Interview with Percy Cannings


Interview with Percy Cannings


Percy Cannings was born in Stedham, near Midhurst, West Susses and joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 18, reporting for duty in 1943. Percy served with 100 and 97 Squadrons as a mid upper gunner on Lancasters.
He tells of his two brothers who served in the forces and then goes on to talk about his crew and some of the experiences he saw whilst flying in a Bomber Stream.
After his missions, he was then posted as an instructor on Operational Training Units, before flying with 97 Pathfinder Squadron.
Percy flew in Bleinheims, Halifaxes and Lancasters and recalls his life in the Royal Air Force, and his crews and training, also meeting up with the relatives of his former crew, and meeting people from Holland after the war.
Percy also tells of his experiences flying in a Catalina after visiting his brother, who flew in Coastal Command.
Percy completed two tours of duty in Bomber Command and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in September 1944.







01:04:27 audio recording


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AS: This is an interview with Warrant Officer Percy Cannings DFM, a mid-upper gunner on 100 and then 97 Squadron. My name is Adam Such and the interview is being conducted at Buckden, Cambridge on the 11th of August 2015 for the International Bomber Command Centre digital archive. Percy, thanks ever so much for agreeing to this interview.
PC: That’s ok.
AS: I would like to set the scene by asking you to describe your life before joining the Air Force, where you born, a bit about your home, your parents, and sisters, that sort of thing.
PC: Yeah, Yeah, I was born in West Sussex, in a little village called Stedham, near Midhurst. My father was a head gardener and he worked at an estate um, which was owned by a Captain Cobb. He was wounded in the first war and lost a leg, and he still carried on working, virtually, as if he wasn’t, um, what’s the word, injured, or what’s the word for it? In fact, he carried on and constructed a ha ha, if you know what that is, basically on his own, so that his estate looked over the field without the fences in the way, which consisted of a few cows and horses which he used for riding. My two brothers, I had two elder brothers and two younger sisters, my two elder brothers had already joined up in the Air Force, both of them in aircrew [coughs]. My eldest brother was um, they were both wireless op air gunners, and he, Eric, he flew in, Wellingtons before the war, and he crashed on take-off, the day, two days before the war, lost an engine on take-off, but they both got out ok. The whole crew got out ok, but he lost his nerve for flying, and in those days, they classed him as LMF. He volunteered later on for, um, my memory for words.
AS: No worries. If we walk away from it, it’ll come back, won’t it?
PC: Yes, um —
AS: [Laughs]
PC: Oh, what’s the word?
AS: Is it ground duties or a different service?
PC: He volunteered for the commandos —
AS: Good Lord, ok.
PC: And he spent the rest of the war out in North Africa, basically Italy.
AS: Wow.
PC: The other one, the younger one, Arthur, he went in to Coastal Command and he was on Catalina’s, yeah, anti-submarine patrols. I suppose that’s what encouraged me to do the same, but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough, um, sterling to be anything other than an air gunner, so, I was called up at eighteen, or just after eighteen, I reported for duty in 1943, I think it was. I went to [pauses] Lords cricket ground to join up, where I had my kit, all my kit, issued, and um, introduced to square bashing [laughs], which we, we always had to do that. After about three weeks, I was then, sent to Number 9, air gunnery school in Llandrog, in North Wales, spent about five weeks there um, then 1656 Conversion Unit, which is in Lindholme, introduced to first of all the four engine planes, the Halifax and then on to the Lancaster. That lasted about four or five weeks. Got crewed up at the 1656 and um, and it was, I don’t know how we got together, but we did [laughs]. I had a Canadian skipper, Ken Harvey [pauses], the navigator was [pauses] oh, names.
AS: It’s seventy years, isn’t it, it’s a long gap.
PC: Hang on a minute. Right, he was a sergeant and Canadian. Then another sergeant, Geoff Mander from York, bomb aimer, Jim Crake from Scotland, Harry Woods, wireless op, and he was from Mansfield. Sergeant Andy Barr from Scotland, Gordon Brown, rear gunner, myself as mid upper and then on to Lancasters. Transferred then to 100 Squadron, which was then situated at Bourne, near Cambridge. This was early February.
