Interview with James Wright


Interview with James Wright


James Wright was born in Nottinghamshire and worked as a civil servant before he joined the Air Force. After training in Canada he flew on operations as a navigator with 61, 97 and 630 Squadrons. He recalls the occasion when Eastbourne Railway Station was attacked by Me 109s. He discusses the difficulties and importance of navigation by describing events at Nuremberg. After the war he became a flight operations manager at Heathrow and in Gambia an air traffic controller.




Temporal Coverage




02:15:12 audio recording


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SB: This is Sheila Bibb interviewing Jim Wright at his home in Abingdon on the 8th of June 2015. Jim, you say you were born in Creswell in Nottinghamshire. Could you tell me a little about your childhood? Your family.
JW: Yes. I can. I was born in Creswell Model Village which is a mining village in Nottinghamshire quite close to Worksop. My father had been a miner before the war. He and my mother were born in the Victorian age. My father was born in 1894. My mother 1896. They met whilst my father was a private soldier having volunteered like Kitchener in the First World War. And in the process of that with all his mates, mostly miners, in the Sherwood Foresters and the battalion known as the Notts and Derby’s and they went for training in Northumberland to Tynemouth, just north of the River Tyne. I remember my, my father’s headquarters was based in the Grand Hotel, a rather nice hotel in Tynemouth beach and here his mates would do their training along the beaches of Tynemouth and Whitley Bay and they would use the firing ranges alongside St Marys Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. A very prominent feature all together. During that training he met, as was quite normal in war with a young man aged twenty one, twenty two, a couple of Tyneside lasses down for the weekend or something like that. And my mother came from a little village on the River Tyne called Point Pleasant. Her father was an engine man at a port. I think he handled trains and fork lift trucks and things like that on the quayside in a shipbuilding area. But it was no trouble for young ladies in those days to travel to the seafront at Tynemouth or Whitley Bay. It was a day out, I suppose. It weren’t very far away, a few miles, and there she met my father. This would be about 1915 I think just before they went to the trenches for the first time. In 1916 my father had already had several Blighty wounds as they called it. Had been brought back to the UK, patched up and sent back again but in 1916 and I think it was on Boxing Day 1916 he and his, my mother decided to get married by special licence and they did this on the coast. Somewhere near Redcar I think. In Yorkshire is it? Or Durham? I’m not sure. They got married and off he went to the trenches without any honeymoon or anything. That was the way in those days. The next time she saw him he was only a year older but he had a military medal for gallantry and he had no left arm. What a difference that left arm made. Anyway, they eventually finished the war and they had five children. A boy, my eldest brother. A girl, my eldest sister. I was the third member and then two younger sisters. The boy and the eldest girl have passed away now. I’m still alive and so are my two younger sisters but they’re getting on. I think they’re eighty eight, eighty nine. In fact I’m not sure. And one of them is ninety now and another close by eighty seven, eighty eight. We lived initially in Creswell Model Village in Nottinghamshire but my mother never ever got used to being a miners wife and of course when my father came back to live in Creswell Model Village where I was born [pause] he could not because he had no left arm. He couldn’t work at the coal face as they used to call it and he had disappointing jobs to start with in the Creswell Colliery which was very close by the model village. And then of course they had the Great Strike didn’t they in 1926 and I can remember vividly my father with his one arm tucking me up on a cushion on the [Boss farthing bicycle?] and going out in to the woods and so forth to find branches of wood that he could carry back on a bicycle because in those days the miners stopped delivering their free coal and they were unemployed and they were out for many months. I’ve never forgotten the sight of my father when I was about three years old I suppose going out to get fuel because we had no coal. I’ve never forgotten that. My mother was a Tynesider. She came from Scottish parents up in Aberdeen somewhere but she had married in to this Tyneside family and she said, ‘I will never accept that my sons will become miners or that my daughters will become perhaps married to miners.’ There were too many accidents in the coalmining business. It was a very hazardous occupation. And sure enough she took the smaller children with her for a holiday to Whitley Bay, Tynemouth area about 1928/29 and she came back and she persuaded her husband, who was unemployed, ‘Why don’t we move to the north? We can always make a living doing bed and breakfast at the seaside.’ ‘Ok,’ says dad. My mother was the brains behind the family. Anyway, when I was about eight years old, seven maybe, we moved first of all to Cullercoats. A lovely little fishing village, a marvellous little holiday place just temporarily while they looked for somewhere better and then they ended up renting a house in Whitley Bay and then eventually they, with great courage in those days I think since they were literally destitute people they managed to buy a house in what we call North Parade very close to the seafront in Whitley Bay and my mother started with her dream of making a home for her family using bed and breakfast for holidaymakers mostly from the Glasgow area, in Whitley bay. The five children developed there. They were educated. At that time of course I was the only one, in the middle of the family, to gain entrance to the high school. A grammar school type in Whitley. Monkseaton High School. It had been built in ’14, 1914 as a grammar school and they were very proud of it in Whitley Bay but my brother and my sisters all ended up leaving school at fourteen and their main object was to get a living anywhere, butcher’s boys, dress shops, whatever. I was lucky. I managed to get a scholarship to the grammar school, the high school as they called it. And when I was sixteen I suppose, late 1938, I matriculated. I was very fortunate. I had a classics master there who gave me a [Latin?] in that year, 1938. And he said to my parents quietly, ‘Your son could do worse than go to Durham University with the intent to get a Classics degree like mine.’ He was a Northumbrian and he spoke their language. Tyneside. My parents looked at each other and they said, ‘Sorry. The two older ones are leaving the nest but the two younger ones have yet to finish, they have yet to go to school and I’m afraid we need income rather than the possibilities for the future.’ So I never did get the Classics education. I would have liked to have tried.
SB: Yes.
