Interview with John Philip Lambourn


Interview with John Philip Lambourn


Flight Engineer John Lambourn joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 17, after working at Stewart Turners with engines and pumps. He recollects seen London burning.
He was classed as working in a reserved occupation, but joined the Air Training Corp whilst waiting to sign up for the Royal Air Force.
John was taken on as groundcrew but successfully trained to become a flight engineer at RAF St Athan. He believes he was one of the youngest.
He trained on Stirlings and then went to Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Chedburgh where he crewed up with Ronald ‘Eddie’ Edmondson, with whom he maintained a friendship after the war. John talks about his crew and the training they did.
Although John wanted to fly Short Sunderlands, he was not tall enough to reach the leavers, so he was assigned to Short Stirlings and flew them with 514 Squadron. John compares the Stirling and the Lancaster, and also describes a bullseye exercise to the French coast. From RAF Chedburgh he went to the Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Feltwell.
John completed a full tour of 30 operations, including trips to Kiel, the Falaise Gap, Rüsselsheim and Stettin, Duisburg. John explains the accuracy of the Gee-H navigation system. He goes on to describe some incidents including instances of a scarecrow, a fictional shell simulating an exploding four-engine bomber.
John carried out 30 operations. He then returned for a short period to RAF St Athan, followed by RAF Peterborough and its satellite RAF Sutton Bridge before the Motor Transport section at RAF Kirton Lindsey. He left the RAF in May 1947 and eventually set up his own garage. John eventually retired at the age of 65.




Temporal Coverage




03:01:03 audio recording


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CB: So, my name is Chris Brockbank, and today is the 12th of January 2017 and I’m in Tilehurst near Reading and talking to John Lambourn, a flight engineer, about his life and times. So, what are the earliest recollections you have about family life?
JL: My first recollections is the first house we had. It was 14 Western Avenue, Henley on Thames. We were a family of just myself and mum and dad. Dad was a foreman at Stewart Turners, who made small stationary engines and electric water pumps. It was a little way from Stewart Turners to our house, from one end of Henley to the other. Dad walked it every day, no bikes, nothing. I can always remember dad being at work, coming home quite late at night because of the walking. But first I can remember [pause], this is a funny thing really, going to the toilet and wiping my own bottom, and when dad came home, I was so proud of this, I had to go up and show dad what I’d done. I don’t know why I remember that, but I can remember that as plain as anything. Sport. Still very young, behind the bottom of our garden was a field, all us local kids used to play out there. I suppose I’m five or so, and for my birthday, I had a new football and football boots. In those days, football boots were solid with big studs in the bottom, and the football was a solid leather lump. We get out, I give a kick to my mate, he boots it back at me, hits me in the face, knocks me out, and I never wore those football boots or the boots again. It really put me right off football. Other things, let me think there. In dad’s shed he had a lathe. This lathe was given to him by my mum as his wedding present, and it was a big treadle lathe. One day we got into this shed — us and two or three of my young lads that were all in the same road, and we were treadling this thing. We was in a submarine, pedalling this thing. My foot fell off the pedal, went underneath this big treadle iron framework. Smashed my foot. I hollered, every kid disappeared [laughs], because we weren’t really allowed in the shed. Dad come home, ‘Serves you right. You shouldn’t have been in there. I told you not to go in there’, but I had this lathe right up to just a few years ago, about two years ago, when I gave it to a friend of ours who was in the engineering side. All my family didn’t want it because it wasn’t in their line of work, so I have got rid of that but I valued and treasured that old lathe for years. The next thing, we moved when I was about six or seven. I just — mum had just had my sister, Sylvia, and she was only about one or two and we moved into this new house. It was a brand new house that dad could buy but it was just before Christmas and of course, in those days, you had to have fires in all the rooms to dry them out because of the old plaster that was used, and Christmas was a big family affair and we all had to go to my grandma and grandad’s. They owned a sweet and big bakery, a sweetshop bakery, and we all — all the families used to go there. I only had a cousin, one cousin at the time, so we all met down there and going back after, I had to go back to our new house, which wasn’t far from the bakery, and there was black smoke pouring out of our new chimney. Mum had burned all the Christmas paper and it had gone up the chimney and because we’d had so many fires there, all the soot was caught alight and it was coming down and it was all over the road, all this black smoke from the old fire. I can remember that as plain as plain. But what really stuck in my mind was the families we had at Christmas. My grandma and grandad had a big family, three girls and one, two, three, no, two girls and about six brothers, so I had a lot of uncles and aunties. Well one auntie and six or seven, and they used to come there. Most of them then weren’t married, but grandad used to cook all his customer’s turkeys in his ovens, and they used to bring them Christmas morning and he used to, he used to roast all their old turkeys and they used to come just before lunchtime and pick them up. And over the road from there was the old gas works, and if you went upstairs, you could see the men working in the retorts making the gas. I can always remember of a night time going up and seeing these men opening the big ovens and the fires coming out and stoking them up, and that’s always stuck in my mind. Uncles and aunties all got married, one of my uncles — no — two of my uncles went in to the Army during the First World War. One went in the Army, one went in the Navy. I wish I’d really got talking to them. One of my uncles — the uncle that went in the Army, I didn’t really have a lot to say and talk to him. The uncle that went in to the Navy, he gave me a really good thing about —he was out in the Mediterranean — he went out into the Mediterranean, and they went over and was supplying Lawrence of Arabia with petrol and him and this mate was left on the ground, the land, to guard all the empty petrol tanks until the next morning. They were told not to do any swimming because there were plenty of sharks out there. Well, half way through the night, cooled down and all these tanks fell down, quite a terrific noise. They thought somebody from one of these Arab countries was raiding them. My uncle just stayed there and stayed quiet, this other chap rushed into the sea, swam out to the boat and informed them. They came back and of course, there was nothing there, it was just these tanks falling down. He gets recommended [laughs] in his, what do they call it? Recommended —
CB: Mentioned in despatches.
JL: Mentioned in despatches and my uncle that stayed there and guarded them, he got nothing at all. And he only got it because he swam across this shark infested — there was no sharks there, but that was the tale he told me. He joined the AA after that and was on the old motorbikes and saluting, saluting people that had the AA badges on. I go on now to school time. I didn’t do all that well at school. We did, it was all As and B classes. When you got up to do the eleven plus, there was an A and a B class. B class kiddies didn’t waste the time of going in because the school teachers knew you wouldn’t get up in to the — anywhere else, so I was in the B class. Got on alright, didn’t do too bad I suppose. So, all my other pals weren’t too bad and they all went in and went to grammar school. I was about one of the only of our, what I called, the gang, that was all us kids that were in Western Avenue. They’ve — unfortunately I think I’m the only one left and it looks as if I’ve got to turn the light out. My last pal — he died about two years ago, and the others I did lose contact with, but I think they’ve all gone now and I’m about the last one. So, anyhow, school. Our school was the ordinary council school. As far as I can remember that’s all it was called was the council school, but we had a funny way of teaching, and it was only in the last few years I’ve really worked this out. We had the usual, all the A’s of arithmetic’s, reading and writing, but we did have gardening and woodwork. Now, if you work this out, we’re going through woodwork. You had to, when you finished your primary woodwork models, you had to do a scale drawing. Maths come into that. Then you had to get your wood. You had to know what the sort of wood was, where it come from and then it was drawing your, getting your — whatever you was going to do. My last model was a pair of steps, big heavy six steps. I’ve still got them today, they’re in the garage. You use them, they’re as good as new. So, there was somebody’s, once you left school, you could go straight in to carpentry. We had, every week we had half a day at woodwork and we had the, the carpentry master. He was marvellous, but if he said to you, ‘Who told you to do that?’ It was wrong. He said, ‘Who told you to do that?’ ‘I don’t know, sir’. ‘Well, bring him here. Bring him here. I’ll have a word with “I don’t know” because it’s wrong’. Well, I twigged this, so when I done something wrong, I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but that’s what I thought I had to do’. ‘Oh. Well, that was wrong’, and I got on the good side of him and I got on well. I came top every time in exams for woodwork. Gardening — my favourite. I’ve still got an allotment now, and that was the same. Spelling - all the things in the gardening we had to write. In the summer, we had to do the manual side. In the winter, it was indoors writing out what we should put in the allotment, in the garden. Incidentally, the school had taken over the allotments adjoining the school, so we had ten acres of gardening. A good master, Gardening master. He was very excellent. He also taught the people up at the colleges. There was a college there, a college and the grammar school, but at the grammar school, he only done the theory side. In our school, we done theory and practice. I got on well there. There was spelling to do, working out where the plants would go in and how much, how much footage we were using. So, I got — we used our brains when we didn’t think we were using them, because there was a distraction of something else going on, and it’s come in handy for the rest of my life. As I say, I’ve still got half of the allotment I do at ninety-one, and I’ve got the garden here. But then we get on to — well, we, I’d left school at fourteen. This was in September 1939, and as you know, September the 3rd, the war broke out. September the 4th, I started work at Stewart Turners. Stewart Turners being — they made a lot of models, these are the small steam engine models. They made the little steam engine and also the model that was driven by steam and that was in one section. In another section, they made electric water pumps. A little bit different to these water pumps, but they were there. And then in the big workshops, they made stationary engines, which were all two stroke, two cylinder, four cylinder and they had their own foundry there. They had the complete works, drawing office, everything. Dad had left Stewart Turners by this time and gone over to Woodley Aerodrome. That was Miles Magisters, they were making Miles Magisters to training for pilots. He went there in their experimental department, and I — he, he wouldn’t put me in as an apprentice. I never knew why until I’ve worked that out recently. Because he was pals of the foreman, the foremens there, and he’d worked it out that if the foreman’s done what he asked them to do, they would put me through as his apprentice. Well, I had some rough old jobs to start with. Making jets, petrol carburettor jets, I done those. Then we also made milkers for one of the big milking manufactures. We made some, what they called Pulsometers, yeah. That was the manufacturer. Pulsometers. We made these air pumps that pumped the milk. I worked on those for a little while and then I was put on my own, and I realise now all these other chaps that had apprenticeships were with men, being taught. I was there, I made some water pumps. These were different, they had a big motor on the top and they had a proper pumping mechanism. I was put on those. I was shown what to do, of course, by the chap that was doing them. He was moving, and I was all on my own, and one of the things I — the foreman was — his office was right next to where I was working on my own bench, and he come out one day and his, his office was higher so he could see all over the workshop. And he shouted out, ‘Alright Lambourn. Stop work’. And everybody in there went quiet and I thought, ‘What the hell?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t bloody well work with a bench like that, so I’m bloody sure you couldn’t. Clear it up’. Well, I thought it was all right but I had all the stuff all over it, the bits and pieces, and that taught me there and then to be tidy. That’s run through my life now, I’ve always tidied up. But that was a very embarrassing point. Now, why did I join the Air Force? I had no need to join the Air Force because I was in a place where —
CB: Reserved Occupation.
