Interview with Peter Charles Hearmon


Interview with Peter Charles Hearmon



IBCC Digital Archive




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01:17:26 audio recording






CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and we’re here in Milton Keynes with Peter Charles Hearmon who was a peacetime pilot and navigator and this is a sequel to the RAF’s activities in the war and we’re going to talk about his life from the earliest days and to joining the RAF and his interesting variations. Peter, where do we start?
PH: Well my father was a London fireman and he was stationed at Euston Road Fire Station so I was born in University College Hospital which was in Gower Street just across the road. My earliest recollections are of a flat because in those days firemen lived on the premises and my earliest recollection is a flat at Clerkenwell Road Fire, not Clerkenwell, yeah Clerkenwell Road Fire Station because my father had moved by then and my grandmother Nanty lived with us. And I can remember as a kid of about six or seven, strictly forbidden to but we used to slide down the poles ‘cause that was the way the firemen got to the, to the ground in those days and they, I don’t know if people realise it, it wasn’t a continuous pole. It just went two floors. Well this, otherwise they would pick up such a speed they’d break their bloody legs when they got to the bottom. No it wasn’t a long pole, it was, you know. Anyway, then we, my father left the fire brigade in about 1938 and we moved to a council flat in Lewis Trust in Amhurst Road, Hackney from which we were bombed. And I was evacuated initially in, I should think, before the Second World War started in about the August. I was one of those kids with a gas mask in a brown box with a label saying who I was and I was evacuated to a place called Toller Porcorum which is in Dorset, a small village but we lasted three days. There were three Cockney lads, seven or eight billeted on some poor old dear well into her nineties and we all, well in those days they, they allocated, they just said to one of the local councillors, ‘You’re the allocation officer,’ and they just went around and knocked on doors and said, ‘How many rooms you got?’ ‘I’ve got three rooms.’ ‘Oh you’ve only got one kid. You can have two evacuees.’ It was as simple as that. We lasted three days and we all ran away back home and I was variously evacuated to Exmouth in Devon. I got an eleven plus and that was, we were, I went to Westminster City School which was billeted with Tonbridge High School in Tonbridge. That was during the Battle of Britain and that was a good thing because all, we were being rained on and bombed on and then I was re-evacuated to Devon and then back to, I think eventually back to London during the V1 V2 campaign because there was nowhere is England that was any different by that time. We’re talking about 1944/45. The Germans were raiding ad lib as it were, you know. Indiscriminately. So London was as bad or as good as anywhere so I went back home and the school came back to London, Westminster City and I left in 1947 with a good clutch of O levels especially in languages. French and Latin. Didn’t do German in those days. And due to a friend of my mother’s I got an apprenticeship with a firm called Princeline in the merchant navy and I did three and a half years but decided it wasn’t for me and I left. Couldn’t get a job really because although I was, I was over nineteen I was still national, liable for National Service by then because having been in the merchant navy, the merchant navy was a reserved occupation but because I’d left so I wrote to them and asked to be called up and I was called up for the army and I went to a place called [Inacton?] I forget what it was. Selection centre. The Korean War was on and I went, I went in front of the naval chap who said I could join the navy. They only took twelve National Servicemen a year and I said no thanks. The army chap was, said to me you can join and with your educational qualifications even as a National Serviceman you’ll probably get a commission but then for some reason, I forget why, the air force chap interjected and said, ‘We’re looking for aircrew,’ and he did some dickering with the army chap and that was how I joined the air force. I was literally sort of called up, you know. Went to Padgate and that was a laugh because the, the instructors were all acting corporal, National Servicemen who’d done a six week course or somewhere or the other and given a couple of stripes and in fact our, our hut commander was an acting corporal who was quite frankly illiterate. I used to, used to get one of my guys to read him from the Beano, to read to him from the Beano. You may laugh but it was the God’s honest truth, you know. Anyway, went to Hornchurch selected for pilot, navigator and I think gunner or gunner something like that. And I then accepted and we were offered at that stage the choice of staying as a National Serviceman or becoming what they call a short term engagement where you got regular pay so I opted for short term engagement. Went to nav school at Hullavington and when we first arrived at Hullavington my course were all suspended pilots with wings which rather upset a lot of the staff pilots because we were all officers and they were only sergeants but eventually we were told to take our wings down so we had to take our wings off. So I then qualified as a navigator. Spent five, six months at St Mawgan because there were no vacancies in the Navigation Training Scheme flying Lancasters so I did some Lancaster flying there. And then I went to Lindholme, that’s right, for the air observer’s course on Canberras. Didn’t do any, in those days the pilots and navigators went through Bassingbourn together. The set up or bomb aimer or whatever you like to call them did six weeks at Lindholme and then joined the crew on the squadron which is what I did. That was at Upwood and when I arrived I think we only had about four or five, there was only about four or five aircraft. That was when you had squadron leader COs as well but we slowly but surely got aircraft from Short’s. I think Short’s made some Canberras and I think we ended up with something like eight UE and twelve crews. Sounds about right. I think it’s something like that. We were chased out of Upwood eventually by, no, sorry Wittering, it wasn’t Upwood, it was Wittering. We were at Wittering. We were chased out by the arrival of 148 squadron Valiants and we then went, then went to Upwood which I think by that time we ended up with something like four Canberra squadrons from Scampton or, I think, well it was 61 squadron. 40 squadron. I can’t remember the names of the others. I think there was four ‘cause at one time in the air force I counted there were forty eight Canberra squadrons in the UK, Cyprus and the Far East. I think [I was more or less?] was astounded when I counted. Yeah. I mean, I don’t think there are forty eight squadrons in the air force at all at the minute is there? You see we had Canberras at Upwood, Scampton, Waddington. What’s the one further north? Binbrook. Wyton. All had three or four squadrons. I think I’m talking of the days when there were a squadron leader CO and I was, I was a flight commander as well. I was acting flight commander as a flying officer. [cough] excuse me. Anyway, let me go and get a drink of water. Sorry.
CB: Ok.
PH: Talking.
[Recording paused]
CB: We’re re-starting now to recap slightly and go to the initial training that Peter did and just take us through that.
PH: When I, when I, is it going?
CB: Yeah.
PH: When I was called up in 1951 I went to Padgate where we didn’t do very much at all. I was there for about six weeks. We really got kitted out. That’s where we got our uniforms or up to a point our uniforms. Some of it. Some of it. It was, it was very odd because at times there were groups with wearing their own jacket but air force trousers and air force shirts and air force berets or whatever but anyway after about six weeks at Padgate we went to Hornchurch for aircrew selection which and I was given pilot. I don’t think I was given navigator believe it or not. I think I was given pilot, gunner, engineer. We then went back to Padgate and we awaited and we got, I got posted to Number 3 ITS at Cranwell and that was a six month ab initio course doing square bashing, PT, customs of the service. Mathematics. Physics. We had a lot of National Service teachers in those days of course who had done their, because in those days at eighteen you could either opt to do your National Service straightaway or you could defer it until after you’d been to university. And a lot of these guys had been, had degrees and were just doing their National Service after university so they were in their twenties normally. They only wore hairy battledresses because they weren’t issued even though they were officers they weren’t issued with anything else so that was it. So we did six months at the ITS and I think there was, there was, if I remember there were four ITSs at Cranwell. At Cranwell alone or [as of anywhere?] and there was over a hundred on each. The chop rate was about fifty percent so at the end of the course of the six months there would only be fifty of you left and these, these were pilots, navigators and gunners and then from there you went to your specialist training and I went then to Feltwell and I did my flying training on Prentices, then Harvards. Got my wings, as we said on the time and went to Driffield on, on Meteors. And then from there I went to Chivenor on Vampires which I didn’t get on with and of that course of fourteen because the Korean War ended seven of us were suspended from pilot training.
CB: So when you went doing your training at Driffield. What did you do? It was a two seater Meteor was it?
PH: Two seat. Yeah. The Meteor 7.
CB: And so what was the programme that you had for that?
PH: Well you -
CB: ‘Cause it was the first jet really.
