Interview with Iain Urquhart Robertson


Interview with Iain Urquhart Robertson


Iain was a National Service air gunner in the 1950s and served with 214 Squadron at RAF Upwood in Huntingdonshire after being called up at the age of 18. Upon completion of training, he flew on Wellingtons and fighter affiliation with Spitfires. He was then posted to RAF Scampton for conversation onto Lincolns. After completing about 40 hours, he was posted to 214 Squadron.
He tells of his time doing NATO exercises, including laying mines in the Firth of Forth. Iain also talks about how his crew was all non commissioned officers, one of only two on the base; and of playing for the Squadron football team. He also talks about his escape and evasion exercises during the Cold War, and how he had to get back to base in three or four days. Iain speaks of his pride in serving in the Royal Air Force, and the time he ended his National Service in 1953.




Temporal Coverage




00:18:52 audio recording


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ARobertsonIU150824, PRobertsonIUA1501


IR: My name is Iain Robertson. I’m doing this interview for Bomber Command. I was an air gunner. National Service air gunner in the early 1950s and I was fortunate enough to be selected for aircrew and became an air gunner with 214 Squadron at Upwood in Huntingdonshire. It all started really — I was working in Tunbridge wells in Kent and after my 18th birthday I was called up to Chatham to be interviewed to go and, to do my National Service. At the recruitment office — Chatham being a naval place it was sort of orientated towards the navy but after chatting to the interviewer there I was asked whether I would like to go into the army or the RAF and I said, ‘If possible I would like to be an RAF.’ So, we had a medical. Then we had a test which I guess was mainly an IQ test and then we were interviewed afterwards. I was interviewed by a flight sergeant in the RAF who said, ‘I’m not supposed to tell anyone but you got a hundred percent in the written test that you have just done and there is a limited requirement for aircrew and I would suggest that you ask to be an aircrew of some sort.’ So later, after Christmas, in January when I was called forward I went to the RAF Centre at Padgate in Lancashire which I realised subsequently was where everyone went but during the period that we were there some of us were taken down to Hornchurch in Essex and we spent a week there doing various things to be selected for aircrew. At the end of which I guess some people were not suitable and the majority of us appeared to be suitable and I was offered, if I was prepared to sign on for eight years they said I could go on to be a pilot or a navigator but as I had a good career in the Civil Service I decided that I would be an air gunner. And subsequently I was very pleased because I really enjoyed my two years training to be an air gunner and being an air gunner on 214 Squadron. After the aircrew selection there was an obligatory six weeks which they called square bashing but fortunately for me and a couple of the other people who were on the selection at Hornchurch there was a gunnery course starting at Leconfield several days after we returned from aircrew selection and we were put straight on to that so we missed the six weeks square bashing. Looking back, it was probably a good thing to miss. So, we got straight into the school. The gunnery school at Leconfield and we flew under instruction as air gunners with Wellingtons and we did fighter affiliation with Spitfires and occasionally a jet which was probably a Meteor or a Vampire. And after a three months course at Leconfield I passed out as a qualified air gunner and the squadron leader there signed a little certificate saying that I was a good average air gunner but I was very pleased to be given a medal as the best all around cadet of Number 13 Course. Which didn’t serve me in good stead, didn’t make me superior but it made me feel good. From there we went to Scampton in Lincolnshire for conversion on to the aircraft that we were going to be allocated and this, these were Lincoln bombers. And again, it was a three, a three month course after which we were allocated a squadron. During the course at Lincoln we put in probably about forty hours flying doing various exercises with pilots, navigators, bombs and gunnery. And we were crewed up and we went to 214 Squadron in Upwood at the end of that as a crew. And, you know, for the rest of my National Service which ended in 1953 I was with the same crew. Flying in Lincoln bombers. Doing various things in peacetime. Mostly pretty routine stuff but keeping our hands in as gunners, navigators, pilots, W/Ops, bomb aimers. All the exercises and during that time there were a lot of NATO exercises which were mostly night exercises. One of the NATO exercises I think which stands out in my memory was when we were the enemy force and we were laying mines and we laid mines in the Firth of Forth. And at the briefing we were told that we would be flying in very low but that we could not follow in line because when we dropped the mines the splash from the mine could actually interfere with the aircraft. So, we had to fly in like a gaggle of geese and drop these mines in the Firth of Forth. I think another one which stands out in my memory was the ditching of a Canadian Sabre pilot in the North Sea, just off The Wash, when we were flying on a cross country at that time and we got a fix to go and be part of the air sea search for this pilot. And we were fortunate to spot this pilot in his little dinghy floating around in The Wash and we dropped two smoke markers to identify his position and he was picked up by a Grumman Flying Boat which was, I think, an American from one of the American bases. Life on the squadron I guess was pretty routine but we were a good team. I think the beauty of the RAF was that when you were in the crew room the officers, NCOs were just crews and we got on very very well. I had a good rapport with the flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Burden, mainly because both he and I played football for the squadron football team and I was fortunate enough actually to play football with the squadron. We got to the finals of a squadron, inter-squadron command. Let me think. 