Interview with Leslie Robert Pearson


Interview with Leslie Robert Pearson


Les Pearson was in reserved occupation as an apprentice in general mechanical engineering, but he volunteered as aircrew. He initially trained as a pilot but was remustered as a bomb aimer. He flew operations as a bomb aimer with 153 Squadron from RAF Scampton. He describes the crewing up process, the preparations of the crew before an operation and his duties during the flight. He was posted to Special Duties after the war, and describes his family life after the war.




Temporal Coverage




00:47:02 audio recording

Conforms To


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SB: This is Shelia Bibb, interviewing Les Pearson on the thirtieth of May 2015 at his home at Lowestoft. Les –
LP: Yep.
SB: Before we start talking too much about this, can you give me a little bit of background about yourself. Where you were born, something about your family?
LP: Yes, I was an only child, I was born in East London, I have, my father was a chief shaftsman [?] master engineer. I went to Westham Grammar School, I started an apprenticeship in general mechanical engineering and then I joined the Air Force. This will be what, about 1942 when I joined them, having been through the London bombing and getting some sort of feeling about wars [emphasis] and things in general, and felt that I had to do something about it.
SB: Okay, so, when you decided to join, did you go straight to the Air Force?
LP: Oh yes, yes.
SB: Okay.
LP: Yes, I, as I say, I started an apprenticeship as a general mechanical engineer and as such I was in a reserved occupation. After the three years was up, because they concentrated at wartime, I joined the Air Force in London. I went along and joined in London, and volunteered for aircrew [emphasis], ‘cause that was the [laughs] only branch that would accept me as a reserved occupation.
SB: So where did you report?
LP: Oh my lord [pause]. I don’t, do you know I don’t really remember the name and address of where I went. It was head, sort of a head office in London, a recruit, a definite recruiting centre in London. I don’t recall [laughs] its address as such though, don’t recall it.
SB: Where did they send you?
LP: Initially to St John’s Wood, which was Air ACRC, Air Crew Receiving Centre, and they sort of prepared us for life in the Air Force. We had loads of injections and things like that, but basically they set us up, started our life in the Air Force.
SB: And what sort of training did you get?
LP: First class [laughs]. Let’s try and think this one through [pause]. I think the first one I can recall was being sent to Ludlow [emphasis], on a general toughening up course, sorting out and, you know, yes from Ludlow that was the start, right, yep.
SB: And how long did your training last?
LP: The – oh the whole training was over a year [emphasis]. I’m trying, I’m trying, you know, I’m trying to recall the early parts of this. Erm, we did, what was it, a trip to Brough in East Yorkshire on Tiger Moths, where we were given a day to learn to fly, and those of us who qualified managed to get solo in a day. We then went on to ITW, Initial Training Wing, did mine at Scarborough, which, I’m having to rack my brains on this one a little bit, could of done with notice I bet [SB laughs] but there you are, from ITW, that’s right yes, we went on a holding course in Manchester, and then from Manchester we went to Canada, Canada where we carried on with the pilots course which I’d joined in on. We were flying Cornells there, and then the information came back that there was a surplus [emphasis] of pilots, that the system was working too well [emphasis], so quickly we were [unclear] at something else and we went “ooh, let’s go as a bomb aimer, that’s as good as anything.” Did the bomb aimer’s course no trouble at all. Back to the UK. They had us at, just outside Ludlow, I think it was Clanberick [?] where there were, there was an aerodrome there, and they put us there and they said “well look, you’re a mixed bag but you’ve done an awful lot of the training, we’re going to finish off your navigation course,” which they duly completed. From there, now then, I can’t recall the actual or can’t remember [emphasis] the names of the actual stations, but went initially to I think it was an AFU, Advanced Flying Unit, where we were crewed up. The system there was that the pilot had a wander round and looked at various people and said “you look alright, come and join my crew.” It was very informal, very casual but it worked very [emphasis] well. As a crew we then went on to operational training – I think I skipped something there but it doesn’t really matter. Operational training unit, initially on Wellingtons and then on I think it was Stirlings, and finally on Lancasters. At this stage we were doing various trips – it was an operational training unit as such and we were expected to do various operational training exercises [emphasis] which we did. Eventually we went on to RAF Scampton to 153, where we joined 153 Squadron, which was operational, fully [emphasis] operational. At the end of the war we were then posted to Special Duties. They decided that the squadron as such was of a high standard and we were given the flying test trials on H2S mark four. They gave us six months to do it in and that was done at twenty-thousand feet. Along the line, half way through this exercise, 153 Squadron was disbanded [emphasis] and so they kept us together and transferred us over to Binbrook to do, to be attached [emphasis] to 12 Squadron. I stayed with 12 Squadron right until the end, we finished the exercise we were on there, that was a success and then we would do various bits and pieces afterwards. They didn’t know what to do with us really, disposing of certain bombs out into the North Sea and that sort of nature. I think that just about sums up my life in the Air Force. There’s probably quite a few bits missing but [laughs] I don’t recall [emphasis] it all at this stages now.
