Interview with William James Stoneman


Interview with William James Stoneman


William James Stoneman was posted to RAF Elsham Wolds before Aircrew Reception Centre at RAF Cardington. He chose to become a rear gunner as he did not have to wait. Air gunnery training followed at RAF Bishopscourt in Northern Ireland on Ansons and Magister aircraft. He was posted to RAF Weston and the Operational Training Unit (OTU). Bill describes crewing up and flying Wellingtons at the OTU. He then went to the Conversion Unit at RAF Dishforth and flew Halifaxes. Bob compares the Frazer Nash turret with the Boulton Paul rear gun turrets.
Bill joined 138 Squadron at RAF Tempsford. He carried out 32 operations in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Norway. Flying low, they dropped agents and supplies. He describes the clandestine liaison with resistance groups. On long flights to southern France, they would refuel at RAF Blida in North Africa. He also discusses carrying pigeons for intelligence gathering. Bill recounts how their aircraft was shot down on one occasion, returning from RAF Blida. On his return, Bill changed to Stirling aircraft which he very much liked. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in July 1944.
Finishing the Second World War as a flight lieutenant, he was sent to RAF Yatesbury working on codes and ciphers. He went to Belgium, Cyprus, Germany and Singapore. He worked at the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit in Belgium and finished at RAF St Mawgan having been served for 37 years.




Temporal Coverage




00:48:17 audio recording


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This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Rod Pickles, the interviewee is Bill Stoneman. The interview is taking place at Bill’s home in Newquay, Cornwall on the 14 November 2016. Also present is Pam Roberts who is Bill’s carer. Well good morning, Bill, and thank you for inviting me in, it’s lovely to be here with you.
RP: Pleasure.
RP: The story we want to hear is yours and the voice we want to hear is yours, so I’ve just asked the initial questions and let you carry on.
AS: Yes.
RP: So, can we sort of go back to the time, you’re approaching leaving school and thinking about what to do with your life and what prompted you to join the RAF?
AS: Yes. It was when the war started, 1939, I was 16 years of age so it was like all the other boys, wanting to join the service at the time but being under age, I couldn’t so I had to wait until I was 18. Ah, when I was 18, I went to, I had a girlfriend in St Leonards, I lived in the Cley area at St Leonards. My hobby was music, I played in quite a famous silver band, St Leonard’s Silver Band, and won trophies, very well known throughout the band world. I also played in dance bands. The girl I was in love with, a girl called Barbara Hale, her father owned a restaurant, believe it or not, in a small village in St Leonards. There was a restaurant with one big room on the first floor, which was used for weddings and things by the local people, and I was engaged by him for a very small amount of money, but when he wanted a band to play at the weddings, I would get five or six musicians and provide the music and, of course, to be near this girlfriend Barbara who, of course we were married in 1947. I then left St Leonards to go to Bristol, because they moved to Bristol. He was given a job, he was asked to take over, he had a catering background, my wife’s father, and he was asked to take over, umm the catering at a large place in Bristol, which was used for trainees in the engineering and electrical engineering world. They always had a big restaurant there he took on the job, and I went with the family and lived with them. I then went to the local government training school to become an instrument repairer or instrument maker. Whilst I was there, I saw chaps in uniform, especially round the Bicester area and there was a lot of flying going on, especially with Bristol Aircraft who made the Beaufighter and the Beaufort and that. So, I went along to the recruiting centre and joined the RAF with the idea of being an instrument maker. However, ahh there was a hold up on training, I was posted to Elsham Wolds, which was in Lincolnshire near Barnaby/Scunthorpe, that area, with a very famous squadron, No. 103 Squadron and I was just a gofer, just helping out at the armaments section waiting to come, which I thought I’d become an instrument repairer. However, then I started flying with them because they wanted air testing, to do with, they were testing the aircraft for its airworthiness and I was pinching every few minutes I could to be in the air, and I said to my Warrant Officer, I remember the chap very, very, very well, always with a bicycle this man, pair of bicycle clips cycling round the field after his men, I said ‘how do I become aircrew?’ ‘Well,’ he said ‘that’s simple, you know, go along to the station headquarters, fill in a form’, which I did and oh, it was days, they were obviously short of aircrew at the time and I ended up at the Aircrew Reception Centre at Cardington in Bedfordshire. Had interviews, medicals and so forth and um arithmetic test, English test, that sort of thing, general knowledge and when I came out the chap, there was an old, he must have been about 50/60 years of age which was very old to me at that time in, he’d obviously been in the First World War because he had First World War medals on his chest, and he said ‘you’ve passed as a PNB’. I had no idea what he was talking about so I said, ‘but I don’t understand’, so he said ‘pilot, navigator or bomb aimer’. That’s what PNB — so I said ‘grand, lovely job, when can I go?’ He said ‘oh it’s a few months, could be five or six months’ and I said ‘I want to go now’. He said ‘the only way to go now is to become a rear gunner or a gunner’. I said ‘that’s for me’, and believe it or not ahh Rod, that was the best choice I think I ever made in my life because how, the courage of pilots, navigators, wireless operators, engineers ahh, who couldn’t do anything about an attack, to sit there in an aircraft relying on a chap with four Brownings in the back and a chap in mid upper with four Brownings, I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to do it. After, so I was sent for air gunnery training, which was at Bishopscourt, Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you, I can’t remember the number of the course, but very early on in the course, they were short of motor transport there, I don’t think we had a dentist very early on. It was building up, yes that sort of thing. There were a few, some WRAF were posted in, they were WAAF at the time, W - double A - F, and there was no transport to get them so we walked, we marched four miles from there to the nearest railway station to carry the WAAFs’ kit bags to their quarters that had been built for them. Of course, we all were tickled pink, young men of 18/19 years of age, we all made dates on the way of course, this was fun. The aircraft they had there were Ansons, so you climbed onto an Anson with a pilot there who’d probably done a tour of operation, I don’t know, I didn’t know too much about the RAF at that time, but the undercarriage had to be wound up by hand, it was not automatic. I think it was five revolutions to an inch or something like that. I know, but he would get you doing this so you sat there winding and towards the end, he would say ‘oh for goodness sake, give it here’, knowing damn well you were on the last four revolutions you see. And that was the undercart up and we flew over the Irish Sea and we met a Manchester aircraft. Manchesters came from the Isle of Man, I’ve forgotten the name of the airfield now, it was on the Isle of Man, it will come to me in a moment, probably after you’ve gone [laughter] but the Manchester would come out towing a drogue, which is a bit of rope with this long bit of ahh, drogue on the back which we were to fire at. I never shot down an aircraft as far as I know, but we were out one day and there was a Manchester in the water with a drogue and we stood by, it was quite thrilling actually to fly around, and they launched an air sea rescue launch from RAF Jurby, or wherever they were stationed in the Isle of Man and picked the crew up, which was, it was quite an exciting thing to see actually. Anyway, finished the course at Northern Ireland at Ardglass and I was posted to Turweston.
RP: Oh yes.
AS: Which was an operational training unit which came under the Silverstone, which is now a famous race track. It was a satellite of Silverstone. I must tell you while I was on the air gunnery training, I met a chap and we were crewed together as air gunners, a chap called Bob Wilmot, and he was from Hinckley in Leicestershire and he had been in the Air Force quite a time so he had switched from ground crew, I can’t remember what trade he was, but he was, he came from Iceland, from Reykjavik where he was stationed to er, for training. So Bob and I paired off and we went through air gunnery training together, when we got to Turweston, we were collared a billet and we were going to a hangar where we were going to be crewed up. This is where we meet the pilot which we, we were all green, we hadn’t a clue what was going on, but as we wandered towards the hangar, the hangar doors were open and two Canadian officers ran out, a pilot and a navigator, that was Sid Godfrey, pilot and the navigator was called Don Lenny, a Flying Officer, both Canadians, and grabbed us, ‘fly with us’. It appears, we didn’t realise that British air gunners were rather prized, I probably shouldn’t say this but we were. It seems that the name had got around that if you could get yourself a British tail gunner, you had a good chance of surviving [laughter], which was nice to hear.
RP: Nice to hear yes.
AS: Nice to hear. However, from there we went to the um operational training unit, flying on Wellingtons.
RP: So, this is still part of your gunnery training?
AS: Still part of the gunnery training, all part of the, except you’d fly as far as Belfast and pretend that Belfast was the target, you know, and err other places, training all the time of course. It was good training for the pilot and the navigator and everybody in the crew. Ah, so that was that bit of training, I’m trying to think —
RP: So where, from the operational training unit did you have any further training?
AS: Yeah, then we went to the conversion unit, ah which was up in Yorkshire.
RP: They sent you to a few places then?
AS: Dishforth.
RP: Dishforth yes,
AS: Dishforth, No 1664 Conversion Unit.
