Interview with Joe Stemp


Interview with Joe Stemp


Joe was a navigator with 578 Squadron and later with 77 Squadron, flying Halifaxes and later Dakotas. Joe has a sister and a brother. His brother ended his service with the Royal Air Force after an accident on a dinghy drill course left him deaf in one ear. Before joining up, Joe was working full time in a housing agency and he was just 17 when he signed up for the Royal Air Force, wanting to be a fighter pilot. Joe tells about his training in South Africa, and how he crewed up, as well as his uncomfortable relationship with his pilot. He also tells of how he did his planning – on the spot. Joe remembers seeing the lights in the sky at Ealing from the bombs falling during the battle of Britain. He also tells of his encounter with a man who gave away his sacred heart that his mother had given him, and how that man’s crew failed to return after. Joe talks about how he was always sure he was going to return after an operation. Joe also tells the story of seeing another Bomber Command aircraft blowing up in front of him and also of watching as Lancaster aircraft dropping its bombs onto other aircraft below. He also tells of the effect that lack of moral fibre had on the unit he was with. Joe was a bomb aimer with 77 Squadron, and was due to be presented with a Distinguished Flying Medal, however it was taken away from him after he dropped live bombs on Scarborough instead of safe ones into the sea. Joe talks about the heavy losses suffered by Bomber Command, his feelings on the bombings later on in the war including the bombing of Dresden. He was also involved in Operation Gisela, which led to 30 German fighters shooting down 20 Bomber Command Aircraft. Joe finished the war after completing 30 operations. He met Pat after meeting her on a train and they were married for 65 years. He asked her to marry him before he headed off to the Far East. Joe ran a post office in India and took a job with the Financial Times newspaper.




Temporal Coverage




02:12:37 audio recording


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AStempJE151016, PStempJ1502


AS: This is an interview with Joe Stemp, a navigator on 578 Squadron and later on 77 Squadron. My name is Adam Sutch and the interview is being conducted at Upton St Leonards, Gloucestershire for the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive. Joe, thank’s so much for agreeing to the interview. I’d like to set the scene by asking you to describe your life before joining the Air Force. A little bit about your home, your parents and brothers and sisters, that sort of thing.

JS: I had a very happy boyhood really. I had one brother and one sister and I’ve always been a very independent guy. I’d always earnt money and done jobs on the side. I was actually working full time in an advertising, not an advertising, a housing agency at sixteen and doing quite well. And I suddenly realised, a friend and I, that we’d like to join the Air Force. So, we went to Oxford University and did that exam over a weekend there. And out of the thirty people who were there, ten straight away were cancelled, scrubbed, because they were colour-blind. That left twenty of us and we had this serious examination. When we finished they called us in, one by one. My friend went in before me and he came out nearly in tears. I said ‘Why?’, ‘He wasn’t the type of pilot we need, he hadn’t got the right attitude’. I said, ‘Why?’, ‘They asked me what I was doing when Mr Churchill said “Every man, woman and child should do something”’, ‘What did you do?’ Well he couldn’t do anything ‘cause he didn’t want to give his age away. So that was it, well I followed him in and they asked me the same question. But being this cocky bugger I used to be I had an answer for. ‘Well Sir, you can see I did pass the exam but I’ve had to study a lot at home in the evenings to make sure’. ‘Good lad, that’s the spirit.’ I’m in the Air Force, I’m in the RAF Association [laughs] and I never saw him after I joined. He was shot down actually eventually in Burma flying Spitfire, Hurricane. But I never saw him again, we were great mates but it was just one of those things. And so I joined straight away then.

AS: What did your parents feel about you joining?

JS: They didn’t say a word, I was most surprised. Now my father, who would have had a go, didn’t even complain. My brother was sixteen years old. He was doing an ITW course at sixteen years old and he did a dinghy drill course down into Torbay harbour. A bloody dinghy fell over, he went in, and in the water it was all the oil from the boats around, got into his ear and caused trouble in his ear. Eventually he had to have it operated on and he lost the hearing of his right ear. They gave him the option. You can stay in the Air Force and everything will be alright but you’ll never fly again, or you can leave on a pension. No answer to that. He left on a pension, got a great degree, ‘cause he was a clever bugger anyway. But, all those, he died last week, ninety years old.

AS: Oh, I’m sorry.

JS: But I was always surprised my father allowed us to go and do this.

AS: And you were under age as well?

JS: I was seventeen.

AS: And when did you leave school? Did you get matric?

JS: No, I didn’t stop on for it, I left the school at sixteen. I should have stayed on ‘cause I went to Ealing Grammar School and I was doing alright but I just suddenly thought ‘I must get on’. I wanted to get on and do something and there didn’t seem to be. We moved the school, the younger children went, were evacuated. We went to a school in Ealing which was girls as well as boys and it was a waste of time, we spent most of our time mucking about with the girls. [inaudible] it was ridiculous, I left and I’ve worked hard ever since and I’ve always been very independent.

AS: What year was this we’re talking about when you joined the Air Force?

JS: Oh, ’40, ’41.

AS: So, you’d been in Ealing, or London, when the Battle of Britain was going on?

JS: Oh yes, yeah.

AS: What was that like, the?

JS: It wasn’t so bad in Ealing but London was awful. I remember going to confession one Saturday night with some friends of mine, we were in Ealing, in South Ealing, and we looked up towards London ‘cause there were bright lights in the sky and it was the time when the Germans came over and had those terrible raids they did on the East End London, they really did. But because it was bad for morale they never talked too much about it did they, they kept it a bit quiet. They mentioned there was a bit of, a bit of bombing. They did terrible things the Germans. You didn’t have to be a navigator you got yourself on the end of the River Thames came up and you’re there!

AS: Glinting in the moonlight?

JS: Absolutely, yeah. [laughs]

AS: So, in those days I suppose Ealing was separated from London?

JS: Well Ealing’s always been a, always a very private sort of borough, queen of the suburbs style of thing you know? They’ve always fancied their chances and it was a very nice place to live really. I went to work for this Barrett and he was as drunk as a lord and his sons had gone in the Army and he couldn’t run the business so. I know this sounds silly but I was sixteen and I was running his business for a year. Then after that I asked for a rise and he gave me about half a crown or something, so I told him to stuff his job and I joined the Air Force.

AS: That was how you came to join the Air Force?

JS: Yeah. [laughs]

AS: Why the Air Force?

JS: I always fancied being a pilot. Because when I was a lad I used to go to Heston and, Heston airport in those days, and I used to love, and I always wanted to be able to fly. It was one of those things that I wanted to do, it was something that really I took on. But do you know why I wasn’t a pilot?

AS: No.

JS: I did the whole course, and they cancelled and blew me out. This is the honest truth, we did during the final course, and we took off and he told me what to do. And he said ‘Do you know where you are, son?’ And I said ‘Yes’, ‘OK.’, and we carried on and he said ‘Do you know?’ And I suddenly realised, I hadn’t a bloody clue where I was and I wasn’t really worried. But I was enjoying being up there. And at the end of the course he said to me ‘You’ve done very well’. he said, ‘but there’s only one thing wrong, you haven’t known where you’ve been from the moment we took off’. And he was right. And they scrubbed me and what did they make me? A navigator. Isn’t that typical of the Air Force?

AS: That’s a wonderful story and it doesn’t surprise me.

JS: No.

AS: A bit. Can you rewind a little? You, where did you sign on?

JS: Um, good question. I think it was Regents’ Park, I think. It was up at Regents’ Park area I know.


JS: Because those hotels up there, aircrew were all based up there, trainee aircrew.

AS: Oh, this is Arty Tarty is it? This is the aircrew reception centre?

JS: Yes, that’s it. Yes.

AS: And everybody went there?

JS: They all went there regardless at one time and from then on, we just followed on. I finished up actually leaving there and going to South Africa, you mentioned South Africa, and I actually got my wings in South Africa. I enjoyed my South African trip I was out there for some months and thoroughly enjoyed it. Flying every day of course ‘cause the weather was suitable. I was looking through my logbook last night, ‘cause I haven’t looked at the logbook for years, at the amount of flying we did out there.

AS: So, you signed on and they sent you to Regents’ Park?

JS: Um.

AS: And then what happened between then and going to Oxford for this exam? Could you tell me about the exam that you took?

JS: Oh, the exam was before then.

AS: Ah, OK.

JS: Oh, that was the exam that we had the weekend. Thirty people turned up at Oxford University, the object being they were going to check us out ‘cause they were looking for pilots. Well, as I told you the first ten straight away were colour-blind, so they scrubbed them, leaving twenty of us. And it was quite a severe examination afterwards you know, mental examination. I managed to finish all right, I wasn’t that special. My friend was brilliant and he came top. So, he went in first of all for what they called the commanding officer’s interview or something. And the officers sat round this table and asked questions of the guy. And it was a shame really ‘cause they caught him on the hop really, and then they finally said to him ‘You’re not the type of person we want as a pilot, you haven’t got the right spirit at all’. And he was in tears, he came out and sat beside me and said ‘What do I, what do I do Joe?’ I said ‘I can’t believe.’ [inaudible] So I thought ‘Christ’. So I went in about two hours later and they asked me the same questions but I was a bit quicker on the mark than he was. I said ‘As a matter of fact sir’, I said ‘if you noticed I have passed the exam? Not desperately well but I passed because I studied a lot each evening to make sure I did pass your’. ‘Good lad, that’s the spirit.’ I’m in. [laughter]

AS: Excellent. So, you passed at Oxford?

JS: Um.

AS: Did you then go home and await some sort of call up or?

JS: I went home and waited and I was called up within about two or three weeks.

AS: As at that stage, PNB? Volunteer reserve?

JS: Yeah. Volunteer reserve.

AS: As a pilot navigator bomber? Bomb aimer?

JS: Yeah. A PNB yeah.

AS: Front of the aeroplane, executive office?

JS: [laughter]. Yes.

AS: OK, you’re called up and then presumably they had to try and make an airman of you, did they?

JS: Well they did. I enjoyed it really except that when I was first flying, I was OK and even the instructor that took me on the final check, he said ‘You fly well, son’. He said ‘but what’s the bloody good of having you up there if you don’t know where the hell you are?’ Which is true. When you’re seventeen years old you’re so excited you don’t care about where you are. [laughs] And it was as easy as that.

AS: Picking up on the excitement.

JS: Um.

AS: Do you think that the RAF knew you’d lied about your age and didn’t worry about it?

JS: Oh yes, I’m sure they did. I was seventeen, and I’m sure they, my brother was sixteen. When he left the Air Force with this pension, he was seventeen years old when he left, and he went straight to university, got a good degree, eventually finished up in Australia. He died last week, he was ninety, but he’d had a pension since he was seventeen years old. Isn’t that amazing?

AS: Turned out nice then didn’t it?

JS: Um.

AS: OK, so you were, you were in the Air Force starting pilot training, in this country was it?

JS: Yes.

AS: Whereabouts was that, and what were you flying?

JS: Tiger Moths. Reading. There was an airfield at Reading, we used to pass it on the motorway going down, can’t think what it’s called. Theale is it?

AS: Yeah.

JS: Theale I think it was, and we would train there, it was a pilot training school.

AS: And this was 1941?

JS: ’41. Um, yeah, long time ago.

AS: So still this was before the great move, the move to take pilot training abroad I suppose?

JS: Yes, yes and no it was, they were picking up people they wanted, particular people. Even the guy who, instructor, who interviewed me at the end on the final flight, even he said ‘You fly very well, I’m very pleased the training has been good, you fly very well, but what’s the bloody good of having you up here if you don’t know where you are?’ Which is absolutely true and when you’re seventeen it’s all exciting, you don’t, you don’t even worry whether you’re going to get down again or not you know? Yeah.

