Interview with John Firth


Interview with John Firth


John Firth was a flight engineer with 50 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe June to August 1944. He was shot down in August 1944 on his 20th operation and became a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 7.




Temporal Coverage




01:30:01 audio recording


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CB. My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 6th of July 2016 I am in Slough with John Firth who was a Flight Engineer on 50 Squadron and he is going to talk about his life and particularly his RAF Experiences. John what are the first things that you remember?
JB. Well, well after leaving School?
CB. No the first things you remember in life with your Parents where were you born and what did you do?
JB. Oh, I was born, I was born in Yorkshire in a little village called Thurnscoe and, and we moved down when I was five years old to, to Slough. Em, and we moved down because my Father got a bit of a chest problem with the dust and that and so we moved down here. He did quite well then afterwards em, in the building trade. I personally left school at, at fourteen and eh I got a little job for the Co-op as an errand boy and I, I had that for about eighteen months. After which I went into a factory em it’s called Sweeties and eh I, I stayed in there until I was called up at eighteen. And so when I went into the RAF I went to Padgate where, where we got introduced to all the rights and wrongs and legal side of things and I done about three months there. Then I went to, “where was it?”
CB. You went to Locking.
JB. Locking it was Locking, I em which was a Flight Mechanics course, that took about three months and then “what did I do then” I have lost my bit of paper.
CB. What were you learning at Locking?
JB. Engineer, Engines mostly other, other, other fellows were aircraft, that’s the aircraft em [pause].
CB. That was all types of aero engine was it?
JB. Any type whatever was fitted to the aeroplanes. So we took that, that didn’t last very long and I, I was, I went to “where was it?”
CB. To Colerne.
JB. To Colerne.
CB. To the MU at Bath at Colerne, yeah.
JB. And from Colerne I went to. I went to, I was posted to.
CB. To St Athan.
JB. To St Athans, St Athans.
CB. What did you do there?
JB. I took on the Flight Engineers course.
CB. What did that involve, what was involved in the Flight Engineers course?
JB. That involved more Engineering knowledge, more then for Airframes as well but that, that, that’s took about three months.
CB. And how broad was that, what other things Airframes, Engines what else?
JB. Airframes and Engines.
CB. What else, hydraulics?
JB. Hydraulics and whatever is going to be in the near future for me. Em from there I got, I went to Scampton waiting for me Crew and was there a few weeks when I got posted again to Wigsley where I picked me Crew up and then, which they had been flying on Blenheims for a number of weeks and months and eh, and so with a four engined bomber they had to have an Engineer.
CB. They’d been on Wellingtons.
JB. Sorry.
CB. They had been on Wellingtons.
JB. They had been on Wellingtons, yes. Where were we?
CB. So from Wigsley, what were you flying at Wigsley?
JB. Flying Stirling’s at Wigsley and had a very short course there to contradict what we had already learned on the Lancaster, every thing was electric on Stirling’s, electric undercarriage, flaps and that sort of thing.
CB. And this was and HCU?
JB. Yeah at Wigsley.
CB. Then what?
JB. And once we done that we, we, we moved Crew then, we were all satisfied with the Crew, they seemed to be satisfied with me.
CB. How did you Crew up in the first place?
JB. Well we met, well I met the NC, the NCOs in the Sergeants Mess and they introduced me to the two Officers who were the Pilot and the Bomb Aimer so from there we went to Syerston didn’t we?
CB. From Wigsley you went to Syerston.
JB. To Syerston, where we did a short course on sort of Affiliation sort of thing.
CB. That was the Lancaster again, that was the Lancaster Finishing School.
JB. Yes that’s right and then.
CB. So when you were at the Finishing School what did you do then at the Finishing School in the Lancaster?
JB. Well we got, we immediately went to 50 Squadron and early June was our first Op.
CB. Which year are we now, which year 1944 and the first op?
JB. It was Stuttgart, woof, we didn’t get there, it got cancelled so we turned so we missed a little bit of something. Em and from there on we, as a Crew we gelled very well together and eh.
CB. So you went to Stuttgart on your first Op why was that abortred.
JB. That I never found out but it just got aborted by radio.
CB. How far were you on the trip?
JB. It was well over the North Sea so we turned back, we turned back and from then on like I said the Crew gelled very well and then [background microphone noise]
CB. Keep going.
JB. Until the last OP.
CB. So what other trips did you do?
JB. Stuttgart, Keil, Gelsenkirchen and a lot, a lot of them were in France helping the, the Soldiers that were on the ground because we just invaded we just went into France that was what we were doing.
CB. They were daylight raids,
JB. Pardon.
CB. They were daylight raids was they over France.
JB. No some was night time, most of them was in night time in Germany and there was a, one trip we went to was the [hesitant] Les Desaurant[?] I think it was a Marshalling Yard south of, south of Paris we went for two days running there because we didn’t do the first job and the second job, the second time we were on went. We got shot up there, there was a big hole underneath the [unclear] turret, the Skipper couldn’t hold the kite, hold the aircraft steady because it was too, he had no help. The trimmer, one of the trimmers had gone. So my job, I had to go and repair it, which I did.