RP: So, what were you converting to there then?
AS: That was from Wellingtons on to Halifaxes.
RP: So, you were nearly at the end of your training?
AS: That’s right, yes, towards the end of the training then. From Wellingtons on to Halifaxes at Dishforth and er, which was a satellite of Topcliffe, and err that was very interesting because that was going from Wellingtons, which was a Frazer Nash Turret, rear turret where like you fired your guns, it was like handlebars. Frazer Nash was like driving a motorbike but the Boulton Paul was a single thumb on the —
RP: On the button.
AS: On the button, you know the turret moved with the control column, you know left, right, up, you know down.
RP: Which did you prefer?
AS: Hmm?
RP: Which did you prefer, the Boulton Paul or the Frazer?
AS: Well listen, I think, I felt very happy with the Frazer Nash because I’d got so used to it, but once I’d got used to the Boulton Paul I was, you know. I had a feeling that the Boulton Paul turret was slightly smaller and seemed to be more cramped than the Frazer Nash though someone might correct me. Uhm, so that was at Dishforth and I must tell you a story. We were coming back and the pilot who I trained with, ah, I’ll get to the story later but I never flew with him on operations because on his first flight, all pilots when they were posted to an operational station which was 138 Squadron at Tempsford in Bedfordshire, had to do a second dicky flight, because we weren’t dropping bombs, we were dropping agents and supplies and it was a tricky old business, because he had to drop on three torches and so he had, it was low level flying, coming in at low level and dropping the supplies at about 800ft, and I think if it was a live body to be an agent, it was dropped from 1000ft. But that was what he went on, and he went on the very first flight and they got shot down by a, we found out later it was a Night Fighter that got him. He was the second dicky, he wasn’t flying the aircraft he was there for an experience flight. So him, I understand, I may be wrong but it was only him and the mid upper gunner survived that crash so he was a lucky man. But we didn’t so we were a headless crew, we were. A navigator, a bomb aimer, a wireless operator, gunners with no pilot, so I was asked by the Station Commander would I like to go back on to training again and be re-crewed and would I stay at Tempsford as a spare gunner, that’s a ‘spag’ SPAG ([laughter] because, in case another gunner got toothache or was wounded err, which was fair. So I stayed on the squadron and did 32 operations, I’ve got the logbook to show you Rod, which includes Germany, France, Belgium and um Holland, Norway.
RP: These are all special ops?
AS: They’re all special ops, dropping to the agents much needed supplies, ammunitions, cameras, food, explosives, whatever they need to carry out their dangerous work.
RP: So, so what was, Norway, ah —
AS: Norway you see was an occupied country and was very, that was dangerous flying because as you know, it is a very mountainous country and to drop supplies, you can’t drop from 20,000ft, I mean you have to go down lower to drop them and you dropped on torches, torchlight or, even bonfires if it was safe, if they were far enough away and they knew the Germans weren’t near, they would light bonfires to guide us in.
RP: So every operation you were on you were more or less liaising with a resistance group in that country.
AS: Always a resistance group yes, and all been organised previously by the British Broadcasting Company, you know with clandestine —
RP: Cryptic messages.
AS: Cryptic messages, music, different tunes being played ah, quite fascinating really. We’d, in fact I was ignorant of a lot of things that were so clever, the British at this, subterfuge, of making sure that the people on the ground got the required stuff to do their damage.
RP: Were you ever attacked on any of these missions?
AS: No, very, very lucky. Saw aircraft looking for us but because we flew so low, I’d see JU88 which was famous fighter, twin engined German fighter, going the other way, searching for us. They obviously had us on radar or something but missing us. That was quite frightening [laughter], you sat there with bated breath for 30 hours because you’d seen one and you’d think are they coming back? But we obviously, we were very, very, very lucky people.
RP: So on a normal trip, say to France it’s, you don’t always fly on through, you sometimes, you return to Tempsford but obviously you had one incident where flew on to North Africa.
AS: Yes, that was it.
RP: Was that a deliberate fly through there?
AS: If it was a long flight, for instance in the South of France, it was for conservation of fuel and so forth, it was better and safer to fly on to North Africa to a place called Blida, RAF Blida and stay the night, refuel the aircraft and then also add ahh, pre-arranged for guns replace, canisters replace for us to do a drop on the way back. It was very, very well thought out, and also we had pigeons, that seems funny—
RP: I’ve heard about those.