PH: You flew, you flew nearly every day even only for a short time. Say an hour or so if that. A with an instructor and eventually I forget, it will tell you in my logbook you. Eventually went solo and because you went solo that didn’t mean, you still, you still did dual trips for various other things like aerobatics and things like that. And then eventually you did your final trip as a flight commander you were passed out you know as having satisfied. I got a white card at Driffield but then I went to say Chivenor and there were fourteen on my course at Chivenor of which seven were suspended and I was offered the choice. By that time I was a regular of course and I was offered the choice of finishing my National Service, I had about a week or so to do or retraining. By that time I was married. I was married in the previous year so I decided I rather liked the air force so I decided to retrain as a navigator. And so then I went to Hullavington and I had my pilot training. Actually my pilot training stood me in good stead because I finished about second or third on the course you know because a lot of the navigator and pilot training, especially the ground school, they were the same, you know, the meteorology, all that sort of thing was pretty good so I’d already done it. Most of it. But they were, in fact the course I was on at Hullavington were all chop pilots and I think as I mentioned earlier we were, we were forced to take our wings down eventually.
CB: Only temporarily.
PH: Well no we never got them back again because we then had, we then got navigator brevvies and the law of the Royal Air Force was you wear the brevvy of the trade in which you are practicing.
CB: Ok.
PH: Well we, our brevvies were virtually removed permanently. We were told we could no longer wear them. Right. Ok.
CB: Ok. So you did the Hullavington course.
PH: Yes.
CB: And you then got your new brevvy which was –
PH: Correct.
CB: The navigator. So then where did you go?
PH: Went to St Mawgan as the assistant flying adj because there was no vacancies for Canberra training at the time and I was there for six months. Did quite a lot of flying in Lancasters.
[phone ringing]
PH: Which one was that? Or was it –
[Recording paused]
PH: In training.
CB: Right. So –
PH: But because, because I was a navigator and I got on well with the squadron leader flying –
CB: Yeah.
PH: He said, ‘Pete, come and fly with us,’
CB: Yeah.
PH: So off I went. You know.
CB: So we’re talking about using your time at St Mawgan.
PH: Correct.
CB: And you got –
PH: Went to Gibraltar two or three times.
CB: Right. As the navigator on the –
PH: As the nav. Yeah.
CB: On the Lancaster.
PH: On the Lanc. And believe it or not we used to take down in the bomb bay bundles of hay because the AOC there and the brigadier they had a cow because they couldn’t stand Spanish milk. Have you ever tried Spanish milk? Spanish milk is bloody awful.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
PH: Anyway, they had a cow so in the bomb bay of the Lanc which is quite large we used to take bales of hay for the, for the AOC’s cow and bring back things like Christmas trees or potatoes and things like that you know.
CB: Yeah. Any wine?
PH: And wine. Yes. Of course.
CB: Ok. So you had six months of this.
PH: About six months.
CB: Time.
PH: And then I went to Hullavington and did the nav course.
CB: Oh this was before. This, was this after the nav course or before it?
PH: What?
CB: No. This being at St Mawgan was after –
PH: Oh no that was before, that was after getting brevvy, between getting a brevvy.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And actually getting, no it wasn’t the nav course. No. Start again.
CB: Yeah.
PH: I’d already completed my nav course.
CB: Exactly. Yes.
PH: And I had a brevvy.
CB: Yeah.
PH: I went to Hullavington. I went to St Mawgan.
CB: St Mawgan.
PH: On, all of my nav course there was no slots available.
CB: No.
PH: And we all got jobs and went to all sorts of places as, I don’t know –
CB: Just a holding position.
PH: A holding yeah.
CB: Yeah.
PH: A holding post. Some went as MTs. Some went as –
CB: Right.
PH: If you could drive they made you MT officer, you know.
CB: So, so what was the unit that you were supposed to go to after that?
PH: Well it was the flying, it was the, I was, it was the flying wing, just the flying wing.
CB: Ok.
PH: ‘Cause Hullavington at that time was the School of Maritime Reconnaissance.
CB: Right.
PH: MRS. And it was, they used Lancasters prior to, to the chaps training on Shackletons because typical of the air force the MRS was at St Mawgan which is in bloody, you know, Cornwall and the OCU was up in Scotland. So the guys did their course and they had to go all the way up to Scotland to do, to convert to Shackletons. They used, ‘cause of course the Shackletons as you know was a development of the Lancaster.
CB: Sure. Ok so you went back to Hullavington in order to get ready to go on to what aircraft?
PH: No. No. From, from, from St Mawgan I then went to Lindholme.
CB: Right.
PH: Ready to go on to Canberras.
CB: Ok.
PH: And we did the six week bombing course and then I joined 61 squadron direct at Wittering and as I said earlier on the pilot and navigator, plotter he was known as, they called them the plotter in the, in the Canberra and I was the observer. The plotter, they went to Bassingbourn together and the observers joined straight from Lindholme which was the Bomber Command Bombing School. BBBS.
CB: Ok.
PH: So, I didn’t do a conversion as such. Conversion was done on the squadron.
CB: Right. Ok. So, now you’re at Wittering.
PH: Yes.
CB: 61 squadron. So what happened there?
PH: Well we were there for about a year and then they decided to move us to Upwood because of the formation of the first Valiant squadron which was coming to Wittering. 148 squadron. Tubby, Tubby Oakes, something like that was the guy who ran it. It was quite amusing because when we were doing the major exercises, I forget what they were called now, where we used to fly right up to the Iron Curtain and then all turn left as it were. We used to have to take off on the peri tracks because the mock, the invisible Valiants were using the main runway. That’s the honest truth. There were no, we didn’t have any Valiants there but they were, we had to get used to, I mean the peri tracks, if you know Wittering.
CB: I do. Yes.
PH: There was a big runway and there was a big peri track so it was quite funny. I’m trying to think of what they were called. It will be in my logbook somewhere.
CB: Ok. So –
PH: We used to do these operations quite regularly.
CB: So when you were at Wittering you were in Canberras and where are you flying? Are you on your own or do you go out as a formation?
PH: Sorry. Say again.
CB: You’re at Wittering.
PH: Yes.
CB: And you’re now on operations.
PH: Yes.
CB: Effectively. Do you go off as a formation or did you go off as -?
PH: No. No. We’re still using the World War Two tactics. Stream.
CB: Right.
PH: You didn’t, I don’t think I ever done, I can’t ever remember doing formation. Did at Wyton eventually but only as a practice. It was never used operationally.
CB: Right.
PH: The Canberras. The Canberra was a night bomber really and it was, and of course we had Gee.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And GH and you did a minute stream. A minute stream.
CB: Yeah.
PH: We all flew one after the other up to the Iron Curtain and then all turned left you know. It was just to stir, stir up the Warsaw Pact. That was what it was really all about.
CB: Yeah. Quite predictable. Always turning left.
PH: That’s correct. Yes. That’s right.
CB: Ok.
PH: And then we’d probably go to Nordhorn or somewhere like that and do some bombing or whatever.
CB: Yeah. So, in Norway.
PH: No. Nordhorn is in Germany wasn’t it? I think.
CB: Oh was it?
PH: Yeah.
CB: Oh so you were flying that way as well as going up to the –
PH: Well we’d go out direct to the Iron Curtain, turn left.
CB: I see.
PH: Come back via Nordhorn which was -
CB: Yeah. Ok.
PH: In the northern part of Germany.
CB: Ok.
PH: In fact I’m not sure. It’s one of those islands that are off Sylt. Somewhere like that.
CB: Ok. So, yeah. Right. Ok.
PH: This is a long time ago now.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Fifty years ago, you know.
CB: So, when you were bombing what were you dropping?
PH: Twenty five pound bombs.
CB: Ok.
PH: When we, when we were using the bigger ones. The thousand pounders we tended to do that at, in Malta. Filfla. There was a bombing range. There was an island there that was used as a bombing range in Malta.
CB: Right.
PH: For daylight bombing we always used to deploy to, to Luqa for about a month at a time and use the bombing ranges in Libya which of course was not part of the empire but I don’t know, we had some, I forget, we had some interest in it.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And the Americans had some interest in it when they kicked out whatever his name was. I’m trying to think.