SB: Okay let’s –
LP: It was a long time ago.
SB: It was indeed and that was a very good overview. Can we now go back to the war itself, and can you tell me a little bit about your experiences there, some of the operations you took part in?
LP: Mm, they weren’t very exciting really. It was just a job –
SB: Mhm.
LP: We were, I wouldn’t know where to start – whether we were going to Keele and bombing a battleship there, went to Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s home, bombing that one, or a little place called Paulson [?] which made ball bearings. That I suppose would sum it up generally, yes, yeah, yeah.
SB: So you can you remember how many operations you flew?
LP: Oh yes. We did six out of Scampton, yes. There was another thirteen variables on training command where they prepared us for full operation duty.
SB: So, can you tell me a little bit about that it was like when you were on one of these operations? What was it like beforehand, during the flight? How did you feel?
LP: To start off with, we were a crew, that was the whole set up of the Air Force, that we went around in crews [emphasis]. We worked together, we played together and we had confidence in each other. We knew exactly [emphasis] what we were doing and if somebody wasn’t well or up to it we knew exactly and that was taken care of. Once we knew we were on operations that day, then everything else stood down and we got prepared for it. There was the briefing, preparation, navigation side of it was drawing up the various routes and things, the bombing side of it was checking the bomb load at the bombers, that the ground staff, who we had every confidence in incidentally, had done a good job, it was a matter of preparations for the actual operation itself. We had, I think it was a late flying supper, that’s a bit hairy that one, I’m sure we had something to eat [emphasis] before we went. Once we were on route well that was it. Everybody had got a job to do. We worked as a team [emphasis] once again, we had a straight navigator in the crew as well as myself, and I assisted him. I spent my time out in the nose map reading, highlighting various pieces, information back to the navigator. That more or less sums up the operation. I mean once we were on target I took over control of the plane, gave instructions to the pilot, “left-left, right-right steady, hold it, bomb’s gone. That’s it, let’s go home.” And the navigator would take over, give the pilot the course to fly and off we went. It – we were pretty well occupied. Your Lancaster was a cold [emphasis] aeroplane, a noisy [emphasis] aeroplane, but one we had every confidence in, so you know. It was just a job and we just did it [emphasis], you know.
SB: Mm.
LP: When we got back, we landed, debriefing, and then after debriefing there was night flying supper, usually eggs and bacon and things like that, and off we went.
SB: As a bomb aimer did you need any particular preparation before you went on one of these?
LP: The only preparation I would have would be to check the bomb load, which was the ground crew had attached to the aeroplane, that it was the correct load, because weight was of paramount importance, for the engineers to be able to maintain the aircraft to its height and it wouldn’t run out of petrol and things like that.
SB: Yep. So did you ever have any problems with the Germans?
LP: No, no.
SB: No, clean run.
LP: No, everything was, as far as we were concerned went according to plan. The loading was correct, the aircraft was fully serviceable and that was it. It got a, once we were over Germany it got a bit hectic from time to time, but we took various evasive action [emphasis] and things of that nature and we got there and back alright.
SB: Good. So you had those operational runs during the war. Once the war was over I gather you stayed on –
LP: Oh yes.
