Interview with Jeff Hildreth


Interview with Jeff Hildreth


Jeff Hildreth grew up in a colliery village where his father was a miner. When he left school he started working at a tailor’s shop. He didn’t enjoy working in the shop and was happy to volunteer for the RAF and was accepted for to train as a pilot, navigator or bomb aimer. He considered the length of time for training and decided that being a wireless operator would get him operational quickly and would suit him best. When he crewed up he was happy that his pilot and two gunners were all instructors and so he admits happily that this increased his confidence. On one operation they were attacked by a Fokke Wulf 190 which they shot down. He recalls that during briefing they were told of the crews that had not returned and as they had returned they began to have a false sense of being lucky. After the war Jeff became an engineer with the East Midlands Electricity Board.




Temporal Coverage




00:44:35 audio recording


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GR: It doesn’t look bad.
JH: It’s just nice to know somebody’s doing as they like. You carry on.
AM: Yeah. Off you go. Ok. So, this then this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Annie Moody and the interviewee is Jeff Hildreth and the interview is taking place at Jeff’s home in Sutton in Ashfield on the 5th of August 2015. So, tell me a little bit, let’s start off if you just tell me a little bit about your family, where you were born, where you went to school and what your family background was.
JH: Born — Holmewood Derbyshire. But I think I was only one when we left there and thinking about it, it was a time of expansion of colliery villages in North Nottinghamshire. And it was Langold we went to and one of the reasons for that I think was that the NCB, which was expanding like the clappers was not only sinking pits but was also building a village to go with it. Which they had to do to get the men to come and stay there. So [pause] and I can, let me, it’s alright, some words flowed.
AM: Oh, don’t you worry.
JH: And some did not.
AM: So, what did your parents, what did your dad do?
JH: Oh, my dad was down the pit. He was a deputy down the pit. And, oh, during the First World War he was a sergeant in the army and he gave me a lot of advice, ‘Don’t go in the army Jeff. Trenches are muddy.’ [laughs] And in actual fact the thing was the war had started and, but you’d got to be in something of an organization to contribute to the war effort. But as a young lad I joined the ATC and so when my time to, to be actually called up automatically I went into the air force.
AM: To the air force. What did you do between? What, how old were you when you left school?
JH: Oh. Oh, I went to a grammar school. And switch it off and [laughs] I mean, and I went to when it came to getting a job I was out at sixteen and my mother said, ‘Well, it’s time you got a job,’ because she wanted an increase in, you know. Naturally. But oh dear me [pause] I suddenly go and then I stop, don’t I?
AM: And then forget. No. That’s ok. What did you do when you left school then?
JH: Ah, yes. I had to have a job so what job could I get? I think I wanted one in engineering. But having said that I don’t think I knew much about engineering and eventually the only job I could get was working in Montague Burton’s and yes —
AM: Selling suits.
JH: Pardon?
AM: Selling suits.
JH: More than selling them. Wearing them. Because Montague Burton’s was quite, quite a good place in a way in that to work I wore a black coat and striped trousers. And nothing fitted me worse I think. I was not doomed for that. Thank heaven I didn’t. And, in fact, eventually I was called up into the air force and I did, I remember showing it to the manager of the Montague Burton’s. I said, ‘That’s me. I’m going.’ And they always used to talk about, ‘We’ll have your job for you when you come back,’ and I said, ‘I shall not be coming back.’ There were no question. I don’t know what I was going to do but I was not going to come back to selling suits. I mean, I ask you. And I’m still a bit of a mess now, I think. But —
AM: So, when you were called, when you got your call up what happened next?
JH: Oh, well I went — yes, I made another big mistake in my life. You had to go for a medical which was a half day medical. But then, and if that was ok then you were accepted for the air force which then became a three day medical. And so I had to travel away. First time in my life I’d had a travel warrant and you know and so yes, I had a three day medical. And that was ok. So, there was a catch here somewhere. But oh —
AM: You said, you said it was another big mistake.
JH: Yes. I, oh I qualified and they divide you up into, well, what your situation was. I qualified for the PNB system. Pilot, navigator, bomb aimer. And, and so therefore I was in to aircrew. And that was fine except that [pause] let me think just a little bit. I do apologise.
