Interview with Les Rutherford


Interview with Les Rutherford
1022-Rutherford, Robert Leslie


Les Rutherford was called up for the Army just short of his twenty first birthday. He was in France at the time of Dunkirk and made it to the beach of St Valery where they were under constant bombardment. He and another soldier found a door and used that to paddle out to the Channel in the hopes of joining a ship to get back to England. A trawler rescued them both and passed them over to a British vessel. While still serving in the Army Les saw an advertisement for RAF aircrew and decided to volunteer. He was trained as an observer but was posted to 50 Squadron as a bomb aimer. His aircraft was shot down over Frankfurt after a triple attack by a Junkers 88. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan.



Temporal Coverage




01:27:19 audio recording


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Interviewer: This is an interview with Mr Les Rutherford on the 24th of January 2011 at his home in Lincoln regarding his experiences in the Second World War. Over to you, Les.
LR: At the beginning of the war I was called up into the Army in October just one week before my twenty first birthday which ruined my mother’s plans of course for a birthday party. I was called up and enrolled in Perth in to the 51st Highland Division, did my training there which we spent a week in Perth then moved to Aldershot and the Corunna Barracks at Aldershot. Then did more training there. We were kitted out in uniforms and all the necessary things and then in January, the beginning of January we moved to France and I was a despatch rider then. We moved to various places in France first and I was attached to a field ambulance. We moved across to first of all we were around about Lille in the Belgian frontier and then we moved to Metz or near Metz on the German frontier. In actual fact over there they used to have these artillery duels across the two different armies and we were in actual fact in the Maginot Line. The famous Maginot Line. We used to go in this line for a couple, a couple of cigarettes the French would let us fire a gun [laughs] you know. But and then when the Germans advanced and began their offensive the, well there was one incident that it was early morning and we were suddenly, somebody said, ‘Look at all these aircraft.’ And we were looking up and there was crowds, scores of these aircraft flying over. Flying over. German aircraft, and I was looking up and these and somebody said, ‘Run for shelter. We’ve got to go up to the shelters.’ So, I was looking up and running to the shelter and I tripped and fell and hit my chin on a doorstep. Split my chin right across. And they came running up with an ambulance and thought I’d been hit. And I said, ‘No. I’m alright. I’m alright.’ Anyway, that was the beginning of the offensive when they went and bombed Holland of course from there in Belgium. And so then they moved us across from Metz to try and stem the German advance. We moved across country and at first we thought we were going to Paris. We were heading straight for Paris. Then about ten miles before we got to Paris we turned off north and went off and were stationed around about Lille and then the trouble really began then. That’s when they, as far as we were concerned that’s when the war started or when the fighting started and with being field ambulances we were busy. And one of my duties was to, when our own field ambulances were all used up we used to travel at night and there was a standby unit which had ambulances for anybody that wanted them but one of my jobs was to go to this unit and guide them back to the, to where our field ambulance was. And another thing you used to have to do was to go up to the forward units and get a list of the injured and whatnot. A lot, a lot of work went on at the time. But of course, we were gradually pushed back and pushed back until eventually we got to St Valery. And by this time Dunkirk had taken place. We didn’t know anything about it of course but it was June 12th in actual fact when we got to St Valery and we were trapped there. There were ships coming and going out, way out to sea on the horizon but nothing could get into St Valery. St Valery was surrounded by cliffs and the Germans surrounded up on these cliffs and they were lobbing mortars and all sorts of things in to us. In actual fact, under the command of Rommel who was commanding the troops there. And I got, I got together about a half a dozen men and said, ‘Look. There’s a door there. There’s a shed side there been blown off. If we take that, go out and perhaps get to these ships.’ So they said, ‘Right. We’ll do that. If there’s no ships get into here we’ll do that.’ So it got to about 11 o’clock at night. The town was blazing by this time and when it, when it came to these men they wouldn’t go. So another chap and I took a door which had been blown off. We belted across the sands with this door between us and launched it and we got to these rocks, put the door in the water and when we got in the water came up to our necks nearly and then it turned out this chap had, he couldn’t swim. So I thought well this is remarkable you know [laughs] you’re going to go and you can’t swim. I could swim. I’d done a lot of competition swimming and I could swim so I parked him on the door and I got on the back and acted more or less as a rudder and a propeller and he had a piece of wood that he used as an oar and off we went. And we put out to sea and oh we got well out. Way out to sea and then it got to be early morning, well, you know, I don’t know what time it was. It would be six, seven o’clock in the morning and we could see these trawlers, these ships coming out from, it turned out they were coming from Veules les Roses and they were going straight out to sea from there and then turning and we were nearly in their path. And in actual fact we could see there was still two trawlers, French trawlers to come and we sort of waved at these trawlers and the first one went past and they threw us a lifebelt. I thought well that’s going to do us a lot of good [laughs] you know. And then the next one came by and they threw us a rope and this chap had been sat on this door all night and he couldn’t move his legs properly. I had to tie the rope around him and they hauled him up. And then I tied the rope around myself and they hauled me up. And we’d had nothing to eat for about three days. In actual fact they’d just got a meal going for us when we got to St Valery and these 109s came over and strafed us and we had to get out of it. So we didn’t, we never did get the meal. And they hauled me up onto this, on to the deck and they gave me a glass of hot rum and I went out like a light. Just out. And the next thing I knew was I was, they were waking me up. I was in a bunk on this ship and they were waking me up and said, ‘We’re transferring you to an English ship.’ So they put a blanket around me. They’d taken all my clothes off and had put a blanket around me and took me down into this lifeboat and transferred me to the English ship. So I got on there and I was pretty well fagged out. But then when I sort of got myself settled down a bit on this ship I found one of the ship’s officers and said, ‘You know I was transferred from that trawler.’ I said, ‘What happened to my uniform and clothes?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Nothing like that came over.’ So I said, ‘Well,’ I said, I’ve only got a blanket here. I haven’t got anything else.’ So he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I can give you a pair of socks.’ [laughs] So I put these socks on and I landed at Southampton with a pair of socks and a blanket. And they had got it all arranged by this time on the docks at Southampton and we were taken into a big shed and the uniforms were all laid out and you just picked one to fit you know and they’d got everything laid out there. It was wonderfully organised. Then we moved from there to Devizes. We spent about a week there and then moved up to Scotland to a place between Hamilton and Glasgow. We stayed there for two or three days and then we were sent home on leave. Then when we came back we went up to Grantown on Spey and spent the rest of the time up there. While I was up there we formed, I found a chap who played the piano and I played guitar and we found we were in the petrol company then of, when I went up to Scotland I was with a petrol company and there was a supply column and what was another column. Anyway, there were six of us altogether got together. There was me on the guitar and my friend on the unit he was on piano and there was the saxophone, trumpet, a drummer and a violin. You had to have a violin for the Scottish dances. The only thing they had up there at the time for dancing was three old, three old ladies. Not the ones in the lavatory, the three old ladies with an accordion and a drummer and violin. So our band went down a storm you know. We had no musical flare. Just buy in. We played in dances all over the place and we were stationed in Castle Grant and the Earl of Seafield, the Countess of Seafield was still in residence while we were there. And then in the winter when the winter came on she moved to the country house, Cullen on the coast and she asked us, our band to play at her going away party and we played in the big hall in the castle with all the accoutrements. All the swords and everything else around the walls and all the ancestors looking down on us and all the ladies were in Highland evening dress and all the gentlemen were in Highland evening dress with the velvet jackets and all the silver trimmings and things you know. And it was absolutely wonderful. It was a wonderful sight because we were playing all the Scottish dances, Scottish reels, “Strip The Willow,” you know, [unclear] Reel,” “The Dashing White Sergeant,” all these sort of things and of course as the evening went on they got more merry and the CO came to us beforehand saying, ‘Now listen lads,’ you know, ‘When you’re up there we don’t want any jackets all open or, you know drinking or beer and things like this,’ he said, ‘You’re in with the society. You’ve got to keep to the letter.’ We hadn’t been there half an hour when the countess came up with a tray of beers and said, ‘Here you are lads. Get on with it. [laughs] And undo your jackets, you know you’ll be uncomfortable sitting up here in all this heat. Its too warm.’ You know. And she was absolutely charming and, but I’ll never forget, have never forgotten that dance for the spectacle. It was absolutely wonderful. Anyway, shortly afterwards there was a notice posted on the, in the unit asking for volunteers for aircrew duties. So I volunteered. They said you should never volunteer in the Army but I thought well I’ll have a go here and so I volunteered. I was accepted and in June of 1940, 1941. 1940.
Interviewer: ’41 I should think.
LR: Be ’41. June ’41. I moved. I was sent down to Stratford on Avon and sworn into the Air Force in the Shakespeare Theatre there and from there moved up to Scarborough to the ITU, IT.
Interviewer: ITW.
LR: IT Initial Training Unit.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: ITU. Billeted in the Grand at Scarborough right on the top floor. It was, that would be at the end of June we were going up there and the weather was absolutely wonderful. We had a wonderful time there. Did all these lectures. We used to go, come down, the lecture rooms were all at the bottom of course and we’d do half and hour or an hour’s lecture and we had to go back up to our room, up all these steps. No lifts. Up all these stairs, get the lecture book for the next lecture. Back down the stairs again and then the next lecture up the stairs again. Down again. And then in the afternoon we used to go down to the beach for PT. That meant going up the stairs, change into PT kit, down the stairs again and then I don’t know if you know the Grand. It’s up on the cliff and there’s more stairs right, led down to the beach. Doubled down these stairs down to the beach. A quarter of an hour, a half an hour PT, a dip in the sea and double back up all these stairs again. I’ve often said I’d never been so fit in all my life as I was when I left Scarborough. And then we were put on a, we went through all the exams and things and put on a draft to go to California, was it? No. Florida. Florida. So off we went. We went to West Kirby near Liverpool to be transported and then they found they’d got two to many on our draft so they knocked two off. Me and another chap called Roberts who was next to me on the list. They picked the two in the middle and took us off. So off we went back to Scarborough. So then we had to wait for the next draft and the next draft took us to Rhodesia as it was then. And we went up to Rhodesia. We went up, we sailed from Glasgow. We went back to West Kirby and then we went up to Glasgow to get on board ship and strangely enough we went on the King George the 5th docks and while I was in the Army I’d done sentry duty on that, on that dock while we were up there. And so we set sail for land. For Africa. We landed at Durban and then we spent a couple of days at Durban and we went by train. I wish we’d known. I wish we’d appreciated. We did what is now train journey up through Natal and all up through all the old Mafikeng and places like that and up to Rhodesia which I think was three days we were aboard on this train. We eventually got to Bulawayo and we spent some time there. While we were there another thing that happened there which was rather amusing was the flight sergeant in charge of discipline came around after we got this. ‘Any of this new batch, any of you play water polo?’ Well, I had. I’d played for the county of Northumberland at water polo. So, ‘Yes. I’ve played.’ And then there was, actually I think it was five of us and the rest of them were off from well-known clubs. Two of them were from the London Police Club which was well known and another one from the Otter’s Club and all really good water polo players, far better than me and the flight sergeant he just couldn’t believe his luck. He said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘We play regularly. We played the town team,’ he said, ‘And they hammered us every time.’ So we were there about two, three weeks maybe waiting for a posting and in that time we played I think five or six games. We won them all in double figures. And then we, then we were posted and we could see in the newspapers the poor old Air Force team was being hammered again. The flight sergeant, he just couldn’t believe it. Anyway, we went up to Mount Hampden on a pilot’s course and I passed out on Tiger Moths. When I say passed out I mean I passed the course [laughs] passed out at other times [laughs] And I was posted then to, back down to, literally Mount Hampden was up near Salisbury which is now Zimbabwe and I passed. Passed that course. Then went down on twinned Oxfords down at Heany which was near Bulawayo. I was ready to go solo on the Oxfords and the chief instructor sent for me. He said, ‘We’re taking you off flying.’ I said, ‘Oh, why?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Your reactions are too slow.’ ‘Oh.’ So he said, ‘We’ll send you back up to Salisbury and then you’ll go on a navigator’s course.’ On an Observer’s course it was then. Observer. So I said, ‘Oh, alright.’ You know. So off I went. When I got up there a crowd of us all at the same, on the same boat been taken off these courses. So one of them came around. He said, ‘Where were you on ground subjects? The navigation and things like that on the course?’ Because we had taken ground subjects as well of course and I said, ‘Well, as near as I know fairly near the top. So he said, ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘We all were.’ He said, ‘We think what’s happened is that they’ve taken the top two off each course and because they were running, everybody wanted to be pilots and they were running short of navigators or observers as it was and whether that was true or not I don’t know but I like to think so. And so I went down from there. We moved down to a camp between Johannesburg and Pretoria and we spent Easter there. And then we were sent down on a course to East London and did the observer’s course there. The observer’s course was you passed three courses. You passed which you probably know, you passed as an air gunner, a bomb aimer and navigator. You had to pass three courses and so we went through all that then moved down to Cape Town to get the boat home and we came back on our own. We didn’t come back in convoy. We came back on an armed merchantman and came back to this country. We were down in Cheltenham I think it was for a while and then posted up to Finningley on an OTU course ready for operations. And while I was there the OTU disbanded and one of the instructors, a pilot, squadron leader sent for me and asked me to go with him. He was going back on a second tour and he would like me to go along as his bomb aimer. Oh, when we got to Finningley that was the thing, when we got to Finningley we arrived late evening, a crowd of us and the next morning we reported to the navigation office and the navigation officer said, ‘Which of you are navigators and which of you are bomb aimers?’ Because by this time they’d separated the two and we said we are all full observers. We’ve done the lot. The officer said, ‘Right.’ He counted us off. He said, ‘You half there you’re navigators and you half there you’re bomb aimers.’ So I became a bomb aimer. And –
Interviewer: Were you disappointed not to be a navigator? Or was —
LR: Yeah. Well, the navigator had more sort of kudos to it.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: Shall we say? You know but I, in actual fact the bomb aimer was fairly simple job compared to the navigator. And so then we were posted. This squadron leader asked me to go with him on his second tour. He was doing his second tour and he was taking a second tour crew with him apart from the bomb aimer and engineer. So I went with him. The only snag was I had to do thirty trips while they were only doing twenty so I had to try and get in a few trips to catch him up when bomb aimers went sick. So we were posted to 50 Squadron. That was February the 1st I think when we went to 50 Squadron. I did twenty, twenty three trips I think altogether and then —
Interviewer: Do you remember some of the ops you went on.
LR: Pardon?
Interviewer: Some of the ops that you went on.
LR: Oh, they’re all down here. [pause – pages turning] The first op was on Wilhelmshaven and I flew with, remember a chap named Maudsley [unclear] I flew with him.
Interviewer: Oh right.
LR: Not my own pilot. And then we went on a cross country. We went on a cross country and everything went wrong on this cross country. Before we went on ops the whole crew, we did a training flight and it was a brand new aircraft. It was, it turned out there was something wrong with the compasses because I was up in the nose doing the map reading. It was daylight. A daylight thing and we had to fly down to Cambridge and then from Cambridge we were going across to Wales. South Wales, then up the Welsh coast and back to Lincoln. So we set course from here to Cambridge and I thought well that’s fair enough. There’s not, it’s the only big city [unclear] so I took it easy up in the front. Saw this big town coming up and I said, ‘Oh there’s a town coming up now, you know. This will be Cambridge.’ It will be Cambridge, Jock, wouldn’t it?’ You know just as the navigator was Jock. ‘Yeah, it should be.’ So we looked. We said, ‘It’s a bit big for Cambridge.’ And it was London [laughs] I know how trigger happy the crew were. We were frantically firing off the colours of the day and all this. So then we set course then back for Wales and it turned out that on courses east to west or west to east the compasses worked. But on north and south courses they were all haywire. We flew up the Welsh course. Of course, we knew going up the Welsh coast exactly where we were. And we of course had to map read from then on without a doubt. And then we landed back in at Skellingthorpe and as we landed the tyre burst and we cartwheeled along the runway, wrote the aircraft off. Cartwheeled along the runway and we all got out without any injury. That was absolutely amazing. And then after that I went to St Nazaire, Duisburg, twice I went to St Nazaire. And then I did a couple of so-called gardening trips laying mines and at Duisburg twice. On April the 8th and April the 9th I was with my own pilot. Then I went the next night with another pilot. His bomb aimer must have been sick. Then La Spezia, in Italy and then we did that boomerang trip. You know, when we went, we bombed Italy and went down to North Africa. And then we couldn’t get back to this country because of fog coming down so we spent a week down in Algiers and had the time of our life really. And then we flew back again.
Interviewer: How did you feel on these trips? Were you, you know did you dread them? Did you —
LR: Did we —?
Interviewer: Did you dread them or did you just see them as a job or —
LR: No.
Interviewer: Frightened.
LR: It was a job you know. People got shot down but it wasn’t you.
Interviewer: No.
LR: It was never going to be you. We would be alright. Frightened? Well, yes up to a point. Up to a point and you would go to the target and of course in the nose you’re looking at, you see the target and all the searchlights and flares going down and all sort of things and at the back there was a wonderful firework display if you like to put it that way but you think well how the hell am I going to get through this lot? And then came the job of dropping the bombs. And then you sort of dropped it and out the other side and you’d think we got through it. Then you’d set a course from home and that was it.
Interviewer: A lot of bomber crews put it down to teamwork but you were with a lot of different crews. Did that make any difference?
LR: It did up to a point. Yes. My own crew were brilliant. They really were. And we did some nice stuff. There were two things when I went with other pilots where one the navigator hadn’t a clue and we were leaving the target [papers shuffling]. Sorry.
Interviewer: Ok.
