Interview with John Cuthbert


Interview with John Cuthbert


John Cuthbert joined the RAF and initially trained as a wireless operator / air gunner but re-mustered as an air gunner. After training he was posted to 189 Squadron at RAF Fulbeck and flew operations as a mid-upper gunner. He talks about his light-hearted experiences with his crew as well as some of the tragedies he saw.




Temporal Coverage




02:06:23 audio recording


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GC: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archives. My name’s Gemma Clapton. The interviewee today is John Cuthbert and the interview is taking place at Ramsey in Harwich on the 7th May 2016. Also present is Sandra. I’d like to say thank you very much for talking to me today and could we start. Just tell me a little bit about life before the war and how you joined up
JC: Before the war. Yes. Well, I, I’d left school for some time and in fact had had a couple of jobs when I went with a friend of mine to Chelmsford, joined a radio course, a government sponsored radio course at the Chelmsford Technical College which I found a bit difficult at times although the radio side was ok. The idea was to train people up to take the place of technicians who had gone into the air force so it was a crammed four month course. In fact I came eleventh out of forty so I was quite pleased with that and some stayed on at Marconi’s at Chelmsford and others went on to Murphy Radio at Welwyn Garden City which I did. I went on to Welwyn Garden City where there was a very large ATC squadron. I was going to join the navy because it’s a naval port here and my friends were in the navy but I joined the ATC and we heard there was some flying going on at a little airfield called Panshanger, about five miles away and we used to hurtle off on our bikes and get a flight in a Tiger Moth. So that was the very first bit of flying I did in a Tiger Moth but I got ticked off for moving the wrong bit because you were sitting behind the pilot and he was a bit grumpy that day I think and subsequently I attended a summer camp with the ATC at RAF Westcott which was an Operational Training Unit with Wellingtons and we had the chance of flying on a cross country in one of those so I flew a four hour cross country in a, in a Wellington, which was great. Shared the crews flying rations. Chewing gum and barley sugar which we never had of course and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I volunteered for air crew at that time and you could go up for Cardington. You know it was RAF Cardington you attended for two or three days for medicals and all sorts of things and I didn’t think I’d pass to be honest. I didn’t think I’d pass the medical. On the train going to Cardington there were chaps sitting opposite me, rugby players and all this sort of thing and I felt about that size and I thought hmmn but in the event I did get accepted and some of the big chaps didn’t. Strange isn’t it? Yes, I got, I saw later on a document later on which said PNB material which is pilot/navigator/bomb aimer but I wanted to go in as a wireless operator because it was my trade and it was my hobby and so I duly got called up for training as a wireless operator/air gunner and completed all the initial training which incidentally didn’t get off to a very good start because the first Monday of the new course you were put on fatigues. Not a very good start for the course but, and there were various jobs from sweeping the NAAFI. The worst one was delivering coke to all the huts because there was hundreds of huts. Guess which one I got? I got the coke delivery with some other lads so we had to load up this flat truck lorry with sacks of coke and deliver them to the huts around the camp and half way through the afternoon it started to rain so you can imagine what state we were in and part of the route took us past station sick quarters and at the end, it was a lot of huts put together and at the end of one of the huts was a conservatory type affair and inside were two or three chaps in beds, white sheets, sitting up, reading books. I was wet, dirty and I said, ‘You lucky blighters.’ The next minute a lorry went around a corner, a sharpish corner and a load of sacks came over and propelled me on to the road and the medico came dashing out from sick quarters ‘cause they saw it happen and I wanted to get back on the lorry but they wouldn’t let me do that. They dragged me into sick quarters and laid me out on one of their nice clean beds, examined me, couldn’t find anything broken. They said, ‘Well you’ve got to be kept in in case you’ve got concussion,’ so I finished up in sick quarters, in a bed, in a room on my own feeling rather sorry for myself but I thought never wish anything on yourself. [laughs]. I thought that was very funny afterwards but of course I had to start a new course then because I’d missed, I was in there a week. Nothing wrong with me and they let me go. No, I didn’t get any sick leave. I was just discharged into the, into the course. So, anyway the rest of it went all ok. I got fatigues again of course the next Monday and I thought this is like Groundhog Day you know but it wasn’t. It was, I did some sweeping somewhere or other which was quite mild. I enjoyed the course though. We had to work hard. At the end of it we were to go on leave and then return or be posted to a radio school which was the bit I was looking forward to but instead of that we were called to the NAAFI for a meeting with a lot of top brass who came down and said, ‘Well, you chaps, you’ve finished this course,’ he said, ‘But I’m afraid that the radio schools are pretty full and you’ll be kicking about for some while,’ he said, ‘But what we do want is some air gunners. They’re fitting new turrets to the underside of the aircraft.’ This, well they did experiment with this but it wasn’t continued with. That was a lot of eyewash. There were no such thing during the war of mid under turrets. Not on British aircraft. They were just short of air gunners and they wanted the whole course to remuster. We would have been sent on leave, returned to Bridgenorth where we’d done our training. There was an elementary air gunner school there and on completion of that we would go to air gunners school and if we passed we’d be sergeant air gunners and the next move would be Operational Training Unit and then a squadron and this appealed to most of them. I didn’t particularly want to be an air gunner. I was good on the old keys you see and a friend of mine, I’d better not give his name but came from Brightlingsea said, ‘You’ll be the only one left here, John if you don’t remuster. You’ll be all on your tod,’ he said. So, in the end I agreed and remustered with the rest of the course and my friend Jack he later came in to the hut where we were getting ready to go on leave and he was a big chap, rugby player and he was crying. His eyes weren’t good enough for straight air gunner so he had to stay. Isn’t that strange? I met him after the war when I was on Transport Command down at Holmsley South. I met him in the sergeant’s mess and he’d got his signals brevvy up. I said, ‘Oh you made your signals course then Jack.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What did you do? Did you get on ops?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I was instructor on the Isle of Man.’ I said, ‘You got me flying over hunland,’ I said, ‘Getting shot at left, right and centre and you’re enjoying the fleshpots of Douglas.’ ‘That’s right, John,’ he said. [laughs]. I said, ‘Well if I’d got the chop I’d have come back and haunted you.’ [laughs] But anyway he did, he did do the course and, but he never got on a squadron. So there we are but the rest of it was quite exactly as the top brass said. We went on leave, we came back and did Elementary Air Gunner School at Bridgenorth. Went on leave, came back and we were posted, I was posted to number 3 Air Gunner’s School at Castle Kennedy near Stranraer in Scotland. We used to fly up and down Luce Bay shooting at a drogue towed by a Martinet with a very frightened pilot, [laughs] I imagine he was anyway. Although there was a long, a long cable between the towing aircraft and the drogue that we fired at but that was all good fun. The only trouble was that we that were on Ansons, flew Ansons there. There was the pilot, the instructor and three UT air gunners so you each took it in turn to go in to the turret and fire and the ammunition was tipped with different coloured paint so that you knew which gunner had made which holes in it or none whatever the case may be and it was a strange little, it was a Bristol turret. As you elevated the guns up you went down and vice versa so it wasn’t, it wasn’t a lot of room in it so if you did anything wrong you got, it wasn’t easy. There would be the instructor yelling at you from the astrodome further up telling you to get the seagull out of your turret and all this sort of thing but it was very enjoyable and I passed out third in the course which I was quite pleased with at that considering I didn’t want to be an air gunner to start with. There was one unfortunate, well one unfortunate incident while we were there. The pilots were all Polish and they all wanted to be Spitfire pilots so when we’d finished the exercise, whatever it was, it was a lot of very low flying which was all great fun but this particular day this one went into a farmhouse and they were all killed and the three UT gunners in it were the only Scottish lads on the course and they were the ones in Scotland. They were the ones that were killed. I had to attend the boarding ceremony on the station. So, so that was that. We duly went on leave as sergeant air gunners or most of us did anyway and I think we went, we went, yes we went to Operational Training Unit then at Upper Heyford but that was where the ground schooling was done there which was quite a lot of that as you can imagine. Then we went over to the satellite airfield at Barford St John near Banbury of Banbury Cross fame, for the flying in Wellingtons so I was back in the Wellingtons. That was good fun. We crewed up there of course. That was quite remarkable, the crewing up. It’s, I think we were the only country who did it. You were just all put in to a hangar and said get on with it. Gunners, pilots, navigators. Well, I was in, I had an air gunner mate so we were together so there were two air gunners and the skipper was looking for two air gunners and we sort of collided with him and that was that. He was a big tall chap. I’ll have to show you a photograph. Wore a moustache. In fact he was known as The Count on the squadron because he could have been a Count. He was a public schoolboy but he was one of the lads, you know. He wasn’t, he wasn’t at all snooty with it and we found a bomb aimer and a wireless operator, Bill. And we hadn’t got a navigator. There was one who we eventually had but he’d been on a previous course and the aircraft had crashed and he’d walked out of it. We thought that might have been a bit of an omen [laughs]. Some funny things you think of. Anyway, Frank Johnson was the navigator and he was a damned good navigator. Anyway, we were crewed up and the first flying was circuits and bumps, of course with an instructor. First time we’d all flown