AM: No, you’re ok.
JH: Somethings working. Half of its working faster than the other half you see. But [pause] oh, no I, I qualified on this PNB system and I could have been a pilot. And I don’t know why I did, for some reason or other, I did not, at that point [pause] and as far as air crew was concerned — oh they were, sorry — little bits coming back. The training for a pilot and a navigator and a bomb aimer, and the bomb aimer was usually pilots and navigators who had failed the course. But their course was something like a two year course I think. And even then, I think this was about ’43. Even then they were foreseeing the end of the war and that to start somebody on a two year training programme was just not on. So therefore, what could I have? And there were a gunnery course which took six months to, or six weeks to train an air gunner which didn’t suit me particularly. Other than that the only other thing was wireless operator. So yes, I’m a wireless operator and I’ve got to Morse code. And I never felt less secure in my life. I mean I learned the Morse code, you know. A is a de dar and B is a da de de dit and the all the rest.
AM: [Imitating Morse code sound]
JH: Yes. But, I don’t know, I didn’t feel, in fact when they asked me would I be alright as a wireless operator I think I said yes because the only time I’d be needed was to send an SOS and you didn’t need to send it. You just put a special switch on because we had a lovely radio set. I mean a Marconi, Marconi 1155. Good heavens above. And it was. You could pick up signals anywhere you like all over the world. So, [pause] but then of course at the end of your course then you’ve got to crew up. Now, I’m not the greatest person in the world at suddenly making contacts with people. And there were, I think something like seventeen wireless operators had just qualified but they only wanted sixteen to make the crews up. And so I was, I was the odd one. I volunteered to wait for the next course. I mean that was anything rather than go, you know. But then one person who should be nameless became ill and came off his course and so the crew that he was with got me. And that’s how I became a wireless operator on a Lancaster, and yes I can remember to some slight degree a sort [pause] yeah. He’s gone hasn’t he?
AM: Gary? He’ll come back in a bit.
JH: Yes. But he’s also got my flying logbook.
AM: Oh right.
JH: Which tells me all my operations.
AM: Ok.
JH: And everything else. And the, but — [laughs]
AM: He’s come back to haunt us. Don’t worry because what we’ll do is look at that afterwards.
JH: Alright. Yes, so I wish I’d never let you take it.
GR: What —?
AM: Have you —
JH: My logbook.
GR: I haven’t got your logbook. Last time I came around —
[recording paused]
JH: I’m sure.
AM: So, panic over. We just found Jeff’s logbook and he’s just looking up his first operation. Where was it to Jeff?
JH: Aschaffenburg, I think. Ops one. Oh no. That’s three. I did three dodge trips. It was, of course, at the beginning when I was — joined the squadron I did a lot of training. All in in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, quite naturally. So, very often I was cycling home.
AM: Right.
JH: I’d got a pushbike. I used to come home at weekends. No trouble at all. But I was fairly [pause] eventually, oh I went to, eventually of course you have to get through to Lancasters and you go on a Lancaster finishing course but —
AM: So, you do your normal training. Then you do your heavy conversion training.
JH: Yes. When you’ve crewed up.
AM: After you’ve crewed up. Yeah.
JH: You’ve got a crew. It was a Canadian navigator or, as he would put it, he came from, “God’s own country, boy.” But there was [pause] I was, I think my pilot, Flight Lieutenant John Baxter. He was, he’d been a pilot instructor. Both gunners, the mid-upper and the rear gunner, were flight lieutenant gunnery instructors. This all helps to, to help me along, you know. And in fact, I felt like the rawest recruit amongst my crew. But eventually, oh yes Dunholme Lodge. It was a lovely place. And first operation — Aschaffenburg, on some marshalling yard. Slight heavy flak. Etcetera. Etcetera.
AM: What did it feel like going on that first operation? Can you remember how you felt?
JH: Well, it was all new because I’d never done anything like that before and you were, you had to go to briefing. And in actual fact, the briefing, a wireless operator doesn’t need briefing. He’s got no real duties unless there’s an emergency. But the people who do need briefing are the navigators because all of us are going to be given the course and the navigator then has got a nice little zigzag. And they start off. When you take off you’ve got a starting time and from then on, according to those distances, the navigator can put at each turning point what time we should be there and so he could turn around and tell the pilot, you know, speed it up.
