Interview with Colin Cole


Interview with Colin Cole
1016-Cole, Colin


Colin Cole took part in the attack that sunk the Tirpitz. He describes how the aircraft was adapted for the operation and flew via Lossiemouth. Colin disposed of the Upkeep 'bouncing bombs' as part of his service with the RAF. They were dropped on the Atlantic Shelf and then the adapted Lancasters were scrapped. He trained for Tiger Force.

Temporal Coverage




00:32:24 audio recording


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JM: Well, good morning. This is Julian Maslin interviewing Colin Cole at his home at Bardney. Colin, I know you were a wireless operator on 617 Squadron. I wonder if I could just ask you just to say a little about your background and then go ahead and tell us the story that you have about the disposal of munitions at the end of the war. Colin —
CC: Right. Yes. I can do that. As far as my background is concerned I came in to the RAF in December of 1942 and to train as a wireless operator air gunner and I first went to Blackpool and then on to various training stations and my first entry in to Lincolnshire was when I joined number 617 Squadron at Woodhall Spa in August 1944. Right. Now, what would you like —
JM: I’d like you to say a little if you could about how you were involved in the operation to dispose of munitions. Particular types of munition at the end of the war.
CC: Oh right. Yes. The, yes after the dams raid there were a number of the mines, they called them Upkeeps, the Upkeep mines left over and they sort of gathered together what few there were left. I think there were around about ten or fifteen that needed disposing of. They were ended up at Scampton and in a rather unstable condition and there were arrangements made to dispose of them. Now, how I came to be involved in this was that they brought three aircraft down from Scotland which were, had already been converted for the original dams raid and so that they could carry the mines out to sea and drop them in a safe, in a safe place. The reason I was involved was that all that was needed really was a pilot. You didn’t need a whole crew but in that day and age every aircraft that flew, every Lancaster that flew had to carry a wireless operator. So I was seconded from 617 Squadron at Binbrook to go to Scampton and fly on, well as it turned out only two or three of these missions to dispose of the Upkeep mines. Now, the idea was that they should be loaded on to the aircraft, you know, in the normal way and dropped out to sea. The place they looked at dropping them was on the Atlantic Shelf. Just over the Atlantic shelf so that they dropped in to deep water and either exploded or just dropped to the bottom of the sea and there’s probably many of them still left down, left down there to this day you know. So that, that was basically all we did. I did two or three runs on these things and we’d drop them, you know sort of quite without any trouble at all and, and got rid of them. The, what was I going to say? [pause] There’s not really anything more to say about that apart from the aircraft, oh this was by the way in September 1945. ’46 sorry. September 1946 and onwards over the Christmas period and there were, there were others taking part in this of course and finished by about February of 1947 and then the aircraft were just scrapped and that was it. Yeah.
JM: You raise a number of points here that I’d like to explore.
CC: Yeah. Ask me questions.
JM: You don’t remember do you which aircraft by their squadron letters or whatever? I mean —
CC: I can remember by the squadron letters. The one I flew in was AJG.
JM: That was Gibson’s aircraft.
CC: The answer to that is going to be no.
JM: Oh.
CC: Gibson’s aircraft, as far as we can reckon was converted back into in a normal Lancaster and ended up with 467 Squadron at Waddington. Now the AJG that we had there had been originally a dams aircraft which was I think AJC. It had been converted back into a normal Lancaster. It had gone to Metheringham and it was used there for a bit and then it was converted back again into a dams aircraft when it was thought that the war may needs to drop more of these.
JM: Right.
CC: Mines, you know.
JM: Right.
CC: They were a sort of, and it was converted back and for some reason somebody painted AJG on it. But according to the code letters which stayed with the aircraft you know from the date of manufacture which I can’t remember off hand what it was it wasn’t the original AJG after all that [laughs] Everybody says that you know.
JM: Yes, you would.
CC: Yeah. And at the time nobody knew what Gibson’s aircraft was. It was only after the film came out in 1954 that all that came up to the —
JM: Yeah.
CC: Fore again, you know. I mean it was just another, just another old aircraft.
JM: Do you remember the letters of any of the other aircraft that were used because I think you said there were two or three?
CC: There were. Good question. I shall have to tell you that afterwards.
JM: Ok.
CC: I can look. I can look them up you know. Sort of —
JM: Moving on you said you’d been seconded from Binbrook to Scampton.
CC: Yes.
JM: Does that mean that 617 was actually transferred to Binbrook at one point?
CC: It was. It, 617 was destined for Tiger Force.
JM: Yes.