CB: Yeah. Well the airfield there was El Adem wasn’t it?
PH: That was one of the airfields. Yes. There was Benghazi. And there was another one the Americans had which had been called King, it was called Idris. That’s right.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Yes.
CB: Ok. So when you went on a sortie how did the sortie run?
PH: Say again.
CB: When you went off on these sorties how did the sorties run? Did you go on a dog leg or directly or how –
PH: Well you were given a timing to time on, TOT, Time On Target and you may have to dog leg if you were a bit early but usually you were late [laughs]. You were urging the, urging the pilot to put a bit more steam on.
CB: Ok.
PH: It was just a, I mean if that was Germany and say that’s the Iron Curtain there was a stream like and when you got there you turned left and went off to various places. Theddlethorpe, Nordhorn or sometimes back to base. That’s interesting. That’s right. We had something called to recover at base. You had something called a Trombone and the idea was to keep secret. You didn’t transmit or anything and they used to, your base would give a time. They would give a time. They would say whatever it was and you in your individual aircraft had a plus. So many minutes for your overhead so they had something called a Trombone and I know from Wittering on several occasions my Trombone ended over Liverpool ‘cause you had to lose thirty minutes or some bloody nonsense you know. This was so that when you landed you were landing in, I don’t think they, you see I don’t think although we were a minute apart in the bombing thing landing was a different ball game. They had to have a gap of about two minutes or three minutes which meant of course that the further back you were in the stream the longer you had to lose. In other words to land.
CB: So when you were actually doing the bombing the space time between aircraft doing the bombing is one minute. Is it –?
PH: Something like that. Yeah.
CB: The same for everybody was it?
PH: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Right.
PH: But then after that as I say because you couldn’t land at minute’s slots at night you see.
CB: Yeah.
PH: During the day possibly. Excuse me [cough]. So you had to, as I say I had this Trombone where you flew down the Trombone to lose whatever minutes.
CB: Lose time.
PH: You had to. Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Ok. So how many planes are going up at a time on this sort of thing?
PH: Oh I would have thought, well I was, you know well you say four hundred out?], a couple of hundred at least. Half. Every, every airfield, every Canberra airfield would have to send up about fifty percent of their aircraft.
CB: So –
PH: There would be a lot of aeroplanes in the air at the time.
CB: We’re in the dark as it was the case in the war.
PH: That’s right.
CB: And how were you aware or otherwise of the other planes on the stream?
PH: Never. [laughs] Didn’t see them. I think we flew with lights up to a certain point and then I can’t remember. I’m sure we flew with lights up to a certain point. Then they were switched off. I mean there were, there were mid airs as you can imagine.
CB: Mid-air collisions. Yeah.
PH: Correct.
CB: Fatal.
PH: Well I presume so yeah I mean let’s face it they didn’t advertise it too much as you can imagine.
CB: No. Ok. So you were at Wittering with 61 squadron. How long were you there?
PH: I’m trying to remember. Only about a year I think it was. Then we went to Upwood.
CB: Same squadron.
PH: Same squadron. Yes. I think, that’s right, I’m trying to remember. There was 61 squadron and I’m trying to think, there was, was there another squadron came from, yes there was another squadron came from, from Wittering. I can’t remember its number. There was 35 squadron and 40 squadron which came from somewhere like Scampton or Waddington. Somewhere like that. They ended up with four squadrons at Wittering if I remember right.
CB: Ok. And what about overseas detachments? How often did you do those?
PH: Oh yeah. We used to go to Malta, oh I should think every three months for anything up to, up to a month at a time. Some two weeks to a month doing visual bombing either at Idris, not Idris, I’m trying, Tarhuna, I think was the range in Libya.
CB: In Libya. Ok. And I’m just thinking of the envelope you were operating in. So you take off. What height would you cruise at?
PH: Anything between thirty six and forty thousand feet.
CB: And what speed would you be doing?
PH: Are you talking about airspeed or ground speed? Air speed would be about –
CB: Take air speed.
PH: Four hundred and sixty. Oh no. Not air speed, no. True airspeed about five hundred. I can’t remember. Two hundred and twenty knots. Something like that.
CB: Oh you were quite, quite –
PH: Something like that. Your true airspeed is twice your indicated airspeed.
CB: Ok.
PH: Something like that.
CB: Right.
PH: I don’t remember the figures.
CB: The indicated air speed would be?
PH: Well the indicated air speed would be, well about two hundred and twenty knots you see.
CB: Right.
PH: That was what you saw on your dial with your back –
CB: Yeah.
PH: Because we didn’t have GPI on 61 squadron.
CB: GPS. Right.
CB: Ok. So your, the actual speed that you’re going is what? Over –
PH: Four hundred and eighty knots.
CB: Four eighty. Ok.
PH: Something of that order.
CB: And you’re at variable heights. How was the height decided?
PH: Well I can assure you in 1955/56 there wasn’t a fighter in either the allied or the Warsaw Pact that could touch a Canberra flight. We could turn inside them you see.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Of course that really broad wing. I mean if we turned inside a Hunter it fell, it fell out the sky.
CB: Yeah.
PH: So did Sabres.
CB: Sure. So how often did you do fighter affiliation?
PH: Not that often. Not that often. Not true fighter affiliation. We, I can’t, I don’t remember doing any actual fighter affiliation with the RAF. Fleet Air Arm yes. I’m trying to think. Was it HMS Albion? What was the carrier they had in those days?
CB: So this would be in the Mediterranean or in the North Sea.
PH: No. In the Mediterranean. Yes. Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Ok.
PH: When we were at, they used to ask us to come down five thousand feet –
CB: Ok. Did they?
PH: Because their fighters couldn’t reach us. I think they had Venoms –
CB: Yeah.
PH: Or something on board didn’t they?
CB: Then Sea Hawks. Later they had Sea Hawks.
PH: Oh and Attackers.
CB: Then Attackers. Yeah. So now the bombing run so where would the bombing run start?
PH: I’m not with you.
CB: So you’ve got a target.
PH: Yes.
CB: And you’ve transited to the target.
PH: Yes.
CB: But how would you handle the bombing run? Would you be higher? Lower?
PH: Well that was, that was when you were sort of vulnerable because you had to be, fly straight and level for at least twenty miles before the target.
CB: Right.
PH: So then you had to stay straight and level. In fact we developed a technique, the Canberra squadrons developed a technique called the late bomb door opening because if you opened the bomb doors way back it made it very difficult. It made the aircraft wobble.
CB: Yes. Yeah.
PH: So we I think it was seven seconds before target, before, not target, but before actually dropping the GH bomb.
CB: Yeah.
PH: I mean, don’t forget you’re way back aren’t you?
CB: Yeah.
PH: I mean you’re about thirty miles from the target. I can’t remember the exact distance but you’re well back because of the forward throw of the bomb.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. Well it -
PH: It had a different –
CB: Depended on the height and speed as to just how –
PH: Yes, exactly. Yes.
CB: Far you were letting go in advance?
PH: We had, you had a set of, you had a set of figures which were quite amusing. This is a true story. You’ll like a true story. You had a set of figures which you set up on your G set.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And when they [clashed?] the bomb went automatically.
CB: Right.
PH: And we were, we were first in the stream, that’s right, it was when we, Squadron Leader Hartley so it must, we were, it must have been soon after we arrived at Wittering because we were still a a 8UE squadron. Squadron Leader Hartley was the boss who got killed subsequently. Anyway, we arrived back to be greeted and this was on a night exercise and I should think it’s in the book. They used to do them, we used to do them regularly. About at least once a month. Let me have a look and see. See if I can get the name.
CB: So we’re looking in the book now but –
PH: Well I’m trying to see what –
CB: Well what we could do Peter is come back to that.
PH: Well yeah anyway.
