Interview with Maurice Hatch


Interview with Maurice Hatch


Maurice Hatch was training as a chartered accountant when volunteered for pilot but was instead enlisted as a navigator. After initial training at Torquay, Brighton and Eastbourne he went to South Africa for a year. Upon returning he crewed up at Harrogate followed to a post at RAF East Kirby (630 Squadron) flying Wellingtons, Stirlings and Lancasters, mainly on operations to Berlin. Then he went on a five-week intensive Pathfinder navigation training at 8 Group headquarters, followed by a post with 97 Squadron at RAF Coningsby where he flew 44 operations. After the end of the war in Europe he was sent to the Far East with the Tiger Force as wing navigation officer, but the war ended before he started operational duties. Maurice returned at RAF Coningsby as station navigation officer until demobbed. He then became a qualified chartered accountant and a partner of his firm. Maurice talks about military ethos, prisoner of war, bailing out, operations, anti-aircraft fire, evasive manoeuvres, Guy Gibson, reunions, the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, meeting the Queen and other dignitaries.







00:38:07 audio recording


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MJ: It's on now.
MH: My name is Hatch, Maurice Edward Hatch. My rank in the RAF at the end of the war was a squadron leader. [background noise] I was seventeen when war broke out and I volunteered for air service with the RAF and when I went before the committee who considered these things, I was asked what was my position in civil life and I said that I was an article clerk training to be a chartered accountant, whereupon I was immediately designated potentially as a navigator. I never had the chance as being trained as a pilot. On the whole, I think probably in the long run I didn't regret it. I actually went into the air force in about October of 1941 and after initial period of square bashing in some of the delightful holiday resorts of this country like Torquay, Brighton and Eastbourne I went on my flying training in South Africa. I sailed from Liverpool and I sailed in great luxury in a converted Dutch meat ship, from which the covers over the holds had been removed and down which a rickety wooden staircase had been mounted down which we all came. Then, of course, having the exalted rank lowest form of animal life and ordinary airmen and with a pack on my chest, a steel helmet on the back and the big pack on the on the back and you went down until my steel helmet was touching the back of the man in front until effectively the hold of that meat was a mash of human beings. Having got to the point where you couldn't get another mouse in, they said that was enough. They then tried to sort out the sleeping accommodation which was hammocks from the ceiling, so close together that they were touching and I never did get one. The trip took six and a half weeks, I spent that six and a half weeks sleeping on a straw palliasse under the mess table, and life was hard to say the least of it. We were three days stationary, moored outside Freetown in the hot season which was almost unbearable and we eventually landed in Durban. I won't tell you all the details of the journey because they are sordid in the extreme, suffice to say that I hope I never get nearer to hell than that! For two or three days we were under canvas on Durban racecourse and then we went to East London on the east coast of South Africa, south of Durban. And I was there for almost a year doing my initial navigational training. We were very lucky, myself and two other people with, with whom I'd joined up, we were, if you like, befriended by a family of Scottish origin who lived in East London and the husband was in fact the Union Castle representative in East London, Union Castle being the most powerful body in South Africa at that time, they ran the weekly ship to Cape Town before the war and owned most of the principal hotels including, of course, the famous Mount Nelson in Cape Town. The training period in South Africa from a flying viewpoint was not really particularly noteworthy, what was more noteworthy was the ability to live on fruit and food which we hadn't seen in this country for a long time, and also, not quite so fortunately, the rather strong but extremely cheap South African brandy. I eventually finished the training after about a year and went to Cape Town to board a ship home. In the interim whilst I was there, the husband of the family who had befriended us had been promoted and had become the Union Castle's principal agent [background noise] in Cape Town and was therefore in Cape Town finding a house to which he could move his family. He was staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel and therefore my last night before going home, I went to dinner in the famous Mount Nelson Hotel which was a fairly unforgettable experience, particularly at that time going