LR: And we did this one trip with this crew and he didn’t have a clue when we left the target. We set course and he didn’t know where we were and then we saw these islands. I was up in the nose and of course it was dark. I couldn’t see anything until I saw, ‘There’s coast coming up ahead pilot.’ He said, ‘Yes. Right. We’ll try and pinpoint something.’ Then there was some islands. I said, ‘There’s some islands down there in the sea.’ ‘Oh, bloody hell. It’s the Channel Islands.’ And of course, we got shot up all the while [laughs] but we knew where we were then of course and we had to land on the south coast because we were short of petrol. We were really running out of petrol and we landed I think one of the south coast aerodromes and we had breakfast there and, and then topped up with petrol and came back. But and there was another one where we had to ask assistance. We got back to this country and you could ask for assistance and what they did they sent up a searchlight and give you the exact coordinates of the searchlight so that the navigator knew where he was. And then that was, that was alright. You see it wasn’t very often that you could get a pinpoint at night except on one occasion I flew with a pilot to Italy. Milan, I think it was. Anyway, we flew on this one and it was absolutely bright moonlight and I was able to map read all the way over France it was so bright. And I map read right to the target and back again and giving the navigator pin points all the way. So, and then the result of this was a couple of days later or maybe a little bit later the bomb aimer for this particular pilot he’d been sick that night. The bomb aimer of this particular pilot came to me and said, ‘You’ve given me a right job you have.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘The pilot wants me to map read every night when we go.’ So I had to, I had to go to the pilot and say, ‘Look, that was exceptional that night.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t happen every night.’ So the poor old bomb aimer was taking the flak because, because I’d done a map reading and he wasn’t. And then we went, we did the Pilson raid. The first one. And we went on this raid and we used to have a kitty, the bomb aimers, we used to put a couple of bob each as it was then. Two bob. And the one who got like nearest the aiming point —
Interviewer: Got the photo.
LR: Scooped. The photo scoop.
Interviewer: Yeah.
LR: And I won it that night. I think I was four miles from the target. I can’t remember but it was several mile. It was more than a mile from the target and I won it and what happened was there was a little village near Pilson which was more or less the same shape and the PFF marked that village and we bombed the village and had to go back. I didn’t go on the second one but they sent another had to go back and do the raid again on Pilson.
Interviewer: You mentioned Henry Maudsley. Do you remember anything about him?
LR: Not really. No. Very aloof.
Interviewer: Ah.
LR: Sort of man. In a polite sort of way. You know. He was. Didn’t know much about him. He was a gentleman. Put it that way. He was a nice man. He was very good. Yes. Very good. On my first trip he was quite good to me. He was nice. We did trips to Pilsen and Duisburg and another one to Duisburg. That one we were attacked by a Junckers 88 on that one and I was with a Squadron Leader Birch. And his tactics if you saw a fighter was shove the nose down and the tale was told whether it was true or not several tales used to be told but two tales that were told about him which I shall tell you about so the rear gunner reported a fighter. I wasn’t with them. And so he put the nose down and dived down and the navigator was looking over his shoulder and said, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Diving down into that cloud.’ He said, ‘That’s not cloud. It’s snow.’ [laughs] Now, whether that was true or not I don’t know but it makes a nice tale.
Interviewer: They lived to tell it.
LR: Another time I was on leave and when I came back somebody said, ‘You ought to have been here.’ He said, ‘Peter Birch, he flew over Skellingthorpe with all the engines feathered.’ He said, ‘He got height and got to speed, feathered the engines and feathered all four engines and went over the aerodrome.’ Now whether that was possible or not I don’t, I mean people pooh pooh the idea. Whether it was true or whether it was a story again I don’t know. I’ve never been able to verify it. But it was said that he flew over, over the edge with all four engines feathered. So I don’t know. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I went to Dortmund. Wuppertal. Wuppertal is, wipe that out. Oberhausen. In June Turin. Oh, we went on a special trip to Reggio Emilia which is Northern Italy and it was, that was the one when we had to go down to Africa because it was in July and we couldn’t get back to this country without flying over France in daylight. So we went down to North Africa. We flew down there and my pilot was second in command of our Group. A Group I think it was five or six aircraft to attack this transformer station. Two of them we had to rendezvous over Lake Como I think it was. Two of them, two of them collided and crashed into Lake Como. The rest went on and there was a ground mist. We were having trouble identifying the target but eventually we identified it and we had to call up the other aircraft with a call signal. A code signal to say that we had got this aircraft and we dropped TI markers to identify it and they couldn’t see them. They didn’t know where it was so we went around and bombed the transformer station and then went around again and machine gunned it and we set course then for North Africa. To Blida. The others didn’t find it at all. They just went on and abandoned it. And this, this other group a squadron leader was in charge. He got a DFC and the navigator got a DFC as well. We were, we were a bit chuffed about that. So no and oh when we got to, went to Blida which was near Algiers and we had, we couldn’t get back to this country.
[recording paused]
Interviewer: Try that. Ok.