Instead of that, after matriculation I went for the civil service examination. A quite common thing to do with young people who were seventeen, eighteen, and I ended up, in 1939 by being a house captain, a prefect, and the school were very kind. They let me stay on in the sixth form whilst I completed these exams in January ‘39 and I ended up in April as a young civil servant, as an employment clerk. In the, what do they call it, Ministry of Labour and National Service. It’s a long time ago. And I spent, I think it was three months, at a school in Newcastle in New Bridge Street which was the headquarters of a very large employment exchange and we had a special teacher. They used to call them Third Class Officers I remember and we had about ten or twelve people from throughout Durham, Tyneside who had joined up in this Ministry of Labour and National Service as young employment clerks like me. We went to school every day. We found out what we had to do and eventually we passed our course and we started work and I remember we found out how to do it at New Bridge Street, how to do our work. And then I was posted to Ashington, a mining village and I used to commute from Whitley Bay and Monkseaton to Ashington via a little proper steam railway and then I was posted from there to Walker on Tyne and I carried on my job until, after a series of incidents, I joined the Royal Air Force. I had tried to join the Fleet Air Arm first, when I was eighteen and I had failed on eyesight tests because I wanted to be a pilot. Like all the young men in 1940. I was so impressed with Spitfires and Hurricanes but I failed in the medical test for pilot and the Board of Admiralty in London sent me away for three months and said, ‘Your eyesight is not good but it may be something that will recover. Come back.’ And in December ‘40 I went back to London and I met a lot of very impressive medical officers with lots of gold braid and things and they said, ‘Jim, I’m sorry to say that your eyesight still remains below par for pilot training but,’ they said, ‘You know you are educationally qualified to become an officer as an observer in the Navy and we need observers. Pilots are ten a penny. You can train them, you know, you just have to run around. The observer is the brains in the outfit. Would you like to be commissioned and join us?’ ‘No.’ I didn’t think I would. I was still full of aspirations to be a Spitfire pilot so I went back to my job as an employment clerk but in May ‘41 in company with two of my old schoolmates we decided we would all join the Royal Air Force and we went back to Newcastle upon Tyne to the recruiting office there and the sergeant who looked at us and said, ‘Are you interested in applying?’ ‘Yes.’ We were. ‘Ok. Well this is what you do. First of all the medical.’ I passed my medical but the other two didn’t. One whom I’d grown up with and he was my close schoolmate was a diabetic and didn’t think about it. Eventually he became the best man at my marriage later, two years later. And he died. He became blind and then died. The other one had flat feet and was called up eventually by the army and within six weeks of being posted to York I think, he died during a route march. Some mysterious heart complaint. I went to see him when I happened to be on holiday after being sick for a while. I had ten days sick leave. I went back to Whitley Bay. Still was an airman under training. I met his parents and his body was lying in there in their, in the sitting room and his mother said, ‘Would you like to see Duncan?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I’d never seen a dead person before. Anyway, that was my introduction. By this time I was, although I was fit for pilot training in the RAF, where my eyes suddenly seemed to have mysteriously got better or something but by this time the RAF said, ‘Well I’m sorry but we’ve got thousands of pilots but we’re desperately short of navigators. If you like you can do a tour on navigation and when you’re finished you can convert to pilot training.’ So I said, ‘Ok.’ That’s my early life. Should I carry on from there?
SB: Why not?
Why not.
SB: Yes.
Well from May 1941 we had to wait. We had been accepted for training as a navigator but it wasn’t until September that year that we were called up and we went to Regents Park in London and we spent a fortnight there getting uniform, learning how to march, going for medicals of all sorts. I remember everyone laughed about at the time but I remember being in a long line of young men and they were tall, fat, thin, short. All kinds of people. But they were generally speaking physically fit. Generally speaking. They needed putting into shape but medically they were fit. A long line of them and a young medical officer would come with a stick and, ‘Drop your trousers, the whole lot.’ Free from infection they called it. Everyone remembers this. It was the same for them all. Anyway, after a fortnight we were posted to Catterick in Yorkshire for what they called initial training wing. Catterick was interesting because it was also the home of army training at a very big army depot at Catterick but sixty of us ended up at RAF Catterick in a special little, what do they call it, unit of its own with its own squadron leader, education officer and flight sergeant who was a disciplinarian and maybe a couple of teachers to teach the basics of flying and so on but we got to a separate unit. We were sent to live in a country house which had been specially requisitioned for the purpose and we slept there and our flight sergeant would march us every morning four miles there. Good for you those were the terms. Smarten up. And then four miles back again. We did everything on the camp. We just slept there. But of course it was that time of year. Wintertime. And apart from an army Lysander unit, that’s an army air corp, they had a Beaufighter unit, night fighters, there and one day the station commander said to the station warrant officer, ‘I want you to organise snow clearance tonight.’ Big forecast. Snow. ‘I want the airfield swept so that the Beaufighters can operate.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ But the station warrant officer was a busy man. In RAF terms he was a very important man. He commanded all the people in the manpower department of the station. He was the boss. The station commander knew it, the station warrant officer knew it, everybody else knew it and the station warrant officer came to my squadron leader in the Initial Training Wing Department and he said, ‘Sir, with great respect, my chaps work night and day doing their ordinary work on the airfield. I can’t really expect them all to turn out to do snow clearing initially until I have to.’ But, ‘Sir, with respect your chaps are just [?]. They are, to some extent, surplus at the moment for the next few days so I’m going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind I want your fifty trainees to start the snow clearing tonight.’ So we did. So we all got our brooms and our shuttles and of course it snowed and snowed and we got soaking wet but we still had to march because we had nowhere else to sleep. After two or three days of this I got a cold. It was a nasty cold. I was used to getting colds in the northeast but this was a bad one because we were literally walking with wet clothes, no heat, no nothing and one of my mates in the morning time said to me, ‘Jim, you don’t look very good.’ I said, ‘No, I feel awful.’ He said, ‘I’ll go and have a word with the flight sergeant.’ He went to the flight sergeant who had a little room all of his own and we used to sleep up and down in great big rooms and things and he said to the flight sergeant, ‘Jim Wright’s not very well.’ ‘So what,’ said the flight sergeant? ‘Well, could you fix transport or something for him?’ ‘I aint got any transport.’ he said. ‘We walk. I’m sorry. If he can walk he will.’ And we marched four miles back. Of course I reported to sick quarters and the Doc took one look at me and he said, ‘You’ve got a temperature of a hundred and four young man.’ ‘Oh yes?’ I said. ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Awful.’ He said, ‘I’m sending you to Catterick army camp hospital immediately. I think you’ve got bronchial pneumonia.’ ‘Thank you, sir.’ So I ended up in the army hospital. I never saw anything but the hospital beds. And after ten days I think they used to have something called [metacreme?] but nothing like penicillin or anything antibiotics. It was some awful thing that turns you yellow I think. But in the end I got better and they said, ‘We’re going to send you off on ten days sick leave. Get all railway warrants and rations and things.’ Well I’d only been in the air force for two or three months and I didn’t really know anything about anything but I was so pleased with the railway warrant to go home in comfort rather than hitching or anything like that and my mother was so grateful to get the rations. Butter and things like that. Not important to me but important to her. Anyway, I recovered, finished our ITW training and we went off to Eastbourne College on the south coast at Eastbourne and we, we stayed at this famous Grand Hotel. I’d heard radio programmes, I knew, on Sunday afternoons I think but for the first time I was introduced to what it was like to actually live in a great big hotel on the seafront at Eastbourne. It was very interesting. Can we just stop? Stop for a minute.
JW: Can we just have the last sentence about Eastbourne? Eastbourne College we were going to.
SB: Hang on. Ok.
JW: We were accommodated.
SB: Yeah you were accommodated.
JW: Yeah.
SB: It’s alright
JW: Ok.
SB: That’s it.
JW: Ready. When you are
SB: Yeah. Ok.