CB. So this is on the tail plane, the trimmer on the tail plane?
JB. That’s right.
CB. So how did you repair that?
JB. Well with the eh dinghy, there is a certain amount of eh space when I pulled the wires together which had been cut. So I doubled them back and, and tied them up with the tail plane and every time I moved, like this, it moved the trimmer. And the Skipper kept moaning at me [laugh] but it worked, it worked anyway. So when we landed, we crashed because one of the, one of the tyres were flat and dug in and shot over and we. I think it was a right off but we all got out.
CB. Can you just us through that, so you come in, did you know the tyre was punctured when you were on approach.
JB. No I didn’t ‘cause it only looked exactly the same as a good wheel, well it, it had a slice in it.
CB. The Pilot had no idea he was going to experience this inbalance?
JB. No he didn’t.
CB. Ok, so what happened, as soon as he touched down?
JB. As soon as he touched down it, it swung, dug in like.
CB. On the runway, on the concrete runway.
JB. It shot us off the runway and but em.
CB. Which way?
JB. Port side, Port side and that was it, well the Ground Crew told me the following morning we was very, very lucky because after the trimmers and all that, they had these rods that worked the elevators and the, and the rudders one of those was split almost in half. So it was very lucky that didn’t bend otherwise we would have been in trouble.
CB. So the under, the tyre, the wheel dug into the runway did the undercarriage collapse, what happened?
JB. No not really it just dug in, the damage the shells hit it with damaged all the tailplane so we was very lucky on that one.
CB. So on these circumstances what did they do, take the tail of and change it?
JB. I don’t know, I don’t really know, we didn’t fly in it again [unclear] it was a right off.
CB. So you had to have a new aeroplane?
JB. Well I suppose, yes.
CB. Was it new or did they just give you another one?
JB. I don’t know, don’t know.
CB. So which flight, how many raids was this. How many trips had you done at that stage?
JB. At that stage?
CB. Just roughly.
JB. Let me look in me book. [pages turning]
CB. We are just looking at the list,I’ll hang on.
JB. Something after that was an NFT.
CB. Right.
CB. So this seems to have been the sixth Op that you went on, and eh so what happened after that?
JB. Eh, everything went well we did a few [unclear] and another Stuttgart and so forth. I say we gelled very well until August the 8th, 7th and 8th.
CB. What happened then?
JB. We got shot down.
CB. Ok can you take us through that. So was it a Fighter or flak?
JB. It was a Fighter.
CB. What was your target that day?
JB. It was a raid on Sepperaville [?] and when we got there [unclear] we had a wireless confirmation to stop bombing, or they stopped bombing. So we carried the bombs and we were going to sort of drop in the South of England, not on England [laugh] and we got the Navigator to give us a route between Le Havre and Lauren it would take us where we wanted to be and it was about midnight and we was, we was, the Gunners decided, warned us we had, had a visitor which was a Fighter and they. It was round about eight or nine hundred yards, or feet I don’t know. Then he started getting closer, and closer until the Rear Gunner said do a Corks, Corkscrew Skip put down to port ‘cause he is on the port side and down we went quickly, I had, I was standing then and eh [laugh] I had nothing to hold onto and so gravity through me to the ceiling of the canopy and when he pulled out I dropped down onto me knees. I got up and this Fighter had opened fire and strafed us right across the wing tip, or wings from wing tip to wing tip. One shell went through in between the Skipper and I and broke the front, front glass and that and a fire started, fire. The Skipper said we will try and put this fire out, I pressed all the buttons that were required. Then he said “abandon aircraft.”
CB. Where was the fire?
JB. The fire, right along the wings, wings. I was coming out of petrol which was spread out obviously and wings well on fire he said “is that it” I say, [unclear] he said “abandon aircraft.” I stayed there with him, because it was my duty to look after him as well as me. I found his parachute, gave it to him, but he took it off, he hardly put it on. He put it alongside himself because he was trying to hold, hold the aircraft in a steady position for people.
CB. So people could get out?
JB. Yeah, so some got out the back, I, and then he said to me, “go on get out John.” And I went down into the Bomb Aimers place where the trap door was and I couldn’t believe, this is true, but the hole you get out of was halved because the cover had been drawn back by the slip stream and jammed in this hole. I kicked it, I pushed it [laugh] I couldn’t move it. So I started to be a bit concerned. I didn’t quite know what to do at that time but well I thought half of that is not too little for me because I can get through that. So I had my ‘chute on of course, had me back to this thing that stuck up inside and em, I slid down, well I couldn’t get out because me ‘chute had trapped because I didn’t allow that in sorts. But there I was, the plane was going along and I am out, with me legs outside and you want to know what I feel like. I felt I was going to loose me legs, frightened me to death, this is true. And I, and I pushed and I kicked me legs and me boots went and, and I panicked but suddenly me brain stopped, started working and the straps on the parachute harness is only held on by a thin cord so that it gives you the height, the height when the ‘chute opens. So I gave it a good clout and I went out and I held this parachute with one hand and pulled the cord with the other, pulled the ring with the other and it opened but it took me a little while no sooner had it opened and I suppose about a hundred feet and I touched down. It took me a little while, that’s why I, I was out I was landed pretty near the aircraft. I say that it was within a mile or two, it got in very fast. I got down stuffed my ‘chute around as best I could, got out round to this road or lane, like a country lane and then I was caught because three Germans were in, came along with their guns and all that and picked me up. They took me back, took me back to the Headquarters in this em, in this bike and sidecar. They gave me a seat in the car and one was on the front of the, the car and the other one was on the pillion and the other was the driver. The one on the pillion had a gun at me head all the way back just in case I suppose he thought I might, and that was it for that night.
