.
HB: Right.
GB: We all finished. I got a cracking job. I was posted to Number 1 Squadron. Spitfire squadron at Hutton Cranswick as a flying controller assistant.
HB: Well.
GM: I did that for about a year and then one day, I became a flight sergeant and one day they called me in to the office. They said, ‘You’re posted.’ And I said, ‘I’m posted?’ He said, ‘Yes. To Llanbedr.’ I said, ‘Where’s Llanbedr?’ He said, ‘In North Wales. They have, they want a controller.’ I said, ‘I can’t be a controller. I’m a near beginner.’ He said, ‘They’ve got nobody else to send.’ So, I went home for the weekend and got arrested when I got there because I should have been there two days earlier. And the CO, the CO he was only a, he was only a wing commander and you won’t believe this [pause] he’d, he’d been, he’d disgraced himself fighting or something and he’d been brought down from group captain to wing commander and he was in charge at Llanbedr. And it was being closed. And they used to fly Martinets.
HB: Oh yeah. Yeah.
GM: And they used to fly Martinets. They used to have a drogue a mile away. A mile away. And these drogues used to fly over to a place called Tonfanau in Wales where there was an Anti-Aircraft Gun School and the anti-aircraft used to fire at the drogues. I flew a couple of times. I had a couple of rides just for fun and that. Martinets they were.
HB: Oh no.
GM: Yeah. Anyway, there is one or two little, little stories in between that I’ve missed out. When I was stationed at Snaith one of the officers came from Birmingham and he said to me one day, ‘Gordon, do you want to go to Birmingham?’ ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘We can go for the weekend, you know.’ I said, ‘Can we?’ He said, ‘Yes. I’ll fly you there and I’ll fly myself there.’ So, he flew us to Castle Bromwich.
HB: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: He flew us in a, in a Tiger Moth. I was supposed to be the navigator [laughs]
HB: Yeah.
GM: We got lost the one day. In the end he said, ‘I’ll fly down and see if you can see the name of the station.’ [laughs] So I looked at it, and they’d started putting the station names back because they were all obliterated in the war but they started putting them back and I said, ‘Oh yes.’ I gave him the name of the station. He said, ‘Ok. We’re going this way,’ and we got, we got to Castle Bromwich.
HB: No. Yeah. Because, yeah Castle Bromwich there was a factory there wasn’t there?
GM: Yeah. There was a factory at Castle Bromwich.
HB: That made the, made aircraft, didn’t they? They constructed them.
GM: Yeah. Did parts of them.
HB: Yeah. Well —
GM: My mother, my mother made Spitfire parts at Fisher and Ludlow at Castle Bromwich.
HB: Right.
GM: And she was a lathe operator.
HB: Oh right.
GM: In the war.
HB: Yeah. That’s good. So, just, just going back because, because we’ve got you, you know getting in trouble.
GM: Yeah.
HB: When, you said to me before we started the interview about you somewhere down the line you went from flight sergeant to sergeant.
GM: No. I went from sergeant to flight sergeant, and then I became a warrant officer.
HB: Oh.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I wondered if you’d got busted down you see.
GM: No. No. No.
HB: Ah, no. I misunderstood what you said.
GM: No. No. I made a mistake there.
HB: No. I was going to say. No. That’s fine. That’s fine.
GM: Yes.
HB: Yeah.
GM: No. I got to warrant officer.
HB: Oh great. Yeah.
GM: I was the actual controller at Llanbedr and —
HB: When would that have been Gordon? That was —
GM: After I’d left Hutton Cranswick but of course I’d got, I’d got no dates for those.
HB: Yeah. So that, so that, we’re now in to late ’45.
GM: ’45.
HB: Yeah. Late ’45.
GM: About ’46. Probably ’46.
HB: Yeah. So, so how long, so you, you said to me earlier that you stayed in ‘til ’47.
GM: That’s right.
HB: So, what, so did you just carry on as a controller?
GM: Yeah. At Llanbedr.
HB: All the way through.
GM: All the way through. Yes.
HB: Til ’47.
GM: Yeah. And it was being closed. I can remember the, I walked in to the office and the CO said to me, threw me a folder, ‘Mr Mercier, here’s your first job.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I want an inventory of the WAAFs quarters. Everything in the WAAFs quarters. I want to know exactly what’s there in the WAAFs quarters because it’s all being shipped away and we want to know what we’re going to ship. So, here’s all the, you go around. Five hairdryers. There was a half a one. Eighteen barrels. None.
HB: Barrels?
GM: Barrels. Yes. Eighteen barrels. None. I don’t know what the barrels were for or where they came about but there were all these sort of things on the list. Sort of bedding for, I think the bedding was about thirty three sets of bedding and thirty three beds. Those were all there, you know. Pillow cases. None [laughs] Because the WAAFs had gone and they left shortly after. They all left after I got there, and I gave him the list back. He said, ‘We can put it in a van.’ He could practically, he said, ‘I thought we’d have to hire a pantechnicon to take it all away.’
HB: Good grief.
GM: Anyway —
HB: Good grief.
GM: He was, he was a smashing bloke. He used to say, ‘Don’t forget to come on my parade on Sunday unless you’ve got something better to do.’
HB: It sounds as if it was starting to get a little bit relaxed in 1947.
GM: Oh, it was more than relaxed.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And he was, he was, he’d been brought down in rank.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Because he’d disgraced himself. When I came back to work I worked at Triplex. When I came back to work.
HB: Yeah.
GM: I worked at Triplex making aircraft windows and the first, my first boss, no, my second boss was Wing Commander Duncan Smith. He was a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain.
HB: Was he?
GM: And his son is the MP. His son’s the MP. Duncan Smith. And when he was sixteen, he had a mini on our car park when he was sixteen, and he used to drive it around like a mad thing. Around and around the car park at night.
HB: Yeah.
GM: That was Duncan Smith.
HB: Wow.
GM: And his dad was a wing commander. Duncan Smith.
HB: Can I, can I just you know if you’re happy to carry on for a while.
GM: No, it’s alright.
HB: Can I just take you back to, you did your training.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And your OTU, your Operational Training Unit.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And you get posted to your first squadron. 51 Squadron.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And it’s a question I always like to ask. What was the social life like?
GM: Oh, it was great. Marvellous. We used to have a dance every week and the girls used to come from factories all around and they’d bus the girls in. The girls used to come from factories all round. There would be about six or seven buses full of girls coming from factories and you used to have a great big dance in the big hangar. We used to have great, absolutely great time, and you made friends with the ground crew and all that sort of thing.
HB: Yeah.
GM: It was, it was a grand time. I’ve got to admit that on my second trip I was terrified. I really was. I was really, really terrified. But I must say that I was never frightened again. Never. It didn’t frighten me at all, and I don’t know why that was but it didn’t because I gave, got to the point where if it happens it happens.
HB: Yeah. I can understand that. So is, you’re lucky enough to do all of your ops —
GM: Yes.
HB: As one crew apart from losing Sergeant [Wamm].
GM: That’s right.
HB: You’re lucky enough to do all your ops with the same guys all the way through.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And you come, you come to the stage when you’re flying your last few operations and you’re going to end up at Llanbedr. How, how did, how did you cope? Well, not cope that’s not the right word. How did you see the crew reacting as you come off to finish?
GM: You didn’t. You didn’t because we finished. We finished on that day. The next day we were posted to Kirby and at Kirby we were reassigned our posts. The next day we were reassigned our posts and we were given a weeks’ leave. We were given a weeks’ leave and a chit, and then you’d be told where you were going. They’d send you a message. Send you a letter.
HB: So, literally within three days the guys —
GM: Within three days we were split up.
HB: The guys you had spent —
GM: All that time with.
HB: Two years with.
GM: Were gone. All different places.
HB: All gone to different places.
GM: Yes.
HB: Right.
GM: I don’t know where any of them went.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Not one.
HB: That’s, yeah. Did you, did you meet your wife while you were still in the services?
GM: No.
HB: Or was that when you came out to work?
GM: We met after that.
HB: Right. So, what, so you’ve, you’ve been told you’re finished. You’ve gone to Llanbedr.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You’ve tried to resolve where all the stuff from the WAAFs quarters have gone, and the place is closing and you’re going to be demobbed. What, was what was your feeling at that time?
GM: Well, you didn’t. You were given a number right at the beginning, and all the people that were in the Air Force before the war were number one. They were released. All the people. The ones that had been in the Air Force longer were number one. The ones that were, and number two and number three and I was about number 178. And your number, your number came up. You heard what number it was each, sometimes it says number 111. Oh. I’ve only got another sixty eight.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Until your number came up and the CO had got a big parade, and he called me into the office and he gave me this slip of paper. He said, ‘Are you coming to my parade on Sunday?’ I said, ‘Yes. Yes, of course I am.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not. Read your piece of paper. You’ve been posted to demob.’