JL: A Reserved Occupation. So, I’m coming back one night, about 9 o’clock from — I was doing a night school engineering and I was coming back. You must remember now it’s black, there was not a bit of light anywhere, and I’m walking along with the little torch. By this time, you’d got used to being in the dark, walking, you could walk anywhere without knocking into anything. I came to a clearing. Our house was on a bit of a hill with the valley and the river running down below, and the other side was a hill with the trees on the top. Now, over the top of these trees, there was flames coming out, big high flames, then it all died down to a red glow and burst out again. And this was London burning. Forty mile away and I could see the London burning like anything. I was all on my own and I said, ‘You bastard. If you’re doing that to my London, I’m going to do it to you’. That’s why I joined. People have asked me since then, I give a few talks on what I did in the Air Force and the first thing they say when there’s any questions, ‘Had you got any qualms of bombing civilians in Germany?’ I told them what I’ve just told you, and I have no qualms whatsoever. I’m getting towards the end of [pause]. Well, when I gave my notice in to the foreman, he went up the wall. He didn’t know I’d already joined, I didn’t tell anybody there and there was me, giving my notice in, because I’d got my calling up papers. And, well, he give a little swore and he said, ‘Well if that’s what you want to do, clear off’, he said, ‘And good luck to you’. So that’s how I got in. Joining up. Oh, I had obviously joined the ATC during my time of waiting. I had three years. My number in the ATC, the local ATC, was number 14, so I was one of the first to join up there and of course, all our little gang all joined. I, by this time, I knew that I was going in to aircrew, but I was going into ground crew but with a bit of luck, I did get into aircrew and that — have I said about the aircrew? No.
CB: Well, you did ground crew to begin with.
JL: Yeah.
CB: So where did you -
JL: I haven’t said how I got in have I?
CB: Say again.
JL: Have I?
CB: Say what?
JL: Have I said how I got into aircrew?
CB: No. How you —
JL: Not on that.
CB: No.
JL: No.
CB: You could now say how, why you joined the RAF but what happened? What was the process on joining?
JL: Ok.
CB: So where did you go initially?
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Ok.
JL: Yeah. Well, I went over to Oxford from, from our first one, the first time we all came over on our bikes from Reading. That was the only place we could go to join up. We went from there, after getting our parents to sign papers, which was very reluctant I’m afraid on most of them, but there we go. We was all young and enthusiastic. We, we were seven — just seventeen then. Went over to Oxford from there to be attested for aircrew. I failed that, I don’t know why. I think I spelled engineer wrong in flight engineer. That put them right off. I missed an E out or something. Anyhow, I, they said I was quite good enough for going in as an engineer, on ground crew on the engines, so that’s what I went in for. Down to Padgate. On the end of Padgate, the first few months, I had to go to lecture. This lecture worked out to be a man from flight, an aircrew, I think he was a navigator. He come to talk to us on how good flying was, and I thought well, here we go again, I’ll have another go. This time, I had to go before the local education officer. We was half way through talking, it was only talking and he made a few notes, done a few sums and that, and the air raid siren sounded for a gas alarm, and everybody in Padgate had to put their gas mask on. So, got my gas mask out. ‘We don’t want to put that on now’, said the instructor, this officer, ‘You and I are talking’. But then he said, ‘We’re nearly finished’, gave me a few more — where I’d lived and what I’d done etcetera, and he said, ‘I think you’ll be alright in engineering and I’ll put you down for aircrew’. And so that’s how I got into aircrew, I got in through the back door. I was only eighteen in a couple of months so now I had to wait ‘til I was nineteen to get into aircrew, because that’s the time they were all being called up, but by the time I’d finished my aircrew, flight engineer’s course, I was still only eighteen, so I was one of the youngest members in the Air Force that was a flight engineer and still only eighteen. One little thing I’ve just remembered, we had, on the flight engineer’s course, three Geordies. One was an elderly man, he worked out to have been an air, a machine gunner in the Great War, he’d obviously put his age back. Another young kiddie — he was, he put his age on. I reckon he was only about sixteen, seventeen. How he ever got into it, I don’t know. And the other Geordie — he was a blooming great big bully and he looked after these two, and you couldn’t talk to these other two or anything, and he was a terrible bloke. Whoever got him as a flight engineer — God help them. But how these other two ever got in to the air, I don’t know and I thought afterwards, well the old man there, he was old, you could see he was old. And the young kid, he must have been pretty good, but I don’t know how they passed out. Whether they did pass out or not because what happened to me on the passing out parade, I’d done, I’d done the course fairly well, and once a week, on a Saturday — a Friday afternoon we had a little exam for the week’s, what we’d done during the week. It was a very good way of working things really. You worked in small groups for a week on one item. At the end of the item, on Friday you —Friday afternoon had a small exam. Put your book in, the instructor looked at that and gave you marks, A, A+, B, C, and on Saturday morning, you went in and picked your book up and he went through the book with you, and if you were low marks, he just put you right on what you was wrong. That worked out and apparently, that went to the final marks of your exam, because the exam was all oral. Oh. No. No. It wasn’t quite all oral, but the all oral went into the usual big hangar and this — I can’t remember — sergeant, flight sergeant — he had in front of him the controls of a Lancaster. No. Sorry I was still on Stirlings. The whole Lancaster, the Stirling, like four boards. Everything in front and he said, ‘Take me up to a thousand feet’, so I had to do everything that we’d done. Take him up a thousand feet and then that bit, I can always remember that was the first bit, and I thought I didn’t really know that, but I ran through that as if I knew it. It was because, I suppose, it was stuck up in my head and that was it. Oh, so that was alright, didn’t do too bad. The whole exam was the whole day, we had to go through everything. The, the — that was all oral. But the working, we had just a small writing exam, that consisted of a few carburettor bits and electronics. No. Not electronics in that day, electrics, and also the main thing is the engineer’s log that was worked out every twenty minutes. We had to do a complete log of a whole trip. We were given the bare minimum of a trip, and we had to work it out on our log book, which I have over there incidentally. That was alright. Anyhow, we all had to parade in this big hangar to see if we’d passed and receive our logbooks, and four names were called out. My name was called out. Oh dear. Go forward, and of course, I’m talking about a hundred, two hundred people in there. The whole course was there. We got up onto the stage. ‘You four have got the highest marks in your aircraft’. That was Stirlings, Lancasters, Halifaxes and Sunderlands. I wanted to go on Sunderlands but I wasn’t tall enough. You had to be a certain height to get to the petrol turnover levers, and I wasn’t high enough to, tall enough to turn them on, so that’s why I was taken the Stirling. And apparently, I got the highest marks in the Stirling. Seventy point seven percent. For a chap that only just went to an ordinary school, so I was doing pretty well. We all, actually I really, the pals of mine that I’d got up with, we really disappeared then because we, I don’t know who the man that — it was a big man with a lot of gold braid to me. I’m in. I don’t know where I was. I was in a daze sat up here with this [laughs], and I mean, the day went well. Luck. We should now have gone outside and us four should have taken the, the — that particular lot of people on a parade to go past, a passing out parade. It was pouring with rain, it tipped down all day, so that parade, pass out parade was missed, so I didn’t have to take [laughs], take the squad on parade. I wouldn’t have minded because I’d done it all in the ATC, but that was my recollections of actual going in to the Air Force I suppose, because until one gets away from parades, you’re not in the actual Air Force doing anything. It was all going here and there, and school was here and school there, on the parade ground. Oh, parade ground, I must tell you this bit. I’m at Padgate, early, very early on. We had our passing out parade, all on the parade ground. There was a whole lot, two or three hundred, because it was all ground crew so there was a hell of a lot there. All rifles. In June or July, July by that time. July. We was on parade, red hot, we was all at standing at ease and this, I don’t know who he was, warrant officer I should think, called us to attention. Come to attention with a rifle. Slipped out my hand. Crash. What do I do? ATC training come in. You do nothing. Everybody’s standing there to attention now, and there was a command come out, ‘Pick up rifle’ [laughs], one step forward, pick up the rifle, one step back. I thought, I’m in for it now, afterwards, and he carried on and never said a word. And that was my ATC training to tell me not to do anything and leave it to the person taking the parade, and I thought, I’m sure he’s going to tell me to report but no, he didn’t. Unluckily I was in the front rank so he could see me, and that was very embarrassing but I just stood there rock solid. And after a second or two, the command come to pick up rifle. Oh dear. The things that come back to you, isn’t it?
CB: We’ll have a break but just quickly. You finished at St Athan.
JL: Yes.
CB: At what point did you receive your engineer’s brevet?
JL: There. I picked it up with my — it was on my log book. Yeah, I forgot about that. When this officer gave me my logbook, he also gave me my brevet, yeah, which was delightful.
CB: And on the graduation parade, was the brevet on your tunic then?
JL: Well.
CB: Or was it pinned on you at the parade?
JL: No, we didn’t get to the parade because of the rain.
CB: They didn’t do it in the hangar?
JL: No, it messed, we missed everything. It absolutely poured down.
CB: Right.
JL: Yeah.
CB: We’ll just have a break.
JL: Yeah.
[recording paused]
CB: We talked about the fact that your ground — your original career was going to be in ground crew and you volunteered for aircrew, which is what you wanted.
JL: Yeah.
CB: What options did they give you? Or was it only that you’d said —
JL: Yeah.
CB: Flight engineer. So that’s what they gave you.
JL: Yes. The officer, the education officer that interviewed me, he didn’t seem to care what it was, and of course, I wanted to be a flight engineer. There was one thing I had missed out.
CB: Go on.
JL: And that is when we finished flying, we were asked to go and pick up our records. Our pilot went in to pick up the records and he come out and he said to me, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done. You’ve been on a charge, haven’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Fourteen days’. ‘What was that for?’ ‘Crossing the railway line in Cardiff to get on the train’. And up the other end, right up the end by the engineer the SP’s were, ‘Where did you come from?’ [laughs] We only done it, not for devilment or anything, but we were late and somebody had told us the wrong platform, and the shortest way to get from one platform to the other in Cardiff is not to go right down on the underground and up again, but was to cross the railway line, and being as it was pitch dark but there was — it was only across one line and there was no trains, we went out and got caught, and two pals that I was always with, we got fourteen days from the CO and that was that. But there was also another note and it said, “Unfit for aircrew” right across the page. There was me just finished a complete set of ops with the top marks of the aircraft in [laughs], so it doesn’t always mean that because you can write and spell and add up that you can get what you want in life. I did work hard for it when I was on the course and I done pretty well on the course but there we are.
CB: Did you get to what was the reason why they put “unsuitable for aircrew”?
JL: Well, that was at Oxford. When I went to Oxford, they were only selecting perfect crew members. You had to have your — what was it called. Certificate.
CB: School Certificate.
JL: School Certificate.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Of some sort of other then. You had to have that -
CB: Yes. Yeah.
JL: And that because they didn’t give you any big writing exams but they took what you’d done in the past.
[Recording paused]
CB: Filled the bill.
JL: But when we, we went to a college, I can’t think what the college was called now, but how I got there I don’t know, because at seventeen, I was — I didn’t go anywhere without mum or dad. We just didn’t go anywhere. And to get from Henley on Thames to Oxford, I suppose I must have gone by train or bus. There was a bus service to there. I can’t think, I can remember walking through these massive, great gates and seeing this frightening college at the back. I’m on my own, my other pals had gone on before me at a different time. I got in there and we were, we went through medical first. I passed medical quite alright, there was no trouble there, then they asked me what I wanted to go in for. We had a choice of going in and flight engineers was fairly new. They were taking mechanics from ground crew at that time and incidentally, one of my pals, he was an instrument maker in ground crew. I can always remember him, a little short chap, and anyhow, so when I went in there, we went into this room with sloping exam rooms, where there was a big slope, and then the instructor on these was low down and there was tiers and tiers of these little tiny tables and chairs and it frightened the life out of me to go in there and see that. It really put me off that did. And I think that’s really put me off and I didn’t, I can remember they said to me, ‘Well you can’t spell “engineers” right and they didn’t ask me anything more. Because I only went to the local school, they knew roughly what my education was like but that’s that was it. I still don’t know how to get square roots.
CB: Right.