AM: On course.
JH: Whatever it was. But thinking about it it was a night trip. In fact, I think my first thirteen or fourteen or something were night trips. And you get up and you’re flying and it’s dark and you can’t see any other aircraft except suddenly one comes straight up through the front of your nose. Or the pilot’s, you know. And it was somebody whose navigator was not quite on the same course as ourselves. I mean, and so you suddenly realized that there were, I’m trying to think [pause] was it about four hundred? They used to send about four hundred aircraft at a time. And all you knew is that, now Reading has just walked in. Reading — we flew and we had to take off from Hemswell, excuse me, and we flew south to Reading and what you were doing all the way down to Reading, all the other aerodromes aircraft were all coming to that until you were in a bomber stream. And, and then of course you, you followed the pattern and eventually of course you suddenly could see a target because there was activity up there. Yes. And, you know, there were things bursting and flashing. All sorts. But it was dark so, you know that was alright [laughs] I mean you don’t want to see it. But there were one or two aircraft suddenly close by and you realised that there must be a lot of people. A lot of aircraft crashing on to other aircraft. In fact, they did I’m sure. So, but, you know, eventually we went and we could see the Pathfinders had gone out in front so when you were actually on the bombing run so to speak — that’s the last leg towards the target. Way, way ahead you could see some Wanganui. I’m sorry. Coloured flares. That’s all they were. But that was your target. And also you suddenly, so you know and there was a lot of activity. There were shells flashing and such like as that. But I think we did as we were told. You’d got to do a certain speed through the bombing run but then once you were through it the skipper just put his foot down so to speak and we went home.
AM: What about taking the photograph?
JH: That would be automatic. It might have been the bomb aimer’s job probably. I think. Yes, it would be. It was the bomb aimer. He was the only bloke who was doing nothing apart from me [laughs] And, and that, oh yes and of course you landed eventually and yes there was a piece of metal about that big which one of the ground staff gave to the pilot afterwards. He took it out of our wing. But that was all the, all that we got on that first trip.
AM: And we’re talking about something about four inches square there.
JH: Yes. And about an inch thick. It was a chunk of metal which was shrapnel as such, sort of thing. But the main thing was that you got out and of course you’d got your harness on and so you were, and you didn’t have to carry a parachute. You could clip them on so that was just somewhere down in the aircraft. But when we landed and then you’d taxi around to your dispersal point [unclear] and eventually out. You get out of the aircraft. Yes. And there’s a small ladder. It’s about this high.
AM: Right.
JH: Small metal ladder.
AM: So about four foot high.
JH: Yes. Which the back door is opened. Everybody goes out the back door except the, no — the pilot, he drops out of a, a flap at the front. And there’s a much longer ladder for him. But for ground staff, for us we, our ground staff came and we opened the door and they put this little ladder. And I think I did step out and fall on the floor. I don’t know and it didn’t, I mean it didn’t hurt me or ought like that. It just woke me up a bit [laughs] I think. And I suppose it was getting my balance back on terra firma sort of thing, you know. But, but the main thing was then, of course, you, you, there was a bus. A very old fashioned bus going around and whenever he saw a crew ready to be picked up so he picked them up and eventually, of course, you’re back. Back home. And you get your flying kit off and the flying kit was nice of course. If I said a pair of brown overalls which was rather like a quilt. And then another grey waterproof overall on top and I think and before you got those on — with respect that’s flying kit, before you got those on you had a big blue, dark blue, sweater. And, and of course you got your flying boots. In actual fact I think after the first trip the only thing I ever wore and one or two other people were flying boots and this long jersey. That’s all. The flying kit, it just too hot to wear.
AM: Even when you were actually flying?
JH: Ah yes, because imagine your aircraft and you’ve got four engines. Two on each side and being engines they’ve got exhausts. And so the heating effect of them was the air from the cockpit, from wireless operation — oh yeah, that was, the wireless operator where I sat like that, just here was the main spar that went right through the wing. And it was —
AM: Ok. So just to your right.
JH: It was about that high. It was an H type aluminium girder made out of aluminium about that thick.