AS: Yes. And when I’ve taught, I’ve taken Pam to the schools, I’ve given talks in schools and the children are always interested when I talk about the pigeons.
RP: Yes, a lot of people don’t believe it but I know about them yeah.
AS: Yes, pigeons were in a little cardboard, pressed cardboard container with a parachute, that’s a miniature parachute and in the container would be a bottle of water and a packet of seed and also a pencil, a special pencil and paper with a questionnaire which was all events of war, and the commanding officer’s name, all sorts of things, motor transport nearby, airfields, what sort of airfields, you know and these pigeons they had to fill in this bit of paper, the children all burst mad on what we’d found in occupied country, put the paper back in the pigeon’s canister on his leg and release it and back it would fly to Tempsford with some very, very interesting information, you know ahh. I don’t know if it’s true but I understand that the first information that Rommel was dead came back by pigeon. That was the rumour going around at the time.
RP: Yes, sometimes they carried them on aircraft to release if you did ditch, didn’t they?
AS: Oh yes, we had that as well yes. A cage inside the aircraft in case of a ditching. I think we were the only aircraft that did have pigeons on board for that. Yeah.
RP: Because if you had time to put your reference you could be rescued.
AS: That’s right, the navigator would put yeah — Now apart from the wireless operator giving away the position of the crash, they’d also have the pigeons with the, as you say, with the reference of the area where the aircraft was going to go down.
RP: So, tell us about this incident when you did go down, it must have been —
AS: Let’s see, we went to ah North Africa with the idea, we did a successful drop on the way out and stayed the night at North Africa, RAF Blida, with the idea of going back, I can’t remember the target area but we were going back to the South of France near there and drop our supplies and agent, no agent, just supplies this time. However, when we took off, it was getting dark, very nearly dark and all we know was a bang. We were flying along, I didn’t see it but later on I was told like, l can tell you the full story that a JU88 had been seen in the area and they flew, they had a gun which could fire upwards through the top Jaegermeister or something it was called.
RP: It come underneath you.
AS: Schräge yeah. And this is obviously what happened because we were flying along at dusk and then there was a bang so that was all, and nearby lucky for us there was a hospital ship, an Italian hospital ship with an Italian crew, I understand the Italian Captain called Principessa Giovanni and this, having wounded on board there was a British sergeant medical sergeant. There was no smoking on board and he was, I understand, he was, the story came out he was behind the lifeboat on the deck having a crafty fag [laughter] and he actually saw the incident.
RP: Oh right.
AS: So —
RP: He knew there’s been a crash.
AS: He saw, he saw us go down. He saw the flame, and he saw flames and it was still light enough to see what happened, and he had the courage to go to a senior officer ‘an aircraft had just been shot down’ he said because he’d seen the incident.
RP: So, they knew you’d crashed, but obviously, when you were ditching you weren’t aware you’d been spotted, so what was it like when you hit the sea?
AS: That’s right, so we hit the water not knowing that anyone — that, that’s it. The navigator was in the aircraft with us and we were, you sit at crash position, the pilot said you know ‘get in ditching positions’. There was a main spar runs through the aircraft which with the wings, strengthen the wings and you brace yourself against that. The pilot stays at the control and the flight, and the flight engineer assisting him the rest, cos he’s watching the engines and everything like that in case he requires help. The pilot was a chap called Highwalker, Flight Lieutenant Canadian, already had a Distinguished Flying Cross and he got the Distinguished Service Order for this err, probably got the result for his flying before and this crash because how he controlled that—
RP: Once you put it down and not break up.
AS: Fantastic, it was like a sycamore leaf, it was completely out of control it had been hit, you know, badly damaged.
RP: But normally you would expect it to break up.
AS: At the very last moment it flew, super [unclear] but you’re given, they say you’re given extra strength at certain times.
RP: Yes.