CB: Because –
PH: There used to be, used to be an exercise, an operation so and so. This is what I was talking about where you flew to the, I’ve lost the thread now. Oh yes we were first in, we were first at Nordhorn and I dropped the bomb. Fifty yards I said. I said, ‘That’s the fifty yards [two hours down?]. We landed. We had this enormous bloody greeting. Station commander. Squadron commander. ‘What did you do Pete?’ ‘Well what did I do?’ ‘Well your bomb dropped two thousand yards short in the woods, set fire to the woods and the whole exercise had to be cancelled’. So I said, ‘Well I don’t understand that.’ And they said, ‘Can we see?’ And what had happened was the nav leader had typed the wrong, one of the digits wrong in my G set. So it wasn’t my fault.
CB: No.
PH: It was the nav leader.
CB: This was before you took off.
PH: Oh yeah. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
PH: You had a set of digits.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And those are the ones you put in your GH set?
CB: Yeah.
PH: And he’d, he’d typed them up in a hurry or whatever and he’d got one of the digits wrong and it was two thousand yards out. So I was, I was exonerated and he got his bum kicked.
CB: Yeah.
PH: You can imagine.
CB: Yeah. Sure.
PH: Well the whole exercise had to be cancelled ‘cause we were the first ones through. ‘Cause I mean, I had the, I was the best bomb aimer in Bomber Command at the time.
CB: Right.
PH: Allegedly you know.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
PH: Done on results.
CB: Yeah. Right. So just going back. Here we are on the run in.
PH: Yes.
CB: And –
PH: That’s when you’ve got to fly straight and level.
CB: You’ve got, straight and level. Would you normally be at a higher or lower level than your cruise approach when you actually did the bombing?
PH: Do you know I can’t remember?
CB: Ok.
PH: No. I’ve got an idea that you tended to fly around at the height you were going to bomb at.
CB: Right. So the practicality is we’ve got the pilot and then we have the navigator and –
PH: The plotter. Yes.
CB: Plotter as well so there’s three of you in the aircraft.
PH: Correct.
CB: Who did the bombing?
PH: I did. The, the set up.
CB: Right. Ok.
PH: So you had, the navigator had in front of him, he had his radar screen.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And I had a GH screen up there.
CB: Yeah. So you’re sitting side by side in the back.
PH: Yes. That’s right.
CB: How did you get through to the front?
PH: Well you climbed on the, there was a, only, only fifty percent of the back, I mean all the instruments were there and there was a gap.
CB: Yeah.
PH: You had to go under the, you know you had to –
CB: So you’re crawling down to the –
PH: This was only for visual bombing.
CB: Yeah.
PH: You had to go in to the nose.
CB: That’s what I meant.
PH: For visual bombing. For GH bombing you did it in your seat.
CB: Ok. That’s what I’m trying to get, differentiate here. Sometimes you’d do visual bombing would you?
PH: Correct.
CB: On what circumstance would you do visual bombing?
PH: Well they did a lot during the Suez campaign.
CB: Ok.
PH: When they bombed because it was in, the Gee and GH didn’t reach that far.
CB: No. Right. So you were practising visual bombing.
PH: Correct.
CB: At any time.
PH: From forty eight thousand feet sometimes.
CB: Right. Ok.
PH: Used to have, there was a strike barge at Wainfleet and I think there was another one at Chesil, Chesil beach.
CB: Right. In the south. Yeah.
PH: These were, these were the old invasion barges painted black and yellow and they used those as targets. And there was Theddlethorpe, Nordhorn but some, I think Theddlethorpe and Nordhorn were GH I don’t think they were visual. I can’t remember.
CB: Right.
PH: I think they were straight GH.
CB: So here we are flying along on your final approach to the target.
PH: Yes.
CB: The pilot and you are coordinating the activity.
PH: Completely yes.
CB: Who is actually running the plane at that time?
PH: Oh the pilot. The pilot.
CB: Right he’s still running it.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Who is pressing the –
PH: Unlike some of the American aircraft where the bomb aimer actually had physical control of the aeroplane. The Brits never went for that.
CB: No.
PH: You always used to say to the pilot left a bit, left a bit, steady, steady, steady.
CB: Sure. Yeah. And then you pressed –
PH: You pressed the bomb.
CB: Right.
PH: The pilot had to activate, had a switch to activate the, the –
CB: The release.
PH: The bomb aiming equipment.
CB: Yeah.
PH: But the bomb aimer was the one who opened the –
CB: Oh the bomb aimer equipment. Ok.
PH: Who did that?
CB: Ok. So you physically had to press the button for it to go.
PH: Correct. That’s visual bombing only.
CB: He, right, so on GH how did that happen?
PH: It was all done automatically.
CB: Ok.
PH: When the bomb –
CB: So effectively when the crosses merged.
PH: That’s right. Yeah.
CB: The lines cross.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Then it goes. Right.
PH: Correct.
CB: And it’s been programmed on the ground on the basis of what the wind –
PH: Yes. That’s right. Yeah.
CB: Is expected to be. Now what about circumstances where you have to approach at a different height for some reason? Would that happen? So you had a planned height of say forty thousand.
PH: Well I think on the GH side you’d have to throw it away because you you wouldn’t have the necessary coordinates you know. On the visual side we’d [play?] off the cuff.
CB: Right. Ok. So a lot of this is practical stuff in training.
PH: Yes.
CB: So Suez comes along.
PH: Yes.
CB: How did you get involved in that? What? Were you still with 61?
PH: Well I was never involved in the actual bombing of Egypt but I was involved in, I was in, I was at Nicosia and my crew were involved. My son was born and then they, they didn’t send me abroad. Our crew spent, George [Cram?], myself and a chap called oh, I should think Roger Atkinson, we were transiting carrying three, thousand pound bombs from the UK to Cyprus via Luqa.
CB: Right.
PH: It was a bit hairy. We had three thousand pound bombs on board.
CB: Makes a heavy landing does it?
PH: Yeah. Well of course they, I mean they were dropping, it was thousand pounders. The Canberra could carry thousand pounders of course and also nuclear weapons later on but originally the actual iron bombs were the thousand pound.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Which we used to drop, practice dropping on Filfla which is just off Malta. Big island off Malta.
CB: Right. So how many thousand pounders could it carry at one time?
PH: Three.
CB: Ok.
PH: Two and one.
CB: Right. Two side by side. Yeah and one behind or below.
PH: Below.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Below.
CB: Ok. Right. So we’re on 61 squadron and you’re occasionally going on your detachments.
PH: Yes.
CB: Where did you go after Wittering?
PH: Ah well what happened was I was on what was known as an eight and four at the time and when 61 squadron packed up I was, I only had about eighteen months to do in the air force [allegedly?] so I was posted to 58 squadron at, at Wyton as by that time they had, the squadrons had a full time adjutant. And I was posted there as the adjutant with no admin training [allegedly] but I was, but because it was Canberras again I did a lot of flying and I went to Christmas Island during the H bomb tests.
CB: Ok.
PH: It’s all in the book.
CB: Yeah. So the H bomb is what size in relation to the iron bombs of a thousand pound?
PH: I’ve got no idea. Never seen one.
CB: Oh you didn’t see one there.
PH: No.
CB: Ok.
PH: Well Wyton was PR you see.
CB: Right.
PH: It wasn’t, it wasn’t bombers, it was, we had PR7s.
CB: Ok. PR7s. So the photographic reconnaissance Mark 7s.
PH: Yes. That’s right.
CB: So what did, what did what did you do there?
PH: Well I was, my full time job was adjutant.
CB: Ok.
PH: Squadron adjutant. A chap called Colin Fell. Wing Commander Fell.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Nice chap. Ended up as an air commodore. Navigator. One of the, you know at that time one of the few navigator squadron commanders.
CB: Yeah. So how long were you at –?
PH: Eighteen months.
CB: Right. Then what?
PH: Well, I happened because I was the adjutant I always read the DCI, Defence Council Instructions and one came. I was into judo, I was a judo instructor and then and one of these DCI’s came around saying that there was vacancies to learn Japanese so I put my name down and I’m trying to think. [North?] Lewis. [North?] Lewis was the CO and he said, ‘Oh no,’ sort of thing but there was a caveat on the Defence Council Instructions saying that all applications had to be forwarded regardless of whether they were approved or not by the CO so mine was forwarded. I was called to London for an interview. Sat in front of this large group of men and as soon as I walked in and sat down they said, ‘Well of course we’re not, we’re not teaching Japanese.’ So I sort of almost got up to go and they said, ‘Sit down. Would you like to learn Chinese or Russian?’ And I said, ‘What’s the role?’ They said, ‘Well if you learn Chinese you go to Hong Kong for a couple years.’ And I was married at the time so, well I was married. ‘And if you learn Russian you go to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London and as I’d recently bought a house in Edgeware I thought I’ll do that because by then I’d accepted a –
PH: A permanent commission.
