Interview with Len McNamara


Interview with Len McNamara


Len McNamara was born in Bristol in 1924. An apprentice plumber, he joined the Air Training Corps and volunteered for aircrew. Discusses his initial training at various stations, the gunnery course he passed with merit and honours, an escape and evasion course he attended, and crewing up with Pete Catterswife, a Kenyan. He flew Whitleys and then then converting to Halifaxes. Len was posted to 10 Squadron at RAF Melbourne. He discusses mine laying and bombing operations, aircraft damage, social and service life at RAF Lisset, military ethos and the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross. After sinus problems, he was a reserve gunner going on operations with various aircrews. Len was posted to RAf Langar as an instructor, but volunteered as second tour gunners and was posted to RAF Woolfox Lodge to crew up with a New Zealand pilot on Lancasters. Discusses engine problems, Kenyan, Canadian Australian, New Zealand and English pilots, talks about Operation Manna and discusses 75 New Zealand Squadron. At the end of the war he finished up at RAF Ringway as parachute instructor.
Len was then posted to various locations abroad, did a code and cipher course and was demobilised. He went back to his plumbing apprenticeship, got married, settled in Bath but wanted to get back to service life. He started back as an airman and went into the air traffic control branch serving at different stations in Great Britain and Germany until he retired in 1971. Len was into post war meetings and memorial visits.




Temporal Coverage




00:40:20 audio recording


This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit and




AM: Ok,so, this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Annie Moody, and the interviewee is Len McNamara. And the interview is taking place at Len McNamara's home, in Southport, on the twenty second of July two thousand and fifteen. So Len, if you would just tell me a little bit about your childhood, background, and then how you came to join the RAF.
LM: I was born in Bristol in nineteen twenty four. My father was a chef, or cook as they called them in those days, and he worked at Fishponds, Bristol Mental Hospital, which is at Fishponds, on a very huge estate there, and my mother was a mental nurse. I was the eldest of three boys, I had a normal Elementary School education, went to night school, and when I was, left school at fourteen I was an apprentice plumber. Joined, as most lads I was associated with, joined the Air Training Corps, which had a very strong following in Bristol, and after going through, suffering, seeing the bombing of my home town, Bristol, I decided, if I could, I would like to join the Air Force, and be a member of the bomber squadrons. In December nineteen forty three I volunteered for air crew, and I went down to Euston House in London on a three day selection board, and was selected for air crew, and was told I would be called up later. Um, in March nineteen forty three, on the twenty first, the day I was exactly eighteen and a half years old, I reported to Lords Cricket Ground ACR-
AM: (interrupting) Nineteen forty four.
LM: Nineteen forty three.
AM: Forty three or forty four?
LM: Forty three.
AM: Ok.
LM: Um, after spending about three weeks in London, Earls Court Road, being kitted out and doing elementary field programmes, I went up to Bridlington to Air Gunners ITW. The course up there lasted approximately six weeks, and from there I went down to (pause) um, Elementary Gunnery School which was at Bridgenorth. Actually, did nothing at all there, cos they were just setting it all up and it was just hangers. From there I went to number one ATS at Pembrey, in Wales, did my gunnery course, and we were flying on, doing the gunnery on Blenheims, with Lysanders towing the drogues.
AM: So you, you were shooting at drogues.
LM: Yes, shooting at drogues. I passed out and was presented with merit honours in August of forty three, and from there I went to 10 OTU at Abingdon. At Abingdon it was crewed up, the skipper being Pete Catterswife, who was a Canyan, navigator was a-, from Taunton, and the wireless operator air gunner was an Australian, Bob Wright, and I can't think of anybody else who was crew at that time.
AM: How did you get together? Who approached who?
