Interview with Thomas Waller


Interview with Thomas Waller


Thomas Waller volunteered for the Royal Air Force and hoped to be a driver. However, he undertook training as an armourer and was based initially at the Special Operations Executive 138 Squadron. He was posted to RAF Stradishall, RAF Wyton and RAF Warboys. He returned from leave on one occasion and had just arrived back on the station when a massive explosion occured. He helped to develop and test target indicators with Professor Cox. He recently undertook research into the details of a Halifax crash to make sure the airmen were remembered.







00:56:09 audio recording

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DE: So this is an interview with Thomas Waller. It’s at his house in Swanland. It’s the 27th of the 10th 2015. Approximately 10 past 10. My name is Dan Ellin and this is an interview for the International Bomber Command Digital Archive. So Mr Waller could you please tell me what you did before the war and before you joined the RAF?
TW: I left school when I was fourteen. Worked on the fish docks. I left there when we came to Swanland in 1936. I went to work at the Blackburn’s which is now British Aerospace at Brough. I couldn’t stand being penned in there so I came and worked in the local village grocery shop. Wednesday was our half day so when I was in town one Wednesday I went in to the recruiting office and joined the RAF. I came home. Mother said, ‘Why did you do that for? You’ll not pass your medical.’ So I said, ‘Ah. Let’s see.’ So I went for my medical and passed A1. And she said, ‘Well you couldn’t have done.’ But I never found out why. So I joined up. Went in for MT driver but I’d joined up just at Dunkirk and they’d lost a lot of armourers in Fairey Battles so I became an armourer. Hadn’t the vaguest idea what it was – came home on leave, home and my brother he was a flight engineer. Ground crew. I said, ‘What’s an armourer?’ He said, ‘Oh guns and bombs.’ ‘Oh I don’t want to do that. I’m not doing that.’ He said, ‘It’s good pay. Good promotion.’ I said, ‘Money’s not everything.’ Anyhow, I went. Got on the course. And the lad next to me said, ‘Well, I don’t want to do this.’ So we filed up and down. Up and down. The tutor came around and said, ‘You two can stop messing about. Get on with it because we know you can do it.’ So we did. So we passed out flying colours so went out there in the armoury after it had finished. An officer come along and says, ‘Those whose names I call out please step forward.’ My name was called out. Go for fitter armourer to Credenhill in Hereford. So my mate said, ‘We didn’t want to do that, did we?’ I said, ‘No. But we’ll have to go won’t we?’ So we went and we enjoyed it and we got through that course alright and then I was posted to Stradishall. 138 Squadron. SOE Squadron. I wasn’t there very long because Tempsford was its main base and they decided to put all the SOE section together. So they transferred me to Wyton. But instead of Stradishall sending me to Wyton they sent me to Upper Heyford. So, when I got there they said, ‘Where have you come from?’ I said, ‘Stradishall.’ ‘Well you’re not supposed to be here mate.’ I said, ‘Well I have a railway warrant for here.’ ‘Well, we’ll fetch you up a bed for the night and feed you and see.’ I was there for a week and then they said, ‘We’ve found out where you should have been. You should be at Wyton.’ So they said, ‘Get your kit ready and come down to the orderly room tomorrow morning. Half past eight. We’re flying you over in an Anson.’ Oh, I thought lovely. My first flight. Here I go. I got to the orderly room. ‘You’re going by train.’ It’s got a snag. They took me to the station. Stood there. Thought got to get rid of him and make sure he gets on the train. So when I got to Wyton they said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘I’ve been at Upper Heyford.’ ‘Well what did you go there for?’ I said, ‘Well that’s my railway warrant.’ You know. So he said, ‘Well have you come through King’s Cross?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said. ‘Have you been stopped by the police?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘We’ve got them at your house looking for you.’ So I said, ‘No wonder my mother was agitated.’ So I settled down there and then, you know [pause] I eventually got to Wyton and the lads said, ‘Oh you’re our new armourer are you?’ So, I said, ‘Yes sir.’ They said, ‘Right.’ So we got settled in. Got working on the aircraft and then came home on leave. Got back off leave. Just got to the guard room and there was a terrific explosion. All the people came out the guardroom, the guard chaps. There’d been an explosion there, hadn’t there. Now had I been, not been on leave I wouldn’t be here now. So I’m one of the lucky ones and the billets at night with all the empty beds. It was really horrible to see it, you know. So we plodded on. Carried on. And then I was transferred from Wyton to [pause] from Stradishall. I went to Wyton and from Wyton I went to Warboys. To 156 Squadron. Start of Pathfinder force. And then they transferred over to Upwood and I went over to Upwood. And then I was there till 1946 and I was sent to a satellite drome near Stratford on Avon. With a dummy four pounder in the bomb dump, fifty rifles in the armoury. I was a corporal and there was me and another lad there with nothing to do. So when demob come I was glad to get out. But if I’d been on a proper station I would have stopped in because I really enjoyed the life. So I came home. Went back to my job in the village. And then at that time I was engaged to a WAAF in London so I got a job with Barclays Baking Machines. Went down to their factory in London and trained to be a mechanic. Service mechanic for the area. So we came back home again. But my lady friend said, ‘I’m not going to Swanland to live.’ So that brought that up. So I did it but I had to give it up because I didn’t have the money to buy a car or a motorbike and doing all the villages. And I walked from Holme on Spalding Moor to Easingwould carrying a wooden box with all my kit in. And I were going, and I went to one place, Newbold. And you’re allowed an hour and a half to service a machine and when I got there I had a new blade to put on. There were only a bus in the morning and one at night [laughs] so I panicked. I got it on. So I gave the manager my address. I said, ‘If anything happens send me a telegram and,’ I said, ‘I’ll come over,’ you know. Anyhow, everything was alright, thank goodness. So, but it was having walking from one village to another and buses it was that awkward so I gave it up. And I came back to the local shop again. Met a local girl and got married. And then I went to work for a local multiple store. Cousins. Down in Ferriby. And I used to go into the shop on the corner, a big shop on the corner where, down where we lived on a Sunday morning to do the bale machine for him and sort his yard out for him. So one day he said, ‘Would you like to come and work for me? I’ll give you a pound more than what you’d do down there.’ A pound in them days was a lot of money. And I had four children then. So I said, ‘Oh yes. Yeah.’ So I came and I was there for nineteen years. And then he brought his nephew into the business and of course he fell out with everybody. Fell out with me. It was horrible to work in. I was fifty five then and I thought where I go from here. Anyhow, Everthorpe Prison was advertising for a canteen manager’s assistant storeman. So I applied for the job. Went for the interview and then I got a letter saying no. The other man was there. He’d been a manager but I’d never been a manager. Anyhow, on the Monday they rang me up. Was I still interested in the job? I said why. Well the manager walked into the canteen on the Friday dinnertime and walked out. He said, ‘I’m not doing this.’ So he said, ‘The job is yours if you want.’ So I did nine and a half years there and took early retirement. So then my hobby was decorating. So I had a little business decorating.
DE: Right. I see. So you, going back to when you were working in, in the grocer’s shop and you had your early day off on Wednesday afternoon.
TW: Yeah.
DE: Why did you decide to join the RAF?
TW: I just did it on impulse. No real reason. I just, I just thought I’d go, you know. My brother was in the RAF so maybe that was one of the things as well, like, you know.
DE: Did you consider any of the other services?
TW: No. Never. If anything it was always going to be the RAF. So I got what I wanted but I didn’t get the job wanted.
DE: No. Because you wanted to drive.
TW: I wanted to drive. Yeah.
DE: Why. Why did you want to drive?
TW: I was always interested in driving and I learned to drive when I was at the village shop so. But I never passed a driving test. Because when the war came in 1939 just, just as I was taking mine and I’d only done driving down country roads and I did my test in the town. And I’d never been in front of a policeman before. And in Hull, there was a street in Hull where it was just a snake of people because when we had the ferry you’d see people going down , down the outside to the ferry. The policeman was waving me on you see and saying, ‘You’ve got to go hadn’t you?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, They’ve got to move for you,’ you know. He said, ‘Well, your driving’s alright but you need more experience in the town.’ Well the war came so I kept my licence going and it became a full licence after the war so –
DE: I see.
TW: So me being a clever man, I taught my eldest son to drive. So I said to him, ‘Well we’ll finish you off at a driving school because I’ve never passed a driving test.’ So I got these people to come. So I said, ‘No. I’ve never passed a driving test. But,’ I said, ‘I’ve done my best so will you take him and finish him off.’ So they went and they came back and they both got out the car and folded their arms. He said, ‘You taught him to drive.’ I thought – here it comes. He says, ‘We can’t fault him anywhere. We don’t know how he didn’t pass the test. He said, ‘We’re putting him for his test straight away because he’s brilliant.’
DE: Wonderful.
TW: I always say to him now, ‘Now you didn’t listen to what I said to you? Did you?’ He borrowed my car once. He said he wanted to follow the RAC rally. I said yes. It was in November and it was snowy and icy. I said, ‘Go to Harrogate and Howard House but whatever you do do no go on the moors.’ ‘Ok dad.’ 3 o’clock in the morning a neighbour came down, ‘They’ve had an accident.’ ‘I’ll kill him,’ I said, ‘I’ll kill him when he gets home.’ Looked out the window when I heard this wagon outside a few hours later. Looked out. I said, ‘Look at my car. I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.’ ‘Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.’ I said, ‘What did I tell you?’ ‘Well.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘But when you was driving the car you were in charge of the car. You should have done what I told you.’ So every time we go up on to the moors there’s an archway. ‘That’s where I had my crash dad.’ I said, ‘Don’t keep reminding me.’
DE: Oh dear. So the RAF didn’t want you to be a driver. They sent you on the armourer’s course.
TW: Sent me on the armoury course because at that time – Dunkirk and we’d lost a lot of armourers on Fairey Battles apparently. So, and they were short of armourers so that was it.
DE: So what did the course entail?
TW: Well, it entailed making little parts for guns and that and then you sort of went on to turrets and how to look after guns and how to sort the turrets out and that, then finished that armourers course, called out outside. Then this officer calls through, ‘These names please come forward.’ So we stepped forward. We all went to be fitter armourers. I went to be fitter armourer. Should have been general if I wanted to go on bombs but I was just fitter armourer but I ended up doing everything. You know. Bombing up and everything. So [pause]
DE: And what was it like on an, on an operational station?