back as I was to wartime rationing. I was lucky in that on the return I was on an American trooper which was not in convoy and so went very much faster and we we got home in about two and a half weeks, and the only misfortune was that for some administrative reason which I have never understood, the fact that I had been commissioned had not reached South Africa and I therefore went home as a sergeant and regretted the fact that I didn't have the officer's quarters. However, that was rectified when I got home and I went to Harrogate which was the usual place where aircrew were accommodated on their return from Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, as it then was, and the very few from the United States, where effectively all of this flying training had been carried out. After some leave, I started on the further long process in the training channel which included, of course, the crewing up and we formed into a crew. Strangely enough, that was done largely by us ourselves rather than by any officials. We sort of went around and tried to decide people with whom we thought we might get on and in effect established a crew ourselves, and this we did. I was in fact the only commissioned officer in the crew; all the others were sergeants or flight sergeants. We went through the various stages, going from Wellingtons after a short period, we were onto Stirlings and then eventually onto Lancasters, and my first posting to a squadron, an operating squadron, was to 630 Squadron which was at East Kirby in Lincolnshire, and it was a very sudden and very marked experience of the reality of war after the joy of South Africa, where, frankly, the war seemed a long way away. And we finished up playing tennis and swimming rather than worrying too much about flying. On arrival at 630 Squadron, it was at the time when the raids in Berlin were going on almost nightly, and at that time, and maybe at all times I don't know but certainly at that time, it had become the practise that when a new crew, a sprog crew arrived on the squadron with no experience, the captain of the crew, the pilot, went first as a second dicky with an experienced crew, and we had arrived on the squadron at about ten-thirty in the morning, by mid-afternoon ops had been announced and we subsequently discovered it was on Berlin. My pilot was assigned as a second dicky to an experienced crew and off he went and did not return. He must have had the shortest tour of operations of anybody, one take off and one landing, the landing being by parachute. I'm delighted to say he survived the war and came through but he was of course a prisoner of war in that intermediate period. I was therefore left with the remainder of my crew within twenty-four hours of having arrived on the squadron of going away again with a delightful RAF expressions being the head of a headless crew which always struck me as an oddish [?] phrase. We went back to conversion unit, and this I suppose was one of my lucky periods during my life, I always find it slightly guilty or referring to another man's misfortune as being one of my luckies, but we linked up on our return to conversion unit to an experienced New Zealand pilot. If my memory's right, he was then a flight lieutenant, he had done a tour earlier in the war and had been instructing and had now come back for a second tour and we had no captain, he had no crew, and so the obvious thing was to put us together, and this was very lucky. The strange part about this was that he was a tough, back-woods, New Zealander whose language was frequently fairly colourful, but he had a strangely sentimental streak because his first tour had been on 97 Squadron, he was desperately anxious that this second tour should also be on 97 Squadron. The only problem was that in between the two dates, the Pathfinder Force had been formed and 97 Squadron had become one of the Pathfinder squadrons. Generally speaking, people, in quotes, volunteered to go on the Pathfinder Force, although I think frequently it was a form of volunteering which usually involved the twisting of an arm or two. But it was after seven or eight operations had been successfully completed and the crew had broadly shown itself as being competent. This, of course, was not the case; my New Zealand captain’s name was Smith, and he was always called Smithy by us, and he, of course, was an experienced pilot, but he had a crew who had never done an operation in their lives, and particularly a navigator, i.e. me, who had never been on an operation in his life. Somehow, he succeeded in getting us onto 97 Squadron; how he did it, whose arm he twisted, I have never known, but the fact remains that we did. Accordingly, I started once again by going then for, I think it was four or five weeks’ intensive Pathfinder navigation training at the PFF headquarters, PFF had become 8 Group, and the headquarters were outside Huntingdon, and for the moment I’ve forgotten its name.
MJ: Wyton.
