Interview with Alan Mann


Interview with Alan Mann


Alan Mann was born in Lewisham, London and left school aged 14 to begin an engineering apprenticeship at RAF Kidbrooke and with de Havilland. He describes being bombed and what it was like in the workshops. After the war he had a career with de Havilland.




Temporal Coverage





00:59:41 audio recording


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GC: Right. This is an interview that’s being conducted for the International Bomber Command. My name is Gemma Clapton. The interviewee here today is Alan Mann and it’s being conducted in Bromley in Kent on the 30th of January 2016. I know you didn’t serve in the war but tell me a little bit about life during World War Two as you recall it.
AM: Well, I was, first of all I was, I was born in 1926 and so when war was actually declared it was 1939. I was about twelve years old. Really too young to do much in the war but I went to, I was educated at Brockley Grammar School for about three months until the Munich Crisis which was 1938 and the school was evacuated to Robertsbridge. I didn’t go and for several months I was without a school and then I took an exam to go in to the South East London Technical College which I did for three years. After that I joined the Redwing Aircraft Company at Croydon as an apprentice and I wasn’t very happy with that. I was repairing Wellington fuel tanks and saw that the RAF at Kidbrooke were advertising for apprentices so decided to try my luck with them and at the age of fourteen I joined the RAF at Kidbrooke which was the Number 1 Maintenance Unit. We were repairing aircraft engines and goodness knows what and also half of it was the Balloon Barrage Centre. The Number 1 Balloon Barrage Centre where they were producing and repairing balloons and whatever. The most important thing they had a band there called the Sky Rockets which I used to go and see at rehearsals and got to know them quite well and got to like the big band music. Anyway, I joined at fourteen and my first job was repairing Merlin engines and I worked with a Rolls Royce fitter who was ex-army. He was 8th army. A little interesting story there because he was invalided out of the 8th army. He was in tanks and he had a medical and the doctors said to him, ‘Yes. Well, you’ve got Gonorrhea.’ And he said, ‘I’ve got what? I’ve not been with a woman for ages.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry. You have. And as a result of that you won’t be able to fight in the army anymore.’ Anyway, it turned out to be Gunner’s Ear. So, that was it. That was his story in the army. And anyway I stuck that repairing Merlins for two years. I was then sixteen and I wanted to be an aircraft designer. We all did in those days. The youngsters. Either an aircraft designer or a fighter pilot. I wanted to be an aircraft designer so the head of Kidbrooke at that time was a Wing Commander Clapp and I don’t know how I actually got to see him but I know I was sixteen at the time and he summoned me in to his office and he sat there in his wing commander’s uniform with all his medals and goodness knows what and eventually he said to me, ‘And what do you actually want?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I’m a bit unhappy with my apprenticeship. I’ve been repairing Merlins for two years. I can almost do it backwards now.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, what actually do you want to do? We can, you’ll get qualified as a ground engineer.’ And so I said, ‘Well I don’t want to be a ground engineer. I want to be an aircraft designer.’ And he sort of smiled and said, ‘Well I do know somebody at Bristol Aircraft Company.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to join them. They can’t make aircraft.’ He said, ‘Well who do you want to join?’ I said, ‘de Havilland’s.’ He said, ‘They’ll never have you.’ I said, ‘Why is that? He said, ‘Well their very exclusive first of all. They prefer university people. And not only that it’s three hundred guineas for a three year course.’ That’s a lot of money. Well at that time the average salary was about four pounds a week so it was a lot of money. Much more than my dad could afford. Anyway, we hummed and hahhed and he said, ‘Well if you want to write to de Havilland’s I don’t mind. You can certainly write to de Havilland’s.’ So I thanked him, came back and wrote to de Havilland’s. I didn’t hear anything for about six weeks or so and then I was summoned to Stag Lane, de Havilland’s’ at Stag Lane, for an interview. And I remember that one of the people that interviewed me was Hearle who was one of the founder members of de Havilland so he was quite an important director and we had a little chat. He said, ‘Why did you want to join de Havilland’s?’ and I was off. They couldn’t stop me. My father was a compositor working for The Evening Standard and his boss was Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Beaverbrook eventually became Minister of Aircraft Production, a very successful Minister of Aircraft Production and his son was Max Aitken. A very competent fighter pilot. He had shot down fourteen and eventually ended up as a Group Captain DSO, DFC and goodness knows what. Anyway, my dad used to keep me in touch with what Max was doing and Max was a fighter pilot at our local airfield. Incidentally, I lived at Lewisham and our local airfield was Biggin Hill. So we used to cycle along as school kids to Biggin Hill and my dad used to, well he was a bit of a journalist as well. He used to go along to Croydon pre-war and interview the people that was arriving and departing. I was more interested in the aircraft naturally and so I got to know the aircraft quite well at Croydon. That’s pre-war. The Hercules, the Handley Paige HP45 which were flying at the time and at the same time was the de Havilland Albatross which was a wonderful looking aircraft for that time. An airliner. And I subsequently found out that eighty percent of the aircraft at Croydon at any one time were built by Geoffrey de Havilland’s aircraft company and engined by Frank Halford. Frank Halford I got to know because my dad used to take me to Brooklands Racing Track pre-war and Frank Halford, Major Frank Halford, he was in the RFC during the Great War. Major Frank Halford had designed his own racing car and engine and he was winning a lot of competitions at that time so I got to know the Frank Halford the engine designer and also de Havilland’s for the famous aircraft he was building. Anyway, to cut a long story short I had a letter from de Havilland saying that they would be willing to take me and I went in to see the Wing Commander Clapp and he also knew that I’d got this letter and he hadn’t any objections. So he transferred the last of my seven year apprenticeship, the last five years to de Havilland’s and I started work one year at [Vanden?] Court learning how to use files and things like that and eventually got my first job at Stag Lane under Major Frank Halford. I stayed there for about a couple of years. In fact I suppose I would have been about seventeen to eighteen at that time and I was working on the first production jet engine which was designed by Frank Halford. It was at that time called the H1 and subsequently became the Goblin. The Goblin was the engine that started off in the jet aircraft and ended up in the first Comet airliner. So that was that and then after my apprenticeship I was – oh well no, no, I missed out a bit. During my stay at Stag Lane I was summoned to another meeting with de Havilland’s. It wasn’t Geoffrey de Havilland. It was Nixon and Hearle again and they offered me a studentship which was at that time the three hundred pounds for a three year course. They offered me, there was about nine students appointed each year from the trade apprentices and I was offered one of these positions as a student and didn’t have to pay. The problem was I was still living at Lewisham and had to commute from Lewisham to Hatfield during the war which was a bit of a job. I had to clock in at Hatfield at 7.30 in the morning, do a fifty hour week for the princely sum of eighty five pence salary. So that was that. That was my wartime experience I suppose. Early wartime experience. But at that time while I was still at school we used to cycle to Biggin Hill. This was early 1939/1940 and we used to watch what was going on. We used to see the Blenheims flying in from Biggin Hill. Incidentally, Max Aitken, who I mentioned earlier was a Blenheim pilot and he was flying at that time from Biggin Hill. I think it was number 601 Squadron but I can’t be sure at this stage and we used to cycle from school quite regularly to see what was happening. And during the early part of the Battle of Britain, I remember it was August the 30th. Do you want to stop it now?
[Recording paused]
So it was August the 30th and Biggin Hill had already been bombed but I didn’t know anything about that at the time so we cycled as usually, as usual. We ended up where the runway would be now but there wasn’t a runway. It was just grass airfield and it was the start. Number 21 would be the runway roughly where we looked down on to the runway and as I said we used to watch the Hurricanes being refuelled by hand and there were still some old Gloster Gladiators and Gauntlets there and a Magister we saw but I can’t remember any Spitfires. Anyway, we were sitting there. This would be about 6 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon when suddenly we saw about twelve, which we thought were Blenheims, coming over quite low and then suddenly there were machine guns, bombs and goodness knows what and we were staggered actually. We didn’t expect anything like this. Nothing like this had ever happened before and suddenly the whole of the airfield was ablaze. There were people running around, there were firebells ringing. Prior to that there was no warning at all of anything happening and they turned out to be Junkers 88s. Anyway, that was that. That was quite a harrowing experience but back to the beginning of the war because really this was my war.
GC: That’s alright.