AS: You wanted to be a pilot, what sort of pilot? Fighter pilot?

JS: I wanted to be a fighter pilot, I didn’t want to get anything to do with bombers. I was a little disappointed. I ended up, as you know, I did a tour with 77 Squadron but, it wasn’t what I wanted but then that’s the way life works.

AS: So, you did, you soloed, did you solo?

JS: Yes, oh yeah.

AS: Marvellous, how many hours roughly did you do?

JS: I don’t know, I don’t honestly remember now. I quite enjoyed flying, it was, it was much easier than I thought it would be. The thing, it’s exciting really. You’re seventeen years old and you’re flying. And honestly, it’s nothing to, you can’t get over it really. It’s amazing.

AS: Superb. So, when you were told that your pilot training was going no further, what did you feel like, what?

JS: Heartbroken. I used to say that’s the day I started drinking. But anyway, I waited around a lot and I did all sorts of odds and ends, waiting for another course, and the other course was in South Africa. So, I went to South Africa to do my navigator course.

Unknown: Interruption.

JS: Went to this hotel at Harrogate. All the groups, gunners, wireless operators, pilots, navigators, all in this big room, talking to each other, and we meet each other and if we fancy somebody and start talking, the way like I’ve met you today, they’d say ‘We could be alright together’. Then they met somebody else, so I met the rear, the mid-upper gunner was a Scot, nice guy, and the flight engineer was a Welsh guy, that’s the chap who had to become into aircrew or else. Now the three of us got on so well. They, in turn, had friends, before I knew where I was I’m one of six. The next thing is we’ve got Henley, this is the skipper, wandering around looking for. And he picks, out of the blue, you know. [inaudible] I thought perhaps, I’d heard about crews in the past, how they all get on. They don’t. But of course, you can get a group, I mean it’s very difficult to say seven blokes getting on together, isn’t it?

AS: Um.

JS: But we did, three of us did very well. And we managed with the others, we didn’t fight or anything. But I told you I wasn’t a friend of the skipper’s and I never was going to be.

AS: But in the air you were a disciplined –

JS: In the air, we were good, in fact in the air only two of us carried on talking. We had no conversation in the air unless it was necessary. The only person to converse with him, me, because I’d have to, the others only if they had too. There was no common chat amongst us. I’ve been listening to other people and they said they talked all the time. They didn’t in my crew, my crew only spoke when they had to. I think possibly it was a good idea, I don’t know. I know that, put it this way, I never felt afraid. It wasn’t, or upset, it wasn’t until old Charlie Whatsisname blew up in front of me that I suddenly thought ‘Christ Almighty, it’s dangerous up here’. And it was a bomber, do you know it was a Lancaster dropped the bombs?

AS: Um.

JS: And after that I was a bit wary, a bit wary.

AS: And the Lancasters were flying higher than you obviously, yeah?

JS: Um. Do you know something? Think about it there were, there were seven of us obviously in the crew, and you could often get such difference in seven people.

AS: Did you see this on, on other crews that?

JS: Yes, I did. Some crews I remained friendly with until the end, and when we retired they were coming up for their finish. You had to do thirty, you had to do thirty ops. Well I done eighteen with 77, 578 and I had twelve to do and I signed up with 77 and everything went fine from then onwards. They liked us. I never forget going to the first meeting and the navigation leader said ‘Now look here’. he said ‘I’ll tell you new lads what’s happening’. So I said ‘Well we might be new lads but we do know’. He said ‘I’ve done twelve ops already’, I said ‘Oh, aren’t you clever?’ I said. ‘I’ve done twelve, I’ve done eighteen’. I said. ‘Oh.’ So in other words don’t give us any bullshit ‘cause we know what it’s all about. [chuckles]

AS: Can I wind you back a bit and cover the period from leaving OTU to joining the squadron? What happened when you joined the squadron? What was that process like?

JS: That’s a good question. It was very good because there were about five squadrons in this billet and I didn’t realise it, but they all knew each other and they’d all been flying together. But after we joined them everything, not because of us, but everything seemed to go wrong and we ended up with just two. They lost three.

AS: Three crews?

JS: Just didn’t come back, you know?

AS: Wow.

JS: But when we first went there everybody was, I mean, give you for example. Oh, I must tell you this, the first night I’m there I go to bed and I was a Catholic.

AS: Um.

JS: And you had to put your name on the back, it told you what religion you were, on the back of my bed. Well I went to bed about eleven o’clock time, going off to sleep. I was woken very severely about an hour later by a chap who’d obviously been drinking and said to me ‘That’s the other man’. He said to me, ‘You a Catholic?’ I said ‘For Christ’s sake man’, I said ‘It’s gone twelve o’clock, what are you worried about?’ ‘Are you a Catholic?’ So, I said ‘Yes’. So with that, he opens his pocket and he throws a little, you know, brown leather wallet, that big. He threw it to me and he said ‘Here are, you better have it. My old lady gave me this, what a lot of bullshit’. I said ‘For God’s sake, what is it?’ So I opened it up and inside was a Sacred Heart and one or two medals that his mother had given to him. I said ‘You can’t give that away’. ‘Why not?’ he said. He was a bit pissed anyway, I said ‘Because frankly your mother gave you that, it’s for you to keep’. ‘I don’t want to know about it’. So I said ‘Look’. He said ‘I’ll chuck it on the fire’. ‘Don’t chuck it’. Those fires in the middle of the room.

AS: Um.

JS: I said ‘Don’t chuck it, leave it, we’ll talk about it tomorrow’. So in the morning, when I woke up, he was fast asleep of course, I waited until he got round, came round, and I went up to him and I said ‘Look, this was silly last night, you must be sober now. You were pissed out of your mind last night, you didn’t know what you were talking about. Talking about your mother that way, and throwing that and giving this’. ‘I told you, I didn’t want the bloody thing. I don’t know why she give it to me. It’s an embarrassment’. I said, ‘What are you saying?’ I said. He said ‘Do you want it?’ ‘Well rather than do what you said’, I said ‘yes’. So I kept it. That night, he and his crew disappeared and were never, ever seen again. Isn’t that amazing?

AS: It’s, it’s amazing, but not unexpected. Do you, did you see other examples of that, of crews that knew they weren’t going to come?

JS: No.

AS: Back?

JS: I have seen people say that to me, they had a feeling. ‘Cause I’ve heard people say ‘Our leave is due Friday, let’s hope to Christ we don’t have anything between Wednesday and Friday to stop us going’. And they say, and that was always a bit of a dangerous time because it happened so often, that your leave was going to be on Friday, Wednesday night you don’t come back. The times I’ve seen it happen. You’re always glad when it’s done and when you’ve been and then you’ve got some more to come. Just waiting for one day off, very tricky. But I never forget him and the next day I took it to him and I said ‘Look, I still feel you should have this’, I said ‘ because I don’t feel right to have it. I know what it means to lots of people, apparently it doesn’t mean anything to you’, I said ‘but the fact is your mother gave it to you, would have made you change your mind and seriously’. ‘Don’t talk a lot of bleeding nonsense’, he said. I said ‘You’re sure now?’ He said ‘I’ve told you, that’s it. I don’t want to hear about it’. So, OK. And that night they went out and they were never, ever seen again. We don’t know whether they were kept, well we know they weren’t prisoners of war. They were blown out of the sky, it’s as easy as that. And so, I thought ‘Christ Almighty, I wonder if it’ll be better for me’. So it got that way and when I told my crew about this, before we took off, every time before we took off, they all went. And once, on one occasion, ‘Oh Christ, I left it in my best blue’. ‘We can’t have that’ they said. So, I had to get a WAAF quickly to bring a jeep round, rush round to my place to pick it up otherwise they weren’t gonna go, they said. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how these things happen? I think people do have such things as lucky charms and they rely on them you know? [inaudible] insist that everything is alright.

AS: Yeah, I think, I know you’re absolutely right. Did you as an individual, and you as a crew, always feel that you were going to come back?

JS: I did, yeah. I did. I never gave it a thought, I always thought I would come back. Even on a Friday night when I’m due to go on leave. I always felt it’s a bit tricky but I’m going to make it. Because the only thing was that I had a dread of being shot down in the water. Because I was the only swimmer in my crew, and we did a couple of tests, and it was absolutely ridiculous. As I was the only swimmer, I was the main person. I had to get up on the diving board, suit on and boots off, jump in the water, find the dinghy, turn it upside down to the proper way, then try and pick the others up who were hanging around the edge of the bath. Well I did this and got one or two of them but the skipper, he would not get off the wall. And the instructor who was doing the swimming said, he said ‘Get in there’, and he pushed and he went in the water. He went like mad, my skipper, nearly bloody drowned me, and in the end the instructor realised that I was in trouble. So the instructor jumped in beside me, between the two of us we managed to get the bugger out, and I thought if ever anything happens and it’s in the sea we’re finished. We’re finished. No case of, can you swim? We’ll be finished.

AS: So, this was dinghy drills in a swimming pool?

JS: In a swimming baths, yeah.

AS: Yeah, OK. What about drills on the aeroplane? Did you, as a crew, really practice those things, evacuating the aeroplane things like that?

JS: No, no, never. No, never. I, that’s a good question. But when you think back, I was never, I don’t recall, we ever worked on how we would get out should there be an incident. I don’t think we thought there would be an incident. I think we were going to be lucky. They always said as long as they got him with us, meaning me, we’re going to be alright. But the only time I never flew with that crew, the doctor said I mustn’t fly for twenty-four hours, nothing’s going to happen I thought, but something did. And that meant to say that they had to go with a spare and they went mad, they got shot to pieces. Honestly, I’m not exaggerating. I waited until the last aircraft had come back in the early hours of the morning and I thought ‘Christ’. We hadn’t even heard a message then suddenly, in a very dim way over the line, came a call to say they are coming but they’ve been badly damaged and they might have trouble, but they were hoping to make it, and they did. They made it and the next thing I was worried about was would the bloody thing turn over when they landed, like it often does. So the WAAF and I waited, and they landed, and everybody stood by, and it landed and it stopped. And we all rushed out there, and the crew, apart from the skipper who was panic stricken. He couldn’t move, he was panic stricken. But the crew come out, lit the old fags up. ‘If he don’t come, we’re not going.’ [laughs] And we had a terrible problem. I was the lucky charm, without me they said they wouldn’t have managed. Silly of course but that’s –

AS: Well it isn’t is it? It’s a really good insight to the crew as an organism. The fact that you didn’t necessarily get on, that you were the charm of the crew.

JS: Another thing, the fact that I was a Catholic. I said ‘That’s got nothing to do it with it, the fact that I’m a Catholic’. ‘Well you don’t fuck about the way we do’, they said, which I didn’t. I drank with them but they were shagging all over the place, my crew, they were terrible. And the skipper was the world’s worst. I told you they thought I was queer. That’s why they called these awful women, and they’d introduce those awful women to me. Why I never forget one girl, it was a shame. She was as thick as two planks and they introduced her to me and said ‘Joe’s alright, he’ll look after you’. She said ‘He’s a nice bloke, you’ll like him’. I didn’t want to know her, and she insisted I go home and meet her parents, and I thought ‘That’s the last thing you want to do’. And I kept. [laughs] As I say my, my crew were awful in that respect.

AS: How about the local population? ‘Cause Burn is, is in the part of Yorkshire where my family come from.

JS: Yeah.

AS: So, you have Goole, Selby, all around there.

JS: Burn.

AS: Yeah, what were the local population like to the aircrew?

JS: Very good, very good. The only thing that used to upset me was they had a lot of Italian workers in the fields.

AS: Prisoners?

