Interview with Norman Gregory
Interview with Norman Gregory
00:45:23 audio recording
IBCC Digital Archive
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NG: Good afternoon my name is Norman Ellis Gregory, I served with Bomber Command during the war and my service number is 1473815. I finished my service in February 1946 with the rank of Warrant Officer. I joined the Air Force in 194unclear). I came on active service in the Air Force in 1942, going first of all to Regent’s Park. But at the time I joined up I had volunteered about a year before for air crew in York where I was at St John’s College, York. So the Air Force took a group of us who had volunteered and, er, spent all the available weekends and some evenings training us, er, through the course what would have been ITW, so that when we went to Regent’s Park we were all, all of us were LAC’s and that meant, you know, an increase in pay from half a crown up to seven and six a day, which was very nice thank you. But anyway, from Regent’s Park we went down to, erm, Brighton for what reason I can’t remember. But anyway from Brighton we, some reason we were dispersed all over the country and I was sent to Anstey which was just on the north side of Leicester. It was, erm, a flying school and I did twelve hours in Tiger Moths at, Anstey and at that place I was recommended for multi-engined aircraft. From there (pause) I eventually gravitated to Heaton Park at Manchester and from Heaton Park at Manchester in the latter part of 1942 I was sent to Greenwich on the Clyde, and I sailed to New York on the Queen Elizabeth the first time and we sailed into New York. And, er, from New York we went up to Halifax, Nova Scotia and from there me in particular, erm, I was handed over to the Canadian Air Force and I served for the next six months doing flying training, navigation courses and so on with the Canadian Air Force, not the Royal Air Force which had stations all over the place in North America. Anyway, six months later, er, the back end of June beginning of July 1943, by a strange quirk of fate I came back in reverse order, went back from Canada down to New York and I went back across the Atlantic onto Queen Elizabeth again. This time when I went up the gangway struggling with my kitbags, the officer at the top said brutally to me, I was by myself I wasn’t with a troop or whatever, he said “can you sleep in a hammock” I said “yes sir” he said “well you go far into the focus of the crew” and that’s how I crossed the Atlantic the second time swaying in a hammock with the crew. I came back to the United Kingdom, erm, I was then in posted to, erm, (pause) to Harrogate and from Harrogate we were dispersed to the various OUT’s over the country and, erm, I ended up at 28 OUT. But before that, I can’t remember the name off hand, erm, it was just outside Shepshed in Leicestershire and that’s where we crewed up. Having crewed up we went to Castle Donnington and for the next four or five months we were flying Wellingtons day and night and on one occasion we’d hardly taken off when the skipper called down to me in the nose and said “Greg Greg come up here I’m crook” he said and he was slumped over the controls. Now fortunately this went and we dual controlled and so I had to jump up into the co-pilot’s seat and I flew that Lancaster all night and we eventually came back to Castle Donnington and I had made my first run in to land the aircraft at night. I hastily add that I had landed a Wellington during daylight but not at night and I was going round for another circuit on to attempt to land the aircraft when the skipper came out of his coma and said “what are you doing”, “where are we” and I explained that we were on the circuit and he says “I’ll take over” and he landed it. And, erm, I expect everyone was very happy (laughs) to get their feet back on the ground again that night. Well from Castle Donnington we went to Hemswell, er, that was a heavy conversion unit and we were going to change or go up the ladder from two engines to four and they sent us from Hemswell to a brand new satellite and there were, I don’t know how many, possibly about twenty, very antique Halifax’s and in the first fortnight there we lost six aircraft and all the crews due to, erm, the Halifax mark. It had some sort of fault in the tail unit and all the aircraft after those six losses, all the craft were grounded and men came out of the Halifax factory and put the mark II tail unit on. From there we went to, erm, squadron. There was a time where you went to Lancaster flying school flying training school, but by then the squadrons preferred to run their own flying training school so it was, erm, end of March early April. We went to 101 squadron and for the next six weeks we were just learning to fly the Lancaster and I am proud to say that, erm, the skipper allowed me to sit in the pilot seat and fly the Lancaster and when we had completed night time, day time flying we would go on, the fighters would come along side and we’d shoot at the droves. You know from the Lancaster and we’d do daytime bombing with practice bombs and night time bombings with practice bombs and so on and when they were satisfied that we could fly the Lancaster then we were put on the rota for bombing operations and the night of the 3rd 4th of May 1944, erm, we went on our first op to a place called Milaca, it’s about a hundred miles east of Paris. And the aircraft, all Lancaster’s, came from One group and Six group, all in the Lincolnshire area, and goodness knows what happened that night. There’s all sorts of stories, but we were circling the (pause) turning point for twenty minutes and unfortunately there was a German night fighter station a matter of a few minutes away from where we are and so there was a Turkey shoot. There were out of the 350 