AS: In 1944?
PC: Yeah, 1944, err, ‘43. My first op, was on the 4th of March ‘43, on mining and that lasted about eight and a half hours which was quite long, and then another one to Nuremberg. We suffered two attacks by fighters on that occasion, and just after bombing, we were coned by searchlights which, the skipper slung us all over the sky trying to get out of it, and I swear we must have been upside down because at some point the contents of the [unclear] finished up all over me and the inside the plane. We lost all of our night vision and nearly completely blind for the foreseeable future. Luckily no further incidents occurred on this occasion and I finished my first tour, then being sent to 83 OTU at Peplow, I forget where that is.
AS: As an instructor?
PC: In Peplow?
AS: As an instructor in the OTU?
PC: As an instructor, yeah, and that lasted until the 15th of March ‘44 and called in to the office to say, “you are required back on ops” [laughs], and to report to Flying Officer Reid on [pause], arriving at the guardroom at around six o’clock in the evening. I leave all my kit in the guardroom, because I hadn’t got time to —
AS: Flying that night?
PC: That’s it. I had to go to see this, in the briefing room, see this flying officer, where I met up with my second skipper, and we went off out to Stuttgart that night.
AS: With a crew you’d not flown with before?
PC: Yep, Yep, they had lost their mid upper gunner due to bad eyesight, and consequences are, I went to make up their crew.
AS: And this was now 97 Squadron?
PC: 97, yep, yep. And I realised then that it was Pathfinders, so hence my hesitance for this particular bit of writing. My introduction as a Pathfinder. I didn’t get me pre-op meal on that occasion but I got it when I got back. Up until the [pauses], I did daylights for the first time on the first, second and third of, whatever the month is, I thought of writing this out, anyway, the first, second, third, and then on the fifth. Then a night time to Chateau la Roche, which I think is in France, and then finally another daylight to Deelen. This proved to be my last op on bombing, and the Lanc in front of us was hit from another one above us, and this resulted in an explosion that almost got us as well as, on return carried the scars so from call up to September 1942 to 15th three ‘44, I’d become a Pathfinder in about five months. That’s basically up to the, err, ‘44, and then I went again to another OTU for further instruction, and that lasted until the end of the war. Um, but in between, I had to re-muster to driver MT because air crew were no longer needed, but at that time, the Japan war was still going on, so we had to prepare for that, but luckily my de-mob time came up in between, so I didn’t have to go out there.
AS: Shall we pause there?
PC: Yeah, ok.
AS: Percy, if I could, I’d like to back in to your training a little bit. I know when you got your call up papers, you went up to the recruiting centre at Lords. What sort of things were they doing to you there? Was it instant square bashing?
PC: Instant square bashing, yeah. After, err, we did some aircraft recognition, which, was obviously of use.
AS: Were you mustered together straight away with other air gunners or was it —
PC: Mainly other air gunners, yeah, yeah —
AS: Ok.
PC: Or trainee air gunners [laughs], and the instructors of course. We were on [pause} Blenheims.
AS: Blenheims?
PC: Yeah, in the turret and on the Blenheim.
AS: Airborne?
PC: Yes
AS: These must have been old aircraft by that stage. Were they mechanically reliable, did you have confidence in them?
PC: As far as I know. We had one or two DNCO, no target, flying scrubbed. Yeah, and we did some cine gun, cine gun and under on the Spitfires and Hurricanes that pursued us [laughs].
AS: Did you get em?
PC: No, [laughs]. We had, the targets we had were towed by another plane usually, [pauses] what was it, I’ve got it down somewhere.
AS: They used to use all sorts of things, didn’t they? Masters and Martinet?
PC: Martinet, that’s the name. I had a very short trip in one of those.
AS: Was there much classroom based training as well?
PC: Much what?
AS: Was there much training in the classroom? Or in simulators?
PC: I presume there must have been, but I didn’t get it registered as such. We were flying first, eight, eight, eight three times on the eighth of the month 8th of November ‘42, one on the ninth, two on the 12th, two on the 13th, two on the 15th, three on the 17th, one on the 20th.
AS: Wow, so it’s quite high pressure.