LM: We just all went into just a big room, and all I remember is being introduced to the crew. I don't know whether it was the navigator, or what, because (unclear), and he was West country, from Taunton. It could have been that. Anyhow, we crewed up there, that's right, navigator (pause), oh, and the bomb aimer, who was an ex Glasgow policeman, Bob McLuer. And I think we spent about two to three weeks at Abingdon, flying on Whitleys, and once the crew, skipper was solo on the Whitleys, we then went out to the satellite airfield at Stanton air, air, Stanton Harcourt. On completion of the OTU we then went up to Marston Moor, and did our conversion on to Halifax. Then they were flying Haliax ll's, which weren't all that clever, but nevertheless, the Halifax was a very well built aircraft, and more crew comfort than some of the others. On completion of the course at Marston Moor, we then went to Driffield on an escape and evasion course. I think it was about two weeks there, doing all sorts of things, getting over barbed wire, crawling through ditches, you name it, and we finished up with an escape and evasion exercise where we were dropped off in pairs on the North Yorkshire Moors, and then had to find our way back to Driffield. One, two of the Australians had a good experience, they got as far as (pause) oh, seaside town. Scarborough.
AM: Scarborough.
LM: And they found an army vehicle which was unattended, and drove back in that. I think the outcome was that it was some army Major's transport. Anyhow, they did that. And we, some of us got to Norton. We jumped on the train there, and when it got, not to Driffield station, to one of the minor stations before, we got out the wrong side and back in to Driffield without being stopped or caught. Um, after doing this escape and evasion, we were posted to the Shiny Ten Squadron in January nineteen forty four at Melbourne, just outside York. There were several crews went there, and we did two mine laying operations from Melbourne. On one of them the aircraft was shot up a bit by ack-ack, but the only comment was 'several holes in the aircraft, no member of crew hurt' (chuckles). From there, one five eight at Lissett were converting to the Halifax lll's, and also they'd lost one flight, C Flight, which went to Leconfield to form another squadron. So there were four of us, new crews of us at Shiny Ten who were then posted to Lissett. And we went there, and were on B Flight. Lissett was a very happy station. Everybody was very sociable, and a good atmosphere all round. While there I was having sinus problems, so I went up to the hospital at North Allerton, and had to go and have a minor sinus operation. As a result of that I was limited to flying below ten thousand feet. At that time I, with my own crew, had completed seven ops, and because of my sinus problems I was grounded from flying on operations, so they had a spare gunner in my place. On one of those trips to Tournai on (unclear) they got shot down. Three of the crew bailed out, the navigator and the flight engineer became prisoners of war. The rear gunner who had taken my place as a spare, he bailed out, but his chute failed to open, and he was found in a lady's, in France, in a lady's back garden, and his chute pack with him unopened. So it was quite a shock for the lady concerned. I have visited where the crew crashed, and also where everybody was found. I went with my son, er two of my sons and a grandson, and we found the local mayor was very cooperative, and showed us everything they could. The crew, the other ones who didn't survive, are buried in a small plot by the War Graves Commission in Meharicourt, and I have made a few visits there. There are quite a few members of 158 buried there, also the famous air gunner VC, Jan Mynarwski is buried there. From then I spent the rest of my time at Lissett as a spare gunner. Fortunately I was in the position of, I did fly with some crews for quite a period. One was Ted Strange. His air gunner, rear gunner had appendicitis, so I flew with them on their last seven ops, and they were a very fine crew, and I got on very well. I then was crewed up with Sam Weller, B Flight commander. Trips with him were few and far between, but I did, I then was crewed up with another Australian crew, and I did their last six ops with them. I did a couple of odd spare trips, and, but very quiet time really. I did fly with one crew, Canadian crew, which I wasn't happy with, and when I got back I said to the (unclear) that I didn't wish to fly with them any more because there was too much talking, and not enough attention paid to the job in hand. He assured me I wouldn't fly with them any more, and I didn't, and tragically, they did lose their lives on an operation not long after. In the October of, correction, in September of forty four I was then crewed up with a Canadian crew, and I flew with them for my last trips, my remaining trips of (unclear). I did, I think it was five or six with them, and then one day we came back form a daylight raid on Cologne, on thirtieth October, that was, and the Wing Commander, Wing Commander Dobson, came out to meet me, and said, 'congratulations, you've finished your tour now, and your commission is through'. The crew only had about three more ops to do to finish their tour, and I said, 'oh, I'll stay with you if you want', and the Wing Commander said, 'you've had enough, done enough. You've had nine months continuous operational flying, you've done your share, you're going to have a rest'.
AM: So that was that.