CC: In 1945, and we trained for Tiger Force and then the Japanese war ended and we still carried on training because we went out to India under South East Asia Command and then we only stayed out there for about what January, February, March, four months when India was, Mr Ghandi was jumping up and down about independence and he sent us back [laughs] We came back and we were posted. Posted to Binbrook. Yes.
JM: And the, the crew, the pilot that you flew with on, on these disposal operations was that pilot somebody who had extensive service with 617 or a recent arrival?
CC: No, it wasn’t actually. The, the pilots that, and that in the plural at that time my main secondment to Scampton was not for the mines at all but for pilots training for conversion on to Lincolns. And that was my main job there was flying with all sorts of pilots to train on to Lincolns and this was a sort of little job that came along while I was there.
JM: Perhaps we could return to the subject of Lincolns a bit later but I had —
CC: Yes.
JM: I had a feeling that perhaps there would have been quite a rush of people to get the opportunity to fly in a Dambusters Lancaster on a trip like this even, just as passengers Or am I being a bit nostalgic about that?
CC: No. Not particularly.
JM: Just a job was it?
CC: It was just a, yes I mean as I say and I can repeat this that it wasn’t until 1954 ’55 when the film came out that all this arose.
JM: Right.
CC: You know. I mean I can’t remember the squadron ever talking a lot about the dams raid that [pause] you know, we all knew about it of course.
JM: Yes.
CC: But no. It wasn’t [laughs] It was totally different. A different story you know.
JM: So when you went up to drop the mines did you drop them from low level as in the raid or from —
CC: Oh no. No. No. I think we dropped them from about eight thousand feet. Something like that. Just dropped them, you know. There was no spinning. They didn’t. They weren’t spun or anything like that. Just dropped them.
JM: They weren’t fused.
CC: Oh no. No. No. Ours didn’t go bang but I don’t know whether one or two did you know sort of on hitting the sea but no. Just [laughs] yeah.
JM: Well, that’s lovely. I wonder if I you could just turn your memory to the idea of training pilots to convert to Lincolns at Scampton because I’m sure that would be an extremely valuable piece of history. As far as I’m aware there’s not an awful lot written about that. Could you tell us a little bit about what the training programme was and how it went and any stories that you may have from that occasion?
CC: Well, there wasn’t really. The Lincoln was just a big Lancaster really, you know. It wasn’t like training on, I suppose on to a completely new aircraft. They only did circuits and landings. They didn’t do any cross-country work or anything like that and apart from one or two crews most of the pilots came on their own if you know what I mean. So, you know, posted on their own just to, I think it was just to get the feel of the aircraft. The fact that it was different in size and all that sort of thing you know. It was really. But I didn’t have any part in the, you know. I mean they naturally flew with an instructor, you know, sort of and as far as I can remember they weren’t there for all that long, you know. Only a few weeks of sort of getting used to the aircraft and then back on to the squadron.
JM: We know from history that when aircraft were introduced they often had initial teething problems and there often quite a few accidents before these wrinkles were ironed out. Was that the case for the Lincoln or was it seamless?
CC: Not particularly. It was, it was only an overgrown Lancaster in, in its sense if you know what I mean. It wasn’t a completely new aircraft. I didn’t hear of any, a lot of accidents. Not particular accidents. I think there was. I think there was an odd, you know later on there was an odd collision you know and that sort of thing but no great, no great teething troubles at all. So don’t know.
JM: I I know from previous conversations with you that one of the most important operations that you took part in when you were with 617 was the attack on the Tirpitz.
CC: Yes.
JM: I was wondering whether you’d be kind enough to tell us a little bit about that experience.
CC: Yes. Yes, I can. Right. Well, I didn’t take part in the first two attempts. They went in the September and I think it was the October. August and October one of which they went to Russia and flew from there. And then when the final attack came they brought the, the Tirpitz down to Tromso, Tromso Fjord and that made it within striking distance of Lossiemouth providing we carried extra fuel tanks and so the aircraft were modified. All had new engines. The front turrets, sorry the mid-upper turrets were taken off and we didn’t, we only carried a crew of six and two additional fuel tanks were placed in the fuselage. And that, and that was it. It was going to be a long trip, you know. The one in which we sank was it was that we went on the 11th of November up to Lossiemouth from, from Woodhall Spa and the following day we flew from Lossiemouth up to Tromso and, and back which was a trip that took just over thirteen hours. So, you know it had to be carefully planned and that. The only problem I can remember we had was it was a very very clear night. There was a big area of high pressure and the temperature dropped to minus goodness knows what on the night that we were going to take off. So what they had to do was we had to run the aircraft up to the point of take-off and then they sprayed it for de-icing and then we’d take off and that. And several of the aircraft of 9 squadron didn’t