JL: But that, that was the most, I know that little chap’s name that came up from ground crew. Ken Rimmer. I lost him, couldn’t find him anywhere, so if you ever have a Ken Rimmer come along. Yeah. He’d be a lot older than me. That’s the trouble, I was so young and I could be one of the youngest flight engineers — well aircrew — that finished a tour. I finished a tour in the middle of December ‘44 and of course, May ‘45 it was all over, so I could be one of the youngest flight engineers. I have been called up. Where was I? Oh, at London. At the Memorial. I went to the opening of that London Memorial and I was wearing my — one bloke come up and he said, ‘How old are you?’ So I told him, ‘Well why have you got that medal on there for? You wasn’t old enough’, so I explained all how I come in to aircrew. One or two people have picked me up, because of my age, I couldn’t have been in aircrew and done what I done. I could have been aircrew but I wouldn’t have completed a tour.
CB: But you did.
JL: But I did.
CB: Yes.
JL: Yes.
CB: Good. We’ll stop there for a cup of tea.
JL: Yes.
[Recording paused]
CB: So, one more thing. Yeah.
JL: Well.
CB: Coincidence.
JL: Talking about St Athans again, one of the instructors there, well they always asked you where you came from, what you do. I said I come — this particular man said, ‘Where do you come from?’ I said, ‘Henley on Thames’. ‘Oh Regatta’. I said, ‘Yes. Yeah. I go to the Regatta every year because we have a week’s holiday during the Regatta’. ‘Oh, I’ve been to the Regatta’, he said ‘and I’ll see you there after the war’. And I did see him there after the war, out of the thousands and thousands of people. What happened was we were, yeah, I finished. I was out the Air Force and I acquired one of our dinghies, aircraft dinghy, and the gang of us was going down to have a go on the river with this dinghy. We had gramophone, a gramophone with us, the lot, and we wanted to pump this up a bit more, so I called in the garage and who was there was this bloody great big Rolls Royce, see, and out stepped the driver. And it was him, it was the blooming teacher from St Athans, all dressed up in his blazer, all poshed up. I said, ‘Hello sir. Fancy seeing you after all this time. You did say you would see me here, didn’t you?’ ‘Oh yes. I can remember you’, and he walked off [laughs]. I’m scruffy as anything and he was all posh, but we actually did meet and he went to get his petrol and he came back and we had a little chat after that. But out of all those people and that particular garage.
CB: Extraordinary.
JL: And the stopping and the timing were just there.
CB: Extraordinary.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Coffee.
JL: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: Now when we, when people were going to St Athan for engineer training there were four aircraft, essentially, that they could go for and they weren’t going to be trained, as I understand it, on everything, so it could be the Lancaster, could be the Halifax, could be the Stirling or it could be the Sunderland. What was your choice when you arrived?
JL: Well, I wanted to go on to Sunderlands but there was a height restriction because of turning on the petrol levers which. It was right up in the top and if you’ve ever been in to a Sunderland, it’s a massive thing.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I couldn’t, without standing on something, reach these control levers for the petrol tanks, so my next one was a Stirling. I have no preference. Because I could see that now, now I’ve been on the Lancasters, I think I should have gone on the Lanc but afterwards, I was told that Stirlings were the hardest ones to pass exams on. There was not a lot of hydraulics on Stirlings, they were all electronic, all electrics. Everything was worked on electrical and for some people must have been confusing, but to me, it was a lot easier than a lot of pipes and hydraulics. But that’s my main thing but of course, you can’t beat the old Lanc. It’s, it was a lot, lot easier. The Stirling engineer’s position was half way up the aircraft and it was opposite the wireless operator. It was dark, dismal, and you couldn’t see out anywhere. There was nothing to do bar just staring at your instruments the whole time and that was a bit boring more than anything else. Getting on that. But —
CB: So you were trained specifically on that.
JL: I was trained specifically on that. I had to learn engines again because these were radial engines – Bristols, and the Lancaster had the old Rolls Merlins. That came in the course when I picked up the rest. No. Wait a minute.
CB: Let’s — let’s —
JL: We were on Stirlings first. Yeah.
CB: Let’s just go from —
JL: Yeah.
CB: You graduated.
JL: Yeah.
CB: You’d done all your training at St Athan.
JL: Yes. On Stirlings.
CB: On Stirling. On the Stirling technology.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So naturally you went from there to the Heavy Conversion Unit.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: That was on Stirlings.
JL: That was on Stirlings. Yeah.
CB: Right. So where was that?
JL: That was at — [pause] where was that?
CB: That was at Chedburgh.
JL: Chedburgh was it? The first one. Yeah. Yeah. Chedburgh.
CB: So when you arrived what happened?
JL: We just had a talk on something or other and they said — all of a sudden, they said, ‘Right. We’re getting the pilots in here now’, he said, ‘You’re all going to be crewed up’. Well, it was rather a surprise because — and there were two rows of tables we were sat at. I was the furthest way. The furthest away. The door opened and in swarmed all these sergeant pilots and they just grabbed or spoke to the first lot of people on the first lot of tables. In walked, about half way up, walked in an officer, I could see that by his cap, walked straight around and straight to me, ‘Would you like to be my flight engineer?’ I said, ‘Yes sir. Yes sir’ [laughs]. Officer already here. And there he was, Eddie Edmondson. He was a lovely chap, we’ve been friends all the rest of our lives ever since then, and I don’t know how he came right the way around to me, because the — obviously they knew I was fairly high up in exams. Whether they’d spoken to him or not, I don’t know, but he was, he’d been flying for ages. Years. A couple of years or so. As a matter of fact, we worked it out the other day, just the other day. He was — eighteen — I would say — nearly thirteen years older than me, he was an old man according to us in flying, and he was in his thirties and he’d done a load of flying. Got half a logbook filled before he even went on to Bomber Command. He’d done a lot of ferrying high ranking officers about. He’d left England, he left England when he was three or four, his family took him to America. He’d done all his schooling in high schools in America and he’d done a lot of flying in America before he came back to England. He lived in Sheppey, the Isle of Sheppey when he came back, and that’s where he came from. And there incidentally, we’ve been friends in life all his life. We used to converse after flying. He was stationed quite close to Henley and we got to know his wife well. He was married the whole of his flying career and two daughters. He, he came to our house with his wife when they was local, for Christmas dinner. We had the window that the silver paper stuff we used to use as decorations, and him and his wife stayed for the day with us to have — what did we have? We had Charlie. Oh, dad had some ducks up the top, we had this duck for Christmas dinner called Charlie, and that was good, and we kept in touch all that time. Not so much in our flying careers but afterwards, when he’d left. I’d left, I was married, we were going up north and he was living up north. Anyhow, we were passing his, more or less, his house so we decided could we come for the day and they invited us for the weekend to stay, as we was going up for a holiday up north. I had a motorbike and sidecar. Sunbeam. Sunbeam. It wasn’t mine, it was my brother in law’s we borrowed, and we went up there and he had a paper shop that was a newsagent shop. He wasn’t happy there and he obviously was going to go somewhere. He had two young daughters then, but he was thinking of immigrating to Australia. Anyhow, we went on up, had our holiday. We lost him then, just Christmas cards. He’d, by this time, gone to Australia and joined the Australian Air Force and he was flying in the neighbourhood of Woomera when they were doing the atomic bombs over there. He got up to a couple of stages from flight lieutenant and he was doing very well. Then my daughter immigrated to Australia, my youngest daughter. Australia. Jane. She went out there as a nurse on an exchange system, loved it so much, stayed there. So the first year she was out there, we decided we ought to have a holiday in Australia. Wrote to Eddie and his wife and they said, ‘Yes. Come over and spend a week with us’, so that’s when we really got to know each other personally. And all the crew were — had names. We didn’t go sirs, sergeants, warrant officer, anything, we went by our own Christian names. And the pilot wasn’t pilot, his name was Eddie, and everybody else had their own name. Bar the mid-upper, he was John, but he was called, before I even got there, as Ivan. Why Ivan? He was a communist and an atheist, and his father was a clergyman, and as far as I know, his name was the same name as one of the clergymen over in Oxford. But I lost touch with that bit. But he was, Eddie told me that every station we went on, he was called up before the CO and asked what his conduct was like. He was, he was only a young thing, he was only nineteen, twenty, himself and he — I think he used to like the young lady in Cambridge and used to go to these meetings. We didn’t used to go but he used to go to these meetings. He didn’t use the [unclear], I never knew anything much about that side of his life. Anyhow, Eddie told me that for years afterwards, he had to go and see the CO about him, so they kept a tag on him. Then one year over there, his wife was saying, she was saying, ‘Ronald. Ronald’, and I thought, that’s funny. Why was she calling him Ronald? And it was distinctive that she was saying Ronald, and I said, ‘Why are you calling him Ronald?’ ‘Well, that’s his name’. I said, ‘No it’s not, it’s Eddie’. ‘No. That’s his nickname. Eddie Edmondson’. All those years I’d been calling him Eddie and his name was Ron, Ronald. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. And anyhow we, in going, we was going every other year to see our daughter over in Australia, so we used to spend time with them. Eventually they moved from the bungalow in to an old people’s place, lovely place that was. We couldn’t stay in there but we used to stay at a hotel around the corner, and of course over there, these big names. It was just outside Melbourne, and we went this particular time, he was getting old and to get from his place we used to have, he used to have to go up to the first turning at some traffic lights, turn left, turn into our hotel, pick us up, come out, turn right and go down in the square and come back to his house again. This place he was living. We were going along a bit and he was talking and I had my eyes shut and he was driving exactly as we were flying. I could see us two up there. The only difference is he was on the wrong side and I had a strange feeling, and I said, we were Ron by this time, I said, ‘Ron, you’re driving that blooming Lanc’. And I don’t know what it was, but he was just somehow or other. It was, it was so strange. He was talking at the same time, and it was just as he was talking to me in that Lancaster.
CB: The significance of that is that the Lancaster had one pilot.
JL: Yeah.
CB: And you, as the engineer, stood next to him.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. Stood next to him.
CB: And ran the throttles.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So you were very much a pair.
JL: Yeah. Oh yes, we were.
CB: Whereas on the Stirling, there were two pilots.
JL: Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. Yes, I was. Oh, that reminds me of something on the Stirlings, we were doing a bullseye. A bullseye consists of the aeroplanes flying out to the French coast and making out that we were going to a raid, but we were only in our flying. We were still under instructions, and we were to distract the radar and make them think we were going out to bomb and so they would get all their fighter aircraft down in our area, and just after us going out, the main force would be going out in a completely different direction and fool them. But this was, this was — as a matter of fact, our crew, well I was more nervous of that particular raid, well not raid, but flying out very near the coast, which could have been caught by their fighters out there and we were on the way back. We were turning and coming back, we were just getting a bit more height and I was looking at the petrol. Oh, I’ve got another ten minutes, a quarter of an hour and I’ll change over. The levers for this were in a damned awkward place on the old Stirling. They were fairly high up again, almost over the head of the wireless operator. So, there I was, I thought, well, I’ll change them over and Eddie suddenly said, ‘Oh, one of the engines has stopped. Oh, another one. And another one’. I jumped up, climbed over the wireless operator, turned on the petrol tanks of another tank. ‘Oh, they’re alright, they’ve stopped, they’re ok now’. I thought, blimey, what have I done wrong? ‘Cause I’m all on my own and in this dark bit, he’s up at the top there. Anyhow, I said afterwards I’ve done the log, I’ve checked it and I had it checked when we came back. ‘Yeah. That’s ok.’ Well, we reported this. I knew it was petrol because four engines had gone on a bloomin’ Stirling. That’s down in the ditch. They all picked up again and we were alright. So the ground crew went through it and do you know what they find? They find the lever from rich — rich to weak — was still in rich. In other words, we were still on choke, and it worked out that that was nothing to do with the flight engineer. It wasn’t one of his questions to ask the pilot if he’d done, which I thought was pretty dicey, because when he said what height he was at, I should have said, it was called a, ‘rich to weak mixture after you take off’, and he hadn’t done it, and it was still left in rich mixture, so we’d used that amount of extra fuel and we were nearly in the ditch [laughs]. I had a very bad look from all the rest of the crew at first but when it was found it wasn’t my trouble, well I was, I was in the safe again, but we never done that again. But of course, when you got on Lancasters, it was a bit different. We could there check with the pilot what he’s done and our take off with the bomb load, of course, I had to take the throttles up and we got that worked out a treat. I could do that without him worrying anything at all about it and he used to take the tail up and then I used to take the throttles up from there on.