JS: Um.


JS: And I remember standing one night, finishing a fag and watching these Italians working, and they were watching us taking off, and you can imagine what they were thinking. ‘Where the hell are they going, who are they going to bomb?’ you know? And I had to go into hospital for a couple of days and while I was in there they, this Italian guy came in and he was in a very, very bad way, and his mates used to come and visit him and he said to me, one of his mates, his English wasn’t bad. ‘Are you a Catholic?’ And I said ‘Yes, I am’. ‘You couldn’t have words with him, would you?’ So I said ‘Surely’, I said. He said ‘He’s not going to go home you know, he’ll never go home again. We don’t know what to say to him, perhaps if you talk kindly to him, he might take it from you’. So I said ‘I’ll try’. So I did when the chap passed, before he passed out, I said to him ‘Look I’m sorry you’re like this, it’s such a shame because you look like a nice guy and you could make quite a world of it’. But so, I said ‘The best thing to do is do what they say and carry on because the war won’t last forever and then you can go home’. But he died about a week later.

AS: Wow.

JS: He just died and I felt bad about it. In fact, I even went to the funeral. I know I shouldn’t have done but I felt bad about it ‘cause he seemed such a nice guy. When you think about it, it’s very serious really.

AS: They’re people. Under the uniform we’re all people aren’t we?

JS: Um.

AS: So, whereabouts locally would you go from Burn as a crew, you know, for drinking or socialising?

JS: Oh, in York.

AS: In York, Betty’s Bar?

JS: Um. There was a, there was a pub in Burn but it was packed. We had our own pub in York which we used to attend and we used to keep, it was very wrong of us really, we used to keep the Yanks out. ‘Cause the Yanks tried to get in our pubs and we said ‘It’s not on, this is for British staff only.’

AS: Which pub was this in York?

JS: I can’t think which one it was but I know that, ‘cause the girls used to follow us rotten you know? In York ‘cause most girls wouldn’t have a lot to do with aircrew. Most regular girls as I call it, because they couldn’t guarantee, as they said, that you’d be here tomorrow, so we used to get all the tarts really. Well the lads didn’t mind, but I did. [aughs]

AS: Yeah, it’s an interesting slant on wartime. So, when you finished OUT, did you get a big notice up on the wall posting you to a squadron? What happened, what was the process?

JS: I cannot remember.


JS: I think there was a group of us that had started at the same time, but we didn’t all go to the same squadron. I think, if I recall, we were posted to different squadrons. One here, two there and so on and so forth. ‘Cause in Yorkshire, Yorkshire was the home of the Halifax.

AS: 4 Group, yeah.

JS: And all the crews in it, that was Yorkshire, the Lancasters were lower down. So, what we did was, we all knew each other as crews, we used to meet and have a chat. There was quite a bit of rivalry between them and quite good humour too, between some of the crews. When I look back now it was a very difficult situation, because if somebody was killed or whatever, what did you do? We had this big joke, you’ve probably heard it, ‘Can I have your breakfast if you don’t come back?’ And that’s the way they were looking at it, ‘cause there was no other way of doing it. You couldn’t cry your eyes out about it ‘cause it could be you the next time. So, you had to get on with it, that was the way it was. ‘Could I have your breakfast tomorrow if you don’t come back?’ Um.

AS: Was, I know you talked about leave. Was there much contact, did you go home on leave? Did you have contact with family or?

JS: I was lucky I always went home on leave. I had money in my pocket, a good family who were dying to see me and I enjoyed it. But one of my crew, it was really silly, he’d been shagging around and leave came up and he got a dose. And I said, I went to hospital with him, and we sorted it out. And they reckon, he had a week in hospital and then he had to take it easy for a month or something and that was the way it was. And in the middle of all this he got involved with this girl again and I said ‘Look, Tom, you mustn’t do this’. I said, ‘What’s going to happen when leave comes round, you’re surely not going to go home and start on your own missus are you?’ He said ‘What else can I?’ I said ‘Well can’t you tell her some yarn about the fact that you’ve had trouble and that you can’t use it, but it’ll be alright in the future?’ ‘Um, I’ll try’, he says. So he did. So off we go on leave, when I got back after the weeks holiday he had my motorbike and he was waiting at the station for us. I said ‘When did you get back?’ He said ‘Oh, don’t tell me Joe, I’ve been home a week’. I said ‘Why?’ He said ‘I realised straight away when I got home that she knew there was something wrong. I had a terrible conscience, I didn’t tell her, and we just didn’t get on, and I sent myself a telegram to say “Return immediately”’. ‘Oh Christ’, I said. He said ‘What else could I do?’ I said ‘Well, I suppose you’re right, it’s a fact because you didn’t want to give it to your wife.’ Yeah.

AS: So, when you turn up on the, on 578, what happened then? You’re allocated to a flight? Or do you go on ops straight away or?

JS: Yes, more or less. When we realised the squadron was breaking down and we were going to be posted, we weren’t all posted to the same squadron. We were posted to 77 Squadron and when I got there, there were only two other crews came with us. So I should think the rest of the crews were split around the group ‘cause it was 4 Group. And I remember going in, I think I said a moment ago, when they had their first check up and the navigator was telling us new ones what to do and what it was like up there. And we said to him ‘How many ops have you done?’ He said, ‘I’ve done twelve’. And we said ‘That’s nothing’. [laughs]

AS: Get some in.

JS: ‘We’ve done eighteen’. But no, it was, it was difficult. I feel that on reflection it made one very hard. You had to be hard, it’s no good crying your eyes out is it about it? ‘Cause it could happen to you any time or anyone you were with.

AS: Doing the job when you’re, whether it’s 578 or 77 Squadron. Could you take me through a typical operation from waking up in the morning until it’s all finished?

JS: Well sometimes we’d wake up in the morning like today. And the navigators and the pilots would be called down, and we’d go to a meeting and they’d say ‘There’s going to be ops tonight, we haven’t got conditions at the moment but we’ll be calling an order about four o’clock.’ So we thought ‘Right that’s it, we’re on ops tonight’. And about four o’clock we used to go, and initially only the pilot and the navigator went and we listened to the place where we bombing, what we were trying to achieve, and so on and so forth. And with that we then opened the door and let the rest of the crew in and told them where we were going and what we were going to do and that’s how it was.

AS: So how did?

JS: It could only be hours before we took off.

AS: So, when did you do your flight planning?

JS: Well, flight planning. On the spot really.

AS: So was that after your pilot, nav briefing. Or after everybody had had the briefing?

JS: Well after the pilot, nav briefing we had an idea what we were going to do and where we were going to go, but how we were going to get there wasn’t ever discussed. It was never discussed. In fact, it wasn’t until just prior to going that we would talk about it. They used to discuss which way we would mostly take off and get to Reading, and at Reading it turned on to our target. I know it sounds silly but we were going anywhere until we got to Reading then we made for the target through Reading. That was our group you know?

AS: So 4 Group would fly across England, presumably avoiding London?

JS: Yes.

AS: And you’d have worked out your flight plan by then?

JS: Oh yeah. I tell you what did happen to me one night. We’d had a very long trip and we were very tired and coming back across France, I started to fall asleep. And I did just for a second or so and when I woke up, I looked around the aircraft, the gunners had undone their guns, everybody had heads down, including the skipper who was fast asleep. And we were over the, we were over England, but nobody knew where, ‘cause they were all asleep and didn’t care and I looked around and thought ‘Christ Almighty’. So I woke Ken up, he was the skipper, I said ‘Look, Ken, I don’t know how long you’ve been like this’. I said. He said ‘Oh it’s alright, it’s been on automatic pilot’. I said ‘I know it’s been on automatic, but how long is it supposed to be on for? Where are we, do you know?’ So he said ‘No, I haven’t a clue’. I said ‘That’s marvellous isn’t it?’ So I looked around, we woke the crew up and I thought ‘This is terrible, we could be anywhere, I know we’re heading north’ and then the Wash suddenly came into view. I could not believe my luck,. ‘cause as soon as I saw the Wash we knew where we were. But if we hadn’t have seen the Wash and it had gone on we could have been Scotland, run out of fuel and all had to bail out. That’s happened before as well.

AS: To you?

JS: No, no.

AS: To others on the squadron?

JS: I’ve had friends that it’s happened to, they just run out. Twice or three times – [knocking]

AS: So, Joe, back to a discussion on a typical mission if there is such a thing. You’d get briefed, did you air test the aeroplanes in the morning?

JS: I was only thinking that the other day when I looked at my book. We did very few air tests, very few air tests. I looked in here the other day. It’s amazing really, you’d have thought we’d have done more wouldn’t you? Because things were wrong with the aircraft and the ground staff, used to, when we got back, immediately jump on them to put it right. Nothing worse than an aircraft going wrong in the sky, you can’t do a thing about it you see, it’s got to be right when it leaves.

AS: Was that always the case with you, did you have issues in the air?

JS: Not really. I think I told you about, in there. [rustling of paper]

AS: But not mechanical issues? You didn’t have mechanical issues?

JS: Look at some of these. Silly things. Have you read this?

AS: No, not yet.

JS: Just have a quick look at it.

AS: OK. So, Joe, we’ll pick it up again, we’ve just had our tea. We were, we were talking about air tests. The fact that the aircraft, you didn’t test the aircraft very much so you had complete faith in the men?

JS: In the maintenance crew.

AS: Did you, did you used to socialise with them as well?

JS: Yes and no. Difficult. They all lived on the site which was miles from anywhere, outside and they used to live out there, virtually the maintenance crew.

AS: With the aircraft?

JS: Yeah. Awful. I’ve been out there sometimes in the winter, when they’ve asked us to come out, where we’ve had to sweep the snow off the aircraft to get it to go off and up, you know? The Halifax was a nice aircraft, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve only ever once been in a Lancaster, I didn’t like it particularly, you had to climb over lots of beams and things to get to where you fly. But with the Halifax there was plenty of room inside. And we had also, on a couple of occasions, Ken said to me ‘You better check that bugger’, meaning the American that we’d got, or Canadian that was the mid-upper gunner, the turret under the aircraft, little turret.


JS: And they used to fly on there, but they didn’t. I mean I never said anything, I didn’t drop them in it. But I’ve been back and they’ve been lying there half asleep having a smoke. They never went out of the turret.

AS: So, the Halifax’s were fitted, your Halifax’s were fitted with?

JS: Some of them were yeah.

AS: OK, yeah. Did you mostly do navigation or was bomb aiming your speciality?

JS: Bomb aiming was my speciality with 77. Actually, I was going to get an award. Well I got the award but because of a silly incident at Scarborough, I lost it. I didn’t realise it but they took away my DFM and they took away his DFC, very unhappy he was. My fault.

AS: So, you’d been recommended for?

JS: Oh, before then I was, on one occasion, I forget which one it was ‘cause I never made a fuss in my logbook. Some people wrote things in the logbooks but I never did. On one occasion I went in and I was a bomb aimer and I dropped the bombs so badly to the ground that it started one end of the rail centre, right down the line, through the station, out the other side, and ruined. I cut the whole bloody railway out of the business. No, I had a letter from them to express, to express you know what a good job I’d done. The next thing I know is, I’m recommended for the DFM. Oh, OK. But after the incident at Scarborough it wasn’t quite the same, um. I’ve seen some funny things happen to other people. They didn’t talk about it very much but you obviously know about LMF?

AS: Yeah.