AS: Anyway, he landed but obviously he’d couldn’t land gently, it smashed the front of the aircraft in and water rushed, the salt, the sea came straight away, and the navigator was obviously washed towards my rear turret where I’d climbed out of, and was back in the same position. But it was all, a huge inrush of water. And so I got out, I was lucky, I got out, there was no dinghy, it should come out by an immersion switch but it didn’t, you know the water should get it out, but it didn’t come out. But the bomb aimer, a Canadian Officer, held my, I still had my parachute harness on, and held me. I went back towards the aircraft, I could see the D, it’s illuminated, it’s got a handle just a normal handle to, and a D on it. I could see it so I reached it and I turned it and it was so still by that time, luckily the Mediterranean was not rough at that moment. I could hear the hiss for while I was carrying it over the aircraft, I got a hiss of a dinghy being inflated automatically, and it came out, I had got a frangible chord which holds it and you can cut it when you get in. Unfortunately, in the crash, the frangible chord must have broken, must have snapped because the dinghy was on its way. [laughter]. Luckily being ahh, a Cornish boy and always in the sea swimming, I was a strong swimmer, though fully dressed with flying boots it was quite easy for me to swim and get the dinghy and get it back to the aircraft. Loaded people on it, the pilot had hurt his hands and so forth, you know. We all got on it quite safely, all but the navigator. If I remember correctly, the engineer damaged his hands as well but er, and then we looked towards the aircraft, we were then I suppose say 40 feet away about that from the aircraft I think the dinghy drifted away. All that was left was two fin and rudders from the Halifax together with water and my turret, and two shouts of ‘help’ came but there was nothing we could do then and then he gurgled under the water with the navigator in the turret.
RP: So he must have been knocked unconscious and just come round.
AS: Yes I think he’d just come round because he did shout ‘help’. And his son has been here to see us, he’s been here to see me and um, I’ll tell you the story about it. Anyway, that was the crash, ah, fortunately the ship, the Principessa, the hospital ship, the sergeant had witnessed this, British sergeant
RP: So they were already on their way to you.
AS: Otherwise we’d never have, I don’t think, ‘cos the wireless operator whether his message was received we will never know, no. I never saw the Court of Enquiry or formal investigation into the crash, uh but there must have been one of course. However, we were picked up by this ship, given a slug of whisky and looked after and err, the engineer hadn’t come round, he was still, not unconscious, but he’d been very, he’d been knocked about and when he came to, on the ship there were black troops on board, they’d been fighting, I can’t remember the name of them now, it’s amazing, like our Ghurkhas anyway, they were fighting for the Americans and the French. They were French troops anyway and when he came to there were these men dressed in white swats with black faces standing around the engineer and he thought he’d died and gone to hell [laughter]. He did, he told us afterwards. That’s it then.
RP: Someone came in to reassure him then?
AS: Yeah, well we all came in yeah.
RP: So where did the ship dock, where did they take you?
AS: They took us to err, out to Oran and at Oran there’s the American hospital Number 6 General, it was called Number 6 the American General Hospital and they um, we was in sodden clothes, my uniform was green, I suppose some dye had come out of the aircraft somewhere from some stuff we were carrying. However, they gave us a dressing, pair of pyjamas, pair of slippers and a nice velvet dressing gown which we wore all the time we were there and err, that’s where we did our recovery and on the bottom of my bed, I felt OK, but the doctor wrote ’shock and exhaustion’ so I must have been you know worse than I thought I was.
RP: So how did they get you back to the UK then?
AS: Well that was it so there we were in the hospital in Oran and they err, we would be trying to get back again and a Liberator, an RAF Liberator was up in North Africa, must be at Blida or somewhere, came to Oran and picked us up and took us back to the UK and we landed um, in Kent. I’m trying to think of the airfield.
RP: Manston?
AS: Hmm?
RP: Manston?
AS: Yeah, that’s it yeah. And err, there, we made our way back you know, we were given warrants we went back to the station as though you know, that was it.
RP: It was back to work, no leave.
AS: I’d been given a spot of leave and that’s it. ‘Well done mate’, shook your hand — [laughter]
RP: And you were back flying then were you?
AS: That’s is yeah. That was my thirteenth operation.
RP: So you still had another?
AS: I did another —
RP: Nineteen.
AS: I completed thirty-two
RP: So you still had another, almost the same to go.
AS: Exactly, yeah, yeah.
RP: No more incidents after that? I mean that’s enough for anybody.
AS: Not of that nature no, no, nothing like that.
RP: That is enough for anybody though really.
AS: Oh yeah. No, I had a very trouble-free tour, very lucky I had a very trouble-free tour really.
RP: So where was your last op then? The last op you did, can you remember the last one?
AS: I’ve got the log but I can’t remember where it would be, it might have, I’ve got it in my log with me to show you.
RP: OK Bill, you were going to tell us about, you went back to base after the crash and you were straight back to flying, but it’s a different aircraft though, isn’t it?