CB: Right.
JL: And that was alright. But that was a terrible thing. But —
CB: Made you a better engineer.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: We’re going to stop so you can have a drink.
JL: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: So now going back to the HCU at Chedburgh. Then you were selected by Eddie.
JL: Yes. Yes.
CB: And what happened next?
JL: We — we was, we then went from that room into a big hangar. Yes, we’d been to this hangar, that’s right, and I was introduced then to the rest of the crew. We — how did I get there? I can’t think. I must have moved then. No. That was the first day I came there, I hadn’t got a place then. We then moved into a big long dormitory with a lot more crews and of course then we got chatting, and that and that’s, that’s how we definitely moved in to this big long rooms, because I can remember looking out the window and there was a chap over the other side singing something or other [laughs], and somebody else on our, these were brick built buildings and he was singing, and this fellow joined in with his singing and the two of them singing between them. But that had got nothing to do with our crew I’m afraid. Our crew. We had a mixed batch really. Navigator. The bomb aimer was young, he was just about the end of his eighteens, end of his nineteens. Then there come the pilot, he was in his thirties. Navigator, he was a school teacher, got a young lady. Oh, the pilot was married. The pilot was married. The school teacher was courting and he was at the end of his twenties. The mid-upper was a young chap. Again, at the end of his nineteens was Ivan, I’ve already explained about Ivan. Wireless operator, he was an elderly man and he was balding and he had one of those wrinkled faces. A northerner. He kept himself quite a bit to himself. I didn’t have a lot to do with him but I think he was married because he was getting on in age. I should say he was a good thirty five, I’d be guessing, but I should say he was there. And the rear gunner, he was a plumpy chap. How he ever got in to that gun turret I shall never know because he was quite a bigish fellow. I met him quite a few times afterwards. He was — when he retired — when he come out the Air Force, he stayed in as [pause] a — oh what was it? In the library. He was a librarian in one. I can’t remember what station it was on but he was a civilian as a librarian. He was a big fella and he was in the end of his twenties. Bald. Bald as bald. You can see that by the photographs I’ve got. That was the crew, and we palled up alright. The elder ones and the younger ones kept between themselves a little bit but we got on pretty well together. And then when we, when we went on the operational stuff.
CB: Just before you do that — what were you actually doing at the HCU?
JL: Oh. Landing. Take offs. Landings. Night flying. Done a couple of long distance flying’s for the navigators. The two gunners didn’t do much at all. Oh yes, we did, we done some gunnery practice somewhere. We done some bomb dropping — dummy bombs somewhere for the bomb aimer. The wireless operator, he was doing two or three things on his old Morse code.
CB: Did you do fighter affiliation?
JL: Oh yes. No, not a lot on those. Refer to the book.
CB: Yes.
JL: We didn’t do a lot on fighter affil at that particular time [pages turning]. We done an experienced dual control with another pilot. That, that was alright.
CB: An experienced pilot.
JL: With an experienced pilot. Then we done a lot of duals. One. Two. Three. Landings and take off was mostly what we started off with and then we done a fair few of those. Days and nights. Then we went on to —
CB: Then you went to the Lancaster Finishing School.
JL: Yes. But [pause] we went on. No, we’re still on there. We done some cross-country circuits. Still with the old Lanc.
CB: The old Stirling.
JL: And the fighter affil, and that’s when we done that bullseye when the petrol tanks ran out dry. Then we went on to Feltwell to do the Lancaster course. I had to go on to a little bit of tuition on changing of engines obviously because everybody went on to Stirlings. Most people went to Stirlings to start with even if they were on Lancasters and Halifaxes. They still went on to some Lancs er, some Stirlings because they were getting them, rid of them from the main aerodromes and coming back on to us so we could wreck them [laughs] and finish them off. The first time the pilot landed a Lancaster was interesting. I can always remember that bit. We were coming in to land as usual, he’d shut the engines down very gently and he didn’t shut them down far enough. We overshot. So, he went around. He said, ‘Well, if that had been a Stirling, I should have been on the ground’. The other pilot said, ‘Yeah. But you’re flying a decent, a decent aircraft now. Not a blooming old Stirling’ [laughs], and we had to shut the engines on the Lanc way down and it just flew itself in to the ground. It was no trouble, but that old Stirling you really had, you really had to fly it down in. But —
CB: How did he get on with the fact — the Stirling — he was sitting twenty-three feet above the ground on that?
JL: Oh yeah.
CB: Whereas the Lancaster was a bit lower.
JL: Yes, that was an interesting thing. When we was down at St Athans, we had to do starting engines up. That was the only thing we ever went in to an aeroplane for on course was starting the engines. So, all the people, all us chaps were sitting outside and with the Stirling, you could walk under the propellers on that when they was revolving, they were so high up, but when you got on to the Lancasters and Halifaxes they were a lot lower and you couldn’t walk through those. And apparently if you stand and watch a propeller long enough, it mesmerises you, and one fellow down there on Lancasters got up and walked through the Lancaster propeller. Yeah. They couldn’t stop him. He’d gone through.
CB: Crikey.
JL: It was terrible.
CB: One of the aircrew or ground crew?
JL: Ground crew. No, one of the the — one of the students. We’d sat there, we’re talking. We were on the Stirlings, we were alright, you could walk underneath the propeller but that was just something that did happen on this site. And apparently a propeller will mesmerise you. I mean, when you’ve got twenty or thirty blokes that have got to get up there and start the propellers up and stop and get down again and he watched this propeller too long. Yeah.
CB: Boring waiting.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. But that was just one thing there I can remember now.
CB: So, the Lancaster Finishing School was relatively short.
JL: Oh yeah.
CB: Because you were just getting adapted to the —
JL: Well, we’d done circuits and bumps and landings day and night. And then yes, that was —
CB: That’s at Feltwell.
JL: We weren’t on that long.
CB: Yeah.
JL: We were only one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven trips in the old Lanc.
CB: Right.
JL: And then we was back on to the —
CB: Right.
JL: To the squadron.
CB: Right. So, what was the squadron number?
JL: 514.
CB: And where were you?
JL: We were at Waterbeach which is seven or so miles outside Cambridge on the Ely Road. Our runway finished on the Ely Road, so if you was coming up there when we were taking off, you was nearly getting blown over. Yeah. As I say, Waterbeach is still there. The pubs at the bottom of the — the — going in to Waterbeach is still there and had a reunion up there for quite a few years now. This year it’s the 17th of June. We have a gentleman now doing our reunions, there’s about five people on there. We have ground crew as well as aircrew. I think there’s about five of us now that go there, but there’s about fifty members of the 514 Squadron Reunion Association. These were children, great grandchildren, uncles and aunties have come along. We have a church service out there in the church, then we go to the station which was run by the Army and they’ve moved out now, but we still get somebody comes along and gives us a meal because all the, all the station’s still there as, as it was and we were told the, most of the buildings which were brick built buildings are going to be given to the local Waterbeach village. It is only a smallish village. The rest of the ground will be taken over by — acres and acres of ground up there — and they were going to build a brand new town, but it won’t be called Waterbeach. It’s going to have its own town and Waterbeach will be a separate little village on its own still, plus the school was going to have one building for their school. I suppose they’ll be taking some of the town but I think that’s going to be way, way in the future.
CB: Now going on to what was your first op?
JL: The first op was Falaise Gap.
CB: Right.
JL: Falaise Gap, as you might have known, was that was when the Germans started breaking out from our invasion and the object was just to go and bomb a certain area. There was no actual point of bombing, the Army were going to lay out sheets on the ground and we had to bomb so many degrees from them. Navigator had to give exactly where they were and we could drop bombs in these, these woods and fields and just smash the Germans up, because that was where they were going. That was a very nice quiet one really, there wasn’t nothing much going on there. We then went to an aerodrome and smashed that up, because that night there was going to be a big raid, and they didn’t want that one to do any fighters, so we just went there and smashed that up. That was a nice one. They was three hours a piece. We done a lot of flying formation, air tests, etcetera, then we went on the big one. The Russelsheim, that was eight hours. Kiel. These were night ones from now on. Russelsheim, Kiel and then Stettin. So they put us right smack in the best of the best ones. A couple of things from there. Kiel. I can’t remember much about Russelsheim, but Kiel and Stettin, we got caught in the blue searchlight. The blue ones you might as well just bale out because you just can’t get out of a blue searchlights. It was terrific. This is — I’m saying now quite a few minutes — but it was seconds. I look out the dome on my engineer’s side and down in this, right at the bottom, there was a little tiny aircraft in the same beam. It was definitely like a four engine that, the wings and that but I can see it now, there was this little tiny one down there. He couldn’t have been many, well, feet of the ground. I don’t, that’s what it had caught but it had caught us as well. Out like in the light. Could we see? We’d lost all our night vision. There was our poor gunners up there thinking we’re bound to get shot down here, but we never got anything. But I don’t know why I looked out and looked down at this aircraft but I saw this aeroplane down in, right down, just a little course, it must have been one of our people going in to mark the targets I should think. It was —we were going into the target area but as I say, that poor devil, he never got out. He couldn’t have done. No. And either Stettin or Kiel we, when we came out, it must have been Stettin I think, we were told the route out which took us right over Sweden, neutral, and it said, ‘That’s going to give your gunners a rest for a little while’, because it did. It took eight, eight hours fifteen minutes. No. Yeah. No. Sorry. Stettin took nine hours thirty minutes and if you go over the neutral, that little bit of neutral, you’ll be alright. You’ll be, but it’ll give you a little bit of a rest. They fired on us and they sent up these like balls on a string and they came up. They went pop, pop, pop, pop all the way down. Very pretty. All well, well below us, but it was just one of those things. It was quite nice to see these things coming up, but that’s what they fired at us. Next day we were told that they had reports that they objected to us using their air space, but that was that. Well, there was not a lot but we now came on to Gee. Gee was what the navigator used to use to navigate on, but it could only have been used in England because it had to have three masts to get these three combined and where they, where they crossed was where we were. Something like today’s [laughs] car navigation, but until they’d got something over on the continent, another mast over on the continent, they couldn’t beam over on the continent, so our squadron, this we didn’t know at the time of course, but they were, we had to use then something called GH. GH was very, very accurate and the navigator had to go and have a little course and they sent me along as a flight engineer, just in case to do the same bit of course, but it didn’t do a lot for me. All I knew we had to get these three little dots all lined up and there we were, dead over. This put the crosses, the dots lined up over the target, so when three dots lined up over the target, you was there and the only trouble with this was, everybody else was in the same spot of the sky, and actually we did lose as many aircraft, sometimes with bombs being dropped through that. We didn’t, but one of the crew, one of the blokes brought a bomb back with them which had dropped. We had one bomb bay open dead above us, just feet above us. He moved off. And we were on the bombing run, and he moved off. To see that lot of bombs just above you. And there was, I think, so accurate and if you weren’t doing as you was told at the right heights, this is what happened. GH was dead on. And of course, we used to be able to bomb through cloud. We didn’t have to sight them, the bomb aimer was told to drop the bombs by the navigator. The navigator was told because the bomb release was down in the bomb bay, the bomb aimer — all he had to do was just sit there and press the button. Oh dear. That was, that was good. To do this, GH was fitted with an explosive device because it was so secret at the time. If the Germans had got hold of it, they could easily knock out, knock these, the [pause] oh what was it? They knocked them out and put them out. They had one very similar going across England, they had to fly up and we started pushing out the radar signal, out but this one was so secret they kept it, and if the aircraft crashed, it would explode, to destroy the thing. And we had to destroy it if we were going to make a false landing. Our, we then, when we were flying our tail fins were painted brilliant yellow because we were the only squadron that had this GH, and when we went up, we took off, we had to fly around and the rest of the squadrons local were talking off and when they saw us, they had to formate three aircraft on the back of us and we went off as four aircraft. And when they saw our bomb bays open, they opened theirs. When we dropped our bombs, they dropped theirs. So, I mean we could pinpoint right through the cloud on to a pinpoint place.
