Interview with Ben John May


Interview with Ben John May


Ben was born in 1925 in Kent and his first job was in the gas works. A member of the Air Transport Command, he was called up in 1944 and after initial training at RAF Locking he joined No.4 flight engineers course at RAF St Athan for one year. He relates about the number of items of equipment in a bomber that he received training on. He then specialised on the Halifax and was sent to 420 Squadron where he crewed up and flew long flights as part of his training. Ben explains in detail the duties of the flight engineer and how much work it entailed. Posted to RAF Tholthorpe, he relates on life in bomber command on a typical day.
The first of his eleven operations was to the Ruhr valley which was uneventful, unlike the one to Helgoland where the aircraft in front of them exploded and they flew through the debris virtually unscathed. On another op, Ben had a grandstand view of the release of a Tallboy bomb and its devastating effect.
At the end of the war Ben retrained as a marine fitter and spent a year in Singapore before being demobbed. After a year as a photographer, he spent time in the camera workshop repairing commercial cameras and became a qualified photographer. Moving to a commercial photographic firm and then Saunders Roe, he specialised in air to air photography, including the SR53 experimental aircraft and Concorde and still retains his interest by visiting air displays.
Ben has had exchange visits with his Canadian former crew and feels, like most bomber command veterans, that they were treated shabbily.




Temporal Coverage




00:32:39 audio recording


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CJ: This is Chris Johnson, and I am interviewing Ben May today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We’re at Ben’s home near Canterbury and it is Wednesday the 23rd of November 2016. Thank you very much Ben for agreeing to talk to me today. So, we’ll move onto the first er question Ben if we may. Perhaps you could tell us where and when you were born, please, and what your family background is?

BM: Well, it’s my birthday today, and I’m ninety-one today. So, I was born in 1925 at Birchington in Kent. Now the family lived in East Kent, because my father worked for the local gas company, and er, as I grew up I tended to go that way and my first job was in the forge in the gas works, blowing the bellows, for fifteen bob a week. [laughs] I sort of grew up in the gas works atmosphere and I worked there until I was called up. I was a fitter’s mate there and we did all sorts of things. All sorts of maintenance, on all the equipment in the gas works, which is not terribly interesting but, er, very dusty and dirty. However, I was called up in, er, when was it. [turning over papers] Can you stop for a minute?

CJ: So Ben you were, we got as far as you telling me when it was you were called up. What happened then?

BM: I was a member of the ATC for many years.

CJ: So you were called up when was it?

BM: I was called up in 1944 as a flight engineer under training. I volunteered as a flight engineer and er, the first posting was to Locking, in Cornwall. Sorry Locking in Somerset after ITW in Cornwall. That was very interesting, standing on the cliffs doing signalling [laugh] in the wind. And then my next posting was to St Athan, number 4 School of Technical Training, where I started on the one-year long flight engineer course. Um. At the end of that I passed out on my nineteenth birthday and, er, I can’t read that [?] I’ll do it from, and, er, went down to— I am sorry I got stuck.

CJ: So Ben you were telling me about your training period?

BM: Yes after a couple of years in the ATC in Margate I found myself, I had volunteered for aircrew by then of course. All aircrew were volunteers and, er, I was called up in 1944 and went up to the Recruiting Office in Chatham. [laugh] Where they gave you a cup of tea and a biscuit and said ‘Well done, we’ll call you when we’re ready.’ So they called me up in 1944 and I was sent down to Locking in – down to Cornwall, for initial training, and then onto Locking in Somerset for the first part of the course, and then eventually onto St Athan in South Wales for the 4 Flight Engineer Course, which lasted about a year. There we were taught not only the fundamentals of flying, but also about engines and all the other equipment. You would be amazed the amount of different pieces equipment that are on a bomber. Learned about compressors and filters, and all sorts of bits of gear you wouldn’t even think about. One little joke I play on people. I ask them if they’ve ever heard of changing gear in an aeroplane, and they laugh at you, they say ‘You can’t change gear in an aeroplane.’ But the fact is you can, because there is the two-speed gearbox on the, on the supercharger of the Hercules engine which we flew with, and as you climb the air pressure outside drops away and then you have to change gear on the supercharger. So it always raises a smile when you say you’re changing gear on an aeroplane. Anyway, we learned all about the different systems. Can I stop a minute and start again?

CJ: So Ben you were posted to St Athan for more training. Would you like to tell us what happened from then on?

