Interview with Les Rutherford. One


Interview with Les Rutherford. One


During this interview Les describes his experience as a despatch rider in France in 1940 before escaping from Dunkirk and returning to the United Kingdom, eventually joining the Royal Air Force. He also describes his training in South Africa and his experience of being shot down, interrogated and imprisoned in Stalag Luft III.




Temporal Coverage




01:18:12 audio recording

Conforms To


IBCC Digital Archive


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TJ: Right well I’m here today with Mr Les Rutherford at his home in North Hykeham near Lincoln. Can I call you Les?
LR: Yes you can.
TJ: Yeah?
LR: Certainly.
TJ: Where were you born Les?
LR: I was born at Wallsend on, near Newcastle on Tyne.
TJ: Oh right yeah and -
LR: I’m a Geordie.
TJ: Oh you’re a Geordie? Not much accent. Can I ask what year you were born?
LR: 1918.
TJ: 1918. Right. So um brothers and sisters?
LR: Yes I had three brothers and three err and four sisters, yeah.
TJ: And your parents? Did they, so you were born just at the end of the First World War.
LR: Just at the end. Just before -
TJ: Were your parents -?
LR: October.
TJ: Was your father involved in the First World War?
LR: He was in the navy.
TJ: And he survived?
LR: Oh yes, yes.
TJ: Jolly good.
LR: Yes, he survived. Yes he lived to a ripe old age as well. He was ninety seven.
TJ: Good for him. And so where did you come in amongst the siblings?
LR: I was the eldest.
TJ: Oh right so your father definitely survived then.
LR: Yes. [laughs]
TJ: Did your dad used to give you tales of the navy?
LR: Oh my dad was a great tale teller. We were inclined to disbelieve him. We used to think he was shooting a line half the time.
TJ: Really?
LR: Yes we used to laugh at him.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: But some proved to be true actually.
TJ: What, how old were you when you left school?
LR: I was fourteen when I left school.
TJ: And what did you do straightaway then?
LR: I lived with my grandmother who had a general dealers business and she died just a matter of weeks, a week or so before I left school and I’d often helped her in the shop to give her a break you know, and when she died I went into the shop to work. The funeral was going on and things like this and looked after things and then in her will she left the business to my mother. My mother came and took over the shop and I carried on err running the shop from then on. From, from fourteen, I carried on running the shop doing all the buying, selling and all the lot and it was hard work but it was a, it was a good business because it was right on the entrance to the big shipyard, Swan Hunters, in Wallsend. So in the morning we got all the passing trade from the workmen for their cigarettes and things like that and then we had good passing trade and a local trade it was marvellous, it was a very thriving business and then of course when the war began I was called up into the army and my mother said, ‘well I will go in the business until such time as you come home again,’ she said, ‘and when you come home when the war’s finished I will retire and you will take over the business as your own and pay me a pension.’
TJ: What had your dad been doing during those years?
LR: Well my dad was working.
TJ: What did he do?
LR: All sorts of things. He was um, my dad was a miner and he had a very bad accident down in the mines which stopped him doing that for a while and then he was went to work on the engineering works as various different things. So he was more or less a labourer.
TJ: I see.
LR: I think, you know he was basically a miner so when he went there in to the engineering works he was just doing anything that was going.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: He worked on building for a while, and bricklaying but then he went back in to the engineering works again.
TJ: So you got your call up papers for the army.
LR: Yeah.
TJ: What did you think of that? Was it what you would have chosen?
LR: No I would have chosen the RAF but um I wasn’t given any option.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: I was in the second batch of the militia which were, before the war there was a conscription scheme where they were calling youths of eighteen up for a period of military service and they called the first batch up and while they were doing their three months or so the war broke out so they went straight into the army and then I was in the second batch and I was called up in October and straight in to the army. No choice.
TJ: What, you were about eighteen then?
LR: I was twenty one then.
TJ: Twenty one by then?
LR: I was called up a week before I was twenty one.
TJ: Right. Yes.
LR: Spoiled my mother’s celebration party [laughs]. She wasn’t too pleased. She’d made all the arrangements.
TJ: I understand you were a despatch rider. Did that, did that start soon after? Or
LR: That started straightaway.
TJ: Straightaway yeah.
LR: That’s, that’s I went into the Royal Army Service Corps with the 51st Highland Division and after the basic training we went down to Aldershot and there we were allocated vehicles and I became a despatch rider.
TJ: Were you experienced at riding a motorbike?
LR: Oh we’d had motorbikes before the war. Yes, yes I was.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: So it was a natural thing.
TJ: Yeah. And where did you do your despatch riding?
LR: I like motorbikes yes. I enjoyed it.
TJ: Yeah. Whereabouts did you do the, the job? Did you
LR: Well.
TJ: You were in the England, or
LR: In France to start with. We um we went across to France in January of 1940.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: And then we, err I motorcycled across pretty much the whole of the north of France. We were stationed up in the north of France and I was all over the place up there of course on the job and then we moved across in to, on the German border. In Alsace Lorraine.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Near Metz and we were there when the Germans invaded and they moved the division across from there to positions in northern France to try and stem the German advance and then when Dunkirk took place, when they decided to evacuate the army, our division was left behind to fight a rear guard action to try and hold up the Germans while the evacuation took place and then when the evacuation took place they said that any troops left in France then should be given up as lost.
TJ: Really?
LR: Ahum and there were still some boats trying to get in. We were eventually, the whole, pretty near the whole division was, what was left of them, was surrounded in a place called St Valery.
TJ: Ahum
LR: And St Valery is famous for when Scotland with the 51st division, the 51st division was a purely a Highland division with a few Englishmen in it, I was one of them, and they were surrounded in this place and it was obvious they were going to give up the next day. We’d got to surrender. There was no choice and another chap and I decided that that wasn’t good enough and we put out in to the channel on a door and paddled away and we’d seen ships going in further along the coast and they were going directly into the place and then out, straight out and then forming a, and going away across towards England.