CB: But this was daylight.
JL: With four sets of bombs.
CB: This was flying in daylight.
JL: Yeah. Oh yes. Yes. Yes. Only in day. We were, we didn’t do so many night runs then because these were most oil refineries we were doing. We could pinpoint down to the final road with ours, but then we did start on a few nights. I’ll tell you one thing on this, we had the flak coming up. I, of a night time — flak in the daylight didn’t really show, but flak at night and what with the TI’s, the Target Indicators going down, I always used to say it used to remind me of Henley Royal Regatta firework night, because you could see everything going up, coming down, and it was really frightening sometimes. You weren’t even on the bombing run and you could see it in front of you. You’d think, my God, I’m going through that. Searchlights, Flak, you could see the flak bursting and all our green and red TI’s were going down. It was, it was really frightening up there sometimes like that more than everything else, but I always used to say, ‘Oh that’s Henley coming up’. What was the other one? [pause]. Yes. Night flying. We started back on night flying again. We didn’t use like we used to use the master bomber on that. Why we did, I don’t — I think we was out of — because we were out the other side. We were staying in bomb alley, we was down in Saarbrucken and Duisburg and Essen by this time and they hadn’t got these signals that went that way, they went up north.
CB: You’re talking about for GH.
JL: Yeah. GH. We could use GH.
CB: But were you ever using H2S?
JL: No, they could home in on that. We had used it but not for bombing, we used it just for navigational purposes but our navigator, he was pretty hot. Oh, that reminds me, on one of these GH raids we were on, daylight of course, and we were in a stream dropping Window so that it mucked up their radar and we had three aircraft in tow behind us, going along, and we could see aircraft coming back on a different angle to us, but our navigator said, ‘Right. Now turn’, to another angle, and the pilot said, ‘Well, we’re not there yet’. We could see all these aircraft. ‘You turn. It’s got to be turned’, and he said, ‘No we can’t’. So we convinced Eddie that we should turn. We moved out just a fraction — bang bang bang - three shots straight up. How it missed the aircraft, God knows. Our pilot was — Eddie, was back on course. We got out of the cover of window and they caught us straight like that. Didn’t do any damage but if we’d have gone out anymore. What had happened was everybody, or the big first lot, had gone out and they went past the point of return, so they could come back on to the right course. Our pilot, our navigator was so dead on that he had to call, turn on the turn, but he didn’t see what we could see.
CB: Well he couldn’t see out.
JL: He didn’t, he never looked out. I’ll tell you a bit about that in a minute. He couldn’t see anything, and it was plain, well as plain as daylight. We were going on, turning and coming back, and anyhow that that was alright. We did get off but that did shake us, I mean they knew exactly where we were and if we’d have moved out a little bit more. I’ll bet the bloke behind, the pilot behind, was swearing [laughs]. Anyhow, that was Ron. Now the navigator, he never, nor the wireless operator but he got a little dome he could look out of. The navigator was behind his blooming curtain, never been out for daylight or a night run, and we was on this fairly long leg and he asked the pilot if he could come out and he said, ‘Yeah, of course you can’. So, I moved up, we were only in a little space there, I moved up a little bit and he came out and he was looking around. So, ‘Come and have a look out the blister. You can see right down on the ground’. We was — we were coming back off a bombing raid but we were still over a foreign country, and we were both looking out through this blister and all of a sudden, there was a God almighty bang. The blister exploded in front of us, and what had happened — a bit of shrapnel had hit this blister, caught his flying helmet, cut the flying helmet, not his head, cut the flying helmet and there we were with all shards of the blister everywhere. All in our heads, everywhere, all in our hands and face, all these bits of the Perspex. And of course, in come the air and he give a swear and he said, ‘I aint coming out here anymore’ [laughs]. Oh dear. That wasn’t funny I know, but it was laughable really because he came out and saw that. Another one was — it was a daylight again. This trip, the mid-upper said, ‘I can smell burning’, so Eddie said, ‘Pop back and have a look. See what there is’. So I popped back, I can’t see anything. I couldn’t smell burning, I couldn’t see it and so he, we couldn’t do anything at all about that. We were a bit concerned because he was definitely concerned about it. When we got out of the aircraft and got underneath and looked from the other side, looked up, there was this blooming great big hole in the mid, the gunner’s position. The, the gun is moved around on the rollers, and they are covered with a cover just to protect them from the weather and that, and this had gone through this cover and out the other side. A blooming great lump. Well, it must have been one thing and that was just —
CB: Rear or mid-upper gunner?
JL: No. mid-upper, and it had gone out, and if he’d — I don’t know where he was sitting, but if he was sitting with his back to it, it went through about two inches from his back. It went through one side and out the other, but the funny thing was, he never complained that there was any trouble with the mechanism in his turret but there was, we could see up there, this massive great hole. So that’s where the smell came from [pause]. Oh, the last thing was our last trip. Last trip. It was —where was it to? [pages turning] it goes on and on. Oh, it’s me that’s getting muddled, I can’t be muddled with my logbook can I? It must be that. The last [unclear] was Duisburg. Daylight. Daylight Duisburg. Now, because it is our last, our last, we, I don’t know if that was GH or not, it’s not down here but we was, because it was our last flight, but we were to lead the squadron. Honour to lead the squadron, all the way out to Duisburg and back. Right. Got in. The pilot’s always last in because he has to kick the tyres and look around the outside of the aeroplane. I started the engines up and I had to check on each engine to see there’s the — [pause] My mind.
CB: The oil pressures.
JL: No. No. All the oil pressures and all that was ok. I had to switch off the —
CB: Then you’d got all the hydraulics to check.
JL: No. The ignition.
CB: Yeah. The magnetos.
JL: No, the ignition is run by [pause] magnetos. The magnetos. They have two magnetos, two sets of plugs, and you have to check. Magnetos are a bit of a plain odd things sometimes and on old cars and all since before the coils came in magnetos were iffy. You take the revs up to a thousand or so and switch one off and it should drop a little bit on the revs, but not a lot. When I checked the second one on our starboard inner — engine cut out. Magnetos no good. Start up again, give it a rev, tried and see if one of the plugs were oiled up. Still no good. By this time, Eddie had come in and they’d rung back to the tower that we’d got a mag drop. Up comes the ground crew, check it all again, make sure it wasn’t me that was wrong, and by this time of course, we were supposed to be first off. There was a queue waiting to go but no, definitely mag drop. Out, into the spare aircraft, which was in C flight. We were in B. B flight which was right the other side of the aerodrome, had to get the coach up to take us there. All out. All out. Go over. Eddie had to now go around and kick all the tyres. We always say kick the tyres but to check everything.
CB: Yeah.
JL: We were all in, done our sets. Yes. Yes. Yes. He comes up. ‘My parachute’s opened’. He’s caught his parachute release on something in there and there was this white parachute all down the aeroplane. Go back out, get another parachute. By this time, they’d all gone, we were left on the aerodrome. We were determined to go, get our last flight off, so out they comes with a new parachute. Bearing in mind, everything had stopped on the aircraft, on the aerodrome. They was all back. We took off. The navigator took a short cut across England to catch them up at the back, which we did do in the end. Done that. On my logbook, I’m working out one temperature of the radiator was a little bit hotter than the other three, and then this carried on all through and luckily, I report it on my log. The pressure, the temperatures. This went on and it got a little bit hotter but still nothing to worry about. Something’s wrong somewhere, they’ll sort it out, the ground crew, when we get back. So we get back, report back. We finished you know, yay, kicked the ground. Kissed the ground and off we go. We get back and just change. The pilot comes in. Oh, ‘We’re all on a charge’. Now if you’re on a charge on that, like that you go to Coventry. Did you hear of Coventry? Now a lot of people don’t seem to hear of Coventry.
CB: I know about Coventry.
JL: Well, it was out of Coventry, but you were stripped of rank and you’d done two weeks of square bashing for doing something wrong, and I said, ‘Well why?’ ‘Well, low flying’. We’d been reported for low flying. Now, we came straight back over Henley and I was saying to Eddie, ‘Come on Eddie, get down, shoot them up’. Not Eddie, he wouldn’t do a thing like that. Perhaps you might on a daredevil but not him and I, we saw one or two bits of Henley as we went across and I pointed out a big Maltese Cross in wood up on one of the hillsides, and we got, we got low flying. Well we hadn’t done any low flying. He said, ‘Yes it is. They found a seagull in one of the radiators’. I said, ‘Well you tell them to get their finger out and start looking at my logbook’, which they did do, and found that the low flying was nothing to do with the — they never cleared the runway of seagulls before we took off.
CB: Oh.
JL: And so we got off it [laughs]. Oh dear. Yeah. Now that was our last trip.
CB: Were seagulls a bit of a problem at Waterbeach?
JL: Oh yeah. Well we were quite near the, you know, quite near The Wash just there, and they were. They were. But they never cleared them off before, so you can tell how late we were. Now I have one main thing that’s glowing up, going to clear up something that there’s a lot of controversial about, that’s the Scarecrow. Right.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Well I’ve flown through a Scarecrow. The only trouble was, I was the only one in the crew that saw it, and what happened is this. We were on a bombing run. By now he’s down in his bomb place, in the bomb, on his bomb, all ready to bomb. Got all ready there. The pilot was taking orders from him, ‘Left. Steady. Right. Steady’. Looking at his instruments. The navigator was in his cloth [laughs]. The wireless operator was doing something else, I think he was listening in. The mid-upper was facing back watching aircraft above us, and of course the rear gunner was looking out for — and then just yards in front of us was an explosion. Now if it had been a proper shell, I shouldn’t have been here to tell you the tale. It was dead on the nose, and I had just seconds to think, ‘Good God, there’s four engines in there and we’re going to hit these four engines’, and of course, I don’t know why I thought that, but we were through it. Their propellers just scattered it away and nobody saw anything else of it bar me, but I saw this thing actually explode in front of us. It wasn’t all that big but it was one of their fakes which we’d, I’d had seen before.
CB: So, what was your perception of what was a Scarecrow?
JL: It was just a lot of smoke. It, it blew up with a flash and then this smoke, black smoke just right down just like an aircraft going down. It was. But it wasn’t very big but it was dead on the nose.
CB: But was it, was it big enough to be an aircraft?