AM: About an inch thick.
JH: The strongest bit of the aircraft. I was quite pleased [laughs] They were only daft little things but they registered in my mind. But eventually of course you’re picked up with this bus that’s going around picking you up. You go in to de-briefing then which amounts to telling anything unusual which, you know didn’t or not much. And then of course you went to, and got a meal. Yes. Which was inevitably egg and bacon. It was lovely. And then of course, you, as soon as you’d gone through that lot you went back to your digs and you went to bed. Went to sleep. And that was it. That was quite.
AM: That was it.
JH: And, and then of course when you wake up the next morning. Yes. I’ve done my first trip. It was, you know and, well it was easy. You let that thought come in but then you know it’s got to go out quickly. And, well —
AM: How many operations did you do?
JH: I think it was twenty eight.
AM: Was it twenty eight? And what sort of place? Can you remember different places that you went to?
JH: Aschaffenburg, Duisburg, Cologne. Yeah. They’re all in —
AM: They’re all in the logbook.
JH: Yeah. Sorry. If its red its night time.
AM: Ok.
JH: And there’s ops one. Aschaffenburg. And it tells you how long we were flying. It was six hours forty minutes at night. As I say if its red. And I apologise if I’m saying, repeating myself but [pause] where was it? Karlsruhe. Of course, Karlsruhe. And, well, it’s just Merseburg. Somewhere. Oh yeah. On our second trip we were attacked by a Focke Wulf 190 and, we believed, shot it down. That’s as much, oh believe shot down because someone else referred to a Focke Wulf 190 about that time and about that place.
AM: What did that feel like then? Did you actually see it? The Focke Wulf.
JH: Me? No. Because what I’d got and I’m blowed if I can remember the name of it. It’s radar. And the only contribution I could make was that in, set in to my desk was a radar screen about that big.
AM: Ok. About six inches square. Something like that.
JH: Round.
AM: Round. Sorry.
JH: The early tubes were all round. Wait a minute. And oh, what I could say they told me it was a radar but it only showed the area below the aircraft. If you see a picture of the aircraft there’s a bulge underneath. And inside there is the aerial that’s spinning around all the time, it’s just a small thing and so I got that. But on that occasion when that aircraft came at us, the Focke Wulf 190, I could pick it up because it got close. And I don’t [pause] I seem to recall the words, ‘He’s coming around again,’ and I know that I called up on the microphone. Oh yeah, yes I was able to say on the microphone, ‘He’s coming around again. He’s on a bearing of 7 o’clock.’ And that, I was conscious, I thought there should be a better way of telling people where another aircraft is coming but I thought coming in at 7 o’clock was quite a good one. And I think, yes the rear gunner, as far as we were concerned the rear gunner got him. And in actual fact at, I think the next briefing, for the next operation was the briefing this was referred to and so it was the squadron through Flight Lieutenant Gordon could claim its first kill. And I thought to myself, yeah but that was my kill. They wouldn’t, they wouldn’t know anything about that. I told them, you know. But, but that was it. We, that was the first one. Then there was a second. And some, and of course the worse thing of course was that when you went to a briefing you usually were told about previous occasions. Previous flights. You were also told about anybody in the, in the squadron who did not come back. You got that and so, as you had come back you were beginning to feel a bit lucky. And you were also, as time went on became a senior crew. And in fact, my skipper, he became a flight, flight commander. They broke a squadron up into two flights and he was a flight commander. But —
AM: Did you stick with the same crew all the way through?
JH: Oh yes. Yeah.
AM: What was your pilot called?
JH: John Baxter, came from Sheffield. The navigator was [pause] Stan. Stan from God’s own country. And I don’t know where the others all came. Oh the flight engineer because with it being four engines the pilot needed another engineer to pull throttles up or whatever. And he, I think, I never got on with him very well, but he’d been a, what do you call them, I don’t know, a naughty boy’s school. He was in charge of them so he was I would call a tough cookie, you know. And you didn’t argue with him. And I didn’t get on with him and I didn’t have much to do with him [laughs] so I don’t know. It’s [pause] but of course as you comment on you became more operations, more operations, more operations and when somebody had done their thirty then they got a weeks’, no [pause] I think you got six weeks leave. You got a weeks’ leave every, about every three months. Something like. Sorry, I do apologise. Anybody in the army and anybody in the air force or navy. Well not navy. You would get a weeks’ leave every three months. Until you were flying crew and flying crew we got a weeks’ leave every six weeks. So, you know, I mean I was coming home quite regularly you know. Walking. I mean I was coming back to a colliery village where any other, any lads in the village did not get called up.