JW: Eastbourne was very interesting. I’d never been to the south coast before. It would seem that at this time in 1941 a lot of the holiday areas on the south coast within ten miles had been more or less taken over by the government. The hotels had been taken over for army, navy, air force units quite often. The basic residents could stay. But it was, it had an awful lot of armed forces in it. Anyway, in Eastbourne, Eastbourne College was a recognised independent school and the government had taken it over. It had moved somewhere else. And they used it for what we call elementary air navigation school training. This was a three month course. Longer than the ITW one. And I remember some of my mates being desperate for cigarettes. People, I don’t think people today realise the extent to which smoking cigarettes, pipe smoking had taken over the nation. People In films were smoking. Everybody thought it was normal to smoke but if they were addicts as some of our young men were this was a very sad thing for them because they couldn’t get cigarettes that they used to be able to buy twenty whenever they wanted. At this time one of my young friends he was desperate for cigarettes and so I used to join the queue with him when he went hunting for cigarette shops, for rations and things and I said to Nobby, ‘Why don’t you just give up?’ ‘Can’t,’ he said. So I would go and buy the ration that was there. It may be ten cigarettes sometimes. They were just goose woodbines in a house and I’d hand them to Nobby and that would keep him happy for a while until the next lot. Cigarette smoking became a problem in the world. It still is. Anyway, we would do, the fifty of us, we would do our training within the Eastbourne College. Tailor made for the job really. Just like school. It was just like school. And they taught us the basics of navigation from the air. They gave us sextants and we said, ‘What do we do with these?’ ‘Ah well,’ they said, ‘When you go home tonight we would like you to practice taking shots of the moon if it’s there. The stars if you can find them.’ This was later on in the course when it developed and we found out what a sextant was, how to use it, air almanacs and things like that all concerned with navigation when you were high up, couldn’t see the ground and your only means of navigation were astro-navigation. Anyway, we used at night time to take our sextants home to the Grand Hotel with us and then operate in pairs in a backstreet just off the seafront and we would, one of us would take notes while the other one actually located the star and took a shot and if you were within a hundred miles of Eastbourne you were doing very well [laughs]. It was a very good training which you had to fall on later but whilst we were there it was beginning spring and the weather was improving and on Wednesday afternoons we were told to go and get fit. Cross country runs, play football, play tennis or skive as they used to call it if you wanted to by saying, ‘I’m a golfer. I’ll go on the golf course.’ ‘Well yes that’s a sport. Yes. Yes you can do that.’ And this man for whom I used to get cigarettes, Nobby, we borrowed, from the professional at the club, some old clubs and a few old balls and we enjoyed the fresh air at the top of the cliff on Eastbourne Golf Course. And while we were pottering about on the very first day I remember it was a lovely summer day. Nice to be alive. It was lovely. Sunshine and blue sky. I remember Nobby saying, ‘Jim, look.’ And there were a pair of ME109s. We knew they were ME109s because we’d done aircraft recognition and we knew. What’s more you could see the Nazi cross on the side of the aeroplane and they were carefree, the pair of them. You could see them. They were only fifteen minutes away from France at the most. From their airfields. And they came over our heads. We said, ‘That won’t bother us. They’re not going to shoot us. They’re wasting their time.’ Well, they turned around and they headed for Eastbourne Railway Station and with their rockets, machine gun fire, cannon fire raked the station and having done a fair bit of damage they disappeared. Nobody came from anywhere to help them or shoot them down or anything. They quite calmly trundled off back to their base in France. That was our very first introduction to ME109s. I’ve never forgotten it. At the end of the course the fifty of us were all posted to Heaton Park in Manchester I think it was. It was a kind of a settling in place for trainee pilots, navigators and so on whilst they waited for the next step in their training. All these people at Heaton Park were going overseas. They could go, some to Rhodesia, they could go to Canada. Some of them even went to Florida to fly with Pan America airfield, Pan America Airways. Anyway, we used to, we used to report every morning at 8 o’clock to see if any of us were wanted to go on convoys or anything like that and every day no news for us so we just idled away again and we got fed up with this. We got tired of waiting and hanging around and one of my friend’s, a chap called Mike Ward said, ‘Jim, would you like to nip into York to see my folks?’ So I said, ‘What’s the plan?’ He said, ‘Well we’ll check up on the Friday morning and if there’s no call out for anywhere we could quietly nip in and get a ticket to York on the railway and we’ll be back by Sunday, by Sunday night ready for Monday morning.’ ‘Sounds good to me.’ I said. So we stuck our necks out and we did this and we got to York and I met Spike’s family. His father owned a garage and Mike was one of these chaps who knew about motorcars. How to drive them. And he also had farmer relatives with farms and he was also familiar too with 22 rifles and shotguns and things. He was way ahead of me. I enjoyed meeting his family. It was nice. But on the way back we got to Crewe Station I think it was. I think we had to change at Crewe and a couple of innocent looking young RAF special police, corporals. Corporal was a powerful man in the RAF when you were just an airman. They sauntered up to us looked us up and down. They always work in pairs these people. But Mike and I were, were happy. We said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid, yeah s we are travelling. We’re going back to base.’ ‘Where’s that?’ They said. ‘Oh Heaton Park.’ ‘Oh. What are you doing now then?’ ‘Oh well we’ve just been to see.’ ‘I see. Have you got your pass?’ ‘Well no.’ ‘Well I’m sorry,’ they said, ‘But that means you’re absent without leave.’ AWL. Mike and I have always had in our service record absent without leave. One day’s pay forfeit. We’ve never forgotten it. Never forgotten it. Anyway, we eventually were sent off. Some of us, we didn’t all go to Canada. Several of us were sent to Pan American Airways in Florida. And we envied them. Oh that must be nice. Florida. Lovely. We’d heard of Florida and we had visions of summer holidays on the beach. Anyway, we didn’t hear any more about those chaps. They disappeared. And we went in turn, I think about twenty five of us, I’m not sure we were posted to Number 13 Air Navigation School at a place called Port Albert near Goderich near on the coast of Lake Huron in Ontario. We sailed in a convoy. I remember the name of the boat it was the SS Letitia. Other people met Letitia at different times during the war as a troopship but for seven days we went up and down and we were seasick just like everybody else because we were not sailors but we made it. We made it to Halifax in Nova Scotia and from there we went on by train and it seemed to be forever. I don’t know how long it was. Two or three days I think. But we ended up anyway at this navigation training school. I think it lasted from about May or June or July I’m not sure until November so there was a time when we were there when we were taken away from our RAF blue as we called the field dress and we were put into the tropical khaki uniform. Shorts and things like that. To cut a long story short I became top of the course and Mike my friend became second. And we had a young Scotsman friend called Scotty Turner who came third and a much more mature chap called Williamson with a moustache. A family man. He must have been in his thirties. You have to remember that most of us were just twenty, twenty one. Which was the about the average age for, for the time. Anyway we also had a group of free French on our course attached. They spoke English when they had to but they spoke their own natural language French when they were off duty. But I don’t know whatever happened to those six free French. Two of them were commissioned. One was a captain and the other one was I think a sub lieutenant. I’m not sure what. Whether they were air force or navy I can’t remember now and the other four were non-commissioned people. Petty officers or something like that. I never saw or heard of them again. Anyway, we had a party at the end of the course and we were given sergeant’s stripes and we pinned them on using our little machinery. We all had our needles and threads and things so we could pin them on and we had a party at the hotel and the next day we were put on a train and all the way up through Ontario, through Quebec, through New Brunswick and we should have gone to Nova Scotia to Halifax but when we got to Moncton on the railway line, it was a stop of some sort there anyway, and we had a couple of Royal Canadian Air Force sergeants approach our party and they said, ‘Are you just coming from, from your training at Goderich?’ ‘Yes,’ we said. ‘What do you want to know for?’ We thought we might have done something wrong. ‘Oh, it’s nothing wrong,’ they said, ‘But, I need these four people. I need these four. Wright, Ward, Williamson, Turner.’ ‘What do you want them for?’ ‘You lucky chaps are going to be commissioned. You can throw away your sergeant’s stripes.’ ‘Oh yeah, that’s very interesting.’ ‘You will be taken by transport to the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Moncton,’ which is just on the outskirts, ‘And there you will go through commissioning procedure. The rest of them are on the way to Halifax. And home.’ We were very pleased about this of course but we had to hang about a bit. I think it was, this was sometime, somewhere in early November and I think it was in early December when we finally were kitted out, uniforms, and were sent on our way to Halifax. For starters of course we were commissioned and that made a tremendous difference. Life as an airman whether you’re UT aircrew or just newly promoted to sergeant was an entirely different matter than if you were pilot officer. Life changed. And so we found that we had better facilities on the train. And when we got to Halifax they said, ‘Oh yes. You’ve got to report to the troop ship and it happens to be the Queen Elizabeth.’ We were overjoyed. We’ll never forget, well I will never forget that four day journey at top speed, without convoys, too fast for the submarines and we got back home to the UK in four days. It was a marvellous experience. I’ve still got copies of the ship’s newspaper, “The Convoy,” now but I’ve had them in an old scrapbook for seventy five years or something. They used to print a daily account in the, in this marvellous liner the Queen Elizabeth which carried thousands of people of course and they would give a daily account of what was happening in the world in the desert, and the Atlantic and the wherever and of course it was important because if I’ve got it right America had just had Pearl Harbour in December ‘41 and this was a year later so the fact that the Americans were in the war made a great difference and this would be reported in those newspapers. Anyway, we had disembarkation leave. I think we all went home for ten days or seven days leave I think. And we were sent to Harrogate in Yorkshire. All of us were sent to Harrogate. It’s a big resettlement unit in a lovely market town miles from London and we were very lucky because not only was it a relatively peaceful place Harrogate but it had it had swimming pools, dance halls, it had beautiful music halls and excellent gardens and a lovely location for walking in the countryside. We were so lucky. The important thing of course for most young twenty one, twenty two year olds was that there were a lot of girls there. The girls came because the government had decided, just before the war, to send a lot of their civil servants from London to a more peaceful place where they could get on with the work in Harrogate and a lot of these girls were civil servants just like I used to be and the same kind of age group. Clerks in the air ministry, contract farms was where I met them and Mike Ward and I were I think on our first day. We were staying in the Queen Hotel just off the Stray in Harrogate. A lovely hotel. The sergeants were in a different hotels, Imperial and places like that but we had an invitation from reception of the Queen Hotel with the Women’s Voluntary Service accept some of you to come and have a cup and a bit of cake, that sort of thing, in a local church hall and we said, ‘Well, why not.’ And the first girl I met was the one I married over two years later. A blond, blue eyed girl who was a little older than I was. Just a little. Her landlady, ‘cause by this time a lot of the girls had moved from being residents in a lady’s college to being shipped out into the local community where they were divided into local houses and looked after themselves in ordinary houses and my future wife’s landlady was also a member of the WVS Women’s Voluntary Service and they were forever giving me cups of tea and cakes and things to soldiers, sailors and airmen. Whoever they were. On this occasion she had taken my future wife with her to this church hall and when, when David Mike Ward and I arrived this WVS lady said, ‘I’d like you to meet a couple of young ladies.’ You’ll do. And Mike and I met these two young ladies. I don’t know if Mike was that interested but I was and I stayed interested for two years. But of course I was a very straightforward young, naïve young man. I believed in marriage. I also believed that it was a sheer waste of time to contemplate marriage in a Lancaster or a Wellington and that was firmly understood. So we’d keep in touch by letter wherever I was and when the adjutant of the squadron, my last squadron called me in and said, ‘Jim. You’re finished.’ And I said [laughs], ‘What do you mean finished?’ He said, ‘Your days of operational flying are over young man.’ I communicated this to my girlfriend. I went to see her, sought her hand in marriage and she agreed. So that was the picture. Now my friend Mike Ward had been lucky enough to meet a charming young lady during our three months in Canada. We had, we had been allowed to hitch to Detroit at weekends. And on our very first visit we met some people of Scottish origin who had friends. They were all concerned with motoring I think because Detroit was a fabulous manufacturing of cars place. They had problems of course because black people were not allowed to mix in transport or accommodation. And you had to be very careful of this in Detroit in 1942. Anyway, one of their Scottish friends would put up Mike and I. They lived in a great big apartment block and the man involved was the manager of this block. He and his wife supervised all the arrangements for car parking and renting apartments and so on and their family lived in quite a spacious apartment and we met a girl there called Jeanette McDonald. A familiar name because Jeanette McDonald happened to be the name of a singing star at the time. Nelson Eddie was her partner. I remember her very well. The young Jeanette McDonald, the American girl was some kind of a Scottish dancing champion. You know used to twiddle about in the way that people with these Scottish views people do. In America they were very keen on this and would have state championships and things like that and young Jeanette was one of these. They were a very charming family and we got to know them very well during our three months there. But some of their American friends that we also would stay with and have breakfast with introduced us to pancakes and syrup and things like that. They had another young lass and she was rather like the American Doris Day. The girl next door. Bubbly. Mike fell for this girl in a big way and I often wonder, wondered because we got split up eventually and I, I lost touch with Mike and I often used to wonder whether he was going to go back to America for this girl. She was a lovely lass. Very much like Doris Day. Bubbly. Anyway, Jeanette McDonald was not for me but Mike I thought might have been very interested in this young lass who lived at some address in Bueno Vista Drive, Detroit. I’ve never forgotten the name. It was an interesting one. An enormous number like eleven hundred and twenty two. When we, when we finished our course we were presented with our observer badge. That was like a little O observer badge. They don’t use them anymore. It was replaced eventually by a bomb aimer or a navigator. When, when we were trained in Canada we did both jobs. We could choose either. I always stayed with the navigation side and so did Mike. Unfortunately, Mike and his crew were killed in 1944. He had started off doing navigation training. We’d flown in little Tiger Moths really just to get acclimatised to British weather really. I think in January ‘43 that was our first course. A month at Scone in Scotland where pilots just with their fresh pilot wings up would sit in the front cockpit and the navigators would sit in the back cockpit. The pilots of course would say, ‘If you want to play with this thing you’re welcome. Off you go.’ And so we would play [?] and we got a lot of fun. And at the end I remember, after about half an hour I would say to my pilot on this little Gosport tube communication system they had there. I’d say, ‘I think we ought to go back home now don’t you?’ ‘Oh I suppose so. Where are we?’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘Well, no. I thought you were the navigator, you’d know where we were.’ I thought he must be joking. I’d been playing with the aeroplane for half an hour and I thoroughly enjoyed it but I’d no idea where we are and it was a bit late to find out. It was quite amusing. I remember he, this particular pilot, made an emergency landing at an airfield. Not ours. Got some fuel in it and then we flew it back and this time I made sure I knew where I was. But having done that month on Tiger Moths in January we then went back to Harrogate where we met with old girlfriends or whatever and we waited for the next course. And then we’d go, have a month, at Skegness I think it was. Butlin’s holiday camp on the Yorkshire coast. They had accommodation of course. It was a holiday camp area. There were golf courses. And we wore army uniform and big boots and we had 303 rifles and they would take us out at night and throw thunder flashers at us to get us used to being possibly escape and evasion on the continent. It was all carefully planned. They knew what they were doing. Anyway, a month in army uniform made us fit and after that we went and did some Anson flying at Barrow in Furness. Very useful because the weather in the Irish Sea was notorious. Thunder storms, rain, snow, so we did more flying and a bit more navigation training and got used to flying in Ansons. Not in blue sky conditions but in United Kingdom weather conditions and that was different. But eventually our navigation training was finished and we were all posted to our, what we called an Operational Training Unit. In my case Mike and I went to Upper Heyford just not far north of Oxford. And when we arrived because we were commissioned we went to the officers mess and we met a bunch of fairly fresh flying officer ranked commissioned pilots who had also arrived for the their Operational Training Unit and for the first time they stopped being individual pilots and individual navigators, wireless operators, gunners and their purpose at Upper Heyford was to learn to fly as a Wellington bomber crew and that took ten weeks. It was a different way of life. We stopped being under training as navigators and we learned to become an operational bomber crew. Five of us, pilot, navigator no we didn’t have a flight engineer and we didn’t have a, ah pilot, navigator, wireless operator and bomb aimer and rear gunner. We didn’t need a mid-upper gunner and we didn’t need a flight engineer to fly the Wellington. But we certainly learned the rudiments of how to operate a bomber crew. For the first time in our lives we lived as a crew. Relaxed together. We tried, we tried as far as we could to live together. With the pilot and navigator both commissioned we could do that and the others were all sergeants. The bomb aimer, the wireless operator and the gunner but they, they gelled together. The NCOs stuck together. They ate together, they went to the same billet, sergeant’s mess. Ken Ames and I became firm friends. It was the way that it was in those days. There was a loyalty between individual crew members. It was a most unusual way to become a bomber crew because what happened was I teamed up with my pilot Ken Ames in the officer’s mess the night before. We all met in a big hangar. Mike did exactly the same. He met a northern Irishman called Derek [Wray] I remember. The following morning we were all there at 8 o’clock in the morning and wing commander flying said, ‘Gentlemen,’ there were hundreds of people in this hangar. He said, ‘You are going to find your own crews. I want every pilot to come back to me at the end of the day and tell me the names, ranks and numbers of his crew. That’s a job for all the pilots but how you sort yourselves out is a matter for you.’ We got some surprise because we’d never seen this before. This was quite new. Ok. So we got our brief, we got our marching orders, go away, ‘Find yourselves crew members. We don’t care how you do it. All I want by 4 o’clock today is a crew with a pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and rear gunner.’ Ken, Ken Ames said, ‘Well you and I are the core.’ ‘Yeah. That’s right.’ ‘I will go and find a rear gunner. You go and find a bomb aimer.’ And I did that. I found an old man aged thirty two with ruddy cheeks and grey hair and I liked the look of him and I chatted him up and said, ‘Well I’ve got a pilot. I’m a navigator,’ and I said, ‘Would you like to be our bomb aimer?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’d like to meet the pilot of course but otherwise that’s fine.’ And Ken went and he found a rear gunner and he found he was an ex Irish Guardsman. As a soldier used to guns, used to being told what to do and so on but this man had been asked by the army if they would volunteer to become a gunner in the air force. And they jumped at it because it was much better pay. They would become sergeants straight away instead of privates in the army and they would get flying [fame] There was an element of flying [fame] when you were a sergeant in the flying business. So Paddy became our rear gunner. Paddy Paul. My, my selection as bomb aimer had been an insurance agent for many years and was married and had two children. He was ten years older than we were but he was also a crossword fiend which I found out and he was also a very keen rock climber using fingers and toes. He was also a very keen bird watcher. And he had patience and a lovely smile. We were sold. We were very happy. We found, we found a wireless operator but I think for some reason we had to change him. We did start flying with him and I remember saying, this man was called Jim, I said, well, no he was called Albert and I said, ‘Well I’m called Albert as well but if you like I will change my name to Jim.’ I never really liked being Albert really. It was my old man’s best man in the, in the trenches that had made me called Albert but I’ve got James and I’m quite happy to be Jim. And so I settled to Jim. And we ended up with an Australian wireless operator from Toowoomba in Queensland who had been around a long time because he was already a flight sergeant. That made a lot of difference of a year. He’d been around somewhere. Tex we called him because his first name was called Harvey. And we said, ‘We can’t call you Harvey.’ ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘Tex.’ But when you’re on intercom you don’t want fancy names, you want short, sharp ones and we, we soon learned of course that this idea that some people in the photography film world had that you would say on intercom, ‘Pilot from mid-upper gunner,’ or ‘wireless operator from navigator.’ You haven’t got time for all that. It’s Ken, Jim, Paddy. That’s it. You soon got to know the names and you soon knew who was who ‘cause all the names were different. So Ken was the pilot, Jim was the navigator, Tom was the bomb aimer, Paddy was the rear gunner and Tex was the wireless operator. Five people. We were very lucky I suppose because four of those five people survived till the end. Tex unfortunately, our wireless operator from Toowoomba, decided after getting a DFC and having done a whole first tour decided on our last squadron, 97, the Pathfinders, that on a particular day when a daylight operation was scheduled and our crew were not on it, not on the ops order, he said, ‘Oh I’d like to go. I’ll go with a skipper called Baker, Flight Lieutenant Baker. One of my Australian mates as a squadron leader he’d want to go as well,’ so on that aircraft there were nine people instead of seven which seemed to happen sometimes and because it was a daylight trip Tex decided that this was a bit of war that he would like to have a look at. Doing it in daylight. When he was not a wireless operator he was going to man a gun. And of course on that particular aircraft was shot down and I think some of the people escaped and became prisoners of war but Tex was killed and that was in July ‘44. I never did find out whether Tex had got a pathfinder badge. Didn’t make any difference anyway. He was dead. He’s buried in Bayeux War Cemetery. But Paddy the rear gunner did all the trips. Completed