Interview with William Bryan


Interview with William Bryan


William Bryan reminisces being hit by a German fighter and anti-aircraft fire while mine laying the Kiel Bay. The rest of the tour was a reasonably quiet time, consisting mainly of operations in the run-up of the Normandy campaign. Describes bombing in France on marshalling yards, trains and other targets. William's tour ended a week before D-Day. He then was posted to an operational training unit at RAF North Luffenham, where her taught airmanship, parachute jumping and dinghy drill. Reminisces a meeting with meeting Pilot Officer Bill Wood being shot down in the Bay of Biscay while attacking a U-boat. He was then picked up by a Spanish trawler and dropped off in Gibraltar. William discusses ‘standard rank’ adjustments when some were promoted and obtained commissions, while others ended up with a lower rank.



IBCC Digital Archive




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00:23:52 Audio File




ABryanWA151028, PBryanWA1501


WB: My name is William Bryan, I was a flying engineer on (unclear) onwards during the war, on a hundred and two squadron, at Pocklington, and we had one or two rather dodgy moments. Um, the first one when we were flying to Kiel Bay, to lay mines in Kiel Bay, which was quite a fair distance. Er, everything went fine, you have to cross Denmark, and everything went fine. You come down to four hundred feet to drop your mines accurately, and then you have to climb back up to eight, ten, twelve thousand feet. So coming over Denmark we were flying in a rather dark, very dark night, and er, suddenly our rear radar Monica started to tick. You usually get this ticking when an enemy aircraft passes by fast, you'd get one tick, but this particular time the ticks started coming faster and faster and faster, and I could hear our gunners saying, 'can you see this fighter, can you see him, can you see him?' And I thought, 'well, if they can't see him, we've had it'. And so I got down as low as I could behind my, my control panel, and er, because I thought there was no point in me getting injured if I need to do something for the aircraft. So, I thought (coughs), 'well, I've got about three seconds to live here', because they hadn't seen this fighter, and it's coming in on us, and the next minute, our pilot, he flipped the plane over, into a dive, just flipped over, and down it went. And the German fighter pilot, he'd apparently turned up the wick too much on his engine, to catch us, and when we got to the bottom of this dive my pilot called out, 'come and have a look at this', so I went to the front, and the German was on fire, his engine was on fire, and he was going like a bat out of hell back to his base. Er, I've told my family (laughs) that our gunners shot it down. They might have done, but I don't think they did. I think he had an engine fire, and I did er, I looked up the history of these fighters, and the Germans had used ersatz material for their gaskets, and the gaskets used to blow on quite a number of them. The RAF used to get fires now and again, but no, not in the same way as the Germans got them. So we got away with that, and came home and reported it, but the thing that worried me at the time was our Monica rear radar is supposed to pick out only the enemy, and we feel, at least, I feel, that they've got our secret, they picked up our secret and used it to find us, which I think they did. Anyway, some months later Air Marshall Harris ordered all the Monica radar to be taken out, because they were death traps, the Germans knew where we were all the time. So, so that's that one trip. Another trip which was similar mining trip (coughs) in Kiel Bay. We got off course, somehow, and we were flying over Sweden, and the bomb aimer called up um, 'Ted, Ted', the navigator, 'we're flying over Sweden!'. Ted said, 'no we're not.' 'Yes,' he said, 'they're firing at us'. So Ted, Ted was then convinced (chuckles), so we got out of there fairly quickly. We laid our mines and came back over Denmark. But we'd been warned on briefing that the Germans had two flagships on the coast, right on the coast, we should be aware. And strangely enough, not for his fault, the navigator took us right across these flagships. We got badly shot up. Er, I asked the pilot after (unclear), I asked him how did he manage to evade the gunfire, and he said, 'well, it's predicted fire the Germans use, and you fly into the last shell burst', he said, 'and that confuses them. So if you fly into the last shell burst, they don't know where you're going to be next.' Eventually they stopped firing because we were too far away, and we went into a dive to get away from it, and landed safely. But not without some damage, we had a, a hole in the windscreen, with the air coming in through, and in the morning after breakfast I went up to the hanger to see this aircraft, and they told me that it was a right off, it was too badly damaged to repair. So that was the sum title of the, er, my dodgey times flying, although, there are times when you're pretty scared that there'd be fighters around at night with searchlights playing around, and you certainly wonder whether you would get back alright. (Pause) So for the rest of my tour it was a reasonably quiet time. It consisted mainly of the preparations for the invasion. And we were (unclear) of a lot of bombing in France, erm, marshalling yards, places like that, to disrupt all the trains so the Germans couldn't use it. Now this is approximately three weeks before D-Day. (Pause) So, we actually finished our tour about a week before D-Day, and I must admit, I was glad to see the end of it, of, of flying, and as for going back for a second lot, well, I always think that some of the crews had an exceptionally quiet first tour, went back, and got killed the next lot, on the next one. So, that's my story.
(Woman's voice): Carry on.