CB. So were you the last out of the aircraft or?
JB. I think I must have been.
CB. What happened to the Pilot?
JB. He got killed.
CB. He didn’t get out?
JB. He didn’t get out, the Navigator didn’t get out and the Wireless Operator I don’t know what happened to him because after the war I met my Mid Upper Gunner and he filled me with a bit of things that I missed, He said he spoke to Don Mellish at the back door and he walked back, he went back in.
CB. Mellish went back in?
JB. Yeah
CB. To do what?
JB. He probably didn’t want to.
CB. To get out?
JB. It’s a I don’t know.
CB. So Don Mellish was the Wireless Operator.
JB. Yes that’s right and as I say the Mid Upper Gunner spoke to him and he said “I don’t know what he went back for” he went back and of course he went out himself.
CB. How did Arthur Meredith the Rear Gunner get out?
JB. That I don’t know, I was too busy up the front.
CB. I wondered if you found out afterwards.
JB. No, no they just went.
CB. But the only person killed, there were three killed were there?
JB. There were three killned.
CB. What about the Navigator what stopped him getting out?
JB. I don’t know, because, I don’t know.
CB. Wither he tried the back or not I don’t know, I don’t know because routine was Bomb Aimer, Me, Navigator or other way round, he didn’t pass me so I don’t know what happened to him. Is this, all this going down.
CB. We are all right. These are the realities of those things aren’t they.
JB. It’s, it’s.
CB. It is an emotional experience.
JB. Yes it is I am the luckiest man in the round, I should have been there with my mate.
CB. I know what you mean.
JB. Now they have gone.
CB. You done a brilliant job getting out just holding, you held the parachute. It wasn’t attached to you, you just held it?
JB. No it was attached.
CB. It still was attached.
JB. Yeah, attached, it’s like a board it’s, the whole ‘chute is planted on this board.
CB. Because it is a front parachute.
JB. Yeah.
CB. Chest parachute.
JB. That’s right.
CB. And what, what type of parachute does the Pilot have does he have a chest parachute or he normally?
JB. Yes he has a chest parachute he preferred instead of the sitting on one ‘cause he is a tall man.
CB. Ok
JB. So that is probably the reason, that’s why I had to find his ‘chute for him or look after him.
CB. So on the Lancaster there are three escape hatches are there? One at the front where the Bomb Aimers position is, the other through the lid where the Pilot is, is that right?
JB. He think he got out the top, yes but.
CB. And the other is the door at the back.
JB. There is a door at the back.
CB. Is there any other.
JB. No [unclear]
CB. And the Rear Turret pivots so the idea is the.
JB. Sometimes they could.
CB. Roll out backwards.
JB. Yeah, go out backwards. Wither that is true or not I don’t know.
CB. So when the aircraft was hit, what happened to the controls, the Pilot was struggling by the sound of it to keep control, why was that.
JB. He was struggling, yes, because we was well on fire, when I got out. I looked up the flames was the, the width of the aircraft or the wingspan and it was amazing, amazing.
CB. The Lancaster had self sealing fuel tanks but with the level of damage presumably that wasn’t going to work.
JB. Yeah, they had all that but they must have had a leak somewhere.
CB. Did the Rear Gunner get a shot at this Fighter or not?
JB. Apparently from what I was told by the Mid Upper Gunner, they, they had it confirmed that they shot it down.
CB. Oh did they.
JB. Yeah but that I wouldn’t know.
CB. But the Squadron record perhaps confirms that?
JB. Yeah.
CB. So now you have landed, the German Soldiers have taken you in the side car to the Head Quarters, then what?
JB. Yeah, the Head Quarters Em, oh there, em.
CB. That’s the picture of.
JB. That’s me and my wife when we went back to France.
CB. Right, that’s a sort of Chateau.
JB. That’s it, that’s where they held me but not in there, there is a little shed next to it. They said put me there and they put a Guard sort of thing. And in the morning, they kept, all these soldiers kept coming in and having a look and all that and I “what they looking for” you know and eh when I got out and had a look ‘cause they let me, I had to have a bit of fresh air. What that was, was a urinal was there just by this window [laugh] and they was having a gaze at me while I was having one, it wasn’t funny but.
CB. No, so what did they do, they gave you food and water?
JB. Yeah they gave me, they gave me some gruel or something for lunch, for breakfast.
CB. What is gruel?
