Interview with Jeff Hildreth


Interview with Jeff Hildreth


Jeff Hildreth was born in Huntwood, Derbyshire and studied Electrical Engineering at Worksop Technical College before joining the Air Training Corp, before eventually joining the Royal Air Force as a Wireless Operator.
He did his training at Yatesbury and was there 3 months before moving to 18 Operational Training Unit at Finningley, where he flew Avro Ansons and Vickers Wellingtons. He was not assigned to a crew initially, becoming a spare man to fill in where necessary. He joined Flight Lieutenant John Baxters crew after someone fell ill.
Jeff moved to a Heavy Conversation Unit, flying Handley Page Halifaxes, before moving to a Avro Lancaster finishing school. He was then posted to Scampton for operational duties.
He completed 29 operations before taking part in Operation Manna, dropping food supplies in Holland. He then flew with 100 Squadron on Avro Lincolns taking part in Operation Exodus, bringing soldiers back home.
After the war ended, Jeff returned to his previous employer, the East Midlands Electricity Board where he used his Higher National Certificate to become a qualified Engineer.







00:35:16 audio recording


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MC: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Mike Connock, the interviewee is Mr Jeff Hildreth. The interview is taking place at Mr Hildreths’ home at Sutton-in-Ashfield on 2nd June 2015. OK Jeff, tell me a bit about your early days, when and where you were born.
JH: Well it was at Huntwood, Derbyshire, and my father was a miner, and by the time we got to the war breaking out it was ‒, I decided that I was going to join the RAF because my dad recommended it because he said it was very muddy in the trenches. He was in the Great War. And, well I was called up eventually but I joined the ATC and because you joined that you could qualify for what they called the PNB scheme (Pilot, Navigator, Bomb Aimer) which I did do. I was a bloody idiot, you can erase that if you want [laugh], but I did not ‒, I could have become commissioned and I turned it down, but then that was just a little boy from a little village and it didn’t seem to fit, ‘cause I probably made another mistake somewhere in my life, but that was the daftest one, but nevertheless I did join the ATC and eventually ‒, it’s a long time ago and ‒, but I was going through the various sections and ‒, oh by the time I was called up I remember now, by the time I was called up there was no requirement for pilot, navigator and bomb aimer but there was ‒, so therefore I took the next best thing which was a wireless operator but ‒, and I qualified on the course. That was no problem when I think now ‒, when I say I was qualified, and I think somewhere there they did offer me a commission and again I turned it down. It’s difficult to put the conception to other people but I was just a young lad from a mining village, to be an officer and be in charge didn’t seem to fit. Now I know differently of course, because in the RAF it is very different and so ‒.
MC: What did you do before you joined up? Did you work? Were you working?
JH: I went to night school and studied electrical engineering and I got my ‒, oh, what was it? It wasn’t my AMIEE, it was a HNC, Higher National Certificate, I did that at Worksop Technical College but then, as a result of that, I was employed by the East Midlands Electricity Board and was given a day off a week to go and study again and I did, and I got through that one all right er ‒.
MC: Where did you do your wireless operator training?
JH: Oh that was automatic of course, Yatesbury, the first three months learning Morse code and such like as that, which I never expected that what I ‒, how good, how good I ought to have been compared to how good I really was. It was better to put how bad I was. Let’s see now, I lived at Langold, which is between Worksop and Doncaster and er ‒, let me think. No, that bits gone. It doesn’t seem too long ago.
MC: How long were you at Yatesbury?
JH: Sorry?
MC: How long were you at Yatesbury?
JH: Oh it was three months at Yatesbury, well to start with the first 3 months was nothing else but classroom and then the next three months it was so-called flying training and, which we went on Ansons I believe, I think it’s in there. It was in Ansons and ‒, oh but I’m trying to think where it was. It might have been Scampton. I was at all the stations, Lindholme and so on, the other places, but er ‒.
MC: So where did you go from your wireless operator training? You must have gone to an operational training unit?
JH: Yes, and that was all up in Yorkshire er ‒, I do apologise.
MC: Finningley?
JH: Is it in there?
MC: The 18 OTU out at Finningley.
JH: Yes, that would be it and we were flying Ansons.
MC: 18 OTU were probably Wellingtons.
JH: We went on to Wellingtons but I started on Ansons but that was ‒, oh Finningley, which therefore was not very far from my home in Worksop, and therefore, I used to have my bicycle in camp and whenever I got a weekend off, which was every weekend, I got my bike out and I cycled home and because of that, when it came to crewing up, I suppose I’m not a very open minded person, as you know, I wasn’t good at making friends here there and everywhere, at least not on the surface shall I say but there was one wireless operator too many on the course and so therefore, I offered to be the spare man and not crew up and so I didn’t crew up until it got to the very end of the course and someone went sick and because of that, ‘You are in that crew now’, and that’s how I crewed up and er ‒.