PC: Yes, it was [pause]. I presume we must have had some innovation on the guns, but we had to strip them down, set them out, identify the bits, and also in the dark. But what use that was later on, how can you strip a gun out twenty-one thousand feet, with nothing to put it on?
AS: Service training is not always famous for getting it right.
PC: What use that was to us, I don’t know.
AS: Did you make friendships with the people you were training with?
PC: Not to my knowledge no, I never communicated with any of them either before or after.
AS: Ok.
PC: Not that I can remember of it. I must have most likely been with some of them sometime or other but —
AS: Can you remember passing out? Did you have a passing out parade with family and a band or —
PC: No, we had a photograph taken.
AS: Were you presented with your flying badge or did you go and draw it from the stores [laughs]?
PC: I can’t remember.
AS: It doesn’t matter.
PC: But I was surprised by my friends when I went home on leave for the first time, just around Christmas time, to be a sergeant with my brevet and in full Air Force uniform. My school mates couldn’t believe it.
AS: Very short time, from, from getting the papers to -
PC: About five, err, eight or nine weeks, something like that.
AS: Do you know what your parents felt about having yet another son going up in the air to —
PC: Well it must have been hell for them but —
AS: Didn’t talk about it?
PC: No.
AS: Did you volunteer for Bomber Command? Did you know you were going to Bomber Command?
PC: I volunteered for aircrew, I didn’t know what I would be in.
AS: Ok.
PC: But err, one thing led to the other so I finished up in Bomber Command.
AS: So, you have leave after training?
PC: Yeah.
AS: And then straight in to the squadron, sorry, the —
PC: 1516 Conversion Unit and then straight on to the squadron.
AS: You say you were flying Halifaxes at the conversion unit?
PC: Initially yeah.
AS: The conversion unit —
PC: 3rd, 9th, 6th, 13th, 15th, 17th, the last one we went to, which was a bit hairy, we lost sight of the ground because of haze, no idea where the aerodrome was, so skipper called out a mayday but he got safely down at the finish, but the engines cut out on the perimeter so we wouldn’t have been much longer in the air.
AS: So, really, really, short of fuel.
PC: Yes, yes it lasted a total of three hours sixty-five, forty-five, but we got down in time.
AS: So, can you remember, how, what sort of flying you did at the conversion unit? What sort of exercises you were doing?
PC: Basically, circuits and landings, local flying. Familiarisation, circuits and landings, homing and air firing, circuits and landings. That was when we went up on to the Lancaster for the first time.
AS: Did you very quickly feel confident as a crew that you were working well together.
PC: Yeah, yeah, the skipper was soon made up to pilot officer, but all the rest have stayed as sergeants.
AS: What sort of a leader was he, did he drive you, did he encourage you? Was he very keen on —
PC: He was more or less one of us and whatever the skipper did, we did [laughs] basically so I suppose you could say he led us.
AS: What, what was it like, going on to the squadron? Can you remember what you felt like when you were going to put it all into practice?
PC: Well we knew we were going to train for operations and it didn’t take long in coming. Did some cross countries and bullseyes.
AS: What were bullseyes?
PC: Pardon?
AS: What were bullseyes?
PC: It’s just a, you were told to fly to a certain place at a certain time, from there to another place at a certain time in order to try and keep on time, basically.
AS: So, that’s sort of like a practice bombing mission but over England?
PC: Yeah, over England or Scotland or whatever.
AS: When you were airborne, what were your duties?
PC: Just to keep a look out basically.
AS: Day and night?
PC: Yeah, yeah, day and night. Not that we had to look at a lot at night, except to try and help the navigator by reporting what, [pause] every station had a call sign which was in Morse with a red light, and you reported how many you could see of these which helps the navigator know where he was.
AS: So, you obviously learnt Morse as part of your gunnery training.
PC: Oh yeah.
PC: Only basic Morse, I can’t remember any of it now, just SOS, yes [laughs].
AS: My dad was a wireless operator but in a tank, not in an aeroplane.
PC: My two brothers err, err, did that, and of course they were wireless ops.
AS: You must have had a fantastic view from the mid upper turret on the Lancaster.
PC: Yeah, yeah except from underneath [laughs].