TJ: So was the sea choppy?
LR: No it wasn’t too bad.
TJ: Could you swim?
LR: Well I could swim. I’d done a lot of competition swimming and that sort of thing.
TJ: So it wasn’t too frightening.
LR: So, not for me um but this door it wouldn’t hold the two of us and just as we were getting on, on the door this chap informed me he couldn’t swim.
TJ: Oh dear.
LR: Which I thought was tremendously brave of him actually. And so he got on the door and paddled with a piece of wood and I got on the back of the raft and acted more or less as a rudder and a propeller kicking my feet and going away and we eventually got way out to sea and the next morning we were picked up by a -
TJ: Was this in the dark?
LR: This was in the dark. This was about um 10 0’clock about, you know between ten and eleven at night and um the next morning we were picked up by a French trawler and they picked us up and then later transferred us to an English vessel. Now, when they picked us up they took all my, they gave me a glass of hot rum to start with and that put me out like a light. ‘Course I’d had nothing to eat for about two or three days.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And then, they had taken all my clothes off and put me in a bunk and then they woke me up to say they were transferring me, and they wrapped a blanket around me, transferred me to the lifeboat.
TJ: And the other guy as well.
LR: And the other one, I assume. Do you know I never, ever saw him again.
TJ: Really
LR: No and I’ve often wondered how he fared because he was a bit, he had a bit of a job getting up on the, I know they threw a rope over but he was sort of stiff from the, paralysed from the waist down with sat on this raft all night.
TJ: Once you got on the fishing boat did you see him?
LR: No I didn’t.
TJ: Not even on the fishing boat?
LR: Not on the fishing boat no, the um, as I say -
TJ: Ahum.
LR: They gave me, they hauled him up first and then brought me up and they give me this glass of hot rum and it just knocked me right out.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And when I came too, when I was laid in the bunk and this chap was shaking me to say they were transferring me and they transferred me to the English ship.
TJ: What sort of ship was that?
LR: It was a big, a big cross channel type ship.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: With a lot of soldiers aboard which they’d picked up from further down the coast and um I, I contacted, after a while I went off to sleep again and then after a while I found the officer who was in charge of the lifeboat and asked him where my uniform was and he said oh we didn’t bring any uniforms. So I landed at Dover wearing a blanket and a pair of socks which this chap had given me and that’s all I had on [laughs]. Yeah so that’s, and that was the end of that adventure.
TJ: So after that how much longer were you in the army? How long was it before you transferred?
LR: Transferred. We was taken from there up to Scotland up in the Highlands and um I was up there until June of 1941. The um, meantime there was some, a notice had been posted on the unit to say they wanted volunteers for air crew duties and so I volunteered and I actually changed job in June of 1941. We went down to Stratford on Avon and we were initiated in to the differences in the drill and that sort of thing, given uniforms and oh it was absolutely wonderful. We got down there and we were billeted in the Shakespeare Hotel. We had
TJ: Nice
LR: Rooms with two to a room with sheets and beds. Beds with sheets on them.
TJ: Luxury.
LR: Oh absolutely we were sleeping on the floor for a couple of years [laughs] and um and then of course we went to initial training at Scarborough, in the Grand Hotel, afterwards.
TJ: Very nice.
LR: And then from there when we finished that course we were posted to Rhodesia which is Zimbabwe now.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: On a pilot’s course. And I passed the flying moth, the tiger moth flying course which was the initial flying course and then was sent on to twin-engined planes and I was just ready to solo on those when um the chief flying officer sent for me and said they were taking me off flying and when I asked why he said, ‘Your reactions are too slow.’
TJ: Oh.
LR: So I was absolutely devastated of course as you can imagine and I was sent up to Salisbury, this was down near Bulawayo. We were sent up to Salisbury, the capital and we were then billeted in a big hotel and I was in there with about oh I should think fifteen, twenty other men and they had all been taken off flying duties. One of them went around and asked where were we on ground subjects, you know, like navigation and things, things that, ground subjects - not flying and nearly all of us were top of the course or second top of the course and they then decided that because they were short of navigators or observers as they were then, because they were short of observers they, they had decided to take two off each course and put them on an observers course. Now whether that’s true or not I don’t know. But it salved their conscience a bit, made us look a little bit better. Well at least we didn’t fail [laughs]. But, and then of course from there I went down to East London in the Cape err to do the observers course which was, you passed three courses to be an observer. You passed as a navigator, a bomb aimer and air gunner. You had to pass all three courses and we did that successfully and then moved down to Cape Town to catch a ship home.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And came home.
TJ: Did you see much of South Africa while you were there? Did you have much time to go out?
LR: Not as much as I would like to. I would like to. I mean we were up in Rhodesia, up in Salisbury only a short distance in in their terms.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: From the [Niagara] Falls and the Zimbabwe ruins and never got the chance to visit them. I did get one weeks holiday while we were in Salisbury. Two of my friends and myself asked the flight sergeant of discipline if we, if we couldn’t have a week’s leave to see something of the country and he said leave it to me and the next day he sent for us. He said, ‘you’ve got to report down to the station and go to this err, get tickets to the Marandelles and somebody will meet you there and take you for a week’s leave on a tobacco farm’ which we did and we had a lovely week on a tobacco farm.
TJ: Did you? Yeah.
LR: Saw all the process right from growing and curing and all the whole lot.
TJ: Ahum. And did you smoke yourself at that time?
LR: Not at that time no. No. And then of course we went from there down to the unit. I would have liked to have seen more of South Africa. The journey up from, we landed initially in Durban and travelled from there up to Rhodesia. Now that travel, that route is now the scenic route, you know the great scenic route in South Africa that they all go and pay thousands for. That was that route. We went through all the old Boer countries Mafeking, Boer towns like Mafeking.