JL: No, it was, it would have been if you was away but it wasn’t big enough for me, because I could see it. Yeah. And it was dead on. As I say if it had been anything else, like if it had been a shell, that would have been it.
CB: Did you get shrapnel on the aircraft?
JL: No, nothing. We went through it and I could see going through it and the propellers just scattered it all away. Obviously. But to see it from a distance, to see an aeroplane come out of that sort of black ball must have been quite a thing, but it was definitely a Scarecrow. But being as I was the only one that saw it on the aeroplane, that was it.
CB: Why didn’t the pilot see it? Why didn’t the pilot see it?
JL: He was watching his instruments.
CB: Right.
JL: He’s on, he’s flying on his instruments.
CB: Ok.
JL: He would have seen it if he’d have —
CB: How did you know about the word Scarecrow? How did you know about it?
JL: Oh, we’d been told about them.
CB: And what did they tell you?
JL: They told us that they were throwing up these Scarecrows to scare the crews off them, to put them off bombing, but I have, on the television, heard a German say there was no such things as Scarecrows.
CB: Right. So, what else might it have been?
JL: Nothing. I can’t think. There couldn’t have been anything. It was there and my memory I could see. I thought, I thought four engines in there and we’re going through it. I’m going to get smashed, but of course it wasn’t. It was what I thought it was to start with, a Scarecrow, which —
CB: The variation on the theme here is that the Air Ministry was making sure, Bomber Command, that the loss of a complete aircraft was not identified this way. So, the Germans had upward firing cannon in aircraft. Did you know about that?
JL: Yes. Yes. I know.
CB: Right. So that was Shragemusik.
JL: Yeah.
CB: And that was aimed at the port inner tank.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: And so the explanation put out by Bomber Command was that when those exploded, that they were Scarecrows.
JL: No, we were told to expect these Scarecrows. I wasn’t expecting one, it just —
CB: No.
JL: It was, it was very late. I was experienced bomber crew.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I was. It was almost to the last of my daylights. I don’t know where it was, I didn’t really, I wish I’d made more note of it.
CB: Yeah.
JL: But it was definitely what we were told was a Scarecrow, and it couldn’t have missed us if it had been anything. This was daylight so the gunners would have seen another aircraft, even going underneath us.
CB: Sure.
JL: There was, there was nothing else for it. I can’t think why I had seconds to think of four engines in there and we were going through it, but it was so — I — the only thing is I can imagine, I imagine it further out because it was only seconds before we were through it.
CB: Yeah.
JL: And it was black smoke.
CB: Well, it sounds —
JL: And a pall of —
CB: Yeah.
JL: Of black stuff.
CB: That’s what it —
JL: It can’t have been just smoke, it must have been some something that held it there, you know. It wasn’t just smoke as smoke, because that would have gone, but there must have been something there and it did drop just like something coming down. But we went straight through the middle of it. Even if the pilot had seen it, he couldn’t have avoided it. We were —
CB: No.
JL: Right on the nose.
CB: So you identified this. What did you feel as you went through it?
JL: Well, I was still thinking, God — four engines.
CB: Yeah.
JL: There was nothing.
CB: No.
JL: Nothing. So, it must have been. It was something up there.
CB: Well, if it had been an aircraft, you would have expected to get the flak.
JL: Yeah. We should have gone in.
CB: The debris.
JL: And now, now afterwards I thought about it, it was too close. It was so close that as I say I just thought of four engines, nothing of the rest of aeroplane.
CB: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.
JL: Four engines in there and we’re going to hit it, and of course, we were through and out. That was it.
CB: What was the trip that you, that that happened on? Which trip?
JL: Pardon me? My hearing aid’s gone off.
CB: Where were you going then?
JL: I don’t know. We was on the bombing run.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Of something but I can’t.
CB: One of the daylights. Yeah.
JL: One of the daylights. Oh yeah. Yeah. You didn’t get them at night. It was —
CB: Right. I’m going to pause there for a mo.
JL: Yeah. Oh.
[Recording paused]
CB: So one of the things you mentioned is that the pilot wanted you to have some flying experience.
JL: Yes.
CB: So how did that start?
JL: Well first of all, he insisted on me going into the link trainer. I had twelve, well, thirteen hours of link trainer, and that was very interesting. My pass out wasn’t too bad. That took over half an hour in the little cabin with the flying instruments, so he let me fly the plane now and again when we was on one of these training courses. And I’m sat there looking out and there was a fighter coming towards us, it was an American Mustang, so I thought, by the way, we’d done over an hour, two hours on this course and the gunners were asleep, I expect, in the back. So we were flying along and I thought I’ll wobble the wings, so I go bonk, bonk as he went past and there was all hell let loose. Everybody in there [unclear]. I must have woken up everybody else on there bar the navigator, because nobody had anything to do. It was just boring. I shook the aeroplane and they went, what the hell was happening? Cor dear, oh dear. That was, that was funny but I think he’d done the right thing. I don’t know if anybody else. I went down there anytime and just booked in a half an hour’s trip.
CB: Yeah.
JL: That was quite good and there we are. So -
CB: Good. Thank you.
JL: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: So, you came to the end of your tour of thirty.
JL: Yeah.
CB: And you knew this was coming up. So what happened then? At the end of the tour. Celebration?
JL: Yes. Yes. It’s the only, the first, I’ll say the first time, it was the only time I got drunk. In the, in the pub was — the aircrews always went together. You didn’t really have any friends outside the air, outside your six, seven of us, so we all go down there. And you never had a pint of beer. You had seven glasses and a big jug, and this jug was full of beer, and that’s what, that’s what you had and you poured your own out of your jug.
CB: Oh right.
JL: That, that pub was never out of beer, it was never out. Now, I could come home on leave and the landlord would say, ‘Only one pint’, and then he would shut. But there, that pub always had beer. So, I mean it was so close to our station that I think the brewery used to look after that and we never had pints, we just had this one big flagon and used to pour it out between us. When you finished a tour, you had the end of your tie, end of your tie cut off and pinned on the wall, up on the ceiling, and also the pilot had a candle and he used to write our names on the ceiling. There was a — it wasn’t a big pub and that’s how we, that’s how we went, and we had a few beers that night. More than normal. We were always. Well at nineteen now, I was drinking quite a bit, went back into the mess and had a few more. Now I’m sitting, I can remember this bit, I’m sitting in the hallway of the mess and I’m sitting on a small table, and Eddie comes out. Eddie used to come in to that, he used to be allowed in for this. He came in and he saw me sitting on there and he said, ‘Here. Come and have a look at old John. He’s got a fix with his eyes’. He said my eyes were coming like that, one and the other. Oh dear. And I go in to, I’ve been into that mess now quite a few times in the past few years, and I can see myself sitting on that same bit of table. That’s all there exactly as it was when I was there on the squadron. And I always said I would ring the fire bell. There were fire bells scattered all over in the little tiny shed things, and we go back to our billet because we weren’t in the mess, we were in some billets just a few yards up the road, and I said, ‘Right, gather in —’. And I got clobbered. I got held by all the men and frogmarched past this bell, they weren’t going to have that bell rung that night. Oh dear, that was it. And the next morning, we used to have an elderly bloke, an old man come in. An old man, little chap, he used to do all our billet. The six of us, well seven, yeah six of us were in one billet and oh, by this time, the navigator had got his promotion to pilot officer, so those two weren’t in there but we had this billet to ourselves. And he come around, goodness knows what time, wasn’t, wasn’t early, and he kept hitting the bottom of my bed with this broom and it was going through my head. I said, ‘Oh George,’ — I think we called him. ‘For God’s sake, clear off’. ‘You get up’. I’ll always remember that bit. And they were already to go out at lunchtime, I went out but I was on lemonades [laughs]. Oh dear. That was, that was the time. The rest of the lads were alright but I did feel it that bad. Oh, I was giddy.
CB: What was the, what was the feeling of the crew? The sense of achievement.
JL: I think it was.
CB: Or despair at being dispersed or what was it?
JL: No. No, we were friends to a point. I didn’t know anybody’s, I had their address, I had everybody’s address by this time so I could write to them, but there was no more comradeship. It was just everybody for themselves again. We was all — all separate.
CB: It was a comradeship of danger really, wasn’t it?
JL: I should think it must have been, yeah, because we wouldn’t have had. I mean, one bloke would have gave his life for the other bloke.
CB: Yeah.
JL: But after that, that was it. When I met these two blokes at the next camp, they just said, ‘Hello John’, not — ‘How are you?’ We just passed as ships in the night, and that was it. For my twenty first birthday, I’d arranged to have leave from there and, of course, the war was over by this time. And I wrote to each of the crew because I knew where they were, a home address and asked them to come along to my twenty first birthday. We’d fix them up for the night. I got — I got a friend. Oh, by this time, got another Johnnie from Leicester, he, he had got his goldfish where he’d parachuted. No, he’d crash landed in the sea and got picked up by the seamen, and him and I got on well together. He was an air gunner. He came along, but none of the rest of the crew. The pilot wrote, he couldn’t get time off. And oh, and Frank, that was the rear gunner, he couldn’t, but the other rest of the crew, I never did hear from them.
CB: Really.
JL: Yeah, but as I say, I was friendly with Frank, the rear gunner, solely because we was both in the London area and we could go for a 514 Squadron had their first reunions in London.
CB: Oh, did they? Right.
JL: But I’m afraid it was them and us. The officers up there and the rest of us was down the bottom of the — [laughs]
CB: Yeah.
JL: But we had one, one of the squadron blokes was another Reading man. I didn’t know until I’m afraid after he moved, and his death, that he was from Reading.
CB: Really.
JL: I could have easily seen him.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
JL: But there we are.
CB: But going back to the end of the tour, we’ve dealt with the social bit. Emotionally we’ve talked about as well.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: What about officially? What happened next? Were you all thanked?
JL: Yeah.
CB: By the CO and then dispersed or —?
JL: No. No. As I say the pilot went in for our — there was a conduct report thing that each person had had for the whole time that he was in the Air Force, which said that I was not fit for aircrew thing on and my fourteen day CB. All the rest was clear, clear cut, but other than that, he come out with that and then we each, each individual had a railway warrant to go on indefinite leave, and we had to pick up our pay at the Post Office and that was that. And then I had a letter come through to say I had to report back to St Athans and that was that. And I thought, ‘Oh good. Back to the old’. I got a few young ladies down there I knew [laughs], which incidentally, I decided that I wouldn’t get serious with a girlfriend while I was still flying. I did do that, I had a girlfriend down there and a long time after Clare and I had Clare and Jane, and we was going down past Cardiff to a caravan. Remember the caravan? We was going down there and I thought I’m going to call and see at 14 Ludlow Street. I know there’s a 14 Ludlow Street and I’m going to thank mum and dad down there for the kindness, because they did give me a very nice reception and I did have Sunday lunches with them. Very nice young lady, Sylvia her name was, same as my sister. She was very nice but I didn’t really get serious, solely because I made a [unclear] that I wouldn’t, but now I’m going back, I’m going back down. I mean this is years later, to thank them for looking after me like they did.
CB: ‘Cause families did.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Brilliant job.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
JL: So I knock on the door. No answer. So I knock next door. ‘Oh no Mr and Mrs Benning have just gone out and I don’t know when they’re coming back’. So I explained who I was, ‘Oh I remember you’, she said, this lady said, ‘I remember you coming next door with the daughter, the eldest daughter’. And I said, ‘Well where is she?’ ‘She’s married and she’s up in London’. So I gave them my address to say that I’d been, and if they’d like to come up and thank, would she thank them very much for what they did for me, but I didn’t hear back from them. It was a long time after, we’re talking fifteen years I suppose afterwards, but they were still in the same address, same house. I was glad I went back and thanked them, but I couldn’t wait all that time.