AS: Which counted, yeah, yeah. The actual sensation of flying itself did you enjoy it? Did you very quickly enjoy it?
PC: Took to like a duck.
AS: Yeah? Just the sheer enjoyment of, of, being up there? Did that, did that stay with you?
PC: More or less, yeah, yeah. Never thought we were going to get it but [laughs] it’s always the other guy.
AS: And did your crew really try to lengthen the odds by, for instance, doing lots of practices, dinghy drills, things like that? Was your skipper keen on doing that or —
PC: My skippers, both of them, they practised the weaving.
AS: Yeah?
PC: Never flew straight and level for very long at any one time but it was always fairly predictable for the navigator to know exactly what we were doing.
AS: So, so, both of them hand flew?
PC: Yeah.
AS: Maybe six, eight hours.
PC: Sometimes nine and a half.
AS: Always weaving?
PC: Yeah, Yeah, they must have been sweating when they came out, because they had the heating, we didn’t, it was bloody cold [laughs].
AS: Yeah, even, well you, you had the Perspex, and you had electrically heated clothing?
PC: Yeah, yeah, of course, you didn’t have that, only if you were a night flyer.
AS: It was minus thirty below isn’t it sometimes?
PC: It can be up to forty, and trying to manage a gun, take the gun apart, no way.
AS: Maybe it was to give you confidence in the gun.
PC: The theory was ok but, err, but if they jammed, you were having to do something about it but practicality no.
AS: As you say, where would you put the bits?
PC: Yeah. Where would you put it to start on it? Start stripping it out. You had no table or anything.
AS: When you were um, airborne on a trip was there much talk on the RT between you or was it just —
PC: Not between us, no.
AS: Yeah?
PC: No, skipper didn’t encourage that.
AS: And in the bomber stream, could you see or feel other aircraft at night?
PC: You could feel the other aircraft, the buffeting now and again, but see them, very, very rarely.
AS: I’ve never experienced the buffeting, can, can you describe what it’s, is it almost like hitting something or is it —
PC: Well, no, it’s like a very big wind hitting you. You’d, you’d go sideways, up, or down depending where that aircraft was coming from.
AS: But something, something you could get used to?
PC: Oh, yes you could feel it every time. You knew there was one up ahead of us somewhere, whether it was friendly or foe I don’t know.
AS: I, I’m told, I don’t know this to be true, that it’s quite rare, although you’re surrounded by a thousand aircraft, it was quite rare to see one in flight, is that -?
PC: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Is that —
PC: Except on the daylights of course.
AS: Yeah, yeah on the daylights. So, the crew practiced religiously, you’re flying quite a number of operations, quite, quite quickly, did you hang together very much on the ground as well as in the air?
PC: As much as we could.
AS: Ok.
PC: In fact, we were celebrating the skipper’s birthday, on one occasion, it was Ken Harvey, um, he started off with a gin and orange, went up to double gin and orange and then a double, double, and after about one double, double, I was leaning against the wall, [laughs], no more.
AS: And did you live together all the sergeants’ mess, certainly as a, a crew?
PC: We were in the same um, hut, and of course he was in the officers’ quarters, but other than that we were always together.
AS: And completely random crewing up?
PC: Indeed yeah, yeah.
AS: Percy, when you’d finished at the conversion unit, you crewed up and were posted to 100 Squadron. Um, did you go straight on ops or did you do a period of training?
PC: Did a period of training
AS: Is there anything that stands out in your mind about that training?
PC: That is later on.
AS: Err, I know each mission was different but could you give me some idea about what a day would be, an operational day from getting up, going through the briefing, what was the routine like on your squadron?
PC: Well, we would get up in the morning, and we would know, sooner or later, during the day whether or not we were on ops or whether there was anything laid on for that night, so we couldn’t leave the station um, it’s all a bit hazy now, but [pause] —
AS: Did you all, um, have the same briefing or were there separate briefings for the pilot and navigator?
PC: The pilot and navigator were usually first, and then we were called into the briefing room, um [pause], sorry I can’t give too much about —
AS: No, it’s, it’s an awful long time ago, and not everything sticks in your mind.