HB: Wow, where did you actually demob? Do you remember?
GM: I think it was West Kirby.
HB: Right. And what, what was that process like?
GM: Very strange. You handed your uniform in. I wish I’d, you could have kept it and I wish I’d have kept it but it was a lot of stuff and I didn’t want to carry it but I’ve regretted it ever since that I didn’t bring some of it back with me. And you were given a suit. You were given shirts, underpants and a suit. Shoes. Socks. Everything. And it was all in a, it was all put in the box, and you were given a ticket home. And you went through the gate with your box in your arm and there was about fifty spivs outside the, outside the airfield. ‘Buy your box.’ ‘Buy your box.’ ‘I’ll buy your box for you.’ ‘I’ll buy your box off you.’ ‘I’ll buy your box off you.’ And they were sending, I think they were getting five pound for a box. And some of them, you know, ‘Here you are. Here you are. I don’t want it. I don’t want it.’ I said, ‘No. I’ve got nothing else.’ But a lot of them sold them to these spivs.
HB: Oh right.
GM: I think it was a fiver they were getting for them. And they were white fivers in those days.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: And on D-Day we were all given a white fiver, a fiver and sent home. Only kept a, kept a skeleton staff on the aerodromes on D-Day. On VE Day.
HB: VE day. Yeah. Right.
GM: VE Day.
HB: Yeah.
GM: I got home just in time for the evening festivities.
HB: And what was that like?
GM: Well, the whole, the whole country was mad.
HB: Where were you living then? Had you gone back to your —
GM: In Harborne. I was living in Harborne and I was on my way to my auntie’s but I got dragged into a party on the way.
HB: Dragged in.
GM: Yes. I, I was never a drinker.
HB: No.
GM: But I used to drink but I was, I couldn’t hold my liquor very well but there was a lot of booze that night. And they kept stuff. They’d taken food out that they’d been saving for years. You know, tins of these, tins of that. I went into this one house in Harborne. I knew the people and they said, ‘Come in, Gordon. Come in Gordon. Lovely to see you.’ Put my box down. And then when I went I took my box with me to my auntie’s.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Just up the road.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And how, how long did it take you to sort of come to, because it’s obviously we all know that was, that two years or so was very very intense.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You know, and you know like you say you, you just reached the stage where you thought, well if it happens it happens.
GM: Yeah.
HB: But how sort of long or what sort of, what sort of period of time do you think it took —
GM: Well —
HB: To get yourself back to Civvy Street.
GM: Well, you went back to Civvy Street straight away because your firm was obliged by law to take you back.
HB: Right.
GM: They made a law that every firm had to take back for six months. They had to guarantee you six months work or six months wages and I went back to Belliss and Morcom’s. But I didn’t like it in the factory and I, I left to be, I became a milkman. I became a milkman with a horse and cart delivering milk.
HB: Did you enjoy that?
GM: Well, I’ve got a story. I don’t know whether you, are you still taping this?
HB: Absolutely. Yes. This is, it’s important we know.
GM: Well —
HB: How your feet came back down to earth basically.
GM: I got, I got a job at [pause] that’s Alexa telling me to take my tablets.
HB: Do you want to have a break to take your tablets?
GM: No.
HB: No. Crack on then. Crack on.
GM: Yes. I I got a job as a milkman and had a horse called Ginger, and Ginger didn’t like nuns, GPO huts in the road, shadows. He didn’t like them. He used to shy at shadows. I’d been delivering. I’d been working for them about three months and we’d, he knew the round better than me. He used to stop at everywhere and we used to do, we used to do Knowle, and then Dorridge and then back to Knowle which is near Solihull. And we used to have to go, after we’d finished Knowle we’d turn around the corner from the pub and we’d go up a hill. Up a great big hill to the other half of the route and this one day [laughs], one day we turned the corner there was an elephant [pause] The horse took one look at this elephant and he went berserk. I had a girl with me because she used to deliver. There was two of us delivering milk. He, he galloped and I got the reins and I got my feet and I said to her, ‘Jump off. Save yourself. Save yourself.’ And the crates of milk were falling off the back all the way down, up this hill and of course by the time he got to the top he was absolutely shattered and I managed to stop him and I tied him to a tree and I lit a fag. I can remember lighting a fag. And the woman came out. ‘Shall I ring the Dairy for you.’ ‘Yes, please.’ I’m smoking this fag and the Dairy bloke, and he looked at all the milk in the road and he kicked the horse.
HB: Oh no.
GM: So, so sorry. He really, he kicked the horse and he shouldn’t. He was the, he was the, the boss of the Dairy and the farm and all the horses and everything. It was most unkind.
HB: You’ve got a visitor.
GM: Oh, it’s my paper coming.
Other: Paper boy.
GM: Come in John. I’ve got the interviewer here.
Other: Oh, sorry.
HB: Do you want me to, do you want me to, no it’s alright. I’ll just pause the interview. Bear with me.
[recording paused]
HB: Resuming the interview that was paused so that Gordon could take his tablets and speak to his, his visitor. Right. So, we’ve got the elephant frightening a horse. Frightened horse. Blimey. So, you went to work as a milkman, and then obviously you started to get right back into civilian life.
GM: Yeah. Yeah.
HB: And what not.
GM: Then I went to work. Decided I wanted to go to work, and I went to, I applied for, my uncle worked at Triplex and he said, ‘There’s some jobs going at Triplex. Do you fancy doing that?’ And so, he got me an interview.
HB: Right.
GM: And they took me on at Triplex.
HB: You know, when we go right back to the beginning.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I’m just a little bit intrigued. You were born in Jersey.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And obviously your mum and dad were in Jersey. Did they [pause] Oh right. Obviously.
GM: There’s a very strange thing I’ve got to tell you. My father was a Francophile. He loved France. And when he was a lad in Jersey, when they were eighteen, they had to join the Jersey militia. It was an army. Because of the unruly going on with the eighteen year olds. But he and his friends decided to join the French Foreign Legion. He was stationed in Aleppo in the French Foreign Legion, and he went, and when war was declared on the Monday morning, he had a letter from the French Foreign Legion calling him back to France and he went.
HB: Right. So, when did you leave Jersey to come to England?
GM: I was about three, I think. They brought me back here.
HB: So that would be like the ‘30s.
GM: Yes. It was the ‘30s.
HB: Mid ‘30s.
GM: Early ‘30s. Yeah.
HB: Right. So, so your mum and dad were separated then.
GM: No. No. No.
HB: Sorry.
GM: Then he went. When he went on the 3rd of January err the 3rd of September he went back into the French Army.
HB: Right.
GM: Yeah.
HB: But by that time, you were obviously living over here.
GM: Yes.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We didn’t hear from him at all for, ‘til 1942. And in 1942 a man came to the door. He said, ‘I’m from Special Branch. You’ve got a husband named Jack Mercier.’ She said, ‘Yes. He’s dead.’ He said, ‘No. He’s not dead. He’s alive and he wants to come back to England.’ She said, ‘Well, I hadn’t heard anything so I assumed he was dead.’ In 1942, by then you see. And he said, ‘No. He’s alive and he wants to come back to England.’ We had a lot of interviews. Wanted to know all about him and everything, and then we had to give him forty five pounds which was a lot of money in those days for his fare back from Spain. And he’d got to get to Spain on his own so he walked about six hundred miles from France down to Spain and then he got a ship from Spain to England. And they came from Special Branch again and said, ‘We want seven pounds please.’ ‘What do you want seven pounds for?’ ‘For his fare.’ ‘His fare from where?’ She said, ‘Oh, he’s been in Scotland six weeks. He’s been interrogated as a spy.’
HB: Right.
GB: But they decided that he’s not a spy and he can come home.’ So, we had to give the seven pounds for his fare to bring him home. I never got on with my father. The moment he came home I left. My auntie took me straight away and she said, ‘Come and live with us.’ Never got on with him.
HB: That’s a shame. Yeah.
GM: He was quite brutal.
HB: So, he’d been, so he’d obviously been a prisoner of war.
GM: No, he got, he was in unoccupied France.
HB: Oh, he was in Vichy. Right.
GM: He was in Vichy France.
HB: Yeah. Right.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Oh yeah. Of course. ’42.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Yeah. That explains it.
GM: Yeah. I think he was somewhere, somewhere in the middle of France somewhere.
HB: What, just going back to your time, you know.
GM: Yeah.
HB: If you could just put your mind back to when you did your training and what not.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And you became part of Bomber Command. What do you think? It’s quite, it’s almost a bit too specific but what do you think was the best part? If there was a best part of your time.