JB.Something like porridge, something like that. Em, they gave me a pair of clogs suffice, they did suffice ‘cause I couldn’t get on with them and I took em off and eh.
CB. Because your flying boots came off before you jumped.
JB. Yeah they came off because I was kicking them away, trying to sort of get out eh it frightened me to death.
CB. What sort of height do you think you were at before you actually got out.
JB. I don’t, I should think when I went out which would be about fifteen hundred or two thousand feet. Not very high enough to have a good swing, you know? We was flying at ten thousand feet anyway.
CB. Oh were you, that’s quite low.
JB. Then we had this dive and a cork screw, down one way, down the other and so forth.
CB. And then pull up again.
JB. Yeah, yeah.
CB. So after they have given you the gruel and something and water and then what.
JB. Oh they took me to Luanne em I was interviewed by a eh an Officer of some description he told me off for not saluting him. I said we don’t salute people with no head dress. I can remember that actually he got onto me about the Bombing doing Bombing and hospitals and all about that sort of thing. Told me off and then he took me back through em Luanne into this it looked like a, I don’t know I was on the [unclear] covered in wire netting it was a building but several shelters, sheds a brick building, this wire netting at front. I could look across and there was dormitories and that’s where these soldiers was in this dormitory. It looked as though it was in something like a Church business that church eh eh College or something like that, I don’t know quite what it was. I was there for a few days and they put me on a train to sort of don’t know this place where I got interviewed again by the, by the people there.
CB. Were they Air Force people or were they?
JB. This one that they took me to at first, there were a lot of soldiers there and eh I walked through this, this marquee where these soldiers were lying on that, you know, looking for bed space and somebody shouts “Johnnie Firth” and it was one of my class mates at school. He had been in the, what do you call it Troopers.
CB. Paratroopers.
JB. Paratroopers, yeah but they had been caught and they took me then from there on the train, it took a little while to eh Stalag Luft 7.
CB. Where is that?
JB. Where I ended up.
CB. Yes where is Stalag Luft 7?
JB. Its in [unclear].
CB. Czechoslovakia.
JB. I’ve got the name of the eh here the village there, but I don’t know where it is now.
CB. Ok just going back a bit what was the questioning that the Captors did so you, at the first em interrogation, what did they ask you?
JB. All sorts of thing you know but all I could answer was number, rank, name they didn’t threaten me with anything much. I was taught, or some bloke said they threatened to shoot them if they didn’t tell us. I didn’t go through any of that.
CB. And the second interview, interrogation further along, what was that?
JB. That was that sort of thing, sort of where he started mouthing on about being a you know criminals or something like that, but that didn’t last either [unclear] I got to sort of Silesia or Stalag Luft 7 A friend, a friend of mine was there, that I had done an Engineers course, but he had failed the course and I got on a bit further you know than he and he was shot down on his first trip, another Yorkshire man you know [laugh].
CB. Had he been recoursed to something other than Flight Engineer or did they put him through the course again?
JB. No he did the course eventually he passed yes.
CB. OK. So what did you find out what happened to the rest of your Crew.
JB. No, I the Mid Upper Gunner who eh told me, filled me in about what was happening.
CB. Bill Johnstone.
JB. He died the year Christmas the year I saw him, I didn’t know he was going to die. Because somebody organised this, this eh trip back to France for me and my wife and we went back to see the eh the graves, it’s one grave with three people in it.
CB. Oh they did have the Pilot, Bomb Aimer and Navigator they had.
JB. Yes they did.
CB. Sorry Wireless Operator not the Navigator who got out, it was the Bomb Aimer was it?
JB. The Bomb Aimer yes Eddie Earnest.
CB. So the Pilot, Navigator
JB. Eddie Earnest made up our Crew that night, the Bombing Leader actually. He ended up, oh he ended up in India in charge of the eh Squadron out there. I met him afterwards of course at a reunion only once. I went to Lafrenaise twice you know to pay my respects. The people, the French people were very nice, very good.
CB. What, did the aircraft disintegrate or did it land in tact and burn out on the ground.
JB. No it blew up.
CB. So the Pilot was never found, was he, was he in the plane.
JB. No the three, they had three bodies that what it.
CB. And they did, right.
JB. [Unclear] so the Navigator didn’t get out either.
CB. No.
JB. We had a time bomb on that went off at seven o’clock in the morning and I was that close. Well I heard it eh you know. The thing, it landed in some sort of a wood.
CB. You are talking about the main bomb. The Cookie went of.
JB. Yeah it might have been the cookie, I don’t know about that, don’t know. I thought it was timed, I thought it was timed.
CB. So that would be a free fall.
JB. I don’t think we had a Cookie on at that time, about a thousand pounder because we were so close to our Troops we were.
CB. Of course, you wouldn’t want the bombs to spread out.
JB.The German Troops were so close, [hesitates] there is a map of it as well, now just recently, I don’t if it was on line is it Peter?
Peter. Yeah there was a local paper did a story about it didn’t they when you came back.
JB. On.on line there is what I have just been through again.
CB. If we could call that up that could be really useful.
Peter. Pretty sure it was to do.
