Interview with Peter Rowland Ruthven Neech


Interview with Peter Rowland Ruthven Neech




Temporal Coverage



00:44:34 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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JH: My name is Judy Hodgson and I’m interviewing Peter Neech today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s digital archive. We’re at Mr Neech’s home and it is the 13th of October 2016. Thank you, Peter for agreeing to talk to me today. Peter can you tell me when and where you were born?
PN: Yes, I was born in London, West Hampstead actually on the 7th of January 1925. And that’s quite a long time ago. [laughs]
JH: That’s right. And what about your family and your early years sort of thing?
PN: Yes, well I had a mother and father there you see. My father was in the first world war and he was trained as a marine engineer and then like all young fellows he decided that he would far rather be a dispatch rider and got on a motor bike. He was flying about the trenches, all over that kind of thing. That was his - although he was trained as a marine engineer he did – he’d rather would do the motor bike bit. So that’s what he did and he came through the war alright. Yes, he did alright. Now –
JH: Where?
PN: Going forward to my years, I suppose if I were to – I think about 1940. I was working in a jeweller’s shop in Hammersmith. And the manager’s son came in one day and he said ‘Oh,’ he said ‘I’ve done it now’ he said ‘I’ve really gone and done it. I’ve joined the Air Training Corps’ or the Air Defence Cadet Corps as it was then. He said ‘I’m really in it’. I heard that and thought I’m going to join that too. So, I promptly looked around near home and I joined the Air Training Corps as it was then as well. And I served in that for two or three years until 1943. And on my birthday in 1943, 7th of January, I went along and I joined the air force. I was eighteen and I joined the air force then. And I was called up some six or seven months later. And did my training in various places, ITW, Initial Training Wings and then finally –
JH: Where was that, Initial Training Wing, where was that?
PN: Initial Training, believe it or not it was at St John’s Wood. It wasn’t the Initial Training Wing there it was, oh what was the name of the place? It was in St John’s Wood in the various flats that were there, luxurious flats that were there. And they took great precautions to see they didn’t get mucked up. At a reception centre, aircrew reception centre, that’s what it was called. And we were there for two or three weeks something like that, got uniform and things of that sort. And then we were moved then to a reception centre, where was it called? Oh, I think it was at – well we went onto various places like beginning to train, oh yes at Bridgnorth down in Shropshire. And there we started, started, although we didn’t fly down there we did do some training, aircrew training down there. And that was three or four weeks down there. It was rather, it was rather strange. We didn’t have sheets to sleep in we just had blankets and I got well and truly bitten by little buggy wugs. And had to go, I went to sick quarters to get treated for this. And he made sure that I was lathered in a thick coating of sulphur ointment and uniform on top of that. Most uncomfortable. [emphatic] I was straight out of there went home, I was not too far from home, went home, took, changed my uniform for my best uniform and the rest went in the laundry. And there they stayed until they got cleared of all the sulphur, sulphur ointment. I never went back near them again. [laughs] And from Bridgnorth I then went on a very long train journey, Bridgnorth down in Shropshire, right up to just outside of Inverness. Which was a long time. And that was at, the place was called Dalcross. And it was an Initial Gunnery School. And it took us quite – it was a troop train and as such we didn’t get changed – we didn’t change trains at all. We stayed on that one train and I thought ‘Right monkey, I’ll get some sleep on here’. And I made sure I got up into the luggage rack and had a good old sleep for most of the time. [laughs] Anyway, we arrived at Dalcross railway station and there the, there was a corporal there to shepherd us up into the local station, RAF station at Dalcross. No er, all just any kind of marching, no smartness at all there, just a shambles going into that station. But that was alright. Some six weeks later we were marched down there very much in line and very much drilled, having been taught how to drill properly. And indeed, how to deal with guns. And it was very nice we passed out there as sergeants. And the local WAAF’s on the station were very kind they sewed, carefully sewed, our stripes and our brevets on our uniforms. That was very kind, we would have made a right old mess of it. But they did it and they did it kindly for us. And that corporal who had marched us carefully up to the station, we marched him round the parade ground. He was a corporal, we were sergeants and we chased him round the parade ground at a very good march. And then we marched him down to the railway station too when we went away. And so we went back to our next station which was in, er not Andover, not very far from London in fact I went to London. I was able to go home for a day or so because we were going there. And going back I went from Bakers Street to this station where this – it was, what was it? An ITW, no not ITW. Was a training station anyway onto Wellington aircraft. And it wasn’t a very long railway journey and I met a very good friend on that journey, Pat Butler. And he – I’ve got a picture of him there somewhere. He was a very good – we got on great friends, we became great friends. He went onto the same squadron as me. We went onto the Initial Training Wings and various training wings and we went onto the same squadron together. And the third trip that we did was laying sea mines in Kiel Canal. And we got a bit damaged and had to retire. We got one engine shot out and this engine was the one that supplied power to the gun turrets. We turned – we dropped our mines, laid our mines, but we then moved away and went back home.
