Interview with Jack Smith


Interview with Jack Smith


Jack volunteered for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in September 1940. He went to Padgate and then on to Blackpool where he trained as a wireless operator. Jack proceeded to a radio school at RAF Compton Bassett and then RAF Bramcote. He was posted to Iraq, doing ground operating rather than flying. He eventually returned to the UK for aircrew training. Jack was posted to radio school at RAF Manley and qualified in December 1943. He went to the advanced flying unit in North Wales and then the Operational Training Unit at RAF Silverstone where he met his crew. This was followed by the heavy conversion unit at RAF Winthorpe on Stirling aircraft. Jack went to RAF Scampton to convert onto Lancasters and a Lancaster Finishing School near Newark.
In October 1944 Jack was posted to 189 Squadron at RAF Fulbeck. His first three trips were aborted. He carried out 24 operations and two semi-operational trips (leaflets dropping and a diversion to confuse German radar). Several operations were to railway marshalling yards in Germany. He also describes an operation to Gdynia in Poland and the Dresden operation and its rationale.
Jack discusses the main duties of the wireless operator, his experience of ‘scarecrows’ and the difficulty of flying at night in close proximity to other aircraft.
When the war ended, Jack became warrant officer and was stationed at RAF Woodbridge, working on flying control tower signals. He left the RAF in April 1946 and returned to his job as trainee chartered accountant.




Temporal Coverage




00:29:00 audio recording


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ASmithJG160408, PSmithJG1601, PSmithJG1602


DK: Right. So it’s David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Jack — would you mind if I call you Jack?
JS: Yes.
DK: Jack, Jack Smith, um, on the 8th of April 2016. [slight cough] OK, I’ll just put that there.
JS: Right.
DK: If I keep looking down at it, don’t worry. I’m just checking that it’s still working.
JS. Yes, alright. OK.
DK: OK. So if, if I could just take you back a little bit before, before you actually joined the Air Force —
JS: Before, yes.
DK: What were you actually doing then before you joined up?
JS: I was a trainee chartered accountant.
DK: Right.
JS: And of course I was only — I was eighteen the year the war started. So, er, knowing when the war started they were calling up men at twenty I didn’t want to join the Army, I wanted to be in the RAF. So when — as soon as I was nineteen I, along with one of my colleagues, we volunteered for the RAF and we went to Padgate in September 1940 and in fact we were sort of sworn in at the Battle of Britain weekend on the 14th of September 1940.
DK: Oh right.
JS: And then after six weeks we were sent home and, and called for, for active service on the 4th of November 1940.
DK: Was there anything in particular that made you choose the RAF? Was it simply because you didn’t want the Army? [slight laugh]
JS: Well, why I wanted is rather interesting. When I was still at school I considered joining the RAF and I went for a medical and, er, I had quite a lot of bad teeth. My father was kept out of the First World War because he had bad teeth. Anyway, I said, ‘That’s not a problem. I’ll have them out.’ And they said, ‘Well no. If you’ve had more than twelve out you don’t pass the medical.’ I said, ‘Well OK.’ So, I couldn’t get any further at that stage so, to cut a long story short there, I had twenty-two teeth out when I was seventeen and I’ve had dentures ever since, you see? Well, of course, when the war came, 1940, and then I wanted to join the RAF, I went in and of course passed medical A1, no problem at all really, with me dentures. So, er, that’s how I came to be in the RAF. I wanted to be in the RAF anyway.
DK: Right.
JS: And I thoroughly enjoyed it, you know, thoroughly enjoyed it. And so, of course, when we joined the — we went to — as I say, we were sworn in at Padgate and then started service on the 4th of November by going to Blackpool to commence training as a wireless operator and, of course, there we did all our drill on the promenade and marching and all that sort of thing. Then you did your Morse, one word a — increase one word a minute per week and then, when you got up to twelve words a minute, you were posted to a radio school. So then I left Blackpool and then I went down to, er, Compton Bassett, which was strictly speaking the, er, wireless operators for ground [emphasis] staff, which several of us couldn’t understand we were sent there ‘cause air crew used to go to Yatesbury —
DK: Right.
JS: For the training, you see. And then, of course, qualified as operators and I was posted, er, to a unit, RAF Bramcote, and I was only there a month as a wireless operator when I was posted abroad and, er, of course, found that there were fifty of us, wireless operators, had all been treated the same and we were not very happy about it.
DK: And this is when you went to Iraq, was it?
