Interview with Eric Varney

Title

Interview with Eric Varney

Description

Eric Varney completed 28 operations as a mid upper gunner with 207 Squadron from RAF Spilsby. After the war Eric worked as a bus driver, coal miner, long distance lorry driver and coal merchant.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-06-29

Contributor

Hugh Donnelly

Rights

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.

Format

00:51:39 audio recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AVarneyE150629

Conforms To

Transcription

AM. Ok then Eric, this interview is being conducted by the International Bomber Command Centre and the interviewer is me Annie Moody, obviously you are Eric Varley and this interview is taking place at MrVarneys’ home at Wath Upon Dearne on the 28th no, the 29th of June 2015. So if we start can you just confirm your date and place of birth?
EV. My date of birth was February 25.
AM. And where were you born Eric?
EV. West Maldon in fact about three or four hundred yards from where I am living now.
AM. And what sort of thing, what did your Mum and Dad, what was your family background?
EV. Well, my Dad was a miner all his life, he lived to about seventy one. My Mum lived to about the same time, she died of pneumonia and that’s it, well I had three brothers, there were four of us, all lads.
AM. Were you youngest, oldest?
EV I was the second oldest, the older one he later joined the army. I served with the RAF, my next younger brother served with the RAF and the youngest brother served with the RAF.
AM. All four of you?
EV. All four of us passed for Grammar School as well, broke a record.
AM. Excellent, so how did you come to be in Bomber Command then?
EV. I just decided I wanted to fly. So I went to Sheffield and joined up, well asked to join the RAF. Every day for to months I came home from work and said to my mum, have they come? Eventually my papers came and I went for an interview at Birmingham, near Birmingham, yes Birmingham.
AM. What was that like, the interview?
EV. I have never been to, apart from Huddersfield and Cleethorpes this was the only place I had been to before that. So it was a bit of an adventure but I enjoyed it, went down all right. Then later I got the papers to join the RAF and then I had to go, I’m sure it was to St Johns Wood, London where we were in flats,accommodation flats that the RAF had taken over from the public I should imagine. Then we went through all the necessary medicals and injections and whatever. Went to Lords cricket ground for exercise and to the Zoo I think it was, to the Zoo where we had our meals, carrying the cups and knifes and forks. [pause]
AM. How long were you there for?
EV. We were there about four or five weeks, I forget, maybe six weeks. We went on guard at the gates of the flat complex, you could hear the ack ack guns going and whatever when the raiders were coming over London. Then we got posted from there, I’m sure I went to Bridgenorth in Shropshire, we had to white wash the pebbles outside the huts, it was very strict, very, very strict indeed. There we done basic training marching, gun shooting on the range and just basics, yes that’s right, went there. Our Sergeant, Sergeant Leech he was about the smartest Sergeant there, he was brilliant I’ll never forget his name, Sergeant Leech.
AM. What was brilliant about him?
EV. He was smart and he was good, there were maybe four or five could I say platoons of men, each with about thirty or so in and each had, each Sergeant in charge had to go and report all present and correct when we were on parade each morning. Sergeant Leech he were good, yeah, he were good. Anyway after that we got posted then to Walney Island that’s near Barrow on Furness to number ten Air Gunnery School there we did flying on Ansons piloted by Polish pilots mainly. They were good they used to chase sheep over the hills.
AM. In the planes?
EV. They were good lads and we used to extend drones of course out of the back, and we used to fire guns at them. There used to be two people beside the pilot on each take off, so then one used to wind out the drogue and the other used to shoot at it with the guns.
AM. How did they decide you were going to be an Air Gunner?
EV. I asked you know, if I could be an Air Gunner. After seeing one or two films on local television before I joined up. Yeah I wanted to be an Air Gunner. When at AGS Air Gunnery School at Walney Island we did photo recognition, aircraft, all aircraft English and German on slides. So we did dismantling breech blocks from guns blind folded because we wouldn’t be able to see what we were doing, and with gloves on, so we could take them apart and reassemble them in the dark. So we would have to do that before flying but I never had to do that. We used to have to practice it, we used to have a kitty, six pence each into the kitty, “should I say that?”