TW: Oh it was fantastic. The spirit amongst the lads and that. Yeah. They were brilliant. And the aircrew were brilliant as well. Especially if they’d been in a hangar for a service. You saw the pilot, ‘Are you going up for a flight? Can I come with you?’ ‘Yeah.’ So, the first time I went up it was in a Wellington. Well that was by mistake because it had been in the hangar for a service and they took it out on to the airfield and revved the engines up and then they usually took the crew down to the dispersal points. So I thought well I can go down. Get a lift back. So I went and I thought he’s revving his engines up. Well it was running up. ‘I haven’t got a parachute.’ ‘Don’t worry. None of us,’ there were two other bods there, ‘None of us have parachutes. Don’t worry.’ So any chance after that I got. So the Lancaster was next. So I said to the pilot, ‘Are you going up?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I went with him. So I was felt real happy and light headed. I thought oh this is lovely you know. I got a tug on my leg and this chap said, ‘How long have you been up there mate?’ I said to ten. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘Plug this into the intercom. Plug this in to the oxygen because if we come down quickly it’ll blow your ears out.’ Got on to the pilot, this, told him I was up there. So, anyway and then we got out over The Wash. I thought – panic. Only one engine. I thought, what’s happening? What’s happening? So when we got back I said, I said to the pilot, ‘How did you manage to fly on one engine?’ ‘Oh don’t worry.’ He said, ‘That Lancaster can fly on one engine.’ He said, ‘Guy Gibson’s done it.’ I thought, I said, ‘Thank God for that.’ I said. But he said, ‘I’d forgotten you was up there mate. It’s a good job the chappie saw. Saw your legs hanging down. Because,’ he said, ‘It put me in a spin because I could have damaged your ears if I’d come down too quick.’
DE: Where were you? In the mid-upper turret?
TW: In the mid-upper turret. Yeah. Lovely. Lovely sight from out there. And then when D-day started we was called out because previous to D-day – well about six months before we took all the front turrets out of the Lancasters because it gave them twenty five miles an hour more speed. So when D- day started we was all called out of the aerodrome to put these turrets back in again. Drizzling with rain. Just getting, it was just getting light. So I was out of the nose of the Lancaster guiding this turret in and the sky turned black. And all these aircraft come over with the white markings on and I shouted, ‘D-day’s started, D-day’s started.’ The most fantastic sight. So, we got, we got all the turrets put back in again. We had to – the time I was in the pilot’s cockpit. No scaffolding. Health and safety today would go up the wall because the only scaffolding they had was for the engine people. So you had to climb out over the and crawl along a little but to the turret to guide it in and check if you wanted. If anything had happened inside. Check nothing loose. It was moving slow. Check that there were no oil leaks. So you had to take the cover off and check the oil pipes and that and put it back on. They’d grab you by your collar and turn you around and you’d go back in head first.
DE: That sounds like a really interesting job that.
TW: It was. It was really good. I really enjoyed it. As I say had I been on a proper ‘drome when the war finished I would have stopped in. I did really enjoy it.
DE: What other sort of things did they have you doing then?
TW: Being a gunner armourer I should never have been on bombs. But I was put on to a bombing up crew. I mean I didn’t know anything about the fuses or anything but I was putting fuses in and then we got – when we got Mosquitoes they couldn’t get four target indicator bombs on. So I had to shorten the tails till we could get four target indicator bombs on. So we got that sorted out.
DE: What were target indicator bombs like then?
TW: They were, well I think they were about two hundred and fifty pounds and that and they had about a hundred candles in. So when it dropped all the candles came out and should have burned but they didn’t. But we’d be, we got pressed for – Professor Cox came down and we helped him to perfect this so that when they dropped if they snapped everything burned. So we used to go to Thetford Forest. Got it on to a Lancaster. Go to Thetford Forest. Wait for it to be dropped. Go and see. Our fourth attempt was a successful attempt so we achieved something.
DE: So did you have four different prototypes then? Is that how it, how it worked?
TW: Yeah. You did one and put it to one side. Then marked it number one. Then number two, number three, number four. And of course when number four dropped it cracked but with having the metal rods down the cap it didn’t – it didn’t snap the rods. So it all burned when it fell.
DE: I see.
TW: Yeah. So, so we was coming back from Thetford when the war finished, one time, we said, ‘What’s everybody cheering for?’ You know. We stopped and asked somebody. ‘Well the war’s over.’ So that was nice surprise for us coming back again.
DE: So what were the conditions like on the stations that you were working on?
TW: The worst one was Stradishall because it wasn’t a proper ablutions. It was more open than that. Very basic. But the rest of them were fantastic. Beautiful toilets and showers and everything. And the barracks were good as well. There was, you used to get each station I’d been on after that there were the parade ground and then there was four blocks at each corner of the parade ground. Four blocks of houses. For people, for the crews. The airmen to be in. So then you went off to your, on to the ‘drome and then you went on to your armoury and did your business.
DE: Right. So could you describe a typical working day then for me?