BJ: That was No. 4 School of Technical Training. It’s a one–year course for flight engineers, and you go through just about every part of the aero – by then you were what they called type cast, type trained. You were selected for one of the four aircraft. There was the Halifax, the Lancaster, the Stirling and the Sunderland which we were being trained for. So you were selected for one of those and in my case it was the Halifax. So, everything on the Halifax was of interest to you and we went on this one–year course, which took just about every part of the Halifax aeroplane and explained it to you. Not only explained it to you, drilled it into you, you had to learn every part of it. What every bit was for and how to maintain them and so on when you were away from base and what to do, you know. There was an awful lot to learn and, er, that took about a whole year to learn that, and, er, and, er, after which I was posted away to a squadron which was Number 420 Squadron which was one of the Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons. It would come over here, they’d brought over a lot of aircrews which were, which were short of a flight engineer, because the Canadians didn’t train any flight engineers, and so as, when the crews came through they selected some of us. They literally dumped us in it, they said, about twelve of us and this bunch of Canadians came along and started crewing up with somebody you know. Very embarrassing that was sitting around waiting for somebody to pick you. But this tall guy came along, asked for me. He’d been reading the notes I think, [laughs] the examination notes and saw something he liked. And so he came and asked for me. I said ‘Well I don’t know any of you, it’s all the same to me so I might as well join your crew.’ And I’m glad I did because they were marvellous, absolutely wonderful guys. And so, we were crewed up and went to further training then. Eh, [pause] I’m sorry I’m getting lost. When we got our crew we embarked on a load of long flights, long training flights. Like a flight from Yorkshire up to Edinburgh and then back down to Cornwall then back home again. So we got some really good experience on long flights, which entail an awful lot of different things to a short flight, where you have to manage the fuel because on the Halifax there were fourteen fuel tanks, and fuel had to be used in a certain order and then some overload tanks pumped from one tank into another and so as to make it go as far as possible. So it was, it was a busy, flight engineer was a busy job, you were always on the go doing something. You had to read all your instruments every twenty minutes, record them or every half an hour. All the oil pressures and the fuel pressures and the cylinder head temperatures and so on, keep a good eye out on your engines. And er, you know, we gelled together as a crew, and we became very good friends. In fact they’ve all been to my house here, all my Canadian friends and I’ve been to all their houses in Canada. So we were really good friends and I suppose that helped us get through the war really. Anyway we were, after a bit more training we were posted to a squadron which was the same as the Canadian squadron, and we went on operations from there. Our first operation was a little town in the Ruhr. We got through that alright and we felt a lot better then, after the first one. But we carried on flying to the end of the war, managed to get – must have been eleven or twelve flights in over Germany, and, er, you know, well we got, looked forward to life out of the flying. I’m sorry I’m not doing very well. [Appears to be a little upset]

CJ: It’s alright.

BM: Life on a squadron is quite different from anything else in the service because there’s a different atmosphere about it. And eh you all know that you’re doing a dangerous job and you might not be here tomorrow was the general feeling, but eh, we settled in quite well, because the Canadians were very hospitable people. They never left me behind when they went out for a drink at night, I was always there with them and they were good mates. We em, [pause] we, we spent a lot of time [pause] talking about, about home. Because home for them was Canada, it was quite different from anything else I’ve seen at that time and er. [pause] And I will tell you something about a typical day on the squadron, eh? Life on the squadron was ruled by daily routine orders and you had to go down to the notice board every day and have a look because woe betide you if you missed something. If ops were on there was an almost palpable atmosphere around the Station because everybody knew that we would be flying that night, so we’d go to the briefing and er, depending whether it was a day or night operation could be late in the day or at mid-day sometimes, and you’d go back to the hut and have a, write your last letters home. [laugh] Write a letter home to your mother always and er, and then you go up to the, to the mess and have a flying breakfast. We were very privileged actually aircrew, whenever we were flying or on an operation we got egg and bacon for breakfast. That was unheard of during the war; we were very, very lucky. [laugh] But er, I suppose we earned it. So you’d go to, you’d go to the mess and have your break, have your flying breakfast, and then you’d go and wait in your huts until we knew what briefing time was and er, then you’d all go into the hut. In the briefing hut there was a very distinct atmosphere about, because the CO would, or the intelligence officer, would pull back the curtains on the target over the, on the stage. There was a pink ribbon stretching from your flight all, following your flight plan it would show you where the target was. And er it was a bit er, you know but you knew it was serious so you got on with it. But we, we flew operationally until just before the end of the war. One particular flight was notable because there was a –, it was a long, long flight to the island of Heligoland which is off the German coast, and, er, [pause] while we were flying over the sea there was a collision between –. Well we don’t know what happened really. Some people say that this particular Halifax pulled the jettison lever, dropped all his bombs together and they – some of them banged together and it went, the bombs went off underneath his aeroplane, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. However the aeroplane blew up in front of us and we flew through the pieces, but we, we only got one crack in the Perspex so it wasn’t too bad. And, er, [pause] Another thing was that we noticed when we were coming back one day early in the morning. We watched a V2 rocket being fired from somewhere in Belgium. So we weren’t the only ones in danger because, that, that rocket landed in England somewhere. Killed a lot of people I imagine. Anyway, the um, the operations were pretty straightforward, because you’d been trained how to use the, all the equipment on the aeroplane. Lots, lots of different systems, lots of things to look at. My job of course was to monitor the fuel system because the Halifax had fourteen fuel tanks, and er some had to be used in a certain order so that they balanced and then the overload tanks had to be pumped into the normal tanks and what with that and doing all the other things. Like the other bits of equipment. Dropping flares and, and all sorts of little jobs that you wouldn’t even think about the flight engineer’s job was quite busy, um, [pause].

