Interview with Alexander Charles Gilbert


Interview with Alexander Charles Gilbert


Alexander Gilbert, DFC, joined the Royal Air Force in November 1940, and was called forward for service on the 7th April 1941, rising to the rank of Squadron Leader. Alex had a very long and varied career for the Royal Air Force.
Upon his call up, he was trained as a Flight Engineer Air Frames where he passed in the top third of his class. He became a Group One Tradesman, Fitter 2A. He was posted to Calshot and then spent time working at Cowley Motor Works, manufacturing spars for the fuselage of Lancasters before being recalled and sent to Scampton.
He served with 49 Bomber Squadron before taking a Flight Engineers course and working on Merlin engines at Rolls Royce Works in Derby.
Alex was transferred to 9 Squadron at Bardney where he completed 10 operations, including 3 to Hamburg, then helped form 514 Squadron where he flew on missions to Berlin, and completed 14 operations. He became an instructor at No. 31 LFS at Feltwell, before returning to Operations at 149 Squadron in Methwold.
149 Squadron were involved in the Dresden operation and did 2 trips in Operation Manna, dropping supplies to Rotterdam and The Hague.
Alex had various other postings and completed 35 years’ service in the Royal Air Force, retiring at the age of 65.







01:22:03 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 13th of October 2016 and we’re with Squadron Leader Alexander Gilbert DFC at Cheddington near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, and we’re going to talk about his career in the RAF, which was a long one. What do you remember in the earliest recollections then Alex?
AG: What do you mean? Going way, right back?
CB: Right from when you were really young.
AG: Ah, well, my father was a Hansom cab driver in London.
CB: Oh right.
AG: He joined the Army at the outbreak of World War One and served right through. And because he’d been a Hansom cab driver and knew all about horses they, he was assigned to what they called the Rough Riders, looking after horses, taking them across the Channel to France, and training horses and occasionally going down to Spain to purchase more horses and mules that were brought back for service in France. And at the end of the war, he was at this, this re-mount depot as it was called, at Swaythling in Southampton and he stayed there, and of course, he was married at the time. And from there, what could we say? I started school aged five, and I went to an elementary school and I left at fourteen, and then I was training or trying to become something in the art world, and I attended art school in Southampton. And then in November 1940, I volunteered to join the RAF and was called forward for service on the 7th of April 1941 and despatched to Uxbridge, where I spent three or four days being interviewed and processed, sworn in, all that sort of thing, and then assigned to a trade, and I was told I was to be trained as a Flight Mechanic Air Frames. From there, along with others, I proceeded to Blackpool where I carried out my recruit training on Blackpool sands, accommodated in one of the well-known Blackpool boarding houses. The training, as I remember it, lasted about four, four or five weeks. Recruit training and then we were moved to nearby Kirkham to, to carry out the trade training. The flight mechanics course lasted, as I remember, about eight, eight to ten weeks. At the end of the course, we had a final examination and the top third who passed out were retained to carry on to do a fitter’s course. I was in the top third so I stayed behind and completed the two courses, and at the end of it, I was a Group One Tradesman, Fitter 2A as they called them. I then had my, my first posting which was to what had been Exeter Airport, which was now a station that was occupied by a Spitfire squadron. I was only there about four weeks when the squadron was moved to an airfield near London. The air, the air, the ground crew were not required because the airfield that they’d gone to, already had ground crew, so we were dispersed and posted to various stations and I was posted to Calshot. Calshot was a very dreary place, it hadn’t changed, I don’t think, since World War One. The accommodation was pretty grim, I always remember the beds we had were iron plated, sort of, you know bedsteads. Very, very uncomfortable. The working hours, we worked, weekdays, every day, eight hours a day. We also worked weekends, Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. We had the afternoons off at weekends, but because Calshot was rather isolated, there wasn’t anywhere to go anyway. So altogether it was a place that I, I really did not like at all. Anyway, apart from the work that we had to do, we also did guard duty at night along the Calshot foreshore, because there was the talk at the time about invasion and all this business, so we, we did these guard duties as well as our normal work. A very cold and uncomfortable place in winter time I can assure you, on the Calshot foreshore, very uncomfortable indeed. In early 1942, it was about March I suppose, a letter was pinned on the notice board. It said that the aircraft industry was expanding and there was a shortage of skilled tradesmen. RAF fitters were invited to volunteer for a short secondment to the aircraft industry. I thought to myself this is a way of getting away from Calshot so I volunteered. I didn’t really know what I was getting into actually. They told me I, yeah, I was to report to an office in Oxford, which I did. When I arrived there they said you will be working at the Cowley Motor Works. It was no longer a motor works of course, they were turning out parts for Lancaster aircraft, and they said, ‘You will work on permanent nightshift’. You start at 8 o’clock in the evening and you worked until 6 o’clock the next morning, with an hour’s break at night, and that was the routine. They gave me an address to go to where I would be accommodated. It was a house in the backstreets of Oxford that was owned by a young couple in their early thirties I suppose, and it was obvious from the start that they resented having a lodger, so there was no welcome at all. The woman took me up to what was to be my room, which had a bed, a table and a chair and that was it. It was a very depressing place altogether. I spent the night there, and the next morning, I had the same reception from this couple, not a friendly attitude at all, so I waited till they’d gone to work, packed my small bag and went back to the office I’d first reported to. The woman I saw, I explained to her about this place and I said, ‘I’m not going to stay there’, I said, ‘I am not going to stay in that place. Can you give me a new address? Another address to go to?’ So she said, ‘Yes, I’ll do that’. She said, ‘Here’s an address in Cowley’. I went there, a very nice street, the house very nice. Nice, nice couple, middle aged couple. The husband worked as a chef at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. She showed me to my room, very pleasant and comfortable, so that’s where I was whilst I worked at Cowley. The next day I reported to the Cowley Works to start work. The chap I saw said, ‘You will be working with a team of four’, there was already four there, ‘You’ll be, you’ll be number five, working with this team producing spars for the fuselage of Lancaster aircraft’. The four chaps turned out all to be Welshmen, they all came from the same place. They all knew one another well and I was taken into the team and we all got on quite well. That was it for the next five months or so. Then in early September, I received a letter to say that I was to be recalled and to report to Scampton, RAF Scampton, which I duly did, and on arrival at Scampton, I was told I was posted to 49 Bomber Squadron to work on Lancaster aircraft. I worked, I was on, on 49 Squadron through the winter of ’42/43, then in early ’43, I suppose it was about March time, a further letter appeared on a noticeboard to say that more and more four engine bomber squadrons were being formed, and there was a requirement for flight engineers, so I volunteered. At the time, there was no flight engineer training course and they said you would receive your training at the Rolls Royce works at Derby, and you would do a two week course on the Merlin engine and that would be it, which I did. After that, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant, given my flight engineer brevet, and then moved to Morton Hall where I would be crewed up. I got to Morton Hall and found that there were crews already there. There was the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and the two air gunners and now they wanted a flight engineer. The way we were crewed up was the other engineers and myself were put in to a hut and told to line up along one wall. The pilots then came in and lined themselves up on the opposite wall, and the procedure was that the pilot would look across at the engineers, look at one that he thought would, would be ok and ask him, and I was approached by a chap called Colin Payne who said to me, ‘How would you like to join my crew?’ And I said, ‘Yes please. I would’, because I liked the look of him, and then he took me outside to introduce me to the other crew members and that was it. We were then moved to Winthorpe to do our conversion course on the Lancaster, which we did, and from there, we had our first operational posting and we were posted to 9 Squadron at Bardney. While we were there, we did ten operations, including the three to Hamburg [pause]. At the time the squadrons, the Stirling squadrons in 3 Group were being converted to Lancasters, and new squadrons were starting to be formed. We were told that a new squadron was being formed at Foulsham, and was to be called 514 Squadron. It appears that they wanted two or three experienced crews to start the squadron off and then new crews would be added. So we duly reported to Foulsham where we did four operations with the newly formed 514 Squadron. The last of the four operations was to Berlin and when we were briefed, we were told that when we completed the operation, ‘You will not be returning to Foulsham. You will fly straight to Waterbeach’, which was to be the home of 514 Squadron, which was a rather odd thing to do because we had our belongings and all that sort of thing, and in, somebody wrote up afterwards what this was all about and there’s the letter there. Is that the one? The top one. “Get on your bike” or something, it says.
CB: “Posted via Berlin. Take [take] your bike”.
AG: That’s it. “Take your bike”, yeah. Yeah. I mean, this was the thing which you normally, they would never allow you to take anything.
CB: No.
AG: But we took all our stuff with us to Berlin and then to Waterbeach.
CB: Because you were moving airfield.
AG: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, so that was that. So we arrived at Waterbeach, whilst we were at Waterbeach, we did another ten operations. So, so far we’d done ten at Bardney, ten at Waterbeach and I had done, and the four at Foulsham, a total of twenty four. The crew actually had done twenty five, there was one operation that I couldn’t go on because I had developed a nasty quinsy in my throat, and I couldn’t fly for three or four days, so I did one less operation than the rest of the crew. However, when they’d done twenty five and I’d done twenty four, we were then told that you had completed your first tour. Now this was five short of the normal thirty operations. The reason for this, I don’t know, whether it was because of the fourteen operations we’d done with 514 Squadron, ten of them had been to Berlin. Ten. Whether it was because of that, I don’t know but they said, ‘You have completed your first tour’ [pause]. The crew were then dispersed, of course, and posted to various training units. I stayed with Colin and we were posted as instructors to Number 3 LFS at Feltwell [pause], where we were until the, towards the end of the year. Well, we were, this was 1944, Colin said to me, ‘How would you like to go back on operations?’ I said, ‘Well I don’t mind’, so he said, ‘We will be posted to 149 Squadron at Methwold’, he said, ‘And I’ll try and contact some of the old crew members and ask them to join us’. He managed to contact the wireless operator and the rear gunner, and they duly arrived to join us at Methwold. We then picked up a new navigator, a new bomb aimer and a new gunner to replace the Australian. The Australian, by the way, was given a choice, having completed a tour of operations, either to stay in England or to go home to Australia, and he elected to go home. Now, among the operations we did with 149, we did the Dresden operation. We went to Dresden and we also did two Manna operations, dropping food. In our case, we dropped food to people in Rotterdam and The Hague [pause], and that was shortly before the war ended. At the end of the war, we started to get demobbed. I had been offered a four year extension, I didn’t know what I was going to do, by the way. I was married by that time, and my wife Dorothy had been a WAAF MT driver at Waterbeach. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and as I was offered this four year extension of service, I thought, I’ll take it and then make up my mind later about my future career or whatever. Anyway, I took the four year extension of service, stayed with the squadron until it was disbanded in January 1948, but during that time we did various exercises. We had a three, three, three or four day detachment to Trondheim in Norway, we did a trip to Juvincourt to bring back these chaps who’d been in the Army and been prisoners of war. We had an attachment to Gatow in Berlin, we did a tour of Germany by air, looking at some of the stations that we had bombed, some of the towns that we had bombed to see what it all looked like, and we had this trip to Pomigliano in Italy, and we had this two week detachment in the Canal Zone [pause]. And then, when the squadron was finally disbanded, there was no requirement, of course, for flight engineers, bomb aimers, air gunners or anything like that. The only aircrew they wanted to retain, were pilots and navigators, so I was transferred from the GD branch to the secretarial branch [pause]. I had two short, short postings, one to Watton and one to Bletchley Park which, at that time was the headquarters of Central Signals Area. You weren’t allowed in the house at that time, everything was all locked up and no one ever spoke about what, what was done at Bletchley during the war. No one ever said a word about it. One of the jobs I had to do whilst I was at Bletchley was opening the mail that came in, and one morning I opened the mail, opened this post gram, and found that I was posted to Hong Kong and I was posted to 367 Signals Unit, which was a Y station on Hong Kong Island. I travelled to Hong Kong by way of Singapore, on the troop ship Orbita, which took some five weeks to get to Singapore. I spent three of four days in Singapore and then boarded a Dakota aircraft to get to Hong Kong. We stopped on the way at Saigon to refuel and have something to eat, and the whole trip took eight and a half hours in this Dakota, and then arrived in Hong Kong. At the time, it was at the time that Chairman Mao was winning the war in China and people were flooding in to Hong Kong. Rich Chinese people who could afford anything, and any spare accommodation in Hong Kong was taken up by these people. So in our case, we were, I was occupied in the mess at Kai Tak, and it was a question of applying to get my wife to come and join me, which would take some time, and you just went on the married quarters waiting list, and again there were very few married quarters in Hong Kong, so you just had to