TW: We’d have breakfast and then start about 8 o’clock and you’d sort of check your turrets over and then go and have your dinner and then come back. And if there ops on you would, I would be bombing up which I shouldn’t have been and then you stood there for them to go off and if you was conscientious you were there for when they came back again. But that was the worst part. Waiting for them to come back again. ‘Cause you would think if yours was the last one in and it hadn’t arrived. You’d say, well there was another one to come in yet? Another one to come in yet? And he’d come limping in. Probably be shot up a bit and a bit of damage on the wings and that. Our aircrew were good. They never made any bones or anything if they were hurt or anything. Because one day we had the Americans come in. The fighters shot the ‘drome up right down the runway. Then the B17 came in. Got out, ‘Where’s the blood wagon? Where’s the blood wagon?’ Kissing the ground. Pathetic, absolutely pathetic. My brother, my brother was all for, all for the Americans. I said, ‘Well, you can have them. You can go over there and live with them.’ I said, ‘From what I’ve seen of them I think they’re pathetic.’ Then we used to go to the pictures in Huntingdon. We was coming out one day and Clark Gable, the film star, was walking in. Oh there’s Clark Gable there. With it being Americans there you see. Huntingdon was the nearest with a cinema so they used to come there.
DE: So what other things did you do when you had an evening off then?
TW: Well, when I had an evening off we, sometimes my mate and I would go right around the villages and then we got to this little village of Benwick. So we stopped and went in to the pub and got a drink and went outside at the back because they had a lovely bowling green at the back. And we sat and there was a couple sat next to us. So they asked, ‘Are you from the local ‘drome?’ So I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Would you like a game of bowls?’ So I said, ‘Oh I’ve never played bowls.’ My mate said, ‘Oh come.’ We won them [laughs] and so they said, ‘Are you sure you’ve never played before?’ So I said, ‘No.’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’ve managed to get the right bias on the bowls because you managed to get them through, you know.’ So, anyhow they invited us over to, for supper. And we used to go over regular and they had two boys and a girl. Now, the girl she’s what, she’ll be in her seventies now. We’re still in contact with one another. I made her a doll’s bed. She had two boys. Her boys had boys but she’s still got the bed. She said, ‘I might get a great granddaughter one day so I’ll pass it on to her.’ So we were regularly in contact with her because the family were fantastic to go to. You come home on leave, ‘Are you going on leave?’ He said. ‘I’ll come around night before and we’ll give you some eggs.’ Come home with some eggs. And sometimes you’d come home with a chicken. My mother didn’t know she were born. When I was going with a WAAF in the telephone exchange and they used to cook for themselves so if they got kidneys and I was coming home on leave they‘d give me the kidneys because they never ate them.
DE: Right.
TW: So mother would have my kidneys which was a luxury in them days. Couldn’t get them from the butcher and that. So she did well did my mother with eggs and that. But my brother was a rogue. I came, on the first leave I came home on leave he was home on leave. So, I gave my mother my ration card and the money. She said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘Well, my ration money.’ So she said, ‘Well Maurice never give me it.’ Give it me back. And do you know what he said? ‘It’s something that’s just started.’
DE: Oh. I see.
TW: I said, ‘No. It’s been going on since you’ve been in the forces so don’t talk daft.’ But her blue eyed boy could do no wrong could my eldest brother.
DE: And what was – what was he? Did you say he was –?
TW: He was an engineer but he had a painting and decorating business before the war.
DE: Right.
TW: But he was stupid. Get a lad to. Employed a lad to work when he should be working himself. And of course when the war started his business flopped because he had a load of credit. So after the war my mother said, ‘If anybody asks where Maurice is you don’t know.’ He went into partnership with a chap and I used to work with a chap at the bottom of the road here and his partner used to come to me for a box of matches and look at me because before the war I didn’t wear glasses. After the war I were wearing glasses. He’d look at me and he’d go outside and he’d be pondering. And he came every week. I thought well I know who you are mate but I’m not going to make myself known to you [laughs] Oh dear. So those were the days.
DE: You, you mentioned a bit earlier on about an, about an explosion.
TW: Yeah. That must, must have been when they were bombing up. Because I was coming back off leave so it had to be an evening one. And I just got through the gate and there was this terrific explosion. And the chap said, ‘By. Something’s gone up there.’ You know. So the next day we had to go out on to the drome. Looking in the crater. See if we could find anything. And three Lancasters looked like they’d been made of corrugated iron. All, every bit of them but I don’t know, as far as I can remember I don’t think the tyres had gone down. In the crater you couldn’t find a thing. And the only funeral from there was a WAAF driver. And she was stood at one of the Lancasters with a crew wagon and she was the only one that was killed. She was buried in Bransby churchyard.
DE: I see. And what had happened? Did you ever find out?
TW: All I can think of – it was a barometric fuse. ‘Cause they were very delicate and if they got knocked they could have gone off. And we had a lad from London and I don’t know how he became an armourer because he was thick. And he wasn’t in the billet at night so two of us said, ‘I wonder if it’s him.’ Tried to tighten it up and hit it with a hammer. ‘Cause if he had have done it would have gone off, you know. Because it was the only explanation we could think of ‘cause it couldn’t have gone up otherwise. But never did find out really. There was nothing to piece together to sort things out.
DE: Right. How did that make you feel when you were loading up the bombs?
TW: It didn’t bother me. You don’t. You don’t feel fear. I mean when you’re sat on top of the Lancaster you don’t think about falling off. In them days you didn’t have any fear in you. You was, you was bravado, you know. Fearless. No. It was a good job. I enjoyed it.
DE: How many people worked in the team that were bombing up these aircraft?
