Interview with Charles Avey


Interview with Charles Avey
1028-Avey, Charles


Charles Avey volunteered for the RAF with his friend who was fanatical about the RAF. Charles trained as a gunner. His friend was posted to the Air Ministry. On one training flight the crew were suddenly concerned at the sight ahead of what looked like a large sandbank. This turned out to be the island of Texel where German fighters were based. The first pilot Charles was crewed with became unable to fly on medical grounds and so Charles and his crew had to find a new pilot. They were posted to 617 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa.

Temporal Coverage





00:20:31 audio recording


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Interviewer 1: This is an interview with Mr Charles Avey at Thorpe Camp on the 14th of May 2011 about his experiences at the end of the Second World War as an air gunner with 617 Squadron.
CA: Well —
Interviewer 1: So, Charles —
CA: What particular question would you, you can think of the questions better than I can think of the answers I suppose.
Interviewer 1: So, you joined the RAF.
CA: Yeah.
Interviewer 1: In —
CA: Yeah. I volunteered to join when I was eighteen and got called up later in the year. 1943, of course. Yeah. But I, we were crewed up eventually with, but we lost, we lost our captain. We had a Flight lieutenant. We lost him because he got lumbago or something of that nature so he couldn’t carry on with us. So we ended up at Lanc Finishing School, picked up another Canadian, a Canadian captain. Flight Lieutenant Gordon Price who was going back on he’d done a tour and he was, and he was going back on main ops. But we got posted then directly to 617 Squadron.
Interviewer 1: How did you feel about that?
CA: Well —
Interviewer 1: Had you heard about it?
CA: Well, I knew of it. Particularly as it was getting near the Tirpitz business thing you know and while I was there that’s what, as we arrived the Tirpitz business was just over so we missed that of course. But I did it. I did about eleven ops after that to various places. Bielefeld and Hamburg, Bremen, Ijmuiden, [Porteshaven], Bergen. I can remember them anyway. And we lost a few crews. Four. Four crews I think in that time you know. Well, what I think about it mainly is that 1945 that early spring we were doing daylights of course. Frequently we’d go off like to Bielefeld having heard the Met man say it would be all clear. When we got there, no. It wasn’t all clear at all so you would come back. We did three trips there before [laughs] before they demolished the darned thing which the people, the local people must have been very pleased with because we kept going over threatening them and nothing happened. There you are. But I remember it. Particularly good weather you know. Apart from when we went to Bergen January the 12th and we lost a couple of crews there I think it was but coming back across the North Sea the combination of rain and sleet and snow the waves were coming up to the aircraft and the cloud was coming down to the waves. The most frightening thing I’d ever known. It really, it was more frightening than anything else I think. I couldn’t believe it. If anybody went down in that you’d never survive. And although I was born in Brighton I couldn’t swim. It wouldn’t have done me any good anyway. But oh, it was quite, it was quite an experience at Woodhall Spa living in spartan conditions. Springtime was nice but the winter was pretty, pretty grim like most airfields. I mean the ground staff had it even worse. They were wallowing about in mud a heck of a lot. I mean without them where would we be? We took everything for granted that when we went to the aircraft it would be spot on and they were, you know. Every admiration for the ground staff.
Interviewer 1: So you were an air gunner at this time.
CA: I was a gunner. Yeah. Yeah.
Interviewer 1: Did you choose that or is that what —
CA: Yes. Yes, when I went up I did attestation as they called it at St John’s Wood and they took various information from us and said, ‘Well,’ you know, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to be a pilot?’ I’d joined up. A mate of mine, I worked in a factory which meant I could stay there through the war. It was a sheltered sort of thing. Making things for the Admiralty I was at the time and a mate of mine wanted to go in. He was fanatical about the RAF and he wanted to go in. He talked me into going as well. So we both joined up together. Went up together. He subsequently, he wanted to be a pilot. Nothing else. It was all Fighter Command and the glamour and so forth but I thought, I thought, well I know that if you do that it’s a very long course obviously. So, I thought no. I’ll take the short route. I’ll be a gunner. Subsequently, I came on holiday, on leave at the end of the war and he got on the train at Victoria Station and he said, ‘How have you been doing?