together and I always remember the first, after the first hour of circuits and bumps the instructor got up to get out down the old ladder and we all pretended to follow him [laughs] because the skipper would be taking us but he turned out to be a very very good pilot of course and we did our day circuits and bumps and then our night circuits and bumps which was a bit more difficult ‘cause you got in to a Wellington in the front, under the nose and the propellers were very close to the fuselage and you had to go dead straight to the aeroplane otherwise you’d rather lose your head. In more ways than one. But that was fun and then we went back to Upper Heyford for ground school. It had a very complicated fuel system the Wellington and more than one crew were lost because they’d thought to have run out of petrol and in fact there was another tankful somewhere but they’d opened the wrong cocks, you know. So this, I forget, I think his name was Fry, Flight Lieutenant Fry, he was a genius. He’d fixed up a ground replica of this petrol system with pipes and levers and everything and fans and we all had to learn it. We all had to learn the fuel system by doing this, you know, this model. If you did anything wrong the fans would stop. So we got quite good at that but we didn’t have any trouble with the Wellington. The only thing that concerned me a little bit about them was at night when you did a night cross country or any night flying. They’ve got fabric covered wings, the Wellingtons. They were made of a geodetic construction but it was all fabric covered and they filled the tanks up in the wing and invariably some got spilled all over this fabric and as you took off sparks would be flying past from the engine and if you were in the astrodome looking out you wondered why you didn’t catch fire but they never did of course. It was flitting past too quickly but that was, that was an interesting point about the Wellington but we used to have some good cross countries in those. Four hours as a rule and a nice meal when you, before you took off and another one when you got back so that was good. From there, we all passed out there with flying colours and the next thing, I think we went to a, kicked our heals for a week or two at a, some place waiting for, but the next move was to a Heavy Bomber Conversion Unit on Stirlings, big four engine things but we couldn’t go directly. We had to wait out turn and eventually we were posted to RAF Swinderby on these confounded Stirlings which were very, very fine aircraft but the ones we had were well past their sell by date and I don’t think we ever flew without something going wrong and we were jolly glad to see the back of Swinderby I can tell you. All sorts of things happened. I mean, one of the worst ones I was in the rear turret, we were doing night circuits and bumps, two hour detail and we’d done about half of it and we were doing a landing and I thought, hello the old runway is still whizzing past fast. The brakes had failed. There was a yell from the skipper, ‘Brace, brace.’ Well, I was in the rear turret. I couldn’t do much but just hang on. The runway finished, the grass started, we went through a hedge, across a field and finished up with the bombing hatch over the Newark Lincoln Road so we were out of there a bit smartish because they had a habit of catching fire, these Stirlings. We plodded back to the peritrack and the transport came around to pick us up and we thought we were back to the mess for a meal now. No. No. Around the peritrack to another Stirling to finish the detail so we did another hour of night circuits and bumps so that didn’t, didn’t encourage me at all with those things. On another occasion the, it had an electric undercarriage, not an hydraulic one and if there was any failure at all with it you had to wind it up by hand or the flight engineer did. Well, no we hadn’t got a flight engineer there. Or did we? Yes, we picked him up, that’s right, we picked a flight engineer up at Con Unit. We didn’t, we didn’t have a flight engineer at the Operational Training Unit. They were still learning about engines somewhere. But yeah this damned thing wouldn’t wind down so we were pealing around for half an hour trying to get the undercarriage down so that was interesting. But the worst things that happened to us in a Stirling was on a cross country. This was October, November time and it was over Scotland and we were on our way home, on the homeward leg and the starboard outer engine overheated. Apparently they get, the oil gets super cool and thick and doesn’t circulate so the engine gets, and it’s called coring apparently. Anyway, they had to switch the engine down but that was alright but what wasn’t right was the propellers wouldn’t feather. It wouldn’t feather and stop so it was windmilling so not only had we lost an engine it was still being driven by windmilling causing a terrific lot of drag. Fortunately, we’d got the screen flight engineer with us instructing our flight engineer and he assisted on the way back. We called up. It was a system during the war called Darkie. They wouldn’t allow it now but the posters was of a little black boy. ‘If you’re in trouble call Darkie.’ Well we called Darkie but he wasn’t in unfortunately so we called Group or got on the radio and called Group and they said that we should try and zigzag home going near airfields which we did. We eventually got back to Swinderby and came in to land and the skipper, he’d learned or heard in the mess that you took the trim off if you lost, you know, were in really serious trouble with an engine and it would, it would straighten, help to straighten it up but it didn’t. It had the opposite effect and we swung towards a group of trees and there was a, ‘Brace. Brace,’ from the skipper again and the navigator, one of his jobs when you were landing and taking off was give the airspeed and a Stirling stalled at ninety miles an hour and I can hear Frank’s voice now saying, ‘Ninety. Ninety. Ninety,’ and I was just waiting to crash and then suddenly it was, ‘ninety five,’ and apparently the screen engineer and the skipper were pushing on the rudder to keep it straight and we overshot, went around again and came in safely and landed and when we got back to the control room they said, ‘We didn’t expect to see you lot again.’ So, [laughs] so that was the dark humour I’m afraid but that put me right off Stirlings that did. We were very glad to see the back of them. We did finish the course and I think we lost about five crews while we were there. All crashing. Not altogether the crew’s faults. You know, just and that invariably happened on a Saturday night and that was a Saturday night when we did our little performance so perhaps we were intended to go in. I don’t know. But the next posting was to RAF Syerston. Number 5 Lancaster Finishing School and it was like going from a clapped out old banger to a Rolls Royce, flying Lancasters. Yeah, that was really good. We had some very enjoyable times there. We had to do quite a lot of flying. Practice high level bombing and fighter affiliation where you have a camera instead of a gun and a Spitfire makes attacks on you and that’s all good fun. It is for the gunners and the pilot but not for the rest of the crew. They’re being chucked about all over the place. There was one amusing little incident while we were at Lancaster Finishing School. We came across, one afternoon coming back from somewhere or other, we came across a Flying Fortress flying back to its base somewhere I suppose and we came up to it and we had to slow down to keep, not keep up with it but to keep station with it and to exaggerate this and to show off a bit we dropped the undercarriage and put some flap down to slow the Lancaster down and we did the usual thumbs up and all this sort of thing and then up with the wheels, in with the flaps and zoomed off. I reckon they thought, ‘Show offs,’ but there we are. I’m afraid the skipper did do that a bit. The one I didn’t like him doing though was, which he did quite a bit on the squadron if we had to do any air sea firing we used to chuck a flame float in the water and then we’d fire at it as we went around but if he spotted any ships he generally introduced himself, you know, by going very low but what I didn’t, what I was scared of, he was going to do this with Royal Naval ships ‘cause I know from my experience at home that anything that flew was fired at. I don’t think they’d heard of aircraft recognition. They just fired at everything that flew. In fact they did bring a Fortress down in the river here during the war. It was out, stuck in the mud for ages wasn’t it? So, I had visions of the skipper doing a show off beat up on a destroyer or something and getting a few rounds up our backsides but on one occasion there was a whole line of, it was a very nice sight, of destroyers in line of stern and we got down the same level as level as them and flew along and so I think they flashed good luck to him on the aldis lamp but I had visions of them opening fire on us. I thought, I hope they know what a Lancaster looks like but there we are. So we passed out there ok and then, yes the skipper was anxious to get on a Pathfinder squadron. They did one tour of forty ops if they survived that long and you had to learn each other’s jobs and all about marking and all that sort of thing which we did. We swotted it all up and we duly went for our interview. It was a wing commander, I think, took it and we were all gathered in front of him answering questions and the skipper, his name was Clem Atting, by the way, his name. He had a scarf on. Weren’t supposed to wear scarves like that and the wing commander said, ‘Are you warm enough, Atting?’ ‘Yes, thank you sir. Yes. Very well.’ ‘Well take that bloody scarf off,’ he said [laughs]. So our interview went downhill from then on and needless to say we did not get to a Pathfinder squadron. We were posted to 189 at Fulbeck-in-the-mud we called it. Well when we got there we were issued with gumboots and I’d never, never heard of that before. We were issued with gumboots. So there we were and we were in wooden huts there though. They weren’t nissen huts. They were wooden huts and I remember, you know, that’s right we went there with four other crews because we went in convoy with another truck. There were four crews ‘cause they’d lost four aircraft and when we piled out of the aircraft er out of the trucks waiting to go to some billet somewhere I was hailed by a resident air gunner from the other side of the road, ‘Hello John.’ He said, ‘You’re a chop replacement.’ [laughs] I thought, ‘Good afternoon to you too.’ Well, we know we were obviously or else we wouldn’t have been sent there but I thought what a greeting, you know. We eventually got in our huts and I can very clearly see it now. The beds weren’t made up obviously, it was just, I just laid the biscuits out, flopped on it ‘cause we were a bit weary by that time and I looked back and on the wall there were twenty eight ticks. Was it thirty or, thirty well I think I’ve got in my notes somewhere that it was reduced to thirty three but I don’t think it was thirty three when we were there. I think it was thirty. Anyway, I thought crikey if this crew who were in this hut had done twenty eight, they were on their twenty ninth and they were shot down what hope have we got, you know? We don’t know anything ‘cause it is, it’s luck though really. Its luck. Absolute luck. I know you’ve got to know all your stuff but it is really luck whether you go down on your first or your last. I mean there were very experienced crews who were shot down when we were on the squadron. On one, on our first raid to Horten Fjord in Norway the master bomber was shot down who was in charge of the raid but there we are. Yes, there was another crew in the hut and they were just finishing theirs. They were just finishing. In fact they did finish their tour while we were there but they left behind their flight engineer who was slightly bad I think. Leo Doyle, I think his name was. He had a revolver in his flying boot and he didn’t want to go on leave and have a rest like you did after a tour. He wanted to join 617 squadron, you know and carry on which he eventually did and I met him after he’d been on it for a while and he said, ‘They’re mad,’ he said, ‘They’re quite mad.’ He said, I think he said they were doing a raid on Flushing and they were in line of stern in daylight and they were just getting shot up as they went in, you know. They didn’t take any evasive action. They were just making sure they hit the target so I mean he was, he was a bit flak happy but that was almost too much for him I think [laughs]. Dear of dear. I always remember him. But yeah, we, we’d, as I say our first, first raid was to Horten Fjord. It was a U-Boat base for the North Atlantic and we duly did our stuff there. It was a long sea trip and the Pathfinders marked the coast where we crossed, where we should cross in case you got off course over the sea, made sure you crossed at the right place but we avoided that like the plague because there was a night fighter station just around the corner at Kristiansand and we thought they could well be buzzing around there so we crossed a bit further east but I think we sighted a ME109. I think that was the occasion I sighted an ME109 astern of us but it didn’t attack us and we kept quiet as well. The second one was not quite so clever. That was at Ladburgen on the Dortmund Ems canal. It was at a place where the water was higher than the surrounding countryside and so the banks were very important and 5 Group’s job was to go there periodically and knock them down and we were, fortunately or unfortunately, that was our second raid. That wasn’t the first time they’d been there but obviously that was our first one there and there was a terrific lot of flak. Naturally they wanted to stop us. They got a bit grumpy about us knocking all this stuff down but we got, we got back ok. I can’t remember. I’ve got some notes here about them but the next one was to Bohlen and that was an oil refinery. Most of our raids were on oil refineries because at that time the Germans were very short of oil towards the end of the war and no we didn’t do much of this flattening of cities and things. We only did a couple of those I suppose. But Bohlen, that was a long trip but uneventful. The next one was to Harburg which was eventful. It was a great big oil refinery on the River Ems. It was both sides. it was a huge, huge place and we were routed in past the Frisian Islands who all had a go at us as we went past which I thought it was a bit uncharitable and then we turned right smartly, right over the middle of Hamburg which again, I thought was a bit silly because they all thought we were going to bomb Hamburg and of course everything went off there and I could see from the turret that the whole place was well alight. It was like day. Flames and flares and everything. It was, it was like hell. You know. Like flying into hell and as we came in I noticed that there was a JU88 poking about. It was so bright I could see the markings on the wings. I warned the skipper. I said, ‘A JU88 starboard quarter up. Prepare to corkscrew starboard,’ and at the same time Eddie Jordan the bomb aimer was giving his, ‘Left. Left. Steady. Right a bit’ and at the same time as he said, ‘Bombs gone.’ I said, ‘Corkscrew starboard. Go,’ as this blooming thing came in and I opened fire and it broke away. I don’t know whether I, I think I must have hit it but he didn’t hit us. That was the main thing. The purpose was to evade it, avoid it. Not to shoot down German aeroplanes but to not get shot down yourself but obviously if you could hit him you would. But we dived out of there at a terrific speed and into the darkness and comparative quiet and the skipper got his, got the heading for home, you know, or first leg of going home and off we went . I think the rest of the, when we got back to Fulbeck we found that there were four, there were four missing. Four of our lads were shot down including some very good friends of ours who arrived on the squadron with us you know, when we arrived. Flying Officer Smith. I can’t remember his Christian name. It was D. It might have been David but I’m not sure now but he did a remarkable thing. He, whilst doing this fighter affiliation at Lancaster, at er when we first got to the squadron you think you’re all ready to go into ops but you don’t. You do quite a lot of training and the drill was when you’d finished the exercise was to take the Spitfire back to Metheringham where it came from because he wouldn’t know where he was and then you know, a guy would go down and well on this occasion a Spitfire formated a bit too close and took about seven foot off the wing off the Lanc and Smithy baled the crew out, one of whom always said he’d have time to do his bottom straps up on his parachute. Well he didn’t. He went straight through his parachute harness and was killed when he hit the ground of course and the Spitfire wasn’t damaged and followed the parachute out to see but there was nothing on the end of it. And Smithy landed the Lancaster safely and it had, you know he was on the Harburg raid with us and he got shot down.
GC: You talk about your crew. Tell us a bit about what they were like. What kind of characters they were.
JC: Well, the other gunner, he was a good friend of mine. Much the same sort of type. Bit shorter than me. The flight engineer was quite old. Bert Shaw. He, he must have been nearly thirty. We were, I mean, I was nineteen, eighteen or nineteen. Skipper was twenty two. The others were about that age. I think I was the youngest but Bert, he was very nice. He was married and he was, he drove a fire engine in civvy life but he was very domesticated and he ironed our collars and things for us. He loved doing them. It was just as well because we couldn’t do it and the bomb aimer, he was Eddie Jordan. He was a nice chap. Very well spoken and educated. Like the skipper. Not that we weren’t but you know, he, they were a little bit, I think, better than ourselves. The wireless op Bill Mobley he was a good mate of mine. Got into a few scrapes. They borrowed the, him and a mate of his borrowed the flight commander’s motorbike one night and pranged it. Finished up in Wroughton Hospital and the next day the skipper said, ‘I think we aught to give Bill a look,’ and I said, ‘Well are we going over in the car?’ ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘We’ll fly over and so we did a low level attack on Wroughton Hospital. How we didn’t get, well he did get caught eventually. He, he, when you take off in a Lancaster you climb steadily until you get a good height before you bank. The skipper thought he was in a Spitfire and used to go off like, unfortunately one day the station commander was in the control tower when this Lancaster flew just overhead and he said, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Flying officer Atting, sir.’ So Flying Officer Atting was sent to the naughty aircrew school at Sheffield for a week or was it a fort, a week I think. Flight lieutenants and above, flying officers and above went there to the naughty boys school and they had great fun there apparently. The first night he was there they, it was in a famous old hall and they took the fish down from the cabinets, set fire to some furniture and were toasting them apparently [laughs] But we went on leave so we thought it was a jolly good idea this Sheffield business but when we got back off leave and Clem came back and he said, ‘I’ll show you where we were.’ So we hopped aboard our aeroplane and duly went over to Sheffield and he showed us at very close quarters [laughs] the school.[laughs] It’s funny we didn’t all finish up there to be honest but you know, we should get into bits of bother but some things we got away with and it will probably catch up with me when they hear all this but some of it, when we were on ops we dropped stuff called Window. You’ve probably heard all about it. Strips, well it was in packs, packages and they were put down the flare chutes, down the chutes and when they got in the slipstream they burst open and scattered. Well, the skipper and the bomb aimer had girlfriends in this village not too far from Fulbeck and one afternoon we were stooging around flying and they thought they’d give them a look and I mean a look. Dear oh dear. We, I remember looking up at the church tower as we came past and we Windowed the village and they must have known who it was because at that time, or hitherto the markings, we were CA 189 squadron, our squadron letters were CA in big red letters on the aircraft followed by the letter L or E or whatever and they decided to outline it in orange which I thought was a bit unfair really but anyway they were done and of course they stuck out like a sore thumb. I don’t know which raid it was.
Ah yes I think it was a place called Lutzkendorf, another oil refinery job and we were diverted to Manston because of fog everywhere and the next morning we took off to go fly back to Fulbeck and again this Window stuff, dropped by somebody else before it had burst open hit all our aerials and took them away so we couldn’t contact anyone on RT and another one of the other squadrons said, ‘Well follow us, you know. We’ll take you back.’ So we did. What we did we didn’t know was that this other character was going to visit his auntie on the way back [laughs] which was down in a valley so we duly followed him down and saw his auntie and flew back to Fulbeck and later on in the day there was a complaint. The adjutant received a complaint from a wing commander who was having his breakfast looking down on two, two Lancasters. Reported us. And the adjutant thought it was great fun and tore the complaint up into the wpb. So that was that. He was really good at that. He looked after us very well, did our adj. I got caught at home on leave cycling without my hat by a snotty provo flight lieutenant who didn’t know the front, the back of an aeroplane and I had to show him my pass of course, 189 Squadron, Fulbeck. The next day when I got back from leave the skipper said, ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘The adj has had a complaint from the provo marshall about you.’ I said, ‘Oh?’ ‘Cycling without a hat.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘It was duly filed.’ Considering most, a lot of his time was taken up writing letters to the families you know so to get one about someone not wearing a hat I can only just imagine what he thought. Well there we are.
