Interview with Thomas Marchant


Interview with Thomas Marchant


Tom Marchant had always wanted to fly and at eighteen joined the RAF as a Wireless Operator Air Gunner but was remustered as Flight Engineer after his initial postings to Warrington and Squires Gate Airfield, Blackpool. He describes his very first flight in an Anson aircraft from Blackpool. His next posting was to St Athan where he passed out as a Flight Engineer and was posted to an Operational Training Unit at Dishforth in Yorkshire where he flew in Halifax and Lancaster aircraft and met the crew he would fly with. On completion of the OTU he and his crew were posted to 101 Squadron based at RAF Ludford Magna where they completed a number of bombing operations over Germany. The crew successfully volunteered for Pathfinder duties and had to complete further training in navigation and cross country flying. On these training sorties he actually flew a Lancaster.
On completion of operations Tom went onto instruct dinghy drill at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and from there went on to join Transport Command flying Halifax aircraft. After the war he left the RAF but continued to fly gliders and motor gliders from Salby (ex USAF bomber station) near Grantham. He eventually went on to gain his Private Pilots License.







00:51:12 audio recording


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My name is Tom Marchant I was a Flight Engineer on Transport Command as well as Bomber Command. (slight pause) You may wonder why and how I got to be a Flight Engineer. I was only a young lad eighteen or nineteen , nineteen when I was actually operating, eighteen when I actually joined up. I couldn’t wait to get to fly. Now if I go back, I saw the Zeppelins fly over and I saw other aircraft flying around and I always wanted to be up there. I knew that as a working class lad from a working class family I could never afford to fly. I used to make my own aircraft, model aircraft, that flew from plans and with balsa wood and tissue paper and I used to fly my own aircraft and used to wish I could go up with them. I am just dying to fly, I wanted to fly. So actually when the war came along I was, em, I was er, what? fifteen or sixteen when it started and I couldn’t wait till my eighteenth birthday so I could volunteer for the RAF.
I hadn’t much education, just a basic education and I left school at fourteen without any qualifications, because I used to play about and play Jack the Lad and all the rest of it. So I thought I wouldn’t have a chance to get in the RAF but I thought I would have a go. I went, I was about seventeen and a half. I went and thought I could get away with saying I was eighteen. They started by asking me questions , how many degrees in a circle and things like that and of course I didn’t even know how many degrees there were in a circle. So I thought I had to do something about it. Suddenly I woke up, I went and got books from the library, I bought books, which you could do in these days for aircrew instruction and I got my head in these books and really started to educate myself and by the time I went, em, when I was just gone eighteen I volunteered again. I knew a lot more than when I first went and to my utter joy I was actually accepted to be aircrew. You can’t believe, to me it was almost like saying you can go to heaven and I just couldn’t believe it. Anyway em, I was eventually called up after about three to four months and em, (pause) I was sent to em, er, a camp under canvass, somewhere outside Warrington. From there we went to er, Blackpool. We went into digs at Blackpool which of course there were plenty going on in these days no em, holidaymakers, so that was the place and I went to Squires Gate airfield where I was trained, say training, er.
I ought to go back really because I did not have any formal education it was a problem getting a job. My parents weren’t very, they weren’t very helpful to me. I had a stepmother because my real mother died of consumption as it was called in these days, eighteen months after I was born. So I had a stepmother who never had any other children so I was a loner in effect, which in a way was a good thing because, em, I learnt to stand on my own feet so that helped in one way. When I went into the RAF I was quite happy to be amongst em, other lads which I didn’t have very much in my younger days em.