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ve done a few ops with 617 Squadron,’ and so forth. ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘Well, I started my flying training. Then they said they didn’t want any more and now I’m making tea in the Air Ministry.’ [laughs] That cheered me up enormously that did. Yeah. He was the bloke that talked me in to going in. Yeah. Oh dear. And I went back to the factory where I worked and he was there. He was there. I had to keep ribbing him about that of course. Yeah.
Interviewer 1: Were you on the last operation to Berchtesgaden?
CA: No. I didn’t do that. No. I seem to have missed one or two good ones. We used to go on leave every six weeks you see. Had a week’s leave. Lord Nuffield would give us a few bob. Something like that. I suppose you’ve heard of that. That we always had this extra bit of cash and yeah, every six weeks we were on leave it seemed. And then you’d come back and find that somebody had done, they’d been out and that. Then the weather clamped down and you’d have a couple of weeks loafing about because that’s what most of war is isn’t it? You loaf about and then you get little bits of danger. Then, then it’s all a matter of hanging on and getting bored and flying training and so forth.
Interviewer 1: Did you get used to flying backwards?
CA: It never occurred to me. Oh yeah. It never occurred to me to be otherwise you know. No. But —
Interviewer 1: And you coped with the cold and all the other —
CA: Oh well. You had to cope with all the cold but, mind you when we, not like the earlier aircraft I mean we had electric socks which plugged into the suit and electric gloves. Like four pairs of gloves and I mean you know it’s, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all really except as the rear gunner I did the rear gunner now and again with my partner and we had a clear vision panel. So it could be a bit drafty right but no I didn’t feel any great any discomfort. I didn’t even feel any danger. I suppose I thought you know there was a chap up the front looking after me. I had my faith in him. Whoever I flew with. Yeah.
[another voice in the room]
Interviewer 2: Can I ask you where you did your training as an air gunner?
CA: Well, where was it? Bridgnorth was, I went up to Bridlington as an Initial Training Wing and then Bridgnorth was Elementary Air Gunnery School and Stormy Down at Pyle in Glamorgan was —
Interviewer 2: Right.
CA: The Air Gunnery School where we did flying in Ansons and simulated attacks and so forth.
Interviewer 2: And did you use when you were in the initial stage I’ve seen pictures of air gunners training on the ground in turrets.
CA: Oh yes. We had —
Interviewer 2: You went up and down on the —
CA: And a railway thing went around.
Interviewer 2: That’s it.
CA: Yeah.
Interviewer 2: Can you tell us about that please?
CA: Well, I only, we only went once. That was at Port, Port Talbot I think in South Wales but I can’t remember it very much. It didn’t seem too relevant somehow sitting there in, but we did do that. That was, it wasn’t a major feature of our training as such.
Interviewer 2: What about the skills of deflection shooting? How did, how did that work?
CA: Oh yes. We were trained on that. We had, when we had Ansons we flew in, we went up three or four in an Anson and, and marked aircraft would attack us and we had a cine camera thing which people presumably played later to see how we did. But nobody ever came back with any results about what we did, you know.
Interviewer 2: So you really just had to learn it yourself.
CA: Yeah.
Interviewer 2: Rather than be trained.
CA: Well, it was we were taught. A lot of classroom work but the same as dismantling the guns.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: And so forth. But everybody passed out as satisfactory, I think. That was the word that covered everything you know. Very few were exemplary. We didn’t quite know what exemplary would be.
Interviewer 2: We’ve read how when you were firing at the drogues —
CA: Oh yeah.
Interviewer 2: The bullets had paint on to see if you hit. Was that the case? Was that how it worked?
CA: Yes. Yes. We, I know we went out over the, coming down the North Sea coast and we were firing and we lost a drogue. It wasn’t very good that really but suddenly somebody said, ‘What’s all that in front of us? It’s all it looks like a big sandbank or something.’ Apparently, the navigator had got things a little bit wrong and we were approaching Texel.