SB: Still doing other tasks.
LP: Yes.
SB: When did you finally come out of the Air Force?
LP: E [pause] forty-six, forty-six, yeah –
SB: Okay.
LP: Forty-six yeah, yep. Yep.
SB: Did you miss it?
LP: Initially yes [emphasis], because it was a family. As I said, you live together, you play together, that was it, your life was as a crew [emphasis], and you each had got every confidence in the other. So yes, initially I did miss it, yes.
SB: Okay. Did you keep in touch with these members of your family? [Laughs]
LP: Yes. I forget, what was the date of the first one, forty-six, forty-seven, forty-six, year. 1946 we had a sort of farewell party in Grimsby and we decided that it was all over and we got to make a fresh start, and we’d met once a year ever since. Last one was what, about a fortnight ago.
SB: And are you all still there [emphasis]?
LP: Yes [emphasis], yes. There was only a handful of us left fully active, one, two, three, I can give you four names of them that are fully active, the rest have fallen, either fallen by the wayside, or they’re not very well.
SB: Mm. Good record though [both laugh]. Okay so, let’s get back to thinking about your experiences. Would you change anything?
LP: I don’t think [emphasis] so. As far as we were concerned it was a success definitely.
SB: Hmm.
LP: The initial training scheme PNB, that was pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, was a hundred-and-one success. It was Canada, America, Africa, I think they were the main three areas where trainee, cadet aircrew were sent to learn to either fly or navigate or bomb. That was the pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, PNB system. That was a hundred – that worked almost too well. As I say, there was a, at one stage there was a success, an excess of pilots.
SB: Okay. So are there any other personal details, things that you were involved in?
LP: [Pause] not that I can think of.
SB: Set any records at all?
LP: We broke the station height record with a Wellington when we were on training command. We got a bit high there, I think we got up to about twenty-six-thousand feet and everything froze up [SB laughs], but apart from that [laughs] not really. We worked hard, we played hard. We got attacked a couple of time whilst on ops. But, took various evasive actions, but the gunners worked more than well but. No, no. I wouldn’t say much about it really.
SB: Okay. Now you mentioned Berchtesgaden –
LP: Yep.
SB: Which is an interesting target. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
LP: That was a long one. Oh lord, from memory I think it took about fourteen hours. I think we had – the bomb load had to be reduced slightly to account for excess fluid, petrol to normal. We went out with pathfinder. As you know, in the Air Force we all flew in what was known as a gaggle [emphasis]. In other words we all [emphasis] made our own [emphasis] way there, regardless of who was flying alongside you. The Americans flew in formation with a master navigator, master this, master that, and they just kept in formation. We didn’t, we flew individually [emphasis]. We were, actually we were running parallel to pathfinder. They were about ten miles off track, but still parallel to us. Consequently, there was a bit of confusion on the target and we went round again so that we had the correct heading to bomb on. Think that was about the only confusion there, but it all, it sorted itself out. We all knew exactly [emphasis] what to do, we did it. Coming back [emphasis] we were well on the way home by this time, and I said to the skipper, “can I give Dave a break?” and he said “yes of course.” Dave being our rear gunner who’d been sat out in the turret, miles from anybody for quite a few hours, so we brought him back to life [SB laughs] and I sat out in the turret for a couple of hours to see he we was alright until we were nearly home, and we all resumed normal flying positions. We landed safely and that was it.
SB: So you accomplished it alright?
LP: Oh yeah. Yes, yeah.
SB: Good, okay. Were you married when you joined up?
LP: Not in the Air Force no.
SB: Right.
LP: That was just one thing, my wife – we were associates together but not married, and the thought was “we don’t get married until the war’s over because it would be wrong.”
SB: Mhm.
LP: Really, so. When the war finished, well then we were able to get married, and we were living out in the village of Binbrook. We had a little cottage there, and we lived in Binbrook [emphasis].
SB: And during the war, where was your wife to be? Was she –
LP: Ah.
SB: In London, or?
LP: She was in East [emphasis] London yes, Plaistow again –
SB: Mhm.