Lancs on that target and incidentally it was a low level attack on a pre-war French barracks which was supposed to have an (unclear) edition there and so we were bombing at seven thousand feet instead of the normal twenty thousand feet. I’ve got photographs there, that, er, possible to see, there was not two bricks on top of each other, it was literally flattened without doing any damage to the local French community. Unfortunately we lost over forty aircraft and they scattered over say a ten mile radius from there. They’re all buried in church yards in that vicinity and I’ve been back at least five times over the last you know thirty years or so to visit the different burial places of these crews. Two years ago I went there with my daughter and we went to a village that I had never been to before and we were told that there was a crew buried in the church yard at this village and when I got there we had a service in the church yard in memory of this particular crew. Then the local people said that the aircraft in question came down in the forest, you know, over there sort of thing, and they were going to take us up into the forest to the exact spot, because in the previous year the local community had got a big lump of rock at to mark the exact place where this aircraft came down. It was all chiselled with the name of the aircraft and the names of the crew and everything, and when we went up in the forest I was the only man there who had actually been on that raid. I was literally gobsmacked because, erm, I’d known all these years that there were 350 Lancs on the target and what a loss there was, not only from my own squadron, but from many other squadrons. The local people told me that the aircraft in the forest was a Halifax and I’d never heard of this it’s (unclear), now this links up with the fact that during the time of circling the marker point before turning into bombing, I heard the master bomber over the RT say “this is your master bomber going down take over number two” and that was the Halifax that you know I visited in the woods. It turns out that this Halifax had belonged to the PFF and it had been vastly modified. It carried a crew of eight, they had removed all the Bombay’s and put long range tanks in, but he was shot down along with the other forty aircraft and they were all killed, very sad. When the local Mayoress unveiled this, er, memorial up in the forest, er, a little boy with a velvet cushion and a special pair of scissors went up to the Lady Mayoress and bowed to her, she took these pair of scissors and she cut the tricolour tape that went round. It’s customary apparently in those places that they chop up this ribbon and give it to all the important people. The first piece that was chopped off was presented to me, which I still have. Well unfortunately for me and for my crew I suppose, and a lot of other people too, we only completed five raids when we were shot down over Dortmand in the Ruhr on the night of the 22nd of May 1944. We were shot down from underneath and we were on our way literally within minutes of dropping the bomb load on Dortmund, and so the, er, shells of the enemy aircraft set the insentry load on the Bombay on fire and of course I was in the nose and there was the wireless operator, the navigator, the flight engineer and the skipper on the flight deck and none knew that the aircraft was on fire until something alerted the er the radio man that there was something wrong. He opened the door, and from there to the after the aircraft and the whole thing was a raging inferno, I mean it was a case of if the shells had been ten feet forward they’d have shot everyone in the flight deck you see. So the tail gunner was killed, the special wireless operator was killed and the mid upper gunner was killed there and then in this raging inferno in the aircraft, so the skipper decided in the next few minutes I had dropped the bomb load on (unclear) and the skipper said that we’ll have to abandon the aircraft. But of course I’m lying on the escape hatch and so I, I removed the hatch and you have to disconnect your (unclear) you have to disconnect your power supply to your, I had a power, erm, (unclear) heated chute and you have to, and your intercom, so it’s quite a, and then you’ve got to get your parachute and clip it on. And then you literally dive into the open shoot as if you’re diving into the water and captain and pull the ripcord, and in my case, and I’m afraid in lots of other cases, when I’ve compared notes years afterwards, that when this, erm, pack on my chest was pulled upwards when the parachute was displayed it caught me under the chin and knocked me out. Mind you in twenty three thousand feet there’s a remarkable lack of oxygen so, erm, that may or may not have played part, but anyway it knocked me out. And when I came to there was a deathly hush, there wasn’t an aircraft in the sky, they’d all gone home and I’m floating in this parachute, but I’m combed by a searchlight that I’ve never heard of anybody else, but obviously it could have happened many times, and the searchlight followed me all the way down to the ground. I thought that I would get a belly full of lead but I didn’t, my boots had fallen off and when I landed I was exceptionally lucky, I just happened to land in a small clearing in an area of forest or a lot of trees anyway, but unfortunately I didn’t see the land, the ground coming up, and I damaged my right knee. I could stand on my left leg but I couldn’t walk and so I crawled and crawled and crawled and crawled until I came to a little row of, er, small houses and just the nearest one I knocked on the door and a young woman a woman of about twenty came to the door she took me and in. Unfortunately for me that night in my navigation bag I had left my cigarette case, er, it was