Interview with Jo Lancaster. One


Interview with Jo Lancaster. One


After leaving school, Jo Lancaster was an aircraft apprentice with Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Company in Coventry. After volunteering for the Air Force, he trained as a pilot and completed a tour on Wellingtons with 40 Squadron from RAF Alconbury. Following a period as an instructor at an operational training unit, he flew another tour of operations. After the war Jo became a test pilot and was the first man to eject from an aircraft in danger using a Martin-Baker ejection seat.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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00:30:15 Audio Recording





Temporal Coverage


AP: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Andrew Panton. The interviewee is Jo Lancaster. Mr Lancaster was a pilot in various aircraft during World War Two and the interview is taking place at xxxx on April the 6th 2015. Apologies for the poor sound quality during various sections of this interview due to static on a tie clip microphone. Talk a little bit about that raid July the 24th 1941.
JL: Well at the time the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were in the harbour at Brest. On that day the Scharnhorst made a run for it down the coast to La Pallice but the Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were still in Brest and a number of Wellingtons, I think of 3 Group were ordered to carry out a daylight bombing raid on the harbour there. We were at Alcon, operating from Alconbury at the time. Near Huntingdon. And we were routed right down to the Scilly Isles. Then doubled back towards Brest and you could see a black cloud of flak smoke from quite a distance away. It was a beautiful, a beautiful clear day and we just had to barge straight in. There was, we only saw two ME109s, one of which went right through the middle and got severely shot up by everybody and the pilots baled out. Everybody claimed it of course but nobody knows who did it. But, anyway, we were in two vics of three. We [weren’t in company?] but our trio sailed through without too much damage. A piece of flak came through the windscreen alongside me and dropped on the floor which I still have and we’d used up a lot of fuel trying to keep formation with constantly altering the engine settings. And so, having, as I say, got away again out over back over the channel we and several others headed for St Eval in Cornwall and quite a number landed there. Many of them in various stages of damage. We’d had our hydraulic system knocked out but apart from flak holes we were intact.
AP: Did the searchlights sort of —?
JL: Well when that happened you were singled out for particular attention by the flak which happened to me several times. On one occasion it was right over the middle of Essen and did some violent evasive action and lost a lot of height and gained a lot of speed and finally outflew the search lights.
AP: What was the evasive action? Did you corkscrew or did you dive?
JL: Well just various. Mainly sort of spiral diving but keep trying to keep a heading away from the searchlights all the time.
AP: And flying through the flak and the anti-aircraft again.
JL: Well there was nothing we could about that. We heard it and smelled it and when you got back you found lots of holes.
AP: Right. One of the things she was asking about was what it was like when you’re coming in on the final approach to your bomb run. You as the pilot. What are you doing? What’s the crew doing?
JL: I think you made yourself as small as possible. I just used to [unclear] and went in.
AP: So you were just taking orders from the bomb aimer. He was in control. Not the pilot.
JL: Yes. He would take over and he’d say. ‘Steady. Left. Left’ or ‘Right,’ and we would keep laterally level and try and make these small adjustments in heading until he was satisfied and then eventually he would say, ‘Bombs gone.’
AP: And then what?
JL: You felt the thud as they left and usually we had a camera aboard so they had to hold, hold the heading for a few, well about thirty seconds or more. I forget now. Until a camera had, the camera had flashed, had gone off, and then we were free to leave. On the Lancaster we had, usually had cookies and incendiaries. With the Wellingtons the target was usually the Ruhr. That was standard nine, five hundred pounders.
AP: Right. And what was the age? How old were you when you were flying? Can you say a little bit about how old you were? And your crew?
JL: In 1941 I was twenty two.
AP: And your crew. Could you say?
JL: Well, all much the same. I had a Canadian navigator, a Welsh wireless operator, a Canadian front gunner and a New Zealand rear gunner. The navigator, in the Wellingtons the navigator went forward to do the bomb aiming. Later on of course we had the bomb aimers on this, on the way back from Berlin. In a Wellington. And we were rather taken by surprise because you come down with the change in the wind over ten tenths cloud and we adjusted north and we came, we were flying back over Wihelmshaven and Emden and were getting shot at all the way through the clouds and then eventually there was a gap in the clouds and I could see, see through the clouds, the clouds across the causeway across the mouth of the Zuiderzee. And I think we were probably all looking at that and then an ME110 shot overhead and circled around and went into them and I went into a deep spiral dive and he tried to collar us and showed us a bit of [unclear] and I think he should have [unclear] went into the cloud and we never saw each other again so we don’t know what happened to him. In 1941, on a Wellington squadron such as 40 Squadron, each Wellington had its own ground crew. There was a fitter for each engine. That was his engine. And then there were two airframe fitters. And they were more or less permanently with the aircraft so we became very friendly with them. And on operational days they would do what they called an NFT — Night Flying Test and some of the guys would always come with us on that. They were very industrious and proud of their aeroplane.