TW: It would be about four. It would be one upstairs winding the winch. Two or three downstairs. Especially if it’s putting the four thousand pounder on. To guide it so that it didn’t swing. Otherwise three could have done it because one upstairs doing the and the other two just guiding the bomb up till it got in to, as far as it could get. Until it go into its – I forget what they call it now. It’s anchorage.
DE: Right.
TW: Yeah. But Mosquitoes were the worst ones to do. Mosquitoes were the worst ones to do because you had to get in the back and wind the winch. Nearly crippled you.
DE: This was, this was by hand.
TW: All by hand. Yeah.
DE: Right.
TW: Everything was done by hand. Even the winches in the, winching them up in to the Lancasters. All hand winches. We weren’t modernised technically in them days.
DE: So it was quite hard physical work as well.
TW: It was. Yeah. But it didn’t bother you. You just took it as part of your – what you had to do and you just, you didn’t think about it. It was a job to do and you did it and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it anyhow so.
DE: Did you have any particular friends on any of the stations?
TW: One friend. But we lost contact after the war but we used to go out when we had time off on night time. We used to go out and cycle around the villages and as I say, going to Benwick. This couple. But that was the only one I had. But, I mean, in the group, the armourers, we were all friends and that. But you see you all go your separate ways and your lives change when you go into Civvy Street.
DE: Sure. Yeah.
TW: So you’ve got to adapt.
DE: What about the WAAF? Did you have anything to do with, with them?
TW: Well we’re still, we got engaged. We were still engaged when the war finished. And she came down for a holiday and she said [pause] I’d arranged for take her to see Richard Tauber in Old Chelsea. At the theatre. So we went there and when we came back there used to be an old man sat outside the Station Hotel. And I used to always give him a coin when I passed through. He was a really nice fella. And when, getting off the bus I wanted a halfpenny change but she wouldn’t get off the bus until the conductor come downstairs and give me a halfpenny. Then when we got home she said, ‘What did you waste money for? Going to the theatre.’ I said, ‘Hang on a minute,’ I said, ‘I didn’t waste money.’ I said, ‘I treated you.’ I said, ‘I haven’t seen you for months,’ you know. I said, ‘Well what about you? I didn’t complain about you when you said you’d been here, there and everywhere.’ I said, ‘I’ve sat at home knitting a rug. I haven’t been wasting my time. But you’ve been gallivanting. You blamed me because you lost a pen because you had to write to me.’ I said, I’ve stood in – the girl’s on the phone, ‘Ringing you and you weren’t there.’ ‘I was.’ I said, ‘No you weren’t,’ I said. On Edmonton Green apparently there were four telephones and the girls on the exchange used to know me. ‘I’m sorry Mr Waller but there’s nobody there. We’re trying them all.’
DE: Oh dear.
TW: So I said I’m wasting my time. So it fell through. So we had a friend who’d been engaged and she’d packed in so she had, when you got engaged you could get dockets and units if you were going to get married. So we got our dockets and units so I managed to get a bedroom suite and two fireside chairs. I bought them. So it’s just before I went down to Edmonton. So I went down to Edmonton. She stood outside the gates of the factory, followed me home to my lodgings and then knocked on my door. And then they said, ‘There’s a lady at the door for you.’ I said, ‘There can’t be.’ She said, ‘Well she’s asking for you.’ ‘What the devil do you want?’ ‘I wondered if you’d like to take me to the pictures tonight.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Clear off.’ I said, ‘I’m not taking you anywhere.’ She sent a great big Pickford’s van down to my, our house to pick some stuff up. I mean the fool. She must have been a fool because I mean, she didn’t know what she was going to send for. And my mother didn’t know anything about it. When this chap got to the front door. ‘What do you mean you –?’ He said, ‘You mean to tell me I’ve come all this way for nothing.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what you’re supposed to be collecting like.’ Anyhow, I wrote to her and said, “Why did you send a Pickford’s van down to our house for?” I said, “You didn’t want a Pickford van. A little pickup would have been done.” So she wrote back, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, don’t forget I paid for the bedroom suite. I paid for two fireside chairs. I paid for the tea set we had.” I said the rest of the stuff will just go in a cardboard box.” I said, ‘Just send for a little pickup.’ But you see her father was a police inspector and she thought it might frighten me a bit but it didn’t. So the Pickford van come. He said, ‘This is all I’ve got to pick up is it?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ It was the same man that came before.
DE: Right.
TW: So he said my God. I thought I was coming to fetch a great big mansion box but a little portmanteau thing, you know. But she was [pause] I don’t think I’d have ever married her if it had gone on. She was a bit a one for herself. You know. Yeah.
DE: Sounds like it.
TW: And I was always wrong. And there was me. I had sore fingers from knitting. ‘Cause you couldn’t get canvas in them days so you used to wrap wool around a wooden ruler. Cut it. And then you got the right set. So you knit, put it in, knit a stitch and turn it around. Made some lovely rugs. I was very good at knitting. I knitted my first son’s christening shawl when he was born. Yeah. My sister was useless but I’ve got, I’ve got my mother’s genes because she was court dressmaker was my mother. But she would never help me because when I was growing up I wanted to be a dress designer. Oh no. No. No. No. I’ve dressed dolls as brides and they’re all over the world. I can make them ever week. People wanting them but my mother wouldn’t help me one little bit.
DE: Oh.