JS: That’s right. We went to Iraq, you see, and then when we got to Iraq the officer there didn’t know what to do with us but eventually we all settled down on different units and, er, got on to the ground operating, which was OK, and then, of course, we kept on moaning about the fact we wanted to fly and then, after much moaning and groaning and, sort of confined to quarters and everything, er, February 1943 I’d been on night duty on wireless operating duties and, er, the officer from the orderly room was there reading out names, including mine, of wireless operators to be returned to United Kingdom for air [emphasis] crew training.
DK: Ah, so were you pleased about this when you heard this?
JS: We were quite happy about it, see? So, of course, we all belted down to the air officer in charge of signals and, ‘Oh hold on a minute. Hold on a minute. There’s fifty of you.’ He said, ‘You’re all experienced ground operators. I want replacements.’ So, of course, we had to wait for replacements and they didn’t arrived ‘till July 1943. So eventually we travelled overland, through Iraq, and through to Gaza, and then by train into Egypt, and then we waited for a couple of weeks, and then we were put on board a troop ship to return to the UK. And we were the first convoy to return through the Mediterranean after it had been reopened. This was August 1943. This time Italy were packing up and so we eventually came through the Med and we stopped at Algiers and two days after we left Algiers the Germans bombed it. And then we pulled into, um, Gibraltar and, er, whilst we were there every night they let off depth charges in the docks to prevent submarines from entering and, anyway, we eventually got home. We arrived at Greenock in end of August 1943 and, of course, we were given disembarkation leave for three weeks and then I was then posted to the radio school at RAF Manley to resume my air crew training. And, of course, then I went through the course there and qualified at the end of December ‘43 and then I was kept on as sort of help the trainers with the, with the new intakes and eventually started then going to advanced flying unit in North Wales, and then on to Operational Training Unit at Silverstone, and then on to, er, on to heavy aircraft at RAF Winthorpe, on to Stirling aircraft, and then we went to Scampton then for a couple of weeks to convert to Lancasters.
DK: What did you think of the — flying on the Stirlings?
JS: Well, we, we enjoyed it in a way but our skipper, he was an Australian skipper, he said it was like driving a double-decker bus. And I mean he didn’t like it an awful lot, you know.
DK: So at what point did you meet your crew then? [unclear]
JS: Oh, when you were at Silverstone, at the Operational Training Unit. You’re all sort of assembled in one big hall and the pilots there are left then to, more or less, go round discussing the various members of the crew, you know, and sort of saying — you’re in different groups, you know, wireless operators and whatever, you see, and you, you just wait for a pilot to sort of come and say, ‘Well, would you like to join my crew?’
DK: Did you think that worked? Because it’s a bit of unusual for the Forces ‘cause normally you’re usually told where to go. This was all a bit hit and miss.
JS: Yes. It worked. In, in my case it worked fairly well really, er, but I suppose if you wanted to be sort of really hundred per cent sure about it then no because, I mean, you didn’t — the pilot didn’t get an awful lot of chance to ask questions of you, you know.
DK: No, no.
JS: You qualified as whatever and because you qualified as a wireless op, ‘OK, well you can come in my crew.’ You see, I mean we were fortunate, we got a pretty very good skipper. But our crew worked out very well except for our tail gunner, who was an Irishman, and we had to ditch him after the third trip because twice he went to sleep on the way back from Germany, you know. I had the job to go down to see what had happened to him and there he was with the turret doors open, fast asleep.
DK: Oh dear.
JS: So we had to ditch him. So apart from that —
DK: So from the, er, Operational Training Unit then did you then go to —
JS: Operational Training Unit. Let’s see, we went straight from Silverstone, then to Winthorpe on to Stirlings.
DK: Yeah.
JS: And then —
DK: This is the Heavy Conversion Unit?
JS: That was the Heavy Conversion Unit at Winthorpe and then, having done that, you then went to Scampton just to get on to Lancasters.
DK: Right.
JS: Oh, and then we went — let’s see, we went to one more station, just near Newark, the Lancaster Finishing School near Newark, yeah.
DK: Right, and what did you think of the Lancasters after the Stirlings?
JS: Well, we liked it and some of us liked better, much more comfortable in many ways, you know. Certainly, I mean, it didn’t affect me too much but it was a bit more of a, a barn of an aircraft. The, the Lancaster was also nice and cosy and compact, as cosy as it could be, you know. We were all pretty well close together but you didn’t feel quite the same in a Stirling.
DK: No.
JS: But, er —
DK: So from the Lancaster Finishing School then was that on to your operational squadron?
JS: Operational squadron then.
DK: Yeah, and which squadron was —
JS: I went to 189 Squadron.
DK: 189, yeah.