LP: And they were bombed, and they lost their house and everything that went with it. It’s remotely [emphasis] possible that I helped to evacuate them, because at that stage I was working with the local ARP, air raid precaution thing, and I was one of the few people who could drive [emphasis] and we, we was just evacuating people out, driving the three tonne [unclear] flat-packed truck of all things [SB laughs]. Just pile these people onboard and got them, got them out of London, into Epping Forest. So it’s possible [emphasis], it’s not, we can never prove this one that I actually evacuated my wife and her family –
SB: Mhm.
LP: From Plaistow, but well they lost everything.
SB: Hmm. Okay, so let’s move onto after the war –
LP: Mhm.
SB: For a little while. You left the RAF in forty-six –
LP: Mhm.
SB: What did you do at that point?
LP: Purely as a stop cap [?], we were living down in the village and we were thinking “oh, what do we do now?” I didn’t really [emphasis] want to go back into London and mechanical engineering, so we ran the village taxi [emphasis]. The garage had got a licence for a taxi and I, initially I worked with him, and after about a year or so, I bought the licence off him and I ran the thing, I [unclear] on my own. My wife was assistant, she took all the phone calls, and that was our life.
SB: Do you think you would have done something like that if you hadn’t had the RAF experience?
LP: Ooh no [emphasis], no. I never even thought about that. This was purely an extension of our life in the Air Force, because by this time, living out in the village, my wife had got to know a load of my colleagues in the Air Force, we were still one big family [emphasis] and the silly sort of thing which would happen, was when they were on a PT run or something like that, they would run down into the village, through the back door of our house [laughs] and sit in there and say “can you make us a cup of tea?” Or “can you boil us an egg?” It was part of our life extended. Is that – there you go.
SB: Do you think the war impacted your life in any other way?
LP: [Deep breath followed by long pause.] That’s a, that’s a difficult question to answer. I just took life as it was [emphasis] in those days. I mean, I hadn’t gone into life with any fixed ideas of what I wanted to do [emphasis], where I wanted to go, be [pause]. I think the Royal Air Force completed my education [emphasis], no doubts on that. But other than that there’s not a lot I can say in that respect I don’t – no, ‘cause I never really thought about it.
SB: Okay. I’m now going to ask another question, which I don’t know what it means, but too many carrots.
LP: [Laughs.] Oh dear me [SB laughs]. How right you are there [laughs], yes. For many moons after leaving the Air Force, I couldn’t look a carrot in the eye [SB laughs]. It was purely a story which was put out to cover our radar system which were working very well and we didn’t want the Germans to know about it, so they said they said that they discovered that by feeding us up with an excess of carrots [emphasis], as such, it gave us extra eyesight [emphasis] which enabled us to see those [?] things which they couldn’t see. It was purely a story [laughs], it wasn’t fact. But as I say, we were dosed up with carrots left, right and centre, even though we didn’t believe it ourselves. But there you are.
SB: Right, let’s move back again to after the war. Are you the only two daughters?
LP: No –
Other: No there’s five of us.
LP: There were five children altogether.
SB: Mhm.
LP: We, when we were in Binbrook, my wife became pregnant there, and we thought “now, we’ve got to, we’re not going to live in a little village for the rest of our lives, we’ve got to do [emphasis] something,” you know. We had friends who were living down in Torquay at the time, and he, we made contact with them and he said “look, I can get hold of you a taxi licence down here to start with,” but he said “there’s bags of scope you can tow a caravan and things like that, bags of scope. Come down here and we’ll sort you out” which we did, and we developed quite a good caravan towing business [emphasis] believe it or not. I managed to get established with a company there who got the rights for just about every caravan manufacturer [laughs] in the world, and everything which was sold in Devon and Cornwall went through his books, and I was involved in [laughs] delivering an awful lot of these caravans. That took quite a few years that. His company changed hands and a company which had got offices, well offices, a garage and business in North London, they took over there, and after a time, I forget the number of years, wasn’t very long, a year or so, the London office contacted me and said “look, there’s a job for you here, we want someone as a garage manager, we’re doing car and caravan sales and maintenance and all the rest of it, you got all the appearance, all the qualifications, come up here and see what we can do,” which we did. So we sold up down in Devon, moved up to Waltham Cross [emphasis] in North London. [Pause] and –
SB: At what point did you come to Lowestoft?