JB. After that on line there is a map which shows you Shepeville [?] and, and the Forces that were there.
CB. It would be useful to sort of pick that up, so can we just go now to Silesia to Stalag Luft 7 so how big was that, how many people?
JB. About eight thousand I think something of a rough guess.
CB. And what Nationalities were there?
JB. Mostly British, mostly British.
CB. ‘cause with the title Stalag Luft in theory they were all Aircrew but were they.
JB. Yeah well yes.
CB. Were they all Aircrew?
JB. Yes in my experience and we knew about the audacity thing where they shot all those Aircrew.
CB. Stalag Luft 3.
JB. We got a bit of news about that.
CB. You did? And what was the mix of Prisoners there, was it the whole range of ranks?
CB. Only NCOs was it.
JB. More or less, yes. There were one or two that were eh, the Camp Commander for instance.
CB. What was he?
JB. He was eh, eh Second Lieutenant something like that.
CB. He was an Army man was he?
JB. Yeah we did have one Army bloke there, I think anyway, can’t remember now.
CB. How were you housed in what sort of buildings.
JB. In the first instance, there’s pictures somewhere, never mind, eh little huts, there was all these little huts with about ten blokes in each hut something like that but then they was building the, built this one outside, outside, outside the Camp.
CB. The wire.
JB. Along side of it and they were like dormitories, they had rooms in there and there was about thirteen to a room that sort of thing; just thinking back now. Got a picture of the em the, the sort of bedding is on bunks it is, it is twelve bunks in one block. They got three on the floor, three in the middle and three on the top and then you have the same thing alongside of it, they had sort of twelve to a block. You could get farted on from up there and farted on from down [laugh]. It wasn’t very pleasant.
CB. And what were you lying on was it planks, bare wood or what?
JB. Bedding.
CB. Oh there was bedding, what was the bedding made of?
JB. Hard stuff just like packed straw, something like that and blankets that’s all we had.
CB. What about heating?
JB. Heating, for heating we had, what heating or eating?
CB. Yes the heating as well as the eating but for heating in the rooms was there any heating?
JB. Either really we in the, in the rooms there was these little stoves but it was getting the fuel for them you know, that was difficult but the big, where the big eh other was no heating because it was getting, when I was there anyway, that, of the picture I have, I think was taken at eh Stalag 3a because that is where we ended up after the long march at Stalag 3a. It was an Army Camp and the weather was picking up then, it was getting warmer, it em.
CB. Where em, what about the food was there a big Mess Hall or how did you get the food dispensed?
JB. I have got a picture of that as well actually, it em eh, they used to fetch it round and it was soup in big bowels you know and that one bowl would have to feed two hundred men and you would have bread sometimes. They gave you bread or something like that. The meat was, was in these soups what, what meat there was. We used to look at these in a strand, it was stranded, “I’ve got a bit” [laugh].
CB. What did you eat in, because you didn’t have mess tins of your own, so what did they give you to eat from.
JB. Oh they gave us something, I can’t remem. You would pick up a tin or something you know? And things like that, but, but I made a cup out of mine, created a thing you know, sort of little handle made a thing of and you tightened a piece of string. Made it out of a little eh.
CB. Ingenuity.
JB. Yeah ingenuity. [laugh].
CB. Now what about Red Cross parcels?
JB. They were, they few and far between one another yeah eh but when we did get one sometimes in the beginning it was shared by sort of that half a dozen blokes what is shared with what is in there. Which was tinned, tinned stuff what em, cigarettes, I suppose meat and that sort of thing. A bit of cheese a tin with a bit of cheese in or something like that. But you would have to cut it up into bits to share it out.
CB. Did you get tinned milk?
JB. Tinned milk, can’t remember actually to tell the truth I can’t remember much about it.
CB. What was the date on which you were shot down.
JB. Eh seventh or eighth of August Midnight.
CB. Nineteen forty four.
JB. Nineteen forty four.
CB. So you were in Stalag Luft 7 for more that six months.
JB. Oh yeah, yeah.
CB. And as the end of the War came, what happened to you then?
JB. Em well we was at, we was at Stalag 3a.
CB. How did you come to move from Seven?
JB. First of all the, the em, the American Army released us or wanted to release us and we all run out, a lot of us got on their lorries and all that, they come to fetch us and they, then the Germans managed to a Machine Gunner and said “better get down otherwise you will get that.” So we all went in and they wouldn’t let us come. They didn’t agree with what the Americans was doing.
CB. The Russians wouldn’t let them do it would they?
JB. Yeah.
CB. Who was it/
JB. The Russians was there.
CB. So who was it who came?
JB. They just crossed the rivers there eh, they just crossed this river.
CB. The Oder was it?
JB. Sorry.
CB. The Oder.
JB. The Oder yeah, the Americans had got down as far as the Oder and they hadn’t crossed it, or they had crossed it ‘cause they came with their lorries to take us, but they went of without us. Because they was going to shoot us anyway.
CB. So who was going to shoot you, why didn’t they, if it was Germans, why didn’t they deal with the Germans?
JB. Well I don’t know, I think maybe it’s.