AS: Yeah, they changed the aircraft to the Stirling. Now the Stirling had a, was not really suitable to Bomber Command’s high altitude flying, but the ones we had had been reconditioned and we went over to Northern Ireland to pick them up. As crews we all flew over there, went with the crew and flew them back from Belfast to the UK to Tempsford. I found the Stirling an excellent aircraft as a rear gunner, brilliant rear turret Frazer Nash rear turret, four Bristol engines which gave you great confidence. You could see flames, you sat in the rear turret you saw a little bit of flames, but two engines each side. But for, I had great confidence in the Stirling. I thought they were very well suited to the work that Tempsford did, dropping agents’ supplies. Plenty of room in them, ah they had a nickname in the Air Force, called the Flying Solenoid for some reason, had a lot of electrics in them.
RP: Oh right.
AS: That’s why but ah, I thought completely reliable and it’s amazing, in all the time I flew, a lot, never had an engine failure with them. What you’d normally get, come back with a wing and a prayer as they say.
RP: [unclear]
AS: No, no a very solidly built —
RP: So when you’re dropping supplies, are you dropping them out of the bomb bay?
AS: Yeah, no, the —
RP: Or are they going out of the door?
AS: They cut a hole in the floor of the aircraft, we called it a Joe Hole because the agents we dropped off were nicknamed Joes.
RP: They went through the same hole?
AS: The same hole. It was quite a big hole, two flaps, the mid upper gunner had been to Ringway and done a course and become an expert dispatcher going into … to dress people in harnesses for their, with their Mae West and their parachutes, and the mid upper gunner became a dispatcher and he would open up the Joe Hole, throw back the two things, the lights of course would give, the pilot would show where the agents would drop over the dropping zone and err, they would sit on the edge of the Joe Hole and as the, the tap on the shoulder and so they would jump. And as a rear gunner, you would sit in the back and the slipstream takes the body, the jumper and he seems to level out and if it was you Rod, jumping I’d recognise you for a split second with a terrified look on your face [laughter], you know what I mean, and he’d lay on his back it seemed to be, for a split second, I’d know the person who had jumped from the rear turret , yeah. And you’d see the bag, you know because you were—
RP: Did you circle round?
AS: We’d be circling round, you’d see them going in.
RP: But you’ve obviously done the important thing of dropping them in occupied territory. Was there ever a follow up, did you find out what happened to any of them?
AS: No. I wish we could have done because it is so, it had been ages as well. They were brought out to the aircraft at the very last moment ahh, they had a farm on the um, it was called Gibraltar Farm, it’s still there at Tempsford, I’ve taken Pam to it, you can go and visit it. There’s photographs there, there’s names, there’s a plaque about the work.
RP: So there’s a Veterans’ Association for Tempsford isn’t there?
AS: That’s right, yeah and err, it’s quite an interesting place to go to. And they’d be dressed at Gibraltar Farm and then they’d be put into a closed vehicle so the crew wouldn’t see them till the very last moment your doors would open of course, they would climb in, sit down. Not a nice comfy chair for them, just a canvas seat.
RP: I’m assuming the crew were briefed at the last moment as to their target then?
AS: Oh yeah, we knew the target, we did the target in the afternoon.
RP: Oh right.
AS: We knew exactly where they were going. We knew um —
RP: By that time of course you were restricted to base I assume.
AS: Exactly, we couldn’t go out, no phone calls off the base or anything, restricted. You had your, you’d go and have your bacon and egg you know, your meal sort of thing, draw your rations and err, yeah. Get a flask of coffee.
RP: Yes. So, Stirlings up until the war ended you were on the Stirling, until your last op?
AS: Yeah.
RP: So the war ends —
AS: It’s funny because people didn’t associate Stirlings with —
RP: I must admit I thought it was Halifaxes and Lancasters.
AS: Yeah, no and then the Stirling was, that was —
RP: But when you’d done your last op, can you remember the day the war ended, where you were? Were you at Tempsford?
AS: Yeah, I, no I was on a codes and cipher course when the war, we’d all been, when you’d done a tour you retreaded, you know they’d give you a job. I was given admin and accounts I was trained, I was given, but that codes and cipher is included so I was sent to Yatesbury
RP: Oh yes.
AS: For the codes and cipher course. That was eight weeks, eleven weeks though I remember.
RP: And of course, very modestly, haven’t told us that during this time you were now a commissioned officer.
AS: Right.
RP: So what rank were you when the war ended?
AS: Ahh, a Flight Lieutenant. Yes
RP: So you were a Flight Lieutenant at the end of the war.