LM: From then I was posted to Langar, just outside Nottingham, as an instructor. Wasn't enjoying that very much , and a call went out for two second tour gunners, and Tony Dunster was an ex 4 Group gunner like myself, on Halifax's, we were posted, he volunteered, and we went down to Wolfarts Lodge to crew up, and we crewed up, the crew we crewed up with, the skipper was on his second tour, he was a New Zealander, and the rest of the crew, the wireless operator, the bomb aimer and the navigator, and flight engineer, had all been together on their first tour, flying Stirlings, as had the captain. And, I must admit, none of us were very enthusiastic about the Lancaster. Those of us on Halifax's said that the Lanc was a Woolworth's effort, and the Halifax was the Marks and Spencers, In all honesty, the Halifax was more favourable to the crews. It was easier to get around in, and easier to get out of in an emergency. Neither the Stirling boys, nor Tony and I liked the Lancasters at all. One incident we had with the Lancaster, was we were down at, way down in, er, Germany, I can't remember the target at the moment, this conversation, but it was way down, oh, Magdeberg, it was, and we were just doing the run in on the target, and we had an engine go up in flames. Nothing to do with any enemy action, it's just we had a glycol leak which caused a fire in the engine, and the engine couldn't be, it wouldn't feather, so we went all the way back to base with an engine, a prop just windmilling, and got back an hour after everybody else.
AM: Safely, though.
LM: Safely. One of the best jobs we ever did was the Manna Operations to Holland, dropping food. We loaded our crews ourselves, they had like a hammock in the bomb bay, and we loaded everything there, then we went over and dropped the food. And that was the most, the best thing we ever did.
AM: How many drops did you do on Operation Manna?
LM: Two.
AM: You did two.
LM: Yes
AM: How low were you flying?
LM: Oh, practically ground level. It was amazing because (pause)
AM: Could you actually see the people?
LM: Oh yes. As you were flying over there were people in their boats, and that, waving like mad to you, and some of them waving that enthusiastically they could tip over, but it was really fantastic to see it, and doing it.
AM: As a contrast to what you were doing before.
LM: Oh yes. Before, I mean before it was a question of destruction, but this question was saving lives. So, and (pause)
AM: Going back to the destruction, if you like, what, what, what did it actually feel like for you, there in the, as a, you were a rear gunner?
LM: Yeah, rear gunner. Well, actually it's amazing because being the rear gunner you never saw what you were going in to, you only saw it as you were coming out of it. And I was one of the gunners, there was loads of us, we never looked for trouble. Some, you had some people were gung-ho, drawing attention to themselves, but I was always taught, and others did, never draw attention to yourself. Just sit there quietly watching, and keeping your eyes open.
AM: Did you actually ever use the gun?
LM: Never.
AM: Never?
LM: No. I seen them, but you, just you sit there quietly, keeping an eye on what-
AM: But you could have done if you'd had to.
LM: Oh yeah.
AM: And what was it like in the suit, when you were all plugged in? Were you always warm, because it was really cold, wasn't it?
LM: Yes, but I really enjoyed it in the rear turret. You were in a world of your own there, you were your own companion. The only thing, it did get very cold, but then we had electric suits, and something we could never understand, ICW at Bridlington, you had to strip a Browning down, blindfolded. It's all laughable when you think of it, because in the turret it was minus forty, if you'd touched any metal you'd have frostbite, so why did we have to do all that?
AM: But you could, if you had to? With gloves on.
LM: Yes, if you had to. (laughs) But that was er-
AM: What, what do you think about the bombing now? You know, in retrospect.
LM: Well, it's more accurate, isn't it. I mean, you've got all the aids.
AM: No, sorry. I mean about when, when you were actually doing the bombing, dropping the bombs , what, what do you think about that now, in thinking about-
LM: I, I've still no regrets about it at all. Having lived and seen my own city destroyed, with no problems at all. And all I can say, it's like people are on about it all, what all the fuss and bother's about. There has been a book written since then, which I have. Written, I forget the name of the author, but he had, once the Communists had gone from Eastern Germany, and all the records came out, there was a lot going on there, all the equipment for submarines being manufactured there, it was a big staging post for the Eastern Front. There was loads of military there, and we were quite justified. I don't know what, all this outcry afterwards. It's easy to be wise after the event.
AM: And you got the DFC?