JS: And we had, at one period, quite a lot of LMF. Except for one guy and he was, he came from New Zealand and his skipper came from New Zealand and he used to be a nice guy, bomb aimer. And I got friendly with him but he was very religious, and he’d done about sixteen ops and he turned to me one night and said ‘I can’t do this anymore, Joe’. I said ‘What’s up?’ ‘I can’t do this bombing business anymore’. I said ‘Well what can you do about it, you can’t say I don’t want to do it’. ‘Oh, I can’. I said ‘But’. He said ‘Well what am I going to do?’ I said ‘I don’t know. Think about it, think about it’. Well he did. He complained that he didn’t want to, and he explained that he didn’t want to fly anymore, and I thought they would go for him but they didn’t. They said ‘Look sunshine, you’ve done over eighteen ops so far, what are you worried about?’ And they stopped and took him off and they sent him home. So he was a very lucky guy.

AS: This was on 578 or 77?

JS: On 578.

AS: So, what happened to some of the other guys who, as you say, went LMF?

JS: Oh God, terrible. When I first joined 77 I was walking down towards the Sergeants’ Mess and I saw a gang of airmen that did all the dirty work, clearing up. And in charge was a bloke who’d obviously been a sergeant ‘cause they’d ripped the sergeants stripes and you could see where they’d been, in charge of this dirty gang. And as I got up close to him I realised it was a friend of mine called Sandy Mount, and I said ‘Hello Sandy, what’s?’ ‘I don’t know you Joe’, he said. Funny thing to say, ‘I don’t know you Joe’. And off he went with his gang. I went into the Mess, I’d only just joined the squadron, and I said, I mentioned it. ‘Oh, don’t talk about him’. I said ‘What is he doing?’ ‘He’s waiting to be sent away to the LMF place down on the coast where they really give you a bad time’. I said ‘Why?’ Apparently the first time he said there was something wrong with the aircraft so they cancelled it. The second time something else went wrong and he returned early, the third time, on the fourth time they realised that he didn’t want to do what he was doing, and they said he’d got to come off flying.

AS: And punished?

JS: And they took him off, called him LMF and put him in charge of all the blokes doing the shit [inaudible]. There was this New Zealand guy that I knew he done about sixteen ops and he turned to me, he was very religious, and he turned to me one night and said ‘Joe I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know why we’ve got into our states with this war, it’s not on’. I said ‘Well you can’t do much about it now, you’ve got to wait until you finish your tour’. ‘Oh, I don’t think I could’, he said. Well his pilot, who was also a New Zealander, went up to the CO and they explained the situation and the CO was very good. He said ‘I can’t say LMF, I can’t blame him ‘cause he’s an extremely good navigator’, he says. ‘but we can’t have this sort of thing ‘cause if anybody else starts doing what he does, what do we do?’ So, they sacked him but they sent him home.

AS: Lucky man.

JS: Which was the best thing they could have done. He wasn’t a coward, it wasn’t that, he just said ‘I can’t do this anymore. What are we doing, all this dropping bombs on people and killing them?’ He said ‘It’s not on, this isn’t warfare is it?’ His skipper actually, terrible part about [unclear} it was, I must tell you this, hell of a nice guy, they only had one or two ops left to do, the crew, not him ‘cause he’d gone. And they went missing. Never seen. So the skipper was killed, obviously the aircraft disappeared, isn’t that amazing? But he didn’t go with them ‘cause he’d gone home to New Zealand.

AS: Premonition or something.

JS: Isn’t it strange, this world how it works isn’t it?

AS: Absolutely. You mentioned he, the navigator, bomb aimer couldn’t go on bombing. What was the feeling in the country, say in 1944/45 about the bombing, what?

JS: We were heroes ‘cause we were doing a great job, we were knocking them about something awful. This is what it said about Bomber Command, there’s a big article coming out soon. 1944 we were heroes, marvellous, good lads, 1945 we were villains, bombing these poor Germans. That’s true, mind you we were bombing them. God forbid we gave them quite a hounding. I remember going to Essen twice, I remember Hagen twice and each occasion it was a write off. Because when the war was over we took some of our ground crew and the WAAF’s on a visit to see what we’d done and I was absolutely flabbergasted at some of the damage we did out there. God, terrible.

AS: And most of the time you’d been the bomb aimer?

JS: Yeah.

AS: And somebody else was doing the navigating?

JS: Um.

AS: Yeah.

JS: I worked, I, navigation’s a funny thing. It got easier as the time went on because we had a lot of equipment to help us. It was much easier than when we first started.

AS: What did navigation involve when you first started, when you were navigating a trip?

JS: They used to call it, there’s a name for it. Well, it means pencil and paper and get down to it, you know?

AS: Dead reckoning?

JS: Yeah, dead reckoning. Didn’t always work out either, had a lot of trouble with it. When I look back on some of the guys that I flew with and lost, it was very difficult really. You never knew, well I knew I was going to come back, which is the most important thing, but a lot of them began to lose confidence. When you find that you had not one awful trip but two awful trips and then you lose the bloody way and everything goes wrong. So you realise what can happen, and does happen, but it never happened to me. I was very, very fortunate.

AS: And, generally, were the ones you saw losing confidence, were they the ones that didn’t come back?

JS: Oh yes, yeah. Yes, it was a shame because, don’t know how to explain it. I used to like to dance and I used to go to dances as lot and one or two of the lads I was with came. Most of the crew didn’t go for the dancing they went for the booze and the girls and they never turned up until the last knockings to find a bird to take home with them. But some of them I met, and we lost them. It seemed sad to think we wouldn’t see them again but it was just the way it was. My crew were funny really in that respect. When I look back on old Henley, he was a terrible man, a terrible man, I didn’t treat him as an officer above me in any way whatsoever, ‘cause I hadn’t got that much confidence in him and I hadn’t got that much respect for him either. If I had I would have shown it but I couldn’t show him ‘cause I didn’t think he was that sort of a guy.

AS: In, did you used to go to the cinema and watch the news reels?

JS: Um.

AS: What did they say about Bomber Command?

JS: Well they maintained the fact that we were doing a very good job and that it was necessary. I don’t think it was towards the end of the war as necessary as they made it ‘cause we did some terrible things you know? We really did towards the end of the war. We really did tear the place apart.

AS: And did?

JS: I went to Hamburg one night and we made a terrible mess of it. Bugger me, two nights later, they sent us back again to finish it off. And we did, burnt it down. It was a, you get to a stage where you don’t care, it was as easy as that.

AS: It’s just a job?

JS: Um.

AS: But the excitement of flying that you talked about before, did that stay with you?

JS: Oh yeah, yeah. [chuckling]. I’ve had some good times in the air. When we first, when I first went onto Dakotas I loved it. Oh God we had some fun.

AS: So how did that, you were in 77 Squadron?

JS: Um.

AS: You finished your tour did you, you did thirty trips?

JS: Um.

AS: And this would be after the war, or just?

JS: No, it’s in there.

AS: Just as the war was finishing. So –

JS: Chevrolets. We were going to the Far East you see? So, we all trained, were trained to fly these twin-engine things, Chevers.

AS: OK. So, this is in May, end of May 1945?

JS: Yes.

AS: So –

JS: The war was over here.

AS: Yeah, so ops to Nuremberg in April, ops to Heligoland. Your last op was Heligoland in April?

JS: It was an island in the middle and it was the last. And I’ll tell you a strange thing, you mention that, only a few of us were there, about twenty, and I watched this happen. I watched a ‘plane above drop his bombs on the ‘plane below and blow two others out of the sky with him. Five aircraft - ‘Bang’. Honest truth. And I looked there with my skipper and I said ‘Has anybody got out?’ and he said ‘I can’t see a sign’.

AS: No ‘chutes?

JS: I don’t think anybody survived. This is bloody night, the last day of the war you know, isn’t that awful?

AS: And that’s what you see in daylight. The same thing must have happened at night time?

JS: Um.

AS: And 5 Group used to fly higher than you?

JS: Oh, they did yes. I, I’ve, we’d been extremely lucky with the aircraft that we had ‘cause some of them were beginning to get very worn out. In fact, I told you the one I was flying had done it’s hundredth op. This was its hundredth op when these Germans came. We’d been warned for weeks, ‘Watch out’. What was the word they called?

AS: Intruders?

JS: Intruders, yeah, yeah, intruders. What happened was, as soon as we crossed the coast this side the gunners undid their guns. The, everybody sat down, even the skipper. Set the target on automatic and went to sleep. Out of the blue, these bloody aircraft were with us and we never saw them. And they shot down twenty over where I was. One of my mates he was, he was in a terrible state. They tried to land but nobody would take them on, ‘cause as soon as they went into land the Germans would come and they would shoot the place up. But they did bail out and he landed in a tree in a churchyard and it was a big tree right up high, and his ‘chute got caught in the top so he was hanging there swinging. And he gets his fags out and he puts his fag in his mouth, and he gets his lighter out and drops it. [laughter], and he sat there, hour after hour, waiting for someone to come in the early hours of the morning. Nobody turned up until about ten o’clock to see him stuck up a tree. He was alive at least anyway. He got away with it.

AS: Yeah. As your tour progressed and we, you got H2S and G, was there a feeling that it was becoming more professional with a bigger bomber stream and more aeroplanes?

JS: I think so. I think it was the numbers that were telling, it was big. They couldn’t hit us back, we were too big. In fact, they couldn’t touch us with all their guns used together. The only thing they used to have were these intruders. They used to have jets and they used to come up from nowhere when the jets first started, but they were going so fast they used to fly past us and couldn’t hit us. By the time they turned round, we’d gone. But I’ve seen some very bad incidents, very bad incidents. When I look back on it now we used to joke and we used to laugh about things but it was a very serious business you know? When I think of all the chaps I’ve known that used to be mates of mine that have gone. We used to come home on leave and my brother Tony was there at the time of course, and he used to say ‘Why the hell you went into Bomber Command I’ll never know’. I said ‘Well, you must remember Tony, you didn’t intend to go the way you went. Life has its own way of going and there’s nothing you can do to stop it’. He ended up, as I say, deaf in one ear with a pension. Amazing isn’t it? Last week he died, ninety years old, ‘cause he put his age up about three years. He um, I could never understand why my Dad gave me such a bollocking for what I did.

AS: Tell us about that. This was when you went home in? He knew you were in Bomber Command?

JS: Um.

AS: And you were welcomed when you went home on leave?

JS: I finished my tour and I went home to finish. I told him I’d finished and Mum I wouldn’t be bombing anymore and Dad said ‘You shouldn’t have done it in the first place. What the devil you’re up to in there’. I said ‘This is what war is all about’. I said ‘You seem to forget Dad, that they bombed us first you know’. ‘I don’t recall that’. I said ‘I know you don’t ‘cause you weren’t here, you were in London, you were in the north of England’. I said ‘But they dropped bombs on us, it was just, we didn’t drop the bombs first, they did’. He said ‘Joe, all I can say to you is if you close your eyes and think back on all the people you must have killed you must have a terrible conscience’. I said ‘Well to be honest Dad, I’ve never given it a thought, but now you’ve put it into my mind I probably won’t forget’. Which I didn’t, and [inaudible] But what can you do about it?

AS: But he’d known you were in Bomber Command when you went home on leave?

JS: Yeah, I didn’t talk about it at all.


JS: I never talked about flying when I was home. Never said a word. Never said I was flying ops or anything. Never said what I was doing. I just said that, they asked why do I get leave so regular. I said ‘Because that’s the way it goes’, you know. When I look back on it now it was regular then. But then you might as well take it ‘cause you didn’t know when the next one was going to be.

AS: And as crews disappear you go up the leave ladder?

JS: When I look back you know, God I lost some guys. I was thinking about you, I’m glad you came today, and I’m sorry that I carry on so, because I don’t ever talk about the Air Force, I certainly couldn’t do it at home. And my Dad, or even now at home with people. My girls don’t seem to realise and they don’t take any notice. I’m not bragging to be some sort of hero but I don’t really get involved in talks about it. Have a bit of a laugh sometimes with some of the funny things that happened, some of the songs we used to sing and some of the things we used to do.