GM: Well, you felt as though you were hitting Germany. And because I came from Jersey which was occupied by the Germans and badly treated by the Germans and, and I wanted to, I wanted to fight, and we really did. I mean we, Bomber Command, Hitler should have packed it in. I mean we just kept on destroying. I mean all these cities were destroyed totally. In this country we lost six hundred and fifty thousand houses to the bombing. In this country. They must have lost six million.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. And how, when you look back now do you, do you have any strong feelings about when you look back? Or —
GM: No. No. It had got to be done. It had got to be stopped.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you, you really felt as though you were really taking the war to them because we were, I mean London was bombed sixty seven nights in a row. So, you, you really felt as though you were doing your bit.
HB: Yeah. It’s, it’s something that a lot of people are interested in because, you know in some cases a lot of people think it’s so long ago.
GM: Yeah.
HB: But all of the people who were involved they, they do have very different views when they look back as, as to what they contributed. How they, how they, how they —
GM: Well, of course.
HB: Were involved.
GM: Dunkirk. Dunkirk was the pivotal point. We were beaten. There’s no doubt about it. If he’d, if he’d have attacked then we couldn’t have defended ourselves at all. But as I say when I joined the Home Guard I had a, we had a stick. A broomstick and a knife on the end. That was our first weapon. We used to practice arms drill with the stick until we got, finally we got one rifle, and we all were allowed to touch it [laughs] And then we got we all had a rifle and every night we went out we took our rifle out with us every night.
HB: And then you then went back to work the following day.
GM: Went to work the following day. Yes.
HB: Yeah.
GM: I was on, I was on duty, Home Guard duty when Coventry was bombed and we were taken by, by a lorry that would be shovels to, to Coventry and our job was to clear the roads. Make the roads passable. And we spent three days in Coventry where we had, we had tents. We were just tidying up. That was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. The very first time. Probably the only time I’d ever seen a dead body.
HB: Yeah. Yeah that’s, yeah —
GM: That was Coventry.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And we all our job was to make the roads passable for transport. Shifting great big pieces of, you know six of us moving great big pieces of concrete out of the way.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah.
HB: What [pause] what we’ve talked about that side of it. What, what do you think was your, your sort of happiest memories of, of that time? If, you know, I mean because there must have been some fun.
GM: Yes.
HB: You must have had fun.
GM: I was always happy in the Air Force. I loved it. Couldn’t cope with it sometimes. They made me take a parade once which was [laughs] which was horrible because my voice isn’t that loud. I could shout a bit but because you’re a sergeant you had to take a parade, and I got them marching up against the wall of the hangar and that. Hit the wall of the hangar in front of them. I couldn’t say turn around or anything. That, that was one moment that I remember where I regretted being a sergeant. I also made the cook do another dinner because the dinner they’d put out that day was vile and I was on what do you call it? Mess duty.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And my job to go around the mess for any remarks about the food and anything. The whole place was, ‘This food’s rubbish.’ ‘It’s rubbish.’ ‘It’s rubbish.’ I made the chef prepare something else.
HB: I bet you checked your food after that for a while, didn’t you?
GM: I had to be careful where I went, I must admit. I didn’t go anywhere near the cookhouse I’ll tell you. But that was when I was flying control at Llanbedr.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: But with 21 Squadron they flew Spitfire 21s at Fifty, at One Squadron. There was one squadron and there was another squadron called the Baroda Squadron. All Spitfire 21s, contra rotating props and they used to take off like that. Go straight up. They were a fantastic plane.
HB: Did you ever get to go in one?
GM: Four hundred and fifty mile an hour.
HB: Did you ever get to sit in one?
GM: No. No. No. I don’t think. Never sat in one. But I was there a sizeable length of time.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. It was —
GM: I was there a long time.
HB: Well, well ’45 through to ’47.
GM: I’d never done any office work and I walked in to the office and they said, ‘Your first job is to do the Wilmotts.’ I said, ‘What on earth is a Wilmott?’ ‘A Wilmott is the station, the readiness of all the aircraft stations in the country,’ he said,’ And if there’s anything wrong with the aircraft, with the aerodrome, they issue a Wilmott and that Wilmott has to be plotted so that every station knows if there is anything wrong with any other station.’ So, I’d got this pile of, little pile of Wilmotts they’re called and I’d had to look and find the aircraft and put number one runway is out of action because they’re resurfacing the [unclear]. Put it back and then take the next one. Leuchars. Leuchars. Flying control is not operating today so no planes in or out of Leuchars, and write it down so that if anybody was sent to that they’d put out a Wilmott to see —
HB: Right.
GM: What the status of the station was.
HB: Status was.
GM: And I remember it took me all day. The whole day, I think. Morning, sort of morning, dinnertime, afternoon and evening you know, I was still doing these Wilmotts. Putting it in.
HB: I’ve never heard of a Wilmott.
GM: No. Wilmott it was called and, and then a job I did like doing was on the waggon at the end of the runway.
HB: Oh yes. Yes. I’m with you. Yeah.
GM: Yeah. And you used to have two aldis lamps, and two verey pistols. A green and a red. A green and a red. And you had to, and I can remember watching the planes landing and watching them and then all of a sudden, this Spitfire came and he’d got his wheels up. He hadn’t got his wheels down. Prang, I fired off, moved and it went off.
HB: Blimey.
GM: And he was only a few feet from the ground by the time I’d fired it. I thought to myself I’d nearly blotted my copybook there.
HB: Yeah.
GM: He hadn’t put his wheels down.
HB: That, that would have been expensive.
GM: Yeah. Another thing that happened which was most amazing was I was on the waggon this one day and it had been raining very heavy and the sun came out and a flock of swans, about six swans flew over and they thought it was water and they all flew down to land on the runway and of course they crashed. Every one of these swans. Because they thought it was water and I’m watching these swans and all of a sudden, they crashed. All these swans rolling around. They got up and they waddled around and then they started running and took off again.
HB: Blimey.
GM: A load of swans.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah. About five or six swans crashed on the runway.
HB: You know if, if you go back to 171 Squadron.
GM: Yes.
HB: And you were, you were flying these special operations.
GM: Yes.
HB: With this special jamming thing did they, did they use the aluminium strips?
GM: Yes.
HB: At the time.
GM: Yes.
HB: Was your aircraft doing that as well?
GM: We, we had special ones. When we’d finished our flight we didn’t put any of the aluminium strips out until we’d finished our flights, and then we’d go, some of the targets. I can’t remember the targets. We did go to Monchengladbach once I think while we were at [pause] I don’t know, give me a target from 50, 171 squadron. Give me.
HB: Right. That would be [pause] Liege.
GM: Liege. Yes. So, so, we were not far from France that day. Going round and round. Then as soon as your stint had finished we bombed Liege.
HB: Right.
GM: And as we went out we had very special strips of foil. Ours were fifteen feet long. The ones that the bomber, the main force took were, were only strips like that.
HB: What was that?
GM: Ours were fifteen feet long.
HB: What’s that? About three feet long.
GM: Something like that.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And they stayed in the air longer.
HB: Right.
GM: They didn’t fall so flat. They stayed in the air longer so, so our, our two planes would look like thirty planes heading for Liege.
HB: Right. Right. Yeah, that, that sort of makes sense now to me. Yeah. It’s alright. I was just looking back because you were on 51 Squadron when it was D-Day weren’t you?
GM: Yeah. We just arrived at 51 Squadron just before D-Day.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. [coughs] excuse me. Oh yeah, because that’s when, that’s when Sergeant [Wamm] got injured, weren’t it?
GM: On our second trip he got wounded.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. Gordon, I can only thank you really. It’s, it’s, you know, I’m not just saying this it really is interesting. It’s really interesting you know and to know that it wasn’t all deadly serious all the time.
GM: No. Oh no.
HB: That’s —
GB: No. I can, I’ll tell you something. You’re not recording this now?
HB: Yeah. Yeah, we are recording you. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Oh right. Well, when I was stationed at Stormy Down as a cadet with a white flag in my hat, we had a visit from Anna Neagle, a film star.
HB: Oh right. Yeah.
GM: And she did a show for us. It was a show and she came in to the airmen’s mess and she said, ‘I will dance around with the youngest airman in the room.’ And it was me.
HB: Oh lovely.
GM: So, I [laughs] danced with Anna Neagle. I don’t know whether, she was in, who wants to sing in Barclay Square film.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Yeah. And that —
HB: Oh yeah. She was a big star.
GM: Yeah.
HB: She was a big star.
GM: Anna Neagle. Yeah. So, I danced with Anna Neagle.
HB: Ooh, now, there’s a memory for you.
GM: Yes. Yes, it is.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Funny things happen.
HB: Yeah. Oh, that’s great. Right. So obviously you got your job at Triplex.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And life moved on and you got married.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And you got your family.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And eventually you ended up here in Alvechurch.