AM: Because they were down the mine.
JH: When they said they were working on the tubs or any sort of little job for a lad down the pit that’s it. They were not called up. Only me who was in a tailor’s shop. I got called up. So, I mean, but I don’t know we carried on. Oh and I got, as I say according to that I did twenty eight actual operations. But —
AM: Were there any more hairy ones. You had the Focke Wulf one. Were there any more?
JH: We had that one and something about the tenth I think [pause] Yeah. Ops ten. Stuttgart. Later one kill credited to Flying Officer Gordon. But that’s all about it. And we’d be, we would be told that at the briefing for the next operation. So, it was just Mannheim, Bottrop, Dortmund. Oh crikey. Chemnitz. Some of them were long trips. I think the longest was about thirteen hours. Something like that. From take-off to landing again. So —
AM: You needed your bacon and eggs at the end of it.
JH: But oh it was, you know, you got your egg. It was egg, chips. Egg and bacon and chips. Yeah. You know. And incidentally I didn’t like eggs before I went into the air force but you soon learned to like them when you were flying because it was all you could have. But —
AM: What happened then? After, after you’d done your tour of operations.
JH: Oh well I didn’t quite finish it. Thirty was a full tour. I’d done twenty eight and my navigator at that point, he was Canadian, he went. He could go home. And he did go home straight away, quite naturally. But I think I didn’t want to stop flying. I was quite happy. Oh and we went to — yes did a few trips to [pause] I don’t know where the Manna trips, they were somewhere in Germany I think.
AM: To Holland. On Operation Manna.
JH: Yes. It was Holland. Yes. Because the Germans as they were being pushed out they were stripping the country of anything and naturally any food they took. And that was it. So, yes, we were dropping bags of food to Holland and you went in at low level. About a hundred feet or something like that. And you could see all the people on the side of the dykes waving to you, you know, as you, as they were ready to go and collect the bags. Excuse me. We did so many of those. But then, oh I know — yes. Then we started fetching troops home. The army that had been in the Middle East and the, the battle in the Middle East. The, we’d come on to Italy and started pushing our way up Italy. And they, they were taking a lot of prisoners and of course they needed to get rid of them so we were bringing them home.
AM: So you were flying to Italy to bring them.
JH: Yeah.
AM: Bring them back.
JH: Yeah. Which was, which was very nice. I mean I —
AM: How many could you fit in?
JH: Pardon?
AM: How many could you fit into a Lancaster?
JH: Twenty. And all that we got was that as they entered the aircraft they were given a blanket and then on the next trip we got twenty blankets we could take to the Italians and flog them [laughs] Well, not quite twenty. Some. But we did a bit of that. We, there was a little bit. But Pomigliano was Italy. Yes. It was Naples. Near Naples. Napoli. And, and there was old Vesuvius not far away. So, I mean, that was quite a nice thing. That’s the furthest away I’d been from home I suppose was Napoli. But, and oh —
AM: How many of those trips did you do?
JH: Oh, only about a couple. Yes. And oh, then eventually [pause] I could have left but I stayed with, I went to another squadron. I was with 170 normally. I went to squadron 12 I think because the new aircraft, the Avro Lincoln had come in which were flipping great things and they were a bit like them. So, I got on to Avro Lincolns. Did a bit of flying in those. Cross country’s. All over. You’d have to go and do cross country’s just to get some hours in but —
AM: How long were you still in for? When were you de-mobbed? Can you remember?
JH: No.
AM: No.
JH: I apologise.
AM: Oh no, it doesn’t matter. It’s just that some people stayed, stayed in quite a long time depending how long you’d been in and different people have told me all sorts of different stories about what they did before they were de-mobbed.