MC: Can you remember the names of the crew?
JH: The actual crew?
MC: The crew.
JH: I don’t know, it was Flight Lieutenant John Baxter from Sheffield, he might have only been a flying officer, I’m not sure, at the time. The bomb aimer came from Huddersfield I think, the navigator came from God’s own country, born in Prince Edward Island, Canadian, and ‒, but the two gunners again ‒, what they were doing, they were closing down the training area because somebody in their wisdom said they got enough, and so my two gunners were both flight lieutenant ex-gunnery trainers and it was Flight Lieutenant Walter Gordon and Flight Lieutenant [unclear] you look up page number two, I think.
MC: So after the OTU you went to the Heavy Conversion Unit?
JH: Oh, that’s right, that was on Halifaxes and ‒, but then you did six weeks on Halifaxes and then you went on to a Lanc finishing school course and that was one year and that was where ‒, and of course, you were supposed to be crewing up all the time, but all I was interested in was being a spare man so I could keep going home weekends on my bike, but then last minute somebody was sick and that’s how I got in John Baxter’s crew.
MC: So when ‒, you then got posted to your squadron?
JH: Well, I think, let me think now. Lanc finishing course, I think. Was it Hemswell? I believe, I’m not sure, and we went down to Scampton for the formation of 170 and then speed back up to Hemswell to take on those flying duties, and so ‒.
MC: What can you remember about that, your first operation then?
JH: Oh, when you looked out forward and I’ve got the astrodome, I could stand up there and as a wireless operator, keep radio silence. That was perfect, it meant I’d got nothing to do except I did follow the ‒, I can’t remember the name of our radar. Fishpond, it was called Fishpond, and it was the aerial was underneath the aircraft, so I could tell if anybody was coming in from underneath and so in actual fact, I could press that button from somewhere and stand up look to in the astrodome as well, I could look at the screen and everything. I ‒, oh the main thing I did was, that when I looked out ‒, I think it was in my mind, I’m sorry there, I was going onto daylight trips and that, I think, was about number twelve and there, if you looked ahead, you could see a bank of clouds which was the anti-aircraft guns exploding, just a bank of black clouds and I sort of recall, it might be that by then the skipper was a flight lieutenant and as such was in the forefront, and we went into that and all I can tell you is that somewhere along the way the skipper says, ‘Right we’re going out’, and we went through that cloud and we looked back, and we could see all the others we’d left behind. So I mean it was ‒, it was a funny crew in a way, I mean the Canadian and myself got on quite well. To be quite honest with you, we didn’t take to the flight engineer because he’d been a warden in a naughty boys school, so if you can picture him, no, but the ‒, as I say, the navigator was from PEI and the rest was good and quite honestly I thoroughly ‒, I shouldn’t say ‒, you don’t enjoy it because every time you go, you’re looking at where all the anti-aircraft is bursting and so it’s like as that, and, of course, you’re becoming more senior with each trip so therefore you were nearer the front and nearer the point for getting [unclear] and getting away, at least that’s my version of it.
MC: So you carried on your night operations and then your day operations. How many flight ops did you complete entirely?
JH: Er, what’s number twelve? That’s it, sorry.
MC: I was looking ‒
JH: Fourteen, that’s night-time, if it’s in red, it’s night-time, oh and that’s another one, fourteen to Eastburg, sorry. Oh yes, that was a Lancaster, and all of a sudden, they fired at us and we got out of the way. We were target with a friend, he might have been on his first trip perhaps, I don’t know.
MC: So you survived pretty well from all your operations. No mishaps? Apart from that of course.
JH: No, I did survive very well and to be quite honest, that was a thought in my head all the time, because very often when you went to a briefing, they might tell you what happened the last time we went there or something like that, but slowly but surely you were told of people who did not come back off their first trip, and it was like blithely going on, you don’t know why, whether the angel was looking after you or what, I don’t know but er ‒, and as I say, in a way we were a funny crew. I knocked about with the navigator and we used to get down into Gainsborough as often as possible and we went to ‒, what do they call the ladies who looked after you?
MC: A brothel?
JH: No [laugh], CWS or something, and you could go to a place in Gainsborough.
JH: Pardon?