AM. Yes carry on.
EV. The quickest person to do it, won the kitty. That’s where I met my other Air Gunner, David, Gwyn David Morgan Watkins, Welshman by the way. I expect you got that from the name. We stayed together all the way through the rest of our RAF career, yeah we did virtually, yeah. Yes so after that we got postings to different squadrons well his initial being W.Watkins and mine being V.Varney next to each other in the alphabet really. So we got posted together which was good and we went from there and went for training, “where did we go? I just forget where we went.” Anyway we went to RAF Station and there, what they did they posted maybe forty Air Gunners, twenty Pilots, twenty Navs, twenty [pause] Bomber Aimers, twenty Wireless Ops so that, and eventually you just crewed up by having a meal together or sitting next together in the Mess whatever. Gunners usually stayed in pairs.
AM. Why?
EV. Well you come through your training together so you stayed together. So me and Taffy started so we more or less picked a bloke and said Bomb Aimer, you got your brevet and your sergeant tapes.You got your brevet so you got talking to a chap and you thought he seems ok, “are you crewed up?” “No.” “Ok would you like to join with us?” From that I think it was mostly Gunners I think what did the crewing up first and then you looked round for a Pilot eventually, you have got to have a chauffeur, So yeah and that’s how you crewed up. All but the Engineer, you didn’t have an Engineer at that stage because we were only going to go on Wimpies which don’t have an Engineer. Because it is only a two engine job, your Pilot has already flown two engine jobs. After that when we did our basic training on Wimpies we moved onto Stirlings, there we picked up an Engineer, so there was a total crew of seven then. Stirling, not a very good aircraft but we managed. Then after that we moved onto Lancasters at another Lancaster Finishing School, I just forget where that was, somewhere near Nottingham but I can’t say for sure. After the Lancaster Finishing School then you were posted to a Squadron.We got posted to 207 Squadron at Spilsby and from there we started on Operations.
AM. What year was that, when would that be Eric?
EV. That would be around Christmas time, er, Christmas time forty four.
AM. Christmas time forty four.
EV. Cause I was only nineteen then, anyway after that we just carried on doing ops until the end of the war.
AM. When you say we just carried on doing ops, can you remember your first one, what was that like.
EV. I can remember the first one yeah, because I didn’t go with my own crew. They were a Gunner short on a crew, can’t just think of the name now. I went as a spare bod on that crew and they frightened me to death[laugh]. They had a rubbish Nav to be honest and he never kept in line. They were first fifteen degrees to port and twenty degrees to starboard then fifteen degrees to port. He could never keep on line in the stream, you know in the stream we should be in. Anyway having got back I went, I was on for the second night, so I objected and I said I would prefer not to go, I didn’t go. Anyway I carried on with my own crew and I put our survival down to one person, the Nav. We had a brilliant Navigator, he was brilliant. Never off the track, always cool although he was Scot, but he was good and that is what I put our survival down to. Always in the bomber stream always there, its only the stragglers I reckon that got picked up mainly.
AM. What was it like being in the bomber stream?
EV. When we were flying out,we normally when we were going over France and that way across to Germany. We used to fly down, I think, down towards Reading. The first guy used to fly out over the sea and next one a bit less until all the squadron were airborne then we would fly down and you would see thirty or forty aircraft. It were daylight maybe at that time or just getting dusk and em you used to think, what will it be like when it gets dark, and there is another ten, fifteen squadrons joining us to make a total of five hundred. At times you could look up from the turret and see aircraft above, you could nearly count the rivets, used to be, when you were over the target because it was so light from below. So you used to ask the Skipper to turn either to port or starboard just a little bit, to avoid him dropping any bombs on you. It were pretty crowded over the target at times, but er, fortunately we, we got away with it. Only once did we go over the target several times and that were at Dresden. The Bomber Aimer did not put the heater switch on for the bombs so we couldn’t release them. When he released the bombs, nothing happened, well when he tried to release the bombs, nothing happened. We made two or three approaches before, and that made us behind the total. The skipper was thinking about fuel so he could not push on too fast because we would not have had enough fuel maybe to get back, because they did not allow you too much fuel, you just took enough for the journey at normal speeds. Anyway we did make it back ok safe and sound, a bit late but safe and sound.