CB. Or was it the Russians who wouldn’t let you go?
JB. They still held us as Prisoners and told us all to get back in and we all went back to where we inhabited. The Russians did “Thank you Bert I am glad you came.” But the Americans came first, then the Russians took over, they came and with them coming all the Guards disappeared. They didn’t want to get hurt did they? Yes the Russians released us and they took us down to this river and we crossed by foot into the sort of the American Section if you like. The River Oder was that [unclear] but the Americans were that side of it and the Russians were this side of it. And that’s I suppose, but the Germans were still in there with us, you know, holding us at one time.
CB. So how did you come to leave then?
JB. The Russians took us to the river and we got of there, crossed the river and got on with the Yanks who took us from there up to, I don’t know what it was then just another sort of camp which was taken over now by the Allies.
CB. So you don’t, I was just trying to establish the sequence because you were in Stalag Luft 7, you then got to Stalag 3.
JB. Yeah.
CB. 3a so how did you get between those two?
JB. Walked.
CB. How far and how long?
JB. Three weeks walk.
CB. And what effect did that have on most of the Prisoners?
JB. Starvation, worst, snow and it was terrible, yeah, dead horses on the side of the road and what have you yeah [pause] I had forgotten all this.
CB. Was it one long column of prisoners or was it several columns doing different routes?
JB. It was one long column of us from Stalag Luft 7, there are, there were other columns like Stalag Luft 3 they were the closest to what we were apparently. They crossed, they were going one way we were going another way but eh this was and we were still with the Germans, the Germans was making us do this, they had dogs as well.
CB. They were forcing you to go towards the west. So how did you get food and water?
JB. How did we get food?
CB. How did you get food and water?
JB. How did you get food.
CB. How did you get food and water?
JB. Oh well they gave you at night, they would probably find you in a stable or something like that and they, they thery would have a field kitchen with like I said food or soup or that sort of thing. If you wanted to go to the toilet there was always one place where you could go sort of thing. That is in the yard and it was piles of this all over the place.[laugh] It was not very hygienic.
CB. So when you got to Stalag Luft, sorry Stalag 3 then what?
JB. Well we got put up, the soldiers put us up we was in, we was on the floor, sleeping on the floor to start with and eh, they moved us into another building that had these, these bunks and that, and eh one of the, one of the buildings was made out as temple by the Russians because we had some Russians in that Stalag, there were some Russians as well yeah. They got, what we heard was when they got released or we got released, they were straight back to the front where they were going to soldier on again. So many days, so many things, I can’t remember.
CB. So in the, in the March from Stalag Luft 7 to Stalag 3 what happened to peoples health and strength?
JB. Eh er there were three of us Jack Sidebottom and Bill Steiner and me self knitted together oh [unclear] Jack got a touch of the runs and he went right down the, right down the drain sort of, they had a sort of Hospital eh building but that was on the floor. I remember I sort of I washed off Bill eh Jacks’ trousers for him, he couldn’t do it.
CB. This was dysentery was it?
JB. Yes it was there was a lot of that.
CB. And what prompts dysentery, what makes it happen?
JB. Well there was little food and eh and if you eat anything that was rotten it was there. They had toilets there where you could have a chat with the next bloke ‘cause it was only a building. There was all these eh trenches covered with seats, toilet seats and you could have a fair old chat with people, I think that’s. I am ranting on, on.
CB. You are not, no it is the reality isn’t it?
JB. Yeah I suppose it could be.
CB. So you reached Stalag 3 and the Americans are looking after you there. What did they do about food because you do not want to eat too much as soon as you get in.
JB. When the Americans, they, they transported us to Brussels and we got flown home from there, from Brussels.
CB. Mm by whom, who flew you.
CB. And you flew from there, Melsbroek was it and then into where?
JB.Eh; around Crewe around that area and then all we had on was burnt and the dressed us in that hospital blue, do you remember that? Just a blue flannel trouser and a blue flannel cover at the top[laugh] Then it blue, typical sickness thing.
CB. So for the people who had dysentery and other things how did they treat those?
JB. Well it,it just had to put up with it until it went away it was yeah.
CB. You come, when you land back here, what, what plane did you fly back in?
JB. Lancaster.
CB.Right, how many people in a Lancaster.
JB. Oh there was quite a lot, I would say , I don’t know, down the fuselage from, from the main spar down to the back, I would say about sixty peole, fifty or sixty people and then we would [unclear].
CB. And so you got back, what did they do as soon as you landed.
JB. Well they fed us and we was inspected for diseases and that sort of thing in a hanger, obviously if you got a lot of food, a bit difficult to eat, drink, stomachs went like that so you couldn’t eat much anyway.
CB. It is not good to have too much food when you haven’t been having it. So they kitted you out and then what?
JB. Once we got kitted out we went on leave, about six weeks I should think.
CB. And then after the leave where did they sent you because you were still technically in the Squadron.
JB. [Unclear] Eh I, I got posted to 71MU, “thank you, that’s all right” 71MU Slough,[unclear] and or the RAF had taken over the premier garage on the Bath road as a Camp, during the war and they, and they and I got posted there. I was obviously in the Sergeants Mess so I didn’t do a lot of work.[laugh] But eventually they decided to move. They moved from Slough up to the other side of Aylesbury.