LR: Ok. When we had gone on this trip to North Africa the, apart from our crew the gunnery leader on the squadron wanted to go as well. He wanted to. He fancied this trip you see so he came along with us on the trip and we got to Blida and this chap’s name, he was well known that he never bought a drink. He was always missing when it was his round and a chap called, his name was Hipkin so my pilot was a pretty good at impersonating. He used to get on the telephone impersonating. There was all sorts of things went, jokes went on with this impersonating but while we were there he went, we had a big Mess at Blida. He went to the upstairs phone and phoned the bottom one and asked for Flight Lieutenant Hipkin, you see. And so he said, ‘Me. Here?’ You know, and off he went to the phone and he said, ‘Oh yes, we need a gunnery leader at –’ one of the bigger air place near Algiers. There’s a big, there was a big air base there. Anyway, he said, ‘We need an air gunner leader there so we’re posting you there.’ And he came back to us and he said, ‘I’ve been posted. I’ve been posted to Algiers.’ You know. We said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘What do I do?’ He says, ‘My wife’s back home,’ he said, ‘My car’s back there at the squadron. All my gear. What am I going to do?’ So we said, ‘Well, what is the posting?’ He said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘It’s a squadron leader posting.’ ‘Oh, you got promotion then.’ ‘Well it seems so.’ We said, ‘Well that calls for a drink.’ So he had to buy a round and then he became so agitated towards the finish the pilot went upstairs again and phoned again. Flight Lieutenant Hipkin. So he says, ‘Flight Lieutenant Hipkin? Yes. Yes. That’s me.’ He said, ‘What was your name?’ ‘Hipkin.’ ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘It’s not Hipkin we want. It’s Pipkin.’ He said, ‘We’ve got the wrong man.’ [laughs] So he came back down, he said, ‘Oh, it’s all a mistake,’ he said. So, ‘Well, that calls for another drink then.’ [laughs] So, you know, we did several trips after that to Milan, Leverkusen, Hanover, Cassel. Oh, we got this new wing commander and he took over our crew because my pilot had been posted away after he’d just done just, I think he’d only done seventeen trips and they posted him away. Anyway, we got this new wing commander and he took over the crew. ‘Right. We’ll go on a bombing trip to practice bombing.’ To Wainfleet. And up to then I’d been using the old mark, I forget what mark it was bombsight. The one where you used two dials and you used to have to twiddle these dials. Anyway, got on board this one and it had got the new Mark 10 or Mark 11. Something like that. Automatic. I’d never used one before. So I knew briefly how it worked. Well, I knew how it worked but what I couldn’t find when I got on board was I couldn’t find the switch to switch it on. So with a new wing commander, yeah and we were getting near Wainfleet and I thought well there’s only one thing to do. I can drop them by sight. I can’t, I can’t tell him. I can’t [laughs] I can’t find the switch for bloody working [laughs] So anyway, we were just turning, running on to the target and I clicked this switch and the thing worked. The bomb, it came around lovely and came and all the settings and I was able to bomb. Another, another time with my own crew we were practicing a time and distance run where you bomb a target. Let’s bomb something. Sight something that’s say two or three miles away from the target and then the navigator works out how long it would be. How long it would take to get from there to the target.
Interviewer: Yeah.
LR: And then it tells you when to press the button. And we did this on the bombing run at Wainfleet. So we started off and you worked out the time and distance and everything and said right. Now, I’m sat in the bomb aimers place. Not looking or anything. Right. Press the button and the bomb went off. Did a practice bomb and went off. I looked down and to my horror there was a line of trawlers going out. The bomb was heading straight for them. Fortunately missed them. That was the crew. And then of course it was Frankfurt. Missing.
Interviewer: [Frighteningly]
LR: I was shot down in Frankfurt.
Interviewer: Right. If you’d like to tell us about that it would be —
LR: Well, we were just running up towards the target and we were attacked by a Junkers 88. They attacked us. The first attack set the port engine, inner engine on fire and the pilot managed to stop that. He came around and again and I looked through the inspection hatch where the bomb bay, the bomb bays were on fire. And then he came around for a third attack and knocked out the, one of the starboard engines and the pilot gave the order to abandon because we were burning pretty well by then. And we had, the crew had just chest parachutes. We had the two hooks. I grabbed mine, put it on and missed one of the hooks. So just one hook fastened and as I did that the plane blew up. Now, I don’t know whether it was the petrol tanks that went or whether it was the bomb that went but the plane blew up. It threw me forward on to the bombsight and knocked me unconscious for a while and when I came to the entire nose of the plane had been blown off and I was trapped in there. My legs were trapped somehow. I don’t know what was coming. I tried to get out. Anyway, what I did I pulled the rip cord, the parachute pulled me out and I damaged my leg in doing it. I don’t know what happened. It was, I didn’t break it or anything. It just, my knee was, went funny and then I was holding the parachute for oh less than half a minute I should think. So if I hadn’t got out soon I would have you know. I don’t know how far I pulled and I landed in the middle of a wood. Fortunately, I landed in the same direction as the wind on a path so I didn’t get caught up in the trees. So I buried my parachute and whatnot and sort of started walking to see where I was and by, I walked at night. My leg kept giving way under me. I had a lot of trouble with that. I kept falling. But I came through a couple of villages and by this time it was starting getting light in the morning so I had a look for some place to hide. I walked to one village and people walking past me going to work I assume, you know. One of them said, ‘Morgen,’ you know. I said, ‘Morgen.’ And look, you know they didn’t take any notice of me.
Interviewer: Obviously –
LR: I was in my flying kit. Yeah. Battledress.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: And flying boots. And I got on the banks of this river. I knowing it was the Oder and, was it the Oder? Yes, it was the Oder. And there was a sort of lot of bushes and things there and I hid underneath these bushes and stayed there all day. I slept in actual fact and it was cold because it was January. It was December. December. And I stayed there all day. Then the next at night I got up to start walking again and I was way out on the road, nothing in sight and suddenly I heard the shout, ‘Halt.’ And it was just some German soldiers. So I tried the good morning trick, you know. ‘Morgen. Morgen.’ But it didn’t work [laughs] and they came up and shone a torch on me you know and I heard one of them say, ‘Englisher Flieger.’ You know. And rifles came off their shoulders and came down. That was that. I was taken prisoner. They took me to their headquarters. They were, they weren’t Army. They were Air Force, I think. And what happened they were guarding a Halifax which had crashed nearby and of course I shouldn’t have been out there so they took me in. They set me down at this table and they brought, a German officer came in and he sat at the other side of the table and I was sat on a stool and he said, he started to try and question me and he didn’t speak very good English. Very little English in actual fact. And I just said I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand. And then all of a sudden I got such a belt across the head. Knocked me off the stool and on to the floor and this, there was a German there, I think he was a sergeant major or something like that. He spoke perfect English. There was no doubt about it. And he said, ‘You stand on your feet. Stand.’ He said, ‘You stand on your feet when you’re talking to a German officer.’ Alright. You know. Nothing much I could do about that. So he said, ‘I’ll have your name, number, rank.’ At that time I was flying officer. I said, ‘Flying officer.’ So he said, ‘You’re not an officer.’ So I said, ‘Yes I am. Flying officer.’ ‘Where are your badges of rank’? I said and of course I had my battle dress so I said, ‘On my battle dress. On the shoulder.’ ‘Oh, they’re not badges of rank.’ He said, ‘Your badges of rank go on the sleeve.’ I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘These are my badges of rank.’ He said, ‘Where are your papers?’ I said, ‘I don’t have papers.’ He said, ‘When the Luftwaffe went over England,’ he said, ‘They had papers. Identity papers.’ I said, ‘But I’m not in the Luftwaffe.’ I said, ‘I’m in the Royal Air Force,’ I said, ‘And the only identity I have are these.’ I took my identity disks out and showed him. I said, ‘We don’t carry papers. We carry these.’ And he looked and the disks weren’t stamped with a rank. They were just stamped officer. He said, ‘Oh, you are an officer after all.’ I said, ‘Yeah. That’s what I’ve been saying.’ ‘Oh well,’ he said, ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘You’ll be hungry and thirsty no doubt.’ He said, ‘If you just sit down,’ he said, ‘And I’ll go and see if I can get you something.’ And he came back with the best glass of lager I’ve ever had in my life [laughs] and some black bread which was the worst bread I’ve ever had in my life.