JS: And they were based at Fulbeck, which is no longer operating, because it was near Cranwell, very near to Cranwell. And so we got there, I think it was in October ’40, ’44, October ’44, and then I actually started my first operation. We were b—, we were briefed, I think for three trips, which were aborted before — so we had all that operation for your first trip, you know, getting geared up for it, and then at the last minute it was cancelled, you see.
DK: How did that make you feel then? Was it very frustrating?
JS: Well not very happy about that, you know. You’re all geared up for your first trip, you know, and you think, ‘Oh well this is it. Tonight we’re — OK, fine.’ Then sort of five minutes before you’re going it’s cancelled.
DK: And that happened three times.
JS: It happened three times, yeah, it did.
DK: So, can you remember where your first operation was to then?
JS: Yeah I can. Er, without looking in me book, er, it was a mar—, a marshalling yard, um, railway marshalling yard.
DK: In France?
JS: In Germany.
DK: In Germany.
JS: Yeah.
JS: But, um, we did quite a lot of marshalling yards and oil targets obviously. One of my raids — I did the Dresden raid.
DK: Right.
JS: And we did two targets on —
DK: So how, how many operations did you do altogether?
JS: I did twenty-four and two semi-operational trips because before you go on to a squadron, when you’re still on OTU, we did a leaflet raid in, in Wellington bombers.
DK: Right.
JS: A, a leaflet raid over France and then we did — what they called the Bullseye — a diversion off the Dutch coast to try and put the German radar off, thinking it was the main force were going there, you see. So you did two semi-, semi-operational raids and then, of course, by the time I did my twenty-four VE Day arrived and that was it and, of course, even then there were crews then waiting then obviously to go out to the Far East but, of course, I was considered tour-expired anyway then. That was alright, you see.
DK: So as, as a wireless operator then what were your main duties once you were on board the aircraft and you —
JS: Well your main duties really were to keep a listening watch all the time as to whether you got anything coming through from your base, and weather reports and things like that, anything of importance like that, and then, of course, it was also you were needed in case, as it happened, we had to sort of, er, get diverted because, er, we were running short of fuel on a couple of times and then, on one occasion, Lincolnshire was fog-bound for the whole of December 1944 and we were diverted to the north of Scotland and we had to spend a whole week in the north of Scotland before we could get back down to Lincolnshire because of the fog. So, then my other duty then would have been if we had to ditch. I had the job in the dinghy, if you got the dinghy, I had the emergency radio and I got to operate that.
DK: Right.
JS: And that was the worst thing I’d have to do really.
DK: But that never happened then?
JS: That never happened, thank God, no. But listening out and of course — well, I had to call up to request where we could be diverted to because we were short of fuel and we wanted to know the best place we could put down so it was Carnaby in, in Yorkshire or Manston in Kent.
DK: Because they had the wider runways there?
JS: Yes and they had what they called FIDO.
JS: The fog dispersal unit, yeah. So I did two or three, probably three, diversions I think, yeah.
DK: And was, was your aircraft ever attacked at all? Or —
JS: Well, we were attacked but we was — we never had more than glancing blows, should I say. The worst we had, we did the — one raid to Gdynia in Poland. The German Navy were there and to, er, to get on the correct heading for the bombing run, we had to sort of go south of the target to come out over the port so that when we released the bombs we were over the Baltic. And somehow or other the navigator miscalculated and we got to the target five minutes early and then we got coned with searchlights. So we had a, a few hectic minutes with the searchlights on us so — but even that wasn’t too bad because they didn’t hit us anyway but it was a bit of a hair raising moment shall we say, you know. You’re sort of pretty vulnerable when you’re sort of coned.
DK: Yeah. So were, were all your operations at night?
JS: Not all of them, no.
DK: Some were in daylight?
JS: I did a thousand bomber raid on Dortmund and this — you’ll see in my log book they’re in green and all the night time ones are all in red.
DK: Right. OK.
JS: So I think we did three daylight raids, probably. Yeah.
DK: But what was it like at night though? Was it — is it something you got used to? Because its —
JS: Well you did. It sounds, now you think — you wonder how you did it, ‘cause there were no lights on anywhere, you see. I mean, your aircraft, you had no lights on, and most of our bomber strength, it was usually two hundred, that was the average strength of a bomber force, and sometimes more than that, but the average, average two hundred. Well, when you consider that you had a rendezvous point, quite often in our case it would be over Northampton or Beachy Head. Well, you consider you come in from different squadrons to the rendezvous point and there’s two hundred of you getting together to go to the same place and you’ve got no lights on. When you think about it that’s a bit hairy.