Any way well get back to, we went to Squires Gate and I was enlisted first was accepted as a em, Wireless Operator Gunner em, but before I was actually called up and joined the RAF I was re delegated to be a Flight Engineer because em, the four engined aircraft, bombers, were taking two Pilots and they were loosing two Pilots in one go, so they introduced the idea of Flight Engineer and I just had a basic training at Squires Gate airfield. While I was there I had to be on guard duties and I was out on the airfield on guard duty em, with a rifle and all the rest of it and I saw these ATC kids getting in an a a Anson aircraft and being flown off. So I said to the Sergeant who was on charge of us when I came off duty “can I get in there and get a flight, I have never been up in an aeroplane and I am supposed to be a trainee aircrew?” and he said “yeah you go over and join them.” So I did and I had my first er, en, flight in an Anson which are normally used for training Wireless Operators and people like that. Anyway we took off from Squires Gate and we flew round Preston Cathedral, I’ll never forget it and it was the first, I was on cloud nine. Anyway so I had more impetus in my er, my studies and I eventually, after I did my square bashing at Blackpool and er, em, the introduction to well what you call engineering. I think we filed a few bits of metal and whatnot and were shown bits of engines.
Anyway I went to St Athan where all Flight Engineers went to I understand. I er, em we learnt a bit more there I suppose and then I was passed out as a Flight Engineer.I couldn’t believe it, it was incredible really from being a hall boy in private service, scrubbing floors and then, then eventually footman in private service serving meals to people I’m suddenly in the RAF, I’m flying. I can’t put over, I can’t even think how it affected me, I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t care if I was going to get shot at. I was only nineteen and em, I just couldn’t wait em, and eventually I passed all the Flight Engineer training and I was posted to an operational squadron. Oh no, sorry, go back. Was posted to an OTU Operational Training Unit at Dishforth where we flew in Halifaxes at first and then we flew in Lancasters, em. I think I’m missing something else out here. Of course we had to join up with a crew who had been flying Wellingtons,er, which is just a five crew aircraft and,er, this crew before they could go onto four engine aircraft had to pick up their,er, mid upper gunner and Flight Engineer and I don’t know how it was sorted out. We all got together and we got together and formed our crew and I had,em, I had an Australian pilot,(slight pause) no we had a Canadian navigator later on. So we had an Australian pilot and all the rest of us were British, English er, em, then we went onto Dishforth where we did our training on Halifaxes and then Lancasters. I just fell in love with the Lancaster, I was loving every minute of it, absolutely loving it. We went on cross country and I, it, I can’t describe. I’ve always loved flying, always will do eh, to get into the air and got through the clouds and then at night time you go above the clouds and you see the brilliant stars. . I never forget the stars that are in sky, you never see them now. Although he was an Australian he wasn’t your archetypical Australian, he was a sober sort of lad he didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke, all the rest of us did em, but that was his strength in a way, he was very level headed and he was very and he was strong as an ox. We was very lucky. I think it helped a lot, you have got to have a lot of luck but you have to have a certain amount of skill and he as we started flying with him, we got to know him and put our trust in him and he was a very good pilot.
Anyway comes our first op, all slightly nervous and apprehensive. I remember it well it was to the Happy Valley as they called the Ruhr in those days, far from happy for some and em Gelsenkirchen we went to, industrial town in the heart of the Ruhr. We did get shot up a bit, we got a little bit of flack holes and em, er, one of the pipe lines got broken but it was nothing much, no problems, all the engines working properly and we got back ok. That was a start of a series of raids on Germany, they were all on Germany I didn’t get sent abroad at all. So we went on, from 101 squadron this time from Ludford Magna we used to call it Mudford Magna because it was carved out of the Lincolnshire Wolds and made into an aerodrome not long before we got there and it was mud. I always remember the hut we were given, we were given hut number something or other and when we got there, there was a big painting of a chop, chopper there and we all knew what chop meant well you can imagine that did not inspire us very much. Anyway it turned out not to be true for us anyway. We quickly learned that a few people had been in there and not come back again, it all helped to make you cheerful when you went on you first op I suppose. Em, we survived the first op which was Gelsenkirchen that I have said and we went on. The next really impressive one was Hamburg, now Hamburg was the one where there was a fire storm. The first fire storm that was created and that was done I think on the first raid. There were three raids on Hamburg and we went on all of them and I always remember the one because the met said there was a front and it would clear Hamburg before we got there but we all knew what met was in those days they did not have satellites in the sky em, it was just by guess and by God to a certain extent. Anyway when we were approaching Hamburg on the second night er, we couldn’t get above the clouds and er, we could see sheet lightning and all sorts of lightning, anyway Bob decided to press on er, and we started getting lightning flashes right across from one engine to another, big flashes it was absolutely frightening, much more frightening than flack, em, electric lights going all around the canopy. It really was frightening and we still pressed on but we and we got into this culo, cumulous nimbus we started getting thrown all over the place.Bob decided to jettison the bombs and turn for home, but when he opened the bomb doors and we dropped we were thrown sideways and the bombs dented up the bomb bay doors and so we got quite a bit of draft in the aircraft going back. Anyway we survived and we got back home again (slight laugh) and that was another experience with something different that the sky can throw at you, probably more frightening than flak actually.