GM: Yes. It was all fields. This was all fields.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And there was a hut at the end of the road and we were given a number. We got there at 7 o’clock and were given a number. The hut opened at ten, and I think we got in for an interview at about 12 o’clock and as we walked through the door he said, ‘There’s only one property left. It’s a bungalow, a two bedroom bungalow at the beginning of the site. Do you want it?’ And my wife said, ‘Yes, please.’
HB: Wow.
GM: And that was number 2, Rise Way.
HB: Brilliant. Right. Well, I think we’ve sort of come to a bit of a conclusion for the interview Gordon.
GM: Yes. Thank you.
HB: And I really do appreciate, and thank you very much on behalf of the IBCC.
GM: I hope it —
HB: But more on behalf of myself.
GM: [Unclear}
HB: Oh, yes. I think it’s great for you to do this. I’m going to end the interview bit now.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Because obviously we need to have a break and get something to eat, but as I say I do thank you for that.
GM: Do you want to come down the pub for a pint?
HB: The time is now coming up to half past twelve.
[recording paused]
HB: This is recommencing the interview at twenty to two in the afternoon, having had our lunch, a very nice lunch and still interviewing Gordon Mercier. In a chat over lunch, we’ve had two or three things, little things have cropped up, but I think Gordon it would be nice to tell us about it, Gordon.
GM: Yes.
HB: You were telling me about a training flight where you shouldn’t have been over the sea but —
GM: That’s right. We, we were doing, we were going a compass swing and —
HB: Who’s, oh that’s right because you had somebody in the aircraft with you, didn’t you?
GM: We had a WAAF. We didn’t have a WAAF this time. We had one of the air, one of the ground crew.
HB: Right.
GM: But we were out for a compass swing and an engine, engine test but my skipper decided to do some low flying and we went over a field full of German prisoners of war putting hay, taking hay, and they made a lot of rude signs at us and so the skipper turned the plane around. We flew towards the prisoners of war again and as we got there we went straight up in the air and blew them all over. But by then we were facing out to sea and there was a ship, a ship down and we hit a flock of birds and one engine went out. Immediately went back to base and asked permission to land, emergency landing, three engines. We landed and we were called in to the office to explain ourselves and the skipper said, well, we were doing this, ‘We went out for an engine test and a compass swing and we hit a flock of, a flock of starlings,’ he said, and just a flock of starlings. And the CO said, ‘Why is my engineering officer holding two, two seagulls?’ And another story, we were going to bomb Dunkirk Castle, and there were about two hundred planes and we took off as normal but the wheels wouldn’t come up and the skipper asked the flight engineer if we’d have enough petrol to go and get back. He said, well we could get back but we couldn’t get back to camp. We’d have to land somewhere in the south of England. So, we, we went on but we were very slow so that by the time we got to the target all the other planes had finished bombing and we crossed the target on our own and the German, Germans occupying the Castle were firing rifles and pistols at us. But our bombs went straight through the middle of the courtyard and broke down one of the walls. And then we got back and we had to land at Manston because we hadn’t got, and Manston was the most amazing sight. It was the first time I saw a jet plane take off. They’d got them at Manston. I’d never seen, didn’t know we’d got any jet planes. That was at Manston.
HB: Were you on the ground or in the air at this time?
GM: We were on the ground.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And we, we heard this noise and we saw this Gloster Meteor take off. We didn’t know what it was. It was a jet plane.
HB: That’s just [pause] I don’t know.
GM: They used to use them for catching the flying bombs.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Because they were faster.
HB: Yeah. And was it, was it, was it Manston you were telling me about where you had FIDO?
GM: No.
HB: Or was that —
GM: That was at Carnaby.
HB: Right.
GM: There was a very severe fog one night when we were coming back, and all the, all the ‘dromes were fogged out and so we had to land with FIDO at Carnaby. Carnaby aerodrome. And I believe they landed ninety six planes at that aerodrome using FIDO.
HB: And what was it like coming in to land then with FIDO?
GM: It was like going into hell because all you could see was flames.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Flames. Just, it was just flames. You couldn’t see the ground until you were about twenty feet from the ground.
HB: Well, yeah.
GM: But you could land the plane.
HB: Just, just mentioning jet aircraft towards the end of your operations in ’45.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Did you ever come across German jet fighters?
GM: No.
HB: Didn’t. You never saw them.
GM: Never saw them. No. Never saw any.
HB: Because you did quite a few daylight operations, didn’t you?
GM: Yeah.
HB: Before, you know by then. No. I was just curious because obviously at that time they were flying the Messerschmitt jets, weren’t they?
GM: I will mention one other target we attacked. We attacked an airfield called [unclear]. But on that day, it was a Sunday morning and on that day, there were four thousand five hundred allied planes over Germany. All bombing and fighters. Fighters and bombers. There were four thousand five hundred planes in the air over Germany.
HB: That’s the allies. Yeah.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We saw two lots of Boeings in, in convoy, you know.
HB: Wow.
GM: And we, we bombed [unclear] airport and our bombs went straight down the runway. You couldn’t miss.
HB: Yeah.
GB: It was one of those.
HB: Yeah. That’s, yeah that’s interesting. When we were chatting over lunch you were saying about the jobs the WAAFs used to do.
GM: Oh yes. They used to do. We used to have a WAAF come with us sometimes when we did a compass swing.
HB: Could you, can you explain what a compass swing is please Gordon?
GM: Well, the compass had to be checked that it was doing its job properly, and there were compass operators and they were nearly all WAAFs and they used to come with us when you’d fly straight line, straight line, straight line, straight line and she would make sure that the compass was working properly.
HB: Right. Right.
GM: It was called a compass swing.
HB: Yeah. So, you obviously that was something you really did appreciate once you were in the air.
GM: Oh yes. Got the compass for just in front of the pilot, wasn’t it?
HB: Yeah.
GM: She was fiddling with the —
HB: Yeah.
GM: Set, set, calibrate it I think it was called. They used to calibrate the compass.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: And the WAAFs did that job. One of the jobs that they did.
HB: Yeah. Well, that’s, that’s lovely. That’s lovely. Well, Gordon thanks. Thanks for that extra bit. I’m pleased we had lunch and we had a chat.
GM: Yes. Thank you.
HB: That was really nice and I’ll, I’ll finish the interview now because I just need to work through some of the paperwork.
GM: Yeah.
HB: So, the time is coming up to ten to two. So, we’ll terminate the interview now.
[recording paused]
HB: This is a further interview with Gordon Mercier. It’s Tuesday the 23rd of November.
GM: Yes.
HB: And we’re at Gordon’s house near Birmingham and we just wanted to go back over a few things, Gordon. We’ve just been chatting because obviously as an air gunner you were in that small group of people who, an awful lot of air gunners were lost and you survived. So, we thought we’d like to know what the life of an air gunner was like from, you did your training and that was fairly arduous but, but you know we just wondered what it was like day by day to be an air gunner on a, on a Halifax.
GM: I found it very satisfying. I, I had the best view of anybody in the aircraft. I was sitting on the top. I never flew, I only flew once as rear gunner and I hated it and all the other times I flew mid-upper gunner. The only trouble with being a mid-upper gunner was when you were facing forward the wind came through the holes where the guns are and you absolutely froze. So, if you turned forward it was uncomfortable. Other than that, it was a very comfortable seat and it was easy to get in. Up a little ladder and hung your parachute on the hook just by the seat where you get in and it was very comfortable and the view was fantastic because in daylight you could see for miles and miles and miles.
HB: Did you, did you have any extra duties when you were in there? To, to tell the pilot about things.
GM: No. But I, I told, you had to keep your eyes open. Especially for other aircraft in the, in the stream. That was the most important job actually because all of a sudden you’d realise there was a bomber sitting just on top of you and you’d got to get out of that without hitting him. And we had that several times, and that was the important job that you did that wasn’t written in to the contract [laughs]
HB: Yeah.
GM: And also, when we went, we went to Villers Bocage we’d been told to bomb at ten thousand feet and if you couldn’t see the target you were to come down to five thousand feet. Some went down. We went down. And some didn’t go down. So, the bombs were coming down from above us which was a very, very tricky moment and I can remember one bomb being very close to us as it went past. A stream of bombs. And that was when we bombed the panzer division in Villers Bocage and —
HB: It’s nice you used to word tricky.
GM: Pardon?
HB: It’s nice you used the word tricky.
GM: Oh yes.
HB: For that situation.
GM: Yes. Yes.
HB: I can think of other words.
GM: Yeah. I must, I’ve got to admit very humbly that I was terrified on our second trip. I was really, really terrified. The bang when they hit the nose of the plane, and the getting the bomb aimer out. I heard all about it and I was terrified but I’ve got to admit that I was never frightened again ever and we had some very tricky situations.
HB: Yeah.