TJ: Yes.
LR: And places like that which we knew from the Boer war and it took us three days actually to go up there. And it was, it was wonderful.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Wonderful country South Africa actually.
TJ: So I understand yes.
LR: And the people were very, very good to us.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: The English people that is.
TJ: The settlers.
LR: Yes.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Not, not, not the Boers.
TJ: No.
LR: The Boers, well they used to beat the lads up.
TJ: Oh dear.
LR: Gangs of them. There was a union called the [?] which was, which meant the Brotherhood of the Wagon and, particularly in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and they used to watch out for airmen on their own and they would go and beat them up. And this happened regularly.
TJ: Oh dear.
LR: It happened to us. To my friend and myself. We happened to wander in, in, we were on the transfer down from Rhodesia down to East London. We spent a week in the transit camp between Johannesburg and Pretoria and we went, we got in to Pretoria to have a look around and we happened to wander into an area which was, we heard later, was noted for being [?] territory and my friend got slashed across the top of the eyes with a bicycle chain which was quite nasty. And err
TJ: Were you all right?
LR: I got off with a few bruises fortunately but I was, I was ok.
TJ: So let’s get you on the ship out of Cape Town. Is that right?
LR: Yes.
TJ: Yeah. To? Where did the ship go to?
LR: Went to Southampton.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: We arrived in Southampton and went from there. There was a party of us of course and we came back fairly quickly because we came back on an armed merchantmen.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: But we weren’t in convoy coming back. Going we were in convoy but coming back we weren’t in convoy and we landed at Southampton. On to Bournemouth and after a few days in Bournemouth we were sent up to Finningley which is now the Robin Hood airport.
TJ: That’s right. Yeah.
LR: And to start Operational Training Unit.
TJ: Did you get time to go and see your mum and dad?
LR: Oh yes, yes. We did get leave.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Yes. I had a nice pleasing incident actually because a very good friend of mine at home, we used to play in a band together um, he had been in Rhodesia as well and we ran across one another occasionally and we’d spend a lot of time together actually and while we were in Cape Town waiting for transit he came and in the meantime he’d passed the pilot’s course and he came and the day before we sailed and when I got home I was able to, I went to see his mother and she said, “Oh” she said, ‘Roy’s over in South Africa you know. Did you manage to meet him?’ And I said, ‘Not just meet him,’ I said, ‘I saw him just before we sailed,’ I said, ‘And he’s on his way home.’ Oh she was absolutely [laughs]
TJ: Lovely.
LR: Knocked out. Absolutely knocked out. Anyway when we got to OTU and when we got there the navigation officer got us all in his office and he said, ‘Now which half of you are navigators and which half are bomb aimers?’ And we said, ‘Well we’re all navigators and bomb aimers. We’re observers.’ So he said, ‘Oh well,’ and he counted us all up and he said, ‘you half there are navigators and you half there you’re bomb aimers.’
TJ: So it could have gone either way.
LR: It could have gone either way and err the big laugh of that was in my log book, on the results of the navigation there’s all the exam results in my logbook and the remarks at the bottom said recommended for specialist training after further experience. That was in navigation. They made me bomb aimer [laughs]. Rather typical.
TJ: So after Finningley then?
LR: After Finningley we went on a commando course on Barkston Heath for a week to toughen us up a bit and then we went to a Conversion Unit at Wigsley which is just outside Lincoln of course. In Nottingham I think or in Nottinghamshire err we did err I was with, oh excuse me. My pilot was on his second tour and he’d done his first tour on Hampdens and then later Manchesters. Now the Manchester was the forerunner of the Lancaster so all he had to do on the conversion course was not get used to the Lancaster but to get used to four engines and it didn’t take him long at all. And in actual fact I joined 50 squadron on the 1st of February of 1943 and I was there most of 1943 then.
TJ: Ahum so I understand you were a prisoner of war. What year did you, so you crash-landed in Germany.
LR: Yes we were shot down over Germany and I became a prisoner of war.
TJ: Tell us about, I read something about after when you were actually caught [guten morgen]
LR: Oh when I was, oh when they picked me up?
TJ: When they picked you up in the in the road.
LR: Yes well I’d been walking the day before. When I was shot down it was evening of course around about 8 o’clock - 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock time at night and I walked most of that night, or I tried to, I’d damaged of my leg.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: When the aircraft blew up and I damaged my leg and err.
TJ: How many of you got out?
LR: Only two of us.
TJ: Ahum
LR: I thought I was the only one but there were two of us and I walked as best I could that night and towards when it was just getting light I found myself in a small town, a big village if you like, and I was walking along and people were going to work and saying good morning to me.
TJ: Did they not look at the way you were dressed?
LR: Well they didn’t take too much notice. It was dark and I think they were used to uniforms and things like that and it was just a sort of mumbled ‘morgen’ or the way we would do is – ‘mornin’, you know and so I just ‘morgen’ and carried on and I managed to get my way out of there and on to the banks of a river and it was on the banks there were some thick bushes and I hid up in these bushes all during the day and it wasn’t very comfortable because it was, of course it was January err it was December and it was a bit cold and the next night I started to walk again and I was well on the way and I was way out in the country.
TJ: Where were you heading for?
LR: West. Generally west.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: To get towards France but not much hope mind you. I didn’t have much hope but at least you’ve got to try and the main problem was food and water of course. I had my escape kit which was just horlicks tablets. I, I was walking along this road and I heard a voice shout, ‘Halt.’ So I sort of tried the old ‘morgen’ but it didn’t work and it was three soldiers I think it was, two or three soldiers came up, and one of them shone a torch over me and I heard them say, ‘Oh Englisher flieger’ and of course rifles came off the shoulders and my hands went up and that was it.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: I was a prisoner.
TJ: Did any of them speak English?
LR: No. None of them.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: When I got -
TJ: Were they ok with you? They weren’t rough or anything?
LR: Oh yes, yes.