LM: Yeah, yeah.
AM: For the number of tours.
LM: Gary has got a letter that shows-
AM: Has he?
LM: Yeah. But there were, I mean, I had, I know I flew with numerous crews, but with the exception of the odd one or two, I was fortunate, I flew with very good, well experienced crews, and some of them had had an horrendous time. In fact, er, can we have just a (unclear).
AM: Yes, of course. (rustling noises)
LM: When Douggie Bancroft, Flying Officer Bancroft, who I did quite a few, they, they got badly shot up, and they landed at Hurn Airport, in, er, outside Bournemouth, and nobody ever understood how they managed to get the aircraft back there. In fact the instrument panel is in Canberra, in a museum in Australia, from that aircraft, and obviously the crew that survived, er two of the crew, they never found, never found their bodies. They reckon they must have fallen through the hole in the aircraft where it was badly burnt. And they all got immediate awards, DFMs and DFCs. They thoroughly deserved it. But they were a fantastic crew that I had the privilege to fly with for the remainder, the rest of their tour.
AM: Yes. So, I'm looking at all the different ones. So you had a Kenyan pilot, Canadian pilots, Australian pilots, New Zealand pilots, English pilot. You went through the lot.
LM: Yes, yes. I was lucky.
AM: Any difference? What were the differences of the nationalities? Other than the obvious ones about language.
LM: Yeah, there isn't no difference at all. They were all first class captains. Very happy crews, and, you can't explain the comradeship with your crew. You were closer than you were with your own brothers. I suppose the reason, you depended on each other for your lives. We had a good social life together, and that's it.
AM: Did you get down to Bridlington, from Lissett?
LM: Yeah, yeah. I've walked back from there many a time.
AM: You've walked? From Bridlington to Lissett?
LM: (laughs)
AM: How far's that?
LM: About eight miles. Eight, ten miles. Yep. Come back many a night in the crew bus, not on the seat, but on the floor (laughs).
AM: You enjoyed it, then?
LM: Oh yes. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
AM: And then, as, after that, you ended up with 75 squadron?
LM: Yeah.
AM: And then, I'm just looking at a sheet of paper here than Len has given me with all his pilots on. So, 75 New Zealand squadron, you were there 'til the end of the European war.
LM: Yes. Yes.
AM: So what was it like at the end, then? What was your last tour? Were they Operation Manna? Er, not tour, sorry, your last operation.
LM: I don't know.
AM: Because the Operation Manna ones would have been, May forty four?
LM: They were May time, weren't they. Because the war finished, I think it was in May. It was May, wasn't it?
AM: Yeah.
LM: I know because everything went mad on seven five squadron at Mepal, but (pause) that was fantastic, because when we come back off leave from seventy five New Zealand, all of us crew, we all used to come back, meet up in London, before coming back to Mepal, and have a night in London. But we used to go to Mepal village. Lovely, all the Kiwis getting to do their war dance in the bar. It was great.
AM: So what was it like at the end, then? What, how did it, for you, how did it end?
LM: It was just like a, really a bit of a let down. I thought we weren't treated very good. I know the New Zealanders were going to go out on, I forget what they call it, they were going to go out to India, and that. They went to Scampton, all the Kiwis, and all the English people, we were shipped up to Snaith, in Yorkshire, just to be selected to ground jobs, and I finished up at Ringway, on the parachute school, to initially, to be instructor. But I thought, 'no thank you'.
AM: No? You hadn't enjoyed it the first time round.
LM: So that was that.
AM: So what did you do.
LM: I can't, I'm trying to think, 'what did I do?' (Pause) Oh, yeah. I finished up, from there I went out to India, that's right, went out to Karachi, and we did nothing. Christmas, it was. Christmas of forty four, that's right. Arrived in Karachi, and there's four of us in a tent there, and we were just doing nothing. We used to go in to Kara-, it was Mauripur Airport. We used to go in to Karachi, and there was a club there, and that. We used to go in gharrys as they called them, the horse drawn taxi there, and we were told not to say anything as they went through some areas, let the driver sort I out, and that was that. But-
AM: How long were you there for? Was that forty four or forty five?
LM: That was forty four.
AM: Forty four. So that was before the Operation Manna, then?
LM: No, it was after everything.