AM. What happened to the bombs?
EV. Eventually he got them off, yeah when, after he put the switch on, oh yeah they did, he took, but they had frozen up with moisture and freezing temperatures.
AM. So the heat switch was to stop that happening,that he should have put on?
EV. He should have put that on but he didn’t and once coming back over the Channel another slight incident, we were only maybe two and a half thousand feet and the engines cut. The Engineer had switched to the wrong tanks and that was only on the quick thinking of the Pilot who said tanks, switch back and managed to start the engines. After that Rem advised or made the Engineer go on a three day refresher course. He was very strict our Skipper, if we had smoked he would have shopped us, no doubt. He said I am going to get you there and get you back in one piece, he was a New Zealander by the way, “What else?”
AM. No,no it is quite interesting just knowing the detail that you can remember, It’s fascinating. You showed me a photo earlier that we had taken a picture of. Was that the same crew that you were with all the way through?
EV. Yes, yes
AM. I will get the names of you afterwards then I’ll get the names of all the crew to go with the photograph.
EV. We stayed together as a crew all the way through. After the war when we finished flying the Bomb Aimer did tell me that he trained as a Navigator, fell out with his crew and retrained as a Bomb Aimer. So in actual fact we had a partly trained Navigator on board as well as a Bomb Aimer, as well as another Nav which were good. That’s what he did, he fell out with his crew and he retrained, he went to Canada and retrained as an er,Bomb Aimer. Yes so.
AM. How many operations did you do?
EV. Twenty eight.
AM. That was a full tour, just under?
EV. Yes, yes the war finished then.
AM. You said you have been to Dresden, where else did you fly, can you remember?
EV. Leipzig, Cologne, er [Pause], Dortmund Ems Canals, Frankfurt, Leipzig that was a bad one, we lost quite a few on Leipzig. Eh.
AM. From your squadron or from other squadrons?
EV. I’m sorry, ten hours twenty was the longest and that was to a place in front of Russian advance, what do they call it now, some petrol, oil refinery place eh, I can’t just think what they call it now. Ten hours twenty that was the longest trip.
AM. What was it like being in the plane for ten hours twenty?
EV. Well we had heated suits and heated gloves,well gloves that pressed onto your shirt, or onto the cuffs of your flying suit with press studs and on your shoes you had slippers insoles that went onto clips on the bottom of your trousers and you plugged the whole lot into the aircraft. So you got heated suits, so, the only thing that wasn’t, that was open to air was your eyes. You know we had helmets on, oxygen masks and clothes of course, so your eyes, but you used to get icicles on your eye lashes from the moisture from your eyes. You used to also get icicles on the bottom of your oxygen mask because I think the coldest temperature we recorded was minus sixty three which is cold. Its not sixty three that is fahrenheit which is not as cold as sixty three centigrade, but it were cold and so we had about four pair of gloves on starting with the, I think the chamois leather, silk, a pair of ordinary gloves then a pair of leather gauntlet type gloves, so plenty of clothing.
AM. So how did you manage to operate you guns with all that lot on?
EV. Well you got to use them, yeah you had four pair of gloves on. You needed your gloves and everything and your feet sometimes your feet, you finished up with one foot frozen the other one on fire ‘cause suits were not all good eh. We had chocolate, they gave us chocolate to take to eat but before we set off there was a little tray in the turret and you had to break it up first because if you didn’t it would have been frozen up solid. You get a chocolate bar with maybe a dozen pieces, you had to break it up and put it in your tray so you could get with it your gloves and get a piece and pull your oxygen mask of, put it in. It used to be in your mouth for about ten minutes before it started thawing[laugh] it was so cold. Yeh, on the way back the Wireless Op used to come down with a flask or cup of coffee so we could have that coming back. We used to put our hand like that from turret, he used to pass, I used to put my thumb into cup, into coffee[laugh] and then used to have a drink, yeah.