AM: Alright. Sorry about that. That was my knee knocking I think, or something. Anyway, going back to the beginning of the war again. My war really started with the school being evacuated and I was watching the guns being erected at Biggin Hill. The 3.75 naval guns being erected. Sandbags everywhere and this talk of the Munich Crisis. I was very worried because at that time I’d been with my father to all the Empire Air Days from about the age of five at Biggin Hill and I was aware that in 1939 all we had was a few Hurricanes and the Squadron I think at that time was Gauntlets and I was aware that the Germans had the new Messerschmitts. The Messerschmitts 109 and a whole lot of bombers. Junkers, Dorniers, Heinkels and goodness knows what and all we had was the ancient, really, biplane planes which were adapted from World War One. We had Hampdens and Blenheims and Fairey Battles and goodness knows what. There was a Wellington. Wellingtons. I’m talking about 1938 the last Empire Air Day which I think was in about March or April of 1938. I was there and I had just seen at that time the Spanish War was on and I’d just seen the news bulletins of the Germans bombing a Spanish village. I think it was Guernica or something sounding like that and I knew what was going to happen if the Germans started bombing us. It was just chaos and all we had at that time was a few Hurricanes, Gauntlets, Gladiators and Gloster Gauntlets and I wasn’t very happy at all that we were going to actually win anything. However, we had quite a spell of nothing happening at all which did give us a chance to recover and more or less that was the beginning of my war because I was then twelve years old as I’ve already believe I said, when I actually started the, my war but later on because I could remember what it was like when I met these famous people that had actually done something during the war I was able to relate to them. And these were mostly old people in wheelchairs and things like that. They were huddled up. I used to go over to them and say, ‘What did you do during the war?’ And out poured the stories which I had to record and this was really the bit that I enjoyed in the war. More?
[Recording paused]
Well we covered. It was the 601 Squadron. You see, I remember that. [pause] See my difficulty is that yes I lived through the war but I met a lot of people. Frank Halford. I actually worked with him on this engine there but Frank Halford is the important bit not me. I’m just, I’m just writing about it and I get this feeling that I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I’m saying what I did during the war. In actual fact what I’m doing is relating what other people did during the war.
GC: Ok. Well we’ll take it on a different tangent. As a young man. A teenage boy. What were your emotions of the war? What were, how did it effect how you thought?
AM: Ah. Ah well yes that’s all in here because you see there was a little bit there that while I was in the design department I was fine. I was happy. When I went into the workshops these were all the conscript women and these conscript women were all the young women who had suddenly left home and they were all together. No men. And their language was all sex. And I, as a young boy, was embarrassed. So what happened? As we went by these girls, who were only a few years older than me, eighteen, nineteen and twenty, used to get their breasts out to show us you see and I ran away scared. Now how I can I put that in to writing? But when I’m with Maurice we had the same experience. Maurice worked in another, he was at Stones but with a whole lot of women and they were exactly the same there as my people at de Havilland’s. So my first impression of women was they weren’t very nice. Haven’t changed very much over the years. [laughs]
GC: Tell us. You say about the women obviously were, had a different, different part of the job.
AM: Well you see mentally when you look at the women they were going [unclear] talking about the night before but doing whatever they had to do you see. When I joined them because I had to spend six months there I used to make one bit which was interesting. Then I had to do the same thing again and again until I’d got a bucket full of bits that I was doing and I thought I’m bored. But these women would do that day after day after day and all they would be talking about is what they did last night with their girlfriends because there weren’t any men. So they were a whole lot of lesbians which I didn’t know very much about at the time but only when, but when you look back these were all young virile girls without any men.
GC: Eye opener.
AM: So how can I put that in print? I have done because that is a separate me when I’ve been writing about the philosophy of life as you’ve got that little about my family there. And you see that all. We’re all talking about evolution being through bodies but it’s not. The evolution is through the life because I went down to my grandad and if my grandad walked in today you wouldn’t think he was a prehistoric monster. He looks just the same as we do now but look at his life. So the evolution is achieved. That’s another side of me. We don’t want to put that on tape do we?
GC: It’s all on tape. It’s what we take out [laughs] but I mean tell us about, I mean, you was at de Havilland during the war so you must have seen a lot of changes.
AM: All through the war.
GC: From the start of the war to the planes that finished the war. Can you tell us a little about that maybe? The evolution of the planes.
