Interview with Harold Kirby

Title

Interview with Harold Kirby

Description

Harold Kirby joined up the Royal Air Force encouraged by two friends, but ended up training as a flight mechanic at RAF Halton on medical grounds. Harold became them airframe fitter, volunteered as a flight engineer, passed the physical but was then posted as a fitter at RAF Binbrook for six months with 460 Squadron. He was then at RAF Saint Athan to train as a flight engineer, then to RAF Winthorpe Heavy Conversion Unit with an all-Australian aircrew. Harold recollects a crash landing at RAF Woodbridge, followed by attending Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Syerston. He was then posted to 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. Discusses bombing missions over France V-1 weapons sites, a bomb falling through a wing, and crash landing at RAF Wittering. Harold was eventually posted to 97 Pathfinder Squadron at RAF Coningsby, owing to his array of skills and multiple qualifications. Discusses post war training as radar mechanic, employment at the General Electric Company and reunions with his Australian aircrew.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-07-10

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

00:42:44 Audio Interview

Language

Type

Identifier

AKirbyH150710, PKirbyH1511

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

NM: So, this is a recording from Harold Kirby in Pinner, my name is Nigel Moore doing the interview, and this interview is taking place on July the 10th at Mr Kirby’s home in Pinner. So, Mr Kirby, thanks for doing this, and can you tell me something about your life growing up and life before the RAF?
HK: Yes, I’m, I was born in Kilburn, and my parents moved out to Kingsbury when I was eight years old, and I went to Kingsbury County School there. At the time we moved, 1931, it was all countrified there and we had to walk across fields to Burnt Oak to, for shopping, but soon got built up. So that was my early days, and then I got married after the war and lived in Kingsbury for a while until we moved out to Pinner in 1960, that’s right.
NM: So, what about your upbringing and childhood and pre-service life as a youth?
HK: I was not very outgoing at the time, but I had a special friend, Tony, who was more outgoing and he involved me in lots of activities, but I can’t say that I did very much exciting at those days, although we did used to cycle ‘round quite a lot, both of us. So, that was, up to the war, really. [Pause] and, certainly –
NM: Okay. How did you come to join the RAF?
HK: Ah, well, I, my two school friends and myself wanted to fly with the RAF, they were accepted but I was turned down on medical grounds, they became navigators and went off, and then I was called up in, ah, August 1942, and was first, after the initial square-bashing, went to, was posted to Halton, to train as a flight mechanic, one of the first inputs of conscripts to be trained at Halton, yeah. Well, after I’d passed out as a flight mechanic, I had sufficient marks to go straight on to do a fitter’s airframe course, also at Halton, and during the time there, I, we were asked if we would volunteer to become flight engineers, they were getting a bit short, which I did, passed the medical that time, and, but initially, I was posted as a fitter to 460 Squadron, which was at Binbrook, although initially, we and three others went to place called Brayton and found that the 460 Squadron had moved to Binbrook two weeks earlier [slight laugh] but eventually, we were taken there over, stayed there overnight and then taken to Binbrook, and I was there for a bit, six months, mainly repairing aircraft, until I got a call to go to the Saint Athan to train as a flight engineer. I, after I’d passed out from there, I was posted to heavy conversion unit at [pause] Winthorpe and I was, I crewed up with an otherwise all-Australian crew, and one thing that happened there was – this was on Stirlings – on the first pilot’s [pause] flight by himself without an instructor, we couldn’t get the wheels down, and it was my job to wind them down, which I did successfully, but the port undercarriage wouldn’t lock, so we were asked to fly to Woodbridge, you heard of it? It was placed where they had especially long, long runways and also facilities for dealing with crashed aircraft. Well, we duly got, would crashed, Woodbridge, crashed, ah, landed, but the port undercarriage gave way and we spun ‘round, no-one was hurt, and the instructor came down immediately and made my pilot fly back. Other than that, that, everything was okay, and we went to the Lancaster flying school, and eventually landed up at 467 Squadron, which was then at Wadd – Waddington. The, ah, yes, on the first operation, we were coming back, and the rear gunner suddenly shouted ‘Corkscrew!’, and the pilot immediately took action, dived, and a twin-engined aircraft overtook us and flew off in the distance, we didn’t see it again, but he initially, he shot at us, and a bullet went through the rear gunner’s turret and his clothing and cut off his heating supply and he was very aggrieved about that because it got a bit cold! [slight laugh] Anyway, we got back safely. Then, on the [pause] yes, the eleventh operation, it was a daylight one at Trossy Saint Maximin, the, it was a storage site for V1s, and we had done the bombing round and the mid upper shouted, ‘There’s a Lanc above us just opened his bomb doors!’ Before we could do anything, we heard two thumps, one was louder than the other, and a bomb went through the port wing, took away the undercarriage and the – shut off the engine, so I, well, I, I had to keep a look-out because the, I’m sure the wing was mov – waving more than it should do, anyway, we, with three engines, we got left behind. At one stage, this was over France, the rear gunner said ‘There’s two single-engined aircraft approaching from the starboard quarter,’ he said to the upper gunner, ‘I’ll take the first, you take the second,’ but seconds later, which seemed hours, he said, ‘It’s alright, they’re Spitfires,’ [slight laugh] and one of them escorted us back to the coast and we decided, or at least the pilot decided, to land at Wittering, which, at that time, had a grass runway, and we’d landed there and he got told off for making a big groove in their run – runway. So, but that was the, really, the main thing that happened there. Then, on the sixteenth operation, or after the sixteenth operation, we were posted to 97 Squadron, the Pathfinder Squadron. After the war, I had some correspondence from a pilot’s son, this was well after the war, and in it was a cutting from a newspaper which a pilot had a long [?] talk with a reporter, and he said then, whether it was true or not, that he actually volunteered to become Pathfinders because of the increase in pay, but I don’t know if that’s true or not, but all the crew joined him and we went on to the 97 Squadron, but nothing really much happened there, we were quite successful in getting back what with [?] the time, and in the end we managed forty-four operations altogether. [Pause] Well, after the war finished, we were sent on end-of-tour leave because we’d practically finished the second tour, and, but the rest of the crew were all recalled before I was, to go off back to Australia, so I never really had a chance to say a proper goodbye, but after that [unclear], they were, we were given opportunities to choose what we wanted to do; I chose a radar mechanic’s course because it was a nice long one and sounded interesting, that was at Yatesbury, and I eventually completed the course, was posted to West Ruislip, where I was put in an office and didn’t any, do any radar mechanicking! [laughs] And, but I was fortunate that I was able to live out, live at home, ‘cause my parents at Kingsbury, and commuted until I got my demob, which was six weeks or so later, I’m not sure of the actual date, and so, that is my war service.
NM: Okay, can I take you back to your days in Halton?
HK: Yes.
NM: Tell me a little bit about your days training as a fitter.
HK: Well, we were lost in [?], up the hill on one side of the main road, and every morning, we walked down, or marched down, to the, the workshops on the other side of the main road. That, that was about all, except that there was one amusing instance; because there, there were no youngsters there at the time, they had some drums which they thought could be used, and they asked for volunteers to train as, as drummers to help us down the march. It, they got instructions, that went off quite reasonably until the instructor thought, the, the bandmaster or whoever it was, thought we could practise by ourselves. Now, one of the chaps was actually a drummer in a small group, and he decided to invent a, a rhythm, which wasn’t the one that we were taught, and it went – oh, how did it go? Anyway, it was the first time that we did it, we, it was a conga rhythm [laughs], I think it’s the first and only time that a squad’s been conga’d down to the workshops! [laughs] But, apart from that, Halton was quite reasonably enjoyable.
NM: And was it while you were at Halton, or was it while you were at Binbrook on 460 Squadron, that you volunteered to become a flight engineer?
HK: It was while we were at Halton we were asked if we would volunteer, yes.
NM: So you first of all went off to Binbrook on 460 Squadron?
HK: Hmm?
NM: You first of all went to 460 Squadron?
HK: 460 Squadron, yeah.