AM: Oh, ok.
LM: Let's see. (pause) The war finished, I finished my tour and ops in October forty four, no, this was forty five, of course it was.
AM: So it was forty five.
LM: Forty five.
AM: I'm just trying to get my chronology right.
LM: No, forty five, it was. We went out to there, and then from there we went across to Ceylon, and then we went up to Kandy.
AM: What were you actually doing?
LM: Nothing!
AM: Oh, right.
LM: We were just shipped out the way. And we finished up at Kandy with a few more bomber, ex Bomber Command people, and then they decided to give us a three months Officers admin course. (chuckles) And then at the end of that we were shipped out to Singapore, we went on the Cape Town Castle, it was. Yeah. From Ceylon to Singapore, and I finished up on the embarkation unit there, working. But my sinus problems came out again, and I went in the hospital there. And the hospital was at Changi, which used to be, as I understand it, was a mental hospital, and of course all the Japanese were in (unclear) all around the beds, cleaning and that. And then I was sent home from there, repatriated.
AM: How did you get home?
LM: They flew me home.
AM: On what?
LM: A York. Flew me home, in stages, you know staging all the way through. Landed at Lyneham. Where did I go after that? Oh, then, (pause) that's right when I got back (pause), I missed that out, yeah, we went through Compton Bassett, and we did a code and cypher course, and we were all told when we went there, irrespective of what happens, you will pass the course, and we weren't, we were allowed to go to the Officer's Mess to collect our mail, and we had to pay the Officer's Mess bill, but all they did, they curtained part of the airman's dining hall off, and gave us that as a lounge with a field telephone to the Officer's Mess if you wanted any drinks. Obviously we never bothered, we always used to go into the local (unclear) and that. I'd forgotten about that, it'd all gone.
AM: I'm dragging it all back out.
LM: Yeah, I forgot all about that. 'Cos we, we went there before we went out to Ceylon, er, out to Karachi, and that.
AM: To go to Ceylon, and Karachi, and Singapore, to do nothing, just-. How many of you?
LM: Oh, there must have been hundreds of us. We were treated like dirt, at the end of the war, irrespective of your rank. We were just shipped out there out the road, out the way. The Navy got rid of all their surplus air crew. The RAF hung on to all of us.
AM: Why do you think they did?
LM: I don't know. I mean, I, because I'm a number, a (unclear) a number, I wasn't demobbed until forty seven. May forty seven.
AM: Could you have been, if you'd have wanted to go earlier?
LM: No. We weren't given the choice. We were all just shipped out, well we all thought personally we were just pushed out the way. They didn't know what to do with us.
AM: Was that RAF in general, or just Bomber Command?
LM: Well, I don't know, it was RAF, to do with RAF, not Bomber Command.
AM: They were still paying you?
LM: Oh yeah, yeah, but it was disgusting. That's right, I forgot about that. Yeah, that's right, I went-
AM: Seems a long way to go to do nothing.
LM: Well, it was, I mean, finished up at, in fact, the Officers Mess, embarkation Officer's Mess was out, Karikal House it was, and it was out by number ten dock gate, and in a beautiful big house and grounds. And a Japanese Admiral died there earlier, he's buried in the grounds of this big Karikal House, beautiful, and huge grounds. But, er, but, it's like the food we had there, it was all dehydrated stuff. And chicken, we used to see them coming in crates.
AM: And then they had to sort of wet it to cook it?
LM: Oh yeah. But, it was horrible.
AM: So what happened when you were eventually demobbed?
LM: I went, I was, we went up, I forget where it was, it was up Lancashire way somewhere, and just went up. A nights stop there. And just give the uniform in, and the suit, and that was it. It's a big laugh, because, because of the weather back here, there was a shortage of vegetables, and that, no potatoes, and all that jazz, but, I can't even remember the name of the camp where we were, when we were demobbed. Somewhere in the Lancashire area, I don't know where it was.
AM: What did you do afterwards, Len?
LM: I went back to finish my apprenticeship. I went back to finish my apprenticeship in plumbing. What happened, you went back and finished it, and you got full tradesman's rate, but the firm was compensated by the government for that. Got my indentures, and that was that. And then, I got fed up. I wished I hadn't of come out. The reason I come out was we were going to get married, and my wife wasn't keen on the service life, as she thought. So, I come out, and I thought, 'I'm fed up with this, I want to go back in'. So I went and they said, 'oh, you'll have to come back in as an airman, because your commission’s gone'. And I thought alright, I'll come back in the air traffic control branch.