wait a long time to get one. Anyway, my wife arrived in September with our newly born young girl, Janet, my daughter, and we were accommodated, like a lot of others, in one room in a hotel. Not, again, not very comfortable, waiting to be allocated a married quarter, but anyway, things in this hotel, it was hot, humid, again terribly uncomfortable, and every day I used to buy the China News, news, newspaper and see if there was any sort of accommodation being advertised. One day I bought the paper, and there was an advert in there which said there was an English family who worked in Hong Kong going home on leave, and their flat would be available. Offers were asked for, so I wrote, I sat down and wrote a letter which brought tears to the eyes of anyone who read it, and posted it off to this man called Alex MacLeod, who owned this flat. A couple of days later, he rang me up at the hotel and he said could I come over and have a chat with him and his wife, so Dorothy and I went across to the island, because our hotel was located in Kowloon on the mainland, and he took me up to the flat, introduced me to Joan, his wife, and after a short conversation they said, ‘We’re going to offer you the flat’. So we moved out of the hotel and into this flat, which we occupied for about two months whilst they were away in England. When they were due back, strangely enough, I rose to the top of the married quarters list and was offered a married quarter, so we moved in to the quarter and there we stayed until I completed my tour in Hong Kong in September 1953 [pause].
CB: We’ll just pause there for a mo.
AG: Do you want to go on there because we were now –?
CB: Yeah. Give you a –
[Recording paused]
CB: Ok.
AG: Right.
CB: So you’re in Hong Kong.
AG: In Hong Kong, completed nearly three years in Hong Kong, and when I came home, I was posted to 3513 FCU, Fighter Control Unit in Devonport as adjutant of the unit. We had an operational outstation at Hope Cove with a small staff at Hope Cove and [pause], I’m trying to get my thoughts right here. I completed a tour at 3513 and was then posted to 24 Group on the P staff. This was in Lincolnshire and –
CB: So what was P staff?
AG: P staff. P2 was Postings –
CB: Right.
AG: Postings of officers [pause]. I’d been there a short time and it was decided that the P staffs at Groups headquarters would be, would be closed down and they were no longer required, and so I was then posted to our headquarters, Technical Training Command at Brampton, again on the P staff [pause]. And whilst I was there my, I was then granted a permanent commission on the general list [pause]. From then I had various postings, I had two and a half years at SHAEF headquarters in Fontainebleau in France.
CB: What did you do there?
AG: I was the adjutant of the RAF support unit. Each of the nationalities at Fontainebleau, there were the British, the Americans, Canadians, French of course, they each had their own support staff and I was the adjutant of the RAF support staff [pause]. After that, my next posting was as recruiting officer at Brighton [pause], from there, I was posted to Headquarters Transport Command at Upavon, where I was the P1 staff officer responsible for courts martial boards of enquiry and all that sort of thing. I was there for only a few months when I was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted to the record office at Barnwood in Gloucester, where I was on the staff of the air commodore, the AOC [pause]. I did just over two years there and then I was posted to Aden on a twelve month unaccompanied tour of Aden. Whilst I was in Aden, they had a peculiar arrangement in Aden at the time. It was nearing the time when we were planning to get out of Aden anyway, to leave it and they had what they called continuity posts, which was a posting of two and a half years where you could be accompanied by your wife and family. A non-continuity post was a twelve month unaccompanied tour post which I, which I was in. Again, Aden, a dreadful place, we should have got out of Aden years ago but it wasn’t until 1967 that we finally left. I completed the twelve month unaccompanied tour, and on arrival back at the UK, was posted to Headquarters Strike Command at High Wycombe where I was on the aug staff [pause]. From there, I was posted to the Air Ministry on the staff of the director of manning. I did three and a half years at Adastral House in Holborn, which was part of the Air Ministry at the time. Nearing the end of my service, I had a final posting to Stanmore Park, where I was the deputy CO of Stanmore Park and that was my final posting, having then completed thirty five years in the service [pause]. Knowing that I was to be, leave the service in the October 1976, I had already started to formulate what I was going to do when I left the service, and I had applied for a job with the University of Buckingham, which I got. They had an offshoot of the University at Chalfont St Giles. By this time, of course, we’d bought this house in Cheddington, and the journey between here and Chalfont St Giles was twenty two miles. Anyway, which I had to do every day but I thought, well I’d got the job, and it seemed quite a good job looking after the admin side of the University of Buckingham at Chalfont. I had been interviewed for the job along with three others. They’d had a large number of applications to get this job, but anyway, there was three others and myself who were interviewed for this job. We spent a day at Chalfont, the morning we spent touring the place, and in the afternoon, the interviews were carried out, and the interview for each one of us lasted about three quarters of an hour or so, and we sat there then waiting to see who’d got the job, and at the end of the afternoon, the Vice Chancellor came in and said, ‘We’ve decided to give the job to Squadron Leader Gilbert’. So I thought, right. That was it. Now, this was before I had left the service. He said, ‘We will keep the job open for you until you leave the service in October’ [pause]. Shortly before I retired, I was in my office at, at Stanmore Park and I had a phone call from the Air Ministry, and they said, ‘We notice that you live near Halton’, they said, ‘Would you be interested in a retired officer job at Halton? The job would be for ten years after you leave the service and’, they said, ‘You’ll have to be interviewed of course, at Headquarters Air Cadets’. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll go there. I’m quite interested to find out what it’s all about’. So I, I went to Headquarters Air Cadets for this interview along, along with a number of others, and again at the end of the afternoon, the group captain, who was in charge of the interview board, came and said, ‘We’ve decided to offer the job to Squadron Leader Gilbert’. So I thought, right, I’ve got two jobs now. I’ve got the offer of a job at Halton and the job at Chalfont St Giles, and I thought, well to be very honest, Halton is quite close here, I would know all the routine of the service. I would still be in uniform as a squadron leader at Halton for ten years secure, secure employment, so I thought, well I will have to try, try and take this job. So I rang the Vice Chancellor at Chalfont and said, ‘Could I come down and see you?’ Which I did. I went down to him and explained what it was all about and I said, ‘To be quite honest, this job at Halton, I really know all about it. I know the routine of the service, it’s quite near my home and I feel that really, I ought to take this job’. He said, ‘I quite understand’, he said, ‘We will find somebody else’, and he said, ‘I wish you the best of luck’. So I started at Halton. I was the wing admin officer of Herts and Bucks Wing, Air Training Corps, and my job was taking care of all the ATC squadrons in Hertfordshire and in Bucks, and I completed that job for ten years. And that, I think, is the end of it.