go because they’d run out of de-icing fluid [laughs] But anyway, that’s another story. The trick was that we flew at low level up the Norwegian coast and the reason for that was to avoid the radar that the Germans had all along the coast except in one particular spot about halfway up which was known. And we went through that area, over Sweden and then climbed to twelve, thirteen thousand feet over the target. Apart from that, you know it was a clear run in and we dropped our bomb which was said according to records to have dropped near the forward bow and was considered to have helped in the fact that it overturned. Well, in that context it, I can say because has also been recorded that our rear gunner when we were leaving the target the smoke and that cleared a bit from the aircraft itself and he came on to the intercom and said, ‘Skip, she’s turning over.’ So it was the first indication we had you know of, of the ship turning over from that point of view and then we just flew back. We weren’t hit at all, our aircraft and we just flew back to England. We had a, you now we had a diversion. The weather wasn’t too good at Lossiemouth and we had a diversion to an airfield called Fraserburgh at which we landed and that was that.
JM: I have a recollection of on a previous conversation with you, you told me that the bomb was held in place by some large straps and I believe it may have been part of your duties to to recover those straps.
CC: Oh yes. Yes.
JM: Could you tell us a little bit about that please?
CC: Yeah. There is. There are, for the Tallboys there are some straps which were fixed around the bomb itself in the bomb bay which when the bomb was released the straps came apart and dropped to such an extent that they failed the bomb doors when [pause] when they were being shut. So it was the wireless operators job to go back sort of over the main spar and get hold of the toggle which, which was straight and pull the straps up while the pilot shut the bomb doors and that. But yes, that was, apparently that was a problem. An initial problem that they had and talking to an historian of 9 Squadron he said that yes Barnes Wallis actually came down to 9 Squadron to sort the problem out. And he devised this system of a toggle on these straps to pull them up so —
JM: That’s very interesting but have I got this correct? This would have meant that you were actually looking down through the open —
CC: Oh yes. You could. Well, you could see through a hole.
JM: Right. At this most powerful battleship which was shooting up at you.
CC: Well yes [laughs] that’s true.
JM: How did you feel at that moment when, when you were doing that? Was it just a job to be done or were you —?
CC: Well, I think it was just a job to be done really you know. Sort of [pause] yes. It’s like everything else. Afterwards it all sort of blows up into an historical event if you know what I mean but at the time you just sort of, that’s what you’re doing, you know.
JM: And, and was it the same feelings that you had when you knew you’d been ordered to attack the Tirpitz again because as you say it was the third operation. Was it the same, another job or were you in any way concerned that it was going to be a particularly difficult job?
CC: We, no we, we weren’t but I gather that the pilots were told that there was a danger with it being at Tromso. There was a, there was a fighter airfield at Bardufoss which is just down the road from there and there was a possibility that we might get fighter intervention wouldn’t we. But the rest of the crews weren’t told. Weren’t told about it you know. So we just [pause] because that ties up with I remember our skipper saying we dropped the bomb and photos taken and, you know all the stuff that goes with it and that, he says, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘Let’s, let’s the hell get out of here.’ You know [laughs] so that was obviously why. You learn these things afterwards as I say. Yeah.
JM: Because really, I mean if the fighters had intervened then the squadrons involved could have taken heavy losses and obviously the authorities were prepared to take the risk.
CC: Oh absolutely. Yes. Yes. It would have done but yeah what, I mean one of the dangers of course with that, was well I wouldn’t say not so much them actually shooting a normal Lancaster down. In fact, we had two fuel tanks, well the tanks were empty but they were still full of fuel gas you know and would have, would have naturally made it much more difficult if they’d been hit by bullets or anything like that I suppose.
JM: Well, this has been fascinating. I I would like to ask you just a little bit more about —
CC: Sure.
JM: Life on the squadron. You were on 617 Squadron and down the road at Woodhall Spa. Could you tell us a little bit about what the daily atmosphere was like as you were going about your training? Your preparations and so forth.
CC: In actual fact quite relaxed. Of course, all the officers were at the Petwood and you know which is the main story these days about 617 being at Woodhall Spa. But in actual fact of course we were on the other side of the aerodrome at Tattershall Thorpe and I don’t think you know where Thorpe camp is now.
JM: Well, we are actually volunteers at Thorpe camp.
CC: Oh well there you are.
JM: I should have said.