PC: We always had a meal, or were supposed to have a meal, egg, and bacon before we went off. There was only one occasion when I didn’t and that was in the start of the second tour [laughs]. I arrived too late in the day on the station and I went out that night before I had it, too late for it [laughs].
AS: When you went out to your aircraft, had all the guns been put in for you?
PC: Oh yeah, yeah, they were all set up for us —
AS: Ok.
PC: By the armourers.
AS: And did you look after your own guns or, or, whatever was —
PC: The armourers used to look after them.
AS: Did you, when you were airborne obviously, over the sea perhaps, did you, did you, test fire the guns or —
PC: No err, err, my skippers didn’t like that, they said it would give it away to anyone else, and you never really knew whether there was anything in the line of fire, being dark, he didn’t condone that at all.
AS: When you got airborne, did you climb straight on course, or was there circling around a beacon, or what?
PC: It depends on where you were aiming for, you usually had a name, um [pauses] you usually had to con.. what’s the word?
AS: To form up in the stream?
PC: No, you usually had a point on the coast where you had to start off from, usually either the east coast or south coast depending on where we was heading for. We often used to congregate over um, [pauses] on the east coast, the name won’t come.
AS: No, no, no. I know several points, like Alford or —
PC: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Were there any incidents that really stand out in your mind, from, from either of your tours, really, either on ops or in training?
PC: We saw actually um, when we were practising, formation flying on the 2nd tour, we had two banks of three, one, two and three, one, two and three, usually at different heights. Well always at different heights, and the err, [pause], the second, first one of three got up in the slip stream of the first one and he went violently up and then back down, he just missed us, and came on top of the other one, and they both went down. Um, there was one parachute I saw coming out and err, and he was later on classed as LMF because he wouldn’t fly again, and I think that was bad, but err, obviously I suppose you could look at it as saying well, he wouldn’t be any good anyway, so, but the way they did it, they stripped him of his brevet and stripes and off the station as soon as possible.
AS: In front of all of you?
PC: Yeah, yeah.
AS: They paraded the squadron and —
PC: Yeah.
AS: What {pause}, did you know people on all these aircraft?
PC: We knew of them. We probably came across them, but not particularly well.
AS: And can you remember, again a long time ago, but can you remember the effect on you? Um, was it just one of those things and you, you were —
PC: Just one of those things as far as you could see because we were out on ops again that following night.
AS: Really?
PC: Yeah.
AS: And their, their two-aircraft lost on training. At the time you were flying both your tours were, were the losses heavy?
PC: [heavy sigh]
AS: Did you get the sense?
PC: Something you didn’t realise about it.
AS: Really?
PC: Yeah, I think we were the only crew in the, we were re-formed 100 squadron to complete our tour but I am not sure about that.
AS: Wow.
PC: There wasn’t very many anyway.
AS: But you always knew?
PC: Yeah
AS: As a crew that—
PC: It was always the other one.
AS: Always the other guy. You have the Distinguished Flying Medal um, gazetted on the 13th September 1944. What was that all about? What was the citation for?
PC: I don’t think it was anything particular. Um, I say that because nothing outstanding as far as we were concerned. We were just doing our job and I think it was something to do with the Pathfinders. If you completed a Pathfinder tour it was basically automatic.
AS: I think you’re being a little modest on that. So, this was the end of your second tour?
PC: Yeah.
AS: Ok. Could we explore the Pathfinder connection a bit?
PC: Yeah.
AS: Cos’ you went to 97 Squadron and only found out when you got there that it was Pathfinder. Was the job and the routine for the crew, not necessarily for the gunner, was that very different from your previous tour?
PC: Only different in the respect that once you had bombed you were required to hang around just in case you had to re-mark.
AS: So —
PC: You were milling around the air um, the target area?
AS: So, left hand circuits with flak and searchlights coming up at you?
PC: Well yeah, and always trying to avoid the searchlights because we didn’t [unclear], well at least I didn’t, I don’t think any of them did.
AS: And this was for, was your skipper a marker or a backer up or what?
PC: it varied with each um, operation. Initially it was just backer up or illuminator, sometimes blind illuminator. That’s when you carried flares to light up the ground so that the master bomber could actually identify their target for others to mark usually a mosquito.