TW: And my sister couldn’t even, couldn’t even knit. It took her all her time to sew a button on. I could do the lot. In fact up until my children starting school I made all their clothes for them.
DE: Ok.
TW: Yeah. I was an industrious little lad. Used to have a nice decorating business. Go out at night decorating. And then when I retired I was with the prison service. They said, ‘Are you going down to London for a retirement course? They’ll explain all the things to do for getting a job and that.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘No. No. I’m not going.’ I said, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ ‘What do you mean?’ they said. ‘Well I’m going to do my decorating.’ ‘Oh, you’re going on this course.’ I said, ‘I’m not going on a course.’ I went on the course and I made twenty seven quid. I said, ‘What?’ Because I went to the cashiers. They said, ‘How did you get the tools?’ So I said, ‘I went on the bus.’ They said, ‘No. You went by taxi.’ ‘I didn’t,’ I said, ‘I went on the bus.’ ‘No. Taxi. You got a taxi back as well. When you go to London where do you get a taxi to?’ I said, ‘I didn’t. I walked.’ ‘No you didn’t.’ I said, ‘I walked.’ He said, ‘What hotel did you stay at?’ I said, ‘I didn’t stay at a hotel.’ I said, ‘My brother lived at Hatfield so,’ I said, ‘I commuted each day from there.’ ‘Oh no. You stayed at a hotel. Now that looks a good one. You stayed there’ And I thought, afterwards I thought well that’s all over the country happening. It’s an eye opener sometimes. And that was in the prison service. No. I don’t know.
DE: Strange.
DE: I’m just having a look at my notes.
DE: Was the, did the different stations feel particularly different? I mean you say you worked with an SOE squadron and you worked for Pathfinders.
TW: No. They’re all types sort of thing, you know. There was no sort of difference in it. The only difference was Wyton. The bomb dump was at the other side the main road.
DE: Right.
TW: But the rest of them were all on the ‘dromes.
DE: I see.
TW: No. But they were all the same, there was no difference in them. Just because they were different squadrons. There were no, the routine was more or less the same all the way through.
DE: Ok. And the target indicator bombs that you were experimenting with in Thetford. Were these the sky markers? Or the –
TW: The sky markers. Yeah.
DE: Yeah.
TW: Some some used to drop them in the cloud. A break in the clouds. And others used to drop down on the ground. And they were in different colours so there was a Master Bomber up above directing so if Jerry lit a decoy they’d change the colour. ‘Don’t bomb on red. Bomb on green.’ ‘Don’t bomb on green. Bomb on yellow.’ I wouldn’t like the Master Bombers job. To be up there all the time when the raid was on. Circling around.
DE: Yeah.
TW: No. I enjoyed it though.
DE: And you say you, you chose to be demobbed because –
TW: I chose demob because I was on a satellite ‘drome. I had nothing to do and you just got bored. There was nothing you could do about it so you were glad to get out of it in the end. But that’s to say if I’d been on a proper ‘drome I would have stopped in.
DE: Right. I see.
TW: But I wasn’t so –
DE: What was the demob process like?
TW: Dead easy. Mind you I’ve always had a query with it. My demob. Because the medical officer examined me. Went and fetched another doctor. And I wondered why. So I’ve now developed an irregular heart beat so whether that was coming on then I don’t know but I’ve had this sepsis into regular rhythm.
DE: Right.
TW: When I was ninety two. Put me in the cubicle. ‘My God. We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done that to you at your age.’ The cut off point’s ninety. I said, ‘Well it’s too late now isn’t it?’ He said, ‘Well you won’t get it done again. It’s back to normal. Its back to its regular beat again.’ Yeah. So they can’t do anything about it.
DE: Did you have much to do with the RAF medical services?
TW: No. Never.
DE: No.
TW: I’ve never bothered anybody. British Legion or anybody. I’ve bought my own wheelchair. Bought my own mobility scooter. I’ve a step son won’t part with a thing. He had a leg off. We’ve a wheelchair in there. We’ve a zimmer outside. We’ve two stools. I said, ‘You want to send those back.’ ‘Oh I might need them.’ I said, ‘You won’t need them.’ He won’t part with a thing.
DE: I see.
TW: They’re stood there. Brand new.
DE: Some people are like that though aren’t they?
TW: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. You were showing me before we started the interview this research that you’ve been doing.
TW: Yeah.
DE: About the Halifax bomber crash. Could you tell me a little about that?