TJ: They were polite.
LR: They were ok. Yes. No violence at all. No.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: No. Not until I got into that place. I got the um they took me to a house and, where they were billeted obviously, and there was an officer sat behind a table. There was a stool at this side of the table which I sat on and he started to question me in very, very poor English so I pretended I didn’t understand him but then I caught, I was sat there and I got an almighty clout around the back of the head and knocked me off the stool, and there was a German stood there and he spoke perfect English. It turned out later that he’d spent a lot of time working in London and he, he started to question me and he said, He said, ‘You stand up when you talk to a German officer.’ and I thought, I stood up and he said, ‘Name, number, rank.’ I told him the rank at that time was flying officer and he said, ‘You’re not an officer.’ So I said, ‘Yes I am.’
TJ: Oh.
LR: “No you’re not,” he said. ‘Where are your badges of rank?’ So, I was wearing battle dress of course at that time and the badge of rank were on the shoulder. He said, ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘the badge of rank are worn on the arm.’ So I said, ‘No they’re not. Not with this uniform,’ I said. They’re worn up there.’ He said, ‘Where are your papers?’ I said, ‘I don’t carry papers.’ So he said when the Luftwaffe went over England he said they used to carry papers. I said, ‘Yeah but I’m not in the Luftwaffe. I’m in the RAF.’
TJ: [Laughs] Good for you.
LR: So he said, I might say that by this time I was beginning to get on talking terms with them. Once he’d found, not, not just quite then, he said um, I said what I do have is identity discs so I took out these identity discs to show him and they were stamped on the back – ‘Officer’., ‘So‘ he said, ‘you are an officer.” So I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh right”, he says, ‘you’ll be hungry and thirsty no doubt,’ he said, ‘I’ll go and get you something to eat and drink.’ And he went off and came back with a slice of black bread which was horrible.
LR: And a glass of lager which I’ve often said since was the best glass of lager I’ve ever had [laughs] it was, it was lovely and then from then on he and I got on very well together. He started talking about the rations and things like that. He said, ‘Oh the people, the people in England they’re rationed,’ he said, ‘they haven’t got any food. I said, ‘don’t talk rubbish.’ I said, ‘of course they’ve got, of course they’ve got food.’
TJ: Ahum
LR: He said, ‘But you’re rationed for your food.’ I said, ‘Oh that’s just a precautionary measure,’ I said, You want your pound of sugar, or you want two pound of sugar you go in and buy it [laughs] a quarter or half pound of butter yes, oh yeah, just go in and buy it,’ I said, ‘the rationing’ I says. ‘oh yeah it’s a precautionary measure.’ I said, ‘it’s your propaganda people that are trying, are telling you this.’
TJ: Do you think he believed you?
LR: I had him doubting. I like to think I had him doubting [laughs].
TJ: [laughs] So -
LR: So -
TJ: What sort of thing did they, did they try and get information out of you?
LR: Oh yes. Yes.
TJ: What sort of things did they want to know?
LR: Well while, while I was in, unfortunately the, the central interrogation centre for RAF personnel was in Frankfurt where I’d been shot down so I was sent straight to, to this interrogation centre Dulag Luft and put into solitary confinement. This was a psychological ploy that the Germans employed because when you’ve been in solitary confinement for a while when you come out you’ll talk your head off.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: You know and while I was in solitary confinement the chap came and said he was from the Red Cross and he wished to get news that I was safe to my relatives in Britain so if I’d just give him a few details and so he asked for my name, number, rank which was normal and then he said what squadron were you on. ‘I can’t tell you that’ I said, and then he started to ask me what aircraft were you flying, things like this. And this, he wasn’t Red Cross at all.
TJ: Yes I think you started to suspect he wasn’t Red Cross.
LR: Yes so this was one way of getting but then of course after a while they took you off for interrogation and they started asking me all sorts of questions. I gave them name, number and rank and wouldn’t give them anything else and the [noise off]. Oh that’s the post. They said, ‘Right, well, tell me,’ he says, ‘How was Squadron Leader Parks getting in to his new rank?’ Squadron Leader Parks was a flight commander on the, on the um squadron.
TJ: Your squadron.
LR: My squadron, yes. He’d been a flight lieutenant up to the day before I was shot down. He was now squadron leader. He’d been promoted to squadron leader.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And they knew.
TJ: Interesting.
LR: Yeah. And he then he shot several other little items to me and you know the idea was to shock you into saying, well and in fact he actually did say yeah we know all about you, you know. So I said well if you know all about me then you know I’m not a spy. This is what they were implying that you must be, you could be a spy you see. If you know all about me you know I’m not a spy and anyway I went off and I went back into the cell and then because it was nearly Christmas instead of being in solitary confinement for about seven days or a week or something like that or ten days they let us out early on Christmas Eve and put us, all the prisoners they’d taken, put us in a big room all in together and err -
TJ: Were you all British? Or
LR: Yes.
TJ: Other nationalities? Mostly British were you?
LR: Mostly British yes. Oh excuse me
TJ: So this was about 1943. Is that right?
LR: This was 1943. This was December 1943. As I say it was just before Christmas
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And then shortly after that we were transferred from there to Stalug Luft III. Crossed Germany in cattle trucks.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And that wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
TJ: I’ll bet.
LR: Because you get locked in these cattle trucks and there’s no sanitation or anything like that and most unpleasant.
TJ: How long did that take? That journey?
LR: That took just over a day. I can’t, I can’t really remember.
TJ: No. No.
LR: But you know the time went by.
TJ: Ahum. And then you pitched up.
[New person arrives in room interrupting interview]
TJ: So then you got to Stalag Luft III.
LR: Stalag Luft III.
TJ: Three. And did your heart sink when you saw it?
LR: Well it was more or less what we expected.
TJ: Was it?