GM: But it was very satisfying being a gunner. You felt as though you were doing a good job.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You just had to keep awake and keep warm.
HB: How did you keep warm, Gordon?
GM: The Halifax had a good heating system in the fuselage. It was, it was quite good and we had electric boots which you plugged in. You plugged into the aircraft and it warmed your feet. And you had fleecy boots of course and you were as warm as toast except when you went forward. And I can remember my eyebrows froze. Eyelids froze because of the cold when it was minus fifty, and that was the coldest day I flew in and the engines, the oil went into lumps and you could hear the engine rumbling.
HB: Oh.
GM: With these lumps of oil.
HB: Blimey.
GM: It was, it was minus fifty degrees it was.
HB: So, what height would you be when that was happening?
GM: Twenty two thousand feet.
HB: Yeah.
GM: At twenty two thousand feet we could get to twenty two easily but the Lancaster could get further.
HB: Yeah.
GM: It was lighter than us but it could carry more. We, we carried a lot of bombs. I think twelve five hundreds’ we could get in. Or two four thousand and some smaller bombs and mines. They were, they were big. The mines were big.
HB: Yeah.
GM: I hadn’t, I had to, on two occasions I had to get out of my turret and close the door which had come open.
HB: The side door.
GM: The door you went in to the aircraft. And it was up in the air and me being small I could hardly reach and the skipper said, ‘Don’t forget to put your parachute on in case you fall out.’ [laughs] The wind coming through from that door. And I closed the door for him. And twice that happened.
HB: How had it come open?
GM: Well, just vibration, I think.
HB: Oh yeah. Yeah. I suppose.
GM: Just vibration. Yeah.
HB: So, what, what sort of clothing did you used to have to put on, Gordon?
GM: Well, we had fleecy boots, four pairs of gloves, a gauntlet, a mitten, a woollen mitten. No. A gauntlet, a glove, a woolly mitten and next to your skin surgical, like a surgical glove. Silk. Silk glove. So that if you had to do anything with the guns you took the three pair off and just left the silk glove.
HB: Right.
GM: Because if you touched the guns your fingers stuck to the guns.
HB: Right.
GM: Because it was so cold it would fetch your fingers, the skin off your fingers.
HB: So when, so after you’d, after you’d taken off for an operation obviously everybody talks about as you’re flying towards.
GM: Where ever.
HB: Perhaps the Dutch coast.
GM: Yes.
HB: Or whatever, you used to test fire your guns.
GM: Yes. We used to test.
HB: How did everyone look on that? How did they do it safely when you were taking off in a bunch.
GM: Well, we used to fire down. Fire down at the sea. And the rear gunner used to fire down at the sea. We [laughs] went on a, we went on a trip when we were converting into Halifaxes, and we had to go and bomb Rockall. That little mountain in the middle and we had to go and bomb Rockall and on the way we’d to test our guns. That was in the exercise. The skipper said, ‘Are we ok navigator to test the guns?’ And the navigator said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, Titch?’ I said, ‘I can see land in front of me. Down there. I can see land.’ He said, ‘No. The navigator said we’re over the sea.’ I said, ‘We’re not over the sea. It’s land.’ And he’d missed a leg out on his plan [laughs] He’d missed a leg out on his plan, so his plan showed us over the sea and we were still over the land.
HB: Oh dear.
GM: And Liverpool. Nearly fired my guns at Liverpool.
HB: Blimey.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I suppose he got in trouble for that did he?
GM: Who?
HB: No?
GB: No. No. No. No. The only time we got in trouble was when we went to North Creake. Our first trip at North Creake. Familiarisation they called it. New planes, and we flew, flew anywhere. We just flew round swinging the compass and one thing and another. We went out to sea to fire my guns and there was a trawler and there was a crowd of birds around it and I was firing my guns and we hit this crowd of birds. One engine packed up so we asked permission to land immediately and we landed and we went in front of the CO. ‘What happened? How did you come to hit a flight of birds?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘We were flying over the coast and we just hit this flight of birds.’ He said, ‘Oh yes. Really birds.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ The skipper said, ‘Yes. Just birds. Just a flight of ordinary birds’ He said, ‘How come [laughs] the engineering officer has got five seagulls in his office.’ How come he’d got five seagulls in his office.
HB: You shouldn’t have been there.
GM: No. We shouldn’t have been there.
HB: I don’t know.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I don’t know.
GM: But they used to, the clothing was adequate. Really good clothing we had.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We had a bomber jacket and extra long johns.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And very modern vests. Very warm.
HB: Yeah.
GM: They came up to your neck and everything. But you used to get cold here and here, under your chin and your eyes used to get cold. Especially if you were looking forward, which you had to rotate the turret.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And —
HB: So, so on a normal, so how would it work then? How would you be told as an air gunner that you’re going to be flying on operations?
GM: Oh, we, in the morning the skipper would tell us, ‘We’re flying tonight, lads.’
HB: Right.
GM: And he, they used to go to the, the navigator and the flight engineer and the pilot used to go to a briefing. And then before the op the whole crew went to a briefing and the chair, there were seven, seven seats and seven seats and everybody and then there was a big map of Europe on the wall and the CO would come out with a big stick and say, ‘Your target for tonight is Monchengladbach, and your route is this way — ‘’ This way. ‘Be careful of this area here because there’s a lot of flak there. Do a dog leg here.’ The navigator had got all the details and they told us, and then the weapons officer used to come in and say you’re carrying so many bombs, and so many of this, and we used to carry Window which was strips of silver paper and the strips of silver paper were about a foot and a half long. But when we were flying with 100 Group our, our silver paper was fifteen feet long. We didn’t have so many of them.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you used to, before you hit the coast the [pause] I’m sure. I think the wireless operator had to put the, the silver paper in in through the —
HB: And that went down a chute.
GM: A chute. Yeah. It went down a chute and, so that fifty planes would look like five hundred planes on the radar.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Because each piece of silver paper would have been lit as a blip.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And, and when, when we used to fly with 100 Group our fifteen feet long stayed in the air longer, but it didn’t say there was that many.
HB: Yeah.
GM: But and they were all a distraction. Used to usually drop the silver paper just before you changed course.
HB: What was it? As a sort of a deception sort of thing?
GM: Well, yes. That’s right.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. So, you’ve been in. You’ve had your briefing.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Did you have, did you do anything separate as an air gunner?
GM: No.
HB: Or was that it?
GM: No. No.
HB: That was just it.
GM: You were altogether.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And then after briefing you used to go for a flying meal.
HB: Yes.
GM: Bacon. Eggs. Bacon and eggs. Sometimes there was chips but we always had bacon and eggs. And big portions as well.
HB: Right.
GM: We used to collect our escape kit and our parachute and an orange and a block of chocolate which you distributed in your pockets.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you’d wait for the, the bus, the waggon to take you out to the aeroplane about an hour before you took off. You used to go the, and sit on the grass or play football or something like that altogether.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And the ground crew were just finishing off.
HB: What was, can you remember what you had in your escape kit, Gordon?
GM: Oh yes. There was a map. It was only a small box. There was a map. There was a compass. There was some nutritious bar of stuff. I don’t know what it was but they invented this bar of stuff to eat. And there was a whistle, I think. No. We used to carry the whistle. We used to have the whistle always with us. We always had the whistle in case you fell in the sea. [unclear] a compass. Pipe smokers had a pipe and the pipe converted to a compass. Just broke it open and the compass was inside the barrel of the pipe. But the main thing was the map. It was a big map of Europe and all on silk. A silk map. Very posh.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We, it was just a small box which you just slipped in to your pocket. Into your breast pocket as it were.
HB: Did you, did you carry, did you carry photographs of yourself with you?
GM: No. No. Oh, that was one thing you did before you took off and before you collected your parachute. You collected your parachute. You had to empty your pockets so that you’d got nothing to identify yourself with at all.
HB: The reason I ask was I did interview somebody once who showed me some photographs they took. They had. And they took them with them in case they were shot down so they could be used on false papers.
GM: Oh. Well, I hadn’t heard of that.
HB: No.
GM: We, we were, we were told to clear everything out. Especially bus tickets.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And all that sort of stuff. Anything that could identify you or your squadron.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You know, like postcards from the family with your address on. You don’t. All that had to be taken out and put on the —
HB: So, you’ve had your briefing. You’ve been to dispersal.
GM: No. We’ve had our briefing. We’ve had our dinner.
HB: You’ve had your dinner.
GM: We go and collect the parachutes
HB: Yeah. And then you’re waiting at dispersal and the truck comes.
GM: The truck comes, and they’ve usually got two or three crews, and it takes you all the way around the perimeter and drops them off at each plane.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And usually the CO comes around. Just a little chat. And then at a certain time the skipper says, ‘Time to get aboard lads.’ And you just get in and of course I, I only sat in the rest position. I didn’t get in to my turret until we’d taken off.