Eh, anyway the next one, the next sort of notable one we went to was Peenemunde, which was er, its up on the Baltic, on the side of the Baltic where the Germans were developing a rocket, eh, rockets which were eventually going to hit us later on. As opposed to the, eh, and the V1s which were the buzz bombs that went brrrrrrrr, you could hear them coming, I was in London when they first started using them. Anyway they were developing rockets there which were going to be the first rockets that anyone had used er, in warfare and this Peenemunde place was the place where they were er, developing them. We didn’t know this, we, it was highly top secret we weren’t told that this was a rocket place, we were told that it, that they were developing new types of radar which could home onto us. A story which eh, we all swallowed but it made us very determined to get of this place em, because it would make it easier for them to shoot us down, that was the sort of story we were given. We were attacking it in moonlight, it was the first trip we’d been in moonlight, we didn’t normally fly in moonlight and em, er , we were going to bomb it around six or seven thousand feet which was a long way lower than we normally bomb, from normally twenty one thousand feet and em, a full moon but the Germans didn’t really know that we knew about this place I don’t think and it wasn’t very heavily defended, there was just one or two searchlights. Er, I did a picture of this which shows one searchlight which is pretty well accurate. Anyway that was a reasonable success, it wasn’t as big a success as they thought, it did get rid of a few people and and it did slow up their production of these weapons for about five or six months. They eventually moved it all to a place in Germany, underground. Er, em, anyway then we started to what has been called the Battle of Brit, Berlin and we went to Berlin and er Nuremberg. I’m just going to read you from my Log quickly. We went to Berlin, Berlin, Manheim, Munich, Hanover, Munich again and then, and then after that we volunteered to go onto Pathfinders because I hadn’t really mentioned it, but our Navigator at that time wasn’t really up to the job. He took us back over London once from one of the raids and we got, we saw balloons going past us. The Mid Upper Gunner said “Hi skip I have just seen a big balloon” and we were amongst the London barrage balloons and ah, anyway I just remembered, that was frightening that was, anyway, full boost, full throttle ‘cause we were starting to come down for base. Anyway we thought if we volunteered for Pathfinders the Navigator wouldn’t be up to it and we were right. We landed up with a Cambridge educated whizz kid, little, we used to call him Brem. He was a little fellow but he was a fantastic navigator and I think that is another reason that we perhaps survived when we did. So we were lucky to have this navigator and eventually we went to Berlin, we actually went there fifteen times but we set off times but em, on two occasions we had engine problems or we had some sort of problem which made it not really feasible to carry on, so, so.