JH: What aeroplanes were you flying?
PN: There we were flying Stirlings.
JH: Right.
PN: Yes, we were flying Stirlings there and we went back, back to our station at Westcott. Westcott, that’s what it was called. Anyway, Pat Butler I’m afraid he, a fighter ‘plane caught them and shot them down and they were all killed. Great pity only a third operation. Um, so I was very sad to see that. Quite funny we were in the same barrack block. In the same Nissen hut it was actually together. He was in one corner. And they had a firm called, air force people, called the Committee of Adjustments, yeah. And these, this Committee of Adjustments whenever anyone was shot down or killed or anything like that they used to come round and collect up all their kit and put it into stores. They collected up his kit and mine too! And it took me several days to get my uniforms back again because I was sleeping in the corner near enough to his bed, so they collected up his stuff and mine too. [laughs] Well, I was very cross with them for that but anyway I got the stuff back eventually. And from there we went onto Stradishall. Yes, now come to think of it the aircraft that we had been flying in until then were Wellington aircraft, and not Stirlings. Was about to say we weren’t on Stirlings until we went to Stradishall. When we went to Stradishall that was when we went onto the Stirlings, the heavy bombers, four engined. And that was the time when I’d got somewhere to go, I got a mid-upper gun turret and that was alright. On the Wellingtons of course there was no mid-upper gun turret.
JH: So what position were you on a Wellington?
PN: Pardon?
JH: Where did you fit into a Wellington?
PN: In the middle of the fuselage. Nowhere much to go except to look out of the bits, the astra dome, things like that, just to keep myself amused. But there we are, as I say we went onto eventually onto the squadrons and they were flying Stirlings then and it was on Stirlings that Pat Butler got killed. It was a shame, only on his third operation. I went onto do – I did a complete tour there and somehow or another they managed to – a tour of operations was thirty operations. Somehow or another they managed to craftily get me on and I did thirty-one. I don’t know I managed, they managed to do that but they did. And they asked me, we’d just come back from a bombing raid and while I was coming away from the aircraft they asked me if I’d like to continue on that same squadron. And after I’d done an eight hour bombing mission I told them where to – what I thought of them. And I did, I got posted away. [chuckles] So I went to another place then and then I went onto North American Mitchells which was a twin engined bomber. There I think that’ll keep you busy for a while, I’ll give you some more a little later on. Yes, that’s how we did it and it was on those five that we were doing on the Stirlings, the third one was when Pat Butler was shot down and he, and all his crew, were killed. And that was a shame.
JH: And after those five you went on?
PN: And after those five I went onto Lancasters and we did converting onto Lancasters at Feltwell and did it all in one day. Day and night the conversion onto the Lancasters. Then we came back and we carried on our tour. But I’d done about five or six on the Lancasters when we were flying along one evening when an aircraft flying fairly close to us just blew up. He just blew up without any warning at all and rocketed us all over the sky. We went up topsy-turvy all over the sky. And eventually my skipper, he was a very good skipper, managed to put it into a bit of a dive. And from that dive he could pull us out. And he pulled us out at ten thousand feet. So, we had lost ten thousand feet and he pulled us out and climbed back up to the twenty thousand which was our normal operating height. And then we went on and did our, that particular bombing mission. Yes, I don’t know –
JH: Did you ever know who, which ‘plane it was that blew up? Did you ever know who they were?
PN: No I didn’t, no.
JH: No. Or why?
PN: No, well I suppose they got hit by anti-aircraft fire. And probably if it hit the bomb, bomb loads, it would blow up.
