Interview with John Harrison

Title

Interview with John Harrison

Description

John Harrison grew up in Yorkshire and worked in the Civil Service before joining the Royal Air Force at 18. After training, he flew operations as a mid-upper gunner with 106 Squadron from RAF Metheringham before being shot down over Leipzig and becoming a prisoner of war. Following a short period of hospitalisation, he married his wartime sweetheart Joan. After the war he served with the Yorkshire police.

Creator

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Date

2015-08-09

Contributor

Dawn Studd

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Format

00:35:40 Audio Recording

Language

Type

Identifier

AHarrisonJ150809

Temporal Coverage

Transcription

AM: OK, try again. So this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre, the interviewer is Annie Moody and the interviewee is John Harrison and the interview is taking place at Mr Harrison’s home in Birstall in Yorkshire on the 9th of August 2015. So, to start with if you just tell me a little about where, well tell me where you were born and a little bit about your childhood and school and when you left.

JH: Well I was born at a little village called Collingham in North Yorkshire, it’s just near Wetherby. And I lived there until I went to, eventually I passed an exam and I went to Harrogate Grammar School and I was at Harrogate Grammar School until, I got my school certificate and then I was sixteen and didn’t know what to do. Anyhow I had an auntie who was a big noise in the Civil Service, pardon?

AM: Me too.

JH: Yeah and she said ‘I’ll see if I can fix you up with a temporary job in the Civil Service in Harrogate ‘cause they were in Harrogate at the time. And so I ended up going in the Civil Service in a branch called E20 in the Civil Service in Harrogate at {unclear} Hotel I think it was. And they dealt with all enquiries and everything regarding barrage balloons and everything, must have been supplies you know, supplies and all that. And I stayed there until I was eighteen. And then of course when I was, I knew I was going to get called up at eighteen and I got called up at eighteen and caught the train down to London and I went to the Lords’ Cricket Ground where we all had to go. And I was there for a while and then from there I got shunted all over the place. [Sighs] I forget where I went next, oh, I ended up at Dalcross in Scotland which was an RAF place, it’s now the airport for Inverness.

AM: Right.

JH: And I was there, and I did my gunnery training there, and eventually – {rustling of paper}

AM: We’re just having a look at John’s logbook.

JH: I passed out as an air, sergeant air gunner, on the 17th of July 1943 at No2 Air Gunnery School which was at Dalcross. And then I went to, No2 Air Gunnery School that was it yeah, and then I was, I joined, I picked up a pilot, Flying Officer Clements, and I don’t know what happened to him because we did three, I did three trips with him, the last one was a leaflet raid to Le Mans and after that I never saw him again, so I don’t know what happened to him. But then I picked up, I went to gunnery school at Skellingthorpe and then I came to 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby, and there I picked up me pilot, Flying Officer Leggatt.

AM: When you say you picked up your pilot, what was that like then, how did that work?

JH: Well, we as far as I remember, we went into this room and they were milling around, pilots, looking for air gunners, and air gunners –anyhow eventually I got talking to this chap, Flying Officer Leggatt, and I went on his crew. He was a smashing bloke and we got on quite well together and we stayed together. Then we finished 1660 Conversion Unit which was at Halifax, er at Swinderby.

AM: So that was conversion to the four engined bombers?

JH: Yeah, yeah. Then we went onto the serious stuff, reported to 106 Squadron.

AM: 106 Squadron?

JH: Metheringham, and the first operation we did was to Frankfurt am Main and that was on ED593Y and that was the one that I was telling you about.

AM: That later on, what was it like, that first operation can you remember?

JH: Well I don’t know, yes, actually that one was very quiet, it was to Frankfurt and we, it was only five hours thirty-five minutes and we got with no problems, you know we got there, bombed the target, came back, landed.

AM: Were you a rear gunner or a mid-upper?

JH: I started off as a mid-upper gunner.

AM: OK.

JH: But then we um, until we got to, and then the next trip was to Berlin. And this was the one where we had the problems with two engines u/s, flight engineer was killed and the wireless op was injured.

AM: So which operation was this, how many had you done before that one?

JH: Berlin.

AM: Yeah.