Interviewer: Was he someone who did interrogations regularly do you think?
LR: No.
Interviewer: No.
LR: No, he wasn’t. These were Army.
Interviewer: Right.
LR: Air force, ordinary Air Force people.
Interviewer: Oh.
LR: And as it happens the main Interrogation Centre for aircrew was at Frankfurt.
Interviewer: Dulag Luft.
LR: Where I’d been shot down and there was, I had an armed guard the next morning took me to Frankfurt. I remember we went into the station and he sat me down on this seat. One of them stood there while the other one went off to make some enquiries and there was a civilian came past and he spat at me. Spat in my face. And the guard just moved him on. He, you know, ‘Go on.’ And when I saw the state of Frankfurt when I went through I could understand his feelings. Of course, then I went and we got on a tram and we went on a tram to Dulag Luft and as I remember it.
Interviewer: Yeah.
LR: Along with all the German people. A bit vulnerable really because Frankfurt was in ruins. And then they took me to Dulag Luft, straight into solitary confinement which was the psychological thing. Put into solitary confinement and when you’ve been put in there for a couple of days you could talk your head off when you come out. All they did was give me food and then there was a chap came in. He said he was from the Swiss Red Cross and, ‘Right. Name, number and rank,’ you see. ‘Where were you stationed?’ ‘What was you squadron?’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you that.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s only so I can tell your relatives. Inform your relatives that you’re safe.’ See. I said, ‘Well, all you need for that is my name, number and rank.’ He said, ‘Well, it would look better if you tell me.’ I said, ‘No. It’s not.’ [laughs] You know. Anyway, then they took me up. As it was early December and Christmas was coming up they took me out of solitary confinement early along with a lot of others. But first of all I had to go up for interrogation and again it was the proper interrogation people and he said, ‘Name, number and rank.’ I told them and they started asking questions and I had to say, ‘I can’t tell you that. I can’t.’ You know. They said, ‘Well, we know all about you, you know. It’s just a case of you verifying what we know.’ So I said, ‘Well, if you know all about me,’ I said, ‘I don’t need to tell you do I?’ He said, ‘How is Squadron Leader Parkes doing in his new post?’ And that threw me. Squadron Leader Parkes, he’d been promoted two days beforehand at the squadron, as squadron commander as a squadron leader. And only two days beforehand. ‘Now, how is Squadron Leader Parkes taken to his new post?’ New post.
Interviewer: You would have been trained in what would happen.
LR: Oh, we were told.
Interviewer: But were you prepared for how much they did know?
LR: No. I wasn’t.
Interviewer: No.
LR: I was amazed what they did know. Started telling me different things you see and that the idea is we were warned against this. The idea is to say well if they know that we might as well tell them what else they want to know. But if they gleaned just that little bit of information then they can use it on the next one. They said, they said, ‘We’ve got a friend of yours here.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘Flying Officer Hookes.’ I said, ‘Flying Officer Hookes? I don’t know anybody of that name.’ ‘Yeah. Flying Officer Hookes.’ And it turned out it was Flying Officer Hughes. They couldn’t pronounce it properly and Flying Officer Hughes was shot down that night. The same night. We became very good fiends in actual fact. Tommy Hughes. And that was it. Then they sort of released us. Well, I say released us they put us in a room altogether and because I’d damaged my knee they gave me a hospital bed to rest on. But then they transferred us then from there to Belaria, Stalag Luft 3 by the usual cattle truck.
Interviewer: Did you meet up with Hope who had also survived the –
LR: Not ‘til later.
Interviewer: Right.
LR: I thought that I was the only survivor because they said they’d found the bodies in the plane.
Interviewer: Oh, they did tell you.
LR: The Germans told me this at the time.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: They had found the plane with the bodies inside and what not.
Interviewer: Right.
LR: But they didn’t tell me that the wireless operator was safe and apparently he was blown through the side of the plane. No. He had applied for a commission and his commission came through after he was shot down.
Interviewer: Oh.
LR: And so the Germans being the Germans transferred him to an officer camp.
Interviewer: Oh.
LR: Which Stalag Luft 3 was an officer camp.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: And they transferred to him and he came and he came to Belaria.
Interviewer: You must have been surprised to see him.
LR: I was. He was surprised to see me [laughs] Yeah. And that was that. So I started life as a prisoner of war.
Interviewer: I don’t know, you can’t prepare yourself for anything like that so how did you find it or you know was it something to –
LR: Well, I spent the first three weeks I think it would be in hospital while they tried to do something about my knee and it was all swollen and they said I’d got fluid on it and whatnot and they were trying to treat me. I was in prison camp and it didn’t matter how long it took sort of thing. I had to have heat and used to have a big shield put over my leg with electric light bulbs in which was all heat. This went on until eventually I came out and went to the hut that had been with Tommy Hughes as well was in there. And —
Interviewer: How many more were in your particular hut?
LR: There were I think eight of us to start with. In the hut. In the room. The hut —
Interviewer: Oh yes. The rooms in the hut.
LR: Was divided into rooms.
Interviewer: That’s right. Yes.
LR: And I think it was eight to start with and then in double bunks.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: Double bunks. And then they put another bunk on the top and made them triple bunks and put more people in. We had some Poles came in and, a couple of Poles and it was quite crowded in actual fact.