CB: Right.
PH: So I went to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies for a year. That must have been about ‘58/59. I then went and stayed with a family in Paris for ten months. A Russian family. Emigre family. Did the Foreign Office interpreter’s exam and got a, I got a second class pass which is not bad really. I mean very few people get a first class pass. I then went to a place called Butzweilerhof in, in Germany.
CB: Germany.
PH: Cologne. Where for a time I was CO of the intercept, the intercept section.
CB: You were a squadron leader by now.
PH: No. Still a flight sergeant.
CB: Right.
PH: And from there I went back to flying on Victors at Marham, tankers. As navigator.
CB: Ok so –
PH: And then I was short toured deliberately by the, by, despite my, despite my AOC saying that, ‘He’s part of a crew, a five year crew,’ and I was only three years, I was short because of my Russian and I went to a unit called BRIXMIS in Berlin. British Commander in Chief’s Mission to the Group of Soviet Forces and I was an interpreter with the Soviet forces in Germany and met lots of Russian generals. And my boss was a chap called Gerry Dewhurst. Have you ever come across Gerry?
CB: So in practical terms what are you doing at brexmas, BRIXMAS?
PH: Sorry?
CB: What were you doing at BRIXMAS then?
PH: Spying.
CB: Right. So –
PH: In practical terms. We used to tour East Germany.
CB: In cars.
PH: In a car.
CB: Yeah.
PH: With cameras to make sure that they weren’t building up their forces.
CB: This was part of the agreement with the Russians.
PH: Correct. They had SOXMAS.
CB: They watched you and you watched them.
PH: Yeah. They had, they had a similar unit at a place called Bunde.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And the Americans and the French, we all had, I mean I got on very well with the Americans and the French and we used to, we used to you know talk to each other about where we were going to go and make sure we weren’t double you know. We made sure that we didn’t, I mean one stayed out all night sometimes on an airfield and God knows what.
CB: Didn’t [know]
PH: Because, see what happens was the Soviets, the Russians because East Germany was, you know, very delicate, sensitive they always put their new kit there. So, I mean, you know we had army tourers and air force tourers and we got some of the first photographs, good photographs of the MIG, the MIG 21J which was very early on. But I mean it’s surprising Janet, when I was doing the, when I became a volunteer of RAFVR and I was doing the air, air. Well analysing the air side because intelligence you try and pretend you’re the enemy really because you give your, your boss what you think the enemy is going to do so you put yourself in the enemy’s place. At one time the Russians or the East, sorry the Warsaw Pact had twenty eight divisions in East Germany. Twenty eight divisions, the Brits, the Brits had one, the Americans had one, the Germans had about four. Three or four. And the French had one and they had nearly three hundred aeroplanes, three hundred, sorry what am I talking about? Two thousand aeroplanes and I think we had about three hundred or four hundred. I mean when I used to do the briefings for the, for the war, you know, for what was it called? There was a –
CB: The war games.
PH: Wintex. Wintex was the big, they say the generals they’ll be at the, they’ll be at the coast in, they’ll be at the channel coast in four days. That was why you know they had the tactical nuclear weapons.
CB: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
PH: I mean you know that was the truth. There was no good, no good denying it. There was no way. You know.
CB: No. So you were doing that from ‘50/60.
PH: Well I did that from, let’s think. That must have been ‘67. ‘67 to ’70. Something like that.
CB: Ok. Right. Just –
PH: Then I came back to MOD and I was going to be posted to Uxbridge as gash supernumerary but a chap, I’m trying to think of his name in MOD, who I knew very well. He used to, he was a great fixer. He got me posted to the Foreign Liaison Section to finish my time in MOD and because I was a Russian speaker I was given the South American desk [laughs] of course.
CB: Good service logic isn’t it?
PH: Sorry?
CB: Good service logic.
PH: Yeah. Well I mean that was vacant and that was, you know, he got me in and I was quite pleased with it because I still met the Russians and more cocktail parties than you could shake a stick at and I’ll tell you a thing. The poorer the country the more ostentatious their cocktail parties and social events are. Some of these African countries that were starving their ambassadors used to throw these champagne fuelled caviar and Christ knows what, you know.
CB: Amazing. Right.
PH: And by then I was, and I was lucky enough to be asked if I wanted, when was leaving I was to ring a certain telephone number which I did and I got a job and I did another twenty two years with a, an organisation which I think the last letter of its number was five.
CB: I can’t think what on earth you’re talking about. Right [laughs] Right.
PH: Am I allowed to say these days?
CB: Yeah.
PH: At one time we weren’t.
CB: So –
PH: Which I thoroughly enjoyed.
CB: Yeah. The South American desk. In practical terms you were doing something useful but what was it?
PH: Liaising with anybody, any, I mean –
CB: Anybody in South America.
PH: No. No. Anybody, anybody across the board.
CB: Right.
PH: But I did, I remember one occasion that’s right. Yeah mainly South America but I mean you didn’t have to speak, they all spoke English anyway.
CB: Yeah.
PH: But I always remember I had to introduce new attaches to the chief of the air staff and I’m trying to think at the time who it was. [unclear] Oh dear. It will come to me in a moment and I know that the guy, the guy I introduced was Peruvian Air Force. He was lieutenant colonel, no lieutenant [stress] general and they kicked him out because obviously he was probably involved in some sort of coup. Jesus [Gabilondo?]. His name was General Jesus [Gabilondo?] and I remember I introduced him to the, said to the chief of the air staff who sort of almost said, ‘What.’ [laughs]. I said, ‘Sir, this is General Jesus [Gabilondo?].
CB: Yeah.
PH: Nice chap.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Flying Canberras ‘cause we’d sold Canberras to the Peruvians if I remember right.
CB: Absolutely. Yeah.
PH: So we did have something in common. Nice chap.
CB: Just going back –
PH: But that rank. I mean, you know, that incredible rank to be, to be a military attaché really.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. Just going back to your Victor times at Marham.
PH: Yes.
CB: So here we have a tanker squadron.
PH: Yes.
CB: So what were, you as the navigator in one of the aircraft there.
PH: Yes.
CB: How did that work? You were linking with [pause] nice picture on the wall.
PH: There I am in the –
CB: What was the typical day? You were up fuelling fighters.
PH: Well we were very very busy because what happened was the Valiant packed up as you know. The Victor was brought in in a hell of rush. In fact what I was initially on 55 squadron which only had the two point tanker.
CB: Right.
PH: They borrowed or stole or whatever it was from refuelling pods from the navy.
CB: Oh.
PH: Which were put on the wings.
CB: Right.
PH: And we did something called Operation Forthright which was flying between the UK and Cyprus to bring back, believe it or not, Lightnings that were stranded all around the Middle East ‘cause with the demise of the Valiant they couldn’t get back because as you know the Lightning, Lightning, the early Lightnings only had a range of about seventy bloody miles. They were terrible. Unless we, the lightning 6s were a bit better but I mean the original Lightnings had to be, they had to be refuelled as soon as they got airborne virtually.
CB: Yeah. Right.
PH: I mean they were designed to go up, shoot down the incoming and come back.
CB: And come back again. Yeah. Right.
PH: But that was Forthright. So we enjoyed that. We were doing a lot of flying. Unusuall. I mean I was doing something like sixty hours a month which is really double what the air force normally. I mean thirty hours used to be the norm wasn’t it really?
CB: So this is in two sections really. There’s the overseas deployment.
PH: Yes.
CB: And there is the UK. So on the UK you’re flying from Marham which is Norfolk.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Where are you flying and what are you doing?