Interviewer 1: Oh dear.
CA: Which was, which was [laughs] a German fighter base. So we had a quick turn to starboard and hared back into RAF Heyford, Upper Heyford.
Interviewer 2: Yeah. Yeah.
CA: Yeah. That was our —
Interviewer 2: Yes.
Operational Training Unit, was it?
Interviewer 2: Yes, I think it was. Yes.
CA: Something like that.
Interviewer 2: Did you ever meet Tom McLean?
CA: Oh, I heard a great deal about Tom McLean. Yeah.
Interviewer 2: What can you tell us about him? Because —
CA: Well, no. I didn’t hear anything special and I subsequently read that he was quite, he was a gunner with some prowess. Yeah.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: Yeah. Yeah. I mean apart from one or two occasions during 1945 of course we were escorted. We didn’t even see the escort half the time unless they dropped their fuel tanks and they were all flashing being aluminium.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: But so we were, we were in the main untroubled other than flak.
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
CA: Which was which was the worst thing really. That’s what took our losses but I think it was over Bremen we were attacked coming back from bridges over Bremen and they had the jet aircraft. German jet aircraft coming through.
Interviewer 2: You saw a 262, did you?
CA: Well, I saw them and then they were gone you know. We were at the front of a big main force.
Interviewer 2: Right.
CA: And I saw these ME262s I think.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: But by the time you saw them they had gone like.
Interviewer 2: Yeah. Did you make up your own loads?
CA: No. No. No. We always —
Interviewer 2: [unclear] the load were you?
CA: We were always told what ammunition.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: No. No. I never had to do that at all. No. The ground staff did it all.
Interviewer 2: We had heard that some gunners did choose their own loads and I didn’t know whether you knew about that at all.
CA: Well, I knew that, I think when we were training it was mentioned sort of thing but we were never called upon to do that.
Interviewer 2: Right.
CA: In fact, we were never called upon to do much at all. Apart from get in the aircraft quite frankly you know.
Interviewer 2: Gosh. When I came in you were talking about some of the raids and I know that some of those raids you were dropping Grand Slams.
CA: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Interviewer 2: What was it like when the bomb left the aircraft?
CA: Oh well, I don’t know. It’s like getting a kick up the rear you might say. Yeah. It was quite noticeable. They reckoned the aircraft used to say thank God [laughs] and the wings would go up or something like that. You know, yeah, I think we, I think we dropped one. I mean it was very rare. Most of the people at the front, the CO and the two flight commanders they would have them while the rest of us had Tallboys.
Interviewer 2: Right.
CA: But, as I say we, while I was there we didn’t drop many bombs. We brought quite a few back because nobody wanted, they were so expensive we didn’t want, didn’t want to scatter them all over the fields of Germany and do no good with them. I know some chaps went to Sheffield I think where they made these things and they came back and they said these ten tonners there’s a man inside with earmuffs, masks and all that, goggles and everything with a wheel going [unclear] wheel.
Interviewer 2: Spinning it up.
CA: Yeah. Tidying it up I suppose when it was forged. Yeah. I thought what a job. We thought we had a bad job. I wonder what he’d get, I bet he got paid more than us mind you. He should have done. I felt good God what a thing to do.
Interviewer 2: Have you been back into, into a Lancaster since? Since those days have you been back into the turret at all?
CA: No. No. I’ve been, I’ve been to East Kirkby and that.
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
CA: And I’ve been to Coningsby but East Kirkby well we can’t get in there. It’s all a matter of insurance isn’t it, I think?
Interviewer 1: That’s at Coningsby I think. You have been in the one at East Kirkby. It’s Just Jane that taxis.
CA: Yeah, I haven’t. No. They wouldn’t let us in there. No. We saw the farmers. We met the two farming gents there but I know —
Interviewer 2: You should have been given a privileged tour.
CA: Well —
Interviewer 2: That’s another story.
CA: You can’t, you can’t trust people. I might go and pull something and bring the undercarriage up [laughs]
Interviewer 2: We heard a story about how some young RAF people were looking at the turret of a Lancaster. You know, fit young people couldn’t get into it and a gentleman such as yourself was standing there and said, ‘This is how we did it in 1943 and slipped into the rear turret as though it was yesterday.