AS: Was the, was there a fair amount of specific training to be a gunner?
PC: Not as far as I was concerned but as the crew was concerned yes.
AS: Ok, and you still had a crew of seven, you didn’t have a second navigator or —
PC: Sometimes they had an extra one for the, but we didn’t for the operation of the H2S.
AS: So, by the time you got to your second tour you had much more equipment like H2S and Gee.
PC: Yeah, usually yeah.
AS: The um, the general, when you’d bombed and you’d been released from this circling, was your crew one of the ones that was really keen to get home first? Pour on the coal and come down hill or?
PC: We usually tried to get home first but with careful note of the petrol consumption to make sure we could get back, otherwise, if you put on too much, you might not have enough.
AS: That, that’s one of the things that interests me specifically. Was the ratio between the fuel that, that the bombers were given and the bomb load they carried.
PC: Mmm.
AS: And then you got variables like the wind. Was having enough petrol a worry for you most of the time? Was it something that you were conscious of all the time?
PC: Not to us.
AS: No.
PC: But to the engineer and the pilot of course, they relied on the engineer to make sure that we had enough because he had the consoles of the engines whether it was to [unclear]
AS: Did you always land back at base can you remember? Or did you -
PC: No, we occasionally had to abort [laughs} because of the weather conditions at home.
AS: Did you ever land at one of the FIDO aerodromes? Did you ever land at FIDO?
PC: No, not with FIDO, no.
AS: How about the long emergency strips like Carnaby or Woodbridge?
PC: We had to land at [pauses] oh, what’s the one just up the road? Wittering, because of the long runway because we ran out of hydraulic power for brakes. We had to just rely on slowing up.
AS: So, it wasn’t an entirely routine tour?
PC: No, No.
AS: What was the cause of the hydraulic power was it the enemy having a go at you or —
PC: No, it was just a breakdown.
AS: But generally, you had a lot of confidence in the aircraft?
PC: In the airplane? Yeah.
AS: It wasn’t all, I guess it wasn’t all operational flying and training. What sort of things did you do for relaxation?
PC: Sorry?
AS: What sort of things did you do for relaxation as a crew?
PC: Mainly the pub [laughs].
AS: What, what were they like? Were they absolutely rammed full of aircrew or did it vary?
PC: Sorry, I don’t —
AS: Were the pubs around the airfields really, really crowded or —
PC: Mainly, yes. On non-flying days, of course [laughs].
AS: So did you drink with your ground crew as well or with extra mates?
PC: If we came across them, yeah, which occasionally you did. Which was encouraged.
AS: I’ll pause it there.
AS: Percy, I know when you joined 97 Squadron they were Pathfinders. They were on 8 Group, but I believe that at some point they went back to 5 Group.
PC: I think it was something to do with Cochrane and [pauses] —
AS: Bennett. Was it Don Bennett?
PC: Bennett, yeah. Names, names.
AS: It’s said they didn’t get on particularly.
PC: No.
AS: So, so were you as a crew in the squadron, did you then go back to 5 Group during your time, or did you finish your time out as a Pathfinder?
PC: I finished the tour as a Pathfinder, um -
AS: Ok
PC: I joined them on the 15th of March ‘44 and finished with them [ long pauses] on the 29th of the seventh 1944
AS: Wow.
PC: Oh, no, the 30th.
AS: So, were you awarded your —
PC: Not then, no.
AS: Your pathfinder badge?
PC: The pathfinder badge, during the course of that, yeah.
AS: Ok.
PC: Which I’ve still got.
AS: So you finished your tour?
PC: Wait a minute, wait a minute, yeah, that was the finish of the tour the 17th of the eighth, err, the 13th, 15th of the eighth, at Sondeal, where the one in front of us was knocked out by bombs from above.
AS: Was that a daylight?
PC: That was on [indistinct]
AS: That was a night fighter drone, wasn’t it?
PC: That was a daylight, green, so there is no excuse really for that happening because it was daylight. At night time, you could understand it but err -
AS: So, you were on 97 Squadron in the build up to D-Day.
PC: Yes
AS: And the invasion of Normandy.