CB: You decided to retire completely at age sixty five.
AG: At sixty five, I thought I have done enough. I have never been unemployed and I thought I’d, I’d done quite enough and that’s it.
CB: Very good. Let’s have a break.
[Recording paused]
CB: Geoff, thanks, sorry Alex. Thanks very much for all that stuff. What I want to do is run through some individual items. One of the things we touched on was Manna.
AG: Yeah.
CB: Now, this is quite important in a lot of ways, so could you just tell us how did you get involved in that and what, what happened and how did you feel?
AG: Well on the, towards the end of the war, we were told that the people in Holland were starving and a lot were dying. In fact, I was told eventually that twenty thousand Dutch people died of starvation, so we were told that we were to take part in what we was called Operation Manna. The word comes, you probably know –
CB: From heaven.
AG: The word comes from the bible, and when the Israelites and Moses were driven out of Egypt, they were starving and Moses prayed for them to get food, and it appears that a heavy dew descended on the land. This dew was sweet tasting and the Israelites were able to eat this stuff and so survive. And that is where, and Moses said, ‘This is Manna from heaven’, and that’s the way it came about. We did two food drops, one to Rotterdam, one to the Hague, flew to Holland with bomb bay laden with food and as we came in, in to the park at low level and dropped the food the people who’d gathered there all started shouting and cheering and all the rest of it. It was a sight that I will always remember, and it made us feel that we’d done something that was really worthwhile and that is the Manna story as far as I’m concerned.
CB: Then when you got back? So, you then got back and then what?
AG: Well got back and as I say, we did the two, two trips and then we just carried on with normal squadron duties.
CB: Right.
AG: But this happened, people don’t seem to realise that these drops took place while the war was still on. The Germans had agreed that they would not interfere with the Operation Manna.
CB: And what height and speed did you do this?
AG: We came in about five hundred feet, and the food was all in sacks on a wooden sort of arrangement. A pallet as they called it, a wooden pallet, and the food was all in sacks and the pallet was just dropped on to the park.
CB: A moving experience.
AG: Yeah. Very much so. Very much so. Never forget these people.
CB: No.
AG: Who were all so pleased to see us.
CB: And after the war did you ever go to Holland?
AG: No. No. No. Oh I went, when I was at Fontainebleau.
CB: Oh you did?
AG: I used to go, go up there occasionally. Oh yes. Yeah.
CB: Right.
AG: Yeah.
CB: Thank you.
[Recording paused]
CB: Now we’re just going on to your role as a flight engineer, because the flight engineer’s activities were actually quite busy. If we start with take-off, could you describe the take-off process and how the flight engineer gets involved in that, and what he does?
AG: Well at take-off, we go down the runway, the pilot takes the aircraft in to the air, and as he does so, the flight engineer gets the undercarriage up and adjusts the flaps, and that’s, that’s about it until you’re up. And er –
CB: But in fact, you take over the throttles at an early stage, so can you just describe that?
AG: And, and, yes, once you’re airborne at flying height, then you adjust the throttles to whatever speed, you know, the pilot wants, and the bombing height of course was between eighteen and twenty thousand feet each time. And that was it. Most of the trips took about four and a half to five hours, but of course, a trip like Dresden, we were airborne for eight and a half hours, and we went in across Germany but when we came out, we went north and flew over Denmark and came home, home that way.
CB: Right. So when you’re flying as an engineer, what do you do?
AG: Well, you’re doing really the log more than anything and anything else the pilots wants you to do, but normally, I mean, the whole crew would settle down really, and you were just airborne hoping you wouldn’t be attacked by a night fighter.
CB: Yeah. So when you fill in the log, what are you filling in and with what frequency?
AG: The frequency was about every half hour or so and you would put in what you thought was the fuel consumption at the time.
CB: So how –
AG: That sort of thing. Yes.
CB: How do you work out the transfer of fuel and what do you do?
AG: Yes. Well, you know that you’re on, say, a particular tank for a certain time and that it was time to transfer or refill that tank or whatever and you would do. It didn’t happen all that often of course, I forget now how many, how many petrol tanks there were on the Lancaster, I think it was two to three at each wing, something like that. I forget those details now, it’s too long ago and regrettably, all the booklets I had on the Lancaster I kept for many years, but with all my travels, eventually they were all discarded.
CB: I’ve got a pilot –
AG: Regrettably.
CB: I’ve got a –
AG: My daughter always swears at me, she says, ‘you should have kept all that stuff, Dad’.
CB: Yeah.
AG: You should have kept it all. Well I know that is true now but hindsight is all very well, isn’t it?