JH: That was in this aircraft ED593Y which was on its seventy-third operation, we decided it had had enough. [laughs] We landed at, we decided that, we didn’t know whether we were going to bail out or what by the side door. So, we decided to make a dash for it and we come to Coltishall, and we landed at Coltishall in Norfolk and we were told afterwards, we’d no wireless, no nothing, everything was dead and all we did was fire in, was fire in the colours of the day through the front window and you know they told us there was twelve aircraft in various stages of distress waiting to land and suddenly this Lancaster, no lights, no nothing just fired the colours of the day, wheels down obviously coming in regardless. And we came in and we got half way down, and this is perfectly true, we got half way down the runway and we ran out of fuel. Now how lucky can you get you know? We stayed there the night and the following morning Group Captain McKechnie who was the CO of 106 Squadron, and he had the George Cross by the way, he came down and picked us up and took us back.

AM: Right, just drove down and got you?

JH: Yeah.

AM: Drove down or flew down?

JH: Flew down.

AM: He flew down?

JH: Flew down and then after that we went to Berlin. One, two, three, four, five, six to Berlin and then we hit trouble [laughs].

AM: Did you ever fire your gun?

JH: Yeah.

AM: Did you ever have to fire your gun?

JH: Oh yeah, yeah I’ve got bits and pieces in here [rustling of pages]. ‘One combat, enemy aircraft not identified’, [rustling] ‘Three engagements that were in Berlin. Three engagements, one Junkers 88 claimed as damage’.

AM: What did it actually feel like then firing your guns?

JH: Well [laughs] you know it was just what I was there for really. It was a treat to have a go at somebody [laughs]. It, that was when this aircraft we were flying was on its seventy-third trip.

AM: That was the one where you got shot up?

JH: Where we landed at Coltishall and it was parked up and then the next morning. Pardon?

AM: I’m telling Gary to shush {laughter} with his pages.

JH: And then the next morning we came down to get our stuff out of it and it was parked up there and there was about six or seven Yanks all looking you know, and they’d been brought down. They said ‘Sure you must be very, very sad to lose this old girl?’ you know ‘cause it was there with the seventy-three bombs on it you know? And I said ‘No we’re not really’ [laughter] and they couldn’t understand why we weren’t crying our eyes out because we’d lost it.

AM: Did they give you bacon and eggs, like they do on the British bases?

JH: Yeah, yeah oh aye.

AM: So they got bacon and eggs as well?

JH: Yeah, but Group Captain McKechnie came down and picked us up and took us back. Now then he had the George Cross, Gp Captain Mckechnie. There was an aircraft on fire, he went inside and pulled the pilot out.

AM: Right.

JH: I don’t know a right lot about it but it he did [rustling] and then –

AM: So then you got a new ‘plane?

JH: Yeah, and we were Berlin, Berlin. ‘One combat enemy aircraft identified,’ Berlin, Berlin and that time we had to land at Bardney, at Bardney.

AM: What was the flying time to Berlin?

JH: To Berlin? Eight hours roughly.

AM: About eight hours?

JH: Yeah, it varied, seven hours or eight hours and then the last one.

AM: What were you actually bombing, can you remember in Berlin, what were your targets?

JH: Targets? Berlin [laughs].

AM: Berlin, just Berlin?

JH: No they had a, it’s funny that because they you know, we were approaching the target and the bloody bomber aimer was fiddling about with his stuff you know, I kept thinking to myself ‘For God’s sake get the bloody bombs’ [laughs] but he. I went to Berlin again and then 19th of April it was, I was, we were going to Leipzig and we got shot down and the, we were, we couldn’t get the rear door open to go through you know, and the mid-upper gunner and the rear gunner used to go out through the rear door and we couldn’t get it open. So, he rang the pilot up and he said we were on fire like. And he said ‘I’ll hold it as long as I can’ so he shot up to front and I went out and he was still there and he went like that. And I went out and I landed right on the side of a lake, and I saw in the middle of the lake there was a great bang and a crash and what have you and obviously the aircraft had gone right into the lake and the pilot when he bailed out, this lake was frozen over. Well it was, I landed fortunately on the edge of the lake and so I was able to get my stuff off, but he landed right in the middle of the lake and he went under where the ice was broken and he drowned. And they told us next morning, they said ‘Your pilot was drowned, he couldn’t get back out of the aircraft’. He was a marvellous lad you know? It made me sick to think, but that’s how it ended, and he um –

AM: Did the rest of you manage to bail out OK though?