JH: Yes.
PN: Yeah, yes, it was er – it really sent us all over the sky. But as I say my skipper was a very good skipper and he eventually put it into a low dive and from that dive he could pull us out. He could work it out, and we then climbed back up to our normal height again, operating height again. But after that I went to – when we’d landed, a day or two later I thought ‘I must have some wax in my ears I think, I’ll go and get them syringed out at the medical centre.’ I hadn’t got wax in my ears, no. I’d got cracked eardrums. And the doctor – I went just to get the wax out of them. But he said ‘Oh you’ve got cracked eardrums.’ And I spent two weeks or more in hospital, Ely Hospital, and then some time in a local health centre not very far from Ely Hospital. I can’t remember their name now but it was an old English country house sort of thing. Used – it had been taken over by the RAF and people we used to recover from various injuries there. And I was there for two or three weeks and then went back. But of course my crew carried on their time and at the end of that tour they carried on and they’d finished their tour some five odd trips before me. And I had to finish my tour with one or two other people, other skippers. And that was a bit of a nuisance. Because my crew, my original crew, then went on to rest period and I had to carry on flying. That’s, I suppose that’s how I got my, how I did the thirty-one operations instead of the thirty because of a bit of a mix up on the number.
JH: And then you had leave after?
PN: Then I had some leave yes.
JH: What did you do?
PN: I didn’t have much leave. About two or three weeks or something like that. End of tour leave. And then I went back again and eventually, oh I did instructing for a while. I went up funnily enough back up to Dalcross as a flying instructor. And you usually did six months as a flying instructor. I made sure that I counted the – I went there at the end of a particular month and I counted that whole month. And I, and there’s the beginning of another month just after Christmas. I counted that as a whole month so in fact I did four months rest period but it counted as six. And then I went back on flying again and I went back onto 98 Squadron which was a North American Mitchell squadron.
JH: Where was that based?
PN: They were based initially in Norfolk and then we went across to France, just outside of Brussels and then up into Germany. Up to a station in Germany near Osnabruck, there, Osnabruck, near Osnabruck. And it was then soon after that that the war terminated.
JH: So, did you fly with any of your, you know, former mates from the other crews, did you fly with them again?
PN: No, I didn’t see – but on the North American Mitchells I did a further seventeen bombing missions. So that made a total around about forty, forty-eight bombing missions I did altogether. Which was quite a lot. And on one of them going to a place called Bremen we were quite near a flak explosion, quite near to us. And when we got back I hadn’t, fortunately hadn’t used my guns on that particular operation. When we got back the armourer came up to me and he said ‘Would you like to keep this souvenir?’ and it was one of the cases, one of the round cases which was fed up by a belt quite near to me and it had got a nice little hole in it. And he said ‘We’ve taken the explosives out,’ he said ‘You’re lucky it didn’t explode’ because the metal, the flak that hit it was white hot and melted. He showed me the piece of flak and it had brass on one side melted onto it and the iron of the flak shell on the other side. And so it had melted that case, that brass case of the ammunition onto the flak and there – so it must have been very, very hot indeed. I was lucky it came to me as near to me, and I was lucky I didn’t get a little bit closer to that I’m glad to say. And the, as I say the armourer came to me later and said ‘Would you like this case?’ with the flak inside it. It was a big hole, I’ve got it still and he gave it to me. Unfortunately, a number of years later my, one of my sons looked at that shell case and the little bit of flak which was inside it rattled and he thought ‘That’s all very interesting’ and the little bit of metal, the flak, he looked at that and then put it in the ashtray and it got thrown out. I didn’t know for a month or so later that it had been thrown out. And it is a real piece of the interest story of that but it’s a pity, but it was gone. I searched for it but I couldn’t find it. Well, lost that. I’ve got the case, the shell case still but I’ve lost the piece of flak that would fill it which was a shame.
JH: Of all the aircraft that you actually flew in did you have a preference for any of the aircraft that you were in?
PN: Did I?
JH: Did you prefer one aircraft to another, did you like?
PN: Oh well I would have preferred the Lancaster.
JH: Ah.