3 Group Bomber Command finals and I was selected to play for Bomber Command in a representative game against a naval command. I think it was Portsmouth Command. Just as a representative of the RAF. And I think, I think the score was 3-2 for them so I’m not really too proud of that [laughs] but there you are. Our crew was one of the, of two crews which were all NCO crews. All the rest of the crews in the squadron had officers as pilots and navigators but our crews were all, we were all NCOs. Our skipper, Flight Sergeant Flight would you believe had flown Wellingtons during the Italian campaign and had been actually shot down and captured and he was the daddy. Actually, he looked after us well. Norman Flight was a Brummy but when he got airborne he was PO Prune because he had an RAF voice. The bomb aimer was Alan Cartwright, Sergeant Cartwright who was a Londoner. The navigator was Trevor Campbell who came from somewhere in Home Counties. Wireless operator was Bill Cartwright sorry – Bill Rycroft who was a Yorkie. A Yorkshire man. The flight engineer came from Norfolk. From Swaffham. And was what we used to call him Mangel Worzel because he had a, he was a farmer’s son. Mid-upper gunner Buster Unstead came from Brighton. And as you may have guessed I, as a rear gunner, came from Scotland. From Glasgow. So, we were a pretty mixed bag but being a crew, flying together, we were one unit. It was great. The crew room — officers and NCOs were mixed. We were all part of the squadron and that also was pretty good. When we got free at the weekends we used to go down to Cambridge. Once or twice we took a punt out on the river and we punted along with the skipper sitting back at the stern telling us what to do and as always telling us where we’d gone wrong. But it was all good fun. And the dances in Cambridge were pretty good as well because the nurses from Addenbrookes Hospital always put on a good show for us and if we were lucky we might get to see one of them home. I sort of got a friend who was the daughter of a farmer and had a car and she used to pick me up at the sergeant’s mess and we’d to go out for a drink and that was it. Actually, lost touch with her when we, when my National Service finished but there you are. It was just one of those things. Having described the crew actually all but the gunners were regulars. And the two gunners, Buster and myself were just National Service. But, you know, there was no distinction, except perhaps now and again in the mess when they referred to us as the Coca Cola kids. But, you know, on a squadron do we were prepared to drink our share of what was going so we, we all mixed in and it was great. It was like being part of one great family. Now and again things came along which broke up the monotony. I mean, clearly doing National Service in a period where the Cold War was the main part of our situation and because of that we actually did what they called escape and evasion exercises. We were taken in a sealed vehicle. Probably dropped off about forty to sixty miles away from the base and given sixpence for a telephone if we got into real trouble and were told to make our way back to the base over three or four days. Just living off the country and not getting caught. And to my credit, I think, although we were not necessarily the first to get back to base whoever I was with and I managed to evade all capture and eventually get ourselves back to the base by hook or by crook really. The fens were a big obstacle because clearly the best way back to base was a straight line but it wasn’t always very practical because these ditches were in the way. And now and again we had an incident with a local farmer where we had borrowed his boat or punt or whatever it was, necessary to cross over. And we took it and of course left it on the side that we were leaving and the farmer wanted it back on the other side. But we managed by travelling at night, diving into ditches and hiding out in woods during the day to get back to the base during these escape and evasion exercises. There was also one, one event actually which they called, I think, passive defence where we had to defend the airfield against a marauding army. And in our case, on this occasion the marauding army were the glorious Glosters who had been covered, covering themselves with glory in the Korean war and they took prisoners but they didn’t take kindly to being told that we had shot them. On one occasion, being a gunner, I was part of a machine gun post at the edge of the airfield and we saw this, these army blokes hiding down at the foot of a field and coming up behind a hedge for cover towards the edge of the airfield. As they came out they had to come across a field and we, with our range of fire, I think were able to shoot them all but of course there was inevitably a dispute and the umpires had to come and agree that we had actually disposed of that little group of soldiers. I think we took quite a few prisoners. Put them in the station tennis courts as a temporary measure but found that they had wire cutters and were actually cutting themselves out and escaping again. I don’t know what the real thing would have been like but this was probably as near the real thing as we could handle. Clearly, during that period as one of the, a Lincoln from another squadron had been shot down in the corridor during the Berlin Airlift. We felt that we as were near the front line as we could possibly be. But obviously as a member of 214 Squadron we had to do what we had to do and it was mostly exercises with NATO from time to time that created excitement and competition for us. As an air gunner and hearing that the squadron had latterly converted on to the V bombers and were flying Victors I realised that that was the end of gunners and that, you know, looking back at it, you know, it was a good time perhaps for us to be in with the last of the aircraft which flew needing gunners. Some of the other ones who had been selected for aircrew at the same time as me went on to B29s, Washingtons, and others went to Coastal Command and were flying Shackletons. I think these were the three operational aircraft in Bomber Command and Coastal Command at that time. Looking back, I guess I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It was great to be part of an outfit serving our country.
MJ: Right. On behalf of the International Bomber Command I’d like to thank Iain Robertson at his home in East Sussex for his recording on the date of the 24th of August 2015. I thank you.


Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Iain Urquhart Robertson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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