Interviewer: And everyday life in a –
LR: Well, boredom was the main —
Interviewer: Right.
LR: Problem. People took courses. If somebody was an expert accountant he would, he would start teaching people accountancy or and so forth. Anything like that you see. And of course, there was, I was fortunate in that I was musical. I played a guitar and we had a band and that kept me busy because we used to do arranging and all sorts of things like that so that filled the day in. Arranging concerts and things. We had a very good band in actual fact. The leader was a chap called Whiteley, Len Whiteley who had been trumpeter with Billy Cotton’s band. And later on we got some Americans in the camp and we got a base player who used to play with one of the big American bands, you know. He was good. He was a good arranger as well. So we managed, you know.
Interviewer: You weren’t involved in escaping yourself but did you know –
LR: No.
Interviewer: Of people that were and did you take any part in —
LR: I didn’t take any part at all in the escape but we knew of it afterwards. Not before. We didn’t know. I mean these things were kept very quiet obviously. For obvious reasons. But we knew of it and the camp commandant, our camp commandant, the senior British officer as he was called was he said we were to boycott the Germans altogether. Not to speak to them. We used to bribe them for bring in, bring in a couple of eggs and give them a cigarette something like that but we weren’t. We had to stop all that sort of thing. Not to talk to them. Ignore them.
Interviewer: Tell us the story about the radio please.
LR: Oh. The radio. Well, we had a radio and it was this radio was dismantled. The carcase of the radio was hidden under the coals. Under a heap of coals in the hospital block. And the components were taken out each night and given to separate people, different people so that if one was sort of discovered it would just be one item gone and the radio was assembled every night for the 6 o’clock news. To receive the 6 o’clock news from Britain and then dismantled again and shared around. We became short. We had a valve failure. Now a valve in actual fact was a fairly major component and so we needed to get another one. Now, in the camp we had apart from the guards there were these goons. Well, we called them goons. Or ferrets. Ferrets we called them and they used to go around looking for trouble. And they used to go around looking for trouble like long screw drivers which they used to try to poke into the earth to try and detect tunnels and they would look under the huts because the huts were on, were built up over the ground on stilts more or less. Short stilts of course. And they would walk into a room looking to see if anybody was doing anything they shouldn’t be doing. Now, if they found anything important they were given a week’s leave and instant promotion to the next higher rank. So and at that time there was a tunnel in progress which had flooded. We found it did flood in the Belaria compound. We couldn’t get a tunnel going because it flooded. So we bodged this tunnel up. I say we I didn’t have anything to do with it. But they bodged this tunnel up so it looked like the genuine thing and then they said to one of the ferrets, ‘Bring us in a valve for the radio,’ you know. Oh No. No. He couldn’t do that. Couldn’t do that. That’s much too much. You know. So we said, ‘Look, if you do we’ll show you a tunnel.’ Ah. And so in came the valve. We got the valve for the radio. The ferret went off and reported to the commanding officer who’d only been there for a couple of weeks and he came bounding out in white overalls and everything saying, ‘Ah you know you can’t beat us Germans.’ And things like this and he was delighted. The commandant reported to his superiors that he’d found a tunnel and the ferret got his week’s leave and we got our valve. So everybody was happy. Yeah. So some funny things went on. I don’t know how far it’s true this story but I did, the story went around that now we had to be careful when a new influx of prisoners came in that they didn’t infiltrate a German with them. So they had, all prisoners had to be vetted. When we used to flock around the gates. Flocking around the gates wasn’t to welcome the prisoners as much as to see if you knew anybody. And if you knew somebody you pointed them out. Oh we knew him, you know. So that invariably everybody knew somebody. And apparently they got one chap who was suspect in this place and when they questioned him closely he didn’t seem very knowledgeable about things. Not as knowledgeable as he should have been and they were fairly sure, absolutely sure really that he was a German infiltrator and so they reported to the commandant the next day that one of their men had been too overcome. It had been too much for him. He drowned himself in the fire pool. And now, I can’t verify that story but it was prevalent at the time. It came around. It wasn’t in our compound and as I say it’s a story you’ve got to be careful about telling really.
Interviewer: You’ve met or at least knew of personalities like Bob Stanford Tuck and Douglas Bader.
LR: I never met Bader. I met Tuck and Roland Beamont.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: He came while I was there. He came to the camp and for the next two days I should think or more than that you couldn’t separate him and Tuck. They were there with their hands going all over the place fighting all the battles all over again [laughs]
Interviewer: But not good reports of Bader’s behaviour.
LR: Bader wasn’t well liked. He, we had Escape Committees and if you had any ideas for escape you put them to the Escape Committee and they decided on the feasibility of it and what not. Also, the main reason was that you didn’t try some foolhardy, foolhardy attempt and jeopardise any escape attempt that was in progress. So, but Bader would have none of that. He said if he got the chance he would go regardless. He didn’t believe in Escape Committees and he was fairly arrogant I believe. And although I’d never met him but I know he wasn’t well liked.
Interviewer: And when you heard about the fifty that had been shot after the Great Escape that must have been a terrible shock.
LR: Oh, that was, you know. We just couldn’t get over it. It put a whole new light on escaping really. Any attempt to escape before that was sort of an adventure if you’d like to put it that way. If you got away with it well and good. If not well well what it did among other things if somebody escaped it tied up the police and Home Guard in the area or the military in the area trying to find them, you know. And we thought well, you know keep the Germans busy. If they’re looking for me then I’ve done something else.
Interviewer: Did morale drop in the –
LR: It did a bit. Yes. We said, well what do we do about escaping, you know?
Interviewer: So you, you stayed there until July, January ’45.
LR: Yes.
Interviewer: And the –
LR: When the Russians advanced.
Interviewer: Yes. And —
LR: We could hear the Russian guns.
Interviewer: And did you feel that this was, you know –?
LR: Well, this is the end. Yes.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: This is the end. But then Hitler ordered that if prison camps looked like being overrun the prisoners had to be shot you know. And they dropped, the Air Force dropped leaflets warning prison commandants that they were responsible and if any prisoners were harmed [pause] I’ve got one of the leaflets in actual fact. And they, we didn’t know what to make of it really. We didn’t know what, you know. Anyway, we, we moved out of the camp and we walked through —
Interviewer: You weren’t given much notice I don’t think.