When we joined Pathfinders of course we had to do extra navigation, we had to do a lot of cross countries at night time and I used to love these cross countries jomits because we could see all the stars and on odd occasions we would see the Northern Lights. Oh, and going back when we went to Peenemunde we went right up north and we could see the lights of Sweden, Stockholm or is it Oslo, my geography. Anyway we could see the lights in Swindon(think he meant Sweden), I had forgotten that. Talking about the Northern Lights of course they are fantastic thing em, so I was still enjoying my flying. I was scared wittless actually over the Target but the target areas themselves were fascinating, there’s flares, there’s searchlights there’s puffs of black smoke all over the sky from flak, it’s, I’ve done paintings of, of raids but you can’t capture it, you really can’t capture it. The sight is incredible and em, er as far as firework shows they leave me cold, I’ve seen the biggest firework show on earth and I don’t know what else I have to say. You see, other than the fact that being aircrew I didn’t have to work on aircraft. The ground crew had a horrible job they had to patch up the aircraft when they came back and when they were at the, on the eh (pause) the perim, eh “what’s off the perimeter?” (someone suggests dispersal) dispersal, they had to work on dispersal points in all weathers. Freezing cold in the winter and we were tucked up in bed then. I mean providing you didn’t get shot down or you didn’t get injured and you came home safely, it was a dawdle. You just em, got scared to death on the op but when you were nineteen, (laugh) “that was a long time ago” it’s all an adventure er, em, it’s exciting in a way. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been em, but can you imagine as a nineteen year old lad who has had a very boring life before and dying for something different, that I got it in mega bucks and it was a great. Em, and I am sorry to say this, to me, ok there were things that you tend to overlook. The odd nasty things that happen and discomfort in nissen huts and er, that sort of thing but to me I, I, just loved it. I’m sorry but that is the way I say it, I can understand how lots of other aircrew didn’t and they had a terrible time and when I see and read about other peoples’ experiences er, I had a walk in the park really in comparison.
Anyway on the last trip we had was what we thought was going to be a dawdle, which was marshalling yards just outside Paris. This was on the day, the night, the night, of D day and we were bombing marshalling yards and lots of other people were bombing gun emplacements on the south, the north French coast and that sort of thing, but our job was to blow up this marshalling yard just outside Paris called Juvisy . We were Master em, going to be acting Master Bomber which meant we did Master Bomber em er, a few times once you got well into Pathfinder. Being a Master Bomber you direct the bombing and you stay over the target till it all, till it’s all over and telling people not to bomb certain TI’s or certain markers. There wasn’t much doubt about this, it was well lit up and we again. It was one of those low level attacks I think we went in at six or eight thousand feet and I can remember seeing em,er, trucks going up in the air and whatnot and I did feel for any French railway workers down there which I’m sure there were, but that’s war. Anyway we thought that’s great we’re on our way home and we just about left the target when suddenly this ME110 appeared right up beside us, incredible, and before the Mid Upper Gunner could peel round on him he just peeled of. Of course after that we were waiting for the coup de gras. We thought and Bob really started throwing it about like the Spitfire he always wanted to fly. He was a real beefy bloke and he started throwing it about and em, we started doing this for about twenty minutes or so and we thought we hadn’t seen him again and we settled down again and he was just doing a bit of a weave and suddenly, pow! We got hit, feel everything juddering and em, we suddenly went into a dive. He’d hit the, he’d hit the elevators, the Rear Gunner, very lucky chap, he survived. He said “all the elevators have been hit” well we didn’t have to be told that(slight laugh)we felt that. The plane went into a bloody dive and I thought “bloody hell we’ve had it now.” Anyway old Bob being a beefy bloke he really held it back and we tried em, what did we try. Anyway we used the trimmer but it didn’t make any difference em, er, I was helping him pull it back and I remember I had my tool, all Flight Engineers had a tool bag with them, don’t know what they were supposed to do with them half the time. We weren’t going to crawl out onto the engine and start doing things. Anyway eh, I got a piece of thin nylon rope in my tool bag, I don’t know how it be or was there. I don’t know why I should carry this but I had it and we tied er, we tied, or tied a piece of it round one of the circles in the formers of the aircraft. There a lots of holes of course and we put it in there and put it round the yolk, round the upright part of the control column and that gave us quite a good purchase. Then just as we sorted that out we noticed the outboard starboard engine had started to smoke and flames started to come out of it so we eh, feathered that, pressed the fire extinguisher and fortunately the fire extinguisher worked, which it apparently didn’t on Paul that Just Jane from East Kirby. Anyway our fire extinguisher worked so everything was, but of course when all this was going on we were expecting to get the coup de grass, we though he would be back to finish us of. Somehow or other our luck as a crew held and we got back to Manston which is right on the edge of the Kent coast. Em and the landing of course, we weren’t sure if the wheels would go down em but em, he tried the flaps and the flaps worked and he tried then just before, he said “we could do a belly landing if necessary” with the wheels up and everything. We tried the undercarriage and incredibly the undercarriage worked, then the other tricky bit was the pressure required to flare out and hold it on a proper approach er angle and flare out. It wasn’t one of Bobs best landings but it was, you walked, they say if you walk away from a landing that it, your lucky if you walk away from a landing that’s a good landing, and it was. After that we should have done another couple of trips to make up for the two that were aborted but they stood us down and we all went our different ways.