GC: Sounds like you had more fun than serious stuff.
JC: Well we did have a lot of fun. We, the skipper was always, I mean you’d be wondering what to do one afternoon and the door would burst open. ‘Let us leap into the air,’ he would say. I don’t know what sort of excuse he gave to anybody to get and so off we’d go. Mind you there were official high level bombing practices and fighter affiliation with a Spitfire. One afternoon we were coming back from a high level bombing exercise which we couldn’t do because there was cloud everywhere and this Spitfire came up, went like that. And I went like that. And I said to the skipper, ‘I think he wants to play games,’ so we sort of meant to play around a bit and he went off and started making attacks on us and for half an hour we chucked that Lanc around the fire, around the sky and it was great fun. Well, it was for the gunners as I say and for the pilot. The rest of the crew were groaning and moaning. Hanging on tight. And I think Eddie Jordan had a bit of tooth trouble so that as we dived down that started making his tooth ache. So they didn’t think it was very funny but at the end of it he got in right close and went like that as much to say, you did alright. So that was good fun. But it wasn’t all like that you know. There was some dodgy bits. Really dodgy bits. Yeah. One of the other daylights we did was to Essen. That was a thousand bomber raid and that was quite a sight and we never did see the ground. It was covered in cloud and we had to bomb on a sky marker. Can’t remember the name of it. Wanganui flare I think they called them but you had to bomb on a certain heading otherwise you’d be all over the place and when we left, I always remember this, when we left the cloud which had been all flat there was a big bump in, over Essen and we never even saw the ground. So that was one occasion where we did what you might call open bombing, didn’t have a specific thing to hit. After that came Wurzburg. Now this was the, we didn’t, we didn’t go to Dresden. I’ve got a note in my diary that the boys have gone to Dresden. We didn’t. We were obviously stood down for some reason. Probably been the night before because you didn’t get to do two consecutive nights ‘cause you couldn’t really ‘cause you didn’t get up till lunchtime. You’d have to get up, have lunch and go straight into briefing so there was generally a night free but we went to Wurzburg which was a big open city and I don’t know why we went there but after the war I read it was troop concentrations. The Russians wanted us to sort it out and that was the only time we carried incendiaries, carried a cookie which was a four thousand pounder like a huge big dustbin and incendiaries and when we left the place the place was alight but on the way back we got into a bit of a spot of bother we were diverted, well we were routed home between Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. Two places to avoid like the plague. And we were poodling along in the dark minding our own business, halfway home and suddenly bump, the radar searchlight went straight onto us. The blue one. So I thought, ‘Hello. We’re in trouble here.’ That’s hastily followed by five ordinary ones so we are immediately floodlit and that was smartly followed by all the ackack guns in what we found out later was Karlsruhe. We’d gone right slam bang over Karlsruhe. We’d been flying straight and level for ages so they must have had us tuned up a treat so how they didn’t knock us out of the sky I’ll never know. It felt as though someone was banging the aircraft with a fourteen pound sledgehammer all over it. You couldn’t hear the engines, you know. I thought they’d all stopped you know one of those funny sort of things that happen you see and the skipper did everything with that Lancaster that, things you would do in a Spitfire short of rolling it and eventually we emerged into the darkness. The lights went out, the guns stopped and it felt awfully silent and the skipper called us all up in turn to see if we were alright and then he sent the flight engineer around with a torch to see if there was anything, damage anywhere. He couldn’t see anything obviously bad and we continued home rather silently but at lunchtime the next day we went down to the aeroplane to do our daily inspections and things and it was like a pepper pot. It had got shiny new squares of aluminium all over it where the lads had filled up, covered the holes up and I thought, ‘Blimey,’ I looked up at the mid upper turret and there were two or three right, right under that. They went in one side, straight across the aircraft and out the other side. It’s only aluminium and these were red hot bits of steel and they were, well why we weren’t seriously hit, or the engines, none of the engines were damaged.
GC: Was there a, or what was the main difference between day and night? Was there, was there did you prefer to do day or do night? Was one more dangerous than the other?
JC: Well, daylight was dangerous in that you could be seen. On the other hand you could see. You could see fighters but the daylight, I don’t think we had a fighter escort over Essen because there was too many of us. There was another one over Nordhausen which I’ll mention next but on that we had a fighter escorts, Typhoons, and they went in front of us strafing all the airfields, keeping them on the ground and then escorting us but we didn’t have [pause], later on we went to Flensburg. We didn’t have a fighter escorts then so I don’t know. Sometimes we did. But it could be very dodgy. A friend of mine, Basil Martin, unfortunately he’s dead now but he was on a squadron in 3 Group and they did a lot of daylights over France leading up to D-Day and after D-Day and they had quite a lot of fighter trouble. In fact, they had, I remember him telling me once there were three of them flying to the target in broad daylight and an ME109 came after them and shot the back one down, then the next one down and his gunner shot that one, shot the ME109 down. They didn’t get a medal for it though. They just got to the target and back again but there were a lot of very short, obviously into France, so very short operations and at one time they, you had to do, or so I heard after the war, that you had to do two of those to count as one ‘cause most of our trips were pretty long you know, sort of ten hours, ten and a half hours. Quite a long while. Yes. Yeah, that was the incident at Karlsruhe. Strangely, the earlier time that 189 lost four aeroplanes was when they went to Karlsruhe. Lost four. We were replacements for the ones that were shot down over Karlsruhe so they were trying to have a go at us as well you see. It’s strange isn’t it?
GC: Did you get superstitious about things like that?
JC: Well, I don’t know. You do get a bit that way. I always put my right flying boot on first and if I didn’t I took them both off and put them on again and people had lots of silly things that you did [pause]. But then nobody queried it.
GC: You also, you also talked about quote ‘hijinks’ in this Lancaster. What was it really like because a Lancaster is a big plane to be throwing around quite so willy nilly.
JC: Yes. Indeed. Well, I’ll tell you something we did one day which, nobody believed us anyway, so I might as well tell you and I couldn’t put it in my logbook otherwise we would have all been court martialled but it’s in my diary. We’d been up for some high level bombing practice over Wainfleet range which is in the Wash. There was an area there where you dropped [prunes?] as we called them. They were smoke ones in the day and at night they were flash and a chap, or I think there were two of them, sat in concrete bunkers taking a bearing on your hits so they could tell you what you’d missed or hit. Well, we got over Wainfleet range and you couldn’t see a thing. We were up at about eighteen thousand feet so the skipper said, ‘Well we’ll do a bit of three engine flying,’ so feathered the starboard outer and that meant, I was in the rear turret that meant I couldn’t use my turret. Then he did the port outer which, I mean the Lancaster will fly quite happily on two engines and then he did the starboard inner and I thought, ‘Oh hang on.’ I wound my turret by hand on the beam so that if necessary I could open the back doors and go out because we had, we had a pilot type chute then for the rear turret. You didn’t have to get out the turret but in the mid upper turret you had to get out, go a few of yards down the fuselage, get your parachute out of a housing, clip it on and then go to the door and, you know it was a bit of a palaver which a lot of people never made of course but anyway we’re flying on one engine. That was the port inner left. And he said, ‘Feather port inner.’ And the poor old Bert Shaw, his voice was getting drier and drier you know, he said, ‘Feathering port inner, skipper,’ faithfully doing as he was told and that meant shutting the engine down and then feathering it so they wouldn’t windmill. So there were four fans stopped. Poor old Bill Mobley, the wireless op, he’d got all this gear on. He thought, ‘That’s gone a bit quiet.’ He looked out the astrodome and saw four propellers stopped. He said, ‘You bloody fool,’ he said, ‘I’ve got all my electric gear on here.’ Well they wouldn’t have had enough on the batteries to unfeather so he shut everything off in a hurry and then came the dramatic words, ‘Unfeather starboard outer,’ and fortunately there was enough power to turn the props and it windmilled and fired. There was a puff of smoke came past the turret and I thought, ‘We’re alright now,’ and all four were running but we weren’t diving down very fast but apparently the skipper had seen a photograph of a Lancaster with all four engines feathered allegedly beating up the control tower but of course that was a trick photograph but the engines were all feathered. They were all stopped and feathered so it must have been done. So he, being a very, if someone could do it he’ll do it, you know. He’ll have a go.
GC: I must admit I’d heard that and you’ve just confirmed ‘cause everybody went, ‘No it can’t be done.’ I had heard it so. You just, you just proved it.
JC: Oh yes. We didn’t have, we weren’t engineless for very long because as I say the wireless op exploded. He should have told him what he was going to go ‘cause he’d got his radio gear on and all the nav equipment and everything.
GC: Yeah.