CB: Well perhaps it wasn’t so important then. I’ve got a –
AG: That’s right. Yeah.
CB: I’ve got a pilot’s notes, I’ll lend it to you.
AG: That’s right. Yeah. Well I had all the notes on the Lancaster, I could tell you all about it.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yes. Yeah.
CB: Now, why are you moving fuel?
AG: Because of weight, weight really, to get an evenly balanced aircraft.
CB: So you –
AG: That’s the only, only reason I can recall.
CB: So you’re moving it from the outer tanks to the inner ones, are you?
AG: That’s right, something like that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So we finish the sortie and you’re coming in to land. What does the, what’s the tasks, the role of the flight engineer?
AG: Well once we’re on the circuit and we were called in, then it was undercarriage down and just standing by the pilot, and that was it really, making any engine adjustment as we came in. That was all. Yeah.
CB: So back on the stage of taking off, at what point and how do you balance the engines? Synchronise the engines.
AG: Once you’d got to a certain height.
CB: Right.
AG: Once you’d got to a certain height, yeah. Yeah.
CB: And the purpose of that is?
AG: Well you stayed on that, on that engine arrangement whilst, you know, whilst you were in flight. You could have been on that for some time.
CB: But –
AG: Some time without any change. You weren’t constantly changing. I mean, let’s be honest about it, with these operations, a lot of the time, a lot of the crew were doing nothing. Nothing. I mean the bomb aimer, he was doing nothing down in the front. The ones who were working the hardest were the pilot and the navigator. The wireless operator wasn’t allowed to transmit whilst you were over Germany, and the two gunners were just sat there, hoping that the aircraft wouldn’t be attacked. So there were long periods of inactivity let’s say, on the part of a lot of the crew.
CB: So you did a complete tour and other sorties as well.
AG: Yeah.
CB: How reliable was the aircraft and what sort of snags did you come up against?
AG: The aircraft was very reliable because your ground crew were the same people. You had the same engine fitter, the same air frame chap and the same armourer who looked after your aircraft. So after an operation, normally, you would go down to the flight lines, and they would say, ‘We’ve checked everything over. Will you give it an air test?’ So just Colin and I would clamber aboard the aircraft, go up for about twenty minutes, make sure that everything was working all right and land, and that was the air test after they’d serviced the aircraft, and that used to happen practically every time. Yeah.
CB: Now going back to the beginning of your career, in volunteering to join the forces, there was basically an option between the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. What prompted you to make the decision you did?
AG: I just didn’t want to join the Army or the Navy, and I thought I want to join, join the Air Force and that was it.
CB: To what extent did the Air Forces activities in the early part of the war, inspire people of your age? So, Battle of Britain, that sort of thing?
AG: Oh well, yes. You see our home was in Southampton, and out of interest, while I was training on that flight mechanics course at Kirkham, I had a phone call from my sister who said, ‘Last night, our house was destroyed’. It was bombed. She said, ‘We’re all alright, Dad and Mum because we were in an air raid shelter nearby, a service shelter and so we’re all alright’. And when I was in, told my flight commander, he said, ‘So you’re family are ok, are they? Nobody’s injured. No?’ I said, ‘No’. He said, ‘Then we can’t spare you any time off to go home’, so that was that. But in Southampton, before I joined the Air Force of course, the Battle of Britain was going on. The first RAF fighter pilot to get the VC got it over Southampton.
CB: Nicholson.
AG: Nicholson. And he was the first one and I saw him come down.
CB: Did you really?
AG: And he landed near where I lived, yeah, and it was all that sort of thing that inspired one. Oh yes, you know, join the RAF. That’s, that’s, that’s the place to join.
CB: Exciting.
AG: Exciting. Yeah. Yeah. And of course, just across the water, the Itchen, was the Supermarine Works.
CB: In the Isle of Wight.
AG: Was the first place to build the Spitfire aircraft, because the Spitfire, when the trials took place before the war, took place at Eastleigh Airport near Southampton.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yeah. So, and of course, the man who invented the Spitfire, RJ Mitchell, lived in Southampton at the time. In fact, there’s the plaque on the house now where he lived.
CB: What was the reaction of your parents to the destruction of their home?
AG: Ahh well, they, it was just one of the, I mean, this was happening all the time during the war and they rapidly found a place nearby. A house that they rented for the rest of the war.
CB: But they’d owned their own home before.
AG: No, it was a council house.
CB: Oh, was it? Right.
AG: It was a council, yes, it was a council house, and so that was that. So they rented this place whilst the war was on, and after the war, they rebuilt the council house where they’d lived and they went back to the same spot in a new house.
CB: Did they really?
AG: Yeah.
CB: And what about your sister’s reaction?
AG: [laughs] Well, well, you know it was all sorts of things. Strange things happening during the war and you just accepted it and, you see, you know in Southampton, I forget how many people were killed, between four and five hundred in air raids, and well this was what was going on. People, you know, in those days really didn’t complain as much as they complain today.
CB: Your sister is older than you or younger?
AG: Older.
CB: Older.
AG: Older. Yes.
CB: So did she have -?
AG: She, she, she, she, she was married and they lived in rooms in Southampton, because again, this question of accommodation, you know, wasn’t easy. Yes. And they lived in two rooms in Southampton.
CB: Was there a requirement by the government that people should give up space for people to live with them, because of the shortage of housing, or how did it work?
AG: I didn’t ever hear that was actually pressed all that much. No, no I didn’t, I didn’t. The only other thing I, I remember about the house being destroyed, was some of my belongings in it of course, and there was a compensation scheme and I got sixteen pounds compensation for the loss of my belongings in that.
CB: Right.
AG: When, when that happened.
CB: How did you feel about that?
AG: Sixteen. Well I thought, this isn’t much but in those days, again, sixteen pounds wasn’t bad.
CB: No.
AG: Wasn’t bad, no, so that was it.
CB: Changing now to when you joined the RAF and started your technical training.
AG: Yeah.
CB: How did that go? How was it set out, mapped out as a course and what did you do in the course?