PH: Well what we did mostly and I shall think of the name of it. What did you call it? Between the Wash and Newcastle and we used to refuel. They used to practice refuelling. We used to go around like that for about four hours.
CB: So you’re flying in an oblong shape are you?
PH: Yeah. I have the thing, just one moment
CB: And what are you refuelling? Only Lightnings?
PH: Anything.
CB: Only Lightnings or Americans.
PH: Let me just tell you in a moment. Let me look.
CB: Yeah. Ok. We’re just stopping, stopping just for a mo.
[Recording paused]
PH: For refuel.
CB: So you’re flying an elliptical circuit.
PH: That’s right.
CB: Effectively so that just, how does that work then?
PH: And we called it a Tow line.
CB: You called it tow line. And how did it work?
PH: Well you just, they called you up and said, you know, we, they knew we were there and the Lightnings from Leuchars or wherever. Coltishall. I think there were Lightnings at Coltishall. They knew we were there and for them to practice refuelling.
CB: Right.
PH: And we just, I mean it was quite boring. I mean just went around in this elliptical shape. As I said, tow line.
CB: So as the navigator what was your role in that?
PH: Virtually nothing because the guy doing the refuelling was the co-navigator. Two navigators in the Victor. One was the nav, one, I was the plotter and he was the other guy was the set up.
CB: Right.
PH: A chap called Pete [Hall?] and he was the set op around the radar but he also controlled the refuelling setup. I believe latterly they transferred it to the co-pilot.
CB: Right.
PH: But I mean in those days it was done by the –
CB: The nav radar.
PH: The nav. Nav radar. Nav radar. Yeah.
CB: Yeah ok. So did he have a means of looking backward?
PH: Yes. The telescope.
CB: They’d put a telescope in specifically for that.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Ok. So how did it work? So you’re flying straight and level. What sort of speed would you be flying for the refuelling?
PH: Well depending what you were refuelling. Normally about three hundred knots.
CB: Ok and so you’re straight and level for specifically a period.
PH: We’ll all the time straight and level. Well until you turn, you turn and come –
CB: Yeah.
PH: I mean the leg would take probably fifteen or twenty minutes.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Each –
CB: And what speed are you going?
PH: Well around I think.
CB: Three hundred knots you said.
PH: Yeah. Well no about two hundred and forty air speed.
CB: And, and height?
PH: Anything between thirty two and thirty eight thousand feet depending on the, how bumpy it was.
CB: Yeah.
PH: We would try and find you know the smoothest level we could, we would and then we’d settle down and they’d transmit what height we were at.
CB: ‘Cause in practical terms the air force system was to run a drogue line.
PH: That’s right.
CB: Effectively.
PH: Yeah.
CB: With a –
PH: He had, he had a nozzle.
CB: A nozzle in the back.
PH: And we had a drogue.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And that was it.
CB: Right.
PH: And once and it was, there was a set of rings and things and when it connected it wouldn’t float.
CB: It held it.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
PH: But of course when you withdrew when it withdrew there was always a spurt of fuel came out you know which which could blind the pilot sometimes.
CB: Yeah.
PH: ‘Cause it could go on his windscreen.
CB: Yeah. Well yeah. So the fighter is coming up and getting fuel on.
PH: Correct.
CB: And is trying to negotiate the drogue.
PH: Correct.
CB: And –
PH: You had to fly, you had to fly –
CB: Into it.
PH: Depends where the drogue were. I think on the Lightning it was above them.
CB: His nozzle was above his head.
PH: I’m trying to think, I’m trying to think. What was the other one? We did refuel the odd one.
CB: Phantom.
PH: Phantoms, I think, yeah. Yeah.
CB: Buccaneer.
PH: Buccaneers. That’s the other one. Yes. Yes.
CB: Right.
PH: Buccaneers.
CB: What about the Americans? Did you do any of those?
PH: I personally, I didn’t but I know the squadron did eventually but the Americans had a different system you see.
CB: Yeah.
PH: The Americans –
CB: Theirs is a guided.
PH: They had a drogue operator who fed the drogue on to the –
CB: Yeah.
PH: On to the other aircraft.
CB: It was a long bar wasn’t it?
PH: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. Well is. Yeah. Ok. Right. And did you refuel other Victors occasionally?
PH: Eventually because as I pointed out originally it was only a two point tanker because they hadn’t, they hadn’t yet got the hoodoo. The hose drum unit.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Known as the hoodoo.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Which eventually was –
CB: In the centre.
PH: Fitted into the bomb bay. Once that was done because the wingspan of a bomber you couldn’t accommodate it on a wing –
CB: No.
PH: Refuelling pod but then oh yeah we did what we called mutual. Victor to Victor.
CB: And you could do two fighters at the same time.
PH: At a time.
CB: Could you?
PH: But only one large aircraft.
CB: Yeah. Ok.
PH: Other Victors we had Victor to Victor and then we had Victors to whatever was available.
CB: Ok. So that’s UK. Then when you went overseas how did that work? You were based in Cyprus or where were you?
PH: Normally in Cyprus yeah. That was, they were called Forthrights if I remember right. Operation Forthright. That was taking Lightnings backward and forwards between because we didn’t have Lightnings based permanently in Cyprus at that time they were always on detachment from the UK squadrons and they would be out there for a couple of months and then changed over.
CB: So would they fly the whole distance non-stop or would they pop into Southern France. In to Orange?
PH: Oh no we tried to take them all away.
CB: You did. Right.
PH: The trouble with the Lightning was as soon as it landed it bloody went u/s.
CB: Oh right. So you’d want to keep it airborne.
PH: So they kept it airborne [laughs] Yeah. I mean they, well it didn’t take, it only took about five or six hours to get to Cyprus from the UK.
CB: Sure. Yeah. Because they’re, they’re transiting quite fast.
PH: Yeah. I, yeah and I enjoyed being a nav because my responsibility was not just looking after the Victor but looking after the Lightnings as well just in case they had some form of malfunction like breaking a probe which did happen. They had to make sure that the refuelling, they had refuelling brackets enroute. I had to make sure the refuelling brackets, if something happened instead of dropping into the sea they could divert somewhere you know.
CB: So the refuelling bracket is a period, a space over the route.
PH: Yes.
CB: Certain areas where you would do it.
PH: These were pre-determined –
CB: Right.
PH: Between, you, you had a special map which had what they called refuelling brackets and that was where –
CB: Right.
PH: You actually did the refuelling.
CB: So were you stationed in Italy sometimes as part of the -?
PH: Say again.
CB: Would you sometimes have your Victor in Italy in order to be able to deal with the brackets.
PH: Personally no. I know that, that, no after I left the squadron because of, what’s his name, Mintov they had to use Sigonella in Italy but, because he, he banned the RAF from Luqa but we always used Luqa.
CB: Right.
PH: What happened was we would have on day one a Victor would go to Luqa.
CB: Yeah.
PH: On its own with a crew and that would be refuelled and everything ready and then on day two the Victor with its two Lightnings would take off from Marham. The Lightnings would join, go via Luqa. You’d call up when you were approaching Luqa. [cough] Excuse me. He would get airborne, take over your slot and you would then go into Luqa.
CB: Right.
PH: And depending on what was going on you might well stay there and do the same thing as he’d done the day before. Refuel. And the next pair through you would take on to Cyprus.
CB: Right.
PH: It was quite complicated. It was quite well thought out.
CB: Ok.
PH: And occasionally if we were going further we’d do a Victor to Victor refuelling at height because like, like the Lightning the Victor used nearly half its fuel getting to height.
CB: Yeah. So how long did it take to get up to height with a full –
PH: What? The Victor? Forty minutes.
CB: Did it?
PH: Lightning did it in three. [Laughs]
CB: Yes. [Laughs] Going to stop there for a mo.
[Recording paused]
CB: So we’re just re-starting. Are you due to have your lunch shortly?
PH: No. I’m ok.
CB: Ok.
PH: No problem. I’m eating this evening so I shall just –
CB: Right. Ok
PH: Have a cup of soup at lunchtime.
CB: Right. Ok. So one of the interesting things here is that, two things, first of all in the war the pilots who re-mustered to do other things maintained their wings.