AM: No. No, because when they made me a student they put me with the propeller side of the aircraft. So I, de Havilland’s had a runway right through the middle. This side was the aircraft company. That side was making propellers and so I was on to the propellers side but I was in the design of the propellers rather than the manufacture but I used to pop out and see what was going on. No. I haven’t done very much at all when you look at it. You see this is really what puzzled me because I was, as I said I joined with, with, Maurice [came with my?] deputy and I had about nine people working for me at that time. Maurice joined as a senior draughtsman. I joined as a section leader when I went back to de Havilland’s. You don’t really want to hear about this do you? Well I was working with, with Maurice on the alternators for the Lightning aircraft. General Aircraft Lightning when I had a phone message to say that George Brown, who was the chief designer of de Havilland’s rather like Roy Chadwick was for Avro. So a very senior man. I had a phone call. Not from him but from his secretary, would I come to see him in the morning? And I said to Maurice, ‘What have I done wrong? What’s happened? Why would he want to see me?’ And Maurice said, ‘Well I don’t know. We’ve been doing alright. We’re doing everything we should be doing.’ And Maurice would tell you If he was here now, he would say that, you know, ‘You were so worried.’ Anyway, I went up to see him. There was a room with all these names, all the famous people sitting around the table including George Brown and George Brown said, ‘Oh hello Alan. Come in.’ Alan? You know, what’s all this? So they were talking, they said, ‘As you know we’ve just been awarded the contract for the intercontinental missile The Blue Streak.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I had read about it in the paper and he went on talking and I thought why has he brought me all the way up here just to let me listen to all this. I’ve read about all this in the paper. And he said, ‘What we’d like to do is appoint you as group leader of the re-entry head,’ which is the pointed end of the missile. [laughs] I said, ‘What? I don’t know anything about missiles or anything like that.’ And he said, ‘No but we think you’re the right man for the job.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t know anything about it and he said, ‘No. We will give you the professional people and we just want you to keep them in control.’ And I came back and Maurice said, ‘What was all that about?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been promoted to group leader.’ And he said, ‘What,’ you know and [laughs] I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well you don’t know anything about missiles.’ Anyway, they gave me seventeen professionals. All university people. All famous people in their rights and I was their boss. I don’t know how I ever got it but I kept the same people for five years which is incredible isn’t it? So looking back I don’t know how. I’m not a very interesting person. Come on. Let’s face it.
GC: Alright. That’s ok.
[Recording paused]
AM: As I said I lived in Lewisham and was going backwards and forwards to Hatfield but we had the Blitz and that was dreadful. I, my father had converted the garage er the garage, the, what do you call it? Where we put the coal. The cellar. That’s the word I’m looking for. Converted the cellar, into sort of an air raid shelter. He’d strengthened it and he’d put ladders down in which we could sleep on so when the Blitz started in September 1940 in Lewisham the Germans were bombing East London at that time. It started off and some of the bombs started to fall on Lewisham and Lewisham became a target because of the junction. The Lewisham Junction. Anyway, in November 1940 I remember it quite well. It was pouring with rain, very cold and we had been playing a game of Monopoly in the evening before retiring and we listened to the 9 o’clock news read by Alvar Liddell or somebody like that. They used to announce the names so that the Germans couldn’t give us a bit of duff gen. They used to announce, the announcer was Alvar Liddell or whoever but anyway, we went down to the shelters, er to the cellars as usual. My uncle. I had a pet dog at that time called Raf. It was named after my brother who’d joined the RAF so we called him Raf, this dog, my pet dog and had my uncle and aunt staying with us. They lived at Brockley and they had been bombed out I think a week or two before so they were staying with us and we retired to the cellar as usual. There was my mum, my dad and my aunt. My uncle decided he was going to have a smoke so he was in the garden with my dog, pet dog and that was alright. We, I went to bed in sort of old trousers and old shirt and all the rest of it. Couldn’t get to sleep because this particular night it was very heavily with the bombs falling and the anti-aircraft guns. Dad used to say that we stood more chance of being killed by a bit of shrapnel then we did by being hit on the head with a bomb. Anyway, about 3.30 in the morning there were a sudden, not an explosion, we didn’t hear anything. It was so difficult to put in to words. One minute we were laying there and the next minute there was chaos. Dad was saying, ‘Is everybody alright?’ The lights had gone out. We had — Dad had rigged up some electric lights. That had gone out. I could smell gas. I was feeling wet. I didn’t know where the water was coming from and I couldn’t move. I had something on my, my legs. My dad was saying, ‘Is everybody alright?’ Mum said, ‘Yes.’ I’d got something on top of me and my aunt was saying, ‘Oh I’m wet. There’s something all on top of me.’ And suddenly there was a commotion and my uncle arrived on top of my dad and we sort of laid there stunned. I could smell gas and I don’t know how much we laid there, how long we laid there but eventually somebody shouted, ‘Anybody down there?’ And my dad said, ‘Yes. We’re down here.’ And there was some scrabbling and somebody helped me out and I remember standing in the road, pouring with rain feeling bitterly cold not knowing quite what had happened and ending up really gaining consciousness at Catford Snooker Hall where somebody was offering us some dry clothes and a cup of tea and a bun. And I looked around and mum and dad and everybody was there, my uncle. We had a few bruises and cuts and things and I said, ‘Where’s my dog?’ And there was no dog. Anyway, my, we went back the next morning to see. Dad said, ‘Lets go back and see if we can recover anything.’ There was absolutely nothing. There was no cellar, no cellar door. There was just a heap of rubble and I looked for my dog and we never found the dog and I said to my uncle, ‘What happened?’ And he had quite a story. He was in the garden smoking and he heard this plane coming dropping bombs and we had a saying that if the bombs got louder you knew that you were in the line of damage and he heard these bombs getting nearer and nearer and made a dive to the cellar door and he said he just about got to the cellar door when the bomb must have hit. And anyway the next morning there was no cellar door. We couldn’t even see where the cellar was. And how we survived that I’ve no idea. So that was my story of the Blitz. And other little incidents I suppose. I remember cycling to Kidbrooke when I worked at Kidbrooke. We had — I was cycling with dipped headlights. We had silly little headlights that were all covered with bits of metal so hardly anything ever shone on the, on the ground and I was busily cycling along and suddenly ended up in a great big hole which a bomb had just dropped and I got out of this hole helped by other people. Covered in mud with a bent bike and finished the journey on foot. So that was really my story of the Blitz except I could go on. There are so many, so many little incidents that are just coming back to me. My mum used to go shopping on a Friday afternoon and I remember that this was towards the end of the war I suppose when they were dropping V2s and V1s and she had gone to go shopping in Lewisham Market on a Friday afternoon when I think it was a V1 buzz bomb had dropped and the whole of Lewisham Market was just demolished. It was nothing there and it had happened just a few hours or so before my mother had gone shopping and she came back extremely worried. Incidentally during the war she was a school teacher at the Docklands School and one of her famous pupils was Tommy.
Other: Steele.
AM: Tommy Steele who at that time I think was six or seven years old. So yes she remembered him and I don’t know whether he remembered her. So many little stories that come back but none of them now seem to be very important. So where did we get to? We got to. Oh we’re —
GC: Tell us some more stories ‘cause, no they are interesting.
AM: Just the stories.
GC: Just the little snippets of life.
AM: Right. Well, my brother joined the air force. He was seven years older than me so when I was twelve he was about eighteen or nineteen. Something like that. Anyway, at the beginning of the war he couldn’t wait to go and join the air force so he, like my father was, he was an apprentice in the printing thing and he went to enrol with four of his friends at that time, school friends and got in to the Air Force Volunteer Reserve. They, all the other three of them wanted to become air crew so they became air crew. My brother didn’t want to do that so he became a fitter and eventually he went to South Africa at Oudtshoorn which was a maintenance unit and where they used to teach the empire. Our pilots used to go over there to, to train and another little story there as well because he was at Oudtshoorn which was three hundred miles from Cape Town and we used to hear occasionally from him. Mum used to write every week but we heard about once a month from his story and then bits were cut out of his letters where the censors had just not blue pencilled it out, they’d cut it out. So we had little letters that were virtually shreds and didn’t make a lot of sense. Anyway, to cut a long story short we heard that he’d got engaged to a girl in Cape Town. How he ever got to Cape Town we don’t know but she was the daughter of the owner of the Cape Argos which was the principal newspaper of Cape Town at that time. So suddenly my brother was mixing with a very wealthy family and he married her out there. Sylvie. And we had all the letters and things from the family and eventually when war was finished my brother came home but not with Sylvie. She couldn’t get on the, on the ship so eventually she came to England on a merchant ship and it took months for her to reach us but she never did because she died on board. We never knew why but we, it was rather sad, I had to go with my brother to Southampton to, she was buried at sea but what we got was the presents that she was bringing for us so it was all rather sad. I’d got presents and mum and dad and we never met her but she seemed a very nice person. So that was my brother. When he, while he was in South Africa he, I’m going backwards a bit now. My brother was a bit of a health freak. He used to go to Catford. There was a training centre at Catford where boxers were training and at that time we had a famous boxer called Tommy Farr who was training to meet Joe Louis who was the world champion and my brother used to train with Tommy Farr. Used to run at Blackheath. And history tells that Tommy Farr actually went the distance with Joe Louis and a lot of people thought Tommy Farr had actually won but as it was in America Joe Louis was given the verdict. Anyway, to cut a long story short while my brother was in South Africa he said he was sparring with a boxer which he thought was very good. The boxer was his PTI instructor, Physical Training Instructor, and my brother wrote to us and said that he wouldn’t be