I eventually went up to Lossiemouth and I em er I did instruction on dinghy drill which fortunately I never had to do myself but I had to learn how to do dinghy, I had to learn dinghy drill and then I showed it to operational people, OTU people who were going to have to go on ops. Well we never had that when I went to OTU. But em.and that was at Lossiemouth swimming pool, I always remember that, I enjoyed that. I got to fly, I still wanted to fly they had Wellingtons up there I think and they had other aircraft and I used to get flights er, when they were doing test flights, on any aircraft I would go up in it, I still loved flying, always have done and em er. After that I had to revert to what I was supposed to be which was an Engineer, but all they gave me was changing all the plugs on a Napier Sabre which was about forty eight plugs and that kept you busy for a bit. They didn’t let me loose on anything that was em very important. Em but and I always wanted to and I kept applying to go flying again and I got a job on transport, I got posted to Transport Command and it was a period when we thought we might have to, oh no sorry, the Far Eastern war was still going on. The Japanese war the er the Yanks hadn’t er yet bombed with the Atom Bomb and the Japs was still fighting and we was going to have to send Big Wigs out to the Far East and they were going to be flown over by a civilised version of the Lancaster, called the Lancastrian and for that you had to learn how to load certain loads. It was like civil aircraft, you had to load the aircraft properly with certain loads and whatnot, so we had to do a course on that. Then we eventually flew a Lancastrian and only a month or so after that after we got into this the Japanese war just stopped. The er the Yanks dropped there second Atom Bomb and they surrendered and so there was no more use for these Lancastrians to go out to the Far East.
So then I got, then was trouble flaring, possible trouble with Russia because they had overtaken Berlin and all the rest of it and everybody knows about the Berlin Airlift which I wasn’t on. I would like to have been on that. I was em then put onto Halifaxes and we were towing we were towing gliders and dropping parachutists over the Salisbury Plain we also had to drop ten pound guns and a jeep and they were all strapped under this Halifax, they took the bomb doors off and they strapped these thing on, and you had to drop them on the Plain. Those were the dodgiest piece of flying I think I ever did I think I would liked to have gone back on ops actually. Because they struggled off, off I think it was ridiculous really, they struggled off the end of the runway and if you had anything like a cross wind with all that underneath you sticking out. I can remember being really frightened on take off with that stuff but I must have been a very lucky bloke. I had another good skipper he was a Scot er. Anyway that was Transport Command, you are only interested in Bomber Command aren’t you?
Question by interviewer. “So when you were on Pathfinders?”