JC: All draining from the batteries which we wanted for that initial restart but I did quietly tell the fitter engines once ‘cause we used to have a beer with them, you know and he didn’t believe us and I thought, well that’s fair enough. I know it was true, the rest of the crew knew it was true but no one dare breathe a word officially about it or we would all have been, well the skipper would have been court martialled. That’s for sure. So that was, I suppose, the silliest thing we did. Although, I did something very silly once. In the mid upper turret there was, they were electrically fired and there was cut out gear so that you couldn’t’ shoot your fins off or kill the rear gunner or people up in the front you know and there was taboogie which lifted them clear as you went around. Well, we were up one day. We put a, put a smoke float out to shoot at and the blooming things wouldn’t work and I thought, ‘Oh hell.’ So I thought, well I can still fire them ‘cause I can fire them manually by pushing the [sear in] underneath the screw with my toggle and I waited until we were clear and did it and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ And your mind plays tricks then. Everything went silent and I thought, ‘I’ve shot the blooming aeroplane down,’ and I hastily looked around at all the wing tips and everything and everything was all quiet and I never said a word. I reported that the guns wouldn’t fire and they were all put right but a few rounds had been fired and they would know that but nothing ever happened. I was lucky there. I could have done some damage to the aeroplane just because I wanted to fire the guns. Well, you know all the trouble you go to go out there and do everything and then you can’t do it but the bomb aimer had a slight accident once too because he, he was in charge of the front turret although I don’t think he ever went in it but you had to go out and do a DI on your guns every day and I was in the mid upper turret and I heard a single shot and that was from the front turret and that was Eddie had done it. He’d, because you cock and fire but you have to have the the fire on safety not on safe of course but to get around that you’ve got fire to put a breechblock forward and pull it back and take a round out. Anyway, this single shot went across the airfield, I don’t know where it finished up. We looked anxiously ahead of the aeroplane because out in dispersal but it must have passed over the airfield somewhere but we never heard of anyone being shot so we, we didn’t say too much about that.
GC: There was probably a cow lying in a field somewhere shot by a Lancaster.
JC: That was a bit funny that but there we are.
GC: What was it, I mean you, you’re a upper gunner which was quite a unique place? What was that like?
JC: Well it was, you were very exposed of course. You got a very good view of everything. I mean you could look all around three hundred and sixty degrees whereas in the rear turret your vision was limited to dead astern and each side although there was bits of equipment and stuff in the way. You couldn’t really see properly. The only proper way to see was straight ahead and there the, it was a clear vision channel, clear vision panel where the Perspex had been removed so you could see out better but your visibility wasn’t as good as in the mid upper which was just all Perspex so you had to make sure that was really clean. It was, it was quite a good, quite a good position I suppose but as I say very exposed I suppose but you could see what was going on. Wasn’t altogether a good idea. One of the scariest things was, that I found and no doubt other people thought so too was they never seemed to notice them but you could be flying along at night, pitch dark and suddenly on the beam there’d be a sudden big flare like a full moon, a new moon hanging in the sky. It was a German night fighter. You knew it was, you knew it was a fighter there, it was a great temptation to stare at the damned thing but you didn’t know because he was going to fly across and see who was silhouetted against these flares so you had to look into the dark part of the sky to see what he was up to and in the meantime your aeroplane seemed to be illuminated. Although it was all matt paint it used to shine and I thought you know he must see us and you’d stare and stare and look around and try and, but that was the scariest thing because you knew that a German night fighter had just done that and just dropped that flare with the very intention of seeing who he could see silhouetted against the light because it was a brilliant like a new full moon and it seemed to hang there for hours but in fact it was only a few minutes but it seemed ages before it fizzled out and then you’d get back to darkness.
Yes, Nordhausen, that was another daylight. That was, in actual fact it was the place where they were making these rockets underground so we weren’t, obviously couldn’t do anything about that but there was lots of barracks there. A lot of troops and we, apparently the SS was supposed to have moved in and had made their headquarters there and so it was decided to give them a visit for breakfast and there was about two hundred and fifty of us from 5 Group with fighter escort who’d gone in front, spraying the airfield and when we left the whole place was alight. Blew the whole place up, the railway system you know which blew it up but there was an unfortunate incident. This is something you’d see from an upper turret. I was watching an aircraft from 49 squadron who were with us at Bardney. There were always two squadrons on RAF stations. We were with 49 squadron and their letters were EA and I was watching this. It was EA F-Freddie and I saw its bomb doors open. It was behind us and down like that, saw its bomb doors open and the cookie just came out and then the whole lot blew up. It had been hit by, hit by flak and it just, I could feel the heat from it. Or I fancied I could. You know, it was, it just fell away you know. No one got out of it of course. They would have all been killed instantly and I looked it up, I’ve got a book showing all the losses, 5 Group, Bomber Command losses and that was set in there of course, Nordhausen EA F. All black cross against all of them. I looked up the one of Smithy’s crew that was shot down at Harburg and I think, I can’t remember exactly, some of them were killed. Smithy and another one of the crew were very badly injured and they were taken to a prisoner of war camp. Why they weren’t taken to hospital I don’t know. Perhaps it was easier to take them to a prisoner of war camp where they died a few hours later. So they must have been in a bad way. So they, they were killed. But I was really sad about that because they, we knew them so well. You know they’d been with us. They’d joined the squadron with us and he’d done that jolly good landing with a damaged Lancaster and then well I imagine that was their fourth trip. That was our fourth but but that was the only one I actually saw blow up in daylight but at night you see rumours abounded that the Germans were firing up a shell called a scarecrow which burst with a lot of flame and smoke. The idea being to put the wind up the aircrew that it was an aircraft going down but after the war the Germans said, ‘We never had any such thing.’
GC: You didn’t see one.
JC: So what we thought, what we thought was a scarecrow was an aircraft. They said, ‘We never had any such thing.’ It was a rumour that was very strong. Oh that’s a scarecrow gone off. Look. But it was, in a way I suppose it was a bit of comfort because you’d think that wasn’t an aeroplane that was a scarecrow but I’m afraid it wasn’t. We had to mark, I had to tell the navigator of any aircraft going down because he marked them on his chart for use after the war to track down the, which they did, of course, they tracked down all these people. And they even tracked down some aircrew who were unfortunately handed over to the gestapo and the SS and some of them were shot and I mean that’s completely against the Geneva Convention but wherever they knew who it was who did it they caught them and they were brought to trial at Nuremberg.
GC: What else can you remember about serving during World War 2? What was life like on and off the base as well?
JC: Oh, well it was strange really because on the squadron you were living a perfectly normal, peaceful life. You’d go to the pictures, go to the mess, have a few beers or if you were stood down you could go in to Nottingham or somewhere, stay the night, have a few beers and it was a perfectly normal life and then someone would stick their head around the door and say there’s a war and you’d have to go down to the mess or somewhere to have a look at the battle order to see if you were on and if you were well that’s, you went to briefing and had your flying meal. The last supper as it was irreverently referred to and away you went and so suddenly you were transported from a peaceful English village to the middle of a war and back again. If you were lucky.
GC: How did you, when, when you came back like from an op what was the plane like? Was it quiet? Were people chatting or -
JC: We didn’t chat. That’s the remarkable thing when you see these films of, especially American ones they’re all yacketing away. There wasn’t a word over the intercom unless it was necessary. There were certain navigation beacons and things during the war which flashed letters and I’d report those to the nav to help his navigation and in the rear turret you could take a drift so he could check the wind. That was a big trouble, not knowing the direction of the wind because Group would give you a wind but it wasn’t always, it wasn’t always terribly accurate and you only wanted to be a few degrees off and you’d be miles out. So that was the navigation was, I think we did remarkably well but you could see, I could see the target from miles away. You know, there was a glow in the sky for a start because everyone’s been there before you. The Pathfinders have been there, been down and had a look, dropped what they called primary blind markers, there’d would be flares dropped all over the place. Light the whole place up. There’d be searchlights on looking for the aeroplanes and the whole place would be full of activity so a good quarter of an hour before you got there you’d hear all this chatter over the VHF about putting the target indicators down and the master bomber would be controlling all this as though it was a picnic you know. It was quite remarkable and you were still a quarter of an hour away. So by the time you got there you knew everybody [laughs] everyone would be well awake but you could see it quite clearly and you’d think to yourself you’ve got to go through all that lot and hopefully out the other side and if you were early you had to drop your bombs between two very specified times and if you were early you had to do an orbit and come in again which was not a terribly good idea but you had to do it. We did that once. We did that over Komotau. We got there a bit early and I remember thinking I’ll have to have a, keep a sharp look out here going around for a meander around first but of course in daylight it’s nothing like that. There’s just smoke and fire. That’s all you see. There’s not the, I don’t know it’s not the darkness there. Strange. But, as I say, life on the, you know, it’s strange, you just carried on normally. You’d go down to the section in the morning see if any, see what was doing. Do the aircraft, do your DI on the aircraft and have your meals in the mess. You wouldn’t know where the boys were going if you weren’t on, you know. You wouldn’t know that till they got back. You’d say, I remember watching when I got, first got on the squadron I wanted to see. I stood down by the flights one evening as they took off and two squadrons of Lancasters so that was about what thirty odd aircraft all in line around the peritrack going slowly past, then turning onto the runway where there was a black and white chequered caravan and there would be a group of people there waving goodbye to their friends or whatever and you’d get a green from the caravan and the brakes would be on, the engines would be revved up and then the brakes would come off and you’d surge forward to give you an initial kick down the runway. There would be a wave from these people. I don’t know whether they were pleased to see us go or what I don’t know but there was always a crowd there. WAAFs and all sorts giving you a wave and away you’d go down the runway hoping you get off ‘cause they were heavy. You’d got ten tonnes of petrol and six tons of high explosive and if there wasn’t much wind and you were on a short runway it was a bit iffy. It was a bit iffy. You wouldn’t miss the village by much.