LR: Yeah. We were greeted by all the prisoners that were already there. It was a new compound which I said before and they’d sent, I think we were the first, we were the first actual prisoners, new prisoners to go in there. They’d sent a group of prisoners from the other Stalags, from the other compounds to open this one up to get it ready for us for the new influx of prisoners and they were all old hands. A lot of them were people that the Germans suspected of trying to escape and err =
TJ: And yes which we all know from the film The Great Escape which is -
LR: At the cinema.
TJ: Was from that same prisoner of war camp.
LR: The main one was Wing Commander Tuck, you know, the great Battle of Britain flying ace. He was one of them.
TJ: Did he, was he one of the ones that escaped?
LR: No he was one of the ones who was in the camp when we got there.
TJ: Oh right.
LR: He was one of the ones who’d been transferred because of his activities I think. So
TJ: I understand that as you were officers they didn’t give you any work to do.
LR: No.
TJ: So you would spend your whole time trying to work out how to get out and working on escape plans.
LR: Well yes unfortunately the camp that we were in, the compound that we were in was all sand underneath and water. We tried digging a tunnel and we ran into water and we we couldn’t get a successful tunnel going under because of the water.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: But it did have one outcome. A tale which I’ve told a few times. The, we had a wireless. Now this wireless -
TJ: Where did you get that from?
LR: It was made up of parts. We had some very clever men in there you know.
TJ: Sounds like it yeah.
LR: And um it was taken to bits every evening, every day and then at six, oh to get the news at 6 o’clock at night it was assembled in secret somewhere with [?] all over the place.
TJ: Ahum
LR: And we got the 6 o’clock news from the BBC and then it was taken to bits again and the parts distributed among various men so if any part was discovered we could perhaps replace it and they wouldn’t find the whole lot. So this happened. There was a vital part went missing and we had these goons, the Germans, we called them goons, we had them, we were friendly with them more or less and we used to bribe them with cigarettes and soap to bring stuff in for us, odd little items like you know bring an egg in, a couple of eggs or something like this. Some onions or, odd things they’d bring in. So we approached one of these and said would they bring this wireless part in. No, no too dangerous, you know, so I must explain that some of these guards were special. They had, they went around the camp, they didn’t do any actual guarding. What they did, they went around the camp looking for trouble. They would walk into a room and look around to see if everybody, nobody was doing anything clandestine you know.
TJ: Right.
LR: And so we approached one of these and if they found something important they were given a week’s leave and promotion so we approached one of them and said could he bring this wireless part in and he said, ‘No, no.’ So we said you show us where, you bring that part in and we’ll show you where there’s a tunnel. So oh alright. Oh, ‘yes, yes.’
TJ: Bribery.
LR: So off he went see and we bodged this tunnel up, the one that had flooded, bodged it up like the real thing and showed him this when he came in with the part, showed him it, he went off and brought the camp commandant and the camp commandant was a recent addition, of course, to the camp. He was a new one and he came in and he was all cock a hoop oh he was going to find us and the usual sort of palaver and so he was happy, the goon got his week’s leave and he was happy, we got our wireless part so we were happy so everybody was happy all around. [laughs]
TJ: That’s a lovely story isn’t it? And I expect he got his promotion as well.
LR: Yes.
TJ: Yes yeah so I mean life in the prisoner of war camp it must have been a bit boring was it?
LR: I was fortunate in as much as I played guitar.
TJ: Oh right.
LR: And we had a camp band. A very good camp band in actual fact. We had some very accomplished musicians. The leader of the band used to play with Billy Cotton.
TJ: Really?
LR: Before the war, yes. He was lead trumpeter with Billy Cotton and we had some other good, really good musicians and when I first got there I was in hospital with my knee for a while and the same night that I was shot down our wing commander was shot down and his navigator who I was friendly with was in our camp and he was actually saving a bed for me in the room that he was in and he told this band leader that I played piano, which I did, for sing songs.
TJ: Ahum
LR: Sort of pub piano type playing you know, and I’d taken lessons and that but I wasn’t very good. So the band leader came to see me and said you know, he said, the pianist is not very happy in the job, you know, would you take over and I said well I’m not a band pianist, I said. I’m a pub pianist, I play for singsongs and things like that. I said no. I said, but I do play guitar and he said oh we’ve got two guitarists in the band now so he says you know that’s it and then the next day a gentleman came to see me, West Indian and he said. Oh he said I understand you play guitar, you know, and I said yes and he said, band guitar and I said yes. And he said well I’m the guitarist lead guitarist in the band but I don’t like playing in the band very much he’s says I’m more for calypsos and West Indian rhythms and he said if you would like to take over in the band he said I’d happily hand the guitar to you but I would like to borrow it every now and then just to keep in practice you know and I said well that’s fair enough then, that’s good and so I went into the band and that gentleman was Cy Grant.
TJ: I know that name.
LR: Have you heard of Cy Grant?
TJ: I remember Cy Grant.
LR: It was Cy Grant.
TJ: Wow.
LR: And occasionally I would take the other guitarist’s guitar, Cy would take mine and we would go and find a quiet spot to sit and I would show him the band rhythms and he would show me calypso rhythms and we’d have a bit of a sing song together but you know with playing but it was a case of how long you could do that without somebody coming along oh that’s great, can you sing this? Do you know such and such a tune? So it absolutely took -
TJ: When you had, when you played the band did the guards come and watch as well? Come and listen?
LR: Who?
TJ: The guards.
LR: Yes, they did. They did. They used to invite the commandant to the band shows that we did.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Oh he was invited. We used to do, we used to put shows on regularly and we would invite them along and very often some of the sketches lampooned the Germans and they laughed as much as anybody [laughs]
TJ: Really.
LR: Oh aye yeah.
TJ: So they do have a sense of humour.
LR: Oh yes, yes.
TJ: Did you -
LR: A funny sense of humour but -
TJ: Yeah.
LR: They would laugh at some -
TJ: Just out of interest did you have any contact with Cy Grant after the war was over?