CB. To Westcott.
JB. Westcott, yeah probably yeah that was one thing to the other side of, yeah.
CB. Or Bicester.
JB. Yeah.
CB. It was an MU was it?
JB. It was an MU.
CB. It went to Bicester 71.
JB. 71 and I went there as a, I was in charge of a gang [unclear] we went for dismantling aircraft and I wasn’t doing a lot of work, I was just making sure the lads got the eh themselves with a bed and that sort of thing. And then and that was at; Brize Norton they did a lot of work there.
CB. Was that an MU or was that an OTU?
JB. No that was, there was a Squadron there wasn’t there but as the MU people taking all these jobs.
CB. Yeah.
JB. They take the wings off and that sort of thing and then load it onto a Queen Mary and said good bye to it you know.
CB.The Queen Mary being the very big lorry.
JB. Yes that’s right [unclear]
CB. So now we are in 1946 aren’t we.
JB. Yes I haven’t come over then [?]
CB. When did you get demobbed?
JB. Eh; I’ve got it here, demobbed 1946.
CB. What time of year?
JB. What month, I don’t know.
CB. Summer, Winter, Ok then what did you do?
JB. Well what everybody does, have a good time. [laugh] I went back to Lincoln.
CB. What did you do there?
JB. I got a job with an aircraft factory just outside, Ah Woodford was it, Woodford.
CB. No at Lincoln it was Bracebridge Heath.
JB. Bracebridge Heath, that’s it. I got a job there working on aircraft that were still flying, not the big heavy bomber stuff but the[stops] Then I decided to come home again so I left and I come home and got a job at Hawker Aircraft at Langley and eh.
CB. You had been there before the war.
JB. No,no.
CB. You hadn’t?
JB. No before the war wa, I was at a factory called [unclear] engineering factory. The firm had another outlet at “what was that”
CB. White Waltham.
JB. White Waltham yeah but I wasn’t working there but that firm had another factory there.
CB. So how long did you work Hawker?
JB. At Hawkers, a couple of years and they moved over to London way from Combrook, it was Combrook they moved over from Combrook.
CB. They went to Kingston.
JB. And then I went to a firm, I forgot the name of it, sorry, I was there nineteen years. I went to British Airways, I was there seven years.
CB. At British Airways, at British Airways?
JB. British Airways, yeah and then I retired, I think. This is hard work.[laugh].
CB. Well we are resting now, thank you very much.
JB. Is that it?
CB. How did you come to meet Catherine, your wife, your future wife?
JB. The pub.
CB. Where was that?
JB. Good Companions, Slough.
CB. Slough ok and when were you married?
JB. 1961, 1961 I don’t know.
Unknown. When you got married must be 1951 was it?
JB and Unknown. [discussion as to when married]
CB. How old are your children?
JB. I have got no children.
CB. So that saved you a lot of money didn’t it?
JB. [laugh] a lot of heartache.
CB. Right ok so that is really good, thank you very much indeed.
CB. So we are just restarting to recover after the Bomber crash, then you had some links with the area, so what did you discover.
JB. Well there was a; this Gentleman that I met there, this Frenchman he, he had a little brother a brother younger than himself and that em when, in the explosion on the morning at seven o’clock his brother was sorting out something on the aircraft or something on what was left of the aircraft and the bomb went of and this man, “what’s his name” I was looking at it, [pause] he carried his lad or his brother from em from La Frenaise where we were to the nearest town which was Le Havre which had the Hospitals, but he died and carried him that far.
CB. So what had happened, the Bomb went of and what had happened to the boy?
JB. He died.
CB. Yes but what happened to him, did it blow him a long way away or what did it do. Do you know, what caused him to die in other words?
JB. No like I say he, he, within, with the explosion and then his brother which was this Gentleman that said or suggested at this time that I am taking the place of his brother friendly wise, but somebody else had told me he had carried his Brother to Le Havre.
CB. Le Havre, Hospital.
JB. Yeah, I’ve got a picture of him and he is sitting amongst the, a bit of, a bit of the engine, it’s all, none left of it, bits all over.
CB. They are all very distressing things these, because the aftermath of a crash, the unexpected.
JB. Yeah, but he is quite, and we; up to this year, last year, last Christmas we, we both swapped cards at Christmas from this fellow, Gentleman, fellow, I can’t think of his name.
CB. How did you come to meet him in the first place?
JB. Well I went to a, I went to a, not a reunion, I went when I went to Le Frenaise to pay my respects to the grave.
CB. At the cemetery?
JB. I met him there ‘cause they had made this ‘cause going there the had this little party sort of thing, plenty of people there, just as well. They were very nice to us.
CB. John how many times did you bale out?
JB. Well we baled out twice.
CB. Did you?
JB. Yes.
CB. What was the first reason?