AG: Well it, for each subject that you were taught, they had corporals as instructors, and you just attended this classroom and on a particular day or week they, you were, well they would talk about air frames or, or whatever. Yeah. I can’t, to be honest, I can’t remember a great deal about that.
CB: No.
AG: It was just that you attended class every day and that was it. Yes. Yeah.
CB: And then you went on to the more advanced operate, as a mechanics course.
AG: Yes. The –
CB: So how different was that?
AG: The fitter’s course was more advanced.
CB: Right.
AG: Yes, and again the detail, after seventy five years, I cannot remember.
CB: No.
AG: But we did this advanced fitter’s course and that lasted another six weeks or so, so altogether I was at Kirkham –
CB: Yeah.
AG: You know, for quite some time, doing the two courses.
CB: Yeah. Now when you were at Calshot then, on the board, a notice appeared saying they were looking for aircrew, what prompted you to –?
AG: No. At Calshot, they were looking for people to volunteer to work in the aircraft industry.
CB: Ah, that was the aircraft industry.
AG: That was the aircraft industry.
CB: Right. Ok.
AG: That’s right. Yes.
CB: So what prompted you to do that?
AG: Well I saw it as a way of getting out of Calshot.
CB: Yes.
AG: To be quite honest, I thought I’ll get away from this dreary place but I didn’t realise what I was getting in to, because the work in the aircraft industry was jolly hard. And long hours, long hours. I mean, 8 o’clock in the evening till 6 o’clock the next morning with an hour’s break in the middle of the night, and that was –
[phone ringing]
AG: Ah –
CB: Stop for a mo.
[Recording paused]
AG: Is that yours?
CB: No, it’s yours.
AG: That was, that was, that was as I said, I didn’t –
CB: This was at Cowley.
AG: I didn’t know what I‘d let myself in for.
CB: No.
AG: But if I’d, if I’d have known, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered.
CB: Yes.
AG: But however yeah, well it was because it was long hours.
CB: Yeah.
AG: And it was every night of the week except one. We had one night off at the end of the week.
CB: So, so what exactly were you making that was part of the Lancaster?
AG: These spars for the fuselage.
CB: Right.
AG: Yeah.
CB: So they’re effectively the circles of structure that hold the –
AG: That’s right.
CB: Skin together.
AG: Yeah. That hold the skin together. That’s it.
CB: Right.
AG: That was, yeah, yeah, along with these four Welshmen.
CB: But you got on well together so that was good.
AG: Oh we got along well together. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So then you mentioned that you were recalled by the RAF to go back to a, to the front line as it were.
AG: Yeah.
CB: And you went to 49 Squadron. What did you do?
AG: Well I went to Scampton first.
CB: Scampton. What did you do there?
AG: Which was the base station.
CB: Yeah.
AG: As they called it.
CB: Ok.
AG: Yeah.
CB: Scampton so –
AG: One of the satellites was 49 Bomber Squadron.
CB: Right.
AG: And that’s where I went and –
CB: Doing what?
AG: Working on Lancasters.
CB: Right. What sort of things were you doing on the Lancaster?
AG: Well anything that needed doing to the fuselage or whatever, yeah, anything.
CB: How did the ground crews on the front line squadrons react to damage to the aircraft from flak and so on?
AG: Well, again, people just got on with it, you know. If there was damage, you just repaired it and that was it. Yeah.
CB: How did, how did you put patches on?
AG: Oh well with, with rivets or whatever, but again, getting into the detail of all this now, Chris, I’m afraid I can’t –
CB: That’s ok.
AG: I can’t remember it all.
CB: It’s ok. It’s simply that on some planes that had fabric.
AG: Oh yes, yeah, but certainly –
CB: So that I’m drawing a –
AG: But certainly not the –
CB: Differentiation.
AG: Lancaster.
CB: No.
AG: No.
CB: No.
AG: No.
CB: Ok. So there you are, working on the ground as a rigger.
AG: As a fitter.
CB: Fitter –
AG: Fitter.
CB: I should say.
AG: Fitter. Fitter Group 1 tradesman. Yes.
CB: Group 1 tradesman, and at that point, another letter appears inviting you to –
AG: At that point, another letter appears calling for volunteers.
CB: Yeah.
AG: To become flight engineers.
CB: What attracted you to that prospect?
AG: Well, I thought, well that sounds alright. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll give that a go. So I volunteered and as I say, after a very short interview, they said, ‘Right. There is no training course at the moment, at the present time for flight engineers, but you will do a two week training course at the Rolls Royce Works at Derby’, and that’s where I went.
CB: And that’s where you did your engine training.
AG: And I did on the Merlin engine. Price. Predominantly they talked about the Merlin engine.
CB: Yeah.
AG: And the engine handling characteristics and all this sort of thing. Yeah. That was quite good there, Derby, I mean two weeks wasn’t a long time really. It wasn’t a long training course, was it?
CB: No.
AG: But at the end of it, they said, ‘You’re now a sergeant, here’s your brevet’, and that’s it and, ‘You will be assigned to a crew’.
CB: So this officer selects you at the Heavy Conversion Unit did he?
AG: At, at the squadron.
CB: Yeah.
AG: At the squadron.
CB: At the squadron.
AG: You were just, you had this short interview.
CB: Straight to the squadron.
AG: A very short interview.
CB: ‘Cause they didn’t have a –
AG: Yes.
CB: Heavy Conversion Unit then.
AG: No. No.
CB: No.
AG: A short interview.
CB: Right.
AG: Whilst you were on the squadron
CB: Yeah.
AG: And then they said, ‘Right. You’re, yeah, we’ll take you as a flight engineer, and you’ll do your training at Derby’.
CB: Yeah.
AG: And that was it.
CB: So you join the squadron, you get in the aircraft. Now how do you feel about your situation?
AG: Once we’d started operations you mean?
CB: Yes.