CA: Oh yeah. Well, the rear turret you could slide down a padded thing and slid into it. The mid-upper was darned awkward.
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
CA: A leg came down like. You put one foot on it, hoist yourself up in there and, well then you were in. But that was it. I always thought that was if you were a rear gunner you could have a pilot type chute and sit on it and turn it ninety degrees, open the tin doors at the back and you hoped they’d open because they would slide. If you get a mechanic in there with massive great boots and he kicks it the chances are they’d jam but there you are. You had to think about that. But then you could roll out the back. Not the, I mean the alternative is, well we won’t talk about that bit but I thought getting out of a mid-upper could be really dodgy. You’d have to find your foot to get down and then you would have to go and open the back door, sit down and roll out. Yeah.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: We rehearsed it in our mind several times. Never had to do it.
Interviewer 2: Thank goodness.
CA: I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have wanted to sit on this step and freeze.
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
CA: Really. Because, you know if you freeze well it might be too late.
Interviewer 2: Yeah. Yeah.
CA: And remember which side the grip, the release was. No good grabbing a hand over this, over this side.
Interviewer 2: Wearing your braces too —
CA: Yeah. These things go through your mind don’t they?
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
CA: But I never had occasion to worry about such things fortunately.
Interviewer 2: When you hear the Lancaster or see the Lancaster today —
CA: Unmistakable, isn’t it?
Interviewer 2: Yeah. Does it bring back all sorts of memories to you?
CA: Well, I always like to see it when it comes over here. When we, when I was up here a few years back when we had this, a wedding at the Petwood I was in the doorway with the bride and groom. As it happened I was standing at the doorway just before their wedding and the Lanc came over from Coningsby right down low. So I said, ‘We ordered that for you especially.’ Whether they believed it or not [laughs] but, oh that’s quite something when that comes over isn’t it? I’ve seen it on several places you know.
Interviewer 2: Well hopefully it will fly over, you know this weekend at some point.
CA: Well, I asked if our squadron was coming down for the flypast but I’m told that they’re probably in Afghanistan or something. Somebody sent them away. That’s what they told me.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
CA: But John Bell, ex-Wing Commander John Bell who is here with us here, he said, ‘I think 9 Squadron are going to do the flypast. If they can find us.’ There was always something like that.
Interviewer 2: The rivalry still exists.
CA: There’s always this dig you see. These people [laughs] us at 9 Squadron and they’re still arguing over the bit of bulkhead of the Tirpitz that passes from hand to hand when people can rescue it so to speak. Yeah. Theres been several occasions apparently on that.
Interviewer 2: Your spirit is absolutely remarkable. The same humour and the same spirit from those days. You still have that and its absolutely inspirational.
CA: I laugh. I’ve often laughed my way through life I suppose really. Done nothing special. Boring job. Sixty years of marriage. I lost my wife last July.
Interviewer 2: She’s just here I think.
Interviewer 1: No, his daughter.
Interviewer 2: Oh, daughter is it?
CA: Are they there? I’m on the radio, yeah and sixty years we were married and I lost the wife last year.
Interviewer 2: Oh, I’m sorry.
CA: But they kept me going. These two. I wasn’t allowed to become a recluse and cut myself off from the world. No. No.
Interviewer 2: Well, it’s been a privilege hasn’t it to meet you and to listen to what you’ve been saying. An absolute privilege.
CA: Well, I think nobody realises I’m eighty six. I laugh when the man in the fish shop said to her, ‘This old boy comes in here with a cap on.’
Other: ‘He’s come up from Brighton,’ he said.
CA: She said, ‘That’s my dad.’
Other: He said, ‘Have you seen him?’ I said, ‘He’s my dad.’
CA: A skinny little bloke with a cap on. About sixty.
Other: ‘He’s moved up here from Brighton.’ I said, ‘I know.’
CA: Sixty [laughs] I thought whoopee.


Claire Bennett and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Charles Avey,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 19, 2024,

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