AM. So where were you, were you Mid Upper?
EV. Yes, because our Skipper would not let us out of the turrets at all, no.
AM. Why not.
EV. Well that was our place to be and nobody moved, [laugh] yeah. You had to go to the toilet before you went and whatever, so. Nobody roamed about, only the Wireless Op on the way back he used to bring me and Taffy a drink.
AM. Where was Taffy then?
EV. He was in the rear turret, well Joe used to go along onto, you’ve seen them inside have you? Down that front toilet, he used to stand on toilet, what do they call toilet Els? I just forgot what they call it, but it was. Used to stand on that and then had to slide down to the rear turret and Taffy used to open his rear turret you know put it central and open his doors. He would pass him a drink through, yeah.
AM. How did you, where did the coffee come from, a flask?
EV. Flask! oh yeah flask. We had nothing to drink going until we was on our way back and Joe used to do that, Rem would let him come down and bring us all a drink.
AM. Then what would happen when you landed after having been on a plane for that long?
EV. When we landed, transport used to pick us up and take us in for briefing, de briefing and eh, get coffee, cigarettes whatever you know and then after that it were bacon and egg and bed [laugh]. Yeah after briefing, used to have a briefing as to what you had seen, what you hadn’t seen, tell them how things had gone, everything. You all used to say you know, there used to be an Officer there interviewing everybody, asking questions and then off you went to bed.
AM. Ready for next day?
EV. Or same night. ‘cause it were morning then weren’t it? As we were coming back you could see the American Air Force going out if it were daylight. Yeah they were going out as we were coming back. Could see all the vapour trails from them, but they were very high, they used to get height in England I think before they left, cause there were all vapour trails behind them and when there were three or four hundred of them. You see them now, see odd ones, see half a dozen, you see a lot [unreadable] you see three or four hundred maybe, all going in the same direction, because they used to fly more in a formation because it was daylight. They used to keep together because they used to fly in daylight. Then they had an aircraft, what do you call it on patrol, fighter.
We went on a few daylights but er, there weren’t a lot, Cologne, Dortmund Ems Canal, on daylight, well we did I don’t know three of four, half a dozen.
AM. How different was that, to going at night?
EV. Not a lot because you didn’t, in fact they were better really, because you could see other aircraft that were round you which you couldn’t at night, it were all. My eyes used to stand out like chapel hat pegs when you were at night, staring just staring. Looking all the time, you know looking, looking, looking. Our instructions from the Pilot was Rear Gunner and myself we had to er, speak to each other every about five minutes unless he was in conversation with Navigator or anything else. We had to keep talking to each other to make sure we were not asleep. From my position I could see Taffies guns when they were pointing high. I could see his guns if he was scanning that way, rather than that way I could see his guns moving but eh yeah, we, we had to keep in touch with each other all the time. That was Pilots instructions and what Rem said went.[Laugh]
AM. How often did you actually use your guns, shoot your use your guns?
EV. We didn’t while we were on operations, we never had to, we never had to. We got flack through the aircraft, we never got a fighter in touch that we had to fire at, never, either of us, we were always in middle of airstream thanks to Navigator, that were the main thing I reckon and we didn’t wander of. They picked the ones from the outside with the fighters. I mean I have talked to German Pilots during the war er, what do they call him and his Navigator, they had the Shoory Musik (HD.Shrage Music) type aircraft with the guns upward firing. They put six Lancasters down in half an hour, yeah.
AM. When you say you talked to him, you mean after the war?