NM: At Binbrook. Tell me a little bit about, about Binbrook.
HK: Well, then again, it was for, fortunately a, a peacetime station, so we were quite comfortably billeted. Well, that, that, of course, was an Australian squadron as well, so I, I did quite well in knowing the Australians. Each morning, went to the hangars and carried out any repairs and inspections that were necessary, quite enjoyed that, really. Yes, there was a sergeant there, Australian sergeant, apparently he was colour blind, and he, he was telling me that initially, he, he was asked to put camouflage on an aircraft, and when his instructor saw it, he said ‘If you could see that as I could see it, you’d have a fit!’ [Laughs] Yeah, but that, that, sorry, he was quite, quite a good chap [unclear], but –
NM: So, you went from Binbrook to Saint Athans to train -
HK: That’s right, yes.
NM: As a flight engineer.
HK: That’s right.
NM: Describe your training.
HK: I, actually, initially, there are few of us, instead of given instructions on a Lancaster, we were started to give us instructions on a York aircraft, but I think it was decided that that sort of job would be given to people who’d already been flying, so we then transferred and did the rest of the course on, on Lancasters. It was [pause] well, was quite enjoyable, I can’t say that there were any real troubles there. [Pause] I’m sorry, I –
NM: That’s fine, that’s okay.
HK: Unless there’s something specific, it’s difficult to remember.
NM: Right, okay, no, that’s absolutely fine, that’s fine. And you, how long did you spend in Saint Athan training, and what type of year was it, and time of year?
HK: It was in December, it would have been ’43, and we were there ‘til about May, I think, in ’44, and then we went to, as I said, to train, initially on Stirlings, before going onto Lancasters and then the squadron.
NM: So you crewed up at the OCU at Winthorpe, did you say?
HK: Yes.
NM: How did the crewing up process go? How did you end up with the crew that you ended up with?
HK: Well, it was just the usual way, and, in the RAF, from, we were in a large hall, and Bill Ryan, the, came up to me and said, would I like to join his crew? And he came, well, then, he introduced, introduced me to the rest, and we got on quite well.
NM: So you were the last to join the crew, were you?
HK: Yes.
NM: And were they an all-Australian crew?
HK: All-Australian, yeah.
NM: And you were the only Englishman there?
HK: That’s right, yes.
NM: So, why do you think he asked you? Why do you think he asked you?
HK: I have no idea! [laughs] Perhaps I was the last one, I don’t know, but we got on quite well, actually. I was the youngest, Bill Ryan was twenty-eight, I think. [Pause] The [pause] bomb aimer came from Queensland, he was about thirty-three, wireless operator was not much older than I was, I, I did have pictures of them [sound of leafing through pages].
NM: We can come onto that afterwards, if you want.
HK: Afterwards, yeah. [leafing sounds continue] Give some names.
NM: Let’s go through their names on the record and we can look at the photographs after the interview.
HK: Yeah, right.
NM: So, you go through the names.
HK: Hmm, yes.
NM: Talk, go through the names and describe the names.
HK: Yes, well, there was Bill Ryan, Les Sabine, the navigator, he came from New South Wales, as did Johnny Nichols, the wireless operator, and Jim McPhee was bomb aimer, Norm Johnstone, the mid upper gunner, and myself, and then there was Jim Newing, but we always called him Bert so we didn’t get mixed up with Jim McPhee, the bomb aimer, he was the rear gunner, he came from Perth in western Australia, and, although I lost touch with the crew after the war, some fifty years later, I and my wife went to Perth, and I looked up the telephone directory, there was H.W. Newing, which was his name, and the telephone, and I rang up on the off chance and said ‘Have you ever been to England?’ and he said ‘Yes, who’s speaking?’ I said ‘Harold Kirby’ and he immediately said ‘Oh, our flight engineer!’ [Slight laugh] And he was able to come to the hotel and we had quite a long chat, unfortunately, we had to go off the following day, but by then, I had his address and telephone number, and we went back to Perth all summer, few years later, and he came and took us to meet his wife and have lunch, and so, that, that was very nice. Unfortunately, he’s passed away.
NM: Okay, sad to hear that. So, you went to Lancaster flying school, you say, after you, your?
HK: Yes, at Syerston, that was.
NM: That was, okay, at Syerston. And how long were you there for?
HK: Oh, just a matter of a week or so, I think. I don’t, I can’t remember that.
NM: So, you then joined 467 Squadron at Waddington?
HK: That’s right.
NM: Tell me about squadron life in 467, what was that like?