WB: Well, I don't think, at least I'm not sure whether our pilot reported at de-briefing, that the engine fire was caused by his gunners. He might have done, he might not. But I don't think the gunners would take credit for it, anyway. Er, and, by and large, I think there's a, it was pretty well a good job done that night. We did our job, and we got back alright. (Pause and noises off). When I finished flying I was posted to an operational training unit, where I became a member of the airmanship staff who were supposed to teach these crews coming on, airmanship, and how to handle things in the plane, which included parachute jumping, although we never went up to do that, um, dinghy drill. Now, with dinghy drill, we would take a crew, or sometimes two crews, in a Bedford truck to Cowley baths, in Oxford, and, I would tell them what was going to happen, 'you're going to do dinghy drill, you're going to have to jump into the pond, er into the pool, and you're going to have to turn this dinghy upside down, as you would in a heavy sea, so I'll blow the dinghy up', which I did, and turned it over and tossed it into the pool, and then they took their turns at jumping in, and turning the big dinghy, it was quiet a big dinghy, dinghy over. Er, I did some time at that. And then some years later, er I was posted to an RAF station in, up North, and er, unfortunately, after one leave, I missed some train, and I arrived at Peterborough, where they said there would be no train until the morning, but, they said, we have a post office van who has to go at four 'o' clock, he may give you a lift. So I asked this chap if he would give me a lift. 'Yes sir, jump in'. He took me up towards our camp, a long miles away, and he dropped me, this is dead, middle of the night, and he said, 'if you take that road, it'll lead you down to that camp'. And, where was I? I just managed to find my way round and I very happily took the right forks and the right bends in the right places, and eventually I came along a road, and I looked at the side off the road, there were some sheds (unclear) with lights on. And I thought, 'well, why do farm buildings have lights on at night?' And I suddenly realised it was the RAF camp I was looking for, so I walked in, up to the guard room, and booked in.
Woman's voice: And you got there in time?
WB: So all RAF places. The memory's gone. I can't remember.
MJ: That doesn't matter.
WB: Well, I can't remember. I should. It was North Luffenham, which is Rutland, and right by Rutland Water, you know? So as I'm finding my way I could hear the water, so I knew I couldn't be too (interrupted).
Woman's voice: So tell the story about when you were invited to this do, and this do, (WB talking across) yes, tell them
WB: Oh that one. I was invited. ER (pause). Yes ok. While I was at -
MJ: Is this right?
WB: Is it on?
MJ: Mm!
Woman's voice: It is on, Bill, it is on. Leave it alone.
WB: While I was at (pause) (unclear) Training Unit I met some of our H Squadron gunners, and we went out for a drink. And, one of them, one of them was a chap named Kelly, and he, he told us a story about, he was playing cricket at camp, and the CO was watching. And the CO came up and spoke to him, and said, 'where did you learn to bat like that?' And he said, 'at Sherbourne College'. 'Oh, really? So, why aren't you commissioned?', (chuckles) 'I never applied, sir'. He said, 'you apply for a commission right away'. (unclear) (woman's laughter in background) and that was that story.
Woman's voice: (laughter) Is that the one where someone came down all dressed up?
WB: No, no, yeah, there's more. And these, this Kelly and his rear gunner friend, the gunner was a rough lad from Birmingham, he said, 'Kelly's invited me to his home, for dinner'. He says, 'I'm going to go'. And he told me after, he said,' I dressed in my best blue, and I arrived at a stately home (chuckles), and I was ushered in by a butler. And I was offered a drink, and after a short while was asked to come and sit down for dinner. So I went and sat down, waiting for my friend to come down, and I turned, he was coming down the stairs in full gentleman's gear. The, the evening dress, the whole lot'. And he said, ' I was most impressed, but it made me feel rather inferior.' And that's the story.
Woman's voice: Carry on then. You don't have to do anything.
MJ: It's alright, it's on.
Woman's voice: Just say.
WB: Pilot Officer Bill Wood was the pilot of our group, and (coughs) I didn't know about his history, or how much flying he'd done before, but some months after we'd finished flying I met a chap who'd been an air gunner on Bill Wood's machines, er, a man from Whitworth Whitley, which was on Coastal Command down in Cornwall, and it was supposed to be flying out to attack submarines on the surface. Over the Bay of Biscay one day they found a U-Boat on the surface, and went in to attack. However, the U-Boat captain decided he would stand and fight, so their gunners got up on the their deck and started firing at the Whitley until they knocked an engine out and it caught on fire, So, our pilot, who was in actual fact at the controls although he was the second pilot, he decided they'd have to ditch. So they ditched down in the Bay of Biscay, and after about twenty four hours they were picked up by a Spanish trawler, who took them to Gibraltar. The strange thing about that is that I lived with our pilot for many, many months, and he never whispered a thing about this. I thought that was amazing. (Tape machine noises) Standard Rank.
MJ: Yes.
WB: And they brought in Standard Rank because they wanted to, all the temporary ranks, they wanted to cut those out, and so my substantive rank was sergeant, so everyone was knocked down one pip, at that time, to a substantive rank, which is what they would have been if they'd carried on and signed on in the Air Force. So, meant you had your own room, or shared with two of you. And the other guy, another Flight Engineer, he got promoted, he got commissioned, and he said, 'I'm going, can I leave this for you'. I said, 'yes, sure', so I put it in the bottom the the kitbag and forgot about it.
MJ: That's how you got your Halifax?
Woman's voice: Oh, that's how you got it?
WB: Put it in the bag and forgot about it. Well he meant, he said, ' I won't need this any more, going to leave it with you'. You know.
MJ: And that's how you got it.
WB: And anyway, it was a Lancaster station, North Luffenham, was a Lancaster station, not Halifax, so it wouldn't have been any good to them. Unless a Halifax had landed.
Woman's voice: And Halifax didn't land there?
WB: No, not usually, not usually.
MJ: Well, thank you for that, I'll tell-
WB: If they'd landed and got damaged, they'd have probably sent a crew from its home station to, ground crew from its home station. Sent a (unclear) and everything to see what's wrong with it, see if they could do something with it. But the main gear for lifting it up, trolleys and that to cart it around, that would have been supplied by the home station.
MJ: Well alright. On behalf of the International Bomber Command, I'd like to thank Bill Bryan on the twenty eighth of October two thousand and fifteen for his recording at his home in Southampton. Once again, we thank you with great thanks.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with William Bryan,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed August 23, 2019,

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