surprised if this chappy wasn’t one day a world champion and he was. It was Freddie Mills. Freddie Mills became the light heavy weight champion of the world. So that, that was another story. Nothing to do with me but it was all part of, of the family. What else happened after that I don’t know? Let’s go back to when I was a student at de Havilland’s. A student at de Havilland’s. I was, de Havilland’s at that time was split up into two section. De Havilland Aircraft Company. Three sections actually. De Havilland Aircraft Company, de Havilland Engine Company and de Havilland Propellers Company. I had joined the de Havilland Aircraft Company first of all. Then transferred to de Havilland Engines and eventually transferred to the new company which was de Havilland Propellers. So while I was there the chief engineer was George Brown and the chief draughtsman was a man called Bleasby and we were producing the propellers for the aircraft. Now there’s an interesting story there because I’ve read in a book about the Spitfire that the Hurricane and the Spitfire had gained valuable miles per hour by the fitting of the Rotol propeller. In actual fact it wasn’t a Rotel propeller it was a de Havilland propeller. The people from de Havilland’s went to Biggin Hill and altered all the fixed blade props of the Spitfires and Hurricanes in to the new constant speed air screws giving the Spitfires and Hurricanes about another eight miles per hour which was very important at those days. So it wasn’t, as everybody will say, Rotel. It was de Havilland’s. So I was transferred over to the propeller department and actually finished my apprenticeship with the propeller department. The, oh I met one or two people. One flight test I actually met Mary Ellis and Lettice Curtis, two of the ATA pilots over there. I don’t supposed they’ll remember them but a little story there that Mary Ellis actually, I asked Mary Ellis to sign some papers for my friend Maurice Green and he still has her signature on it. Whether she remembers or not. I don’t know how I managed to get it because I was only a young boy at the time and anyway there you are. That’s another story. At that time I was working. The ATA pilots were bringing in the aircraft and I was helping to replace the propellers and on one instance I was replacing the propellers on a Lancaster in thick snow when I actually fell off the wing onto the snow. Luckily there was about two foot of snow. I was ok but I didn’t go back and do too much more work that day. That, I think, if my memory is correct was the winter of 1947 and it was quite a journey I had from Lewisham.
[Phone rings. Recording paused]
AM: Yeah. A little story there that I used to go from Lewisham to Hatfield. Lewisham to London Bridge by Southern Railway. London Bridge down to the Northern Line through to Edgeware and then get a Green Line bus from Edgeware to the end of Manor Road which was about a ten minute walk from Manor Road to actually clock in at Hatfield at 7.30 in the morning. And if we were more than five minutes late we had to explain why we were late but it was a two and a half journey average to get to Hatfield. So I had to leave quite early. Anyway, on this particular day that I fell off the wing of this Lancaster, not that day but that week when it was thick snow we got to, as far as Edgeware to get the Green Line bus and there wasn’t any buses running so we decided to walk the thirteen miles from Edgeware to Hatfield which we started off in snow blizzard. Walking along the A1 we were hailed by some Land Army girls and said, ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’ And, ‘Yes we would.’ So we joined them for a cup of coffee, had a little chat and then we went on. We actually got to de Havilland’s, if I remember correctly, about half past twelve and just in time for lunch. We had lunch and they then suggested we got the mail van back to Edgeware which we did. But I was, as I said, when I was at when I was at Kidbrooke I was very interested in the Sky Rockets band conducted by Paul Fenoulhet and I got to know them all quite well and eventually I joined a jazz club and we used to enjoy jazz and met quite a lot of the originators of jazz. George Webb and people like that and eventually ended up with John Petters Jazz Band at Chichester. Once a year they had a Jazz Festival at Chichester at Richardson’s Camp. Holiday camp. Chalets. There was about two hundred and fifty people and on this occasion we, we were there and my wife Joyce said, ‘Oh let’s go and have a sit down for a moment.’ And the room was quite full of people but there was an empty table at the end. A table with two women sitting. Two vacant seats so Joyce and I joined them and it wasn’t long before I said to one of the women, ‘What did you do during the war?’ And she said, ‘Oh we were in the Land Army. I said, ‘Oh yes. That was good.’ So I related my little story and they had a little giggle and would you believe it they turned out to be the two women that offered us the coffee on the A1 way back in 1947. And we knew it was them because we chatted about the little intimate things that they wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t have been there. So there’s another little story. So, so that was that and then the other little story there again. I had to take the Higher National at Hatfield University to become a member of The Royal Aeronautical Society which they insisted all students became members of The Royal Aeronautical Society so I became a student first of all and then was promoted to graduate. So I became a graduate and as a graduate we had to take the National Higher er Higher National Certificate but because I lived at Lewisham they allowed me to go back to my original school to do the Higher National in Mechanical and Structural Engineering which I did in 1947. 