AS: Yes, I was a Flight Lieutenant um, training as a gunnery leader at that time, you know. At Turweston I was a Flight Lieutenant. I was a senior air gunner on the station training chaps which was err —
RP: So if the war ends, are you given the option to leave or stay?
AS: Yes I stayed on, you know. I’m glad I did because I love the service and I ended up with the rank of Squadron Leader, should have gone higher but [laughter].
RP: They didn’t recognise brilliance when they saw it though, that’s what it was. So, so obviously the war ended and you’re staying in an admin job now then?
AS: That’s right, admin and accounts, yeah.
RP: Yeah ok.
AS: And I was, err, where was my first posting, I’ve forgotten? Anyway, I went to Cyprus, Singapore, Germany. Oh, my first trip was immediately after the war in Germany, Belgium first on this Missing Research and Enquiry Unit. Number twenty — This is where we’re looking for crashed aircraft and bodies, because parents still believed that their boy was walking round lost somewhere.
RP: Yes.
AS: The finale was, you know they formed this Missing Research and Enquiry Unit. I was at the one in Belgium and we cleared up Belgium and Holland. That was going around to the cemeteries and making and, not exhuming graves but making sure that people were in there and we found lots of crashed aircraft, in fact what we would do, we would go to a, there were twenty-three, I think there were twenty-three chaps in Belgium, Holland and Germany. I had a Land Rover, no I didn’t I had a Jeep.
RP: Slight difference I know [laughter]
AS: I had a Jeep and err, a pipe to keep my nose warm [laughter] and that was, and err a Wing Commander, commanding officer, Canadian who been an evader himself and err, we just went to a Town Hall, put a notice up, we had an interpreter given to us by the way
RP: Yes.
AS: And the idea was, that we were coming to that town, could anyone come forward with any news of any crashed aircraft or aircrew? It was amazing the people you found.
RP: You’d get a good response from them.
AS: Yeah. It was amazing.
RP: And this was to verify, so you could then verify to the parents that you’d located their son.
AS: That’s right. One of my friends err, we were together, we were working together, and he had a pastor came, he put his notice up and a pastor said ‘A nun, a nun [unclear], a nun came he said. Behind the nunnery there’s an RAF chap because he was shot and put into the ground so they followed that. She, they took my friend by the Austin to the spot, he got some grave diggers, they exhumed the body, it was just under the ground and it was a Flight Lieutenant and he had a hole in the middle of his forehead.
RP: They’d just shot him, out of hand.
AS: And I didn’t understand, I wasn’t privy to all the facts but the British Army took that case over and they got the killer.
RP: Oh good.
AS: They, through finding out through, in the pubs and that, who the people who were stationed, Germans in that area, at that time and they got the culprit, so I understand.
RP: That must have been a very err, sort of depressing job,
AS: Oh yeah.
RP: But you must have felt satisfied at the end.
AS: Exactly, oh yeah.
RP: The satisfaction of actually finding people.
AS: Pam loves this story. This Wing Commander aha, a Canadian had a —
RP: Please tell us.
AS: Churchill accent. You know a Canadian and a Churchill [unclear].
RP: Slight lisp, yeah.
AS: I took the me I think. We were stationed at a place called Schloss Schonberg and this castle we were stationed in had lovely steps, and we were billeted there, a whole gang of us. And I’d been out for a whole week living off a, being in cemeteries, finding bodies, listing work, at night you might get a room you know, tucked away in a hotel, pub general pub somewhere. So I came back, obviously, a bit smelly and there they were, my friends having a drink at the bar, lovely little bar we had and the steps going up. So I was taking the mickey out of the commanding officer, I said ‘I think it’s disgusting, young officers drinking at this time of the day’ and they were going like this [laughter]. Too late, I was going up the stairs and the Wing Commander, there he was, he wasn’t a Jack McLean, he got off his chair put his newspaper down so I went to, I had to go to his bedroom. Still as that, he sat on his bed and gave me the biggest bollocking I’ve ever had. Lovely, he could really give one, he ended up as a Minister in the Government.
RP: He didn’t see the funny side of it.
AS: No, no but he but, but it’s funny, when he left the err, when he left Germany to go back to Canada, as his tour expired, the Adjutant a Welsh feller came to me ‘the CO wants to see you’. I said ‘Christ I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve been good as gold’. And he, charming, went in, he said ‘Bill cheerio, why don’t you come to Canada, you’re just the sort of chap we could do with‘. So all of that was forgotten, it was all about play you know it was—
RP: So having done that, at what point did they decide to the wind the operation up, about finding crashed aircraft, how long did they–
AS: Probably when they found, when they must have found them all I suppose
RP: And so you came back—
AS: As near as dammit. Couldn’t do any more, the graves were all, I can’t remember the timing.