LP: Sorry?
SB: What point did you come to Lowestoft?
LP: Oooh, now then, we stayed, worked at that garage, I think for about three years, could have been longer, time’s difficult to work, I’d have to research that now. During that time I learned to be a driving instructor as part of the set up of the garage, it was an asset to the garage, so I qualified as a driving instructor. Did that for a spell purely as a break, and then Rumbellows is a company you may have heard of, formally owned by Thornley Electrical [?] were just setting up a business, they got lots of people who were in debt to the Thorn Organisation, and they didn’t just want to close it down and just lose it, they took over the various businesses [?] and ran them, and I joined Rumbellows then, and I finished up as senior buyer for them, we got over five-hundred branches. We were the biggest company, business in the country and I actually took an early retirement from them. But this time we’d been down to the Isle of Wight a couple of times, really [emphasis] liked it down there and decided we were going to move down to the Isle of Wight while I was still young enough to do something about it. And we were negotiating to buy a bed and breakfast house [emphasis], quite a large house, with a couple of taxis and a bus, a minibus, so I took my PSP licence as a bus driver, and somebody had to, and we were on the points of moving down there when problems developed with the roof of the property. We couldn’t negotiate with the owner, he was adamant there was nothing wrong with the roof. Our surveyor had said “don’t touch it with a barge pole” [laughs] “you won’t get a mortgage or anything on it.” So we’d already sold our house in North London, so my wife’s sister was living here in Lowestoft, said “why don’t you come here, it’s a nice place to live and it’s cheap,” which we did.
SB: Hmm. So you certainly took off in a different direction after the war.
LP: Oh lord yes.
SB: Hmm.
LP: Yes.
SB: Yeah.
LP: Yes.
SB: Okay, so, I’d like to throw in a quick question to you two now, if I can. You’ve mentioned your association with 153 Squadron. Have you always been involved with your dad’s role in the war, or has it affected you –
Other 1:No –
Other 2: I think he’s always had acquaintances –
O1: Yeah –
O2: He’s always – his friends have been friends that you’ve had since you were in the RAF.
O1: Hmm. Always been aware of it.
O2: Hmm.
O1: It’s been something that has been a constant particularly with the –
LP It’s sort of –
O1: The annual reunion made it a –
LP: It gradually built up along the line, I mean, this has gone on for seventy years [laughs] now, which is a long time. Initially we used to meet up at the Grand Hotel in Lincoln, that went on. As time went by, I think it was with Bill, your husband, where it was a matter of getting somebody who would come up with me, and drive and things like that, I think that possibly started it.
O2: But you’ve never spoken of your emotions during the war, you’ve just seen it as a [emphasis] job, you went out and you did it and –
LP: Oh it was a job to do, I mean, we – don’t forget I was in London during the bombing, rescuing, or, not rescuing [emphasis], recovering my wife’s family and many [emphasis] other families, simply driving them out Epping Forest and getting them somewhere safe [emphasis]. I saw the damage, I remember one time I cycled from Eastham, East London where we living to Euston Road in North London to tell them that I couldn’t get into work today because the place had been bombed. I just thought I had to do [emphasis] something specific [emphasis], and although we were doing specialist work where we in the engineering side, we were on research of plastics and all that sort of thing, but I wanted to do something more. Hence basically I wanted to be a pilot [emphasis] and shoot them down. But it developed from I didn’t get into Fighter Command I got in Bomber Command instead, which I never regretted [emphasis], because that was a different life altogether.
SB: And did you feel better by doing [emphasis] something –
LP: Oh yes, yes. Yes I –
SB: How did you feel about the Germans?
LP: Quite bitter, because I saw the wanton [?] damage they did to London in the early stages, where there was no reason [emphasis] for what they bombed. It was just random bombing of London as such, and I think I got a bit cross over that, I didn’t like it.
SB: Hmm. [Pause.] Did you ever meet up with any of the flyers from the German [unclear]?