MH: Wyton. And, well, I, I obviously successfully dealt with the specialist training because, at the end of the period, we were appointed, we were posted to 97 Squadron, which had just about turned up at Coningsby, having previously been somewhere else which I’ve moment forgotten, and I suppose the good fortune of that alignment with Smithy very quickly showed itself, because our very first operational trip as a new crew, we were attacked by two ME-109s, and I hate to think what, with an entirely inexperienced pilot and crew, might have happened. As it was, Smithy put us into a power dive and we successfully escaped, and I always remember, as we, nose went down and, of course, everything, the charts, the protractors, the dividers, the pencils, everything went all over the place, and all I remember was Smithy shouting ‘Never mind about the bloody charts, tell me if there are any hills around here!’ I don’t know how he thought I was going to do that, because of course the, the map showing such things as hills had gone with all the rest. However, eventually I did find it and told him that there were no hills, but by then it was too late, because fortunately there was none, and we were on our way home, fairly low, waking up a few French along the way. Well, after that, we had a comparatively inexperienced and exciting time, fortunately, the usual little problems of sometimes getting splattered by shrapnel from bombs exploding around one, but nothing really terrible except, I suppose, we, one, one, one night, a hydraulic pipeline was severed, and it wasn’t quite known whether or not the undercarriage was going to lock down, and so we were diverted to the diversionary airport at Manston in Kent, which, strangely enough, was a place to which I became quite attached and very accustomed later after the war. Smith finished his tour, his second tour, after twenty ops, and we were still there. The usual arrangement in the Pathfinder Force was that, instead of doing the normal stint of thirty ops in a first tour, then a period off and twenty on a second tour, one was encouraged to do forty-five ops through immediately, one, ah, all in one go, on Pathfinder Force, presumably because of the additional training and experience which one had gained in Pathfinder operations. I had by then become reasonably accustomed to my duties with H2S as it was then, the early form of radar, I suppose the predecessor of many of the systems with which we are accustomed now in our motorcars or boats or anything like that. By today’s standards, it was fairly primitive, but on the whole, it worked, and I effectively did forty-four operations, finishing my forty-fourth just about at the end of the war, and I think I’m right in saying that I failed to find the target first time only once in those forty-four operations. Again, we had one or two bits of excitement; by then, I was flying with the squadron commander because, when Smithy had finished his second tour, once again, we found ourselves as a crew without a pilot, and the squadron commander had just completed a tour and had gone, and he, his successor, a group captain, Group Captain Peter Johnson, the Pathfinder Force generally had ranks which were one up from the general Bomber Command so that, whereas most bomber squadrons were commanded by wing commander, Pathfinder squadrons generally commanded by a group captain, the flight commanders were wing commanders whereas usually they were squadron leaders, and leaders (wireless, navigation, gunnery and so on) were usually squadron leaders instead of flight lieutenants. And, of course, with the passage of time and people finishing their tours and, sadly, finishing their tours in other ways, meant that promotion was fairly quick and eventually found myself as a squadron leader, acting squadron leader, anyway. And I suppose at the age of twenty-three, briefing Pathfinder squadrons, it was good experience which has stood one good in civil life after the war. Only one thing, well, I suppose two things, really, stick in my mind: one is that we were coming back one evening from very long flight, somewhere way over in, I, Stet – somewhere in Poland, we’d been airborne for about nine hours and were running really rather short of fuel, and it was foggy, good old Lincolnshire fog, and we couldn’t get in at Coningsby. At Metheringham, which was close by, there had been installed a system which was called FIDO, which took the form of a, a channel being put alongside the runway and filled with aircraft spirit of some sort, and which I, in foggy conditions, it was lit, the idea being that the heat generated would disperse the fog. Unfortunately, the people who did it forgot the fact that the, the fire itself would have created more smoke, and we had problems. We went ‘round twice and couldn’t find the, the, the ‘drome, the –
MJ: Flare path?