PN: Yes, the Lancaster. The Stirling was quite good. It was bigger in fact I think, bit bigger than the Lancaster and we had some quite interesting do’s in them I must agree. Mainly going to Kiel and places like that. And we went down one time to where was it? Went to the South of France on a bombing mission laying sea mines. Yes, I’d have to look in my logbook and see where we went to on those places.
JH: You had some –
PN: Coming back from that place, La Rochelle, La Rochelle. It was a tributary of a river there and we laid our sea mines in there and we came back, and we by a little bit of a mistake I must agree, we came a little bit close to the point of Brest. The part of France Brest. And it was in German hands and they opened up all kinds of fire against us so we promptly put our guns over the side and fired back at them. They shut up quick. They shut – the firing immediately stopped and we went a little bit further out to sea. And came back home that way. But they, it’s funny to see that they fired several shots at us, going out as we came past Brest, and the moment we started firing back at them they packed up at once, and went quiet, very quiet.
JH: You must have had quite, quite a few near misses?
PN: Um [emphatic] yes.
JH: Yes.
PN: Oh yes.
JH: Do you remember any others in particular, do you remember?
PN: Now did I? Yes. One of the last ones. Well of course, I told you about that one. He was going, a friend of mine who wrote the poetry he was going to a place called Darmstadt. And that was fairly near to where I was going at – it’s in my logbook too – down by the South, the South of France. I’ll look it up in my logbook soon and tell you what it was. And we got quite a bit of a hammering there too. Um, I forget the – of course it’s seventy odd years ago you see, it is a long time to remember these things. I will look it up, I’ll tell you later on.
JH: So really it must have been quite difficult?
PN: Yes.
JH: Having to go back up all the time?
PN: Yes, it was but I didn’t particularly bother about it, it was part of the job that I was doing. But we did have fighters come after us a number of times and we used to employ an evasion method called a corkscrew. And a corkscrew, we used to fly into the direction of the fighter and lose about a thousand foot. And then we’d roll over to the other side and drop another thousand foot. And then we’d climb a thousand foot, and roll and climb another thousand foot. And by that time that fighter was long gone. So, our corkscrew did us the world of good. So, we didn’t have to bother too much with corkscrews a lot. That was our normal tactic for getting out of fighter, fighter attacks.
JH: Could all ‘planes do that are was it only?
PN: Oh yes.
JH: All of them, it was standard?
PN: It was a known tactic. It was a known tactic that aircraft could go into a corkscrew, yeah.
JH: What is your experience really of being in the mid-upper turret, you know what was that like to be in that particular position?
PN: Yes, it was quite cold. It was – we used to go there and the outside – there was only a thin – the turret had perspex, a perspex cupola and that was only very thin that perspex. And outside was a temperature of minus forty, something like that, it was quite cold. But we went – while I was doing normal, not an evasion tactic, but we did what we called dinghy drill. Learning how to get into a dinghy quickly if we were shot down over the sea. And to do that we went to a local swimming pool at Newmarket. And while there you dressed up in flying clothing, very – most likely it was flying clothing that the, a crew had used a few minutes ago, and it was soaking wet and cold. But I’d noted that the helmet was one of the old type helmets with the zip earpieces, and it was my head that used to get cold with the thin helmets, flying helmets that we normally had. So, a little case of swapping went on there. And I came away with a heavier, heavier helmet, which I promptly cleaned up and laundered and the – ‘cause it was quite dirty inside really. But I laundered it and polished the brass and I had to resew some of the straps on, the hooks on because they were in the wrong position for my oxygen mask and things like that. But I did all that and very snug and very comfortable helmet I got out of it. And you could, if you could see me on a dark night you’d see a smile on my face that all the cold outside I was nice and warm in that helmet. I’ve still got that helmet, yes. So, I had done some thirty-one operations on the Stirlings and Lancasters. And then another sixteen or seventeen on North American Mitchells. And that made quite a total. About forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-eight operations. Quite a lot. Quite good fun, quite good fun.
JH: And how did you feel about being in the war, was it?