just something I’d never done before I usually kept the cigarette case about my person and so I said, I tried to, I couldn’t speak German at that time and I said to the made signs to this young lady that I would like a, had she got a cigarette and she disappeared out into the night. She came back ten or fifteen minutes later and handed me two gold flake (laughs) where she got them from I have no idea and she was accompanied by the village policeman and he started to speak to me in German. When I implied I couldn’t understand what was going on he started to speak to me in French and so my schoolboy French came into good use and, er, he was a POW for the French in World War I so there was a certain amount of empathy between the two of us. I still have a little giggle all these years later, that because I couldn’t walk he put me on the cross bar of his bicycle and I was wheeled into captivity (laughs). Well from there in the local lock up sort of a place, like a large village, I was picked up the next morning by a young under officer, a corporal I suppose in the Luftwaffe and he had come from the airfield at Dortmund and so I don’t know how far out of Dortmund I was, but a mile or two. He took me on the local train into Dortmund and of course that is what I’d had been bombing the night before so all these people milling about the railway station in Dortmund thought it would be a good idea to get hold of me. And so this corporal pulled his revolver and told me to get behind him and he threatened and he said “if you lay hands or try to lay hands on me” that he would fire his revolver so that was a good plus mark for me. So for the next few days I was in the sails of this airfield just outside Dortmund, the only aircraft I could see was a single engine (unclear) so there weren’t any night fighters or day fighters anything there. To my great surprise my skipper and navigator were already prisoners there and it turns out the information they gave me that after I’d bailed out seconds later the controls were within a shot away or burnt away and the aircraft went over. The skipper and navigator were literally thrown up through the canopy and the others, the wireless operator and the flight engineer, they didn’t manage to get out, you can’t if you’ve got that amount of negative to you you’re just pinned down. And so unfortunately that added two more deaths to the three already and the skipper and navigator. When we came back to Blighty a year later, they went their different ways. But they both died about thirty years ago of cancer, I presume from smoking, but they were literally in their sort of, well the navigator would only be about fifty-five when he died of liver cancer and the skipper died about ten years later exactly, it was cancer I know. Getting back to Germany the three of us went back down to Frankfurt to the interrogation centre and from there we went to, erm, a little village, a little town called Wetzler which is the home of Zeiss. They were in a newly made little camp and it was tents, bell tents, that they’d captured I suppose at Dunkirk. Every time it rained, the water ran through the tent and we got very wet at night, and subsequent to that we were sent down the skipper was commissioned by that time. He went to Luft 8 where they had that famous escape and the navigator and myself went to Luft 7, which was a new camp alleged in Silesia and (pause) it’s a change from the tents. This, this camp in Bancow was, erm, I don’t know how many hundred, but an awful lot of chicken huts, and we were six to a chicken hut instead of a tent and this was an improvement. But it was summer time and by late September early October, erm, nearby presumably Russian labour was used to build a permanent camp because the Germans were fed up of the RAF escaping or attempting to escape. They built all the barracks on stilts and at nine 0 clock each night, not only were we locked in, but they set all these Alsatian dogs out in the compounds. So trundling because you were on stilts was out of the question but (pause) we were only in that permanent camp for a matter of months, four months at the most I would think. Because it was towards the end of January 1945 that the Germans were being attacked, er, by the Russians on their own border. The Russians were breaking through in our direction from Warsaw and the Germans decided to evacuate us, as they did all the other POW camps you know. Some up on the (unclear) some in the South of Germany and so on and we were on the march for three weeks. There was a metre of snow on the ground and (pause) mostly in the first week we were only marching at night, turning if the roads opened from the German troop movements and tank movements during the day. Eventually after three weeks we got to a place called Luckenwalde about twenty or so miles or so south of Berlin and that was a huge er camp. I I, I couldn’t even dream of a POW camp of between twenty and twenty-five thousand men in it. And this camp, it wasn’t initially anything to do with the Airforce. Normally in the POW camps the German Luftwaffe made prison camps for Airforce people and the German (unclear) made their prison camps for the army and the Luftmarine. No, no not the Luftmarine but the German navy looked after their own kind, but in this place at, erm, camp in Luckenwalde they had separate compounds for the French, the Dutch the Norwegians, every nationality that they’d conquered had compounds there. But the predominant ones were the French because they were using the French, not only the French army and Airforce no doubt, but the French civilian males as forced labour in Germany. And anyway, I was part of a troop of RAF lads on this march, there were seven of us, and initially on march the first night we all slept by ourselves. The next night we slept in