a second tour. Was commissioned. He had a DFM. He was commissioned at the end of it all and he went to the Far East to take part in what they called Tiger Force. I never saw him again. Tom Savage the bomb aimer had a DFM at the end of the first tour. When it was all over he was commissioned as well but stayed on at Coningsby to help the station armaments officer with the problems that they had at that time and he stayed until demob. I saw him again later. He met my wife. He was a cricket man as well and we used to meet up in the years after the war, many years, when I was stationed somewhere in the north like Middleton St George or Ouston in Northumberland, we would contact Tom and his family. By that time we had three [more families. Three more.] and his family and we would walk on Hadrian’s Wall. We would meet halfway and meet and have a, have a party. The last time I saw Tom would be about 1990 I think. It was a day when he was watching the cricket in the kitchen and the England test team were playing Australia and the English captain, what was his name? I can’t remember for the moment. The English captain scored three hundred and thirty three not out. I remember. And Tom was listening with delight to all this on the radio or the television I can’t remember now and he died. He was a lovely man. Yes. So, Tex had died. The young engineer and the young mid upper gunner who came to us especially when we became a Lancaster crew for the first time they, they both disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them. I think, one I know was invalided out in to civvy street and I met or contacted his widow eventually many years later and I discovered that yes the head wounds that he had got during a trip to [Castellon] on 61 squadron which kept me in hospital for two months brought home the results that he was found unfit to fly and he went back to civvy street and when he was in civvy street during the war he used to work on aircraft engines at some, nearby. We never did find where he came from. He’d been a garage mechanic you see. He was only eighteen. Ans he was only eighteen when he joined us but he was only with us for a few weeks and we never saw him again but I, I tracked him down long, long after the war and his widow told me that yes they’d got married, he’d earned a living as a ground engineer during the war and after the war he managed to get his medical back again and had a job, taken a job at Stansted flying Yorks all over the world. Thousands of miles of flying, fitting new aircraft engines to Yorks and Lancastrians wherever they needed them and he had three children I think it was but I never found any more about him. I have no idea what happened to the mid-upper gunner. I know he never flew with us again so presumably he had disappeared from active service. I’ve no idea. Now what else was I going to tell you?
SB: Do you want to tell me a little about some of your operations?
JW: About the operations. Yes.
SB: Yes.
JW: Well after we’d finished at Upper Heyford on the Wellingtons we had become a very efficient bomber crew. It was the little things like taking a little racing pigeon in a little cardboard box and we would sometimes do what we called nickel flights. That’s when we went very close to the French coast where we could get shot down by Germans but you were still on your training flight and you’d note the actual position that you had worked out where you were and you would write it down on a little bit of special paper which you’d put on to the pigeon’s leg. Elastic held there a little capsule and you would take the pigeon gingerly down to the back end of the Wellington and you’d get Paddy to turn his guns away and you would throw the pigeon out and the pigeon in the dark would sort itself out and by a miracle of bird navigation would get back to Upper Heyford long before we did [laughs]. And the purpose of that was to make sure that if the aircraft was shot down the pigeon would get back and that would be the last known position of that Wellington before it disappeared. That was the whole point. Of course we never did it in Lancasters. I never saw that again. But we did, we did manage to gel as a crew because we could talk to each other. We developed our own technique of how we could fly this crew together. I would tell the pilot that in certain circumstances if anything went wrong he should always bear in mind that if he could see the sky he could see the Great Bear and he’d say, ‘What’s the Great Bear?’ And I would explain. And I’d say find Polaris the Pole star. The Great Bear will wonder around different regions at different time but the Pole star once you found it it was a very good thing. It was north. And I’d explain to the pilot that wherever you were in Germany you had to come back on a westerly heading to get back to the UK and the best way you could do that was to keep the pole star on the right. He never faltered and there was one occasion when we went to Castle when he found it very useful ‘cause he remembered it. Pilots quite often leave it to the navigator completely but I used to talk to Ken. We were the same age. We liked the same things. And I used to say that there were some things that were important and I used to talk to him about the necessity for every pair of eyes in the aircraft to come back to where it all happened on the navigators brief on his board. I used to explain to everyone how important it was that if they saw a coastline, a bridge, an important navigation feature on the ground they should tell me. They should tell me in time for me to make use of it exactly when it happened so I could check. Crossing a beach, crossing a railway line, a bridge, whatever you could see. I said, ‘I know I’ve Gee and I’ve got H2S, I’ve got radar. Yes I’ve got all these things but they don’t always work and they are sometimes out of range,’ and so I used to explain. I used to explain to our wireless operator how important it was that when I wanted bearings from the radio why I wanted them, when I wanted them and I wanted them at a precise time. I wanted, I explained why these things were important to the navigator. And everyone in the crew, my crew anyway because every crew was different. I wanted everyone to know that every bit of information that they could see was vital as far as I was concerned if it had anything to do with the navigation of the aircraft, the Lancaster, the Wellington, whatever it was. We got on fine. I remember one occasion when we were doing a long ten hour cross country in a Wellington from Upper Heyford and the weather was filthy. It was nothing like what had been forecast. I remember half way through the trip, about four or five hours I said to them on the intercom chaps you might be interested to know that we should be turning from Carlisle onto another heading but I said I can’t tell you why but right now we’re over Bristol. You could hear a penny drop in all the ears. ‘What’s Jim talking about?’ I said, ‘The weather forecast was rubbish. I now want Tex to give me a QDM for Upper Heyford and we’re going to fly back to base. We’re going to forget the rest of the trip because the weather is so bad and the winds are so hard to find that that’s the only thing we can do.’ I think my crew discovered that they had a navigator who was honest and was telling them what the truth of the matter was. A lot of other aircraft that night would have ended up in being diverted, got, they’d got just as lost as we were. This sort of thing used to happen but I think that that crew as a Wellington crew decided that Jim Wright was the man that they wanted to stay with and that’s why later on in life when we were a Lancaster crew they decided that if Jim Wright was needing hospital treatment but if it was possible they would wait for him to come back. Being what happened. Not every navigator was as lucky as that. I was lucky. And in the end so were they. We finished. We managed to finish. We lost a few of ours but you see navigation to me was a puzzle like a crossword puzzle. You had the clues but you needed to make use of everything you could to solve problems and that’s what navigation was. I also remember one occasion when we went to Nuremberg. Now, Nuremberg is famous for being one operation in which we lost a hundred aircraft and the reason for it was straightforward. The Jetstream that people talk about in the weather forecast today as a casual thing that means something and they explain the weather forecast, tries to explain what a Jetstream is but in 1943/44 no one had heard about a Jetstream. They didn’t know what it was. But as a wind finder on 630 squadron when we went to Nuremberg my job was to find the winds and send them back through the wireless operator to Group so that they could marshal the latest thing that they’d found Instead of guessing what the winds were they would find what the real winds were and I was finding winds at one stage that I couldn’t believe but I had enough faith in my ability to say to my wireless operator, ‘I know that these are astonishing winds. Don’t be surprised but they’re right.’ The winds were from the northeast at about a hundred and forty five knots at twenty thousand feet and I sent these winds back and the boys back at base and at Group, the weather chaps, they looked at all the winds that were coming. Now, half of the wind finders, these are all specially chosen navigators would look at the winds they were finding and said, ‘I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I’ll halve it. I’ll go as far as eighty.’ They didn’t have enough courage to tell the truth but we lost a hundred aeroplanes. Quite often the four engine ones because at that time most of the guys were in four engined guys, Halifax’s. I think we’d already thrown away the Stirlings so all, all four engined guys on Nuremberg were in the same boat. When the winds were sorted out at base and they sent back a revised lot of winds they were nowhere near the real ones and so not only did the searchlights, the ackack and the night fighters do their normal thirty or forty aircraft shot down but the other sixty aircraft found that because they’d run out of fuel they ditched in the North Sea, they ditched in the Baltic, they ditched everywhere. Quite often these were the people whose names ended up on Runnymede Memorial, missing, but their aircraft were never heard of again. Navigation was so important and the scientists did their best but the German scientists were also very clever. So I’m afraid quite often the Germans made use of the navigational equipment that we did have and they took it. They found out how it worked and they used it to their advantage to warn their night fighters. So that some of the equipment that we thought were being useful to RAF bombers turned out in fact to be more useful to the enemy. They used to track, using our equipment in our aircraft, so that their night fighters could latch on to us. We didn’t know about that at the time and I don’t think Butch Harris was initially aware about it but when he did find out he had to do some serious thinking. How much risk can you take with your bomber force? It was a very difficult world. The men who flew in bombers in Bomber Command trusted Bomber Harris. They knew he had a difficult job to do. They knew that their chances of survival were less than one in two. They knew that. But they also knew that if you had to win the war you had to do it. You had to do what he wanted to do and I don’t remember anyone in any of the squadrons I flew with who argued with Bomber Harris. They knew. They knew that the only way to win was to win the war. It was them or us. It was all out war. Anyway, that was the end of my operational flying on three squadrons and when it was over and the adjutant said, ‘You’re finished.’ He sent me to a place called Brackla in Scotland and I was there with Paddy the rear gunner. It was the Redistributional Resettlement Unit. Ken Ames was sent to be an instructor on a Lancaster Finishing School at Wickenby. Tom, the bomb aimer ended up at, on the ground but commissioned and quite happy and he survived the war. Paddy ended up commissioned as a gunner and went to the Far East and he survived that. He died later on, in Nottingham I think. I never saw him again. Tex, the wireless operator had been killed in ‘44. But I, I remember being in the 97 squadron adjutant’s office when he said I was finished with operational flying and there was a little card on his desk and it said if you are tired and would like a rest why don’t you come and have a week or ten days in a [Lastrian?] house in Scotland. It’s peaceful and it’s quiet. And I made a note of the telephone number [Talland 35?]. Miles from anywhere, he said. And I said to the adjutant, ‘How do you think this place is?’ ‘Don’t know.’ he said. ‘All the information I’ve got’s on the card. It’s for chaps who need a rest from operations.’ And I remember looking up this man. He was a retired air commodore and I said, ‘I’ve just been told that I’m finished with operational flying.’ ‘Oh well done,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking of getting married.’ ‘Good idea,’ he said. ‘Come back and talk to me when you’ve made the arrangements. You can have the honeymoon up there.’ ‘Good thinking,’ I said. So I talked to my wife about it about this. I talked to her before she were married. And we agreed. Family friends said, ‘But Jim, Aberdeenshire is a hell of a long way away from Whitley Bay which is because your wife’s in a V1, V2 area she can’t get married down there. You’re going to have to get married in Whitley Bay. And when you get married by the time it’s all over you won’t be able to get to [?]. So, we happen to know of a little hotel in Edinburgh that we met years ago and I’m sure you’ll be alright there for your first night and then you could carry on to Aberdeenshire afterwards for your honeymoon.’ And that’s what we did. That’s what we did. Later on I met up with Ken Ames and his wife after the war and we had a holiday together up there. The four of us. The war was over and poor Ken he’d married three times in the end and he died at the age of fifty five. Fifty five. I’m ninety, nearly ninety three now. What a waste. He was a nice man. Eight years later I’d lost touch with him completely. I’d finished my, my war, I’d finished my post-war service and I was interested in a campaign medal for Bomber Command. And in 2008 the Editor of the Sunday Express was running a series of articles about Bomber Command and he called them heroes. And he got ten thousand letters from people into his office as Editor saying, ‘We agree with you.’ And he sent this parcels of letters and things to 10 Downing Street, to Gordon Brown, on the 2nd of July 2008. They took photographs of people. I remember having my own photograph taken next to the policeman at Number 10. I’d never been anywhere near Downing Street. I didn’t know anything about it but I went to attend this petition. And there were, there was another Bomber Command man there who had been a prisoner of war in Stalag III. The one where fifty chaps had been shot. He was interested in a campaign medal as well. I wonder what happened to him. I’ve no idea. But some of the other people who were photographed there as a party not only the, Townsend, I think the name of the editor was but there were some members of parliament particularly a member of parliament who has just left us. Austin. Austin - I can’t remember his name. Anyway, this particular MP, his name will come to me, on the 13th of November 2007 before the petition, Mitchell, Austin Mitchell, that was his name, he was the MP for North Grimsby I think it was and he with a friend of mine Douglas Hudson DFC had done a programme on the Look North programme I remember in which they had been advocating the award of a campaign medal for Bomber Command. Doug Hudson had been a, had been a prisoner of war in Africa. His pilot had been shot down on the beaches heading for Malta I think in a Blenheim and he’d been captured by, I think, the Vichy French and put in to a prisoner of war camp somewhere in [Libya?] or somewhere like that. And they had been rescued when they had, when the Americans invaded and he’d been repatriated. This is Douglas Hurd and he’d done a conversion back on to navigation and he’d been serving with a Lancaster squadron and he had said to all the members of his Lancaster crew he said, ‘Now, look. I don’t intend to become another prisoner of war in Germany. I’ve had enough. So my position is quite clear.’ Anyway, he survived the tour and he wrote a book and he called it, “A Navigator’s Story: There and Back Again.” And he contacted, he lived somewhere near Lincoln, on the outskirts of Lincoln with his family, and he met Austin Mitchell and he persuaded him to do this Look North programme looking for a campaign medal. He died of course. His wife died first. I still, I’m still in touch with his daughter who still lives there and I keep her in touch with my puny efforts to get a campaign medal. This girl, Yvonne, Yvonne [Puncher?] married another navigator but a Canberra navigator after the war and they lived just around the corner from where Douglas and his wife lived. And she joined the air force to become an air traffic control officer and that’s where we, we joined up again in a different way and I was able to talk to her about life in the air traffic control world.