JB. The first reason was everything stopped on the, on the Stirling and what was put to me before one of these things was because the, the oil filter on the Stirling was on the outside and just below the engines outside and they could easily freeze up and with all the engines stopping at the same time that is what happened and the Skipper said bale out but eventually he got it back going again. So I baled out, the two Gunners baled out and the Navigator didn’t go because I was, in the Stirling my position was in the middle of the aircraft not next to the Skipper and so I went out the back and we landed on the, then I heard this whistling and it was the Wireless Operator that was whistled me. He said “what do we do now” I said “go and see if we can get a telephone to get help.”
CB. Where were you?
JB. Sorry?
CB. Where was this?
JB. Lincolnshire, em and so we did walk to someone’s house and we got on the phone [unclear] through to the Police and I had no boots, so this Gentleman loaned me his slippers and having got to go back to Camp, they were nice slippers and I never sent them back. But I was brought up in front of the CO and he gave me a right nasty bollocking and he said.
CB. For having the slippers on, or for getting out of the aeroplane?
JB. No, for not sending the slippers back and “now” he said “you will go and pack them and you will write a letter of apology and you will fetch it to me and I will read it.” So I had to do it and took it back and he said “be careful in future you.” He said.
CB. So you did send back the slippers?
JB. I did send them back yeah, but that under threat wasn’t it.
CB. Right, so the aircraft returned?
JB. Yeah, so the aircraft returned and when he returned he returned with,with a Senior Pilot and I heard no more after that. I suggested that and the Skipper took it disgusted with his seniors.
CB. You are talking about the fault being the seizing up of the oil cooler?
JB. Yeah Unlicky wasn’t we, I was lucky, we was all lucky that one but I, I say I am the luckiest man in the World that was it twice.
CB. While we were on the Stirling just talk us through what your role was as Flight Engineer, first on the Stirling then on the Lancaster.
JB. Oh the Engineers job was to assist the Pilot every way you can, is to, you have to write a log, or keep a log of petrol, oil pressure, oil temperature, it all had to go down on the log. Do it every half hour or so or every hour and whatever else. You might get a fellow who can go back and eh join two bits of wire together[laugh] and cause lots of trouble for the Skipper then it is just not quite right, oh well.
CB. So here you are, your position in the Stirling was further back but on take off where would you be?
JB. In the Stirling on take off, I would be in the middle of the aircraft I’d be putting back the priming ‘cause when you start the engines the prime, the Engineer used to prime the engines from inside the aircraft where as in the Lanc they do it from the outside, don’t they? That’s what I would be doing, tidying up again.
CB. And how were the engines started with a trolley acc or cartridges?
JB. No trolley acc, the same as eh, the same as the Lanc.
CB. And then on take off the Pilot is controlling the throttles not the Engineer.
JB. He is not?
CB. In the Stirling on take of who is controlling the throttles, the Pilot or the Engineer?
JB. Em on the Stirling I don’t know but on.
CB. You weren’t anyway.
JB. I wasn’t but on a Lancaster I was. The Skipper would get it so far, he had four levers and, and until he got it running straight and then he would ask for full power and I did the business then because when you are on full power he can’t twiddle;
CB. And you are sitting on a, next to the Pilot on a Lancaster?
JB. Yeah it is a moveable seat and a lot of the time I would be standing, but the seat felt as a strap, it wasn’t a very comfortable seat.
CB. So you stood a lot?
JB. Yeah.
CB. The reason you got caught out on the corkscrew was because you was standing at the time, was it?
JB. Yes that right yeah.
CB.Talking about engines again, so to clarify on both aircraft all the throttle levers, all four of them were next to each other. When you run up the aircraft engines before take off how do you synchronise the engines and who does it?
JB. Well the Pilot does it.
CB. Ok so how does he do that?
JB. He does it for steering, steering purposes and so if he wants to sort of go this way he will give it a little bit of power on this engine and so forth and then when he comes up to the point where he’s got it ready for take off, two thirds of the way down the runway then it is up to the Pilot or the Engineer to sort of put it onto full power.
CB. You put your hand on it, left hand on the throttle and push them through the gate?
JB. No he used to have his hand on that and I had it underneath, likewise.
CB. Right,your left hand pushing it?
JB. Yeah I put ‘em up and tightened the what’s its name down, you loosen it off for him when he wants to come back and get the flying side, getting his flying in, so it is synchronise.
CB. So he is synchronising the engines in the air not on the ground is he.
JB. Not on the ground, no that’s for steering.
CB. Right and what about the pitch how did you deal with that?
JB. The pitch of the aircraft.
CB. No the pitch of the propellors?
JB. Eh I think you could only do, I don’t think.
CB. You would take of in fine pitch wouldn’t you?
JB. Fine pitch, going back now [pause] You take of in flying pitch, you leave it in flying pitch if you could possible get it there. Well you could do once you got on flying. On course stuff, they don’t go so well on course, do they?
CB. So in the cruise you are not going to be in fine pitch are you. You have got fine pitch for take off, so when do you change for cruise and what pitch do you put it in.
JB. [pause] I don’t know, I wouldn’t know that, I’ve forgotten what that sort.
CB. Ok it just comes out of the use of the throttles.
CB. Thanks



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with John Firth,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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