CC: Well, we were there of course. Yeah. You know. Sort of, yes we were in the woods [laughs] in, well in Nissen huts actually you know sort of converted into quarters. Day to day we just went down to the fly. We did a lot of sort of training and bombing runs at Wainfleet that’s now no longer there. No longer with us, you know. But spent a lot of time over Wainfleet and it was a lot of analysis of how close and that the practice bombs were dropped and and that sort of thing and one or two odds and ends that we got on. One thing we didn’t know very much about that we, I think it was in the November. Probably the November time. They were looking at dropping commandos in dinghies over Norway and the idea was to drop them on these dinghies with parachutes. Now, that’s all we knew and we did one or two trips, you know. Sort of nothing happened about it but and that was all we knew about it. It never took, it never took place you know. So —
JM: That would have been extremely difficult and hazardous an operation.
CC: Oh God. They could have [unclear] How they were going to do it I don’t know. There is, I think there is a bit of detail about you know. And the only other thing we had a few days down, our crew had a few days down at Boscombe Down where they were testing smoke. You know how the Red Arrows issue smoke out? They were looking for that sort of thing for the sort of bombing master to —
JM: Right.
CC: And it was a lot of boffins down there trying smoke flares and smoke. Mixing smoke with the exhausts and and all that sort of thing and we went down there to fly a Lanc. An old Lanc you know to —
JM: Who was your captain on those? On your time on 617?
CC: Sorry?
JM: Who was the captain? The pilot.
CC: Oh Leavitt. John Leavitt.
JM: Right.
CC: Yes. Yes.
JM: And did you take part in any of the operations that used the Grand Slam?
CC: No, because they didn’t, well not with a Grand Slam on but flying probably a ordinary Lanc because they didn’t carry a wireless operator or wireless equipment because of the, but there was you know a sort of shadow aircraft.
JM: Right. I’ve heard about that.
CC: Yeah. So that was the only way that I sort of went. Yes. But not actually drop, not actually to drop one. No.
JM: I believe the officer commanding 617 at that time would have been Wing Commander Tait would it not? Could you say a little bit about what he was like? He seems to have been quite a highly respected but somewhat distant figure. Would that be fair comment?
CC: He tended, well yes of course as NCOs you don’t come up against them. Against him you know. You normally only come and get your own signals leader for normal, you know. I mean you do see him but [pause] Yes. I met him quite, quite a bit at events after the war you know. Sort of. And I think he tended to be a bit reserved. Not shy. Yes, reserved probably, you know. He didn’t converse a great deal although you know I mean as far as commanding the flights on raids he seemed fine, you know, sort of thing. But he left us in the December ’44. But yeah. So —
JM: Now you started the conversation by, well once or twice referring to the famous film of the Dambusters.
CC: Oh yes. Yeah.
JM: I would like to just to ask you two final questions if I may relating to that. One of them was whether you have any memories of how you felt and how others felt who had served on the squadron at the time that the film was made? And secondly, there has recently been a follow up programme.
CC: Yes.
JM: Have you seen that?
CC: Oh, I’ve seen that. Yes.
JM: Whether you have any comments on that.
CC: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Of course, they, yes and in the follow up programme they said of course there was a lot of mistakes and that. Well, there would be you know. Much of the stuff was top secret still early in 1950s you know. And that’s why they when you look at the original film the, the sort of mines they dropped were round and not cylindrical you know. Sort of things like that and bits and pieces that film makers sort of do. Nothing, I don’t think there was anything to get all het up about if you know what I mean. Probably some would say, ‘Oh, Tait didn’t do that.’ Or Nigger didn’t do something or other [laughs] which was the name of course now that they’re having to try to avoid.
JM: Yes.
CC: But I did actually because they put the film on late didn’t they?
JM: Yes.
CC: Well, I wasn’t going to watch it you know and I thought yes I will and watch and see if they took any bits out but they didn’t you know. They left all the, but I think at one time it was tended to cut little bits out you know. Where reference to the COs dog was made but it, they didn’t, they left everything in. I mean it was just a dog you know. There was no disrespect for anything else. Never even been thought about it you know. It was just how it was in those days, you know. But there we are. That’s [pause] but yes I watched the remake of it. Yes. It wasn’t bad actually. I thought it was, you know sort of [pause] There we are. I don’t know what the new film is going be be like if it ever comes out.
JM: Colin, thank you very much. Your memory is pin sharp going back all those years and it’s been a privilege to listen to you so thank you so much for your interview.
CC: That’s alright. What did you ask me about the other aircraft?
JM: Yes. The other, the Lancaster.
CC: I can nip in to the other room.
JM: Yes that.
CC: And just get it if you like.



Julian Maslin and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Colin Cole,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 30, 2024,

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