AP: And other? Other people that you had to rely on? Was there? Can you say, talk about, some other people?
JL: The only people I can think of were the [lovely ladies?] in the parachute section which, on 40 Squadron our parachutes went to [unclear] RAF Alconbury had virtually no buildings at all. A couple of wooden huts and that was about all so all the things like parachutes and things were at Wyton which was our base station. I never went to the parachute section there but at Wickenby on 12 Squadron we had a parachute section there and it was always WAAFs who looked after the parachutes.
AP: OK. Any, any —?
JL: And we had WAAF drivers of course.
AP: Yeah. Ok. Any thoughts about the aeroplanes that you flew like the Wellington or Lancaster? A favourite or, you used to fly? Or —
JL: The Wellington is a well-designed aeroplane but it is grossly underpowered. When they finally put in decent engines in her. The Hercules instead of the Pegasus. It was a very good operational aeroplane.
AP: Right.
JL: But I think everybody loved a Lancaster.
AP: What was so special about it?
JL: I don’t know. It was viceless. It was doing, carried a big load, doing a good job and with the Wellingtons I had two complete engine failures and by the grace of God we were within easy distance of an airfield. On one occasion we took off on operations and the port engine started — oil started pouring out of it and eventually it stopped and we were able to, it was still fairly light and we just lobbed down into nearby Wyton. And the other one I was on in the, actually in the circuit at Wymeswold when I was an instructor at OTU and we were just able to go straight in from there because on the —
[Recording paused]
JL: Oh well. Yes. Well. I was, before the war I’d served an apprenticeship in Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft at Coventry and after the war I went to join Saunders Roe at Cowes but they didn’t have very much going on and I got a bit fed up with that and re-joined Armstrong Whitworth as a test pilot. There were three of us there Eric Frenton was a test pilot and another one — Bill Else, and they had, there was a lot of work going on. Amongst other things we had the AW52G which was a glider, a tail-less glider. Two thirds scale of the bigger versions of the AW52. There was two of those. One with Nene engines. One with Derwent engines. The Nene were more powerful. And the Nene engine one, when I went there, was out of action having the structure stiffened. And then it came out and had the limited speed increased by quite an amount and I was only on my third flight with it and the job was to explore the higher ranges, speed ranges and it’s rather difficult to explain technically but the controls were called elevons. They were combined elevators and ailerons. And in order to get them light enough for the pilot to control them manually they had what they called spring tabs which meant that the connection from the pilot’s control was actually, to the flying control was actually through a spring. And what happened was that while I was doing something like three hundred and twenty miles an hour, we didn’t use knots in those days and a flutter, what they called flutter set in and it became very very violent. Very very noisy. I anxiously estimated the frequency as one and a half cycles per second. The amplitude we don’t know. You could only guess at. It was probably six or eight feet as I was going up and down at that rate and I was rapidly disorientated and I thought the thing was going to break up anyway. But if it didn’t break up I was going to be unconscious so I decided to eject. A thing I’d never even anticipated before and I wasn’t in a very good state by then so I didn’t do the drill properly. I managed to jettison the canopy and I pulled the overhead blind down over my face which fired the seat. I should have put my heels on the, on the rest on the front of the seat which I didn’t do. I just was very lucky I did that because the aircraft had sort of spectacle controls and I think, as an afterthought, they realised that wasn’t very good combined with an ejection seat so they put in another system which jettisoned the hood and fired some cutters which, which disconnected the controls from the stick and I think you was just supposed to push the stick forward too. It was a bit of Heath Robinson system but I couldn’t do that because it was wired off anyway. Anyway, I got away with it with a lot of bruises on my shoulders and on my knees. I landed very badly. I thought I was going to land in a canal and tried to remember the drill we’d been given in the RAF but I only succeeded in making the descent worse by swinging. And when I landed I broke a chip off my shoulder bone and they took me away and x-rayed me and they said that I’d sustained a compression fracture of the first and second along the vertebrae and they said, ‘Not only have you done that but it’s been done before.’ And I have to say that it was in, I don’t remember the date. The 1st of January 1947. We had the SRA1 — that was at Saunders Roe — which has an ejection seat and we went up to Martin-Baker’s and went up on the test rig and after that I had a rather sore tail for a while. That must have been what it was. 30th of May 1949. And after all the kafuffle had died down on it I wrote to Sir James Martin. He wasn’t Sir James then. He was just James Martin to thank him and got a very nice letter in reply and also a custom made little wooden box which came through the post marked, “Explosives — danger” [laughs] which was delivered to Armstrong Whitworth. To me at Armstrong Whitworth. It contained a very nicely inscribed Rolex gold watch and [pause] I’m sorry am I —?