1947 I met a friend of mine that, not a friend of mine but somebody that we could have a chat to. He wasn’t in my class actually he was in another class, a class beneath me and we used to meet at the break time for a little chat. I used to look forward to that because we were talking about aircraft and the war and things. Anyway, when eventually I got my Higher National I lost track of him. He went his way, I went my way and eventually I re-joined de Havilland’s having left de Havilland’s. I’ll come to that in a minute, what I did when I left de Havilland but I rejoined de Havilland’s in about nineteen fifty something or other and this was in London and I joined as a section leader on the alternators for the English Electric Lightning fighter. This was to do with the airborne missiles and I worked there for about a year and eventually de Havilland’s decided that because I had so much work I had to have a deputy so they said, ‘Oh we’ll get you a deputy,’ and they did and in walked Maurice Green as my deputy. So we became reunited and we worked together on the alternator section and I had about nine people, I think, working for me. A secretary and all that sort of thing. Maurice was my chief designer really on that and I was sitting behind a desk watching all these people doing the work. Anyway, I had a telephone call and it was from George Brown’s secretary asking me to go to a meeting the following day and Maurice said I went quite pale and said to him, ‘I wonder what I’ve done wrong.’ And he said, ‘Well I don’t know.’ He said, ‘We seem to be doing everything alright.’ So I went with a great deal of trepidation to the meeting, met by the secretary and the secretary ushered me in to the board room and there were all these people sitting there. There was Hearle again and Nixon and George Brown and they were all chatting as I was standing by the door and George Brown looked up and said, ‘Oh Alan. Come over here. Take a seat.’ I thought what’s all this? Still sort of wondering what I’d done wrong and George Brown said, ‘Oh you’ve probably read in the paper that we’ve just been awarded the contract for the intercontinental two thousand mile rocket. The Blue Streak. It wasn’t call the Blue Streak at that time. It just had a number but it was subsequently The Blue Streak and I said yes and he was telling me all about it and I thought I wonder why he’s brought me all the way up here when he could have, if he wanted to talk to me we could have talked on the phone or something. Anyway, eventually what he said what we would like you to do is to become the group leader on the re-entry head. And I thought I don’t know anything about missiles. Why has he chosen me? And I said, ‘I’m sorry I,’ you know, ‘I don’t know anything about missiles or anything.’ ‘No. No. No. We’re going to give you some experts and you know you’ll have people who know all about stress and things like that but what we want you to do is to head the team.’ And I was trying to think of some excuses and I said, ‘Well I don’t, you know, I’m just about getting married and you know I don’t want to travel backwards and forwards to Hatfield again.’ He said, ‘Oh no. No. If you’re interested in taking the job we’ll give you a special section in London. We’ll do this re-entry head bit in London.’ And I said, ‘Well yes I suppose that’s alright. I’ll do it,’ still in a bit of a daze. I remember when I got home my wife said to me, ‘What happened? Did you get the sack?’ I said, ‘No. I didn’t get the sack. I was promoted. I’m group leader.’ She said, ‘Oh. How much more money are we getting?’ I said, ‘We didn’t talk about money,’ I said, ‘We just talked about the job.’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So she said, ‘Well surely you’ll get some more money. Are you going back to Hatfield?’ I said, ‘No. They’re going to give me an office in London.’ And they did and we kept the same crew. I had seventeen mainly university people. They were all experts in their particular skills. Aerodynamics, stress and all that and I once again sat behind the desk and let them get on with it and I kept the same crew for the five years. Maurice didn’t join me. He became in charge of the airborne missiles which subsequently became the red top which was the missile that the English Electric Lightning had. Well anyway, the re-entry head carried on and we had twelve missiles ready for firing when Duncan Sandys called us to a meeting in the canteen and announced that he was going to suspend it straight away when we had all these missiles. We’d spent all the money and everything, got these missiles finished and it was cancelled and I was made redundant alongside three thousand other people overnight. And there was an article in the Daily Mail I think. There was a programme on Panorama. Yes. That’s right. A programme on Panorama about why was The Blue Streak cancelled? And there was no reason given at all except after the war engineers weren’t valued and the government wanted to spend the money on vote catching things such as education and the National Health and it’s my feeling that at that time we had one of the finest engineering teams in the world and we’ve ended up now with a substandard education and a substandard National Health. I don’t think that was any good at all but there you are. I’m not a politician. So, so that was that. Anyway, I was made redundant from de Havilland’s and at that time I think I’d got married, nineteen forty, yes I had married my girlfriend Joyce and had to get a job quickly so I got a job selling cigarette machines which was quite odd because I didn’t smoke and suddenly, this was on commission and I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and it wasn’t any good so that was that. So I then had to seek something else and joined [Saban Hart and Partners?] and was put with Saunders Rowe in their [Saban and Hart’s?] London office. They were consulting engineers. Saunders Rowe were there and I worked on the Princess Flying Boat and the SR1 flight of aircraft until Duncan Sandys cancelled both