RP: But you came back, you came back to the UK then?
AS: That’s right, yeah.
RP: Where were you then? What did you do then?
AS: I’m trying to think. No — That’s when I was in codes and cipher I think, yeah.
RP: So—
AS: I came back, I was sent to Compton Bassett.
RP: Ahh, Compton Bassett.
AS: Yeah, Compton Bassett. On a code and cipher course, and err, which you’re mad after six years so I did nine so — [laughter] But funnily enough I quite enjoyed it you know, it was an interesting job. So I did codes and ciphers in Singapore and Gibraltar and it was quite interesting, you get to meet, you throw stones at the CO’s window at 3 o’clock in the morning, always gives you a glass of whisky [laughter].
RP: So how long were you in the RAF then, how long did you stay?
As: Thirty-seven years.
RP: So that’s a long time.
AS: That’s a long time yeah.
RP: You stayed on,
AS: I stayed on, yeah, yeah.
RP: And that was sort of on the admin branch.
AS: Yes, I think I finished at St Mawgan as OC Station Services, you know works and bricks working with DoE sort of thing.
RP: Yeah, but err, out of those thirty-seven, I’m guessing the first three or four were the most interesting.
AS: Yeah, right.
RP: That’s that. You were going to err -
AS: I was going to tell you the story about York
RP: About York. Tell us the story about York Minster then, coming back in the snow.
AS: Oh yeah, yes.
RP: You were going to tell us the story.
AS: Yeah, that’s all, and this pilot he came back, he came back to see me in Cornwall which I was quite thrilled, when you think that err, what he’d been through as a prisoner of war and err, we were walking out in the sunshine at the time, reminiscing and he remembered his old Cornish air gunner. I said he was a Freemason and talking all over Canada, he said I told the story, your ears should have been burning you know.
RP: Tell us the story about the church, the York Minster.
AS: Ah yes.
RP: You were coming back from a training flight I think was it, coming back from a training flight to York Minster when he was telling you about going to church?
AS: That’s the one.
RP: That’s the one, yes.
AS: Just flying in the area of, and we were coming back from the North Sea, and err, very low unfortunately because it started to snow, just climbing over the, coming over York and that, and the wireless operator could actually see people in the cinema queue but as we went over York Minster, which we didn’t realise we were so low, I said ‘guys’ I said, ‘I haven’t been to church in bloody years’, but we could see err yeah.
RP: Well I think that that, the thing about your crews at Tempsford, I think there was obviously great camaraderie with all the various people there.
AS: Pam likes me to tell the story when, because when you’re in the rear turret you can, in a Frazer Nash, you’d like a motorbike, when the Boulton Paul I’d put a flask of tea, I took a flask with me and it would just fit, there’s a little ledge on the right hand side of the Boulton Paul turret which just takes a flask just nicely so it won’t roll, but unfortunately, we err, I’ve forgotten which country we were over, I think Belgium, I saw a Night Fighter so I threw my guns to the left and I saw him disappear. I went to try to find out where he was, I had my turret and guns going everywhere, I didn’t hear any fire but all of a sudden, I had the most red hot feeling in my stomach. It took me ages to have the courage, I thought, well they tell me you don’t feel when you’ve been hit, it’s just, just get a wound and you know that was it. Hot. So I put my hand and what had happened, my gun, the solenoid underneath the gun had picked the flask up, pierced it and it dropped in my lap.
RP: So it was actually hot tea.
AS: Hot coffee.
RP: Oh hot coffee.
AS: Yeah.
RP: Oh dear, so that was a relief in one way then. That was definitely a relief.
RP: What you haven’t told us but you’ve been very modest about your medals. What medals have you got then, what were you awarded after the Halifax?
AS: Ah, I’ve got the Distinguished Flying Medal which was awarded in um err, July 1944 which was the result of the ditching in the —
RP: That’s a lovely medal, isn’t it?
AS: Yes it is, which I’m very, very proud of.
RP: Quite right and I think we needed to mention that, but I think the hot coffee story is a good point to bring our interview to an end I think. Thank you for telling us all those lovely stories.
AS: Ah well.
RP: It’s been a privilege and pleasure. Thank you very much, thank you.


Rod Pickles, “Interview with William James Stoneman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 15, 2024,

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