PH: Oh I see.
CB: You didn’t.
PH: No. The law, the regulations state –
CB: How did you feel about that?
PH: You wear the brevvy of the job you are doing.
CB: Yeah. So how did you feel about that?
PH: Well as a youngster I was a bit miffed but you know it was a fact of life. You do as you were told.
CB: And once you got in to being a navigator.
PH: I enjoyed it very much. The navigator on Victors was the best job in the air force.
CB: In what way?
PH: On tankers.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Well because you were in control really. I mean the pilots did exactly what you told them. I mean they did anyway but I mean in that particular context I mean, you were, the two navs ran the operation completely.
CB: ‘Cause you’re running a pattern.
PH: Yes.
CB: And you’re also doing a task that is very intricate.
PH: Correct.
CB: Right.
PH: Not like sitting on your backside you know on QRA for God knows how long waiting for the –
CB: Yeah.
PH: We did do a QRA at one time. The Victor tankers because of the way we could stay airborne for quite a long while. There was a phase that the NATO went through where they were simulating that all the, the, shall we say the, let’s get the, war headquarters etcetera had all been wiped out by the Warsaw Pact and by getting a tanker airborne with a senior officer in it he was the, he was the one who could control what was going on and we did that for about a year and that was, that was a type of QRA where you set the aircraft sat at the end of the runway and you were in a caravan in your flying kit ready to get airborne if you were told.
CB: Yeah
PH: We did, we did simulate it once or twice but it never came to anything.
CB: Just to –
PH: The concept was you’d end up with a group captain sort of determining whether or not you were going to obliterate bloody Moscow, you know, quite frankly.
CB: Right. So just to clarify that. QRA is Quick Reaction Alert.
PH: Reaction alert. Yes.
CB: You’ve got a bunch of aircraft at the end of the runway.
PH: Correct.
CB: That can, can –
PH: Get airborne –
CB: Start off.
PH: In three or four minutes. That’s right.
CB: And move quickly.
PH: Correct.
CB: Yeah. Ok. Next bit is the difference between the wartime experience with the family and peacetime is that wartime the families were banned from the airfield and its environment.
PH: Yes.
CB: But in peacetime.
PH: Oh yeah. We lived in quarters.
CB: You had quarters. So what was it like -
PH: Yes.
CB: For the family?
PH: Well enjoyable. I mean we enjoyed living on, on station. Plenty going on. Social life in the officer’s mess you know. Kids went to decent schools.
CB: So, in Germany the children –
PH: My oldest son was at boarding school when we were in Germany.
CB: Where was he at school?
PH: He was at Wymondham College.
CB: Oh yes. Yeah.
PH: But the others were with us because my last son Anthony was born in ‘64. By that time we were back in the UK.
CB: Right.
PH: Semi permanently.
CB: Right. So the others didn’t go away to school.
PH: No. Not really. They stayed with us. ‘Cause in Germany the schooling was quite good. The British education system was quite what they called –
CB: Yeah.
PH: BF, British Forces.
PH: No. Yeah. British Forces education. BFES or something.
CB: Education yeah. Ok and on the airfields what sort of, what were the quarters like?
PH: Cold [laughs]. Cold. At Marham we didn’t have central heating and we, we couldn’t use the dining room ‘cause it faced, faced north east and you know when you’ve got that wind in from Norway or the North Sea all you had was a radiator or something you know. No central heating.
CB: Electric radiator.
PH: Yeah. Something like that.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Yeah.
CB: Right. But the quality of the building and the furniture was ok was it?
PH: As far as we were concerned they were ok, you know.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Oh no. That’s right. Marham. Yeah, that’s right. No. At Marham we had a lounge which had a door directly into the lounge which if you opened it you stepped into the mud in the garden.
CB: Oh.
PH: And I’m told, we were told that it was an architect had made a note for a door instead of a window. It should have been a window but in fact they put a door in there for some unknown reason. I mean who would have a door directly in to the lounge? I mean we had a front door and a back door. I mean they were nice quarters. They were but they were cold. These days of course they’ve all got central heating but in those days there was no such thing.
CB: No. So these are all traditional airfields. Expansion period airfields.
PH: That’s right yeah.
CB: The ones you were based in.
PH: Marham. We weren’t in quarters.
CB: Wittering.
PH: We lived on a caravan sight at Upwood and at Wittering. We had a caravan there.
CB: Oh. Because the quarters were all full were they? The quarters were full?
PH: Yes they [might have been?]. I was fairly junior at the time, you see.
CB: Yeah.
PH: There used to be a waiting list.
CB: Yeah.
PH: But then you got to a frozen list eventually.
CB: Right.
PH: If you were lucky.
CB: And in Germany what were the quarters like there?
PH: Very good. Excellent. Central heating. The lot. My wife said to me after we’d lived in one of those, ‘When you leave the air force Pete I’ll live in a shed but it’ll have to be bloody centrally heated.’ [Laughs] Having been in quarters in the UK which were bloody freezing you know.
CB: So in Germany what was the life like there?
PH: Excellent. Local overseas allowance and all sorts of things you know.
CB: And did you, was everything centred on the airfield or did you tend to get out much?
PH: I wasn’t flying in Germany.
CB: No.
PH: They were both were ground tours.
CB: I was wondering if you got out in to the hinterland much.
PH: I did in, in Berlin. Yeah. I was touring East Germany.
CB: Yeah.
PH: My wife often said our tour in Berlin was, our three year tour was the best ten years of our lives. The social life was incredible.
CB: Yeah.
PH: I mean I was almost a diplomat you see.
CB: Yeah.
PH: Virtually had diplomatic immunity. And I mean you know it was very difficult. The Americans were always throwing enormous parties, you know. My kids loved going to the Americans. They used to have forty gallon bloody drums of ice filled with coca cola and Christ knows what you know. Just helped yourself.
CB: Yeah. Extravagant with everything.
PH: Absolutely.
CB: But very hospitable.
PH: Absolutely. Yes. Very difficult to, to reciprocate.
CB: Yeah. And on a professional front then how did that work?
PH: I’m not with you.
CB: Well from the air force and intelligence point of view how did the working together –
PH: We were told by –
CB: Operate.
PH: RAF Germany that the intelligence we produced was invaluable. I think I said we got the first pictures of the new MIG 21J.
CB: Yeah.
PH: All the new tanks [unclear] yeah.
CB: So in when you went out on these sorties, forays in to East Germany you weren’t staying in airfields there ‘cause they didn’t let, you were driving around all the time were you?
PH: Well no. You camped up with luck. If you get in undetected on the landing side of an airfield.
CB: Right.
PH: Which, of which one had heard there was particular interest.
CB: Right.
PH: ‘Cause what you were after was photography.
CB: Yeah.
PH: And especially if an aircraft had got its gear down and its undercarriage open and then it’s you know the technical boys can tell a lot from that apparently, you know.
CB: Right. Yeah. Good. Ok. I’ll just stop there again thank you.
[Recording paused]
CB: So you’re out in East Germany winter and summer so –
PH: Yeah.
CB: What sort of things was that like?
PH: Well go back to square one. What you’ve got to appreciate is that the west did not recognise the east. The Soviets called it the Democratic Republic of East Germany. The west called it the Soviet Occupied Zone of Germany and this was the protocol.
CB: Right.
PH: And you know the diplomacy sometimes is childish because I would have to go sometimes to a meeting because we’d been called because of an infringement or something and they’d produce this protocol which said so and so so and so happened in the Democratic Republic of East Germany which I then had to cross out and write Russian Occupied Zone of East Germany and initial it and then they would cross it out [laughs]. But that was, that was the situation. So basically if you got into trouble in East Germany we weren’t allowed to discuss it with the, with the Volkspolizei. We had to call for a Russian officer. And that was the situation.
CB: So were these engineered incidents were they?
PH: Oh yeah. Absolutely yeah they I mean they, they I mean we would take pictures. We used to be, I used to have one and I lost it unfortunately when I moved. A big sign said, what was it -? “Presence of Foreign Liaison Missions Forbidden” in German and in Russian and in English [ unclear] and if you went [?] what we would do, quite often we would take the sign down and throw it in the nearest bloody river. If you wanted to get near to an airfield. Which they had no right to do you see.