PN: Well it was – I lived in London of course you see. I lived in London until 1943 when I joined the air force. And we were often very well bombed. In fact, I remember when I came home, when I first passed out as a sergeant air gunner, that I came, got a taxi because I’d got quite hefty kit bags. I thought ‘I can’t get on buses and things with those’ so I got a taxi home. And he stopped at one place and I waited for a minute, ‘What have you stopped here for?’ he said ‘Well this is where you wanted to be isn’t it?’ And I looked out and it was. My house a bit dented, a bit well and truly dented. Had bombs near it and had got quite well damaged. But my people, my father and mother, they were all right. Of course, they’d been a bit shaken up by all that but they survived it all right. And I saw that things were all right. And that’s when I went back onto flying operations again.
JH: Did you hear a lot about Bomber Harris you know?
PN: Oh yes, he was a –
JH: Yes.
PN: Yes, Butch, we called him Butch. Butch Harris, yeah. Yes, we thought he was a great man, a very good man. He was well appreciated and his trips that he put us on.
JH: Would he visit your base, your squadrons at all or?
PN: I never saw him no.
JH: You didn’t see him?
PN: I didn’t see him. We did get some people you know quite high up, high up ranks come and visit the station at times but they never came to see us as well. They, would often talk to people up in the front like the pilot and navigators but they never came down towards the tail end. Never talked to the mere gunners oh no. [laughs] Probably wasn’t designed, they probably didn’t think about it. But I couldn’t care, I wouldn’t bother really about that. So, there it is. And as I say I came out in 1946 something like that and a friend that I’d had at home for a long, long time we had decided that when the war was over we would start up a small restaurant, that kind of business. And so, I came out and I worked in hotels for quite a while, for several years. A particular one was Grosvenor House in Park Lane. Yes, I worked in the kitchens there. And then I got a little bit tired. Well you worked from early morning, you had a break in the afternoon, and then you worked at night again until about two or three in the morning. And eventually after doing that for about three or four years I got tired of that, I went back into the air force. And though I went back as a sergeant air gunner and a gunnery instructor so I was quite happy about that. And I spent several more years in the air force then.
JH: Where were you based then in the air force?
PN: Then, where was I? I can’t remember the places. Well, we went into – I forget the name but we did some flying for – I was a gunnery instructor there, we did gunnery instructing. I think up in Scotland somewhere. I think we did some training, you know training gunners up there, who were being trained as gunners. And eventually I came down, eventually I came out of the air force and settled down.
JH: What ‘planes were you flying then, when you were training then up there?
PN: Ah yes, I was flying Shackletons, Shackletons. When I started with them you know they had two forward wheels and the tail was down on the floor. But afterwards a little later on they became tri-planes and they had all three wheels at the front and they were flying on the three wheels you know, they landed on the three wheels, much better aircraft. Shackelton III and we did quite a bit of gunnery training on the Shackletons and they were quite nice. Yes, well that’s taken you over a whole few years.
JH: It has.
PN: 1950’s.
JH: Yes, and did you actually keep in touch with any of the crew after the war?
PN: No.
JH: No?
PN: No, never saw them again.
JH: Didn’t see them?
PN: Of course, they went back to New Zealand see.
JH: Of course.
PN: Mind, later on I did meet up with my skipper’s daughter. In fact I’ve got some pictures of her there. She was a nice girl and she came and stayed with us one time. And I’ve got a picture, several pictures of her there in my casings there. You can have a look at them some time when you’re ready.
JH: What did your skipper do then after the war, she obviously told you?
PN: Oh, I don’t know.
JH: She didn’t say?
PN: Don’t know what he did.
JH: No?
PN: But not very long afterwards unfortunately his wife died.
JH: Right.
PN: And later, little later on he died as well. In fact, I’m the only one of the crew now alive.
JH: Right.
PN: All – they were as I say, when I joined them they were all in their thirties. So, they were about fifteen years older than me so they therefore of course they didn’t last so long. Now I’ve got a picture here. A book here – my logbook, my flying logbook. And there’s even – when we were flying in Germany we did a flypast for the Russian leader [rustling] a General Zhukov, and there’s a picture of General Zhukov. [rustling]
JH: September 1945.
PN: Yes.
JH: So that was at the surrender?
PN: Yes, yes we did a flypast for him. That was in the North American Mitchells I think. [rustling]
JH: I’d like to thank you Peter for allowing me to record this interview today, so thank you very much.
PN: That’s OK, my pleasure.
JH: Thank you.


Judy Hodgson, “Interview with Peter Rowland Ruthven Neech,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 23, 2021,

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