HK: What was that like? I think I was glad I’d been to 460 Squadron and got used to a lot of the Australians, so it didn’t come as a bit of a shock, but [pause] apart from those two instances that I mentioned, I think we were quite fortunate, getting away unscathed.
NM: So, can you describe general operations, then, on 467 at Waddington?
HK: Well, I, the pilot and navigator, this before an operation, they had a, an initial briefing, and then after that, the rest of the crew joined them to have a general briefing. We were – then we all had to get ready for going off, we had a, a meal beforehand. Coming back, we were debriefed, and contrary to, contrary to what other, I’ve read about other squadrons, we never got rum or anything like that, we just got coffee, and then we went to bed and waited for the next operation. I do remember that, on one occasion, I slept for about eighteen hours non-stop, virtually, that was after two or three night operations on the trot.
NM: So, when you found you were being posted to Pathfinders at –
HK: Yes.
NM: - Coningsby, at 97 Squadron, what was your feeling?
HK: Really, nothing much, we, I didn’t know much about them, and I just wanted to keep with the rest of the crew, suppose.
NM: So, was – how did Coningsby and the Pathfinders differ from a main force station at Waddington and 467?
HK: I can’t say that it was terribly different, different. We were quite fortunate in, again, that, as Waddington was, and Binbrook beforehand and then Coningsby, they were all peacetime stations and we were very comfortably housed, not like some squadrons who had to cope with a lot of mud [slight laugh]! Oh, yes, at Coningsby, we had to be capable of taking over some of the other tasks, such as, I was asked to keep the aircraft on the straight and level for a while, presumably in case the pilot couldn’t hold it, which, that was what I did, although the rear gunner said it was more like a switchback than straight and level [slight laugh]! Then I had to learn the Morse code and do some gunnery practice, and also bomb aiming, so that, that was quite a change. In fact, towards the end of the war, the normal bomb aimer went and helped the navigator with the screens that they had then, and I did the bomb aiming, so it, that was a change. [Pause] Can’t say that there’s much more to add.
NM: So the extra training that you had, then, for, for flying training for straight and level flying and for gunnery and Morse code and bomb aiming, what, how did those extra training comes about?
HK: I remember the bomb, bomb aiming, there was a sort of a, a map that sort of moved on the floor and we were practising sort of with the bomb sights, and then also, in, there was a bombing range at Wainfleet in the Wash, I think I did a, a few goes at that, and then as far as gunnery, we dropped a flare in the water and I was in the nose turret and had a go and see if I could shoot that, and so [pause] I do remember once, I think this was at, at Waddington, for some reason, the brakes failed as we were taxiing ‘round, and the pilot was able to steer by controlling the engines. The normal practice when you start off is to keep the brakes on and push the throttle forward to get maximum speed, power, and then suddenly take the brakes off and shoot off. Well, this time, we had no time to do that, we got slowly to the take-off point and got the green lights and pushed the throttles forward and, fortunately [laughs], took off okay! And then, again, we thought we’d go back to Woodbridge, which we did, and I repaired the brakes and we got back to base. [Pause]
NM: What did you feel about the different roles that you were asked to play, then, between flight engineer and gunnery and bomb aiming?
HK: Well, I quite enjoyed it, the change, yes.
NM: So your crew, altogether, did forty-four operations?
HK: Yes.
NM: And you all stayed together for the whole time?
HK: No, all except the mid upper gunner and the wireless operator, they decided they wouldn’t go on to the second tour, and so we had spare chaps to do that, but I can’t really remember much about them.
NM: How did the crew feel about losing two stalwarts and getting two replacements?
HK: Well, don’t think we were terribly happy, but that was, you know, if they didn’t want to go on, well, that was it. I preferred to carry on rather than go to a training squadron because that could be a bit dicey sometimes.
NM: What would you say about life in Bomber Command overall?
HK: Overall, I had quite a good time, really. [Pause] No, I don’t think I would have chosen anything else, I was quite happy with what I was doing. Bit dicey at times, but that was it.
NM: Do you keep, keep in touch at all with, or – you’ve spoken about the rear gunner you’ve met in Australia, do you keep in touch with squadron associations, reunions?