AG: Ah. I think if you speak to anyone who’s done operations during the war, the first operation, you weren’t worried at all about it because you didn’t know anything about it, and off you went and you quickly, you quickly found out what it was all about, and it was thereafter that you felt a bit twingy at times. Yes. But not on the first operation because you didn’t know anything about it, about operations but thereafter, well. And of course, the whole thing about operations was luck. It was nothing to do with skill or anything else, it was pure luck if you got through a tour of operations. On 514, we were the first crew to complete a tour of operations. The first one.
CB: Right. Thank you.
[Recording paused]
AG: We were very lucky as I say.
CB: So, on, on operations then, these can last anything up to eight hours.
AG: Yeah.
CB: You did a whole tour and more.
AG: Yeah.
CB: So how would you describe the sort, the operations you went on? Were they eventful or quiet or what were they?
AG: No. The, to start with, the operations on Hamburg if you remember, there were three operations over a period of four days and we did three of the, we did all three of the four.
CB: Right.
AG: And after the first one, then a couple of days later, or perhaps it was the next night we went out again, but according to the logbook, you can see by the logbook, when you were a hundred miles away, you saw the light in the air, and that was Hamburg burning, and then you got near and you did your sortie and you did it. And then, as I say, we did three to Hamburg, three, three trips to Hamburg. Certainly you remember that well enough and –
CB: What was the reaction of the crew to that?
AG: Well, you know, they [laughs], we just thought, well there you are. In fact, in the logbook too, there’s the piece of paper which is a “News of the World” report who interviewed us. In the logbook.
CB: Yes.
AG: In the back there.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Somewhere. And that was after one of the Berlin trips, and I said to them, I said to this reporter at the time, ‘After the war, I’d like to go to Berlin and tour around to see what it looks like’, and it’s in the newspaper report.
CB: Right. So was it just a curiosity or –?
AG: Curiosity.
CB: Yeah.
CB: Yes. Yeah.
CB: To know how it had worked.
AG: That’s right.
CB: This, this article says, “Blood red pall –
AG: Yeah.
CB: Over the heart of Nazi Germany”. Right.
AG: Yeah.
CB: Ok.
AG: Yeah.
CB: And did you get attacked on any occasions or how did that work?
AG: No. No. Never, never got attacked. Never. No.
CB: So the gunners were keeping an eye out.
AG: The gunner was keeping an eye out, yeah, poor old Twinny in the, in the, the rear gunner, he often used to get off the aircraft with frost on his moustache. He was the only one who had a moustache and he had the frost on the moustache. It must have been pretty, pretty grim for him.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yeah. Especially when the flight was eight, eight, we, as I say, the longest flight was the Dresden one. That was eight and a half hours, but then there was the Nuremberg one which was quite a long flight, and the Munich one was a very long flight. So there were quite, quite a few long flights where poor old Twinny was freezing in the back.
CB: The Nurem –
AG: There was supposed to be some sort of heating but it’s quite often it wasn’t working. It didn’t work anyway. There you are.
CB: The Nuremberg one was clear weather and the loss rate was very high. What do you remember particularly about that?
AG: I remember that very, a great deal, the loss rate of aircraft was nearly a hundred. Nearly a hundred aircraft and so you’ll, you know, well there again, I thought, good God, you know. What are we doing, doing this? But there you are, but that was, that was the worst night of the war for the, for Bomber Command. Yeah.
CB: In what way did you feel –?
AG: Well because of the, the loss rate.
CB: Did you see bombers go down? Other bombers.
AG: At times, at times, at times you did, ‘cause over the target, you were sort of going in there about eighteen, eighteen to twenty thousand feet, but the German night fighters would fly above you and drop what they called candle flares, and these things slowly floated down and lit up the whole area.
CB: With a view to enabling them to see.
AG: With a view, with a view to them picking out the aircraft to attack.
CB: Right.
AG: And you were lucky that you weren’t attacked. Yeah. And again, the bombing run was the hair raising bit, because you came in and you had to go straight and level over the target so the bomb aimer could put his sights right and drop the bombs, but that again, was the hair raising bit, that bit where you had to go the same height for about three or four minutes.
CB: And then –
AG: Over the target.
CB: After the bomb release you still had to go straight and level.
AG: After the –
CB: To take the picture.
AG: Yeah. That’s right and then of course you got out as quickly as you could. Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Always one way? Predictably always left or always right or what was it?
AG: Not always one way. Normally straight out and away, but I know the thought at the time was let’s get the hell out of here but again, you had to do your job.
CB: Yeah.
AG: And do that bombing run correctly.
CB: Yes. So you talked about Munich, what was partic, apart from the distance, what was particularly memorable about that.
AG: Again, I can’t, well, well no, I don’t. We just went to Munich, did the operation and that was it. Yeah.
CB: And then you mentioned Dresden. What’s memorable about Dresden?
AG: Dresden, I remember Dresden quite well because there was a lot of cloud over Dresden. A lot of cloud.
CB: At your height.
AG: At, at, at yes, well and below us, cloud below us. Yes, cloud below us. I do remember that quite, quite well, but again, we did the bombing run and of course, as you say, as you know with the bombing run, you were aiming your bombs at the Pathfinder markers.
CB: Yes.
AG: Yes. You know.
CB: Were they clearly visible?
AG: Yes. The red or the green markers and you were told at the briefing which ones to go for.
CB: Ah, right.
AG: To aim the bombs at.
CB: And on occasions did the, depending on where you were in the bombing stream, did the markers become obliterated by the fires and the smoke?
AG: Oh yes, yes, well they, yeah, that could happen quite easily. Yes, oh yes. The Pathfinders could drop the markers but then the fires would overcome them. Yes. That –
CB: And did they re-mark?
AG: No. Well, you heard of tales that they remarked, you know. You heard of Guy Gibson and how brave he was at doing this, and they used to hover around the target for some time but there you are. Yeah.
CB: So thinking of the war in total, what was the most memorable point in your perspective?
AG: Memorable points about the war. To start with getting away from Calshot was quite memorable I must say, working at the Cowley works was quite memorable. The Manna operation was, I suppose, one of the most memorable because to see the way that those people reacted when you dropped the food. I guess that was one of the most memorable.