PC: Yes
AS: Did you carry out missions related to that?
PC: Only perhaps in some of the raids on the um, on the railways and such, one of which we did an op to Courtrai [Kortrijk] on the 20th of the seventh, and a gentleman from Holland contacted me with a view to attending to his book signing which he had written about those raids, but unfortunately it was in, written in err, what’s the [pauses], Flemish. Written in Flemish, so I can’t read it [laughs]. I’ve got it here somewhere, or its upstairs.
AS: Bit of a mouthful I think.
PC: And we went over there for that after getting into trouble and getting our passports. Mainly through yours. [talking to other person in room]
AS: Were you well received over there?
PC: Indeed. We couldn’t believe the warmth of the greetings that we got over there. For all [doorbell chimes]. There is somebody at the door. For all the damage that we caused, partly to them, it’s amazing. Even the chap who was blown out of his mother’s arms, and his mother was killed, shook hands
AS: It must have been very gratifying I would think. How, that is something today to be remembered, with, with warmth for what you and your —
PC: Sorry?
AS: Saying that is a, a good reaction today.
PC: Yeah.
AS: To be remembered for what you did, you and your comrades.
PC: And they were so grateful that we helped as far as we could.
AS: I’ll just pause. Percy, you just told me about the recognition in Courtrai and how grateful people are now for what you and your colleagues did, can you remember what you felt like, about the bombing at the time, what you were doing?
PC: Well, as far as I’m concerned, the Jerries started it so we tried to finish it, and with much success. We didn’t get too much recognition from Churchill at the end of the war because he didn’t want to be involved, at least it was the impression that I got, that he didn’t want any recognition of the badness of the bombings, if you know what that means. Um [sighs] but [sighs], I’ve lost the plot somewhere. Yep, I don’t think he wanted to be involved with anything that was wrong about it, or to be, the words don’t come —
AS: Associated with it, he didn’t want to be associated with it.
PC: Yeah.
AS: Yep. Do you think there’s a change now, in, in, our attitudes of finally Bomber Command getting some recognition? Can you see that?
PC: Only if through a bit of pressure from other people. I don’t think it was forthcoming, but it had to be wrung out of them.
AS: Could we go off in a completely different direction? Um, I know that you were involved in trying to, to contact members of your crew, and that your daughter, your daughters, in fact —
PC: Yeah.
AS: Have made a film. Could you give me a little bit of information on the background on that, on, on your efforts to contact your crew and the film?
PC: Yeah, we found the relatives of several of them, but none actually still alive. We attended to a reunion as such at [pauses] um, East Kirkby, where the Lancaster is doing taxi runs and had a good day there, met a lot of the, most of the relatives, of, I think we didn’t, the relatives of Jim Crake didn’t want to be involved. Um, but I think all the rest we, oh no, Geoff Mander, the first bomb aimer, wasn’t there because he was killed on a Mosquito in an accident between the wars, between tours, we went, we found his grave, up in [pauses] that film we’re doing, forget where it was now. Anything more?
AS: No, that’s really good, thank you. Percy, I know it was a long time ago and this might seem a silly question, but can you remember what it was like to be really in the flak, to be shot at, what it felt like and what it looked like?
PC: You were shaken all about, obviously, by how close it was whether there was too much air [pauses] disruption to affect us once or twice it was pretty close and you could feel it and you could hear the bits hitting the metal skin of the aircraft, but we were weaving, but whether you were in to it or away from it is another question. I don’t think there is much you can say about it, it was just luck, pure luck.
AS: And they, they —
PC: And I’ve had my fair share of that throughout the war.
AS: On luck, did you have any?
PC: Talismans?
AS: No, you didn’t.
PC: No, I know some people who did, they wouldn’t leave without whatever it might have been and we had none of that.
AS: Another direction, I, I think when you went to see one of your brothers you actually had a flying boat flight, what was that all about?
PC: Yeah, that was very nice, we went out in a little boat out to the aircraft and I think I’ve got the date somewhere [long pause], oh god, just a second. It was on the 27nd of January, February, March, April.
AS: 1943?
PC: Squadron Leader Lobley was the skipper, FP232 Catalina. Lasted one hour 20 minutes. That was quite exciting. The skipper signed the book.