TW: Well it happened. We lived in Swanland. We came to Swanland in 1936. My parents left in March 1944. So I came back and knew nothing about it and then and a guy in the village wrote a book and there was a bit about it in there. And we were out one day with the church on an outing and yon side of Gilberdyke there was this model of where Halifaxes had crashed and there was two sort of intertwined. So I said, ‘Something should have been done about those two chaps who were killed in our village. Anyhow, a week or two went by and nothing happened so I thought I’ll take it on myself you see. So I thought he’s buried in Bury so he’s got to be a local lad. Got on to the paper and that. No. Couldn’t find anything about him. There was nothing about him at the cemetery and nothing about him at the War Graves Commission. No address or anything. So I got on to the records office and they rang me up and said, ‘He comes from Nottingham.’ I said, ‘Well, its seventy years since it happened. Can you tell me where?’ ‘Oh no. He came from Nottingham.’ So I wrote to tourist the board in Nottingham and they gave me the address of the radio station and the paper. The local paper were like the Daily Mail in Hull. They were useless. Two little pieces at the bottom. One, the modern Nottingham paper was in the Bygones letters in back of the paper. Two lines at the bottom. And the radio station at Nottingham were brilliant. They did a magnificent programme. But they rang me up to say would I go on the station but I was away on holiday and my son took the call. They said, ‘Well, tell your dad we’ll read out his letter out he sent us. We’d have liked to have him on it but we can’t change a programme now.’ So they wrote to me to tell me what they’d done and then [pause] I’ve got a blockage [pause] So, I got on to the tourist board and they said he’d come from Nottingham. So Radio Nottingham put a programme out and I heard nothing. Now, the other pilot, he came from Tottenham and he’s buried and I knew he was buried near his parents. Now, the War Graves just had the address of the church where he was buried so London University took it over from me but they couldn’t trace any relatives at all then. And then about four months after I started investigating I got a telephone call one night. ‘When are you having the service? I said, ‘What service?’ ‘For the airmen you found.’ I said, ‘I’m not because I haven’t found anybody.’ ‘He said, ‘I’m a nephew.’ He said, ‘We’ve just found out from Australia.’ I said, ‘Australia?’ He said, ‘Yeah. Eastern Australia.’ So how it got over there. Whether he’d been on the internet and that I don’t know. So he said can you arrange it. So I arranged a new service and about fifteen came down. They said, ‘Oh we owe everything to you. We thought he’d been killed over Germany.’ And they said, ‘But we’re grateful to you for what you’ve done. We’ll keep in contact.’ So Christmas come. I got a Christmas card. I’ve written letters. I’ve never heard a thing from them. Now, on the Monday night after it was on television a cousin who knew him – she rang me up. She said, ‘Oh I wish I’d known. I would have been there. Can I come over and see you?’ So she came over and we took her over to show where it crashed and the plaque in the church. And we took her to the cemetery to his grave. And then she said, ‘When was you born? And we found out we were born on the same day so it seems as though fate decreed that I should find him you know. His relatives. And we were keeping in regular contact with her. And we found out that he was with the 1160 Heavy Conversion Unit from Blyton near Gainsborough where he was killed. And so he was killed just up the road from where we live now.
DE: I see. And what, what was it that made you think it was important to tell this story?
TW: Well I think everybody who was in the air force should be recognised if it can be. And being out on this car ride and seeing that I thought well something ought to be done so that’s when I set about doing it. But I didn’t think I’d come against so many brick walls. But you do but you get through in the end you know. But the point I can never understand why his wife had him buried in Beverley. Why she told his family he’d been killed over Germany. There’s something funny there.
DE: Yeah.
TW: And you see all those there was about fifteen came. None of them knew him. There was his sister in law and his brother. Well not his brother because his brother had been killed. But his sister in law there and his nephews and that. But none of them knew him. Even his sister in law didn’t know him. But this cousin she’s brilliant. She keeps in, there’s a photograph in there of her and she always readily comes. What I want now when this gets seed I don’t know how they’re going to work it at the spire. In the plaques. But he’s Cumberworth and so whether they’ll put 1160 Conversion Unit in or not or whether it will just be a plaque with C’s on. Names of C’s.
DE: It’s alphabetical. Yes. I mean –
TW: Yeah. Cause I know a lady in the village she’s been down and she’s found her father’s name. And hers is J so I thought C must be up if J’s. J’s there.
DE: What’s there at the moment is 1 Group and 5 Group.
TW: Oh he must have been in one of them. She’s got – they gave me their memory card to put on the computer and there’s a picture of her pointing to her dad’s name.
DE: Yeah.
TW: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. So I think this gentleman will be on –
TW: Cumberworth.
DE: Cumberworth will be on the next lot of names that go up. Yeah. Yeah. Leslie Cumberworth.
TW: So if I can manage to get a photograph sometime I’ll get one.
DE: Yeah.
TW: I can get and get a photograph and send it to his cousin. She’d be really grateful.
DE: Yeah. I’m sure we can arrange that when the names are up.
TW: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. So you said earlier you’ve never joined any squadron associations or any, any groups.
TW: I’ve joined the RAF Association.
DE: Right.
TW: Yeah. But Hull’s useless. Right from the very start, useless. They said they were short of money. So I did a mini market for them and I raised five hundred pound. And the lady who did the catering she did everything. Paid all her expenses like I do. Pay all expenses so everything you get is profits. I handed that money over to a flight lieutenant in cash and I’ve got a letter of thanks for a receipt. Where did that money go? I’m sure they’d have sent me a receipt if they’d got the money –
DE: Yeah.
TW: But I didn’t realise it at the time. It was afterwards I thought about it you know. And then I went down and I said I’d organise a competition. They said, ‘Oh you can’t do it because you’re not on the committee.’ I said, ‘I’m not joining the committee because I know what would happen. I’d end up doing everything.’ I said I like to everything. So, I said so I was working at Everthorpe then so I got a thousand copies done. So I said if you give every member ten copies you get a pound from every member. That’s a tenner each. If I give you a prize for the winner. So I gave them a lovely Parker, Parker pen and pencil set. That got pinched. ‘Cause they said I said to them when I went down I said, ‘Well you’ve got a prize to go with it so,’ I said, ‘Parker pen and pencil set.’ But it wasn’t there upstairs in the office.
