Interview with Eric Hookings


Interview with Eric Hookings


Eric Hookings joined the RAF and served as ground crew at RAF Newton before training as a pilot in America. He was posted to RAF Bruntingthorpe, flying Wellingtons, Stirlings and Lancasters with 619 Squadron. During an operation a Me 110 shot down their Lancaster, killing three of the crew outright with the remaining crew members having to bale out from the front of the plane. He evaded the German authorities for three days before he and his engineer were captured and Eric was sent to Stalag Luft 3 in November 1944. He recalls his experience of arrival into the camp and being welcomed by other prisoners of war. In January 1945 the prisoners were told to get out of Stalag Luft 3 and he describes being on the long march in freezing conditions and how he survived whilst suffering with dysentery. After a few weeks at a camp at Spremberg he and others were handed over by Russian forces to American forces who repatriated him to RAF Cosford.




Temporal Coverage




01:09:51 audio recording


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GC: This is going to be an interview being conducted for the International Bomber Command. My name is Gemma Clapton. The interviewee today is Flight Lieutenant Eric Hookings and the interview is taking place on the 24th of October at Copford in Colchester, Essex. Tell me a little about life joining the RAF for World War Two.
EH: I remember Chamberlain coming back saying, ‘We are now at war with Germany.’ We had been expecting some sort of reply but we didn’t believe that it would be to total war. So, everybody that you met was showing nervous energy. Not knowing, or rather, in many cases, knowing that the Germans had a very force, very forcible [pause] army, navy and the air force. For the first twelve months after the Germans had taken over France they — we had a lull which gave our country time to re-muster every possible service. Auxiliary force. And then in 1940 the Battle of Britain commenced and our squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires were in constant battle at [pause] at that time. But eventually we were able, able to win that battle. Hitler, at that time, had mustered [pause] but mustered some landing barges for the attack on England. But after the Bomber Command took over and and concentrated on destroying the barges which was meant for the invasion of England. Then having joined 150 Squadron at RAF Newton I was a GI and did all different types of jobs. One day I could be a policeman. Another day I could be loading up bombs on to aircraft. Then much to my surprise a notice was put up on the board and I happened to read it and it read, “Aircrew Required.” And I thought I would like to do that. And then I thought I’m not bright enough to become a pilot. But what I thought — I’ll put my name down. My name was put down and to be accepted you had to pass an examination and although I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability. Ability then. I thought I’ll have a go. I went for the exam and I knew I had failed. But much to my surprise I was summoned to an office which consisted of three Royal Air Force officers. I saluted and said — and the officers in charge said, ‘You know why we got you here, Hookings?’ I said, ‘Is it because I failed?’ ‘Yes. But there was something we saw in you so we suggested to, to ask you would you go back to school?’ And I said, ‘I would do anything sir if it’s beneficial.’ They said to me, ‘We can send you down to Brighton for six weeks. You’re going to stay in the best hotels down there and your job will be to brighten up.’ I went forward for the six weeks and the day of the exam came around and I felt fairly confident that I could do it and I did. I got passed. So that was the start of my flying career. I was selected to go to America for full training. We couldn’t exercise the amount of flying over the UK because of the black outs. It wasn’t long before my name was called out and with others we were marched to Greenock, near Glasgow — Glasgow for shipment to the United States for training. We arrived the next day and much to our surprise we saw the Queen Mary had docked and it had a big hole in the bow. And we realised that our trip to America would not take place. So, we were marched off and wondering what was going to happen next. It didn’t take long to realise that we were going to America because they marched us down to the docks and the Queen Mary with the big hole had been filled with concrete. Heavy duty chains were wrapped around it and we couldn’t believe our eyes. In a short time the Queen Mary sailed for America. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I went on board. The suite that I shared with another chap was magnificent and talk about travelling in style. Style. We certainly did. We crossed the Atlantic in five days including all the zigzagging — being chased by U-boats and we arrived at Boston, US. And we were taken then back to Moncton in Canada. It seemed everybody of the Royal Air Force, whether it was the first or second time, had to go through Moncton. Very pleasant indeed. The Canadians are very nice people. We then waited further instructions which came and we were put on a train that took us through Montreal, Toronto and to the railway station in Oklahoma at Ponca City. Ponca City was going to be our base for about at least nine months. It was a flying training station. There were American trainees and our own squadron of which they made me the leader. I there had eighteen fellow companions under my control. The discipline was pretty strong and we had to make sure that we kept astride of the American trainees. I found so much in my training but unfortunately it had a bad side to it. As I’ve said I was in charge of eighteen other pupils and they had all gone solo from eight hours to twelve and I hadn’t made any advancement. So, I thought my flying career is not going to get off the ground. Anyway, the boys in my squadron, they were so pleased with their results and they did their best to help me over the loss of staying at the school. But the — but the chief flying officer, he called me to the parachute room one day and he says to me, ‘I’m going to ask you to fly me on the circuit and land it. I won’t interfere unless there’s any sign of danger. So, it’s your responsibility to handle the aircraft.’ As you can imagine my nerves were acting very strange. I thought I’m going to do this. We entered the plane and the CFI, Chief Flying Instructor says, ‘Right, Hookings. The plane is yours.’ Having been trained I taxied out to take off point. I waited there in the correct position waiting for clearance to fly. I went roaring down the runway and made a nice take off and I did the circuit and I came in. All of the procedures I did were correct. I came in. Landed the plane. I never had a better landing. I just kissed the ground and the CFI said, ‘Back to base.’ So, and he says, ‘I’m getting out now. I want you to do exactly the same as you did on that landing. You were very very good.’ Anyway, I taxied out. Nice take off. Got to the end of the runway and I screamed. I was so uptight. Then I suddenly realised I’m by myself. A strange feeling. I came in to land. I hit the deck. I bounced. Stick forward. Motor. I corrected correctly. I did it three times. I thought well, I’d blown it now. Anyway, I taxied back, jumped out, saluted the officer. I said, ‘I’m sorry sir.’ He says, ‘What are you sorry about Hookings?’ I said, ‘That landing.’ ‘My god,’ he says, ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about there. You did exactly as you were trained to do and I’m going to pass you.’ What a wonderful feeling to know I wasn’t going back to the UK empty. Shall I have a rest?
[recording paused]
GC: Tell me a little bit about the planes you flew. The different type of planes?
EH: Right. Ok. [pause] I got my wings but I was very disappointed that I didn’t get my commission. And having done very well without a squadron and one [pause] very various events I believe that our wing commander who was in charge of the Royal Air Force Cadets — he gave me the impression that my education wasn’t what he was happy with. As we all know the cream of crews came from private schools. Anyway, as a sergeant I was shipped back to Liverpool and then after leave I was posted to [pause] Bruntingthorpe for training on the Wellington which was a lovely plane to fly. And I must admit I over [pause] one day I decided to fly into cloud not realise that there was danger in the fact you rely on instruments for blind flying and I lost control of the Wellington and I was ready to ask or tell the crew to jump and as I was thinking I managed to see an open space and from that day to this I never told my crew what had happened. I said it was part of aerobatics. When — when you do blind flying you have to concentrate one hundred percent on instruments and at that time I was being trained for blind flying but not sufficient to handle the aircraft in cloud at that time. Anyway, I went through further, further training on the Wellingtons. It was a very interesting period of my life to think I got there. And from there I went on to Stirlings. The four engine plane. It was taken away from front line activities so we did quite a bit of flying doing gardening with it and cross country’s and it was, it was a rather difficult aircraft to handle because it was prone to [pause] prone to engine, engine failure. It happened to me so I had to make the landing with three engines. Not four. From there I went on to Lancasters and found that very demanding and competent. We were trained with [pause] and it was a very pleasant experience to fall in love with that plane. On one take-off I was — I had done all my checks before take-off and everything seemed to be working. I got the green light. I had a full bomb load on and I got the clearance and off I went. The lift off was about ninety five miles per hour. And at that particular moment when one was lifting off my port outer lost all its power. I had a decision to make. Can I get the plane off with a full bomb load with three engines? Rightly or wrongly I decided to cut the engines and as I cut the engines she swerved off the runway and I said to the crew, ‘Back.’ They knew what I meant. To keep the tail down we wanted as much — and the nose was trying to get up but fortunately the grass was very wet and it sank down and fortunately no one was hurt. And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done a good job here.’ But they called me to the tower and they weren’t very pleased that I had to abandon my take-off. Anyway, that was all a part of the experience and I continued flying with 619 Squadron until the day came when we were on a raid and my crew were very much aware of their job to make sure we don’t hit another aircraft. Or make sure Jerry is seen first. Having said that my rear gunner shouted out, ‘Port. Go.’ ‘Port go,’ is a short order that we had the enemy in our — he had us in his sights. So when I received that order I just went straight into the figure eight which gave my gunners a clear field. And then my rear gunner shouted down the intercom, ‘I’ve got him. I’ve got him. I’ve got him.’ On that piece I decided to get back on course. I requested my navigator, ‘Course to target’. It came back very quickly so we were back on course. Now, we want to make sure that we were okay but in doing that a Messerschmitt 110 got under the Lancaster and shot us right through the centre killing the two gunners and my wireless operator. We struggled with our [unclear] trying to put the fire out. But unfortunately the fire had got between the rear and the front and the port inner was ablaze. I was left with no alternative then to abandon the aircraft. I gave the order, ‘Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump.’ And I got my crew from the front of the plane. I got. And myself.