LR: After the war was over I went to see him. You know he was touring with oh, Stop the World I Want To Get Off. That -
TJ: Ahum.
LR: That show. He was going to Nottingham and I took my daughter.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: She was about sixteen or seventeen at the time and oh she was absolutely thrilled to bits and I went and saw him there at the, went to the stage door and he came out and we had, we had a good long chat.
TJ: Lovely.
LR: And another incident with that was while I was at work I was telling someone about this and this chap came to me one day he said I was in such and such a station he said, I just forget which it was and Cy Grant was on the station, he said, so I went to speak to him and I went and told him that I worked with you. He said, you know, he told him that I work with Les Rutherford and Cy said, ‘Oh Les how’s he doing?’ and you know all this sort of thing and this chap thought he would say Les Rutherford, who’s he?
TJ: Yeah. That’s great that’s great. Interesting. So we’d better go back a bit um Stalag Luft III and how long, how many months were you there altogether?
LR: I got there in about the January.
TJ: January ’44.
LR: Of ’44 and -
TJ: And you were liberated by the Russians.
LR: We were liberated by the Russians
TJ: When would that have been then?
LR: In April of ‘45.
TJ: Right so -
LR: So just over a year.
TJ: Just over a year.
LR: Just over a year.
TJ: About fourteen months.
LR: And then they held us for a good long while.
TJ: Really? They wouldn’t let you go.
LR: They wouldn’t let us go no. I don’t know why.
TJ: But then were you held in the same sort of conditions? Did they, did they take over the role of jailers?
LR: More or less. More or less. When they, when they took over, they promised us all sorts of things. Oh we were going to get wireless sets and food and all sorts of things but none of it materialised. We still relied heavily on Red Cross parcels.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And um which weren’t very forthcoming in actual fact because I mean the German transport was in chaos so um no we were still virtually prisoners of war.
TJ: So when you did leave, was it organised? Did you all get on coaches and leave the area and -
LR: Coaches? [laughs]
TJ: [laughs] Right. I mean buses.
LR: No.
TJ: Or cattle trucks.
LR: That’s more like it. The um the Russians took us in their lorries to the, to a river. I think it was the Elbe. To a bridge. We got out of the lorries, walked over the bridge and there were American lorries waiting on the other side and the American lorries took us to their camp. It was an old German airfield and we had to wait there till, there were a lot more people there of course a lot more prisoners and we had to wait our turn for an aircraft to take us back home. In the meantime we were living off American rations and that it was absolutely wonderful.
TJ: I bet it was
LR: We got in there and oh white bread. White bread and bacon and eggs things like that.
TJ: Did they have any chocolate?
LR: Chocolate oh yes and films and you know, everything.
TJ: So you were quite happy with that?
LR: We had about, about a week there. We were itching to get home.
TJ: I bet yeah
LR: We had about a week there and then they were flying the Dakota aircraft from there to Brussels and we landed in Brussels and then they said, there some official came, and said if you want to spend the night in Brussels and go and see the town there’s money available to give you, to give you pay. Give you money. But if you want to go home there are some aircraft, a few aircraft waiting on the airfield and they’ll take you. I opted to go home and got onto a, it was a Lincoln bomber actually, the sort of bigger version of the Lancaster and they flew us back to this country.
TJ: Where did you land? Do you remember?
LR: I think it was Cosford but I’m not, I’m never quite, I’m never quite been sure about that.
TJ: Ahum
LR: I think it was Cosford but we had misgivings about what our welcome was going to be because we’d had two or three letters had been published. We used to have a camp newspaper and we used to publish excerpts from letters.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And um some of them were like one in particular I remember was a girl who wrote and said that she was getting married and she said, ‘I’d rather marry a 1944 hero then a 1942 coward.
TJ: What did she mean by that exactly?
LR: We were cowards. We were cowards because we were prisoners of war.
TJ: War.
LR: We’d given up you see.
TJ: Well she obviously didn’t know what she was talking about.
LR: There were several letters in that vein.
TJ: That must have been devastating.
LR: It was.
TJ: For you.
LR: So as I said we wondered what the reception would be when we got back home. We needn’t have worried because we stepped on to the tarmac and there were a crowd of WAAFs waiting for us. It was about, I think about 10 o’clock or so at night. It was still light of course it was June [by the time it got quite dark] and we sort of marched across the tarmac with a WAAF on each arm and went in there to be, to be fed and the other nice thing was there’d been a dance on and the band were just packing up by the time we’d eaten and what not it was about 11 o’clock and the band was just packing up and somebody told them about us being there and they put their gear back up together again and played for another hour so we could have a dance.
TJ: Oh how lovely.
LR: Yeah.
TJ: People can be lovely can’t they?
LR: So that was, that was nice.
TJ: And did you, so you were around Cosford area you think.
LR: Yes.
TJ: And then how long before you were allowed to actually go home?
LR: About the next day I think. Very quickly. The, we had experienced German, Russian, American and now English efficiency and the English was far, far superior to all the others.
TJ: Well that’s refreshing to hear.
LR: There was no red tape. We were given, we were deloused, put a tube put down with powder and stuff and deloused and we were given passes and things and shoved on the train and off home like. Just like that.
TJ: So was that the end of the war for you or did you have to be debriefed or anything like that?
LR: Oh I had to be debriefed. Yes
TJ: Before you went home or did you come back for that?
LR: I think we came back for that.
TJ: How long did you have at home then?
LR: Oh I was home for about six weeks or something like that.
TJ: I bet your parents were pleased to see you.