GC: Do you remember anything else from serving?
JC: About life on the -
GC: Just life or ops or the crew.
JC: Well, there was another. The next raid we went to was Komotau in Czechoslovakia. That was an awfully long way to go. That was another oil refinery and when we got back over the coast there was thick fog everywhere and we were diverted to Gaydon. We’d never heard of it and the nav said to the wireless op, ‘Are you sure it’s Gaydon?’ [laughs]. And we were getting a bit short of petrol and everywhere over the countryside was just grey and another advantage of being in the mid upper turret I saw in the distance on the port side they looked like bees around a honey pot. I said, ‘There’s some aircraft over on the port side, skipper,’ and we flew over and there they were. There was our squadron and another one all milling around. That was still thick fog and it was a Canadian Operational Training Unit with Wellingtons and the poor chap on the caravan at the end all he could do was fire white very lights to show where the runway started and you knew the heading ‘cause you could see that from your paperwork and we came in, descended through this murk and fortunately there was a runway at the other end of it and we landed safely but we left two or three of the squadron in the fields around. We brought the crew back. We were stuck there for ages and didn’t even get a cup of tea. We were just stuck with our aeroplanes and I thought I don’t think much of this and eventually we, the fog cleared and we took off and got back to, got back to base but that was a bit, a bit naughty that. There were no facilities there at all for a safe landing. It was a case of dropping down through the fog and hoping you were over the runway and in, pointing in the right direction and as I say a lot of them didn’t. The other daylight we did was a place called Flensburg which was on the Danish German border on the bit of land that sticks up and I think we were after some shipping there in the harbour. When we got there there was a hospital ship in the harbour too and when we got there it was ten tenths of cloud so we had to bring them back or we should have brought them back. There was an area in the North Sea for dropping bombs safe you know which shipping were advised of and kept clear of but unfortunately some of the idiots with us were just dropping them as soon as they got over the sea and our aircraft, I mean I looked up and said, ‘Starboard skipper,’ and he was on the, and there were these blooming bombs dropping down. We could have easily been hit, hit with a bomb and shot, you know, knocked from the sky. We religiously went to this area in the North Sea where you should jettison your bombs and even then that was ten tenths of cloud and skipper went down through the cloud in case there were some ships there, there wasn’t and there was splashes going on all over the place from people dropping bombs through the cloud but that was, it’s disappointing when that happened. You go there, done everything and then you bring them back or come back. Quite often, well reading my diary it happened three or four times, we got out to dispersal and the raid would be cancelled for some reason and you’d be all psyched up for it and it was disappointing not to go, you know. You had to unwind then and go back to being in a village again. I mean it was strange. It was, being out at dispersal was the worst time, I think. You didn’t know what to say, what to do and then a verey cartridge would go off. In we go. As soon as you got on board the engine started. You were alright. You were, you were there and you knew what you were going, you knew where you were going and you knew what you had to do and you’re perfectly, perfectly happy.
GC: Can you remember the moment you found out the war was over? Can you remember what that felt like?
JC: Yes. I could remember that fairly well because we went out to a pub and there was no beer and we cycled around for all afternoon and there was no beer anywhere. It was an anti-climax really. You were so used to doing that, that way of life that when it stopped you felt you’d missed it in some ghoulish sort of way. I can’t quite explain it but, I don’t know, it’s like anything that you’re doing regularly and then it suddenly stops. However horrible it was you still miss it and I did miss it, I must say but we were kept busy. We had to, well one of the nicest jobs we did was bringing back prisoners of war. We flew in a field near Brussels and twenty [emotional]. Excuse me.
GC: Do you want to stop?
JC: There was twenty four of them at a time with their little bags of stuff and one of them crashed unfortunately. I don’t know why. Whether they got, ‘cause you had to be careful where they, where they were put because of the balance of the aircraft and one of them took off and crashed almost immediately and killed everybody on board. There was twenty four POW’s and the crew which wasn’t a good sign. But that was the only action that I know of. We brought them back. I can’t remember where we brought them back to. [pause] It was a little airfield. Dunsfold. Dunsfold. And there were ladies there to see to, you know I thought there would be flags flying and all this but there was a tent and some ladies, you know Women’s Voluntary Services or something making them some tea and supposedly dishing out railway warrants and one thing and another. I thought what a homecoming. I thought they’d be all, it was strange really I, ‘cause the ones we had were all ex-aircrew, well air crew. I mean, I don’t know what they’d been through of course individually but they didn’t look at all happy about going into an aeroplane. Perhaps their memories of the last time they were in it weren’t very good and they’d left on fire or something. They didn’t look at all happy really. Tried to chat to them and then as I say when we landed they all trooped out into this tent. All very well, you know, I know I didn’t expect the band to be playing but you know, I thought there’d be -
GC: Yeah.
JC: Some officers there or something to welcome them back. Perhaps that had already been done at Brussels. I don’t know. I don’t think they’d been hanging about long. I think they, you know as soon as they were released I think they were sent to this airfield. There were a lot of them. I mean there were eighteen thousand aircrew injured or POW’s. There was about ten thousand prisoners. We were told that they had a file on us all over there. Well, a lot of us you know. We weren’t allowed to take, we had to empty our pockets completely. Not a bus ticket or a cinema ticket or anything and we had emergency pack with barley sugar and chewing gum and fishing gear. I don’t know if anyone ever did catch anything with that. Silk maps of the countryside you were going to try and get out of. A whole load of stuff in a plastic case and that’s all you had. You had to hand everything else in. That was put in a bag and you collected it when you got back. Well, people were, I mean we had lectures on all this and when you were interrogated they’d say, ‘What’s on at,’ and they’d mention your local cinema, you know, ‘What’s on at the Regal this week,’ and all this sort of thing and you’d think well if he knows that he must know this you know and it was just a way of getting information out of you but as I say we weren’t allowed to have a bus ticket or a cinema ticket or anything in your pocket. There was money in this thing as well by the way and a compass of course so you could attempt to evade. Oh that’s another thing we did on the squadron. There was escape and evasion exercises. You’d be taken out, this happened two or three times, we were taken out in lorries, there were no signposts anywhere, taken out in lorries and dropped and you had to make your way back to camp. Unfortunately, we were dropped quite close to Newark and Nottingham and places like that and a lot of people bombed off into the town [laughs] so they weren’t a hundred percent successful but I did my own evasion, escape and evasion one night. I was on the old pits not thinking of anything in particular and the skipper put his head around the door and said, ‘Anyone want to go into Newark for a pint? He said, ‘I’ve got to go in on the motorbike. I’ll bring you back.’ So no one else said, I said, ‘Yeah. Ok,’ ‘cause they had lovely fish and chips in Newark and the beer wasn’t bad either so I went on the back of the motorbike with the skipper into Newark. We arranged a rendezvous for the return, 11 o’clock I think it was or half eleven which I attended but no one else did unfortunately. He didn’t turn up. So, I’ve got a heck of a walk here, back to Fulbeck. About twelve miles I think from Newark and I didn’t know the way either. It was a network of little roads all around that part of Lincoln you know. There’s no big main road as such. Anyway, I struck off due east I think and I thought well I must eventually come across it and walked and walked and walked and eventually saw a familiar looking nissen hut and, which was the washrooms and things on the outskirts of the airfield so I knew that I was, I was home. So, I went and had a drink. I remember putting my, cupping my hands under the tap and I had a go at him the next day. He apologised. He said, ‘I’m sorry, John,’ he said, ‘Things got a bit out of hand,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t get back until later,’ So whether he did ever turned up at the rendezvous I don’t know but I walked home back to Fulbeck. That wasn’t our only walk. We walked from Nottingham to Syerston Lancaster Finishing School. That was a whole crew of us. We’d overstayed our leave a bit at, in Nottingham, missed the last train, ‘cause we used to cycled into a place, leave your bike against the wall, get on the train and I mean your bike was there the next day. Nobody pinched bikes in those days but on this occasion we had to walk all the way back to Syerston and when we got back to camp we were on the early morning flying detail. Couldn’t have been worse really. We got some breakfast and then got into the air and that was that. Oh dear oh dear. So that was, life had its ups and downs you see, Gemma. It had its up and downs. In more ways than one of course. The last raid, believe it or not, was the same place we went on the first one. We went to Norway again to a place called Tonsberg but this was another oil refinery and as we got closer, I mean we’d normally bomb at about eighteen thousand feet. Something like that. The master bomber told the force to reduce height to, I think it was fifteen and then down to ten and I thought this is silly this is and then to eight. Eight thousand feet which put you in range of all the light flak that they hose up at you and I thought, and I mean it was like, literally flying into a, you think well we’ll never get out the other side without being hit by something and as we went in a searchlight came on us and the skipper said, ‘Shoot that out, John,’ because we were so low, you see and he banked the aircraft and I fired and it went out so that was that. One searchlight less. But we went in and bombed and we came out alright but I don’t think we lost any but there were aircraft lost due to this flak but during briefing the thing came up about this searchlight and the interrogating officer said, ‘Fired at, what eight thousand feet?’ And I said, ‘Well it went out.’ I didn’t say well the skipper instructed me to fire at it but he didn’t say anything, the skipper. He should have said, ‘Well I instructed him to fire,’ but he didn’t and I thought oh well. It did go out. I thought to myself the range of these bullets is quite, quite a long way and there’s no, gravity’s going to help them on their way and if they just hear a few bullets scattering around they’ll probably put it out and they did you see. I don’t suppose I hit the light. I probably scared the living daylights out of the crew.