Other: Is he Ok? Eric. Eric. Come on. Wakey wakey. You’re dreaming a little bit there, aren’t you?
GC: No. He’s fine.
EH: Jump from the plane.
GC: Yeah.
EH: Yes. And I got the crew out on the front end entrance. While they were — the [pause] my engineer went down the step, a couple of steps and he got the axe that was above the hatch but unfortunately when he got it open it twisted and blocked in the diagonal which meant blocking the entrance. I shouted to him, ‘Axe it. Axe it.’ And he smashed it with the axe and they were able to get out. During that time I was still at the controls trying to steady the aircraft to the best of my ability. And we, the four, the four of us in front managed to get out. I tried to make an effort with the centre of the aircraft but that was ablaze and I then decided there was nothing further that I could do. The [pause] I then made the jump for it through the hatch. We pilots were the only member of the crew who had their parachute attached to them. So anyway I did a freefall for about three or four minutes to clear the aircraft and I pulled the ripcord. I finished up in the forest and caught in the trees. And I could see I was, I was in a big difficult situation. Anyway, in training they teach you if you are under any form of stress which, obviously jumping from an aeroplane comes in that category, they say just stop for about twenty minutes and re-collect. This is the situation. I’d been there for about at least half an hour. Then everything was so quiet until I heard this whistle. And I recognised the whistle because it came from my engineer. And he was always whistling that. And I shouted, ‘Is that you John?’ And he said, ‘Yes skipper. Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m in the trees.’ ‘Oh’ he said, ‘we’ll soon get you down’. Optimism. It took a long time to get clear of those branches but we did it. We were then faced with capture. We didn’t want to be captured. So I said to John take, ‘Take your stripes off and make your uniform dirty.’ I said, ‘We’re going to be labourers.’ I did the same. And all of a sudden at 7.30 the sky opened up so we had to find somewhere to stay. And we found this barn and we made use of that for about two or three hours. By that time the weather had improved so we knew we had a big problem. After — after one day I realised that we had to do something different. We managed to find a log and we carried that through the villages and that piece of wood was our passport. And we were not stopped until we came to this road and so we just strolled along and all of a sudden I heard the voices and unfortunately I panicked and pulled John into the hedge and it was the two guards patrolling the road and that was the end for us two and I never saw John again [background conversation] again until the war was over. He was an NCO, he was sent to one camp and I was sent to the officers’ camp as it called, Stalag Luft 3. Can we stop there for a moment?
GC: Yeah, absolutely. [recording paused]
GC: Just tell us a bit if you wouldn’t mind about life in the Stalag place?
EH: Life where?
GC: In the Stalag. In, as a prisoner of war.