CJ: I think you mentioned on the Heligoland raid you saw a Lancaster dropping a Tall Boy bomb?

BM: Oh yeah, yeah I did, yeah, one thing, one notable flight was when we were going in over , over em ‒ . Now let me think where it was. We were going in over one target and there was a Lancaster, a Pathfinder Lancaster, Number 19 Group I imagine. Came, flew alongside us but below us about, about a thousand feet below us. He was carrying one of the first Tall Boy bombs, one of the very big bombs. A twelve thousand pounder I think, wasn’t it? Yeah it was a twelve thousand pounder and we watched, we watched that bomb go, we watched that bomb go down. It was absolutely amazing, it went right smack in between the runway. It was on the –, the raid was on the airfield in Helgoland and the bomb dropped right on the, the er, intersection of the two runways. There wasn’t much runway left when that, after that had gone off. That was quite spectacular. And er, we had to [pause/ a little confused] hold on. So one way and another we, we totalled up a, a total of eleven operations over Germany while the war was still on, because I mean I was only thirteen when the war started so I’m surprised I got into it at all. [laugh] Anyway the war finished and the flying finished and I was made, made redundant and so had to retrain, and, and er, the, the trade, I chose was, was um, [pause] oh God – . I retrained as a, as a fitter marine on the rescue boats. So it was, it was much the same job as the flight engineer’s looking after the fuel and all the equipment but on a rescue boat. So, but we were supposed to be going out to, to join the air sea rescue people but the war finished before we could go out, before we could get there. So, anyway I carried on in the Air Force until I was demobbed in 19 – , when was I demobbed? 1944 was it,

CJ: ‘47 was it, you said?

BM: hang on a mo. [Looking through papers] Yeah I remustered and retrained as fitter marine, with the intention of joining the Air Sea Rescue Services in the Pacific with the expected invasion of Japan, but that didn’t come off, because the atom bomb put an end to that, and so I finished my service in 1947 on marine craft. I, I retrained as a fitter marine and they sent me out to Singapore so I had a year in Singapore which was quite interesting. And er, so I came back home and got my demob suit [laugh] and er, re-joined civilian life. Which wasn’t easy because I hadn’t got a job and er, oh dear – .Anyway [pause], I’d always been interested in photography so, after the war, I got a job with one of those companies on the seafront taking walking pictures and er, I did, I did a year of that. Just kept the, kept the rent coming in and er, found it very interesting actually, especially when you get down on the beach chasing all the girls, you know it’s quite good fun and, anyway I packed that up. I got interested in photography and because the company I worked for said ‘what else can you do?’ So I said I’m, I’m quite handy with a tool kit, so they put me in the workshop repairing cameras of all things. But these cameras weren’t, weren’t like, like your little snapshot cameras. They were great big postcard size, negative reflex cameras, and they were quite complicated and er, the chap in the workshop there was very clever. He got me, got me making spindles on the lathe. I used to make the little roller spindles for him on the lathe and er, that was quite interesting. But then the workshop was next door to the commercial department where they did what we call proper photography. Real commercial photography, not the beach stuff, and I used to go into there and I got interested in that and in the end I decided to take my exams as a, as a, as a photographer. So I genned up and went to night school, went to, and I learned about photography proper, and er, then I joined [little confused] joined a company doing, doing all sorts of commercial photography, and er, managed to get some aerial photography in too, which was quite good. And er, I got really interested in it so in the end I went to night school, took my exams in photography and started my own business. So [pause] I kept, I kept the family, I was married by then and kept the family in groceries. [Slightly confused] I’m sorry I am not very good. Since the war my life has been in photography, professional photography and er, [pause] I, I tried to do as much aviation work as I could, but um, apart from the SR53 which was – I’ll go back ‒ . I went to work for a [pause/looking through papers] I’m sorry.