HB: So that was sort of in the middle of the aircraft.
GM: Yes.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And there was a lot of room in the Halifax.
HB: Yeah.
GM: There was room for eight of us to sit in. Or seven of us to sit in.
HB: Yeah. Yeah, so you, you’ve gone into the plane. You’ve gone to the rest position.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Did you have, did you have any duties at all for take - off? Or was it just —
GM: Just I’d cock my guns
HB: Yeah.
GM: No. I couldn’t cock my guns until we were over the sea in case there was a mistake. We used to cock the guns. We were soon over the sea anyway.
HB: Yeah.
GM: So, that’s the only thing I had to do was make sure that my gunsight was working. Cocked the guns. Make sure that all four were all cocked.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And ready to fire.
HB: Did you, did you always have the same turret? I think you said to me in the last interview that you were comfortable in the Boulton Paul turret.
GM: Yes.
HB: Because it was big and you, you know you fitted in. You had plenty of room.
GM: Yeah.
HB: But did, did you always have the same turret or did you have to change?
GM: It was all, I only flew in the Boulton Paul turret.
HB: Right.
GM: When I did the one in the rear it was a Frazer Nash turret.
HB: Yeah.
GM: The rear gun had a Frazer Nash turret.
HB: So how, so when you were in that turret, what, what guns had you got?
GM: Four. Four 303 Browning machine guns.
HB: Right. And I presume they were calibrated to, to converge, were they?
GM: It was one of our jobs on the ground to calibrate the guns so that it didn’t hit any part of the aircraft.
HB: Right.
GM: That was one of our jobs. We had to calibrate the guns.
HB: Because that’s one of the questions a lot of people ask is how did you manage to not shoot your own tail off?
GM: No. They’d been calibrated so that you used to turn your gun round at the plane and press the, I think we used to press a button. I think it was a button, and so that when, when it was revolving, and when you’re firing, when it hit the, looked at that, the bullets didn’t fire. It stopped the guns from firing.
HB: Right. Right. Yeah. Ah that, that’s, that explains it then.
GM: Yeah. Because you could hit the front of the aircraft quite easily.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you could hit the tail quite easily as well.
HB: Yeah. I can believe it. Yeah.
GM: But you, you calibrated. That was one of your jobs. To calibrate it. When you did a, if you did a pre-flight flight, used to do that.
HB: So, when obviously, when you’re flying at night your vision is, is, is absolutely essential. Your, you know, your skills at looking out into the night. How did you protect your eyes when you were flying at night?
GM: One thing we used to do was we used to have a pair of goggles which we used to put on while we were waiting if it was daylights or, and we were going to be flying at night we used to wear these goggles. A pair of like sunglasses.
HB: Yeah.
GM: So that when you, you took them off and put them in the plane you’d stopped your eyes from going.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Suddenly in to dark when you wouldn’t be able to see anything.
HB: Yeah.
GM: But wearing these glasses, which you were given they, they were very useful.
HB: Yeah. So once you, once you were up and you’re flying. You were flying towards the target.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Would you get much of, much information from the pilot or the navigator or anybody else to tell you what was happening? Where you were going or —
GM: There was always conversation going on. The skipper was asking the flight engineer if all the engines were ok. He was asking the wireless operator if he still had contact with his wireless. And the bomb aimer used to sit next to him and he only used to go in to his position when we were getting, getting close to the target.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And the navigator had his little, he had a curtain all round him and he was, he was giving the skipper instructions of a course to fly. Every, all, every, all the time he was chatting.
HB: Yeah.
GM: The flight engineer and the navigator were doing most of the talking and the skipper was asking questions and everybody else was in their own thoughts as it were.
HB: Yes. Yeah. So as, as you come in you’re coming in towards the target. Obviously, we know the risks were flak and night fighters.
GM: Yeah.
HB: And that sort of thing.
GM: And other planes.
HB: Yeah. And the other planes are all around you. Your own side.
GM: Yeah.
HB: What, can you, is it possible to describe or to tell me what it was like to fly towards a target through the flak?
GM: Well, one of our trips we went was Hazebrouck it was called, and it was a railway. A railway marshalling yard in France. And that was the worse flak I ever saw and the flak was just coming up before. The flak was firing when the planes weren’t there and we were flying along this flak and then we had to go in to it and that was a bit scary, you know. You couldn’t help it. Suddenly you had to go through it because the target was there and if you didn’t turn in to the target you wouldn’t. The flak was, was enormous, the amount of flak there was. Hundreds of flak bursts.
HB: So, sitting in your position in the, you know.
GM: You could see it all.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Yeah. So, and, and so that that would be like I suppose flying through a giant firework display.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Almost. But with quite nastier consequences.
GM: Well, you could smell the smoke from the, as you flew through it. The ones that exploded you didn’t worry about because they missed you. It was the one that you didn’t see that hit you.
HB: Yeah.
GM: But it was the amount of flak they threw up, the Germans was enormous. Absolutely hundreds, hundreds of bursts of flak.
HB: Yes.
GM: And nearly always at the right height as well. They’d, they’d got good range finders.
HB: Yeah. What, what were the, what were the searchlights like?
GM: Well, on our last trip we were coned.
HB: Yeah.
GM: By searchlights. About fifty on us. This last trip was our worst trip ever and we were coned and the only thing you could do was to dive down one of the, one of the searchlights which is what the skipper did because they couldn’t change the, where the shells were bursting quick enough because we were going down. And in actual fact I fired my guns at a searchlight. The one we were flying down. It went out.
HB: Oh right.
GM: And that saved us.
HB: Yeah. Was the —
GM: The moment it went out the skipper said to navigator, ‘Which way?’ He said, ‘How the hell do I know?’
HB: So, was that what, was that something you trained for or just something you did?
GM: Something happened. It was —
HB: Yeah.
GM: It had never happened before.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We’d never been hit by searchlights before.
HB: Yeah, because when I’ve talked to others they always talk about the corkscrew.
GM: Yeah. The corkscrew is for fighter.
HB: Yeah. What was, what was the corkscrew manoeuvre then?
GM: It was depending which, where the plane was. You, I, the gunner or the rear gunner had to tell the skipper, ‘Corkscrew right.’ ‘Corkscrew left.’ And if you said, ‘Corkscrew right,’ he turned the plane that way, that way, that way, and that way, and raised, went up and down while he was corkscrewing.
HB: So, he was constantly changing left to right.
GM: Left to right.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: So that the pilot, if the plane was behind you he’d have to readjust every time.
HB: Yeah. What was that like to experience?
GM: Ah, it was like being in a merry go round. You were thrown this way and that way but it only happened to us twice and I don’t think it was necessary actually but the rear gunner called it the two times we did it. And corkscrew right or corkscrew left. Down. Right. Down. Right. Up. Down. Right.
HB: So, so this was —
GM: With, with the Halifax you could do it like. It would behave like, like a merry go round.
HB: Yeah.
GM: It was a marvellous plane for that.
HB: So, so the tail gunner had called it. Were you ever actually attacked by night fighters?
GM: No. The only time we were attacked was on our second trip and that’s when we lost our bomb aimer. I’d, I reported to the skipper there was a plane below us being attacked. He said, ‘Keep your eyes open.’ And I could see the tracer going and I couldn’t see the other plane that he was firing at. And then the tracer stopped and at that moment the one shell hit us right in the nose. Blew the nose off.
HB: Right.
GM: And the bomb aimer was sitting with his legs like that and it exploded under his bum. And the plane was, was doing this all the time then because it was filling with air and then it couldn’t take any more air, so the plane was going like that all the time. It was really uncomfortable. That’s was the only time I was really terrified.
HB: Yeah. Did, I don’t suppose you ever saw the aircraft that —
GM: No.
HB: That did the attack.
GM: No. Never saw the aircraft.
HB: No.
GM: I thought it was a Fokke Wulf 190 that I saw a shape going away but I reported it as a Fokke Wulf 190.
HB: Did you lose, did the other plane, did we lose the other plane? The other aircraft. The first one that was attacked. Did we lose that one?
GM: I don’t know.
HB: Oh right.
GM: I mean he was way below us.
HB: Oh right.
GM: He was way below us.
HB: Right. Right. Yeah.
GM: And I saw the tracer but it didn’t see the plane he was firing at.
HB: Yeah. So, so you’ve been out there and you’ve gone through the flak and the searchlights.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You’ve done, or you’re doing your run to the target.
GM: The bomb run. It was called the bomb run at that time.
HB: What, did you have a job to do while that was going on? While the bomb run was going on?
GM: No. The only job we had to do was keep our eyes open.
HB: Yeah.
GM: For everything. At that moment the bomb aimer, the bomb aimer took over the plane.
HB: Right.