EV. Oh yes, in recent years while we have been going on these German trips. We must have been ten times, we’ve done several places in Germany. Last time we went, we went, they even took us to the place where they made the eh,[pause] you know the rocket fuel, “I forgot name of the place now” North east Germany, very east, it were in eastern Germany after division after the war and it were “began with S.” They made the rockets there as well, the ones that were flying over London, you know the Doodlebugs.
AM. Was this, who did you go to Germany with then after the war?
EV. After the war we went to Germany as a group for Doncaster Air Gunners, we formed a group there were maybe, originally there were about twenty seven, eight of us. We got in touch with the Germans and for twenty years we, alternate years we went to Germany and the other year we hosted them. We went to several German Night Fighter places and met some guys just like ourselves, maybe older because as a hole because they were Pilots and took, they had been training two or three years before they went into action. We only did about four and a half months before I was sergeant or so, that were difference. Yes we went to Silverheim that was one place, one near Rostok that near Baltic and they hosted us on their camps. The one near Rostok had been under the Russians until Germany were reinstated as a full country, I mean East Germany and West Germany it goes under East German rule. There you could still see the bullet holes on houses and damage that had been done during the war and that were thirty years after the war.
AM. How did you get on with the Germans and what sort of things did you talk about?
EV. They were fantastic, yeah, I have still got three people that I send cards to yeah. One in Bremen, one in Hamburg and one who were a POW here and married an English girl and lived here for thirty five years and then went back to Germany. He was good for translation having spoken English for thirty odd years. They treated us, we always stayed in Officers Mess quarters on the German camps. Sometimes they put us up in hotels, same as we did. Sometimes we had them at Finningley, early on but later on we had to find accommodation, we took them to different hotels and hosted them for three or four days, hired coaches and took them round to see the sights of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, whatever. There were one German Pilot, he got shot down and landed in the North Sea, Herbert Thomas was his name. I will never forget Herbert, although he was a German his name was Herbert Thomas. He was shot down in the Chanel or North Sea, he got rescued and in appreciation for the chap in the boat that rescued him and giving him a cigarette, he gave him a watch. He gave him his watch did Herbert he gave him his watch. Now I should say maybe ten or twelve years ago from now that watch was given back to Herbert Thomas by the fellow who had it all those years. Yeah we arranged that, that were arranged by[pause] part of the Doncaster Air Gunners Group and gave him back the watch that he had given. That were done at Bridlington, when we had the Germans over at Bridlington.
AM. What made you in the first place go and meet the Germans?
EV. Well, ok how it started really was there was an aircraft shot down, a British Lancaster shot down and “I am just trying to think hard.” Oh yeah, there was only one survivor in this aircraft. I’ve got photos of this, I were looking at them yesterday. This airman, I have just forgot his name now, he was caught up, the local people caught him. There was a chap, a German army guy, he took him because they wanted to do our airman harm, you know the people of Germany. He took charge of him, handed him to the proper authorities so that he would be a POW and no harm would come to him. Well in later years this German person, I can’t remember his name now, can’t just think of his name, he built a Memorial in the wood where this aircraft came down. Every year he used to put flowers and whatever on this memorial. Well what, we got in touch with him, I just forgot how it happened. We got in touch with him and he invited us over to go to see this Memorial, which we did and from there on it developed into us being a bi annual event. We kept going over to Germany and that’s how it started the first thing did. We contacted the German Luftwaffe and it just escalated from there. With their ex flyers and us we got together, but that’s how it did started. An aircraft got shot down and they wanted to lynch this airman who got caught.
AM The Bomber?
AV Yeah, oh you can understand to a certain extent, the army guy, “I forgot his name” he took charge and handed him into proper authorities so that he were a POW. Yeah he was the only survivor from that aircraft and that were it. Yeah that’s how it started with that.