AS: Can you still remember any of those songs?

JS: All of ‘em, yeah.


JS: 77 has their own one.

AS: Yeah.

JS Then 578 was, started off – ‘We’re the pilot, otherwise Joe, we take him wherever we go. Berlin or [inaudible] wherever they send ‘em, it’s all the same to him. We’re the gunners, Dawson and Rear,[inaudible] with the flight engineer. It appalled us when they called us, we’d rather go on the beer. Navigations what I do, at least that’s what I tell the crew.’ [laughter] And things like this you know? The other one was, ‘77, 77 though we say it with a sigh. We’d rather work for Mr Bevan then we’d never have to fly’. And we had all these songs, and it was cheerful, it took your mind off what you were doing. We drank a lot and they knew we drank a lot and nobody corrected us. Because they used to say ‘The poor buggers they can’t guarantee they’re going to get any more drink’, you know? Whether they’d come back. We did lose so many guys.

AS: Yeah.

JE: We did lose so many guys.

AS: Yeah.

JE: And it wasn’t until after the war on my own I sat down and thought about it. And I’m not going to argue with my Dad, I’m not going to talk about it, I’m not even going to mention it to anybody. So, I didn’t say I was in the Air Force. I thought if I don’t say it I won’t have to talk about it or worry about it. Because some people thought I was a hero but some people thought we were villains.

AS: And this was quite quickly after the end of the war that things changed?

JE: Um. When I look back on it now, what a time to live eh?

AS: Well, it’s an experience. I mean did you ever think you’re getting airborne with two thousand gallons of fuel and twelve thousand pounds of bombs it was a bit dangerous?

JS: No, I didn’t, yeah.

AS: Did you?

JS: I tell you on one occasion, odd occasion this, we had a two-thousand-pound bomb hung up in the bombing rack, and the bloody thing wouldn’t go. Well, I was the smallest member of the crew, so I went, they hung me by my legs into the bomb bay with a hammer. And I had to ‘bang, bang, bang’ at the group until the bloody thing went. And it went, and after it went, didn’t it go with a bang? Christ Almighty! And the other time, of course, was definitely was my fault. Where we dropped the bombs on Scarborough. We should never have done them really, but we wanted, we were getting so close to the sea and yet we didn’t seem to be getting there. I thought if we don’t get there in a minute we’re going in. So, I pressed the wrong tit at the wrong time.

AS: I think dropping them live was what probably upset them, Joe.

JS: Oh my God, the rear gunner said, ‘Christ Almighty, what’s going on Joe?’ He said. There was a terrible bang and then another one and of course they were all going off. Actually, I, we were lucky we didn’t blow ourselves out of the sky really.

AS: Yeah.

JS: Crazy thing to do.

AS: There’s a minimum height for.

JS: Um.

AS: You also dropped lots of bombs safe didn’t you after the war? Tell me about that.

JS: We used to load the aircraft with bombs. Fly outside of Hull and drop them in the sea. Just unload the whole bloody lot downward, go back and get another load. There were so many bombs in the bomb dump and we said ‘They won’t be used again. We want them out of the way’. So, on the floor outside of Hull are literally hundreds of bombs that were dropped there during the war. The next job after that was the aircraft. We had to fly them up to Newcastle. We took anything that was necessary off, flew them up there and they burnt them and broke them up. This was after the war.

AS: Soon after the war?

JS: Yes, not many weeks after the war, ‘cause by that time I’d then gone onto Dakotas you see? And Ken and I had to learn to fly Dakotas, I enjoyed that, they were good fun.

AS: Did you surprise Ken with how well you could fly? Did he know about your previous experience?
JS: Oh yeah, he knew initially that I could fly, because rare occasions, very rare occasions, he’d let me fly the Halifax. Only when he wanted to have a slash or have a break, then I would take over you see?

AS: On ops?

JS: Um.

AS: Gosh.

JS: When I look back on it now I was glad I wasn’t a pilot. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pilot anymore. Different if you were a Spitfire pilot or a Hurricane pilot, which is what I originally went in to do. That’s alright but not sitting at the [inaudible] of the bloody thing.

AS: Bus driving.

JS: Bus driving yeah.

AS: Well they call them don’t they? Driver air frame mark one?[chuckling].

JS: Yeah.

AS: So, you stayed on 77, and the idea was they’d re-role 77 to be a transport squadron?

JS: Um.

AS: And you became a second pilot sharing the flying with Ken?

JS: With Ken.

AS: So, you didn’t stay in the UK, what happened?

JS: Went straight out to the Far East.

AS: Did you take any sort of test as a pilot? Qualification as a pilot?

JS: We both had a test before we left. I spent a bit of time, we both were capable of flying and it was known, but he was the pilot obviously and I was the second pilot. But the aircraft, some of them were quite good, some of them were rubbish. They had them too long and they should have been scrapped but we used them occasionally. Um.

AS: In training or?

JS: Um.

AS: And then you went with Dakotas overseas?

JS: Um.

AS: What was that all about, ‘cause the war in the Far East was still going on was it?

JS: Yes, we went out for the invasion of Japan. We were going to act as the taxis for the people who were going to invade Japan, but they dropped the bombs on Japan completely, well it was fantastic bombs they dropped on Japan. And the war finished immediately. So after that we did every job that could be, was necessary for an aircraft to do. We brought the prisoners of war back home, we did all sorts of interesting things.

AS: You set off the 27th of September to Sardinia? That’s one leg, Libya, Karachi this took you?

JS: Took about ten days.

AS: Amazing. Delhi via the Taj Mahal.

JS: Um.

AS: Carried VIP’s. What was that all about?

JS: We took some. You see we had all sorts of jobs. Oftentimes somebody’s generals and admirals that had to go and we took them. We had a special aircraft which had seats, ‘cause a lot of the aircraft hadn’t got seats, had to sit on the floor. But we had lots of aircraft fitted for important people, and we took them to various places. I did a tour once, oh that was it, I did a tour once with them, with a concert party, and we had the concert party with all the extras in the Dak. And we used to fly every night we’d fly to a different place, and then they’d do their trip. Well then they finished, towards the end they said to us ‘What do you think of the show, Joe?’ I said, and I felt embarrassed, I said ‘Actually’, ‘Oh, go on’. ‘We’ve never seen the show’. ‘Good God man’ they said. I said ‘Well, there’s always’. ‘We’ll give you a performance tonight’. So some of them did. There were two brothers, they dressed up as young females. They were so good.

AS: You’ve been out East too long. [laughter]

JS: And I finished up with the tour at Bombay and we realised that we had a couple of days over, so I said to Ken ‘Can’t we get hold of some money and stop here for a couple of days?’ So he said he would see what he could do, and he got some cash out of somewhere. And we stopped on for a couple of days extra. And I liked Bombay, I learned to swim underwater in Bombay, ‘cause they had a beautiful pool there.

AS: And that’s where in November 1945, at Palam, you set off on your last flight with 77 Squadron?

JS: That’s right yeah.

AS: Tell me about finishing flying, was that planned or?

JS: No. I didn’t think he was going home that quickly, ‘cause he wanted to get home anyway. And his number came up long before mine, and I could have carried on with somebody else, but I suddenly thought ‘I’ve been flying for four years, I’m the luckiest bloke I know, perhaps I can even get an early journey home’. Well I went to see the CO and he said he realised that I had had a good innings but he couldn’t let me go yet, it wasn’t down. He said ‘There’s a nice little job coming up in the post office’. I said ‘oh’. He said ‘I think you’d like it you know, you’re in charge’. So I said ‘OK’ so I took it on until such time as it was due to come home. When I look back on it now, India was going through terrible internal problems. I was bloody glad to get out of India. They were killing each other wholesale. One against the other. Just before the break up, because that’s, if you look at the time, dates, that’s when they finally broke up, India and Pakistan.

AS: I think also there was some trouble in the Air Force wasn’t there? What they called the 1946 RAF Mutiny?

JS: Oh yeah.

AS: What was that about?

JS: That arrived it was the first time I went out there. It wasn’t ’46, it was ’45 I think, could have been ’46. What had happened was, all the guys, the ground staff guys, had been out in the Far East, some of them for four years, never been home. And here was the war over in England and all their mates were leaving and getting good jobs and there’s them stuck out there in India. And it got worse and worse until eventually there was a desertion and then a –

AS: A mutiny?

JS: Yeah, it really went mad. I thought there might even be a bit of violence but there wasn’t. But some of the chaps who were actually in charge, and they were officers, they were in trouble, they were jailed. But, and I can see their point, lots of them had been out there for four years. All their mates had gone home in England and finished the war and were getting jobs, nothing for them.

AS: So, what happened to Joe Stemp then? You’re running a post office?

JS: Yeah.

AS: You told me earlier you taught yourself to drive on a big truck.

JS: Yeah.

AS: How did you end up from India?

JS: My time came up to leave.


JS: And I went up, I flew home. [inaudible] what I’m going to do and my father said to me ‘I’ve saved you a position in the works’. He said ‘You can start next Monday’. I said ‘Hang on, I’ve been away. I wasn’t going to start work straight away, I thought I’d have a break’. ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I’ve been away and I want a break’. ‘I don’t know about that’ he says, ‘I’ve kept a job for you here’. So I said ‘OK’. So I started and I hated it. And after a few weeks a mate of mine got in touch with me and we went and had a drink together. And he worked on the paper that the, Times no?

AS: Financial Times?

JS: Financial Times.

AS: The pink one.

JS: And he said ‘How would you like a job on the Financial Times?’ ‘Oh, not half’. I said. ‘I’ll see what I can do’. And the next thing I know is I’m offered a job by them. I went up, saw them, they liked me, I liked them and I went to work for them, and it was up and up from then onwards. I went out on the road eventually, had a good job as a rep and eventually went out on the road and did very well. Maxwell.

AS: Yeah.

JS: My first client, I’ve told you haven’t I? Three months I gave him his work. Did lots of [inaudible] for him, never got a penny. When I went to get money from him he was rude to me and told me to get stuffed and all sort of things. So I said ‘That’s it, we’re finished with you’. And we did but I carried on and I had some very good clients in the end and they liked me and also the women liked me, so I had lots of women clients. And they all liked Joe and I was getting more money. Before I knew where I was I was doing very well and over the years I’ve done very well.

AS: How did you meet and marry Pat?

JS: On a train. I was flying, it was just before I went to the Far East when I was still flying Dakotas, and I went, I took a couple of days off. And a mate said to me ‘Let’s go down the coast for a couple of days and have a break’. So I said ‘What a good idea’. And my Dad didn’t want me to because he knew that I’d go boozing. I said ‘So?’ Anyway, I went. We get to the station, we get to the train, there isn’t room to spare. We walked right the length of the train [inaudible] and in the last carriage, eight women were in there, but nobody moved. So, we stood outside all the way to Plymouth and at Plymouth two got out, and we went in and used their seats. And I took one look at this woman opposite me and I fell in love with her, now I did. I know I’m a romantic but there and then. So, the next day I looked and saw she had a wedding ring and an engagement ring. I thought ‘Bloody marvellous, every time I fancy some girl someone else has got there first’. So the next day we were talking casually and she said she was a widow. Oh, lost her husband shot down over Poland flying the aircraft [inaudible]. So on the third day I asked her to marry me. She thought I was crazy. ‘Good God man’. She said. ‘I don’t even know your name, never mind marry you’. I said ‘Would you marry me?’ She thought about and she said ‘Put it this way, I’ll think about it’. I said ’Look, I’m going away any moment now, like tomorrow or the day after, to the Far East. I don’t know how long I’m going to be going but I’ll be gone probably about a year. And I’d like to know’. She said ‘I’m not going to say anything. I’ll think about it’. So she wrote to me during the first year and when I came home I asked her again, and we got married. So, I did well didn’t I? [laughs]

AS: Absolutely.