GM: ’Steady. Steady. Steady. Left. Steady. Right. Steady. Steady. Left. Right. Bombs gone,’ and the plane would go wumph.
HB: Yeah. It would jump up in the air.
GM: It would be up in the air.
HB: Yeah. And what would, because obviously you used to take photographs as well. Was that done automatically?
GM: It was done automatically.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: When the bombs were released, it was done automatically. We had some very good photographs of our bombs.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Especially in the daylight ones.
HB: Yeah. So, you’ve, you’ve dropped your bombs. You’ve turned away. You’re heading back.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You’re heading back home. So, what, what are you, what are you sort of experiencing now? What are you feeling now?
GM: Elated actually.
HB: Yeah.
GM: To think you’ve gone over the target, and you’re on the way home but you’ve still got to keep your eyes open.
HB: Yeah. Was that a bit, a bit risky?
GM: Well, believe it or not I think it was when we went to Monchengladbach, we [pause] we went over the coast and there was a flak ship firing at us. All of a sudden, the flak started out of nowhere. Flak in the night, and of course they were a burst of colours. They were sort of glowing, and this flak ship was firing at us, and you didn’t know that it was there until it happened.
HB: Right.
GM: So —
HB: And obviously they moved them about.
GM: Yeah.
HB: So, yeah you could never really predict where they were.
GM: No. No.
HB: Yeah. So then —
GM: Then —
HB: Yes. So, so you’re on the way back.
GM: Yeah.
HB: You’re feeling elated and you come in. You know you’re coming back to your airfield.
GM: Yeah.
HB: What was, what was your procedures for landing then as, as an air gunner?
GM: No procedure for me other than to keep, keep my eyes open because there were intruders at that time. There were intruders. You could be fired on as you were landing by the German, especially they used these JU88s as intruder aircraft and you had to keep your eye open right until, right until the moment you landed. But we didn’t. We were fortunate. We didn’t have it.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We did land on the FIDO twice which was a very, very strange and frightening procedure. I think Carnaby took in ninety six planes in about half an hour.
HB: Blimey.
GM: Because everybody was running out of petrol.
HB: Yeah. And of course, Carnaby was FIDO fitted, wasn’t it?
GM: Yeah.
HB: Yeah.
GM: There was three.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Woodbridge, Carnaby and Manston were the three aerodromes that were fitted with FIDO.
HB: Yeah. Blimey. Yeah.
GM: It was like diving into hell.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Because you couldn’t see a thing because of the fog. You couldn’t. Until you were fifteen feet from the ground you couldn’t see anything. The pilot just dived in to the, you could see the lights under the fog. And then when you got to fifteen feet you could see the ground.
HB: That’s low, isn’t it?
GM: It is low. Especially if the ground’s not your runway.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Yeah, but —
HB: So, just going back a little bit when, when you did all your training and, and all that sort of thing one of the things you would have probably have been trained to do was the procedure for ditching.
GM: Oh yes that was, we did that.
HB: Ditching over water and that sort of thing.
GM: We did that at 14 OTU which was at Bridlington.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And it was November. It was cold. It was snowing. And we went, got in the bus for dinghy training. We were taken to the harbour and there was a pile of Mae Wests on the floor. They said, ‘Right. Put your Mae Wests on. What we want you to do is to jump into the sea. Swim to the dinghy. Get in the dinghy. Turn it. Get out of the dinghy and turn it over.’ The next crew was, next ones would jump in to the sea. Turn the dinghy right way up. Get into the dinghy. Turn it over and come back. And I’m sitting there. I’m standing there thinking I’m going to be first. So, I grabbed the Mae West and I put it on. He said, ‘Who’s first?’ I said, ‘I am.’ And I realised that they’d got to put the wet, wet Mae Wests on when they came out. The people after us had to put the wet Mae Wests on and it was freezing cold. Of course, the Mae West was dry and I was a good swimmer, so jumping in and swimming out to the dinghy was no problem. One of the fellas with me doing it wasn’t a very good swimmer but he managed it, you know.
HB: Yes.
GM: He, he couldn’t help turn the dinghy over. Tricky to turn the dinghy over in the water, and it was cold.
HB: So, at what, if you were in an operations or doing this training.
GM: Yeah.
HB: At what stage would you actually inflate your Mae West? How would you do that? Or when?
GM: Oh, not until you were out of the plane.
HB: Right.
GM: You couldn’t, if you inflated your Mae West I wouldn’t have been able to get out of your turret.
HB: Yeah.
GM: No.
HB: So how would you inflate it?
GM: Pull a toggle. It had got a little lever. A little button like a, like a Boy Scout’s toggle.
HB: Yeah.
GM: It was on the Mae West and you just pulled it, whoosh.
HB: So, was it gas filled then?
GM: Gas filled. Yes.
HB: Yeah. Because so the Mae West must have changed because I think early on they must have blown them up didn’t they? With a tube.
GM: Well, you could blow it up yourself. It had got a tube on it so that if you were in the water any length of time you could top up the air in the Mae West. It was sticking out on the side.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You just grabbed it and blew in to it.
HB: Right.
GM: It was —
HB: So, I mean I mean you’ve got a crew of seven. Did, could everybody swim?
GM: I don’t know whether everybody could swim. Everybody was taken for swimming lessons to make sure.
HB: Oh right.
GM: One of the things we did at OTU we did was the swimming baths. We had, but I think most people in our days in school you all went to swimming every week at school.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You know, when you were nine, ten you all went swimming.
HB: Oh right.
GM: I was a good swimmer.
HB: Right. Ah. So on, so on operations on the Halifax.
GM: Yeah.
HB: I presume the pilot, the skipper would actually call for, you know warn you that you were going to ditch.
GM: That’s right.
HB: What would, what would then follow? Who would do what? Do you know?
GM: We would, everybody would, I would get into the rest position and the rear gunner used to get in the rest position and we used to brace ourselves. You had to put your arms, your arms, your head used to close your fingers and put it behind your head and sit like this in the rest position.
HB: You were crouched over. Yeah.
GM: Crouched. Well, sitting down.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you would tightly hold your head. I can’t put my arm up there now.
HB: Yeah [laughs]
GM: Used to put my head down and hold it. When we, when we pranged, that’s one thing we had to do, because you was careering across the runway and then you stopped dead.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: You know.
HB: So that, so if you were going to ditch then you would be in the rest area.
GM: That’s right.
HB: I presume the bomb aimer and navigator would then obviously have to come back away from the nose.
GM: Yes. Everybody would come back away from the nose or as many, and I think there was about six of us [pause] No. Five because I think the bomb aimer used to stay with the pilot to help the pilot on the crash landing.
HB: Yeah.
GM: But everybody else came to the rest position in the middle of the aircraft.
HB: Yeah. And you would have come out obviously if everything went right. You’d try and come out the door I presume.
GM: Yes. The door and then you’d have to swim.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Because the door was away. Was the nearest the tail.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: And the idea is you got on to the wing and the [pause] the dinghy used to throw itself out.
HB: Oh right. Yeah.
GM: The dinghy used to self-eject with the smash and the dinghy would, and it was tied and it was, we’d all got knives, and you had to, you had to make sure you’d got the dinghy tight, but you had to free it from the aircraft in case the aircraft went down.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: And then you’d pile into the dinghy. All of you.
HB: Is that something you wanted to avoid?
GM: Definitely. We, we never got, we never, never, never got near to ditching in the sea at all. Never.
HB: Yeah. So, yeah, I was, I was interested in that because a lot of people have talked about ditching, but how you actually got to that level of training and expertise is of interest.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Because some guys I’ve spoken to have talked about doing what they called dry dinghy training.
GM: That’s right. Dry.
HB: On the airfield.
GM: Dry dinghy training. We did that. That was at Conversion Unit.
HB: Right
GM: You did. It was one of the things you did when you converted from, we flew in Whitleys believe it or not. Whitleys [laughs] and changed to Halifax.
HB: Yeah. So, as, as the war, you know you came into the war sort of ’44/45. That time.
GM: Yeah.
HB: What, what changes, what were the biggest changes you saw, Gordon happen, happen?
GM: Master bomber.
HB: Yeah.
GB: That was the biggest change. The master bomber orchestrating the raid. He would bomb to the left of the green indicators. Bomb to the right. Take the bombs forward. And he did the instructions. ‘Don’t bomb in the middle two. Waste of bombs. Bomb on the edges. Bomb on the edges.’
HB: Yeah.
GM: Which spread the target area.
HB: Yeah.
GM: They used to put target indicators down as well which was marvellous. They would tell you what the target indicator colour was every day. Every time you went, ‘The colour of the day is green,’ so that the Germans would light up fake targets.
HB: Oh right. Yeah. Yeah.
GB: But if the, they used to change the colour of the target indicator. Sometimes green, sometimes red, sometimes yellow.