CB: No.
JL: We were, we had these two little ‘uns in the car.
CB: Of course.
JL: And that so — yeah.
CB: So that comes out of your return to St Athan.
JL: Yeah. St Athan.
CB: What was — how were you notified? You all went on leave. How were you notified what you were going to do next?
JL: By post. Well from, from home I was notified to go to St Athans via a letter. No. Telegram.
CB: Ok.
JL: No. It couldn’t have been a telegram because I had a railway warrant.
CB: They sent you a railway warrant.
JL: They must have sent a railway warrant. Told me where to go. Mind you I had all the Christmas off, right through Christmas, all through the thick snow of one of the winters.
CB: This was beginning of 1945.
JL: Yeah, and went down there. I only had a couple of months at St Athans. Obviously, they wanted to get rid of a lot of us flight engineers by now, and then I went up to Peterborough. But I got into Peterborough — that was the, a sort of a private, before the war aerodrome and it was manned by the regulars, the regulars. So being as I got sergeant’s stripes on and I’d only been in the Air Force a few years these, they had me in, these sergeants had me in and questioned me how did you get those stripes by that time. They never knew anybody from aircrew. Bomber Command.
CB: Really.
JL: Had stripes solely to protect them from working if you were shot down in Germany.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I mean that’s what they’re — of course, we had a little pay with it as well. But they knew nothing, they knew nothing of the modern day Air Force, they were still working as pre-war, pre-war Air Force. And they didn’t want me, they couldn’t make out how I’d got these stripes. So when I said to them, well my flight sergeant is due anytime, it’ll be here this week or two, I shall have a flight sergeant, they went up the wall. These poor blokes had been twenty five, thirty years in the Air Force and they had to work for theirs. Or wait for the next person to die.
CB: Yeah.
JL: And I thought what a blooming Air Force have I come in to.
CB: Well, there was a lot of resentment about that.
JL: Yeah. Oh, there were. I could, I said, ‘Well look, I don’t want to stay in the Air Force, I want to get out. I don’t want to take your job’. So in the end, they put me out to the satellite at Sutton Bridge.
CB: Oh, that was it. I see. Right.
JL: Out in the wilds. Yeah. Out in the wilds.
CB: Doing what?
JL: Well I was posted out as [pause] engineer UT I think it was, and I was shown this lovely workshop, beautiful workshop. Brand new lathe in it. It had everything you’d want and I was in charge. I was the only one there [laughs] and I was UT engineer, or something. Well, I thought, well this ain’t no good, I’m going to sit here all day for the rest of my time doing nothing. I could have a go on the lathe and muck around but I thought I want to be a motor mechanic, so I had a stroll around and saw the warrant officer in the UT, well the motor transport side. He was an old man. He was. He was out in India before the war and that and he was a nice old chap, lovely old chap, and I said, ‘Look, I want to learn motor mechanics’. I hadn’t been on, not really. I’d been on engines and I knew what engine was like and what they do on them, but I’ve never been on the actual car. Well’, he said, ‘You can go in the MT section’, and then there was two chaps in there. One had his own business and the other was a manager or something of one and they were both local men from the area. So they used to go home practically every night and it was one of those stations, as long as you kept your nose clean, nobody wanted to know you, and so I went in there, learned the business from them. I learned to drive on a tractor before I went in to a car. We had tractor bowsers and I learned on those. Learned to drive a lorry, all on my own on the old runways. And that’s how I came to start to learn to drive and all the mechanics. And they were both good chaps. I used to do their weekend stints. We used to have to have a motor mechanic on at weekends in case of breakdowns and they used to go off home you see. They only lived sort of a bus ride away and I always wanted to go and see them but never did. You know, these things sort of —. You gets married and life changes completely, but then they closed the camp down. We were training these French pilots and this was their first primary, only two or three planes a day used to go up from there. We went up then to — where was it? Kirton Lindsey. That’s outside.
CB: That’s north of Lincoln.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Went to Kirton Lindsey. Well, I stayed on to clear the camp up, help clear the camp up. We had nothing to do all day, just, just clean up. When somebody came for one of the cars and that, you just signed. They just signed for it and off you went. I was then — one of the NAAFI girls there was a bit keen on me, I was going out with her a little bit. And I was then shifted up to Kirton Lindsey and I flew, I flew in a blooming old Oxford [pause] or an Anson. Anson. Because when we got flying, I thought, ‘Oh I’ll have a nice look out now’, and the pilot said to me, ‘Wind the wheels up’. And I had to wind it. I think it was an Anson. It could have been an Oxford, I don’t know but I had to wind these wheels up. So I bring them up, said ‘Ok’. ‘Ok then. Wind them down. We’re just going to land.’ I had to wind them back down again [laughs]. Oh dear. And so that was that. And then we had a note come through that one of the cars that was left behind, that the NAAFI were using, wouldn’t go. Could they send a mechanic down? So I had to go back down there again, up and down with these wheels again. Got down there, there was nothing wrong. They just thought I’d like to come down and see this girl again [laughs]. So, I spent about a week down there. Oh dear. The times we had down there with all this. So I just stayed in the NAAFI, had my meals in the NAAFI. There was nothing else going on. It was just the NAAFI wasn’t closed down and just the odd car or two of theirs was still down there and they was still doing the running around. Anyhow, I said, ‘well I can’t stay here all this time. I shall have to go back’, so there was a chap going back up to Kirton in Lindsey on a motorbike, so I hitched a lift on the back of his motorbike [laughs]. Cor, that was cold. But anyway, we got back up there, I reported that I come back. It was getting a bit of a worn old show. By this time of course the [pause] I got something I haven’t got down. A place. Oh, that’s Catterick. That’s alright. I was at this one place when the war ended, that was Catterick. But anyhow I —
CB: What were you doing at Kirton in Lindsey?
JL: Kirton Lindsey. I was now fully qualified in the MT section.
CB: Oh, you were in MT.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Right.
JL: Yeah. MT section. I brought my push bike up that I had, a racing bike, because at St Athans, I was in their Cycle Club. We used to go out for weekends and we used to take tea and a few rations. We used to stop at a farmer, he used to give us a cooked breakfast for the tea and sugar that we used to take down, but, so I took the bike up to Kirton Lindsey and I put it in the stores of the MT section. By this time, I was a warrant officer, I’d got my stripes, and so up there, they didn’t really know what to do but there was quite a few of us flight engineers in the MT section, and they decided — no — before this, my bike was in there. I had no permission officially to have the bike on the camp. It was too quick. I brought it up there when I went home once in the train and so I brought it back. I was waiting to get the form. I’d been in to see their cycle side and what I had to do, so I got that. When I went in there — in to see my bike in this shed, there was a chap in there and he was laughing. He said, ‘The warrant officer’s been in here and he’s put his foot through your bike spikes’. I don’t know. I had a really posh racing bike, Hetchins, posh one it was in them days, and he spoiled it. Smashed it up. I went in to that office, I tore him off a strip. I couldn’t have cared [unclear] but I had the same as he did but he was shivering and shaking by the time I’m finished, because he was wild and he couldn’t say anything to me because I was the same rank.
CB: Yeah.
JL: And I was a young blooming kid and he was an old man. Oh dear. Anyhow, I got it put right by there and I said I was going to charge him for it. Well, his excuse is I didn’t have permission to be on the camp, but I said I hadn’t got time. I didn’t realise I was going to bring it back ‘till I brought it back. Anyhow, that was just one thing between us and the older people on these camps. They just detested us.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I mean it wasn’t that we were pulling rank. It was just we all wanted to get off and go home.
CB: Yeah.
JL: Anyhow one little thing now that we did do, the fire tender was out of time with its engine, and the engine in the back of the fire tender, and so to save, stopping flying on there, it was decided that all us flight engineer, now ground crew, would change these two engines over the weekend, and we would work from morning through the night until we got these two engines changed. So that’s what we done. About a half a dozen of us I suppose. We worked Saturday, through Saturday night, all Sunday and on to Sunday night and we got both engines changed without them stopping training these foreign, well mostly French pilots. We done that. I got in the bath and I went to sleep in the bath. But we did have a bargain of a week, seven days leave. We made a bargain with the CO that we would do that. But there was something else on that. What was that now? [pause] No, I can’t think now, there was something else we was going to do.
CB: So you’re —
JL: It’s gone past me now.
CB: So, when did you leave Kirton Lindsey?
JL: That was the year of the very, very bad winter.
CB: 1947.
JL: Yeah. What happened there was we were absolutely snowed in. Oh now, before that, I will tell you now, I’ve got what I remembered. The French didn’t used to drink tea, they drunk wine and they were drinking wine by the pint bottle, their pint jugs. Well, they were drinking it by that but they were leaving it and throwing it away. Their mess was next door to ours and we could see in. All this wine was being thrown away, and they had these massive great big barrels of wine. Now, the war wasn’t really over, and all, they’ve had this all through the war and they used to, somehow or other, we used to get wine from France over to England during the war. And these French said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve always had this’, and they never drunk tea. It was always this wine and it was foul, it was terrible, but when you took it home and mixed it with a drop of sugar, and just give it a gentle boil up until the sugar dissolved, it was beautiful and we used to [laughs], I used to take suitcases of that home. One day a pal of mine, he was a wireless operator, him and I, this Pete Marshall his name was, the same age as me, we went into the Air Force on the same day. We left Henley on Thames in the same train. He went to London ACRC there and I went back up to Warrington to the, to the — mine. He passed out about the same time as I did. Pete and I used to, somehow or other, get leave at the same time because aircrew had so many days off and so many days on. I can’t remember. A month.
CB: Six days a month’s wasn’t it?
JL: Yeah, six days a month. Well we used to manage to get it together somehow, I don’t know how, and I used to — because beer was so scarce, I used to take a bottle of this wine around. We used to sit in the bars with this wine. We got in the bar with this wine and put it down, I put it by the fire. We were all sitting there having our beer and there was this God almighty explosion, and this wine had fermented in the heat and exploded [laughs]. Oh dear. Oh dear. And Pete always reminded me of that ever since. The last time — we used to have ATC meetings once a year, all the old boys from our local Henley on Thames, and I always used to keep in touch with Pete with telephone calls. He used to make up poems, so I’d made one up. Give him a ring up, I couldn’t get through. His phone was dead. Now we have relations in the same place. She couldn’t find him. Pete had disappeared. So, I don’t know what happened to Pete.
CB: Sad.
JL: Yeah, and I made this poem up and I can remember it now. How do I start? Oh — “I said to the man at the gate. ‘My mate Pete been here of late?’ He looked at me and give me a smile. ‘Come in and tally a while’. I said, ‘Ha, ha, No thanks. I’ll wait outside’. He said, ‘Ok I won’t be long’. Off he went. Came back, with no smile. ‘I can’t find Pete here. Your mate’. I said, ‘Perhaps he’s gone down below’. ‘Not Pete, won’t go down below. He’s too good’. And that’s what I got, but I never got Pete to give him it and he used to send me. I’ve got all his little poems.
CB: Fantastic.
JL: But that was I was just thinking by memory then. Oh dear. My memory now of that. And I’ve never seen Pete since. I know he had a son down there but we never managed to get his —
[Recording paused]
CB: Now we were talking about your demob. So where was it and when?