JS: She said something to me about two years ago. She’d wet herself in the home down the road there, and I went to change her knickers for her and I changed her knickers in the toilet and I whispered in her ear ‘What a good job I love you to death’. Do you know what she said to me? ‘Joe, I’ve loved you from the moment I first saw you’. Christ I was nearly in tears.

AS: On the train?

JS: Um. So I said ‘You’re a funny girl’. I knew see, and of course we got on very well over the years but she used to write me nice letters. Even when the Queen sends us a card. There’s a certain period of the year when the Queen sends us a card. Because we’ve got some connection with them. And she usually writes in the Queen’s letter or card a nice letter to me. Always a nice letter saying how much she loves being married to me and what a marvellous life she’s had. And that was how it went.

AS: And did you ever talk about the war and the flying between you?

JS: No.

AS: Because she’d lost her husband?

JS: We never did. Only time she said something was when I did say at one time, ‘I should have stayed in you know Pat?’ ‘What do you mean you should have stayed in?’ I said ‘All my mates who stayed in did a great job, doing, working for Europe, buying stuff in Europe and coming over after the war you know? They were making a fortune on the side.

AS: It’s called smuggling Joe. [laughter]

JS: It is just that. So I said, she said ‘Joe, I’ve told you I lost one husband and I’m not going to take another one, it’s up to you’. I said [inaudible] So we were married. Sixty-five years we were married.

AS: Good lord.

JS: Never had a cross word with her hardly in all that time. My girls could never understand it. ‘You and Mum’ they said ‘You get on so well’. I said ‘Well, that’s what life’s supposed to be like, getting on well.’ Well now you know a lot about that book.

AS: I’d like to photograph the book in a minute Joe. Just one final set of thoughts really, perhaps? That we talked about your father’s attitude to the bombing.

JS: Oh yeah.

AS: The public’s attitude through the fifties and sixties and the seventies, I think was, in many ways, was much against the bombing although you didn’t talk about it.

JS: No.

AS: Did you feel it was unfair? Did you shout internally about it or?

JS: They felt that we were taking advantage of the fact that the Germans were in trouble with Russia and when they were in their worst state we were taking advantage and bombing them badly. Which we did. I never discussed that, it never gave me a thought. When you fly you’re told what you told, you go where you’re told to go, and do what you’ve got to do. And that’s all I can say. I couldn’t say to them ‘Oh I’m not going to bomb there, I’m not going to go there’. You do what you’re told. I didn’t even want to belong to Bomber Command but once you’re are, you’re there aren’t you?

AS: And you had no choice about where you went?

JS: No.

AS: When you were flying, this has just occurred to me, did you have a lot of, I mean the enemies were the flak, the fighters and the weather. Did you have a lot of trouble with the weather?

JS: No. If the weather was bad we didn’t go. [inaudible] Our raid were also worked on how the weather was going to be on the way and on the way back,. ‘cause we had to get back from Germany, it wasn’t like round the corner it was a six hour trip sometimes. And basically we did well. Occasionally we did come unstuck. In which case we had to find somewhere to land as soon as we hit this coast. Which we did, we went to a smaller ‘drome in south of England.


JS: Went in there on two or three occasions. I’ve been down there and found the place full of Halifax’s, and bombers and all sorts that had run out of fuel.

AS: So, is it fair to say that the weather reports you were given, or forecasts were pretty good most of the time?

JS: They were very good.


JS: I think I mentioned this. Just before I joined the squadron, I met some mates of mine who were in a similar squadron but they were flying Whitley’s and Wellingtons, and they hated the flying so what they did was, and this is an absolute truth, there used to be a song. ‘Bomb holes in the roof tops, instead of craters in the sea’. What had happened was, they’d be having a drink and the skipper would come in. ‘Don’t have any more drink lads, we’re on tonight’. ‘Oh, sod it, have we got to go?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Oh, alright.’ They’d take off, get half way across the coast then they’d say to each other ‘Let’s have a go’. So they’d all have a go at the skipper. ‘Have we got to go? This is bloody silly, really isn’t it? Why can’t we dump our bombs here and go back home? The navigator can cook the log’. Which he could, so they did. And it went on and on. At that period there were more bombs dropped in the bloody sea than ever dropped over there. And then they found out what they were doing, ‘cause the next morning they’d go down and they’d say ‘That’s funny, they reckon they dropped all the bombs, where did they drop them? We can’t find any bomb holes anywhere’. Spitfire would go over. They decided they must do something about it so they fitted a new attachment like that, to a camera, to the bomb tit. So when you pressed the bomb tit it showed you where the bombs were going. So you couldn’t get away with it anymore. [laughs]

AS: So, this was automatic, so many seconds after the bombs went?

JS: Um. But there was an awful lot of it. And when you think of the aircraft, they were pathetic aircraft, you know? You didn’t stand a chance really with them. At least with our aircraft we had good aircraft. I mean the Lancaster and Halifax were both fantastic bombers. And well looked after, well good.

AS: Can you remember still, and I don’t expect this, but can you remember the drills you had to do as the bomb aimer as you’re approaching the target?

JS: Any?

AS: The drills. Did you have to set the wind up or? Too long ago?

JS: No, as I recall, I did most of it, I didn’t do them all. But we had to get, as I recall. We used to lay on our stomach and we got our bomb sight lined up with where we had to drop the bombs. And generally speaking I was either very lucky, not always so clever, but very lucky. Consequently, I had some very, very good results and we got a big reputation. I told you, on the bombs on that railway, I blew the station from one end to the other. Right down the line, blew everything out of the way. And so I got congratulated on it. And on a number of occasions I was, I personally was congratulated, which was such a shame when I hit the Scarborough bit. [laughter]

AS: OK. I think we’ve had a really good go at this Joe, I’m –

JS: Haven’t we, I’m sorry.

AS: No, I’m so grateful for you. And perhaps we could resume another day?

JS: Yes.

AS: When maybe some more memories will come back.

JS: Next time I’ll take you out to have something to eat. It’s been nice, I’m not giving you bullshit now. It’s been nice to meet you, you’re exactly as I thought you would be and I’ve enjoyed your company. And if you ever want to come again, not necessarily to chat even, you’re always welcome here with me.

AS: That’s very kind and I will.

JS: Sorry.

AS: This is the second reel of interview with Joe Stemp. Joe, I think we paused at the point when we were talking about your disappointment at –

JS: At losing. Yes. Scrubbing my pilot’s skills.

AS: Did they. What happened next? Did they give you the choice of being a navigator or?

JS: Not really, I don’t know. All I know is that for some months I did odds and ends around and the next thing I know is I’m at Blackpool, going out to South Africa to do this navigation course.

AS: What sort of odds and ends did they have you doing?

JS: Oh, I did all sorts of things for them, I was most surprised they let me do it really. I quite enjoyed it, it was quite enjoyable. I was up at Blackpool for some time and, you know, I quite enjoyed the Air Force. I had intended to go for a pilot’s course, another one, and try again but I realised that they’d got all the records and I would never have got away with it.

AS: So, you’d come out then and enlist under a different name or something?

JS: Yeah.

AS: OK. So, after they’d had you doing odds and ends, you’re in Liverpool, presumably going to South Africa by ship?

JS: Yes, we did.

AS: What was that like?

JS: Marvellous. I found a lot of good friends out there. East London was where I trained and the people of East London were very good to us. Families would adopt us so at the weekend we always had somewhere to go. And I was adopted by a family and they liked me and we had good times together, the Carter family. I had a very good time in South Africa, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The only thing that ever got me was she had a lot of other children, they weren’t hers. She had seven people working for her. She had people working for her, a family of seven and they lived in a rough old shack down the bottom of her garden. Well if I treated her children to sweets I treated their children. And she found out and I got a real bollocking. I mustn’t, she said ‘You don’t seem to realise, Joe, there’s more of them then us’. I said ‘It’s got nothing to do with it’. But, and I’ve always had this thing about it, the way they treated them.

AS: Was there any, did you encounter any anti-British feeling in South Africa?

JS: No, not really no. Not really. ‘Cause funny enough the Air Force weren’t very popular in South Africa, they weren’t very popular at all. I don’t know why, amongst the South African’s this is, I wasn’t unhappy to leave on that score. The course was very good, very interesting and we flew nearly every day. The weather was so good you could, you see We flew nearly every day.

AS: So, you were there doing a specific navigators course or an observers course?

JS: An observers course really. I was doing navigators and bomb aiming too. I did bombing as well. In fact, it was a brilliant – by the time I joined my crew on the Halifax I was the most experienced member of the crew really, although I was the youngest. It’s amazing isn’t it?

AS: So, you’d had training on navigation and bomb aiming? What else did you manage to pick up?

JS: Pilot training as well, you see, when I started, you see.

AS: Of course.

JS: I always remember when the war was over, I came home, and my skipper arranged to meet me in Ealing and we’d have a drink together. And we got terribly drunk and then got into trouble because we really let go. And I swore, I said ‘I’m not going to argue with you anymore. We’ll leave it to another time and finish this conversation’. And I walked out and left him. And I never did see him again, and I never did see him again because a couple of years later, out of the blue I found out he died early, so I never did get to see him.

AS: Can you discuss what the argument was about?

JS: Well first of all, I said the crew came to me at one period during our tour and said ‘You’re the best person to talk to him. Can you tell him that we are not here for the ride? We are part of this crew and we all have our jobs to do. Every time we say anything he completely ignores us’. So I said ‘In what –‘ So one of the gunners said ‘I told him, dive starboard’. I said. ‘How we got missed, I never know’. And all this sort of thing, he said ‘He never, ever listens to what we’re saying’. So I said ‘OK, I’ll have a word with him’. Because only the pilot and the navigator went into the main briefing. When the main briefing was over then the whole crew came in, and they all came in and after the briefing he went outside and he said ‘I believe you’re all upset with me?’ ‘Oh no’. And I stood there and I thought here I am, eighteen years old, I’ve learnt a lesson for life. Don’t talk up for other people, let them do it themselves. And I never. [laughs] And they all virtually. [inaudible] He said ‘Ha’. And I said ‘I don’t give a [inaudible], you either don’t want to know or you do, and I don’t care now’. We carried on, and in fairness he was a good pilot. And we had incidents as one does when one’s flying but basically I was very happy and we did a good job. I don’t think, I never wanted to go into bombers anyway. But as I say he was a funny guy. We went from there, as I told you, onto Dakotas, and the two of us were flying, learning to fly Dakotas at the same time. And then we flew out to the Far East with the object of the invasion of Japan, but they dropped the bomb and fortunately for us we didn’t have to invade Japan. So we ended up by doing anything out there that they needed. For example, we picked up most of the prisoners of war, our prisoners of war, and brought them back to India. Anywhere to get, you know? And we did all sorts of jobs with the Dakota. I always remember getting a whole group of these ex-prisoners. They were like, oh God it was awful, six stone some of them aAnd they didn’t want to get on the aircraft. They said ‘No, we’re going to get killed’. I said ‘We’ll be flying the bloody thing’. Anyway they got on, no seats, we just sat them on the floor. ‘Anyway, it’s only a couple of hours or so and then you’ll be out of here and on your way home’. But we did some very good jobs out there, I enjoyed it, but when he finally went home I didn’t want to fly with anybody else so they put me in charge of the post office in Karachi of all things.

AS: But it sounds like a fascinating marriage almost.