AM: So this was after you'd finished your plumbing apprenticeship.
LM: Oh, yes. I was working as a tradesman.
AM: So you worked as a plumber?
LM: Yes, but I was getting fed up with it, and I was missing service life, and I wanted to get back into it. And the pity of it is, once I got back in, with the travel you did, and that, my wife thoroughly enjoyed it.
AM: Where did you meet your wife?
LM: Oh, I met, during the war we were at Bristol, we went out to Bath in the building business, working on bomb damage repairs, and we were doing work, just at the bottom of the road (unclear), and we were working on it, and that's how I come to meet her. She was fifteen and I was seventeen then.
AM: So that was before the RAF, even? You met her before you joined?
LM: Oh, yeah, oh yeah.
AM: And when did you get married? What year did you get married?
LM: Got married in forty seven, June forty seven. We were engaged, and that was that. Well, after I come out, I come out in May forty seven, and we got married in the June.
AM: When you went back in, then, so you did your plumbing, and then you went back in to the RAF, what did you do? What sort of things did you do?
LM: Air traffic control.
AM: You were in air traffic control.
LM: Yeah, air traffic control, straight on. And it was fantastic. Everybody was so kind to me. Don't matter what rank, station commanders, it was just what ribbons I had, and I was better treated then than we were at the end of the war, at Compton Bassett, and places like that. Because they were all wingless wonders there.
AM: So how long were you in air traffic control for? (pause) Ish.
LM: Oh, from fifty three to seventy one.
AM: Oh, right through.
LM: Yeah, I enjoyed it. Lovely. Yes, I trained on GC, ground control approach as a director, what they call a director, on that, and then became a local controller.
AM: Which airport were you based at?
LM: I was at, down at (pause) down at (pause), oh I can't think, it's where all the helicopters are down south, Chinooks and all that, I'll soon tell you.
AM: It's gone.
LM: Odiham! I was just going to pick the tankard up, because when I left there they presented me with a tankard. I was at Odiham, and, oh, that's right, because while we were at Odiham we had a mobile x-ray that come round, and they found Renee had TB. So she went into a sanatorium that way, and they transferred her to one outside Bath. Of course, we had young children, and mother, not, two of my sister in laws lived in Bath, one had the two girls, we had two girls then, and then there was two boys, and mother had the two boys in Bath. So I was then posted to, I'd been at Chivenor, that's right, I'd gone from Chivenor up to Colerne outside Bath, so that's it, they moved me to Colerne on compassionate grounds, because my children were in Bath, and they did that. And then from Colerne, when everything was, my wife was back and that, went up to Dishforth. Dishforth, Dishforth out to Germany, Wildenrath in Germany. So that was that. That's where I, and then I come home from Wildenrath in Germany, and, where did I go? Trying to think. (long pause). Oh God, no, I can't remember where I was when I came home.
AM: Oh well, it doesn't matter. What was it like being back in Germany?
LM: It was lovely. I was at Wildenrath, and the Dutch people we used to go on a roam on, and the German people were alright. In fact, on Wildenrath they had what they called GSO, German Service, and oh they were using what they had, huts and that, as married quarters. It was great. I enjoyed it. I can't think where I was. Oh, of course I was, I was down at Halton when I finished. Yeah, that's right, I went to Halton. I was the sole, all they had a Halton was a grass airfield, and Chipmonks for air experience for the cadets, you know, the apprentices, and I was the sole controller there. It was lovely. Had a fantastic time there.
AM: Brilliant. Well, thank you very much. That was really interesting.
LM: Sorry I couldn't remember names going through.
AM: Oh, don't you worry about that.
LM: But they're all down there, and Gary's got a copy of the recommendation for the DFC.
AM: Thanks, Len. I'll make sure we take a copy of that, then.
LM: Oh, I think I've got another spare copy.
AM: We'll find one. Thank you.



Annie Moody, “Interview with Len McNamara,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024,

Item Relations

This item has no relations.