AS: What was the sensation like on water compared to —
PC: It was quite calm really, I was surprised, I would have thought there would have been a bit more, a bit more reaction from hitting the water, but it wasn’t it as quite smooth.
AS: Can you, can you remember what duties your brother’s squadron were engaged on?
PC: It was on air sea, anti-submarine patrols and this specialise equipment test, which was basically the H2S.
AS: So, they carried radar in the Catalinas against the submarines?
PC: Yeah.
AS: When you’d finished flying you said that you re-mustered as a driver MT until the end of the war, when you, what was the de-mob process like when you finished?
PC: It’s done on numbers depending on time of entry and actual length of service. You had a number and when your number come up you were sent to ACAC which was err, names [sighs], Catterick in Yorkshire, that was where I was demobbed by.
AS: Is it true that you get a suit and a hat and a brown paper parcel?
PC: More or less [laughs] yeah. I had a trilby hat and a de-mob suit which was a pin stripe [laughs].
AS: And did you get any help with re-training, because there is not a lot of room for mid upper gunners in civilian life?
PC: Not in civilian life [laughs]. It might have been if you had gone abroad somewhere.
AS: Did they teach you a trade or —
PC: I thought we had adequate training because I made a good life out of carpentry and went on to building [pauses]
AS: So, after leaving the Air Force you got help, you were trained to be a carpenter?
PC: A carpenter, yeah, yeah.
AS: Ok.
PC: Then you had a period of about six months in which you, before you got full pay or whatever, after that if you were employed, got the rate but —
AS: And, you chose to live in Cambridgeshire or —
PC: Sorry?
AS: You chose to live in Cambridgeshire having been in —
PC: Well because, initially I was um, doing a lot of travelling between, so I was going through the mileage on cars and I felt that I should get some help towards it, but at that time it was a little bit of depression, so I parted company rather than [unclear], and as a consequence I was then employed working on these houses in which I now live in, and as the price was really reasonable, £3,950 for a detached house.
AS: Gosh
PC: Which I paid a lot more for because I had a mortgage on it, but at least I got on the ladder.
AS: Yeah, yeah, It’s always hard isn’t it?
PC: Yeah.
AS: The numbers now are ten times as much, but it is still hard to get on the ladder.
PC: Yeah.
AS: Did, did you keep in touch with your colleagues at all or with the Air Force generally? Did you join a squadron association?
PC: No, not until later, much later, no.
AS: Okay.
PC: I never even joined the um, [sighs] what do you call them?
AS: The RAF Association?
PC: No, no, the civilian one.
AS: The Union? No. The Benevolent Fund?
PC: No
AS: It’ll come.
PC: The Royal British Legion, I never even joined them.
AS: So, was that a period of your life that you parked for a long, long time?
AS: I just didn’t think any more about it. It was something you did.
AS: And what sparked getting interested again and joining the Association?
PC: That was done by my son, David, he saw a bit in the um, whatever it is on the internet about 97 Squadron Association, so he contacted the chap, that was on it and we got a visit from him, um, what’s his name? I think I shall have to go upstairs and get the book. Bending, “Achieve your Aim, A History of 97 Squadron” by Kevin Bending.
AS: So, he came to see you and what sorts of things have you got involved with since?
PC: We’ve got involved with the actual squadron association and we’ve been to their reunions in Horncastle. In Norfolk is it, or is it Suffolk?
AS: I don’t know.
PC: I think its Norfolk but I wouldn’t be 100% sure.
AS: And then there is, have been things like the Bomber Command Memorial?
PC: Yes, we have been down to the Bomber Command Memorial mainly due to um, my daughters again, that’s Sandy, getting the tickets for it. We never went to the um, sorry, we never went to the main place, we were allocated a different area which was about a mile away but we had big screens, which they showed up on us. And err, it was a very hot day, but they treated us well.
AS: And people came from, aircrew came from all over the world for that.
PC: Yeah, yeah
AS: I think there were 600, was it still -
PC: Sorry?
AS: I think 600 hundred aircrew came to that, it was huge.



Adam Sutch, “Interview with Percy Cannings,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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