of those and once again I was out of work. So I then joined Humphreys in Glasgow as a draughtsman on civil engineering work. I think all this is out. I’ve got the dates all wrong but it doesn’t matter. It all happened sometime or other in my lifetime. And eventually I joined an old established company called Hayward Tyler but this was after the war and very little to do with the war. So, I have got a few notes here and probably reading a few notes would make more sense than me just, just rambling on. One of the things that did worry me was that if we’d actually gone to war in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis we wouldn’t have had any decent aircraft to fight at all. While we did have the Hurricane and Spitfire I felt very very sorry for the bomber pilots because they only had antiquated aircraft. The most modern aircraft was the Wellington bomber. The other aircraft, Fairey Battles were shot down like nobody’s business. The Blenheims were absolutely useless. Hampdens and all the motley of aircraft. It was terrible really sending the bomber people to to fight with obsolete aircraft. What a lot of people don’t realise that during the Battle of Britain we only talk about the glamour boys, the fighter boys, and they did a remarkable job but they did have modern aircraft. They had the Hurricane and the Spitfire. The bomber people had the antiquated Hampdens and even the Wellington bombers. Their first daylight visits they were shot down. Very sad and a lot of people don’t realise that we lost more bomber people during the Battle of Britain. Something like seven hundred bomber crew were lost during the Battle of Britain as against about five hundred fighter pilots and people don’t realise that. While they were fighting the Battle of Britain we were bombing the invasion barges and everything. All the German communications and everything like that. We only talk about the actual people fighting from Biggin Hill and all the rest of it. We forget about the Merchant Navy and everything else. We even forget the people themselves because when Churchill at the time of Dunkirk when we hadn’t, when we’d lost our army, Churchill wanted to continue the war and I think he only just scraped through when Lord Halifax wanted to talk about the best surrender terms that we could get and it really was the spirit of the people of that time that backed Churchill. Churchill was just saying we will fight on. ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches.’ We’ll fight them everywhere but he didn’t tell us what we were going to fight them with. We had a Dad’s Army and people laugh about that. We were parading up and down with broomsticks but I remember that very well. We were going to fight them with broomsticks and things like that but it was the spirit of the people. When you remember that France had a, I think it was a bigger army than Germany and they just wouldn’t fight. I heard stories from the pilots at Biggin Hill that were actually at France during the early part of the war with the British Expeditionary Fighting Force. When the sirens went we used to get into our aircraft to fly. The French people used to say. ‘What’s the point? We’ve lost the war anyway.’ And they carried on playing cards or whatever they were doing and they just would not take off. We had to take off. And then of course something like three million French people just laid down their arms and gave in. First sign of bombing Germany everybody gave up. Then they bombed Paris but when they bombed us we just go annoyed. We thought that wasn’t fair. So I think it really was the spirit of the people that actually helped win the Battle of Britain. And this brings me back now to the museums when I go and see the relics at a museum what is lacking is the spirit of 1940 that I miss. I look at these relics and I think that these relics once contained a life and it’s this life that I relate to more than the relics. I remember seeing a Spitfire. I think it was at Manston. It was a relic. It was just a half of a Spitfire and while I was looking at this Spitfire I got the funny feeling that I was being watched and the feeling I got was that the pilot was actually trying to tell me something. I know that sounds odd but I had many experiences like that. I remember being, after the war, trying to get a Heritage Centre built at Biggin Hill to remember the fighter pilots that lost their lives. Fighter pilots and the aircrew and even the civilians that worked there that died during the war there at the most famous fighter ’drome in the world. The number one fighter ’drome hasn’t got a Heritage Centre. Hasn’t got anything. So for nine years I worked with a team of people trying to get a Heritage Centre built. We eventually got planning permission after nine years and it was all volunteer work. We all did, everything was volunteers except when we had to employ the architect the chairman of the company paid for the architect’s fees. He eventually spent something like fifty thousand pounds of his own money and Bromley council gave us the land and we had got the design and planning permission to build this Heritage Centre. Unfortunately there was a chapel. Now the story of the chapel, the Biggin Hill chapel was that during the war during the Battle of Britain there was no chapel. We had a padre and the padre was there really to listen to people’s woes and things like that. Wasn’t a Christian, wasn’t Muslim, wasn’t anything. He was just there to give us some sort of spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, well there wasn’t, as I said there wasn’t a chapel there during the Battle of Britain. The chapel was actually built about 1943 and that was burnt out and then they built another chapel in 1956 that hadn’t got, sorry —



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Alan Mann,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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