JL: Well, I was at Kirton Lindsey when my demob number came through, and it was the middle of the very, very bad winter. We were actually snowed in at Kirton Lindsey, no food, nothing, and the CO sent two lorries with about a dozen men on board with shovels to dig their way out to somewhere outside there to get some food in. I’m not sure about it. We were all put in to the officers’ mess because a lot of the — had been put on leave knowing of this big snowstorm coming. They sent a load of the crews and everything away and so we were only a mild few people up there. We were all moved into the officers’ mess, and the snow was so deep that we didn’t see landscape for about three weeks. Two weeks. Two weeks. We were walking in the, on the ground with all these high banks of snow either side. Couldn’t see a thing. Nothing worked. We had nothing to do. Just that. And that crew never come back, those two crews, we never saw them. We were on rations. And my demob come through where I had to go. The trains were running that way in England, over to Blackpool. I had to go over to The Wash side, down that side of England to London, and back up to Blackpool to get, to get to my demob. Demob was just outside there. I don’t know what the name was now. Preston. Preston. So that’s yeah, I get to Preston and by this time — no, I was sent. I don’t remember that. Yes, I did go straight there, I had to go to Preston for demob. So I had one of my duffle bag full of one lot of clothing, and in the other duffle bag was all my flying clothing, because nobody wanted to take it off me, and I had, in Henley, I had the local chap there make me up some straps. Two straps with a handle so I could carry them with the handles. So luckily, I didn’t have to carry it over my shoulders. And anyhow that was one thing there. I didn’t mind carrying it there and back, but getting up there, I had to hand stuff in, certain bits in, and receive my demob clothes. So I got to that and so I said, ‘Well, here’s all the flying clothing’, and the bloke took one look at the bag. He said, ‘Did you get it from here?’ I said, ‘No’. He said, ‘Well I don’t want it’. So there’s me, loaded with full flying clothing that I didn’t want anymore. But I thought, well I’ll take it home just in case. It’s at home. If the Ministry want it, they can come and pick it up. Well, they never did. I used the outer for my motorbike and I used the goggles for my motorbike and I used the outer gloves for my motorbike, but the rest of it I’ve still got.
CB: Amazing.
JL: Yeah. I’ve got the helmet, my oxygen mask.
CB: Silk gloves. Silk gloves. Inner gloves.
JL: Silk gloves. No, I don’t know where they’ve gone, but I think somewhere upstairs in the box. I’ve got those nice little woollen, knitted mittens, I’ve still got those. We had three lots. Clare has used the inner for going camping when she was in The Guides, that’s still up there. The flying boots are still up there. I take these to show the schools. I haven’t done it lately.
CB: No.
JL: But I used to take it around and show the kids in the schools and that.
CB: Great.
JL: But that’s, but when he told me it wasn’t got there so he didn’t want it back there.
CB: Amazing.
JL: Yeah. But I only spent, what, two days there and then a railway warrant back home.
CB: Right. So you got back home. Then what?
JL: Yeah
CB: What did you do when you got back home?
JL: Well, I’m now — I could have gone straight back to Stewart Turners, there was no — but there was no way was I going to do that type of job. I’d got, I’d got more interest in something that’s not quite so boring. So I was looking around. There was one, there was one car at least. I don’t know how I got the job but he said he wanted this car cleaned up. Mind you, they’d been put away all during the war and people were just getting the petrol now and they could get their cars out. I can’t think what sort of car it was or what it was, but it was in a filthy state. I couldn’t do much with it, it really wanted really cleaning. Not, not just me with a bucket and a sponge, that was one job, but my father was working at the time in Reading. Woodley had a small workshop of special jobs behind a garage in Caversham just over the Reading Bridge. In there was another fellow, and his brother had just come out the Air force and he owned a garage and would I like to go and — would he like him to get his brother to come and see me. I said, ‘Yeah’. Well, he had been in the Air Force and he was on Merlins, and his nickname was Mossie Metham, because he was on Mosquitoes, on engines, and he was a gen man on engines. And so that’s where I started. He had these letters after his name for car engines, MMEB or something it was, he’d got all that. A small little garage. Just another chap that had been in the Army that had been with him before the war, and me. So I got really good tuition on engines and gearboxes, back axles and everything else that went with it on the old cars, so I, I had a real good grounding on various cars. There were from —we had one Rolls there and we got down to Austin 7s. Yeah. So that was quite something. I then came up here to Tilehurst from there. He was a man that didn’t want a great deal. A big place. He could pick and choose his customers because he was so good. Oh, then the elderly chap left, I won’t say anything more on that. It was a family affair that went wrong somewhere and he had to get out, anyhow, he — him and I got on well together and there was — what did I? He, he had a big piece of ground. We had a big piece of ground and he got permission to build a garage and I thought, well here we go [unclear], but he never did do it and it’s never been built on and it’s still a garage when I left it.
CB: Amazing.
JL: It’s like a big stable. Well, it was, it was a stable, a big stable off the main road. The Caversham Road. And my Marjorie lived opposite where I was working, that’s how I got to know Marjorie.
CB: That’s how you got to know Marjorie. So when you did you meet Marjorie?
JL: Yeah, that’s where I met Marjorie.
CB: When. When did you meet her?
JL: When?
CB: Yeah.
JL: Well I couldn’t get out because the garage was one side of the road and her house was the other side of the road, so I couldn’t help but seeing and meeting her and it developed from there.
CB: His hearing aids gone.
CB: Yeah, but when. In what year did you meet her?
JL: Well, ‘78 I suppose. ‘48.
CB: ’48.
JL: No. No. No. What am I like? ‘48. 1948.
CB: That’s right.
JL: It must have been.
CB: And when did you get married?
JL: Blimey. Ask my —
CB: Sixty-five years ago.
JL: Sixty-two years ago.
CB: No. Sixty-four, sixty-five.
JL: Is it? Sixty-four.
CB: That’s 1952.
CB: Two. Yeah. Two.
JL: Yeah. 1952 yeah. Yeah. I’ve got it now.
CB: Yeah.
JL: I got the date. I got the date.
CB: Yes. Well, these things can be a challenge for blokes. Women always know.
JL: June the 21st
CB: Yeah.
CB: Really?
JL: Yeah. The day after my birthday again.
CB: Oh right.
JL: And the day after I joined the Air Force.
CB: Yes. So you joined on the 21st
JL: Yeah.
CB: Of June 1943. And you left in 1947, is it?
JL: Yeah. That was May. May ’47.
CB: I remember. I come from Rutland, so down the road from Kirton in Lindsey.
JL: Wait a minute. When my hearing aids have gone dead.
CB: Right.
JL: In there, you’ll see a little green box.
[Recording paused]
JL: Oh yeah. Yeah.
CB: So you were working locally. Running —
JL: Yeah.
CB: You came. What did you do in the garages?
JL: Well, the friend of my father’s — his brother owned a small garage and he was looking for a mechanic and so —
CB: Right.
JL: That’s how I got my first actual job from the Air Force.
CB: Right.
JL: He’d been in the Air Force, and we’d gone on very well together and the, there was something else from there. Anyhow —
CB: This was at Caversham.
JL: Yes. A small little garage in Caversham. We got on very well together.
CB: Then you went to Tilehurst.
JL: Then I came — there was this, a big garage with petrol station. In those days, we used to serve petrol on the road, over the top of the footpath, and it was a pound for four gallons. It should be more than that, but if you had four gallons, you had it for a pound because it was a long way to walk from the footpath, all the way back up to the shop for a few pence so the boss used to let it go for a pound for four gallons. And before that, I’ll go back to my first employer. When I went on my own, I had a parson, a local Tilehurst parson, as a customer. He went out to Spain to work as a parson over there and he got friendly with one or two of the locals and he —
CB: This is for you.
CB: Thank you.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Alright.
CB: I’ll just stop a mo. Right.
[Recording paused]
JL: While he was over in Spain, the parson, he was talking one day to some people over there and he was telling them how good his motor mechanic was in England. So, my name came up, and this other chap he was talking to said, ‘Oh yes. I know he was the best mechanic there is, because I taught him’. And it was my first man that I got employed from leaving the Air Force that did take me. Oh yeah, I think he, because I have seen the parson since and he came out with this and he said, ‘Yes. I know he is the best mechanic there is because I taught him’, and that was how. Unfortunately, well, he came back to live in England, my old boss did, and of course, I met up with him in the past and but it was rather strange to go all the way out to Spain because my first boss had moved out there.
CB: Oh right.
JL: He’d moved out there after he retired.
CB: But in the end, you set up your own garage.
JL: Yes.
CB: So how did that happen?
JL: Yes. When I was up here in Tilehurst, we had a big garage up here with a lot of agencies. The boss was only in there for the money he could get out of it. He had no idea what a car looked like under the bonnet, and his auditors said to him one day, ‘Do you know’, he said, ‘You might just as well put your money straight in the bank, because interest rate you’ll be getting more than what you’re getting out of this garage’. So he’d no sooner put it up on the market for sale. No way would I be able to buy it obviously and I looked around, because I always wanted to be on my own and have something, and looking around, I found somebody in the next road down from just there that had a, had this, well, a lovely garage for sale. He used it just to house some vehicles. He was a decorator and he was leaving, had to have a quick sale, so I bought that. At the same time, the petrol company didn’t want to know anything about the garage, and the man that came around that I was a liaison with, because I had to look after — fold the garage up. All the customers. I was in charge, I had to say to all the customers, ‘I’m sorry. Don’t come any more’ [laughs]. We were the only garage up here, there was nobody up here and it was, Tilehurst was then a small place, and this, this chap as I said to him, ‘Well what are you going to do with this garage? All the tools. Everything’. He said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll have to sell up I suppose’. ‘Well how much do you want for them?’ I can’t remember now. Perhaps your [unclear] could tell you.
CB: I don’t know. Yeah.
JL: Anyway, it was a ridiculous small figure. I said, ‘Hang on, I’ll go and get the money’. ‘Ah’, he said, ‘There’s a snag’. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You’re not going to get a receipt for it’, he said, ‘You’ve just got to take my word that it was a’, — I can’t remember now. It’ wasn’t a petrol company that’s around anymore. He said, ‘This money goes into their sports fund, and it has to just go in as a gift, it can’t go in as anything else’. I said, ‘Well I don’t care. As long as I can take this stuff out’, and he said, ‘And you’ve got to get it out there by tonight’. Well, another customer of mine had a lorry and he lived in the same road, so that’s how I got it. And I was then living in a private house, so everything had to go around to my private house because I was still dealing with the sale of this other place. But a long story short, I got everything out of the big place to the small place. It’s now a thriving big place again around the garage, but it’s divided in the petrol company at the front and a garage behind. Car sales. We didn’t do much car sales when I was there, we were just there as car repairs.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
JL: And so that’s right and then I suppose I had — how many years? Twenty years.
CB: Yeah. Must have been.
JL: Must have been twenty years but the garage is still going now with the bloke I sold it to. And his, this garage, I don’t know how many men he’s got there because I haven’t been there for a long time, but the chap I employed after my first lad. I told him when I was sixty-five, I’m leaving. ‘So you can either buy the place off me or you’re going to have to get another place. So you’ll know now, before I’m sixty-five, what you’ve got to do. When you tell me your leaving, you’re leaving. Fair enough, I shan’t mind because I’ve already told you’. So it went. He left, I took another chap on from the garage that had started up here again. He didn’t like the place around there. He came around to live, to stay in my place. He’s still there now. Today. He’s still working around the same place with the new owner. Yeah. So —
CB: Twenty-six years on.
JL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Right.
JL: Yeah.
CB: Thank you very much, John. That’s been most fascinating.
JL: Well I’m sorry but these things come back.
CB: Such a wide range of things. Thank you.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with John Philip Lambourn,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2024,

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