CB: Their appreciation.
AG: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And the way, the way they all responded when the thing hit the ground, you could tell. There was cheering and shouting and all waving their arms and all this business. Yeah.
CB: And –
AG: I remember that very well.
CB: Yes.
AG: Yeah.
CB: So when you got back from a sortie, there was always a de-brief. What was the de-brief after Manna flights?
AG: Well nothing very much, they just wanted to know whether the thing had gone, you know, because there wasn’t any hindrance as there would have been on an operation, a proper bombing operation. I mean, everything was there, quiet and you just came in to the park quietly and you did your drop. There was no interference from anybody. As I say the Germans had agreed that they would not interfere with Manna.
CB: And did you make the drop of the food at a reduced speed or the normal speed?
AG: No. At reduced speed, reduced speed. Yeah.
CB: To what?
AG: Yeah. Well I forget, but we reduced it so we were above stalling height, you know. To make the drop. If you were flying in too fast, you might, you might not drop it on the park, you might drop it on somebody’s house, so you reduced the speed coming in. Definitely, yes. Above stalling height.
CB: Good. Thank you.
[Recording paused]
AG: I forget where we’d been.
CB: Now one of the challenges in the bombing war was getting back to the airfield.
AG: That’s it.
CB: And the British weather with fog.
AG: Yeah.
CB: Was a pain.
AG: Yeah.
CB: So how did you deal with that?
AG: Yeah. Yeah. Well as I say, we were, we were, we were quite fortunate really but there was one time when we came back and there was this fog, and it was a question of, this fog was going to hang around for some time so FIDO came into operation each side of the runway, you know, these flames and things, so we landed that way. It only happened once.
CB: So it was a popular airfield that day.
AG: Yes [laughs]. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Because not many airfields had Fido, did they?
AG: No. No. No. No. FIDO.
CB: Right.
AG: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: I forgot to ask you Alex, whether you had any links and what they were with the American Air Force or Army Air Force as it was.
AG: No.
CB: In those days.
AG: Nothing. Never. No.
CB: But their aircraft –
AG: No links whatsoever.
CB: No.
AG: No.
CB: But their aircraft, the Flying Fortress. What did you do there?
AG: What? Well he just took us up.
CB: So, so you went somewhere where you, what did you do? You flew somewhere.
AG: We flew to this base.
CB: Yeah.
AG: This American Flying Fortress base, met Colonel Jumper, the commanding officer and he, he gave us a flight in the Flying Fortress.
CB: So what was that like?
AG: Oh that, that was alright. Of course, he didn’t do anything drastic, we just went up and just flew, flew around for a while.
CB: Yes.
AG: Yeah. But we walked through, through the aircraft. Examined it, you know. Those, at the rear of the flying fortress each side, they had these machine guns, didn’t they?
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yes. Looked at all that and it was just a day out really.
CB: In terms of its sophistication and crew comfort compared with the RAF aircraft, what was that like?
AG: Oh I think that, I think we were slightly more comfortable than the flying fortress and the flying fortress crew, I forget how many there were, but I think –
CB: Eleven.
AG: There were about eight or nine of them.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yeah. In this what was regarded, compared to a Lancaster, was a smallish aircraft.
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yeah but they had all these gunners on –
CB: Yeah.
AG: On the Fortress didn’t they?
CB: Yeah.
AG: Yeah.
CB: That’s why the bomb load wasn’t very big.
AG: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. As I say, there we are.
CB: Right.
AG: I’m trying to think of any other highlights.
CB: Well.
[Recording paused]
CB: That’s it.
AG: In about April 1945, the rear gunner and I were called in and we were told that we had also been awarded the DFC because of the number of operations. The ten trips to Berlin and all this business.
CB: Yeah.
AG: So that’s the way we got it. It was regrettable I thought, that the wireless operator didn’t get it for some reason. I don’t know why.
CB: No.
AG: But it was just the rear gunner and myself.
CB: So the pilot and the navigator already had –
AG: The pilot –
CB: The DFC.
AG: They already had it, yeah. At the end of the tour.
CB: Yeah.
AG: They had got the DFC.
CB: Right.
AG: The pilot and the navigator only. But in the April ’45, the rear gunner and myself also got it.
CB: Right. Ok. And bomb aimer, nothing either.
AG: The bomb aimer. Well, the bomb aimer, at the end of the first tour, as I say, was regarded as the old man of the tour.
CB: Yeah.
AG: He was aged thirty two. Once he went off to this training unit, having completed the tour, we never heard of him again.
CB: No.
AG: Stan Young, his name was.
CB: Right.
AG: Stan Young. The pilot was called Colin Payne.
CB: Yeah.
AG: The navigator was Ken Armstrong. Now that’s another strange story about Ken Armstrong. At the end of our first tour of operations, Ken went off to a training unit, but then I don’t know if you know this, they started training people to work on British Airways after the war, but they already started recruiting them whilst the war was still on. And he, he applied for this and was recruited to go on the staff of British Airways before the war ended, and after the war, he ended up at Hurn Airport near Bournemouth where he operated from with British Airways. Ken then rose up in British Airways, and British Airways eventually did away with navigators and just kept pilots and, strangely enough, flight engineers. They were the only two crew members. And Ken, they kept two navigators back at British Airways headquarters at Heathrow, and he became quite a star navigator with British Airways, and whenever there was a royal flight, even though they had all the navigation aids, they always took a navigator with them, and he went on a number of royal flights and he ended up with the MVO, Member of the Victorian Order. And he became quite well known in British, they all knew Ken Armstrong because he was one of the two navigators left in British Airways, because they didn’t want navigators anymore with all, with all the navigation aids on board. But he, he did become quite well known. Yes. I mean my wife’s husband, Clive, ‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘Ken Armstrong. We all knew Ken Armstrong’.
CB: Your daughter’s husband.
AG: Yes.
CB: Ok.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Alexander Charles Gilbert,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 28, 2024,

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