JS: Um.

AS: One hears of crewing up and how the crew is terribly tight knit.

JS: Um.

AS: Doesn’t seem really –

JS: It’s not true.

AS: To have been the case for you.

JS It’s not true. I know so many crews that were good and they were crews. They mixed together, they went out together, they worked together, they were part of a team. But my crew lasted, there were three of us, were good friends. The flight engineer and one of the gunners and I. The three of us were great friends. The flight engineer was a regular airman and he was coming, and he didn’t ever want to be in aircrew, and he was coming out with a load of stuff on his bike one day and just for a joke the guy on the desk said ‘What have you got there?’ And he’d got half a joint. He said ‘Where are you going with that?’ He was taking it to the Officers’ Mess. He’d nicked it from somewhere. It got into a big battle between him and the CO and they virtually said ‘We’ll give you an option. You can join aircrew and we’ll drop the charges or else’. And he didn’t want, he was scared. I’d been with him when poor old Tom. And I’d seen him gripping hold of the thing and I said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be alright’. But he never did like flying. He was a good, he was a good flight engineer, but he hated flying, he was petrified.

AS: But still did his job?

JS: He did his job. When we finished the tour for some unknown reason, we all disappeared. Even he did you know? But he turned up again to say to me that he was going on Dakotas and he wanted me to come with him. So I did. As a pilot he was good, he knew what he was doing. As a man I wasn’t happy with him at all.

AS: Was he an officer? Was he an officer?

JS: He was a flight lieutenant.

AS: Do you think this was part of the issue with the crew?

JE: No, no. He was, he always fancied his chances. I had a feeling that he thought he was a bit cleverer and brighter than the others but actually, when it came down to it, he lived just round the corner from where I lived at home. Alright, I lived in a council estate and he didn’t, but he was nothing special and he had a very nice wife who he, I thought, treated abominably. Because there had been times when I was with him when we’d have awful rows. Because we’d be out, well I didn’t mind the other boys shagging around all over the place, but I did object to him doing it. And we’ve had so many rows over this over the years. When he, I, so for years went by and I was down in Guildford and I was sitting there and I got hold of the directory. And I looked there and there was his name in the directory. And I said ‘Good God, I’ll ring him up’. So I rang him up and a voice said, a very posh voice said ‘Hello, who’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s Joe Stemp’. ‘My God man, that’s’s going back a bit, my God’ she said ‘Fancy that’. And she kept going on and on but she didn’t mention him. I thought ‘She kicked him out, she must have done’. But she didn’t, he died a couple of years after, after I’d separated from him. With a heart attack.

AS: Lot of strain, lot of stress in operational life.

JS: It was yes, yeah.

AS: You raise an interesting issue actually about sex in wartime.

JS: Um.

AS: I think, yeah, my generation thought they invented sex. Every generation thinks they invented sex. [laughter] It’s not something one hears a great deal about.

JS: You know why don’t you? They didn’t like aircrew. The girls would not, did not, like going out with aircrew ‘cause they said you could never guarantee he was going to be there on Friday, which happens. They’d fall for one and then the chap just wouldn’t appear again. We lost so many men that women were very careful about who they went with, especially flying men. So I’m told. I never had a girlfriend, I didn’t really worry. I found a girlfriend at the right time when it was all over.

AS: But amongst your crew mates there was a lot of?

JS: Oh God, they used to take me with them. It was, I was embarrassed. And they used to, they started off first of all thinking I was queer because I didn’t want to know, then to stir things up they always got somebody for me. Some awful woman that they’d dump, and I’d get left with this. Oh God, yes they were always after me. The thing was I wasn’t very old either when you think about it was I? Only about eighteen.

AS: I won’t ask you who you were more terrified of, the flak or the ladies?

JS: [laughter] We had lots of incidents when I was flying but I’ll tell you a story. I didn’t do many daylight trips, mostly night trips, long night trips. I was on this day trip and the rear gunner said to me, called over, and we didn’t have a lot of chat when we were flying. And he called over the tannoy, ‘Joe, look ahead of you. See that Lanc, that Halifax on the right, that’s old Charlie Whatisname’. So I looked and I thought ‘Dunno’. I thought ‘Perhaps he’s right, yeah’. I said, ‘I think it’, and before I could say another word he disappeared into little bits. A Lancaster above dropped his bloody bombs on the. Honestly, and it blew him out of the sky. And I turned round to the crew and I said ‘I’d never really got worried about flying, but this has done me in, I can’t believe what I’ve just seen.. Terrible.

AS: And not unique?

JS: No,it wasn’t, it happened a lot. Crashing into each other, bombs on each other. I mean, in some of these big raids where we had hundreds of bombers there was terrible mess ups all the way through you know?

AS: What sort of things?

JS: I’m a strange guy. People used to say ‘You’re an amazing guy. You don’t seem to realise it’s a dangerous job you’re doing’. I said ‘Well it’s quite exciting really’. And that’s the way I saw it you see? It wasn’t until I watched him go and I suddenly thought ‘Christ, it’s dangerous up here’. But I was never nervous and I was never scared, honestly, because we had a job to do. I was quite happy. But he was, we’ve had, I had lots of problems with him, the skipper. When we flew together out in India different story entirely. I did a lot of flying with him.

AS: As a second pilot were you responsible for the navigational duties as well or did you carry a navigator?

JS: We had a navigator.

AS: So, you were sharing take offs, landings and the flying?

JS: In fact, the guy who was our navigator at that time with the Dakotas, I have to tell you this story. We were flying out to the Far East, we’d done two legs when suddenly the aircraft got into trouble. So we put it in at Tel Aviv in Israel and they said they’d examine the aircraft. While we were there two days we met a couple of girls. Just chatted normally, we took them out and had drinks and enjoyed their company and that was it. Thoroughly enjoyed it, ‘Bye, bye, see you some time’. Years later, I went to see this navigator, and I had a feeling that it wasn’t right ‘cause when I rang him his wife used to give him the information what to say, and I had a feeling he didn’t know. I think he had Alzheimer’s, I think he didn’t know what he was saying. So anyway, I went down to see him and we had quite an interesting visit. And I did a silly thing, I said to him ‘Do you remember the crash in the Wellington?’ And he looked at me all surprised, and his wife was standing behind him going. So, I thought ‘OK, stop it, that’s it’. He obviously had forgotten, one doesn’t forget crashes. So, I said ‘That’s it’. So when I left I get into my car, he had a posh house in Torbay, he came rushing down the thing and banged on the window. ‘Here, Joe’ he said, ‘Do you remember those two girls we met in Tel Aviv?’ and I said, ‘For Christ’s sake’. We had a terrible crash and I don’t know how we ever got away with it and he says, he’d forgotten that and he was talking about two girls that we met just casually. Isn’t that amazing?

AS: The memory is a funny thing. What was the crash as a matter of interest?

JS: I tell you what it was. And it was, my skipper wasn’t at the helm. We’d done a navigation course at which I was working and we ended up somewhere outside, that island, between England and Ireland.

AS: Isle of Man?

JS: Isle of Man. We parked in there and we were taking off to go back home, and we’d only been in the air about ten minutes when the operator came up and said ‘I’ve got a message, Joe, to be passed through’. The message was ‘Return to the Isle of Man because the weather in the North, in Scotland, is so bad they won’t take us in’. So I gave this to my pilot who gave it to the other man who was flying, the flight lieutenant we don’t know him. ‘Sod that’ he said. ‘I told my wife we’re going home tonight and I’m going home tonight’. Well we had no answer to this, he was in charge, he was the skipper, so off we went. When we get there it is foul. Lossiemouth, Kinloss, none of them would take us in. So we went to a little place called Elgin and he decided he’d go in there. Instead of going into wind he went downwind, took the bloody barbed wire fence with him. I watched it pull all the skin off the aircraft as I sat there, and eventually it ended on, there’s a, they used to raise dumps and put the grass round, you know, and it was a bomb dump. And as soon as we managed eventually to stop, there was nobody rushing to our aid, they’d all buggered off, running away ‘cause they thought. [laughter] I’ll never forget it. So I caught them up and we finished there and he wasn’t a mid-upper gunner because we hadn’t got a mid-upper turret. But we were keeping him for when we went onto heavies. And he went up to this officer and he walloped him. And of course everybody grabbed him. And I thought, said to my gunner ‘Joe it’s [inaudible]’’. Anyway, they didn’t. I think he lost his commission. I think he was charged ‘cause he was definitely told he mustn’t return. How the hell we got away with it I’ll never know.

AS: So, this is when you were back in England?

JS: Yeah.

AS: Crewed up?

JS: I’d crewed up but we were crewed up on Wellingtons you see?

AS: OK, whereabouts was that?

JS: I can’t think now.

AS: Doesn’t matter. This was what OTU?

JS: Like an OTU yes. This is where I first met my pilot and the other crew got together. We were crewed up as a crew. We had a strange crew. Lots of crews I’ve met over the years have been ideal. But there were some strange crews.

AS: Strange in what sense? How did you, how did you meet and fall in love as it were? How did you crew up the?

JS: They put us all together in this big hangar with drinks to follow, and you had the chance, people would come up and say, if they fancied you ‘Are you crewed up?’ ‘No’. ‘You’re not looking for an engineer?’ ‘Yeah, yeah’. It was all, you know, we ended up with, they were quite a mixed crowd really. Some of the crews were great, they got on so well together. They were a real team. But we couldn’t say that with Henley, ‘cause Ken Henley was an arrogant bastard really. I –

AS: Who was, can you remember, who was in charge of the crewing up? Did he take the lead? Did you take the lead?

JS: No, I did meet, I met two chaps who were talking together and I said to them, I liked the look of them you know? And I said to them ‘Are you crewed up?’ ‘No, not yet’.[inaudible]. He and I had just met, his gunner and his engineer had just met, and I said, ‘You haven’t got a crew?’ ‘No’. I said ‘Oh, could I join you?’ They said ‘Yeah, sure. Who are you flying with?’ And I said ‘Well I’ve got a skipper but I don’t know whether you’d like him or not?’ But they said ‘Oh sod him, we’ll have you’. And that’s how we got together. There were funny things happen with crews during the war. Very funny things used to happen.

AS: What sort of things?

JS: Well, my skipper for example was, he was a terrible womaniser in every possible way. And also he, what he said the crew agreed. In other words the crew used to say ‘He thinks he’s the only one on board. I don’t know why we all go with him ‘cause he doesn’t bother, you’d think he was the only one. He forgets there should be seven of us’. He did, and he did do this and I used to say to him ‘You must be more careful, Ken, with their feelings’. ‘I mean’ I said ‘When the other night’. One of the operators did something and he virtually turned him down. ‘He was absolutely right and you know it was’, I said, ‘Through him and through you ignoring him, we were five minutes late’ I said ‘We ended up that we would have reached the target five minutes after the other buggers had left’. I said ‘It wouldn’t have been a lot of fun’. And it got worse and worse and the nearer we got to the target, they kept coming up to me and saying ‘Joe, for Christ’s sake, tell him’. So I did. I mentioned ‘This is stupid. There’s no point on going on like this, we’re going to get shot to pieces in a minute, ‘cause we’re going to be the only ones up here’. And he at last agrees so we dropped all the bombs and we came home on our own. But it would have been awful.

AS: Going back to your accident up in Elgin. Were you ever aware of an organisation called the Training Flying Control Centre on the Isle of Man? That -

JS: No.

AS: That sent all these signals?

JS: No.

AS: My mother worked for them.

JS: Really? Good Lord.

AS: Yep. ‘Cause you and lots and lots of aircrews were training over the Irish Sea and they used to fly into mountains and fly into the sea. So they started this Training Flight Control Centre and they would be the people probably who sent you the recall message.