AP: That’s alright. No. That’s alright. Got to watch the microphone. Yeah. The watch. Yes.
JL: [unclear] In 1975 when I was living in the South. In West Sussex. I had a little bungalow with casement windows and some, one of the local villains I think, got in and took that watch and another one and several other small valuables and I presume that both watches had gone straight down to The Lanes in Brighton and by now would probably be melted down but — and just two years ago I was invited to go up to Martin-Baker’s and they showed me around, gave me lunch and I wondered what it was all about. Then they started asking me about my ejection and finally got on to the watch and eventually Andrew Martin produced from his pocket my watch. And the story is that they’d had an email from somebody in New York who had read the — it had my name on it and James Martin and somehow or other they put it together and connected it with Martin-Baker. Whatever company, I don’t know who it was in New York who went over or whoever it was contacted this chap who they said was a very shifty character and they bought the watch back. I don’t know for how much and they gave it back to me.
AP: That’s an amazing story.
JL: What happened then was that I didn’t really want the watch so I asked them to auction it but then they said instead of auctioning it we’ll put it in our company museum and we’ll put five thousand pounds in to the Bomber Command Memorial Trust. It applies to almost everybody. We usually crewed up completely at random and almost always within twenty four hours we were as thick as thieves.
AP: You relied on each other didn’t you?
JL: Loyalty all down the way.
AP: Strong teamwork and trust.
JL: Yes. I was with these two Canadians and a New Zealander. Yes. The two Canadians. I’d never met a Canadian before and I was mildly surprised that they sounded like the Americans I’d seen on the films. And I hardly knew where New Zealand was. But —
AP: I think it’s good to mention that it was an international crew wasn’t it? That they were from all over the Commonwealth.
JL: Yes.
AP: You had Canadians, British.
JL: Yes. And later on on the Lancaster squadron I had an Australian navigator.
[Recording paused]
JL: In the Wellington was to Stettin. That was a nine hours something. And the longest in the Lancaster was to La Spezia which is about sixty miles south of Genoa. A sea port. And that was, that was about nine and a half hours I think.
AP: You were the only pilot. Right?
JL: Yes. We did, we did carry a second pilot but he was just supernumerary. Usually he just stayed back in the astrodome helping to keep the, keep a lookout.
AP: Can you talk a bit about what it was like to fly so long? I mean did you eat anything? Drink. How did you survive on those hours?
JL: I don’t think I ever ate or drank anything until back in, back in safe area. In a safe area. I think most of us were the same. In those days everybody smoked and we sometimes smoked when we were below oxygen level which was ten thousand feet but we probably weren’t supposed to. We didn’t on operations anyway. Once again that would be when we were safe and nearly home.
[Recording paused]
JL: One long drag over France. And we had a thing called Mandrel which was a microphone in one of the engines to the wireless operator and he had, the wireless operators were given a recording of German night fighter RT traffic and they didn’t understand it but they could recognise it and I had a Canadian wireless op, Jordan Fisher, at that time and he was listening out on Mandrel and he was highly excited. He was apparently getting very good results. He could, he could tune in to one of these frequencies where the night fighters were operating and he was doing his Mandrel trick and they get very annoyed [laughs] Shouting.
AP: How did he use it? Did he block their signal? Or reduce it.
JL: Yes. Yes having identified the frequency he transferred the engine noise on that frequency.
AP: I see. So he could block their frequency.
JL: He was having the time of his life apparently [laughs]. Mandrel was a microphone mounted in to, actually in the port inner engine, the [strength of it?] the wireless operator, the wireless operators had been given some training to identify but not necessarily understand German night fighter RT traffic and they would listen out, looking for this RT traffic and when they found it they would tune in the transmitters to that frequency and then transfer the engine noise which blotted out everything and frequently made the night fighter pilots very cross.