CJ: You said you were doing some aviation work and you were on this SR53 project, I think, which is a prototype aircraft?

BM: Yeah I went to work for er, I went to work for Saunders Roe, who had, who had launched the SR53 which was a rocket. Which was a, a twin jet with a rocket engine and a jet engine, and I did the air to air pictures of that flying in a Meteor. [laugh] And eh ‒ .

CJ: I think you mentioned some Concorde shots as well?

BM: Yes, I managed; I managed to get some air to air shots of Concorde one day. I dunno how I got that job but I did, I got some nice shots of Concorde in mid-air, and er, sold a nice lot of those. [laugh] But other than that my work’s all been in commercial photography. But of course, any time, any chance we get near an aeroplane. I go to air days, I go to air shows and so on and er, it has all been very interesting.

CJ: You mentioned that you have been over to Canada to see the crew and they have been here. Did you have regular reunions?

BM: Yeah, well my Canadian crew of course all went back home and they were glad to get back to Canada, but it wasn’t long before they invited me over there. And er, so I took a trip over there one day, and er, [pause] [unclear] I went two or three times to Canada. And my, my crew all came here, they all, they all visited me here. And we had some, had some, jolly good booze ups I can tell you, [laugh] as one does. But um, I am still in touch with one of them, all the (others), they have all passed away I am afraid. [pause] I am the last one of the crew left. [laugh] There’s one or two people that I know in Canada, but er.

CJ: And how do you feel about the way Bomber Command was treated after the war?

BM: You ask any one of the thousands of Bomber Command people, they will all tell you the same thing. It was treated rather shoddily. But er, I went up to the, to the big day when the Queen came and um, unveiled the Memorial. I spent a happy day in London doing that – and er, [pause] oh well. It is all part of life isn’t it, these things. [pause]

CJ: So were there any big squadron reunions that you went to or were the reunions just with your crew?

BM: No the only, only RAF reunions I went to were with my crew but, as I say, they have all been here to visit me here, and er – .[pause] As I say, I, I wrote to them for years and years and years but as I say I am the only one left now. Our skipper was in the timber business. He went back to running two big timber camps in Canada, chopping down trees. [laugh] [pause] er, [looking through papers] Yeah, we got through the war. We were quite surprised really, we, we got through without any real damage to the aeroplane. Our rear gunner got a piece of shrapnel in his, in his forearm. That was about the only thing that happened to our aeroplane, we were very lucky and er ‒ . Flying out of a little field in Yorkshire a place called Tholthorpe in North Yorkshire. The local people there were very kind to us. There was always someone to mend your socks for you. You know have a little word when you got a bit upset sometimes, and er, of course the village pub in that village, pub did a roaring trade with the, with the aircrew blokes. But er, I have been back to the airfield since actually, it’s still there, and the runways are still there and the perimeter track’s still there. Somewhat overgrown of course but er. [pause] Funnily enough my hobby by then was flying radio-controlled models, and I, I took one up to the runway and flew it off the runway. [laugh] That is how sentimental I am. [laugh] Yeah.

CJ: I think you mentioned one operation where you got, the aircraft was damaged by ack, em, anti-aircraft fire.

BM: Oh yeah we got some, we got a few holes in the aeroplane yeah. We got – on operations we got quite badly shot up one night with, with anti-aircraft. In fact when we got down there was, there was, seven large holes in the aeroplane. And er, I went, I went down to change, change fuel tanks. At that time when you have been out, and almost back home again, you, you, you use every bit of fuel that’s in the tanks so, I was draining this tank and you, to drain the tank, you, you switch the engine to that tank, and you, you leave it until the little warning light comes on. The little red warning light flickers and then it stays on steadily. You nip up quickly and change, change the tanks over then. But I was waiting for this to happen and er, all of a sudden one of the engines started to splutter a bit, so I changed tanks quickly and went forward to see what was wrong. Only, only found out later that the, the fuel pipes for that tank had been shot away, so I would have waited all night and it wouldn’t have come on again. Anyway, that is the sort of thing that happened, that’s why they put you on there.

CJ: Well, thank you very much for talking to us today Ben, that was really interesting and we’ll end the interview there.



Chris Johnson, “Interview with Ben John May,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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