LR: Not particularly. They [laughs] no don’t get that wrong. On the way home, when I was stationed down here I had an aunt and uncle in York and my aunt was the pastry cook in the De Grey Rooms at York which were very famous reception rooms and I used to stop at York, get off the train and go and see her, go and have a word with her. I used to go down the back way in to the kitchens and she would get a meal on straightaway. The bacon and eggs went on as soon as she saw me and then I would pop back and get the next train up to Newcastle and so this time I did the same. She sat me down for the meal and then she said, ‘How long is it since you heard from home?’ Oh I said I hadn’t heard since about you know about the middle of last year. I said letters weren’t coming through. So she said, ‘Oh you won’t know then.’ Now, I knew then that my mother had died because she was seriously ill with cancer.
TJ: Oh how sad. How sad for you to find out like that.
LR: Yes but at least it prepared me.
TJ: Yes.
LR: For getting, for going home. I was able to get myself composed a bit.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: And, of course, while I’d been away my mother and father were separated. So my father wasn’t there. He was away somewhere else. So -
TJ: A bit of an anti-climax for you coming home then.
LR: It was.
TJ: Not what you’d expected.
LR: And the -
TJ: Not what you’d envisaged.
LR: And the thing was, you know I said we’d had the business?
TJ: Yeah.
LR: Well my mother had appointed two so called friends as executors and they’d fleeced the whole lot and the place was bankrupt so I didn’t have a very good homecoming.
TJ: No.
LR: Really.
TJ: What about your siblings? Your younger brothers and sisters.
LR: Well my younger brother was um, he was killed in the RAF. The next sister down was, she had a mental breakdown. She had epilepsy I think although they didn’t say that at the time.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: In those days and she was in a home. The next sister was just turned eighteen and she’d joined the WAAFs, not the WAAFs, the WRNS and the younger sister was trying to run the business and that was where these executors stopped in and took over. So I had quite a mess to sort out when I got home.
TJ: I bet you did. Yeah.
LR: And I had two younger brothers. I had four brothers and three sisters. That was right. Not the other way but
TJ: And were they still at school.
LR: They were still at school but without any supervision or anything like that they’d been allowed to run wild and one of them was actually on probation. He’d acted as a lookout for some kids that were burgling somewhere and he’d been caught. He was on probation. Well I nearly went mad over this you know. I went, I went up to see the welfare officer eventually. I couldn’t do anything with them. They were absolutely wild. They’d got in with this wild crown. One was ten. One was ten, the other one was eight and they were absolutely wild so um as I say, no one was eleven that was it, eleven and ten, eleven and ten. I went to see the welfare officer and said look if I don’t get these kids out of this environment they’re just going to end up in jail. I said what can I do? Have you got any advice? I said could I send them to a private school somewhere away so they said well you couldn’t afford it. So with the fees for the school but he said but there is a scheme started by the old Prince of Wales for a farm school but it means sending them either to Canada or Australia and he said it means that if you sent them you probably wouldn’t see them again cause in those days the travel wasn’t what it is now so you probably wouldn’t ever see them again so he said it’s up to you.
TJ: So what did you do?
LR: I sent them.
TJ: Where?
LR: To Canada.
TJ: Canada.
LR: And they both did remarkably well.
TJ: So it was a good thing to do.
LR: Yeah the, the elder one, he joined the air force. Went as a navigator in the air force and then became one of Canada’s leading aviation artists. And the other one he joined the air force and actually he was a mechanic with the Canadian equivalent of the Red Arrows.
TJ: And did you see them again?
LR: Well I’ll come to that. And he became a master carver. You know they’re great on these wild imitation ducks in Canada. You know where you’ve got to make them sort of sit on the water and everything like that and he won prizes all over the place and became a master carver and he did some wonderful carvings of birds and things like this and he used to send me photographs of them. And he got married and then divorced and then he got married again and the elder one phoned me up and he said, ‘How do you feel about being best man for George?’ This was the younger one. At his wedding? So I said, “Oh I don’t know I really can’t afford the fares over there at this time. “ He said, well he said if you come over he said I’ll pay your fare over, so.
TJ: What year was that?
LR: 1985. So I said well I will have to talk it over with my wife first because I won’t come without her and we’ll obviously have to raise her fare, you know and we’d only just moved in to this house in actual fact or were in the process of moving. So anyway, my stepson heard about this and said, ‘You must go and I will pay my mum’s fare.’ So both fares were paid for so we were very lucky because we were struggling a bit I must admit. Anyway we went over there and they kept it away from my younger brother. They didn’t tell him that I was going and the day after we got there they’d arranged a party there what they have in a local pub sort of thing a little bit different from ours well they’d arranged a meal there and it was my nephew’s 21s t birthday and they said it was a party for him for his birthday. So they got there, all bar my wife and myself and my nephew and they were all sat down and the elder brother John lent over to him and said, ‘I’ve got some news for you.’ he said, ‘I can’t be the best man at your wedding.’ Well the wedding was the following Saturday and he said oh God why not ,why not and by that time I was walking to the end of the table and he said well I thought maybe this guy could do it instead. ‘Jesus Christ it’s Les.’ He leapt over the table and -
TJ: Lovely.
LR: It was. A very emotional moment actually.
TJ: I bet it was yeah.
LR: It was good. It was good yeah.
TJ: Was that the first time you’d seen him since.
LR: The first time I’d since him since.
TJ: 19
LR: 1946 yeah. Nearly forty years.
TJ: Did you write all this time?
LR: Oh yes I got regular reports from various farm schools about their education and what they were doing and general behaviour and things like that and then when they reached sixteen they were fostered out to families and they took up reputation, took up a positions not necessarily farming but took a job. As it happens they went into the air force and
TJ: And you corresponded all those forty years.
LR: Yeah.
TJ: With them direct. Yeah. Actually to be honest we ought to go back a bit. Actually Les just back pedal a bit to before you were shot down over Germany to your time with Bomber Command. So how many I think they call them sorties don’t they? How many did you fly? Do you have a number?
LR: Yes. I flew, I was shot down on my twenty third.
TJ: Twenty third. Right. And was that a good number?
LR: Yes fairly good. Fairly good.
TJ: And were you always going over, was it always over Germany?