JH: I’ll tell you what. I can remember when it came to being de-mobbed. A huge, if you can think of a huge building. Three or four gardens big. And there were civilian people with all your civvy wear and you went in and you’d got people, a bloke fitting you up with a suit. Slap a tape around you, you know. But I knew what it was all about but at the same time you got a suit of clothes and underwear. Yeah. Shoes. And out you went. And then the next day you had to hand your uniform in.
AM: November 19 —
GR: ‘46.
AM: ’46 you were finally de-mobbed. Just had a look in your logbook.
JH: And the war finished in ’45 didn’t it? If I remember right.
AM: So, about a year.
JH: Yeah.
AM: About a year before you were de-mobbed.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, of course I’d only be called up halfway through in a sense. And you’ve got to realise that the country’s got to absorb all these people haven’t they? So, yes it was according to how long you’d been in. Now wait a minute. But you didn’t do anything. You know. I went down, somewhere down south [pause] and it was one winter and there were a few people there and you was to — during winter, yes. And you could go out into the forest, get some logs suchlike and take them back to this mess and you got a log fire going and somebody had got a Monopoly game. And I learned to play Monopoly [laughs] But [pause] I don’t know. I can’t remember.
AM: What did you do after the war?
JH: I think I went back to that tailor’s shop and told him I wasn’t going to, I didn’t want to join, didn’t want to come back in to it. Oh [pause] I went to night school at the technical college. Now, let me think [pause] Yeah. I had to go three nights a week. I lived in Langold and the technical college was in Worksop. And so three nights a week I was going down to do college at Worksop to study my electrical engineering. And [pause] I hope I’m getting it right.
AM: Of course you are. It’s your life.
JH: It’s alright duck. I’m not bothered. Whatever it is. But no I, yeah and I passed. Passed alright the first year. After that I got a day off a week to go to college one day a week.
AM: Where were you working though?
JH: Ah, I worked for the East Midlands Electricity Board. And initially, oh yeah [pause] I had a pick and shovel because what we were doing was you’d go to a, we’d have a job card. You’d go to this house. They were going on to electricity and so we had to put a service in and there was a main, a main, there was a cable in the pavement if you like. Or near there. And I came, we had to lay a small cable in to the house and do the make off so that somebody later on could come and put a meter in and so on and so forth. But the bloke I was with, he was a linesman who could, and so therefore I was a linesman’s mate. But a linesman would climb the pole and with his sash lines and such like and a service to a bracket on the house. And he would tap it on to the line and then down the house into a meter position. Such like. But I think I disappointed him because he could climb. He could climb a pole. He had climbers on of course. But you know he just, and he could walk up like that. I never liked it. I held on too tight and you have not got to do. When you’re climbing a pole you’ve got to have it out there. Just you’ve got to have faith.
AM: They’ve got those footrests to go up on haven’t they?
JH: On each side.
AM: Yeah.
JH: No. They’re, they put one or two of them at the top. No. You had climbers on which was a steel rod strapped on with a little spike.
AM: Oh. So you literally went up, spiked your way up.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s only the Post Office who have those nice steps further up. So, it wasn’t, it wasn’t the greatest job but then one day they suddenly said you’re an engineer. And I know the engineer was Vic Smith from Worksop. He was an engineer and I think I was, I was with him but, and in actual fact I — yeah. Sometimes you’d need to find a fault on a cable because some of the joints were not put on very well so the valves weren’t. I mean, I’m talking, if you imagine a cable. There were five cores like that. And you’ve got to, you’re going to only use two and so what you do you push a little wooden wedge in to lift it up from, and then you put linen tape. Yes. I had to have them ready and they were in linen oil. Linen tapes in resin oil and thoroughly soaked and you put those on and you just left a little space. And the paper, you ripped the paper off and then the cable you were connecting you just pulled some strands around, poured some, oh and a little bit of cardboard and poured some hot metal on and soldered it on. And then you take that bit up and eventually you put a box on and put compound in. Bitumen.
AM: And that was that. So you ended up as an engineer after all.
JH: Eventually.
AM: Which is what you said right at the beginning.
JH: Yeah.
AM: That you wanted to do.
JH: Yeah.
AM: That’s wonderful.
JH: Yeah.
AM: I’m going to switch the tape off now.
JH: Thank goodness for that.



Annie Moody, “Interview with Jeff Hildreth,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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