JH: Yeah, all of us, all of us got out. And I don’t know what happened to them. I was taken the next day, there was about six of us. It was a German air RAF, German bomber station which we’d landed near and they came and took us and shoved us in the cells. And then the next morning, there was six of us, and they put us in a {unclear} and they said ‘We’re taking you to Berlin ‘cause you’ll have to go from Berlin to Frankfurt to Dulag Luft to the interrogation centre’.

AM: OK.

JH: And he said ‘When you get into Berlin keep your heads down’ he said ‘Because it’s in a hell of a state’ and he said ‘You’re the ones that have done it’ and you know we actually saw one poor RAF bloke hanging from a bloody lamp standard. The Germans had got him you know? I suppose you could understand it.

AM: The civilians had got him then and hung him?

JH: Yeah, he was hanging, swinging in the breeze, I mean Berlin was in a hell of a state. It was just, I saw London, but London was nothing compared with Berlin. It was absolutely flattened, I mean we’d been bombing it every night for about seven or eight nights, with four thousand-pound clusters and all the rest of it. So, we were taken to Frankfurt and we were interrogated there and –

AM: What was that like being interrogated?

JH: Well it wasn’t too bad really because we had a, he was quite a civvy bloke he was. He said, he asked us what aircraft we flew. We said ‘You’ll know won’t you?’ And he did of course. He said ‘Well of course we do, you were in a Lancaster weren’t you?’ I said ‘Yes’ and he said it crashed into {unclear}, I said ‘Yes’. And he said ‘Well,’ he said ‘I don’t think there’s a right lot that you can tell us that we don’t know’ and he said ‘Right you’ll be taken, and we were taken by. [sighs] What were we in? Railway truck, and we were taken up to Konigsberg, right on the north coast, Stalag Luft 6.

AM: Right.

JH: And we were there, we were taken there, and then from there we were taken down to Turan in Poland and then from there we were taken across to oh, place in Germany, not while some three or four miles from Belsen it was, because we were frightened to bloody death when we found out.

AM: I’ll bet.

JH: I forget the name of the airfield. Fallingbostel I think it was and from there one morning they came in and they said ‘Right whatever you can get and carry, you’re going, moving’. And we were marched out and we marched northwards towards the, you know back, I thought we were going back to the bloody place we’d been before. Anyhow.

AM: Did you know why they wanted you to start marching?

JH: No they didn’t tell you, they just, but obviously we found out after later that the Americans and the British were coming and they weren’t far away from there. Anyhow we got about half way along there and we, there quite a few hundred of us with an odd German, a guard, and we’re marching on the edge of this wood and four Typhoons, you know British Typhoons came down circled and I thought ‘Those buggers are going to come at us’. They turned around, the first one came in and he opened up on us with bloody cannons. And they killed, I think it was eighty, eighty, I think eighty of us were killed with that. And I, my best pal was killed as well and I had a job. We’d been pals a long time and he came from Leeds and I had the bloody awful job of going to see his wife.

AM: Afterwards?

JH: Afterwards, and telling her what had happened you know?

AM: What did you think when the Typhoon came over then, why did you think it was, it was shooting?

JH: Because there were four of ‘em and they were going past and obviously they circled and wouldn’t land. The leader came down and he had a right good look at us and it was obvious that they were going to have a go at us. You know they thought we must be Germans, I don’t know why. And it’s funny, after the war I ran into, well I joined the Aircrew Association and one of these pilots was in it. I got talking to him and I said ‘Why on earth did you shoot us?’ He said well ‘They were Germans’. I said ‘Aye but there was only an odd German here and there’. I said ‘It was obvious to anybody that we were –’ and they came and the first one came in with his cannons and I dived in a muddy ditch [laughs] and he, the second one came, and then I found out afterwards a brave soul at the back of the column had got out and started waving a white sheet. So, they stopped and obviously the bloke came and had a look at us and went like that and off they went.

AM: Waggled his wings and went?

JH: I think you’ll find sixty or eighty of us were killed.

AM: It was quite a lot, yeah.

JH: As I say because I had to go to see, I’d been with him all the time.

AM: Yeah.