AM. You still keep in touch with some of them now?
AV Yeah, yeah, yeah, so
AM What happened to your brothers I think you said one was RAF, the other two were Army.
AV. My older brother Army, he’s still around but at the moment he is more or less bed fast, he is two years older than me. My next younger brother, Raymond, he was in the air force, he went for his two years, military, training after the war and he stayed in for twenty four years. Unfortunately he died about ten years ago and my younger brother he went for his two years but only stayed in for two years in the RAF. He came out, he’s still around, I was on the phone to him this morning [laugh] So that’s all of us.
AM. You all survived the war?
AV. Yeah but other two were younger they didn’t go in war. They just went up you know when they used to call people up for two years. They went for that two years but Raymond stopped in for twenty four.
AM. What did you do after the war Eric?
AV. After the war I went bus driving, yeah, bus driving for four years, ten years down the mine, worked at the coal face. But I promised my Dad who was a miner all his live that I was just going down for ten years. I went down for ten years and three months and came out, got a nice home together and that was it. After that I went on long distance haulage which I loved yeah, after that twenty years, twenty five years hard work as a coal merchant, that were me finished. Retired when I was sixty two and carried on part time until I was eighty nine[laugh].
AM. Doing what?
AV. Working at race course.
AM. At Doncaster?
AV. Doncaster, Wetherby,Ripon,Thirsk,Wetherby,Newmarket,Haydock Park,Market Rasen I worked them all[laugh]
AM. What did you do?
EV. On security, on some security I were working with Judge, Stewards and photo people, you know camera people. Also worked on car parks, that was since I retired, when I was sixty two, but I have finished work now.
AM. How old are you know?
EV. I’m. eighty nine, ninety in five weeks
AM. Off course, fifth of August.
EV. Yes
AM. And what about Bomber Command now then, what about the way people view Bomber Command?
EV. Well, they always, a lot of people did not like the Dresden trip. Not the RAF people but other people said that Dresden should never have been bombed, but eh I think it were a legitimate target, same as all the others. I mean they didn’t think that when they were bombing London, Hull, Coventry and our cities, so yeah, I mean yeah I still think the RAF do a good job, I do really. We’ll not get on to deal with politics [Laugh]
AM. Maybe not, maybe not. Anything else you can think of?
EV. I have enjoyed my life, enjoyed my life.
AM. Good, and still do, you are coming out with us in October to see the Spire?
EV. Yeah, after the war I visited my other Gunner in South Africa, Taffy, went and visited him for three weeks. The Pilots been over to England from New Zealand, he has been over about four times since the war, so you know, yeah. I still phone the Pilots wife in New Zealand, the other Gunner Taffys’ wife in South Africa, the Bomber Aimers wife in Warrington, the Wireless Ops wife in Cottingham, Hull. So I keep in touch with them as much as I can. Yeah, I do phone them, I were talking to err, Sheena at Hull only a couple of days ago and Chrissie at Warrington I talked to her a week ago yeah.
AM. So although it was only a couple of years of your life its lasted right through to now. You noted that you still keep in touch with people right through to now.
EV. Oh yeah, yeah. Rems wife came over with him a couple of times not every time but a couple of times, he also brought Betty with him a couple or three times. We have had reunions in Hull, reunions in Edinburgh with the Nav and whatever, so.
AM. And we have the photograph with them all on, I’m going to switch off now Eric but if we get that photograph will switch back on while you tell me who they all are.
EV. Yeah.
AM. Ok so we have a photograph of Eric and his crew which we have taken a copy of and Eric is going to talk through who they all are.
EV. Top left Ronnie Moor, Bomb Aimer, next Jim Henderson, Engineer, next one is Ren Waters, New Zealand, Pilot, Malcolm Staithes is next on the top Malcolm Staithes, Wireless Op, Taffy Watkins, Gwyn Davies Watkins Morgan, Navigator Ian Stewart next then myself Eric Varney bottom right.
AM With a big grin on your face.
EV. Yes.
AM. Wonderful thank you Eric.

Collection

Citation

Annie Moody, “Interview with Eric Varney,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 16, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/3510.

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