GM: And —
HB: And they were and the master bomber would call the height as well I presume.
GM: No. No. We were all the height we were given. We were told to fly at such and such a height which was between eighteen and twenty two thousand feet usually, at night. The master bomber, if the target indicator wasn’t on target he’d called up the backers up would obliterate that target indicator and they’d put another target indicator down and he’d say, ‘The new colour is — ’
HB: Right.
GM: Made up a different colour for the next target.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s, yeah. Yeah that’s —
GM: The whole time you were on the bombing run the master bomber was talking to you.
HB: Right.
GM: Every minute.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: ‘Bomb to the left of indicator.’ ‘Bomb to the right of indicator.’ ‘Bomb forward.’ ‘Bomb forward.’ ‘Take it more forward.’
HB: Yeah.
GB: In fact, on one of our trips we had to go round again because he moved the target and we’d already passed it.
HB: Oh right. Right.
GM: So, the skipper said, ‘We’re going around again.’ We only did it once, and that was a bit hairy because you had to go around and join the bomber stream again and come back in again.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s doesn’t sound nice.
GM: No. It wasn’t.
HB: No. So, so obviously the majority of the bombing that you did was at night but on daylight you must have done some daylight operations, well I know you have because there’s a couple in your logbook.
GM: Yeah. I did a lot of daylights.
HB: Yeah. What, what was your feeling? This might sound a bit strange, but what was your feeling about being able to see clearly what you were bombing?
GM: Well, there was, you could see the target. Especially if it was marshalling yards like Hazebrouck. It was, the target was very plain, you could see it entirely but the master bomber was there as well. He’d say, ‘Bomb to the right. Bomb to the left again.’
HB: Yeah.
GM: But —
HB: And what did, what was you, what was your overall feeling then as you’re seeing this target clear as day and the bombs are going down? What, what was your overall feeling on that?
GM: Well, the minute the bombs were going down you felt as though you had done your job.
HB: Yeah.
GM: You’d actually done your job so it was all you had to worry about was getting home. From the moment you dropped your bombs you already knew your course you had to take. The skipper and the navigator had all, had got that, were told that so that you immediately went on to that course, and then did a couple of dog legs before you crossed the coast again.
HB: And when you got, when you got, you obviously you, you end up with your end of tour, you know. You’re told that you’ve, you’ve come to the end of your tour.
GM: Yes. That was our last trip.
HB: Yeah.
GM: That was the worst trip we ever did. There was no side left of the plane, on the one side. All gone. I was just looking at looking at, just looking at metal. Bits of metal, and —
HB: So, so you had a bit of an escape there then.
GM: Well, yes because my, I hadn’t fired my guns so that the bullets saved me from damaging. It saved me from my leg getting damaged without a doubt because there was damage to the bullets itself because it took the whole, took the whole lot of the left-hand side of the plane out, from the front nose and there was a great big hole all the way to the tail and they, they hit us a lot of times. But the searchlight went out. We were still flying. I think if a Lancaster had had what we’d had it wouldn’t have made it, but the Halifax was, was so rugged, and it really was.
HB: Yeah.
GM: A very strong aircraft.
HB: Yeah. So how, when you say the ammunition saved you.
GM: Well —
HB: I hadn’t thought of this.
GM: Ammunition.
HB: How did, how did the ammunition get to the gun?
GM: The ammunition was here and here.
HB: Either side of your legs.
GM: Like four. And you used to feed the ammunition into the four guns. There were four panniers of bullets. You feed it into the guns, cock it and so you’ve got the first gun done. Then do the second gun, do the third gun, do the fourth gun. And these, these troughs as it were where the bullets were coiled up, and they were all here. Right here. And all the damage was there and the —
HB: So, yeah. So, from your thigh down you’ve got the bullet panniers.
GM: Yes. When, when we got home it was obvious that the bullets had saved my legs because I never had a scratch. Never had a scratch.
HB: So, the shrapnel obviously that ripped through the side of the aircraft was bouncing off the, it’s amazing they didn’t go off.
GM: Yes. Well, no because they were facing that way.
HB: Oh, of course.
GM: So yeah.
HB: Yeah.
GM: They were facing the point.
HB: Yeah. Yeah.
GM: They then made, the bullets were facing outwards.
HB: I see what you mean. So, that the angle of the bullet —
GM: Yeah.
HB: The shrapnel didn’t hit the explosive bit. It hit the nose.
GM: It hit the nose.
HB: Wow.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Well, that was a lucky escape surely.
GM: Yes. It was.
HB: Yeah.
GM: The CO came. Came out in his car. He took one look at the plane and he said, he said to [unclear] and Digby, ‘Well, Digby you’ve had enough. Call it a day. You’ve finished your tour.’
HB: Just like that.
GM: He said, ‘Because you’ve ruined another plane.’ [laughs] He said, I can remember him saying that.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And the next day we were, we were posted.
HB: But did you, did you actually get to go out for a last end of tour drink?
GM: No. Not really because we went to briefing and next morning we handed our, all our stuff in. The bicycles had to be handed in and everything. I think it took two days to get to, you had a, a leaving chit to fill in.
HB: Yeah.
GM: And you had to go to the MO. You had to go to the, all sorts. You had to go to all of these actions handing in this, that and the other thing.
HB: Yeah. Yeah. And that was it.
GM: That was it.
HB: That was it. Finished.
GM: We went to Kirby.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Never saw each other again.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We just, ‘Cheerio chaps. Have a good — ’and I was very lucky. I was posted to 1 Squadron. Spitfires.
HB: Yeah.
GM: Flying control.
HB: Yeah. Well, Gordon, I’ve got to say I could sit here all day. You know.
GM: Yeah.
HB: We’ve had a, we’ve had, you know well over an hour.
GM: We haven’t.
HB: And I really do thank you for that, because —
GM: I haven’t bored you to tears.
HB: No. You could never bore me, Gordon. But I’ve really appreciated it. It’s been a really good interview. I mean we’re coming, we’re coming up towards quarter to twelve so I think we’ll perhaps finish the interview there.
GM: Ok. One thing I would say to you, on our training there was one part of our training that we did when we were posted to Driffield and we were taught how to escape.
HB: Oh right.
GM: We were arrested at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were searched. We were given dungarees. Only dungarees. We were given a meal, and at 8 o’clock at night when it was dark, we were taken out in a truck and we were dropped two at a time in the countryside. This was on the Thursday and we’d got to get back to camp on Friday on Saturday. Get back to camp and Sunday was the day we should have been back by. And we were in Yorkshire. In the Dales. And you had to get, you had to fend yourself. You’d got no money. You’d got nothing to eat. Get back to camp. Teach you how to escape. We got on the bus and said to the bus driver, ‘I’m ever so sorry. We’ve got no money. Can we have a lift?’ He said, ‘Of course you can, lads.’ He took us. He took us to Scarborough. Took us to Scarborough. We slept under the, slept under the, slept on the beach. It was warm. It was summer.
HB: Yeah.
GM: We slept on the beach. We went to a, we went to a café and said, ‘Have you got any scraps that you want to throw away because we’ve got, we’re in the Air Force and we’re, we’re trying to escape and they’ve given us no money. And have you got any — ’ ‘Of course, you can. Come in’ We had a meal. A proper meal. We did that twice. Did that twice, and we got back on the Saturday. So, we got back. We had a, got on the bus again.
HB: You must have had some very caring bus drivers.
GM: We went to the bus driver and said, ‘Look, I’m ever so sorry. We’re in the RAF and we’ve been told that we’ve got to, got to get back to camp without any money. Is there any chance you can let us on the bus?’ He said, ‘Course, you can.’ And he dropped us at the gate.
HB: Oh no.
GM: And that was our experience of learning how to escape.
HB: Yeah. Right. Yeah. Yeah. I wonder how many buses there were in Germany and Belgium. Yeah. Yeah.
GM: Oh, well, you couldn’t ask for a ticket [laughs]
HB: No.
GM: Yeah. The only, only German I knew at that time was, ‘Hände hoch.’ ‘Put your hands up.’
HB: Yeah. That would come in handy I suppose. Yeah.
GM: That was the only German I knew.
HB: Yeah. I tell you that’s lovely. A lovely bit to finish on that Gordon.
GM: Yeah.
HB: Thanks ever so much. I really do appreciate it.
GM: Now, are we going to the pub?
HB: Well, the tape’s still running. Do I have to admit I’m taking you to the pub? [laughs]
GM: No. No.
HB: On the tape [laughs]
GM: We can close the interview if you like.
HB: I’m closing the interview now.
GM: Yeah.
HB: It’s a quarter to twelve.
GM: I wouldn’t mind —

Collection

Citation

Harry Bartlett, “Interview with Gordon Mercier,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 29, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/34735.

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