GC: I was going to say how aware of other squadrons were you or what else was going on in the war?
JC: Well of course you’d read the papers. You see, we were in 5 Group and people said there’s 5 Group and there’s Bomber Command and it’s true we did have our own sort of little things. We had our own corkscrew procedure which was different to Bomber Command and a lot of the raids were 5 Group squadrons like the one at Nordhausen. That was just 5 Group squadrons. But having said that I mean a lot of the raids were from everybody, you know and we all used 100 Group. They had Lancasters and Flying Fortresses and all sorts and they did all these trick things with radio to fool the Germans, you know. For two or three weeks the German night fighter force was controlled by a flying officer in Uxbridge. German speaking flying officer in Uxbridge before they twigged that, you know, they knew it was being done. There were all sorts of tricks there was, with strange names, strange code names and some aircraft had different equipment to others. 49 squadron who we were, we were with at Fulbeck had Village Inn which was a radar equipment fixed to the rear turret which showed when a fighter was coming after you which was quite handy but we never had it. But they didn’t lose any aircraft well apart from the one that I saw blow up. That was from flak. That wasn’t from fighters. They didn’t lose aircraft like we did. I saw the flight engineer from one of the crews who was shot down over Harburg and he met the German night fighter pilot who shot them down and he’d made, it was a head on attack and that’s something you don’t read in the books because you’d never get a head on attack at night cause you’d never see them quickly enough but there was so much, it was so light from all the fires and flares they were doing head on attacks. That’s remarkable isn’t it? Well the one that came after us wasn’t. It was a normal sort of attack but the sneaky thing they did they was they had a gun, an upward firing gun the JU88s musicschragge or something they called it and they used to creep under the, under you and then just fire a few rounds into your wing where your petrol tanks were. So we used to do banking searches quite frequently so you could look down and see if there was anything going on but even that they knew about of course and they’d follow you around so that wasn’t foolproof but at least they knew you were alert and you know we were having a go. Having a look. I think that helps. If there’s one that’s going straight and level and not doing anything he’d going to be an easier target than the one who’s manoeuvring about the sky. There was one, well it wasn’t amusing for the poor WAAF but we got back. I don’t know which, I can’t remember what raid it was but anyway we got back to dispersal, we’d got out of the aeroplane and we were waiting for the truck to turn up and pick us up and it duly arrived and just as she got out a JU88 came over the airfield strafing the runway and everybody and everything and we just sort of looked lazily, you know. It was just part of the night for us but she dashed in to the arms of the skipper and we gave him a cheer of course. Poor girl. She was scared out of her wits. Well it was a bit scary I suppose for her. It’s not something that usually happens and this chap was firing and doing all sorts of things and they used to drop these anti-personnel butterfly bombs all over the place which was a bit, a bit naughty I thought because they used to come in and shoot aircraft down when they were coming in to land which I thought was very uncharitable. On the coast at night there were two searchlights like that that guided you back in over Lincolnshire and we avoided them like the plague and you were supposed to put your nav lights on to avoid collisions which we never did. Never put our nav lights on so perhaps that’s the sort of reason you get away with it, you know. But collisions, there were a lot of aircraft lost through collisions. When you think of it, in the night, no lights. I remember in the mid upper turret, well I don’t know whether if we were going out or coming home but I think we were coming home and I looked up and there was another Lancaster just slowly crossing us, ever so close, I reckon if I could put our hand out I could have touched his blister, you know his H2S blister and I daren’t say anything to the skipper ‘cause if he’d have dived his tail would have come up and hit him and I thought if we just keep going we’re going to miss and so we went like that and I, just afterwards, when it had cleared, I said, ‘We just had a near miss skipper.’ Nobody else saw it. It was really really close. We were just on a slightly different course and nearly at the same height within a foot or two. So that’s another you know a bit near. If he’d been a bit lower or we’d have been a bit higher we’d have collided. Surprising how many there were when you read of the crews that were lost due to accident. A lot of them over this country. Not over there. Over this country which is a bit remarkable. You said what did we do? One thing I did do after the war we did this Exodus, Operation Exodus, bringing prisoners of war back and on another occasion the crew had to go to Italy, to Bari to bring people back from there but the gunners, for some reason, didn’t go because they wanted to get more people on board I suppose but they brought us back some cherry brandy and stuff so we didn’t mind but what I did while I got the hut free was something I wanted to do. I’d got, in the Mae West’s, you know the inflatable thing the thing that inflated them was a little CO2 bottle. It was a cast iron bottle with a little neck on and when you pulled a lever down it broke the neck off and filled the thing up with air or carbon dioxide or something. Anyway, I thought if I filled the thing up with cordite that would be an ideal jet. So I wanted to make a jet propelled glider you see because the Australians were letting stuff off. They’d got hold of something, fireworks and things and I got a, got a cartridge and emptied it and carefully fed the, because the cordite was a little, little tiny rods, put it through the hole until it filled up and then left a little trail to a safe distance of the hut, the nissen hut and this was on the concrete step aimed out into space you see. I’d made a glider out of a cornflake packet that I’d scrounged and I got this all fixed up, lit it and it sort of worked. It fizzed across the floor, lit the thing, zoomed off, the glider fluttered down a few yards away and the CO2 thing headed off towards the officers mess the other side of the airfield and so I thought it was time to pack up and go. I got on my bike and went down to the mess and read the paper.
GC: Has he always been this much of a rogue?
SP: Yes. Yes.
JC: And that was a bit of fun.
SP: Yes. You used to wave your handkerchiefs at the air you told me.
JC: The other thing we did what we found out was to if you want to evacuate a nissen hut is to get a verey cartridge and take one of the shells out of the stars and drop it down the chimney when their bogie stove was alight and that shoots the bottom out, most of the contents of the bogie stove and everybody goes flying out. It was great fun. Oh dear of dear.
GC: It’s nice to know you was taking yourselves so seriously.
JC: Pardon?
GC: It’s nice to know you was taking it all so seriously. [laughs]
JC: Well, you know you’ve got too really. Frank Johnson, we had some reunion, crew reunions after. Three or four. And Frank, the navigator said to me that he’d been approached by from some quite high authority in government with a big questionnaire about morale of air crew during the war and I and I thought about that I thought well no one was sad or anything like that. In fact we were generally up to hijinks and then Frank said, ‘I put down that, practical jokes mainly from air gunners,’ he said. [laughs]. I think we kept ourselves alive really by laughing down and of course we had quite a, beer was quite plentiful then. Not very strong unfortunately but that was a favourite pastime either in the mess or down at the local, you know the local pub in the village and we didn’t have a cinema at Fulbeck. We didn’t have very much there at all. That was a bit dead really apart from the odd pub but Bardney did. They had a cinema there and we used to see things, films there. I went back to, well a summer camp with the ATC and of course visited some of the old airfields and we were at Binbrook one year and one of the other officers wanted to go to a place that he was in during the war. Forget the name of it now. He said, ‘You were up this way John, weren’t you? I said, ‘Yeah. Bardney.’ He said, ‘That’s not all that far away.’ So we duly went to Bardney. There wasn’t much left of it then. There was the old hangars were still there and a control tower and a sad looking windsock and I said, ‘Well the pub down the hill,’ I said, ‘Was called the Jolly Sailor,’ which was known as the Hilarious Matlow when we were there and we went down and went in for a pint and it was, instead of being little rooms as it was it was one big bar which killed it really but anyway, I ordered a couple of pints up and an old boy sidled up and he said, ‘You’ve just been up at the airfield haven’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Do you want,’ I thought he was on the [earhole] for a pint you see so, ‘No. No. No,’ he said, ‘I don’t want a drink.’ He said, ‘I can always tell,’ he said, ‘When you come [that thing there?] he said. So I said, he said, ‘What flight were you in?’ I said, ‘A flight. Squadron Leader Stevens. Yes that’s right,’ he said, ‘I knew him,’ and he knew the wing commander. He knew. We used to rattle the stuff off his mantelpiece apparently when we took off. But he was, you know, he was a nice old boy. He was obviously one of the locals who was there during the war. He must have put up with us when we went in the pub. But it was different and I don’t even know if it’s still there now because I’ve had it up on google and I can’t even see the pub anymore. I think it’s been knocked down or something. Isn’t that dreadful?