twos for warmth and eventually the seven of us, if there was any chance of kipping down in barns or whatever, we were seven in the bed, and bitter were the complaints “I was on the outside last night” (laughs). Incidentally the first month that I was in Germany I never had my clothes off or had a shower and it was a repeat run on this so called death march, nobody had their clothes off and so you know it was just do as best you could. But I had, I was exceptionally lucky, I don’t know where I got them from but I had four pairs of socks and on that death march I wore two pairs of socks by day and I had a strong pair of boots and the other two pairs were tucked inside my shirt next to my skin so that they were warm and dry. And so each night or day if the case was that we were going to stop marching for twelve hours or so, that the first thing I could do was to take my boots off, take my socks off put warm dry socks onto my cold feet and put the two pairs of socks that I’d taken off back to get warm and dry next to my skin. Well it seems curious to say this, but it’s perfectly true that when we got back to Luckenwalde, the barracks that were given were simply large empty sheds with a roof and windows that were closed and a concrete floor and we were just, you know, assumed to find a patch on the concrete floor where we could lie down, but it was actually wonderful to have (laughs) somewhere out of the weather, out of the rain and out of the snow just to lie on a bit of concrete. But there it was, it, we were only there oh two or three weeks when we managed to get into a different block where we had probably a room no more than fifteen foot square with bunks in it so the seven of us were in that room. And on one occasion, and the next compound was a Russian compound, and we managed to smuggle a Russian out of the Russian compound into our room, I don’t know how this, this was organised, but this man was allegedly a tailor to trade and he was doing all our mending. Whilst he was sitting there with his needle and thread and doing his mending for us, a Russian, a German officer came in and he would have been shot just where he was sitting if he’d known he was a Russian, but fortunately he wasn’t dressed like a Russian and so he just carried on doing sewing and, er, the German officer cleared off and what not. But anyway subsequent to that, we were all very hungry and short of rations, at that particular place one of the daily rounds was a German with a paler full of potatoes who came round and HE put his hand in the bucket and gave YOU a potato, if you were jolly lucky it might be a as big as a tennis ball, but believe me they were a lot smaller than that. So, erm, because I could speak French and nobody in that group of seven could, two or three of us including me were smuggled into the French compound so we could do barter to get some food for them because they were going out of the camp every day and could get access to food that we obviously couldn’t and it is a bit of a matter of some amusement that I changed my RAF uniform for a French uniform so it gave me freedom of movement about in that camp and the Germans didn’t, weren’t aware that I was anything other than what I looked like and, er, so I could you know move freely about trading for food on our behalf. Well in the latter part of our stay in Luckenwalde, the Russians were getting closer and closer to their attack on Berlin and it is still is a matter of amazement that the Russian guns were powerful enough to send shells ten or fifteen miles and so we didn’t hear the artillery firing, but we did hear the shells screaming overhead and we didn’t hear the shell exploding in Berlin but it was going on, you know day after day. Eventually we woke up one morning and all the German guards had disappeared and the same day the Russians arrived and the Russians were very keen to re-patriate us back to the UK via Odessa and the Black Sea, but we weren’t very keen on that idea so, erm, we heard on our secret radio, got in touch with the Yankee forces on the other side of the (pause) I can’t remember the name, but anyway we got in touch with these Americans and when they tried to reach the camp the Russians turned them back. However, they didn’t go all the way back where the Russians hoped they would go, they retreated about three miles the other side of a forest and we were left a note that if we could get back to these lorries by a certain time that we would be taken to the American lines. And so it was we escaped from Luckenwalde and we got, we drove for a long long time and we got to Hildesheim in Germany and we were in a pre-war German barracks and to this day I am gobsmacked that it was completely untouched, it hadn’t been shelled or bombed or anything like that, it was lovely accommodation and the British Red Cross were waiting for us and gave us, er, you know, fresh underwear, socks, toothbrushes, shaving kit and that sort of thing. We were only there the one night as far as I can remember and we were flown out by Dakota down to La Halle in France. We flew over La Ruhr and it was an eye opener to see the havoc that the RAF had made for the German cities in La Ruhr. We got to La Halle, and as I say I was in a French uniform and I traded that for a Yankee uniform and within twenty-four hours the Royal Navy had shipped us across to Southampton and back to the United Kingdom. Incidentally, VE Day we spent in Ludkenwalde, we didn’t get away from Luckenwalde until three or four days after the Russians arrived so we missed all the joy and fun of VE Day. We were all posted up to RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton and given fresh kit and given excellent food and sent on six weeks leave. After that, before and after, we had medicals and the following August the Japanese gave