JH: Yes, and you could go to a place in Gainsborough and they’d always got ‒, you could buy these buns, you know, any array of them, they’d all been making them at home. And they’d got a ‒, I think they’d got a billiard table so that suited me as well ‘cause I was trying to learn, and so that was quite enjoyable really. Then somehow, we must have got ‒, I’m trying to think of transport, but I don’t know how we got into Gainsborough and how we got back, but of course it didn’t matter, you knew when you were going on ops because of course, they put a battle order up and if you weren’t on that, away you went to Gainsborough and a day out and ‒,
MC: So how many operations did you complete in total?
JH: I think I completed twenty-nine actually, but with a bit of fiddling, you can say I did thirty. If you look at the bulls ‒, the first thing I did was a bullseye. Now a bullseye, before the operations, a bullseye was where there they sent a force of aircraft over to the foreign ‒, to the European coast, like the Dutch or such like and I’m sorry, yeah, and therefore you were into enemy territory because you went to the coast and what we were doing was to draw the enemy forces to that point because, if you’ve got a fighter, he can only be up in the air for so long as he’s got fuel, so if when we went to, say Gainsborough to, er, Belgium, they had to put their fighters up in the air and that was using some of their fuel. This is what I was told, probably a pack of lies, and then we turned and came home and the main force went in somewhere else, a little further down the coast or something, but we had withdrawn the enemy fire, if you like. I think that was the idea behind it.
MC: Of course, the war ended when you came to the end of your tour anyway?
JH: It did yes.
MC: But you carried on though, didn’t you?
JH: I did, I think I’d just started, done one trip or something, in a Lincoln.
MC: Before that did you do any ‒, Operation Manna, dropping food supplies?
JH: Er ‒, I think so, might have done. Is it in there? Oh yeah, that was low level stuff because yes, and that was stuff that was hung up in the bomb bay and we went low down and dropped it, yes.
MC: To the Dutch.
JH: Yes, but ‒.
MC: You also went on [unclear]
JH: Oh yes, yes, we went to Berlin and we spent a little time in Berlin er ‒, and no, the only thing I can remember in Berlin was that there was a lot of young ladies there, but they had a price and I think the going rate was about twenty cigarettes and er ‒, I think I helped other people. I was a village lad so you know, I don’t think I knew what it was all about at all. So ‒.
MC: Of course, you wouldn’t have been very old at that time.
JH: No.
MC: You would still have only been a young lad.
JH: Yeah, I’d be about twenty-two at most, yeah, but er ‒.
MC: So you then went on to Lincolns.
JH: Yes, and oh, I was gonna say, I don’t know, we were fetching soldiers home.
MC: Operation Exodus.
JH: Yeah.
MC: That’s what they called it.
JH: Yes, er ‒, and we went to Pomergliano, Pommy, I think I did about two or three trips to Pommy, and one to Bari down in Italy. It was quite good. I was quite [unclear], we used to get twenty soldiers into the bomb bay and they were issued with a blanket, a typical Army blanket, that’s what they sat on, and one or two naturally had never flown before, so therefore I was quite experienced, ‘No problem mate’, you know, ‘He’s a good skipper’, thumbs up, and, ‘What’s it like taking off?’ and so on, and I says, ‘No problem, you just fasten up. As long as you relax your body, you’ll never feel a thing. Don’t matter what’s happening’. But the main thing going on those Dodge trips, having got out there, we prayed for bad weather in England so that we had to stay there, because it was near Naples and I thoroughly enjoyed that part of it. I mean, I saw the old city of ‒, I don’t know whether it was Herculaneum or something like that, but it was the old city and of course, there was Vesuvius, always spouting a little bit of smoke and er ‒, I, to be quite honest, the rate of exchange was beautiful, er ‒, I think the official rate of exchange was four hundred lira to the pound, but you could get eight hundred out on the streets, and if you pushed it or bought something, you could even get more than that, so I had ‒, I know I did bring something home, but you know, little bits. I thoroughly enjoyed that.
MC: So you did quite a few of these Dodge trips, didn’t you?
JH: Yeah.
MC: You went to Bordeaux as well.
JH: Ah, that was where I think somebody had a ‒, lost an engine and landed there and so therefore we flew there, along with somebody else. One crew took the repair crew to make good on the aircraft that had landed there and we went and picked up the survivors, some of the survivors, and brought them home, and that was why we went to Bordeaux. Ah, Bordeaux, and [laugh] the ladies of the night were there in Bordeaux in large numbers but again, I was too young [laugh].
MC: So when did your service finish after the war? You went on to Lincolns you said?
JH: Oh yes, they were bringing them in and so therefore we went onto them er ‒, I don’t think I did many trips on Lincolns.
MC: I didn’t realise, you went to 12 Squadron for a while?