GC: Dreadful.
JC: I don’t know. All the memories of these places. If they could tell a story.
GC: Ah but that’s what you’re doing at the moment.
JC: Yes. We, after the war we had to start on Tiger Force training for the Far East which I wasn’t looking forward to to be honest. Fighting the Japanese. They didn’t play fair did they? And it consisted of long cross countries as a squadron in a gaggle. We didn’t fly in formation. We flew in a gaggle right over France and Germany and around and home and to do that, to prepare for long flights we shared our poor old flight engineer Bert Shaw. He was due for retirement anyway I think and we got a pilot flight engineer. There were lots of spare pilots about at the time. Young lad. Never done much. They put them through a quick flight engineer’s course at St Athan and sent them to the squadrons and we had one. He was such a nice chap. I can’t think of his name. Isn’t that awful? I have a photograph of him in one of the books, war books I’ve got. Anyway, he flew with us as a flight engineer. Well on one occasion and I was now the official rear gunner by the way. I was in the rear turret. We were coming back over France and I was awake because I noticed smoke whizzing past the turret you see. So I thought, hello, something’s going wrong up front you see so I called up the skipper and said, ‘One of your engines is on fire, skipper,’ and he relayed the message to the flight engineer who was down in the bombing hatch cooking his logbook for four engine flying so when the skipper said, ‘One of your engine’s is on fire,’ he thought he was pulling his leg. He said, ‘Well you’d better put the kettle on.’ [laughs] I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘It’s getting thick here.’ And anyway he came up and shut it down and feathered the propeller and the smoke abated. Bits and pieces came past and that was that. Went home the rest of the way on three engines but that, that was funny that was. Very funny.
GC: I’m just going to stop it for a moment because I’ve just spotted -
[machine pause]
GC: Just looking at the battery. But go on.
JC: Right [pause] ok. Yes. Well we eventually poor old squadron was sent to RAF Metheringham to disband which was all very sad. We had to take our aeroplanes with us. The ground staff got there in about a quarter of an hour I suppose. We got over Metheringham and there was ten tenths of fog. Absolute thick fog and we poodled around for about half an hour. We got all our stuff on board. Bikes and things in the bomb bay and they eventually decided to light up half the Fido for us. You know the old fog intensive dispersal or something. They lit up one side and it really did work. It just burnt the fog off. We came in, landed and we were there till November kicking our heels. I only flew, I was the only one of the crew who flew again, who flew from Metheringham and I was the Squadron Leader Stevens’s rear gunner when he wanted to go somewhere and my services were called upon but that was the only time I flew from Metheringham and the crew dispersed. The skipper went flying somewhere, the bomb aimer was commissioned and went off somewhere in charge of a radar unit and we were sent to a place ‘cause I wanted to go on to Transport Command and we were sent to the MT section of a little OTU at Whitchurch. I forget the name of the RAF station but I couldn’t drive. I had to drive, I suddenly had to learn to drive because I was, I was up at the station and the billets were about a mile down the road in a disperse place and it was bitterly cold and I wanted to get some blankets for the bed so I took, I pinched a [fifteen underweight?] truck, went down to the domestic site, picked up my blankets and as I did some of the other lads came out and said, ‘Are you going back to the station?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, I said, ‘I haven’t driven before.’ He said, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter.’ He said and they all piled in and I got in the front bit and drove them back. That was quite, quite a bit of a laugh there. Anyway, eventually I got on to Transport Command. I was posted to Holmsley. RAF Holmsley South, near Bournemouth. Had some fun down there. Some friends of mine took a boat out at night off the beach and got out quite a way and they realised that the people had taken the plugs out so people wouldn’t pinch the boats and they just [laughs] they had to dry out in the boiler room when they got back. And then I got posted to, we flew to Lyneham. You’ve all heard of Lyneham. That was the big transport place. We were there about a week and then I was posted to Waterbeach. RAF Waterbeach which was the nearest I ever got to home, as an air quartermaster flying with different crews. There were two flights we did there. There was United Kingdom - Changi in a York. That was in Singapore. And to Delhi with the freight. Freight run. And that, that was great fun. I did quite a few trips. It took five days to get to Singapore and a days there and five days back but we never did it in eleven days. There was always something went wrong. We had more trouble with Yorks than we ever had on Lancasters. I mean we only had that just one engine fire but with the Yorks we had to fly from the passenger run was from Lyneham because we’d go, we went from Waterbeach to Lyneham, picked up the passengers and went through customs and everything and the first leg was down to Luqa, RAF Luqa in Malta and from there to Habbaniya in Iraq and then to Maripur in India, down to Ceylon as it was and then across to Changi in Singapore. That was five legs. Getting up earlier and earlier every morning because you were losing time you see and then you had a day off and then you reversed it coming back but as I say we never did it. We had various problems. One of the engines seized up over the Med coming across to Malta. So we stuck at Malta for a week which was great fun of course. The only thing else, oh I was often the only NCO in the crew. The rest were all commissioned you know and they’d be in the mess and I’d be in the sergeant’s mess but apart from that it was alright. We all used to meet up during the day. The first trip I ever did we went, we got to Malta and they said, ‘You’re coming with us, John.’ So changed in to civvies. They took me down to Valetta, sat me outside a café place, table and chairs and they brought out something I hadn’t seen, of course, since the beginning of the war which was a plate of fancy cakes, ‘There you are, John,’ they said, ‘Tuck in.’ So it was all things like that. Things we hadn’t seen let alone eaten. That was good fun though flying like that but they, it was a bit dodgy especially the last leg from Ceylon to Changi. It was around Malaya there was terrific cumulous clouds. I mean these days they just fly over the top but we couldn’t get up there so you had, you couldn’t go through it because they was too dangerous. They could just pick you up and chuck you all over the place and so you had to go underneath and that wasn’t always very practical so there were some dodgy bits. The other time we had a bit of trouble it was a freighting run and we were coming back across the Mediterranean to Lyneham from where was it? Castel Benito. That’s right, in Libya and I noticed, just freighting run this was and I noticed the port inner engine, the exhaust which I could see very plainly from the window didn’t look right to me. It was, it was the wrong sort of colour you know and as the flight progressed so it got brighter and brighter and I got the skipper to come down and have a look. Ivor Lupton. I’ll always remember his name and he had a look. He said, ‘Keep an eye on it, John and if it gets any worse tell me.’ Well it did get worse. Flames started coming out of it so the flight engineer shut it down, feathered it and we made an emergency landing at an airfield called Estree in France where they hadn’t got any Merlin engines and we were stuck there for a week and had great fun there. We were in the transit mess but it wasn’t too bad. The food was alright and I paid a flying visit to Marseilles with, I can’t remember, was it the navigator or the wireless op? Anyway, he’d obviously got some business going on in, where’s the name of the place. Oh dear isn’t that awful? I’ve forgotten the name of the place on the coast of France further east. I said, ‘How are we going to get there?’ He said, ‘We’ll hitch.’ So we got on the road and we hitched and an old French car stopped, got in the back and the driver complete with, he hadn’t got any onions but that was the only thing he hadn’t got. And we went hurtling off in this old car through little villages, chickens scattering, you know. It was like something out of a film and, Marseilles that’s where we went and we eventually got there and he did his, what he had to do, got some nefarious thing going on. I had a wander around just and then we came back by the same method, getting a hitch. The French were delighted to give us a lift but they were very old cars and very dangerous and they’d be talking to you with their head, and we thought yeah, have an occasional look [laughs]. So that was a very adventurous time we had on the, on the Yorks. There was one or two incidents where we had a bit of bother but you know it was exciting part. Nice. I was rather sad to leave it all really but I thought well they won’t want air quartermasters forever. They’re called dolly birds now aren’t they but I had to work out, even on the passenger run, I had to work out the weight and balance clearance and all that sort of stuff so that the centre of gravity of the aircraft fell between two points so I had to find the water, weight of water, petrol and everything and passengers and you know it was quite an important job but I enjoyed it so I was rather sad when the last, the last thing came which involved, not for me personally but involved a rather dramatic encounter with HM customs but I can’t go in to that now. We haven’t got enough battery left [laughs]
GC: [?]
JC: So there we are. My RAF career in a nutshell.
GC: Well can I just say it has been an absolute pleasure and a great honour. That has been beautiful. Thank you very much.
JC: Pleasure.
GC: Thank you.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with John Cuthbert,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2024,

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