up and we thought all these thousands and thousands of air crew were redundant and we said please can we go home, can we finish, “no you can’t leave here the Air Force until you put back the weight that you were when you joined up” (laughs), well I was only about seven and half stone when I came back from Germany so it wasn’t until you know six months later that I recovered my previous weight and I was discharged. So there we are in a nutshell this is my experiences. When we got to La Halle it was a matter of amazement to me, I mean it was a tented camp, we all had a shower and a change of clothing if we wanted it and I did, and of course there was plenty of food and I had never been in an American Mess before, in the Sergeant’s Mess in the UK for that matter. You sat down at a table to, for your food, you know, for your breakfast, your midday meal and your evening meal and in this Yankee thing, I can see, it’s a tented encampment. The tables were about a foot higher than normal tables so you had to stand at the tables, there was no sitting down, you queued up and you were given a big metal tray and they put the food on your metal tray with you know a knife, fork and spoon and you went to these very high tables and you stood there and you ate what was on your tray, handed your stuff in, so there was an endless trail of people, instead of sitting down and talking you see, they were getting rid of you as quickly as possible so that was an eye opener. I could go back to Luckenwalde, the time between that elapsed between the Russians arriving and us escaping, we went into the local village and I can remember I saw a que of women outside a bakers and so I joined the que and I got a loaf of bread you know. I was highly delighted, ver, very delighted that I’d got a loaf of bread and a day or two later, erm, one of my friends who was called by the unusual name of Robert Burns, but unfortunately he was nothing to do with the Scottish poet, he was a regular in the Air Force and he was a Sergeant fitter, an engine fitter, and he was sent out on the empire training school system to South Africa. Now he was what do you call it, he was at Holten, and these Holten Bratts, it was, er, I don’t know whether it was actually written into the contract or not, but it was a clearly understood thing what a Holten Bratt was, whether you was an earphone fitter, an engine fitter or an instrument basher or whatever trade it was that he had the right to be re-mastered to air crew. I don’t know what he got fed up about, but I mean he was a Sergeant fitter in South Africa and I suppose living like a lord, but something upset him, I never knew what, and he remastered and became air crew and he became a pilot. .He was flying out of North Africa in Wellingtons and mostly he was flying across the Mediterranean and sewing mines in the, the airports of the Northern side of the Mediterranean, and this particular night he was sewing mines in a Greek port called Milos and they were shot at, sewing mines flying low over the water and he was shot out of the water and he was the only one to get out of the aircraft alive. He was fished out of the drink by a German launch or boat of some sort. It was the middle of winter in Europe and he was flying out of North Africa with shorts and a shirt, nothing else, I mean boots, but nothing else, and he was thrown by the Germans into a barbwire compound, no hat, no tent just a nice layer of snow on the ground and that really was incarcerated. And he, for some reason I’ve never found out, nobody else could find out I suppose, that he was never directly sent to a German POW camp, he was sent for several months from one civilian jail to another all through the Southern part of Europe. Eventually he was in the same POW camp as me, and getting back to Luckenwalde when you know a lot of POWs start scowering round the countryside looking for food, the food quickly disappears, and I said to him one day, look there’s no good us going looking for food in this locality lets go for a long walk and of course being me we went for five or six miles and we came to this German farm. That area, the German farm were always built in a square, one side was the farmhouse, two sides were barns one side the wall with a big double gate and we walked round this farmhouse and everything was shuttered, you couldn’t hear any cattle, couldn’t hear any human beings and we banged on the shutters and walked round like Joshua going round the walls of Jericho. Suddenly we just turned the corner and this corner was the front of the house part of the farm, the farmhouse, and a shutter opened towards us like that and from behind the shutter there came a fist with a big knife dripping blood, and his arm came out, then the shutter was moved a bit further then the head came out, and this Robert Burns looked at this head with the man with the blood dripping knife and he said “Milanovich” and then this man, with the bloody knife, said “Robert Burns”, and they’d both been down in Bulgaria (laughs) in a civilian prison, how this Milanovich got there, goodness knows, but anyway we got a little bit of a peak out of it. That was a wonderful day for us. That’ll do.
MJ: On behalf of the International Bomber Command, I would like to thank Norman Gregory, erm, bomb aimer, warrant officer for his interview at his home address on the 24th July 2015. Thank you.
MJ: On behalf of the International Bomber Command, I would like to thank Norman Gregory, erm, bomb aimer, warrant officer for his interview at his home address on the 24th July 2015. Thank you.
Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Norman Gregory,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 17, 2021, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/8846.
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