HK: Oh, I, I kept up with the squadron association, and Path – not, yes, Pathfinder Association, while it was still in force, and then I belonged to the Aircrew Association, we had monthly meetings, and –
NM: Were they locally here?
HK: That was at, that’s at Hemel Hempstead, but there’s another ex-Pathfinder who flew in Mosquitos who lived in Hatch End, and we take it in turns to drive to Hemel, but we were quite fortunate, really, because a lot of the branches had to close because lack of members, but as it’s open to post-war fliers as well, we’ve got quite a few in, in our association, and they help to keep the thing going, in fact, I think all the, apart from one, are post-war fliers, or the, I’m trying to say, the people that control, the – sorry, I, I get mixed up with words sometimes [laughs]! Yeah, but anyway, we keep going.
NM: Okay, that’s fair [?]. How do you think Bomber Command has been treated since the war?
HK: Not very well; in fact, I think in the end, we were quite happy to get the memorial. [Pause] Lot of work has been done to get it organised.
NM: Okay, shall we call it a day there?
HK: Hmm?
NM: Shall we finish the interview there? Are you happy with that, or was there anything else you’d like to talk about with your time in Bomber Command?
HK: I think I’ve covered most things. [Pause] I was telling you about my two friends that joined up before I did, both got shot down, one unfortunately on the Nuremburg raid, and the other one, who was on Stirlings, got shot down over France but parachuted to safety and was looked after by the French until he was – the Americans came. But, so, I was quite fortunate, really.
NM: So, did you find out about your friend’s loss during the war, or was it after the, only after the war, did you find?
HK: It was during the war, yes, I kept in touch with my particular school friend’s mother or parents and heard when he’d got shot down; they didn’t know what had happened to him at the time, of course, yes. [Pause] So I did keep up with that school friend after he’d come back from – to England. One peculiar thing happened was, at the time before he got shot down, he, he’d sent me a picture of him and a bomb aimer, his bomb aimer, and I was showing this to my crew, and my bomb aimer said ‘I know that chap, we’ve been doing training together in Canada!’ But he stayed on to do some training others and so he, he didn’t come, get to this country until well after my school friend’s bomb aimer had come here, but both the bomb aimer and my friend were the only two that managed to get out of the aircraft when it was shot.
NM: And you finished up doing a radar mechanic’s course?
HK: Yes.
NM: After the war.
HK: Ah, yes.
NM: Tell me a little bit about that.
HK: Well, that was quite enjoyable, learning how the radar worked, and after the war, instead of going back – well, I did go back for a while to my original job, which was in an accounts department, in an accounts department in an electric supplier, I decided I wanted to do something a bit more technical, and the GEC at the time were advertising for people for their laboratories, and I went along and got a job in their patents department, and trained – well, I did evening classes, got BSc, then went on to do the patent agent’s exams and stayed there until I retired, retired in ’83 but went on and did five more years part-time, until they moved the whole place to Chelmsford, I decided that was enough [slight laugh].
NM: And you’ve been retired ever since?
HK: Hmm?
NM: You’ve been retired ever since?
HK: Yes.
NM: Okay, I think that’s probably a very good note to finish on.
HK: [Laughs] Yes!
[Recording beeps: interview paused and restarted]
NM: Just continuing the interview with Mr Kirby.
HK: Yes, there were a couple of instances which I remember now, not actually connected with the enemy, but we were due to fly to Munich to bomb something at Munich, and we had to, we were rooted over the Alps in moonlight, which was a beautiful sight to see, and then another occasion, we flew to one of the eastern countries, oh, I could tell you exactly where it is [sound of leafing through pages], and we had to fly over Sweden at the time, and, yes. No, I can’t [pause as HK continues leafing through pages] Ah, Politz. Yes, I had to fly over Sweden, which was quite exciting ‘cause it was all lit up, they did shoot, but we were told that not to worry, they weren’t going to shoot at us. [Laughs] But those are just two instances I happen to remember.

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Citation

Nigel Moore, “Interview with Harold Kirby,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/8788.

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