Yes of course before we were on Pathfinders, before we actually operated as a Pathfinder we had to do a lot more cross countries and night time cross countries which I used to like. It’s so lovely looking at that starry sky and em everything and very often it was semi moonlight because we did not operated on moonlight towards the end of the war. We did not operate on moonlight because you would get shot down so easily which we demonstrated when we went to Paris but em (pause)oh I get er, and when were on those cross countries that was when I used to get into the driving seat, the skip he’d put it in, you could put the Lanc into automatic you know it could fly itself but of course that is not quite the thing to do when you are operational. He’d put it in automatic I’d get he’d swap seats and I would fly it and I would turn, I knew how to control and aircraft anyway because I was so keen when I was a lad I learnt all about airplanes and em at first the crew said “hey you are not letting him in the seat are you?” (laugh). I took to it quite well and the Navigator would give a course to turn onto and I would turn onto the course and everybody was happy. I was happy, I was happy as Larry because I was flying the airplane, you know, hands on. Not many people have had hands on, on a Lancaster so it has always been one of my things.
From that when I came out I wanted to carry on flying but I had got married and em we were paying a mortgage on a house and you can’t afford to fly. I got a job, not a very not a well paid job, I had a job with Lucas actually in the press shop, not in the press shop actually, doing, getting materials up for them and everything. Then I went in the gas board, kids came along, eventually grew up and once I got, I started getting promotions and a bit more money I still got this feeling I wanted to fly and I wanted to fly the aircraft myself. The next thing the cheapest way of doing that is join a gliding club and er, I joined a gliding club near Grantham at er, Saltby where Flying Fortresses had taken off if you remember, didn’t they, from Saltby and there was a gliding club there which I knew from a friend. I went there and I started gliding. In no time at all I was sent off solo. I done quite a bit of gliding I got the Silver C which is staying up for five hours and er doing fifty K , it was all the fives. It was making a height of five thousand feet and fifty kilometres and five hours up and fifty kilometres and making five thousand feet, that’s right. I went beyond that but got my Silver C in gliding but there are days when you can’t fly anyway, you can be launched and you can take a launch up to fifteen hundred two thousand feet but if there are no thermal or anything at Salby anyway you just came down again. Anyway some friends of mine said “why don’t we get a motor glider?” he heard about a motor glider that was going, a Faulke motor glider he said “you can fly anytime then” and they do thermal as well. I have stayed up for three or four hours in a Faulke you know. We em went to so, and from there this was over a period of a few years, five six years and em you had to pass a test to fly the motor glider which was half way on to getting your private pilots license, but to do that you have got to have a proper single engined aircraft like a 150, Cessna 150 and em, of course that costs, that costs money. Then I was flogging my pictures and whatnot and got a better job. I got a company car that was another thing, I got a job with a company car in advertising driving all over the place and em, I got a company car and they were very easy about, they paid for all the petrol whither it was for me or not. I mean you would not get a job like that these days. (laugh) I was very lucky and from, from then you may not know Burnaston it’s where they make the Toyotas now and that’s just outside of Derby on the A38. That was an aerodrome during the war. They had all sorts there, it was a primary trainer, it’s only a grass strip, it’s a good sized grass strip and they eventually flew em what it’s names off there, didn’t they Pete? “Argonauts” yeah and Dakotas and things and it was sort of Derby, it turned into Derby Airport of course. Then it closed down for a while and Jack, what’s his name, Jones he opened it up, didn’t he? I helped, I just retired then when they started opening up Burnaston as an aerodrome again and I went and helped mark out the runways with a concrete,no it was a white, white chippings to line the runway to mark out the runway to make it commercially acceptable again for flying. They got em (pause) “terrible loose my words.” Em Cessna 150s which are a two seater private aircraft which are a very popular aircraft who want fairly cheap flying. Of course to fly one of those, to hire one out and fly it you have got to have a proper pilots license. That is the first step on flying really a PPL as it called and em er, I started flying these Cessna’s but I couldn’t afford to fly them very much as it was quite expensive to hire out an aircraft and I had got my share in this motor glider anyway. I wanted to add to my flying experience in effect I would like to have gone and done instrument flying so you could fly at night but it all costs money and time. When you are a family man you have to consider your wife and what not so. You are restrict, restricted to a certain extent. I did what I wanted to do to a, you know and I have been very lucky really, very lucky.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Thomas Marchant,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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