JS: Yeah.

AS: So, you were crewing up and learning the art of operational flying on Wellingtons? What were they like as kites? Were they new or old and clapped out? What were they like?

JS: Wellingtons?

AS: Yeah.

JE: Loved it. Loved ‘em. Oh, I was very keen on the Wellington. I liked the Wimpey, we all did. In fact, I was sorry when we started first of all on the Halifax. My, I must tell you this chap, one of my crew, the engineer he hated flying, he was absolutely scared stiff. But he had to, I think I told you because of an incident. But there were so many things. He was a professional airman too. He’d been in the Air Force before the war, the last thing he wanted to do was fly. But he was threatened so he had to start flying. And I used to try to comfort him because he I found he used to get so, so upset. I can see him standing there, holding onto things. He hated it, he hated ops. But he didn’t like upsetting us so he came with us. It wasn’t an easy job you know at times. We went out in some awful weather and did some awful trips, long trips. We were coming back from that big one, where we should never have dropped the bombs, we did because of the Russians.

AS: Dresden?

JS: Yes. And I said to my crew, ‘Now look’ I said. ‘Don’t for Christ’s sake put this in your logbook, ‘cause the time will come when you’ll be most embarrassed to know, or anybody else know, that you actually bombed here, like we’ve done’. ‘Well’ they said ‘All we’ve done is drop’. We didn’t drop explosive bombs. So, I said, I said ‘The best thing to do is forget all about it’. Because, I mean, fifty yards from the target, I looked back and the Americans had come in and they decided to bomb, and there was a lot of bombing going on. It was awful.

AS: So even, even as, you were carrying incendiaries? Even as you were over the target what made you think not to put it in your logbook? Just the?

JS: The fact that we realised we shouldn’t have been there anyway. I didn’t feel we should have bombed there. They said, they said ‘It’s the Russians, we’re doing it to please Russia’. Perhaps we are, but nobody seemed happy about it. None of the crews that I flew with that day said to me anything. They all had a bit of an indiscretion, they all felt a bit bad about that one.

AS: This was after the briefing?

JS: Um.

AS: What did they say then, just that it was to help the Russians, at the briefing?

JS: Well they said it would help the trouble on that front, you know? The following day the Americans went in but they didn’t have incendiaries, they had high explosives, they blew the place apart.

AS: Before we got to your operational missions, you were, how long did it take on the Wellingtons, on the OTU? What sort –

JS: A long time.

AS: What sort of things were you doing?

JS: A lot of training on the Wellington. I loved that on the Wellingtons. Apart from the crash we had a great time. I thought it was a lovely aircraft, always did. This guy who was flying it he was, he’d had a flat near the ‘drome, and he promised his missus he was going home, regardless of us. Regardless of [inaudible] that the weather was bad or that they weren’t going to take us into Kinloss or Lossiemouth. And he still carried on. Well, he was in charge, we weren’t. So, you just do what you’re told don’t you?

AS: So he was a staff pilot from the OTU?

JS: Oh yeah, yeah. I think he lost his rank, I think he lost his job. I don’t remember afterwards anything happening. All I know is that we were. We didn’t realise why people were running away from us, not coming to our aid. Because we were on the bloody bomb dump that’s why.

AS: So, I imagine that it wasn’t quite the same then nowadays. Did you get leave and counselling or anything like that?

JS: Well, when we were flying on ops we had leave about every month. We had a week off and not only did we have a week off but Lord, was it Nuffield?

AS: Nuffield yeah.

JS: Used to give us extra money. Did you know that?

AS: Yes.

JS: For aircrew, most unusual. And I used to always have a white fiver to give to my Mum. And when I used to go home I used to give my Mum the white fiver, she used to rush up the stairs and hide it. And years later, couple of years, she gave it all back to me to put in the Crusader Rescue. I said ‘I’m not going to do it. It isn’t for the Crusader Rescue, it’s for you’. But no we had a, we did quite well, we had leave quite regularly.

AS: After your accident did they give you leave? Or just put you in another aeroplane?

JS: No. After our accident we were flying a different ‘plane the next day to make sure we were all alright, ‘cause they thought perhaps you know we’d not want to fly again.

AS: At this time when you’re flying over England, over Europe, I’m told it was very different from flying in South Africa. How did you find it, did you pick up the navigation in Europe very quickly?

JS: Yes. Lots of room. Lovely weather, lots of room. The pilots actually that were training with us were South African Air Force pilots. And one in particular he’d got a couple of girlfriends. And he used to bugger me up because I’d be on a navigation trip and he’d say ‘I won’t be long, Joe, I’m just going to pull off for a bit’. And off he’d go off to up where his girlfriend lived. Then we, then I wouldn’t bloody know where we were, and I’ve got to find out. No, it was a bit of a headache with him. He was a nice enough guy but he was mad.

AS: During your training, it was all. What sort of navigation did you learn?

JS: I don’t know, it’s hard to say now.

AS: Astro and?

JS: Yes, yeah we did the lot you know.

AS: Astro Course

JS: It was a very good course. Navigator. And of course in the end we had H2S and these things on the aircraft too.

AS: In South Africa?

JS: Oh no. When we came home.

AS: Yes.

JS: Um.

AS: So, you’d done your training. Did you come back by ship?

JS: Yes, I did.

AS: What was that like on the ship?

JS: Hated it. I was taken ill actually and I spent most of the way home in the sick bay. And I was put in a hospital when we first arrived home. I forget what was the matter with me but I know I wasn’t right. I always remember we came home on one of those famous liners we used before the war, you know?

AS: Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary?

JS: Yeah, that sort of thing, yeah.

AS: Wow.

JS: Amazing.

AS: And can you, can you remember the trip? Were you in convoy or?

JS: Yes, that was the trouble. When we were going out we had huge convoys. It took ages, it took about three weeks to get to South Africa. And also, another time, I remember flying alongside in North Africa. There were tremendous problems out there. It was, you always made a convoy around you to keep you safe, you know? So many of these things I’ve forgot but it was quite an interesting time.

AS: Yeah. It’s a long time ago, forgetting is not surprising. But when we talk it’s surprising how much comes back I think. You came back, did you come back into Liverpool from South Africa?

JS: Yes.


JS: And we stopped also, I always remember. We went to a very posh place and stopped there. All aircrew and we were crewed up, we crewed up there. I have met some really nice guys in aircrew during the war. I was unhappy about my bloke but the thing was you couldn’t afford to be. When you’re flying with someone you’ve got to get on and do what’s going. So we did the best we could. He was a good pilot, he was a bit nervous. On one occasion only did he panic. We had an explosion underneath us and he called out to me ‘Joe, Joe, they’ve shot my arse away’. So I said ‘What are you talking about?’ So I went up to him and he said ‘Look, blood, blood!’ And I said ‘For Christ’s sake’. So we got a torch out of the engine, they hadn’t shot his arse away, they had shot underneath, and in doing so they he had, it wasn’t blood it was oil! And he was panic stricken ‘cause he had a handful of oil and he thought it was blood. But he was alright generally but I wasn’t happy with him. I would never have anything to do with him in private life ever.

AS: But you were an extremely effective crew?

JS: Yes. We were a good crew. We were a good crew. The only thing that we did wrong was the end of my tour and I bombed Scarborough.

AS: I was born in Scarborough.

JS: Were you really?

AS: Yes. I take great exception to that Joe, tell me about it.

JS: We took off, aircraft was a deadbeat aircraft, full load of bombs. Got in the sky and he said to me ‘Christ, Joe, we’re in trouble’. And the next thing is, one of the engines packed up. I said ‘For God’s sake, Ken, let’s get out of here’. We had a load of bombs, let’s. I said ‘Make for Scarborough and we’ll get to the beach and we’ll drop the bombs in the sea there’. So he said ‘OK’. So we got to Scarborough and got lower and lower and lower, and then suddenly he said ‘Look we’ve got to get.’ So I pressed the tit. I pressed the tit that would send them down ‘live’ instead of ‘safe’, and they nearly blew us out of the sky. The poor old rear gunner was nearly. And there was a terrible incident there. ‘Joe Stemp bombs Scarborough’. Christ. So when we got back we explained what had happened and they, he didn’t exactly help me. So I had to go on a switch drill campaign, just to embarrass me really you know. I thought perhaps they’d stop us but we carried on just the same afterwards, but I always remember that. We didn’t do much damage, it wasn’t too bad. But they always joked about Joe Stemp the bloke that bombed Scarborough.

AS: So what were you, as a nav, doing with the bombs?

JS: I don’t know. I don’t know how it happened, it was panic stations that day.

AS: You just don’t like Yorkshiremen do you?

JS: [laughter] Lots of things I don’t remember. But we had, the crew weren’t too bad as a crew I suppose but I wasn’t terribly happy.

AS: Well, I’m, I’m interested actually about the ropey kite. Did you have your own aircraft as a crew mostly for the tour?

JS: Yes, well we had an aircraft. And it had done a hundred ops..

AS: What was her letter?

JS: I can’t think.

AS: Doesn’t matter.

JS: Anyway, the night of the hundred ops. The big arrangement there were lots of people turned up, we were going to have a big celebration, but something went wrong. Unbeknown to us, in the group coming back, was about thirty German fighters. And they didn’t make themselves known until they got over here. And when we got to Yorkshire they opened up and shot twenty of us down.

AS: Oh, this is Operation Gisela is it? Yes.

JS: Um.

AS: Were you attacked?

JS: Um. So my skipper said. I said ‘Well we better get down’. So he went to land and they tried to put him off landing, but he said ‘Sod it, we’re going in’. Well as we did and as we went there was an aircraft chasing us, shooting at us as we went down. We dived under the aircraft. Stupid our aircraft [inaudible] but of course the incidents, all the festivities forgotten. So the hundredth op just passed by. But it was a bad night, we lost a lot of aircraft. Lost a lot of aircraft that night and then the squadron broke up. And I had to join 77 ‘cos I think I’d done eighteen ops and I needed twelve more and so we joined 77 and finished the twelve with 77.

AS: As a complete crew?

JS: Yeah.

AS: Why did they break the squadron up, because of the losses?

JS: Yes, I think so. It was 578 the squadron was. It broke, they just closed it down.

AS: Good Lord. So, a very, very short existence?

JS: Um. I can’t imagine now why. I’ve often sat there when I’ve been on my own trying to think, ‘cause we had lots of fun on the station. Aircrew were always jolly chaps and we had singing and drinking and driving. And I had a motorbike and sidecar you see, I used to take them into York.

AS: The whole crew?

JS: Yeah. Well not him, not the skipper, but we’d get the rest on there. And the Police used to think, we used to think ‘They’re gonna nick us’. But I think the Police used to say ‘Poor buggers, might as well enjoy it, might not be here tomorrow’. So they let us get away with it. Oh, I drove yeah.

AS: Were there generally a lot of losses on 578? Not just that one night?

JS: No, there were a lot of losses. Um.

AS: Yeah. I know it’s a long time ago but can you remember how you felt at the time about that, about people?

JS: No, I can’t, honestly. I’ve thought about, ‘cause Emily is the journalist who was involved in their magazine and she went into it in a big way. But I can’t, I was too young and too excited to worry about what was happening. I was very excited about what we were doing. I never minded going on ops. I never worried. I said the only time I really got upset was when old Charlie Whatisname blew up out of the sky in front of me. And that really did upset me. I thought ‘For Christ’s sake. That’s in the middle of nowhere, here he is ‘Bang’. but no.

AS: Shall we pause and go and have a spot of lunch?

JS: Yes. I’d like that. I do go on a bit.



Adam Sutch, “Interview with Joe Stemp,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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