Interview with Dennis Brett


Interview with Dennis Brett


Dennis was born in 1924 and joined the Royal Air Force in November 1942. He trained as a flight mechanic airframe at RAF Locking and was responsible for the whole of the aircraft, apart from the engines and the guns. Dennis explained the emergency landing grounds at RAF Manston, RAF Woodbridge and RAF Carnaby, which were wider to allow damaged aircraft to land safely. His last six months of service were spent in Italy, Egypt and Palestine with a C-47 squadron of Transport Command.
Sometimes Dennis was on special night duty alone in a hut a mile away from the control tower. His job was to operate the lighting system on receiving an order from the control tower. He referred to a memorable incident when a Lancaster landed safely and some of the crew kissed the ground.
When the invasion of Normandy began Dennis was transferred to a C-47 squadron. At the end of the war he went up in a Halifax to retrace some of the routes the bombers had taken and to witness the devastation. He left the RAF in 1947. In 1981 Dennis was seconded to the City University of New York.







00:18:19 audio recording


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ABrettD150522, PBrettDT1501


MJ: It’s on.
DTB: Dennis T Brett. Born 4 9 24. RAF service 12 11 42 to 5 3 47. Tested and found to have mechanical ability and so trained as a flight mechanic airframe at RAF Locking. Served mainly in Yorkshire at Driffield on Martinets. Leconfield, Lissett, Holme on Spalding Moor and Carnaby. Carnaby -
[machine pause]
MJ: Go on.
DTB: Carnaby was used for emergency landings along with two others, Woodbridge and Manston. They were known colloquially as crash ‘dromes. A wide variety of English and American aircraft was seen at Carnaby and on very foggy nights FIDO was in operation. Soon after the war ended I was taken on a low level flight in a Halifax to see the extent of damage inflicted on German cities by aircraft of Bomber Command. My last six months of service was spent in Italy, Egypt and Palestine with a Dakota squadron of Transport Command. Right. In wartime Britain there were three emergency landing grounds a little inland from the east coast. They were Manson, Woodbridge and, in the north, Carnaby, about three miles from Bridlington in Yorkshire. Their purpose was to allow damaged aircraft, sometimes with injured crew, to land if necessary without warning. To facilitate this the runways were large. Carnaby’s being three miles long and three runways wide. The soft bituminous surface was to minimise friction caused by a rough landing. When I arrived [pause] we saw and serviced a variety of aircraft. English and American. Can you put that off?
[machine pause]
We saw and serviced a variety of aircraft. English and American. The US crews were not noted for their navigational skills. I recall seeing the three twin-engined Whirlwinds the crew of which seemed to be lost. One pilot remarked, ‘We thought we were in North Devon.’ When a damaged aircraft landed our fire crews rushed to extinguish any flames. The armourers checked for bombs and guns. And the riggers took, looked for any physical damage to the aircraft and then towed the aircraft away to dispersal. We were puzzled one night when after landing safely the crew got out of the aircraft and ran. They soon told us that there was a long delay fused bomb on board likely to explode at any moment. It was the armourers of course who had to be there to defuse the bomb before other workers were allowed near the aircraft. Can we?
[machine paused]
Sometimes I was on special night duty all alone in a small hut at one end of the runway. This was more than a mile away from the control tower. My bed was two or three feet away from an electrical installation which bore the warning, “Danger 11000 volts.” We were always ready to receive aircraft but on bombing nights we were especially alert. I’m sorry.
[machine paused]
My job was then to operate the lighting system. On receiving an order from the control tower I would pull a switch to turn on the sodium funnel lights. These were spaced in a narrowing V shape embedded near the foot of the runway and were a guide for aircraft approaching to land. The lights were arranged in the shape of a funnel. In bad weather and when many aircraft were expected the order would be given to ‘strike arc’ and I then had to pull a switch to activate the searchlight system. Searchlights were positioned, one each side of the runway, at its entrance. They were angled towards each other to form a cross so that incoming aircraft could enter through the triangular shape below the cross. Bad weather was a great danger to airmen returning tired and cold from a raid lasting eight or more hours. Fog was a major problem. As a counter measure a system of pipework called FIDO, Fog Instantaneous Dispersal Operation had been installed along each side of the runway. In operation, petrol was pumped through the holes in the pipework, then ignited to produce flames several feet high. This was meant to clear the fog and it probably did so but at the time I thought its great value was that the flames could be seen by pilots trying to land. In such circumstances a successful landing was a tremendous relief for the aircrew. This might seem far-fetched but I was a personal witness to a memorable incident when a Lancaster had come in to a halt the crew got out and some of them actually kissed the ground. Reminders of the darker side of war were frequent. Crash landings were a common sight. A faulty undercarriage was usually the cause and the result was what we called a belly landing. Some aircraft burst into flames when landing. Others were already on fire as they approached. The sight of a red gun turret is one that I cannot forget. Even our medical officer was seen to turn pale sometimes. But there was also a lighter side to life at Carnaby. Sometimes a bad landing would cause an aircraft to bounce not just once but in a continuing series from which the pilot could not escape until the laws of physics allowed. We called this a kangaroo landing. The Yorkshire winter was harsh. One night the wind caused my eyes to water and the intense cold froze my tears so that I could not open my eyes. This was only momentary and a good rub was all that was needed to solve the problem. The snow lay thick everywhere and this emboldened the local rats to come rather too close to our hut. We shot at them with our sten guns but I doubt whether we hit any.