DK: Yeah.
JS: And of course, obviously, there’s no, no lights below you at all. The only time we got lights when we were sort of coming back, like, when we’d been to Gdynia and we came back over the Baltic. We then followed the Swedish coast and the Swedes were very kind. They put sort of small lights up along their coast so they were quite decent about it. But those were the only lights we ever saw, you know.
DK: So when — what was it like when it got back then as you saw the airfield and you came into land?
JS: Well, a mighty relief, obviously, that was and, of course, it was a relief and it sounds silly in a way but with so many aerodromes, particularly in Lincolnshire, as you know, it was a bit hairy coming in over your own circuit because a lot of circuits nearly overlapped.
DK: Yeah.
JS: And, of course, towards the end the Germans were getting so desperate that, er, they were sending their, some of their fighters back amongst the bomber force, and two or three of our planes got shot down over Norfolk because they’d been followed all the way back, you know. So there were those situations arising.
DK: So you never got attacked by another aircraft then?
JS: No, no, we didn’t. We sort of — obviously, when you’re in the target area you feel, obviously, all the explosions coming underneath, all the bumps and everything like that and then, of course, on one or two raids the Germans put up — what they called Scarecrows — that was sort of the imitation of an aircraft crashing, which can be a bit unnerving, you know, because you’re not too sure whether it is a Scarecrow or not and it gives all the appearance of being an aircraft going down in flames so it doesn’t do your morale any good, you know.
DK: Did you see many of those then?
JS: Oh we saw, I think over the years, over the operations, I probably saw half a dozen of those, I suppose, you know.
DK: So when, when you weren’t flying and you were off duty did — what did you do then? Did you and your crew socialise together? Or —
JS: Well, yes, yes. I mean, we often socialised, probably not all of you together. I mean, er, you bond in different ways really. I mean there’s seven of you. Well, er, in our crew our navigator was a bit of a quiet type and he, he never or hardly ever came out with us. I mean the rest of us were going down into Newark or the towns and having a night out but the navigator, he was an architect by profession, and he was a bit more quiet and he didn’t join us. But the skipper was a good, good Aussie, and he was the oldest member of the crew. He was early thirties. Well, I mean, we called him ‘dad’ because I was the second oldest member. I was twenty-three.
DK: Right.
JS: And — but he was a real Aussie and when you were out with him you had a good time, you know. We —
DK: Can you remember the pilot’s name?
JS: Yeah, Richter. Rod Richter, yeah.
DK: And how did you feel, feel about, um, those from the Commonwealth, Australia and wherever?
JS: Well, they were a terrific asset. I mean, we had a lot of Aussies, a lot New Zealanders as well, and Canadians, and they all mixed in with the rest of us very well, you know.
DK: And did you, did you stay in touch with your crew after the war?
JS: No and that was the big, big mistake I think perhaps a lot of us made. It was awfully sad. You say ‘Why didn’t you?’ Well, it didn’t happen. I don’t know why.
DK: Because presumably he went back to Australia?
JS: He went back to Australia, yeah, but I mean we were all good friends and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have done but, for whatever reason, we didn’t, you know.
DK: And the rest of your crew were they all — well the Irish gunner — but were the rest of them all English then?
JS: Yeah. The navigator was from Stoke on Trent, the bomb aimer was from Llanelli in South Wales, the flight engineer was from New Malden in Surrey, the mid-upper gunner was from Hartlepool and the tail gunner was the Irishman from Belfast. So we were all around the British Isle.
DK: And, and some of the major raids then. You mention you few to Dresden?
JS: Dresden.
DK: And what, what was that like?
JS: Well, that was, of course — it was just one hell of a raid. I mean, we were bombing at midnight. We’d sort of — the Americans had been during the day and then the British were going at night. And I remember we were flying and we were flying over the Alps and we were getting iced up and we were getting a bit bothered, the skipper was a bit bothered, because we had to sort of reduce our height a bit from what the flight plan said but we were getting iced up rather badly. And then, of course, you could see the target miles away before you got there because, I mean, it was as you know, it was just one big blaze. And, er, actually over the target, I mean, there was a terrific amount of anti-aircraft fire and a lot of activity from night bomb— night fighters, you know, so you were getting quite a bit of hassle from one way or another but it was such a big raid that — but, there again, we were pretty fortunate. We missed anything of any serious consequence, you know.
DK: Did Dresden at the time stand out as anything? Or was it just another raid?