LR: Not a lot of notice. We said that we were going to go out one day. I think it was as I remember it was, we said we would go out one morning and then it was postponed until the next day. Something like that. And anyway, we went off walking and it wasn’t very good.
Interviewer: And the snow and the cold.
LR: It was a cold winter of course and the winters out there were particularly cold.
Interviewer: And you wouldn’t have much clothes.
LR: Just sleeping at night in barns and pig styes or whatever wherever we could. Just bed down and just as we were.
Interviewer: I understand that the guards suffered as much as the –
LR: The guards did.
Interviewer: Yes.
LR: Of course they did. Yes. Yes. Yes, they were fed up.
Interviewer: And you were taken to —
LR: To Luckenwalde. Now, that was a big camp, you know. There were French, Italians, Russians. Oh, the Russians they were absolutely badly treated the Russians were. The Russian prisoners. We used to see them being taken out to work you know and you know, terrible. But when we were, we were released we went into the Russian barracks and some of the murals that they’d painted on the walls were fantastic. The Russians released us but in actual fact we were still prisoners of the Russians then because there was this thing going on at home between Stalin and Churchill over the Cossacks. And I believe, we didn’t know at the time but I think we were held as political prisoners to a bargaining thing because we didn’t, we weren’t released until June. We listened to the May, the VE Day celebrations. We listened to them on the radio in the camp. We were still in the camp.
Interviewer: How did you feel about that?
LR: Not very, not very much. We were fed up with the Russians. In actual fact there was a jeep, an American jeep came through with some report, two reporters and they said, ‘Who are you lot?’ And we told them. They said, ‘Well, we didn’t know anything about you.’ They said, ‘We’ll have a convoy come and pick you up.’ And they did. The next day a convoy of American lorries arrived at the camp and some of the lads tried to get on board and the Russians wouldn’t let them. And we thought, we ran along, some of us ran along the road a bit. We could get out of the fence and catch the lorries as they were leaving because the Russians turned them around and the Russians fired on us. Fired over our heads and stopped us from getting on the lorries. They said what they wanted, they wanted to register us and the senior British officer said, ‘Tell me what you want registering.’ They wanted the name. Your name and your rank, number and where you lived. Where you came from. And he said, ‘If you give me a couple of days I’ll give you, I’ll get you all that.’ But no. they had to do it the Russian way and what they were doing they were translating it into Russian. Cyrillic lettering and it took them about two weeks to do it. It was all time wasting. We had, they let us out. They let us move from the camp. It was south and east a little bit. About a half a mile or so. We would go for a walk if we wanted to rather than be in the confines of the camp. They promised us radios and food and goodness knows what which never materialised and just on the other side of the wire there had been a park and there was a lovely lake there. So we, somebody said, ‘Oh, we’ll go swimming.’ And off we went to swim in the lake. Of course, nude of course. There were no swimming costumes and off we went. There was such a big thump in this lake. We wondered what on earth was that? Sort of looked around and the Russians were still on the thing, on the top throwing grenades into the water. Threw the grenades and they made a good bump. All the Russian girl soldiers were all there waiting and we all came scrambling out of the water you see [laughs] scrambled out and back into the barracks and the Russian girl soldiers laughing like mad. One of the things of course leading up to that was we got a lot of refugees in and woke up one day and the hut was divided into, big huts they were and divided in two. In the centre portion was a washing area with a big sort of round basin. Taps all the way around it where we could wash and whatnot. And we got up one morning and it was sort of walked down to this place and there was some ladies stripped off washing. Well, we just couldn’t believe it you know. We had to get washed and the toilets there were the seats, you know, open. There would seats along one side and then seats on this side and we went to the toilet and women were there as well thinking nothing of it. You’d just, you know and we just couldn’t get on with this somehow. Sharing a toilet with a lady and washing with her. You know. Especially having, having been cooped up for a long time. Yes. That was all very primitive. It was a very primitive camp was Luckenwalde. The food. We didn’t get any Red Cross parcels at first and the food was just barley and mint tea.
Interviewer: Was there a lot of illness?
LR: Not as much as you would expect, I think. The main trouble with that sort of thing was when they transported us. We were, they took us out once, they were going to move us from the camp and they put us in these railway trucks and crowded into these trucks you know with no toilet facilities and it used to be shocking. Of course, some of the men had diarrhoea and that and couldn’t control themselves and there was nothing they could do.
Interviewer: No.
LR: And we used to, we used to drain hot water out of the engines thing to make tea with, you know. Out of the engine tank. The steam. Steam engine. And oh, it wasn’t very good. Then they decided that after two or three days we couldn’t move anyway. The railways couldn’t move us so we went back into the camp again and we stopped there until they decided, the Russians decided that we could move. The Americans came. They took us to an American base and oh, we got there. White bread, coffee. Proper coffee and all proper food and everything. Luxury. And we were there for a while while they arranged transport to take us back. And they took us on a, we went on a Dakota back to Brussels. And then in Brussels we went on a Lincoln bomber back to England and the reception in England was absolutely fantastic. We didn’t know what to expect because we’d had, there were letters we got from home accusing us of being cowards for being prisoners of war and things like this you know. One letter a girl wrote to say she was marrying somebody else. She said, “I’d rather marry a –“ what was it? [pause] Rather marry this man than marry an Air Force coward. Something like that. But you know these things happen and we didn’t know what sort of reception to expect. So was that.
Interviewer: When you came home did you go to Cosford?
LR: I think. I think Cosford.
Interviewer: Yeah.
LR: Yes. Cosford. Yes. And when we got there there was a whole load of WAAFs waiting to escort us in and it was late at night. It was, it was around about twelvish or thereabouts and they’d had a dance there before, before we got there and the band had packed up. And they unpacked their instruments and played for a dance just for us. And we were all packed up and disinfected and goodness knows what and sent off home.



Claire Bennett and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Les Rutherford,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 27, 2024,

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