[Recording paused]
Having completed a tour you then became a screened aircrew and you went to an OTU where you became an instructor in your particular aircrew job. As a pilot I went to Wellesbourne Mountford OTU and my job was conversion on to Wellingtons which are just circuits and landings, circuits and landings and not only in daytime but at night. And in the winter when I was there the night flying programme was divided into four three hours stints 6-9, 9 to12, 12 to 3 and 3 to 6 and you can imagine what it was like having to get up or be prepared to go down and be ready to start doing circuits and bumps at 3 o’clock in the morning.
AP: Yeah.
JL: It was bad enough at 12 o’clock. So I hated it. I wasn’t a very good instructor anyway. And then they started with these two one thousand bomber raids I was on. They started doing quite regular operations with screened, so-called screened aircrew at OTUs and I thought it was far better to be on a squadron if I had to do all that.
AP: Were you on, did you say a two thousand bomber raid?
JL: I was on the first two.
AP: Two thousand bombers in one raid? Or one thousand bombers?
JL: There were two one thousand bomber raids.
AP: Two one thousand bomber raids.
JL: May the, May the 30th and June the, June the 2nd I think.
AP: Could you say a little bit about what happened? I mean, was that Cologne?
JL: The first one was Cologne. The second one was Essen.
AP: Essen. And so you were flying Wellingtons.
JL: Yes. Wellesbourne Mountford OTU put up about twenty aircraft that night and we lost four. My aircraft still had the dual control in which made it very very difficult to get in and out because the entry was via a hatch under the nose. So in a hurry it would have been very awkward. And the aircraft were generally fairly clapped out. And on the way back I had a screened navigator and a screened wireless operator. And on the way back, when we got back over England the wireless operator came. Came up front and sat beside me. I think together we saw the oil pressure on the port engine just drop off to nothing and fortunately the wireless operator, he was familiar with Wellingtons, knew what had happened. It had run out of oil. We had a reserve oil tank down in the fuselage with a hand pump and he knew what to do immediately. He went scuttling back down. Started hand-pumping oil back in to the engine.
AP: That’s before you got to it.
JL: No. This was on the way back.
AP: On the way back.
JL: What I didn’t say — over Cologne we were quite high and I had two Canadian gunners. You know, they were students and they got very excited and wanted to spray their guns around [laughs]. I told them to sit quiet and keep a good lookout.
AP: What was the weather like on that night?
JL: Clear.
AP: So you had a good shot at them.
JL: Oh yes we could. We were late. Late on target and we could see it from miles away.
AP: It was already lit up.
JL: We were, we were more or less unmolested I think.
AP: A thousand bombers. Did you see the other ones around you?
JL: Oh yes.
AP: Can you say a little bit about what it was like?
JL: Yes. I saw them. Quite a lot. Yes.
AP: There were Lancasters, Halifaxes. Stirlings.
JL: Everything. Most of the ones I saw were Wellingtons.
AP: But you’re not in formation.
JL: No. No.
AP: Loose formation.
JL: Completely random.
AP: But you’re on your course and you’ve got aeroplanes.
JL: Yes. Had to try and keep an eye open. Very occasionally you’d hit the slipstream of one of them [laughs]. There’s one not very far away in front.
AP: So you had to keep a constant picture of that.
JL: Oh yes. There must have been hundreds of collisions we never heard about. Fatal ones.
AP: So when you arrived it was well and truly lit up. .
JL: Yes.
AP: Yeah.
JL: I don’t, I don’t remember actually being shot at.
AP: No? And then the other one was Essen.
JL: Yes. And that was a complete disaster because there was thick haze over the whole area and we just couldn’t see anything so I think we just let them go and came home.
AP: Right. Yes.
JL: Stood down for six weeks to convert. We were operational again on Lancasters on the 1st of January 1943.
AP: The operations that you did then. Can you say a bit about what you did?
JL: I think I did three mining operations. My first operation on a Lancaster was to Norway, to Haugesundfjord, and dropped, I think it was four, fifteen hundred pound mines in the fjord there. When we got caught out by searchlights and the gunners were able to reply and they, they won. Off Emden and the islands. We put a stick of mines there. And another one was at the entrance to St Nazaire harbour.
AP: Oh yeah. That was in France.
JL: Yes. That’s where we did, there’s an island, I think it’s called Belle ile and we had to do a timed run from Belle Ile. Went right up the estuary and let them go. I think the load was four, fifteen hundred pound mines. Parachute mines.



Andrew Panton, “Interview with Jo Lancaster. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 24, 2019,

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