[machine paused]
Our commanding officer was a very experienced pilot who was known to have seen much action in the war. His free and easy manner was in direct contrast to the usual strictly authoritarian attitude of the administrators. He would sometimes sit outside the control tower with his legs dangling through the railings swinging them to and fro. In this way he was exhibiting his persona for all to see. I happened to be on duty when he decided to take a Sunday afternoon trip with his young son. After I’d pulled away the chocks and motioned him out he asked me if I would like to come too and I gladly agreed. One fine day I noticed a large number of, to me, unidentified aircraft all flying eastwards. They were not in any kind of formation. They were towing gliders. These gliders were at a certain angle to my vision so that only one wing was visible. A strange sight. It soon became obvious to us that the invasion of Normandy had begun. The gliders were, I believe, Horsas and the planes were DC3, better known as Dakotas. I was soon to become much more familiar with them when I was transferred to a Dakota squadron. At the end of the war I was invited to go up in a Halifax to retrace some of the routes our bombers had taken and to witness the devastation. We flew low over a number of cities including Rotterdam which had been bombed by the Germans and battle areas such as Arnhem and Aachen. Our pilot was on a high, in high spirits after the ending of hostilities. He would approach a city from a certain height and dive bomb it at an angle of about forty five degrees. Then over the city he would pull up sharply out of the dive. This continuing sensation was too much for me and I was physically sick for most of the flight home and my muscles ached for a week afterwards. I still have a reluctance to fly though I had to do so in 1981 when I was seconded to the City University of New York. To my regret the airline did not provide a parachute. Large four-engined, large four-engined aircraft such as the Stirling, Halifax, Lancaster and Fortress were designed for level flight not aerobatics and for a Halifax to be flown in such a vigorous way says much for the strength and construction of this, this aircraft. My experience at Carnaby remained long in my memory. Forty years later I would sometimes wake up in the night. In my dream a large four-engined bomber coming in towards me to crash land.
[machine paused]
Well my elder brother was in Coastal Command and used to fly as the wireless operator rear gunner in a Beaufort and I think it was in 1942 when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau German battleships made a dash through the channel. He was engaged in torpedoing the Scharnhorst but in the process he was badly wounded and received shrapnel in various parts of the body and face and managed to survive. The gun turret was badly damaged and for this service he was awarded the mention in dispatches. I think that’s all that can be said there.
MJ: What was your actual job in the RAF?
DTB: Well I was what was known as a flight mechanic airframe otherwise known as a rigger and we were responsible for the whole of the aircraft physically other than the engine and the guns. And we had daily inspections for which we had to sign from the safety point of view. We had to check brakes, hydraulics, the movement of the flaps, rudder, elevators and of course petrol filling and so on and we had to make body work repairs where necessary.
MJ: How did you do that?
DTB: Whether it, well on early aircraft it would be on [pause] covered in, the early aircraft, I think the wimpy as well was covered in cloth. Muslin or, not muslin, no. Irish linen and we learned how to make a repair for that. On most of the aircraft they were metal and we had to make a hole and rivet all around it and patch them in that way but that was it. The whole of the aircraft had to be inspected and many points inspected and then signed for for the safety of the pilot. The Lancaster which was the best. It was the fastest and could carry the heaviest bomb load. The Halifax was next and then the other one. I can’t remember the name of it you know.
MJ: Yeah. I can’t remember exactly what one it is but I know which one you mean so, yeah.
DTB: But of course, you know there are other aircraft as well. The Mosquito was the fastest aircraft in that war and it was a bomber and it was a fighter bomber.
MJ: Yeah. Didn’t they take off from the airports with the flame?
DTB: No. It wasn’t a biplane. No.
MJ: No. No. They used to take off in the fog didn’t they?
DTB: There were Swordfish in the early days, I think the Swordfish was in that battle with the Scharnhorst as well as the Beauforts.
MJ: Yeah.
DTB: Well there we are.
MJ: Here’s the end of the interview with Dennis Brett at Ruskington. The International Bomber Command would like to thank him for his recording on the date of the 22nd of May 2015. Thank you very much.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Dennis Brett ,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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