JH: I did and I went to 100 Squadron somewhere. I don’t know, but I was ‒, but I think also ‒, what was I going to do back in Civvy Street? I had no idea, I had no idea, and so therefore I was much preferring to stick in the RAF. I don’t mean permanently, but it delayed the decision as to what I was going to do when I did finally come out ‒. Oh, a friend of my brothers was an engineer with the East Midlands Electricity Board and through him, I got a job. Oh good Lord, yes. I was mating a linesman. He went up the pole and he got a sash line. He told you what he wanted so you learnt how to tie it on and make it easy to undo and that was it. So I was ‒, but I was supposed actually ‒, I did eventually qualify as a linesman’s mate, but I was never really a good linesman’s mate and ‒, but as I say, somewhere along the line ‒, oh, one of the engineers with the Electricity Board was a friend of my brothers, and so I ‒, it was through him, he recommended me to go to night school, and I got a day off a week, every week I got a day off to go to night school, and whoever I was working with used to love it because they’d got nothing to do, so I carried on at night school. I got my HNC, or Higher National Certificate if you like, and then I qualified ‒. Oh, I got my AMIEE and then eventually, they made me an engineer and that was me. I was an engineer and that is it, which meant I’d got enough money to get married on.
MC: And when was that?
JH: I should know, shouldn’t it? It’s the 26th of August but I’m blowed if I ‒, I was about twenty-five.
MC: Going back to your Lincoln days, you were with 100 Squadron in Lincolns?
JH: Yeah.
MC: That was a different skipper though.
JH: Oh yes. We broke up altogether because the navigator, being Canadian, he shot off as fast as he could, he was quite happy to go and I think when I was on Lincolns, without saying I’m shooting a line, I was with new trainees coming through, I don’t know. That is correct, yes.
MC: So tell me about that. It says, ‘’Shot down by a Mosquito”.
JH: Yes, why am I ‒? It was ‒, we weren’t shot down by a Mosquito. We were flying along by a Mosquito and I believe the Mosquito claimed a kill, I’m not sure, but we put him down to being a newcomer, trigger happy I suppose, I don’t know. Oh, Operation Capsize, but no Fishpond because with Fishpond, we were very good because we flew low level and I got to interpret, and with a map, I could interpret and I would just tell the skipper, ‘There’s a railway crossing coming up’, and I do know on some, there was a railway going across an embankment and we had to climb to get over it, we were flying at such low level.
MC: Did you ever used H2S radar?
JH: We used H2S a little bit, I’m not sure what that actually did.
MC: It had a screen as well, a bit like Fishpond.
JH: But I believe, and I believe with H2S you could see your target, or something like that.
MC: It was a ground mapping radar.
JH: Ah, I preferred Fishpond.
MC: So you remained in the electricity job the rest of your life then, when you came out of the Air Force, engineering?
JH: Oh yes, yes, well I was in this East Midlands Electricity Board and they used to give me a day off a week and provided you passed at the end of year, and I simply kept passing, and so when I did finally get my fifth year, which was my Higher National Certificate, then that was it. They made me an engineer with the Electricity Board. It wasn’t very wonderful stuff to start with because I’d be on services, for instance, and there was an awful lot of places that had got no electricity, and so some ‒, oh, an application for electricity was going through in one department and if it was in our area, I got the car to go out and check and, you know, say, ’Yeah, it wants a twenty-two yard of red. We can do it'. ‘We can’t do this one underground’, ‘We’ve got to do it underground’, rather, or something like that er ‒, but where possible you slung a ‒, our overhead service. I don’t suppose there’s many of them left now, but it was a number eight copper wire, you put two [unclear] from inside the house, through [unclear] to the top of the house, and at that point, we’d put a corner bracket on and we could put one big insulator on round which was turned this number eight copper, and then the service wire, which was ‒, would be ‒, that’s as far as we went. But then every, as I say, every foot would be a wiring clip, one of those standard ones that wrapped round with two ends and turned back. They were horrible things, they went right through. We did it long enough until my linesman, who I was meeting, climbed up and tapped on. And he was always wanting me to take over from him. I wouldn’t. I climbed up I think once with climbers and that’s ‒. I didn’t think much to it [pause], and he was making like, I’m sure, a picture, you know.
MC: A film movie?
JH: Editing film work.
MC: That was Air Commodore Cozens.
JH: Yes, I don’t know, I can’t remember.
MC: You’ve got a bit in your log book about the Grand National [unclear]
JH: That was after the war. Peace had been declared and so we went flying over places like Grand National or whatever it was and waved to all the cheering crowds.



Mike Connock, “Interview with Jeff Hildreth,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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