CB: Right.
PH: Allegedly. But they’d come and put another one up and then you’d get, you’d get nicked you know by the Russians because you were behind the sign as it were you know and then there would be a protest and that was where I would have to go with my boss because there had been a protest that flight lieutenant, always referred to me you know, Flight Lieutenant Hearmon was caught speeding at such and such a place and I’d have to deny it you know and say no, it wasn’t true you know but quite often it was true but sometimes it wasn’t. It was just fabricated by the Volkspolizei, the East German police. It was quite amusing at times. Yeah.
CB: So you’d camp out.
PH: Oh yeah. I had a little tent and a very good sleeping bag. An army sleeping bag. You know one of those ones that zips up with arms.
CB: Oh right.
PH: You know the sort I mean?
CB: Yeah. Yeah. So it was quite cold sometimes.
PH: Yeah. Oh yeah but you know one slept ok. You’d wake up sometimes with ice all over your bloody face.
CB: So how low would the temperature go?
PH: Minus twenty two. I think that was the lowest one we ever had.
CB: Summertime. What about summertime?
PH: Well that would be ok. It would be hot.
CB: But not too hot.
PH: No. No. You’d do about one, you’d do about two tours a month. That was all because you had to write everything up as well you know and that could take two or three days.
CB: So you’d come back. You’d write things up. How did the debrief go?
PH: Well the debrief was done by you. I mean it was all, it was a question of matching up. You would give a narrative about the photographs etcetera etcetera and then that was all sent. It was looked at by our own ops officers. Usually an army chap and then it would go to, what do you call it? RAFG. Royal Air Force Germany. Second ATAF intelligence. Yeah.
CB: So were you verbally debriefed by your seniors after these trips?
PH: No. Not really. Just asked, ‘How did it go?’ Because you know they might look at your report before it went off but you know they knew what you’d, they trusted you shall we say.
CB: Yeah and you were able to practice your Russian regularly were you?
PH: Yes. Yes.
CB: So you got even more proficient.
PH: I did at one time but don’t forget we’re now talking about twenty, thirty years ago.
CB: Sure. Yeah. So when you eventually retired.
PH: Yes.
CB: What did you do?
PH: I went for an organisation that’s number ends in 5.
CB: Yes.
PH: For twenty odd years.
CB: And after that what did you do?
PH: Retired [laughs]
CB: Ok. To Milton Keynes.
PH: Yes. Well we’d already moved to Milton Keynes while I was still working in MOD. Well we lived in Amersham and we had quite an old house that wasn’t double glazed, wasn’t double skinned and it was quite cold and we couldn’t afford, well the new houses they were building in Amersham at that time I should think that the lounge was about that size, you know. Remember they went through a phase of building houses with rooms that I mean I had four kids. We couldn’t have all get in one room together.
CB: Crazy.
PH: I mean they showed you around and they had undersized beds and undersized wardrobes and Christ knows what in the various rooms because they were, they were tiny. Whereas the house we had in Amersham was, Milton Keynes was very comfortable. I like a decent sized room.
CB: Yeah.
PH: I’m a, I mean this room’s quite pleasant isn’t it, really?
CB: Yeah.
PH: Nice aspect.
CB: This is brilliant. Yeah.
PH: That balcony goes all the way around by the way.
CB: Right. And your children they left school. Then what? Any, any of them go in the forces?
PH: My eldest son went in the army for a while but then he became a policeman. He retired. He retired three years ago as a policeman. He works for an organisation that is on contract to the Home Office escorting undesirables back to their own countries. He’s been, he’s been all over the world. China, Italy, Peru. Oh God. And if you excuse me I’ll tell you. They took this rather, what’s his name, he was a China man who didn’t want to go back so he was being a bloody nuisance and they found, realised afterwards why he didn’t want to go back. He was wanted in China for something or other, being deported, escorted, they had to go via Moscow. They got to Beijing and Pete, he was in handcuffs ‘cause there were two of them with this guy in the middle in handcuffs and they got to, got to Beijing and they were met by a Chinese police lieutenant who spoke English. He’d worked, he’d served in the UK or something and he came out and he said, ‘Mr Hearmon. Yes we’ll take him.’ Pete said to him, ‘Look,’ he said, ‘He’s been a hell of a problem. We’re quite happy to leave you the handcuffs. Here’s the keys.’ ‘No. No. No. No. No.’ And he said something to this chap who went and sat meekly in a corner. And Pete said, ‘What did you say to him?’ He said to him, ‘If you don’t go and sit down and behave yourself I’ll f***ing shoot you,’ and he said, ‘I meant it Mr Hearmon and he knew I meant it.’
CB: How amusing.
PH: ’Cause the Chinese, you know.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
PH: I mean they’d charge, they’d charge the family for the bullet or something.
CB: What did the others do?
PH: Sorry?
CB: What did the other children do?
PH: Oh well my second, well my second daughter is retired. She lives in Lincoln. My other son is also retired. He’s married to a Channel Islander and lives in Jersey. My youngest son is the only one who’s working. He’s not married and he lives in London and he’s, he comes and sees me about once every three weeks. He works for the local council. He’s in to environmental things of some sort.
CB: Right. Right.
PH: But even he’s, I mean he was born in, let’s see, ‘52, ‘56 ‘64 so I mean he’s coming up to his fifties quite soon.
CB: Your eldest son, what did he do when he was in the forces?
PH: Sorry?
CB: Your eldest son. What did he do when he went in the forces what did he do in the army?
PH: I’ve no idea. He was just in the infantry. That was all. He was just a soldier and then when he left he joined the air force, er joined the police and did twenty eight years or something in the police.
CB: Right.
PH: And he wasn’t an officer. He was just a soldier of some sort.
CB: We’ve had a really interesting discussion. Thank you very much indeed.
PH: Good.
CB: And we’ll stop it there.
PH: Good.
[Recording paused]
CB: When you were at Driffield.
PH: When I was at Driffield.
CB: Yeah.
PH: We had an instructor there called Flight Sergeant [Chalky]. This is God’s honest truth. Flight Sergeant [Chalky] double DSO DFC. Been a wing commander during the war and a friend of mine said he was, he was at the, he was the adjutant. He was in the air force. He was a National Serviceman but he became a navigator eventually as a regular but he went out. At the time he was in the secretarial branch and he was the adjutant of the reselection unit in MOD and when people, they were recruiting people back into the air force and they offered him the lowest thing they could get away with you know and this guy apparently had gone to, had gone to MOD and they said come back but we can only make you a flight sergeant. He accepted and Dave Kinsey said he should never have done because what he should have done was, ‘You must be joking.’ Gone away. A fortnight letter he’d have got a letter saying we’ve changed our mind you can come back as a flight lieutenant.
CB: Yeah.
PH: But he said yes. He was obviously desperate to get back and he was a, and he, the sad thing was he was killed as a result of a mid-air collision at Driffield at the time.
CB: Was he?
PH: Yes. And he’d gone through the war as a DSO double, wing commander double DSO. And we had DFCs and other things you know.
CB: Yeah. Pilot.
PH: Pilot yeah. Oh yeah. No. He was an instructor.
CB: I think one of the sad situations I don’t know what you’d call it the number of people who actually who were killed after the war in accidents.
PH: Well don’t forget when I joined the air force in ‘51 still there was an awful lot of ex-wartime guys still around you know with double, double medal ribbon you know. DFCs and God knows what. I mean when I was at Marham the wing commander flying there Mike Hunt, that’s right, yeah I think he was a DSO DFC you know. He’d been, he ended up as station commander at Leuchar I think at one time.
CB: Amazing.
PH: I can remember as I say at Marham there were certainly, no at , sorry there were certainly guys, Tubby Oates who took over the, I think it was Tubby Oakes, a name like that, took over 148 squadron as a wing commander. He was ex-wartime you know. Well decorated. DSOs and God knows what.
CB: Right. I think that covers a lot. Thank you.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Peter Charles Hearmon,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 18, 2019,

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