MH: [background noises] I was saying that my captain had considerable experience in finding the flight path, we went ‘round twice and by then the fuel was running dangerously slow, ah, short, and fortunately, we turned on a third time and both the pilot and the flight engineer, more or less at the same time, just got a glimpsed, glimpse of the flight path and Peter Johnson very cleverly (not easy on a Lancaster) effectively side-slipped onto the air, airfield. We had a very bumpy landing but at any rate, we did get down in one piece. We subsequently discovered that part of the difficulty was not only the smoke created by FIDO itself but the plane that had come in immediately before us, or had tried to come in, had failed and had crashed right through the woodland alongside the, the aerodrome and all members of the crew were killed. So that was not a – it wasn’t the best of evenings when we got back in, in the mess that evening. My, my skipper, my pilot, Group Captain Peter Johnson, with typical sort of British stiff upper lip, when I think one member of my crew said to him as we were getting out, ‘Well, that was a bit dicey,’ and he said [blustering received-pronunciation] ‘Oh, it was alright, you know,’ and, but in fact, subsequently back in the mess, he did tell me, tell me that he was pretty worried and that, had we not seen the runway on that particular moment, he was seriously considering turning out to sea and trying to land in the shallows of the sea, so I’m, I’m glad the smoke cleared enough for us to get by. Apart from that, there were very few moments of great excitement. One memorable moment, not really a moment of excitement is that, in the Pathfinder operations, the Lancasters, the Lancaster Pathfinders were equipped with RT and WT; the main force was equipped only with WT. The master bombers, who were in Mosquitoes, they had only RT, and they were people like Cheshire and Tate and Gibson and names such as that, and on this particular night, we – one of the Lancaster Pathfinders was doing the job as link aircraft (this was passing on WT the RT instructions received from the master bomber), and the Pathfinder Lancasters used to take it in turn to be the link aircraft, in effect flying ‘round and ‘round the target passing the messages from the master bomber. Not the most popular of tasks, needless to say, but on this particular night, we were, well, my skipper was, in effect, the, the second string, which was the man who was the link, was very often, or very often at any rate, the senior officer in the Lancasters who was on the raid was the deputy commander, just in case the master bomber had mechanical trouble and had to turn back or had been shot down en route, and we were the, the second string, if you like, and, and we had a message from the master bomber saying that the raid was successful, radio home and go home, and go home we did, only to find out later that the master bomber had not got home, and the master bomber was no less than Guy Gibson. So it’s not exactly a claim to fame, it’s the most inappropriate form of words, but I suppose it is true to say that I and the other six members of the crew were the last seven people to hear Guy Gibson speak. I’ve never really, I don’t think most people have ever really fully satisfied themselves as to what happened to him; various rumours, most of them silly, but I’m, I’ve always been told (I can’t prove this), I’ve always been told that it was a complete wreck, the aircraft was on fire and everything was burned, and that the only recognition was that a sock was found with a laundry mark on it and this was Gibson’s. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that was the story I’d always been told. So, that more or less finished my flying career. I, I went on a couple of daylight raids which I didn’t much enjoy; somehow, I didn’t think the Lancaster was, was fitted for formation flying as were the Americans. And I, I don’t, I don’t think they were terribly successful and they weren’t particularly enjoyable. At the, the days immediately on the end of the war, most of us were, to some extent, occupied in bringing back prisoners of war from airfields in Belgium and Holland, poor devils had been up to several years in prisoner of war camps and had been brought out to the coast and were being picked up. Two things remind me of that always: my good skipper, the group captain, who I may say was a first class man (he finished the war DSO, DFC, AFC and thoroughly deserved it all), we didn’t see each other after the war for almost forty years, and then by pure accident, I was, I’d been a member of the MCC for a great many years, and was one night at home looking through the annual accounts of the MCC, and there was a list of people who had been members of the MCC for fifty years and who were now called life members and no longer had a subscription to pay, and about the third in the list was Group Captain P.W. Johnson, DSO, DFC, AFC, and I said to my wife, ‘Well, there can only be one member like that!’ And at that time, my firm, I was of course by then a, a qualified chartered accountant and a partner in my firm, and we were then acting auditors of the MCC, so I said to my partner, who dealt with the MCC problems, would he let me know next time he went to Lords [?] for anything, would he go into the office and see if he could find the address of Group Captain Johnson, which he did, and a week or two later, I found out and got back in touch with Peter Johnson and we thereafter saw each other roughly every six or seven weeks. He was a good deal older, he was fourteen years older than me, and by then he was therefore he was eighty or eighty-ish, and we used to take him out. He was, he was on his own, he’d lost his wife, he was a rather lonely old man in many ways. My wife, I had met during the war, she was a WAF, a Scots girl, and we met, strangely, I think immediate, immediately after the war in Europe finished, because very quickly, the operational squadrons were being disbanded, people were being sent away and all sorts of things. Peter Johnson was sent almost immediately to join a party which was being put together by Bomber Harris to go to Germany and inspect at first hand the damage which Bomber Command had done, and so he left the squadron very quickly, and I didn’t then see anything of him for forty years. I greatly regret it, actually, the loss of that forty years ‘cause he was such a first-class chap, and we had many a happy meeting in the years between our meeting up again and when he, he died. He died in a way which suited him well, because he was then living in an old people’s home not very far from where we live, and so we, we were able to see him fairly frequently. He had always had a, an eye for the girls; it was well known in Coningsby that he had a girlfriend in Newark and another one in Boston, and his son had been married about five times, and I remember him telling me once that, after the fifth marriage, that if he, if he got rid of that wife, Peter Johnson was going to marry her himself ‘cause she was jolly nice, and she had actually come to visit him in the old people’s home. He was still driving, he’d taken her back to the station to catch the train back to where they were living, he parked his car outside the, the place where he was living, he had a long-ish walk into the front door, he collapsed halfway on that walk, and before anybody could really do anything about it, he was dead. So it was a suitable and fitting end, I don’t think he would have regretted it. But that ended, substantially ended, my air force career, because I still had a fairly high demob number and because I was fairly experienced with forty-four ops behind me with Pathfinder Force, I was allocated to a thing called Tiger Force, which some bright spark at the Air Ministry had decided that we should go to assist our brave allies, the Americans, in the Far East, and that we should try to operate the successful Pathfinder technique which had been operated in Europe. I mean, it was a crazy idea ‘cause it was quite impossible doing the thing; it one thing being on a, a pre-war, tarmacadamed airfield with permanent buildings and every sort of electronic communication then available. It was a little different being stuck in Okinawa or somewhere like that. However, that was, I was to be so-called wing navigation officer and was actually on leave when the Japanese war ended, and so I phoned the Air Ministry and said, ‘Well, you don’t really, seriously mean to go ahead with this, do you?’ And there was a bit of umming and ahing at the other end, but I did eventually – I was told that they would be in touch with me and a couple of days later, there was a telephone call to say that the thing was off but I was to report back to Coningsby, and I spent the rest of my time as station navigation officer at Coningsby, and I left the, the squadrons left Coningsby about a fortnight before I was demobbed, they’ve were moved to Hemswell in order that the runways at Coningsby could be lengthened for the V Bombers which were then coming on stream. I got in touch and said, ‘Look, I’ve been in Coningsby two and a half years, you’re surely not gonna send me away to Hemswell, I have another fortnight to go,’ so again, there was umming and ahing and said ‘No,’ but I had to stay at Coningsby the other fortnight, they didn’t let me go a fortnight early, but that ended my work, wartime career, if ‘career’ is the right word. Terrible, war’s a terrible thing, awful, awful times one remembers. One remembers times of great strain, times of danger, but equally times when, very often before leaving for a flight, the, the, the whole feeling oneself was flowing, there was a, there was a, a scare, I suppose a scare, a fright; on the other hand, there was a feeling of something quite exciting was going to happen. It was a strange feeling and it was very different when you came back, I think feelings there differed very much from person to person, and I think I’d – probably as good a note to end on, end on as any is that I think that it’s amply demonstrated why the men who did the sculpture in the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, where he has the sculpture of a crew of Lancasters coming in after the end of an operation, and, whilst my eyesight, I’m afraid, these days is far from good, and I, I really was not able to recognise it, my wife always tells me that the expressions on the face of the seven people were quite remarkable and that the, the sculptor had really done a marvellous job. And it is a marvellous, marvellous memorial; I was lucky to be one of those still alive and able to attend its opening by the Queen, and those of us who were there and who had actually operated during the war were asked to line up at the end along the, effectively, the edge of the Green Park parallel with Piccadilly, and the Prince of Wales and his wife came along and shook hands with all of us individually, one by one. I think he missed his lunch in consequence, but I imagine he didn’t mind. I think that hopefully is, in brief, my story. I hope it may be of use and interest to somebody in the future.
MJ: On behalf of the International Bomber Command, I’d like to thank Squadron Leader Hatch, at his home in Croydon, for his recording on the date of the 30th July 2015. I thank you very much. Bye-bye.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Maurice Hatch,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 22, 2024,

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