DE: Oh dear.
TW: So I said, ‘Well have you started yet?’ So they said, ‘No. No. They said, so I started, ‘Oh you can’t start it. You’re not on the committee.’ So I said, ‘Have you started that?’ So she said, ‘No, not yet but,’ she said, ‘We’ll buy a prize out of what we make.’ I said, ‘No. I’ll give you another prize.’ When I do a thing I stand the expenses myself. I always have done. So I saw her a fortnight after. Four pound. I said, ‘You what? Four pound?’ I said, ‘I’ve done it twice and I’ve made over fifty pound each time.’ Then in 19 what 60s 70s fifty pound was a lot of money in them days. So I stopped going then ‘cause my son has joined as associate members.
DE: Yeah.
TW: And my daughter in law. Well the third time I went my daughter in law won the jackpot. You should have heard them. ‘You’ve only been here three weeks.’ I said, I went to the bar, I said, ‘Is this the way they go on?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I said we’re supposed to be an air force group,’ I said esprit de corps, where is it?’
DE: Yeah.
TW: I said we’ve joined and paid our money. So I went in one night and I sat in this chair and this woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, she said, ‘That’s my chair.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ She said, ‘That’s my chair.’ So I got up. ‘Well it hasn’t got your name on it.’ So I said, ‘I’m not moving.’ And this was how good our club was. We had a trip to [pause] the memorial down in London. Castleford invited us back for supper. And they did a fantastic spread. Absolutely brilliant. So we invited them down to our club. I went down on the Wednesday night when it was due. There was only me and another fella in the club. The chap behind the bar, he said ‘We don’t usually see you here on a Wednesday night Tom.’ So I said, ‘Well, where is everybody?’ ‘Why?’ he said. ‘Castleford are coming tonight.’ ‘No they’re not.’ ‘Yes they are.’ With that the door opened. They all walked in. So I said, ‘I do apologise but I said, ‘You’ve picked the wrong club to come to because this is useless. This club.’
DE: Oh dear.
TW: I said, ‘I’ve just come in,’ I said, ‘And it’s obvious they’ve forgotten.’ So they had to dash out and buy pie, pea and chips. No. I wouldn’t join no committee. I used to run a coffee morning every Wings week. We raised quite a lot of money. Got some good, one prize we had was a Hornby Double O train set. Folks said, ‘We like your coffee mornings because you always have a good raffle.’ I said it’s the people that you know they can get something from me. Where you go to you know.
DE: Yes.
TW: Very generous. You know.
DE: So apart from that Association what do you think about the way Bomber Command’s been remembered over the last.
TW: Very poor. Very poor. I mean the spire when it was opened. Did BBC do anything about it?
DE: I think –
TW: No. Only local stations. But BBC, I mean there’s all the people around the country in bomber command. BBC should have been doing that as well. I think their biased.
DE: Why do you think that is?
TW: Well, why weren’t they there? I mean you don’t seem to get much about the RAF or anything like that on the BBC.
TW: I’m an old man. I do things differently. If I get a letter I answer it straight away. Anything that I’ve done I do it straight away but today it’s so lackadaisical. I mean this cousin of the airman. I sent some things about the Association and some photographs. A month ago. I’ve never had, I rang her up and said I’m sending you this parcel. I’ve never had a telephone call, an email or anything to say she’s got it. I just can’t understand folks.
DE: Hello. I’ll just pause it there a moment.
[recording paused]
DE: That’s fine I’ve just started it recording again. Sorry about the interruption. Is there anything else? Any other stories that you think you’d like to tell us?
TW: I don’t think so because we covered it pretty well cause my memory is not as good as it was and I get, I’m talking and I go blank.
DE: I think you’ve done very very well.
TW: Yeah. So but I think no I think we’ve covered it really well.
DE: Just one other thing I think you covered it in the phone conversation when we were arranging this. What do you think about the stories of people like yourself and ground personnel have to tell?
TW: Pardon?
DE: What do you think about the stories of ground personnel? How well do you think they’ve been remembered?
TW: They haven’t. Because somebody was saying if it wasn’t for ground crew the bombs wouldn’t have gone off. But we haven’t been remembered. You never hear anybody talk about us. We’re just a forgotten crew. But I’m not worried because I did my best so. They rewarded me with a mention in dispatches so I can’t complain.
DE: Oh. How. What was the story behind that?
TW: I’ve no idea.
DE: No.
TW: All I can think it was because we helped Professor Cox design his target indicator bomb and alter the tail fins for [pause] to get the bombs on to Mosquitoes. I can’t think of anything else that I’ve done that’s deserving of it. Because getting out on D-day I mean that was just part of the job I think.
DE: Yeah.
TW: So [pause] and my grandson has my medals and my certificate because he’s a keen, very keen on what his granddad’s done. So he said, ‘Can I have your medals granddad.’ So I said, ‘Yeah. You can have that as well.’
DE: That’s wonderful.
TW: Because I know you’ll look after them.
DE: Yeah.
TW: So this is I’ll be able to tell my son. Show his photograph of his granddad and what he’s done. And he’s got my war memoir so he’s got that so. So I’ve got something to show him when he grows up.
DE: Wonderful. Right. So I’ll press pause there and thank you very very much.
TW: Pleasure.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Thomas Waller,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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