LR: Not always. I did some over Italy.
TJ: Oh right yeah.
LR: And a couple in , a couple in the beginning I did in France over the u boat pens.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: And a couple of mine laying trips as well.
TJ: So, do you keep in touch with old comrades? Apart from Cy Grant?
LR: Well of course he died.
TJ: Yes.
LR: Yes I was, the only one that I was really in touch with was our old rear gunner. But I wasn’t with my own crew when I was shot down.
TJ: Oh.
LR: I was flying, the bomb aimer had got sick and I flew in his place.
TJ: Right.
LR: And got shot down. So, which happens. But my old rear gunner he finished his second tour actually and he went to live down in Budleigh Salterton in Devon, near Exeter and we used to caravan, my wife and I, and we used to take the caravan and we used to take the caravan down there and go and visit him and also when we got rid of the caravan we used to go self catering and we’d make a point of going once a year down to Devon and seeing Frank.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Now when I stopped driving of course I couldn’t go anymore and we sort of just used to get odd phone calls and that was all and then gradually his phone calls began to get odd. His wife died and from then on he began to get bit funny and he began to get dementia I’m quite sure and we were nearly frightened to call him up because we’d called him up and he didn’t know who we were, you know.
TJ: Oh.
LR: He said, ‘Les? Who’s Les?’ You know, and he didn’t know who we were and then quite suddenly out of the blue we got a call from him quite lucid, chatting away quite merrily so we don’t know what to make of it.
TJ: What did you do for work after, after the war?
LR: Well I tried a couple of jobs. Travelling. Took a job travelling the whole of the south of England from the Humber down and that’s how I came to Lincoln. My first wife was Lincoln. We came to Lincoln as a centre so she could be at home and whatnot because I should be travelling a lot. And the travelling, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t -
TJ: What were you selling or something?
LR: Fancy goods.
TJ: Oh right yeah.
LR: I didn’t get on with it. I wasn’t a salesman.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And then I took a job with Lincolnshire only, with United Dominions Trusts the merchant bankers and I wasn’t doing too bad with that but then they sent for me at head office and said they were going to move me down to Worthing. And I said well I don’t want to go to Worthing. They said oh you know you’ve got to move we’ve made our minds up and I said well don’t I have a say then?
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And they said, oh no you’ve got to go. I said, oh I said, now, I said, when I was in the services they said I had to go away then but since I came out of the services I said I do what I want to do.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And they said well it’s a case of either move or resign so I said, ‘Right, I resign as of now.’ Which I did. So on the way down I was going down the lift with the head clerk and he said I should think again because they’ll not change or anything like that. He says, what has happened is one of the directors sons has come out of the army he says and Lincoln is a rich prospect for him he said and they want him to take it over so I said I’m not having anything to do with that.
LR: So I came back. I was on the dole for about oh I should think five or six weeks. I applied to go back in to the air force. Didn’t hear anything and I was absolutely fed up. Somebody told me they wanted men on machines at Clayton Dewandre’s, a local firm. So I thought right well I’ve got to do something and I went down there. They trained me on a machine and I worked there for the rest of my working life. About -
TJ: What were they making?
LR: Mainly brakes. Power brakes and car heaters.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Mostly.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: Power brakes for lorries and things like that before power brakes came in to cars and things.
TJ: So you told me you’ve been married twice and how many children have you got?
LR: I had one.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: And my wife had one. I had a daughter Marion who unfortunately died about six years ago and my wife’s son is doing very well. He’s the chief engineer up at the, chief maintenance engineer at the university. He’s got a good job. His wife is a midwife sister at the hospital working her socks off.
TJ: Right. So do you have any thoughts on the way Bomber Command was treated after the war? Did that -
LR: Oh yes.
TJ: Is that something that struck a chord with you?
LR: Yes it did indeed. We were completely ignored after the war. When Churchill made his speech of congratulation, thanking the people he thanked all the armed forces except Bomber Command and all the chiefs of staff all got knighthoods and what not. Sir Arthur Harris got nothing and we were absolutely ostracised and people called us gangsters and, you know, air gangsters and all this sort of thing and we were absolutely horrified.
TJ: I’ll bet.
LR: In fact I say now even the government can’t give us even now but they’ve been forced more or less in to giving us a clasp as recognition for Bomber Command you know the clasp that goes on the medal.
TJ: Yes.
LR: It’s a cheap bit of tin. You know the clasps that they have on medals -
TJ: Yes.
LR: They’re usually nice silver sort of things engraved, all the lot.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: This is a cheap bit of well it just looks like a cheap bit of brass.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: With Bomber Command written on it, stamped on it.
TJ: Why exactly, I don’t know too much about it but why do you think Bomber Command -
LR: Largely because of Dresden.
TJ: Ahum.
LR: You know because of Dresden was bombed after the -
TJ: Yeah.
LR: But then so were a lot of other cities.
TJ: Coventry.
LR: They said Dresden was such a lovely city and all that sort of thing but Dresden, they bombed it because Stalin asked them to because Dresden was the main jumping off point for all the troops from Germany going on to the eastern front.
TJ: Yeah, carry on.
LR: And also there were a couple of munitions factories there. So in actual fact there was a legitimate target but they were saying, what these purists are saying is that there was no need to bomb it to such an extent. After the war, as what we did.
TJ: You were following orders.
LR: Just following orders. I mean.
TJ: Yeah.
LR: Churchill ordered it, he actually ordered the bombing when all’s said and done. When Stalin requested it it still had to go through Churchill hadn’t it?
TJ: Of course.
LR: And he just washed his hands of us altogether.
TJ: Not good. It must have -
LR: But members of Bomber Command feel very bitter about that.
TJ: I’m sure. Well thank you very much for sharing all these memories with me Les.
LR: Quite alright.
TJ: I think I can finish here and say goodbye.



Tina James, “Interview with Les Rutherford. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 2, 2023,

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