JS: Well, the reason we did the raid and I noted it in my log book. The reason — when we were being briefed we said the reason we were going, the Russians had pushed the German Army back and Dresden was absolutely full of the German Army, and that’s why we went to Dresden, as simple as that. And so you were sort of quite encouraged to think that there you were doing a target which you got the Germany Army there and wonderful, you know, just the job. You couldn’t have a better target with that sort of description, you know, but it was — it covered, it seemed to cover one hell of a big area, you know, because you’d see it, I don’t know, must have been at least a hundred miles away, must have been.
DK: Yeah.
JS: Because we were one hell of a height up, as you know. We were given the height we had to fly and all that sort of thing and we were sort of — well we were usually about anything between fourteen and sixteen thousand feet, I suppose, on average, and sometimes we’d been down as low as ten, you know.
DK: Yeah.
JS: And, er, but — I mean, all the raids you have you got sort of, obviously, a lot of apprehension because whilst you’re in the target area — when you consider that there’s two hundred of you going over one place in about twelve min— twelve, twenty minutes I should say, you’ve all got your bombing times, you know, H plus whatever, and when you think you’ve got — there’s two hundred of you going over that small area all in the same time and you’re stacked. And of course that was another job the wireless operator’d do. I had to stand, if the radio was OK, I had to stand on it and look through the astrodome and if we got our own aircraft with bomb doors open above us I gotta tell the skipper to dive port or starboard, you know.
DK: Did that ever happen at all? Did you actually see aircraft blown up?
JS: Yes. Well, I mean, we did that three or four times. Well, it happened quite often because, as you know, when you’ve got so many up more or less together, I mean, in fairly good layers, you know. And, particularly, it seemed to be the more trips you did the further down the stack you came, you see.
DK: Yeah.
JS: And so there was a big risk. I mean, we did lose — not our squadron but there were quite a lot of our aircraft lost through bombs from the ones above, you know. Because there isn’t much room. If you’ve got a bomber upstairs there and he’s getting set to load and let his load go, you know, and you’re just beneath, you’ve got to get out, you know, because otherwise you’ll soon get involved in it.
DK: Yeah, yeah. So the war’s come to an end then. What, what happened to you in the RAF then? Did you leave soon after?
JS: Well, I had a bit of a relaxing time because I was a flight sergeant and then I became a warrant officer because of the time and so I was on good money and very little to do. And the station near Ipswich and that’s where I met my wife.
DK: Ah.
JS: I met my wife in November 1945.
DK: Right.
JS: And so Ipswich was the nearest town. I was stationed at Woodbridge and Woodbridge actually was one of the stations with an emergency landing strip.
DK: Yeah, yeah.
JS: So I spent the rest of my time — I was actually working on the flying control tower signals, you know, and I didn’t have a lot to do really. I mean, as I say, it was — the end of the war, you see, fortunately VE Day came just as I’d done my 24th trip and that was the end of the war, you see, and there was nothing much for us to do except we’d obviously have a rest period anyway.
DK: When did you leave the RAF then?
JS: Oh, April 1946, yes.
DK: And did you go back to your previous career? Or —
JS: Yes, yes. I had my job kept open for me, you see.
DK: Oh, right. OK.
JS: In fact, I was released on the 3rd of April 1946 and on the 4th May I got married and so the next 4th of May it’s seventy years since we got married.
DK: Oh, congratulations. [slight laugh]
JS: So, our seventy years dear, isn’t it? [slight laugh] Unfortunately, my wife had a stroke four years ago and it affected her speech and so we, we haven’t been able to socialise these last four years like we usually do. It’s awful difficult. We have carers come in four times a day so — we’re social people and we miss that so much, you know. We haven’t had a holiday for six years. We sort of — it’s not as easy as it sounds, you know.
DK: How do you look back on that period of your life in the RAF then? Do you, do you think about it still? [unclear]
JS: I — it sounds silly in a way but I enjoyed it, er, not because it was a war but the spirit of the RAF. I enjoyed being in the RAF. And, er, no I thoroughly enjoyed it from that point of view, yeah. I mean, I did consider whether I should stay in but, of course, if you wanted to stay in you had to reduce two ranks and I was a warrant officer I didn’t want to go back down to being a sergeant. So anyway, as it happens, I’m still working as an account. I’m ninety-five in August.
DK: And you’re still working?
JS: I’m still working.
DK: Oh excellent. [slight laugh]
JS: So, you know —
DK: [laugh] That’s good.
JS: Oh no. The brain keeps ticking over.
DK: That’s amazing.
JS: And people still pay me so —
DK: Well, we’ll stop there.
JS: Yeah.
DK: I think that’s probably enough.



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Jack Smith,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2024,

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