JH: So she ought to know.

AM: After that had happened what did you all do, did you all have to just carry on marching?

JH: No. We were on a farm and suddenly in the morning we woke up and all the bloody Germans had gone. And there was the, forget which unit it was, German, English unit, I think it was the Wiltshire Regiment or something were there and they said ‘Well look we’ve a German unit surrendering here any moment now, they’ll have a staff car’. So, he says ‘Can any of you drive? My mate says ‘Yes I can’ and there was four, he says ‘Right you four’ he says ‘Kick the bloody German out of the car,’ he says you know ‘he’ll be there with his –’. It was a staff car. He said ‘If there’s any trouble’ he said ‘Shoot the buggers’ [laughs].

AM: Did you have anything to shoot them with?

JH: [Laughs] They would have given us one. [laughs] We got this staff car, lovely staff car and we got a white sheet from the farm and put it over the bonnet and put a red cross over it. And they gave us enough petrol and food {gave us all the wine?] to get us into Northern France and off we went, and there was a camp there. And they came one morning and said ‘Right twenty of you’ so I said ‘What’s up?’ They said ‘The British aircraft are coming in and they’re going to take you home’ you know? And I went onto the airfield and I nearly fell over. I saw the registration number which was ZN, which was 106 Squadron, which was my squadron. And they were from Metheringham, and so I said to them, I said ‘You’re from Metheringham aren’t you?’ and they said ‘Yeah how do you know?’ ‘Because I used to be there’. And they said ‘Hang on’ and they got, I think it was twenty they took each aircraft, and they got ‘em in and they took me on the lads upstairs into where the pilot and that was, and they said ‘He used to be one of us’. So, I was sat on the thing there and it was a VE day. I’ll always remember it because I was listening to Churchill doing his speech, sat in my little chair. And we landed at, on the south coast. Forget the name of the place now, I forget the name, on the south coast. And the WAAF’s came and took us two at a time, and they took us into the delousing centre, [laughs] got us deloused. And then they took us to this RAF place where we were issued with new uniforms and everything. And I had shrapnel in this left big toe and I’d had it all the time since I was shot down and when we got tidied up, they took us up to this RAF place near Birmingham somewhere, don’t ask me where it was. The Sister there, I said ‘I’ll have to go and you know report with this’ I said, you know it were really bad. So, my mates were all dressed and I lost them again ‘cause they were off and I had to go into hospital. And the Sister said ‘Well’ she said ‘It’s a bit of a mess is this, you’ll be a few days’ she said. She got chatting to me, she said ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ I said ‘Well I had, I said ‘I hope I still have’. She said ‘Do you have a telephone number for her?’ I said ‘Yes, she works at the, in Leeds’. It was National Savings, Leeds. So, she gave me half a crown, she said ‘There’s a telephone there go and give her a ring’. And I rang her and I said ‘Can I speak to Miss Joan Prince please’ and they said ‘Yes’. And she came on and she said ‘Hello’. I said ‘It’s John’ she said ‘John who?’ I said ‘How do you mean?’ she said ‘John where are you?’ I said ‘I’m in hospital’ I said ‘It’s nowt serious’ but I said ‘Will you let me Mother and Father know?’ ‘cause she knew their telephone number and the {unclear] wanted to know. She said ‘Yeah I’ll let them know’ and then I was there until they said ‘Right you can go’ you know? And they put me on a train from Birmingham to Leeds. When I got to Leeds about seven o’clock at night I went into the station where there was a, what did they call them?

AM: A café?

JH: No. Records things you know? Military police.

AM: Oh yeah, right.

JH: And I walked in and said ‘I suppose it’s too bloody late to catch the bus or train to Collingham or Wetherby?’ And they said ‘Yeah, you’re right there lad’ he said ‘what are you?’ So I said ‘I’ve been a prisoner of war, I’m just coming back’. ‘Oh’ he said ‘I do wish they’d ruddy well tell us’ he said ‘We have people who will come and pick you up’ and he rang round and he said ‘Right’ he said ‘What did you say your name was?’ I said ‘Harrison’ , ‘Oh, this man I’m talking to knows your father, [laughs] so he says he’ll come and pick you up’. And he came to Leeds City station, picked me up and took me back to Collingham. Me Mother came running down steps, nearly fell over ‘em, ‘cause you know I’d been a prisoner two and a half years, and that was the end of it.