EH: Oh, in, as a prisoner of war [pause] having, having been shot down and escaped I was three days and then I was captured and by front line troops and they were very, very kind to me. They gave me some bread and coffee and then I was handed to the Gestapo and that was not pleasant and but fortunately my, my engineer, he was there as well and I think we saved each other’s lives by being there and we were then separated. He went to NCO camp. I went to Stalag Luft 3, officers only. We got the train from I think it was Dortmund and we were taken to Stalag Luft 3 and from the railway station they had lorries and they put us in lorries to the camp. When the lorries stopped the, behind the railings were all the other prisoners been there. ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello, what squadron were you? What’s it like in London now?’, you know. Some had been locked up three and four years you see and they wanted to know about their country and their people and so that went on for a while. Now, we gotta put Mr Hookings somewhere and they decided to put me in a hut with Canadians and there was fourteen of us in the hut and his name was Mitchell, he always had a fag in his mouth and I didn’t smoke and he says, ‘Hookings’, he says, ‘we’re gonna tell you one or two things now.’ I said ‘That’s alright Mitch, thank you very much, I’ll be pleased to listen’ and he was going through the do’s and the don’ts, what you said but there was one thing that stuck in my mind and that was, I said, ‘I’ve got trouble with my leg’ ⸺ as I came out of the plane I must have knocked, cut it — ‘Oh’, he said, ‘we’ve got a brown job as a doctor.’ ‘A brown job?’ ‘He’s a soldier. Brown’. And he says, he says, ‘Tell you this Harry’, what was his, he said, it had got to be said, ‘Oh, he’s a right old fart but don’t let him push you around, you tell him what you want.’ So the moral of the story is never listen to other people! I went to see the doctor and something I said, ‘I’m not happy with that’, I said. All of a sudden this gentleman in brown, soldier, says, stops what he’s doing, he says, ‘We’re the same rank so I can say what I like to you, like you said to me.’ He says, ‘I’m not here for a holiday and I’ve got to look after idiots like you’, or words to that effect. In other words, he’d gone off me. [laughs] And well I thought oh, oh, I said, ‘I’m sorry sergeant.’ ‘Oh’, he says, ‘you air force boys you think you’re everybody’ and I said, ‘Well, we do’ and he, he got very very cross with me because, criticising something he had done, I don’t know now, but that was, I thought, I’m gonna learn from that. Oh, we don’t want any of that. Anyway, now, now I’m going around the camp now, finding who I knew, who I didn’t know [coughs] and you know feeling my way around, in November, bitterly cold. Anyway, came, came January, I think it was about the 27th of January, there’s uproar in the camp. The uproar was that we had to be out of the camp straight away. What they were saying to people, ‘Out, out’, ‘aus’, ‘out, out’ and being a new arrival I didn’t have any, very much to carry except a Red Cross parcel but people who had three or four years have got all their little cans for cooking in and all that you see so anyway we had to leave those bags. It was snowing and it was minus twenty on that long march and ninety-two miles it was and all I had on were my air force trousers and I managed to get hold of a, a khaki overcoat from the Red Cross but it was wicked and they gave me a pair of long johns, American, have you seen them?
GC: No.
EH: You know. Anyway. Oh, I thought, and put them on, I whipped them on in the mess and put pieces of paper, lots of paper in. Anyway we went on [coughs] and night time we stopped, four o’clock, and we went in with the pigs or the cows. I got in with the cows ’cos they’re so warm you know and anyway. For a week had gone by and what happened was — in the, what do you call that now [pause] oh, I know yeah — during one of my, I used to [unclear] fight to get in to the cows. The German farms, they have like a box and in the centre the snow has been melting because of the warmth you get of the animals. Outside the snow was still, anyway, I, I’d got dysentery and how, how I survived I will never know. Anyway, I, I, I thought I must get under cover and I ran to get to up on the first level and I slipped all in that slush and those and I had those under — what do they call them? — I had them on for three months. That, that, really really killed me, you know. Full dysentery, going all the time, you got nothing, nothing to help you. All I, all I had was straw to clean myself as much as I could in the cowshed with straw. So then we marched to a place called Spremberg. We, as we arrived a train pulls in, we’re all on a bridge and the trains are down there. We looked over and we saw all these soldiers, they was back from the Russian front. Anyway, our little group we got together and talked to them and they were telling us what, what was going on with the Russians and everything and they had and they had some boxes of biscuits and things like that and fortunately being a non smoker I had plenty of cigarettes! So I traded my cigarettes for biscuits. Oh, I thought, that’s marvellous, so you know I made the most of that. And then we went to, the camp was overrun by the Russians and the Americans sent thirty-nine lorries to release us from our camp and anyway the, we all think we’re going home. All the lorries are there every day same position. Went on for a week and then [emphasis] the Russians, the American, the American lorries pushed off and we found out that the Germans, the Russians are their prisoners, not the Americans. My god, we thought, we’re going to be shipped back to the salt mines. Anyway we mustered around and by this time we had forage parties and we’ve had big wooden tubs with soup. If there was a cow or a dog or anything it all went in this soup and then after about another three weeks Russia sent thirty-nine of their lorries and this time we were allowed to get in them and they drove us to a place called Halle, Halle? It’s on the hill and we were taken from one side of the river to the other side and we were handed over to the Americans. The Americans put us in a DC3 and we flew into Brussels. We had another clean up, another spray, another set of clothing and we had a beautiful, beautiful meal in Brussels. So we’re on our way home and then we, then we arrive at Cosford and all the girls are there, waving, feeding us, wanting to know how we were, yeah. Seen a bit of life and I don’t know what else to say to you.
GC: I, I think you’ve pretty much covered it all now.
EH: Well, yeah. A lot’s been missed out of course.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Eric Hookings,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 5, 2024,

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