LP: Yes, oddly enough, yes. Many years ago when I was a member of the local Aircrew Association, with a colleague who lived just outside Norwich, we attended one meeting there, and a German pilot came and gave us a talk [emphasis]. He was welcomed, and we got on very [emphasis] well with him, because basically he was part of the family [emphasis]. We were just doing a job and that was it. It wasn’t, I don’t think there was anything personal about it whatsoever.
SB: Do you have any idea how your parents felt about you joining up?
LP: Oooh [pause]. I don’t think – well my mother was obviously very worried [emphasis] about it. My father accepted it, I think they just accepted it. Because it was the sort of thing that went on, families did that sort of in those days, it wasn’t pleasant [emphasis], they didn’t like [emphasis] it for one minute, but I think they accepted it.
SB: Had your father been in the First World War?
LP: No.
SB: No.
LP: No, he was, he was slightly disabled, and as such he wouldn’t have been in the service at all.
SB: Okay, so, any other thoughts at all about that period and how it might have affected your life later on?
LP: [Pause.] All I can think of is that it completed my education, gave me a different outlook on life, which initially might have been quite restricted [pause]. And I suppose really it gave me a wider outlook on life [emphasis], not just do one thing and that’s it, but try other things as well, you know.
SB: And you say you’ve just had your annual reunion?
LP: Yes, yes.
SB: Where was that one held?
LP: That was at the Bentley [emphasis] Hotel. Wonderful story there, we stayed at the Grand Hotel in Lincoln for many, many [emphasis] years, quick guess, fifty years, round figures. And we got to know the staff and the owners there, it, they became part of the personal family because it was Lincoln [emphasis] and they were used to aircrew, and eventually the Grand Hotel as such got involved with health and safety because they were two, originally two hotels side by side, adjoining, and they became one, but they were on slightly different levels, and, well it got involved and they decided that they, it couldn’t run as a hotel anymore and it would have cost too much to bring it up to the necessary standard. So they moved out to the Bentley, they moved out to, they had a place built at the Bentley just outside Lincoln, and we stayed with them. Because mainly the family connections, they’d known us for many years, it was our second home [emphasis] you know almost, to go back there every year, so. Yeah, we recently, couple of weeks ago we had a reunion where we went to the Bentley Hotel, we were due to go to RAF Conningsby on the Saturday morning but the Lancaster had a problem and she caught fire on the starboard outer, not it was port outer, but got home safely, but covered in foam, so it’s, so she’s not flying at the moment. So we had to quickly reassemble [?] what we were going to do, had a chat with the bus driver, who the coaches have always done us proud for many years, and we went to RAF Scampton [emphasis], to the museum where they welcomed us and people came in on days off because it was a Saturday [emphasis] and these places only run five day week now. And from there we went to Scampton Church and met up with the vicar, she was more than pleased to see us I think. We had an organ recital there by one of our members, because by this time we acquired, I think that’s the best way of putting it, lots of honorary members who were part of the family in other words, fathers and sons and daughters, as Valerie is to me, a member of the family. We got something like thirty odd people at the Scampton Church. We’d already been to RAF Scampton, to the museum as I said, yeah we had a dinner there at the pub in Scampton village and then our bus driver took us for a tour round Lincoln, showed us the site of the new Bomber Command Memorial, where it was to be built and all the rest of it, and also the Cathedral to see the grounds, which the people from Holland [emphasis] had set up to commemorate, commemorate Operation Manna, where there, all the flowers were there, that was very nice. Incidentally, that one, the Operation Manna, that was one of those trips that you did that you felt you’d achieved something [emphasis], when instead of dropping bombs and killing people, you dropped food and fed [emphasis] people. That felt good, that was an achievement definitely. Not a lot more I can say really, you need time to rehearse these things and look them all out.
SB: I think you’ve done fairly well so far.
O2: The Bentley Hotel still has the photos of the original 153 Squadron on display in one of their meeting rooms don’t they?
LP: Oh yeah, several bits and pieces, yeah.
SB: Well thank you very much, I’ll stop it at this point.
LP: Mhm.


Sheila Bibb, “Interview with Leslie Robert Pearson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 20, 2024,

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