AM: And that was that?

JH: Yeah.

AM: Did you marry Joan?

JH: Pardon?

AM: Did you marry her? There she is.

JH: There she is.

AM: Lovely.

JH: She was a twin and her twin brother was on Bomber Command the same time as I was and he was shot down off the Dutch coast about six weeks before I was. And Joan’s Mother got a letter from the squadron about, and she recognised the Typhoon’s letters straight away you know? And she kept it for three or four days before she let Joan have it just to say that you know, I had been shot down.

AM: That you were a prisoner?

JH: So that was it.

AM: That was that. What did you do after the war John?

JH: I became a policeman [laughs].

AM: Oh right, you didn’t go back to the Civil Service then?

JH: No, no, no. I was kicking my heels doing nothing and I saw this advert for Police and I went and I got, joined Yorkshire, West Riding Police Force, and did thirty years in that.

AM: Thirty years?

JH: And I have a medal from them, from the, are you in a hurry?

AM: No you can show me in a minute. I’m going to switch this off now though, that was excellent thank you.

JH: Yeah. The camps made their own radio and they used to, a bloke used to come around every night or whatever it was and he used to read out what had happened in the world that day. If the Germans had ever found it we would have bloody been shot, but they didn’t find it.

AM: So you even knew about Belsen, what was happening?

JH: Oh aye, we got all the news. They used to come around, he used to come, I don’t know, they had a radio. Don’t ask me how it was or anything ‘cause they wouldn’t have told you but they had a radio, they’d made it themselves. And they used to listen to BBC and they used to take all the news down and then they used to go around various camps and that you know? And they used to come in and a bloke used to stand outside the door to make sure if there were any Jerries about, and then he used to read us the news so we knew what was going off. Marvellous organisation [laughs].

AM: What else did you do in the prisoner of war camps, did you do the shows and stuff like that?

JH: Oh aye, there was shows. I didn’t get involved in any of them, I weren’t good enough, I weren’t good enough to be girl. [laughs].

AM: What did you actually do then to occupy your time?

JH: Well I actually did a course on education.

AM: Oh right.

JH: You know like a GCE thing? And that was, you know, you got by.

AM: What about all the people building tunnels and stuff?

JH: Oh yeah we had them. You see they, there was one tunnel built from our camp and it, eventually they got, they caught them. And then the bloody Gestapo, there was about fifty of them, and they brought them into this wood at the side, just at the side of the camp, and they shot ‘em. Just mowed them down like that.

AM: Which camp was that John?

JH: That was Stalag Luft 6 we were in I think at the time.

AM: 6?

JH: No.

AM: Or 3?

JH: Anyhow, no we weren’t three. I forget, we’d been in Poland, they’d brought us back in ruddy trucks. It was right near Belsen it was and Stalag? I don’t know.

Unknown: You were in Stalag Luft 6. Yeah.

JH: 6? Yeah, Stalag Luft 6.

GR: It was the prisoners from Belsen that were machined gunned.

AM: Right.

JH: You didn’t argue with them ‘cause they’d shoot you as soon as look at you.

Unknown: Yeah.

JH: At back end of war.

GR: And by that time during 1944 it was getting so bad and they were treating you as terror fliers and this, that and the other. Even the German civilians would kill.

AM: Yeah, well like the man.

JH: Let’s face it I’ve been to Berlin two or three times since the war. My son went into the RAF, and he was in RAF Intelligence, and he spoke about five languages, still does I suppose. And he was based in Berlin and he used to go into this big tower, and whatever he took into that tower he left. He couldn’t bring anything out with him at all and they used to listen into bloody Germans and Russians and God know what. He’d come back to this country to take another language and his wife had gone with a friend to do some shopping, I forget where it was now, and a lorry turned the wrong way on a corner and it hit the car. I never thought [unclear] his wife would live, she was in a right state. Anyhow she did live and she still walks with a limp and that.

AM: Right.

JH: But that killed him going back to Berlin you know?

AM: Is that the son who lives in Lincoln?

JH: Yeah, he lives at –

Collection

Citation

Annie Moody, “Interview with John Harrison,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 17, 2019, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/8848.

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