SB: What did you do after you left the air force?
JW: I’m sorry?
SB: What did you do after you left the air force?
Well that’s a very interesting story because after I went to the resettlement unit at Brackla with Paddy he went off to the Tiger Force and they said, ‘Now Jim. What are we going to do with you? You’ve done a double tour. You deserve a rest. Would you like to be RTO at Euston Station?’ And I said, ‘What does that mean? What’s RTO?’ ‘Rail Travel Officer,’ they said. ‘What did he do?’ ‘Ah well you see it’s nothing to do with flying. I’m afraid you’re now a flight lieutenant and as such you can do a lot of work. You might be very helpful as an RTO because an RTO at Euston station is a busy job you know and we need people with wartime experience used to handling men, army, navy, air force and we move them around in hundreds every day of the week. Moving them from this camp to that camp and so.’ And I said, ‘Well ok. It sound a little bit boring but, and I don’t really like London as a place to live. What else can you think of?’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘What about a job with BOAC?’ And I said, ‘What is BOAC?’ ‘British Overseas Airways Corporation.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Civil flying?’ ‘Yes, that’s right.’ They said. ‘I’ll buy that one,’ I said. ‘I’ll try that. Can’t do any harm.’ ‘You’re on,’ he said. ‘We’ll send you warrants and things like that to Bristol and you can talk to the people down there’. Ostensibly of course it was to fly so I said, ‘Yeah, but civil flying.’ ‘That’s right,’ they said. ‘It won’t be in a war zone.’ So, we got married and we went to, it was nearly Christmas time I remember and I think by the time I got down to Bristol to make an appointment they said, ‘Jim, we would be delighted for you to fly but we’re snowed under with navigators. What we really want in BOAC at the moment are ground operations officers to make the whole system work better.’ ‘Ok,’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know much about it but where would it be?’ ‘Ah well we’d like you to go Hurn, near Bournemouth.’ Now, an operations officer down there would handle Dakotas, Lancastrians and things like that and it’s an important job.’ So I said, ‘Ok. My flying days are over, I’m married. I’m free and I survived and the war’s still on. I’ll do it.’ So I told my wife on our honeymoon. I said, ‘I’m not going to fly anymore. I’m going to be an operations officer.’ ‘Oh, well Bournemouth sounds very interesting,’ she said. So I stayed for another eighteen months at Hurn doing this operation officer’s job and of course the Royal Air Force were still paying me. I was still in flight lieutenant’s uniform and I could wear a flight lieutenant’s uniform any time I liked but during the day BOAC would give me an operations officer uniform. It was a different kind of uniform. But it was quite interesting work and I found I met a lot of interesting people. I met a lot of ex Bomber Command people who were also seconded. The war was still on but they were seconded to BOAC to help them fly Lancastrians because they were familiar with the Lancaster and a lot of the people that I used to work with as an operations officer would be flying Dakotas. Now they were just the same as the military Charlie 47 that a lot of our people flew during the war on Transport Command. And very interesting, I used to meet, I used to meet the skippers and I met people like O. P. Jones at Hurn. He was a very well-known civil aviation pilot. [? ] And of course the same station manager for BOAC in Bournemouth was also responsible for the flying boat operation at Poole Harbour, just down the road from the other side from the land airfield at Hurn to the seaplane base at Poole. It was all very interesting stuff and whilst the war was still on. But in nineteen forty, when would it be, I couldn’t get demobbed until October ‘46 and sometime in early ‘46 whilst I was still an operations officer Mr Horton, I remember his name, the station manager, he came and he said, ‘Jim I know you’re in the air force but,’ he said, ‘But I’m about to become station manager in London for BOAC because we’re opening up at Heathrow.’ And I said, ‘Fine.’ He said, ‘Mr Carter,’ I think that was his name, who was a senior operations man at Hurn, ‘Is nearly at retirement age and he doesn’t want to go to Heathrow. Would you like the job of station operations officer at Heathrow?’ I said, ‘Yes. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m quite happy. It’s a challenge. I’d like to do it.’, ‘Ok,’ he says, ‘So, it means living a bit rough for a while because we’ve got a house at the end of the runway and we’ve got to literally build SECO huts alongside the A4 road, the Bath Road. We’ve got to do all this sort of stuff and it takes time to organise it. It will be tough for a time.’ I said, ‘Fine. I’m quite happy to do that.’ So I became the station operations officer for London Airport for BOAC but they had Pan America and they had [Lufthansa] they had other people but as far as BOAC were concerned they wanted me to do this job. He said, Mr Horton says, ‘Incidentally, we also would also like you to do an air traffic control course. I know it’s a joint military civil service job at Watchfield.’ I said, ‘Fine. I don’t mind doing that and I’ll meet lots of interesting people there.’ So I went to Watchfield and I did the course and I passed it and I went back to Heathrow and then I took some of my other operations officers and sent them off to do air traffic control officer’s job as well. There was meaning for this of course because when the war ended in ’45, on May, on May the 8th the civil flying business took off in a big way. A lot of the seconded RAF officers both flying and ground would carry on doing civil contracts with BOAC and I was one of them. I was demobbed in October ‘46 and on the 20th of October I went to Gambia in British West Africa as an operations officer but this time I think they’d regraded me as an operations officer grade one. It was a better kind of job and paid a bit better than the routine BOAC operations officer grade 2 did. Anyway, my wife and I were quite happy and she, by this time was living with her parents in Ilford. The war was over. We were married. We had no children. She was looking forward to being a wife overseas and eventually after six months she followed me out to Bathurst and we lived in married quarters there. Lived in nissen huts accommodation but Fujara was the place where we lived and worked and I used to operate by transport by car to the airfield at [Yangden?], would go down to the flying boat base in Bathurst. That became Banthul. I think B A N T H U L, was the new name that they invented for Bathurst. Now, there had been Royal Air Force during the war at Bathurst at [Yangden?] and the flying boat base at Bathurst. They had used air sea rescue and things like that but all the people that were wartime at Bathurst and similar places overseas had to be brought back for demob and that’s where the air traffic control came in because the ministry of civil aviation were quite interested to get BOAC to organise this on their behalf because they wanted the routes to be kept up without, without halt whilst the transfer from wartime to civil took place. I quite enjoyed doing the job in Gambia. I quite enjoyed it but whilst we were there BOAC contacted all the air traffic control officers they had overseas and they said, ‘Would you like to become a flight operations officer? If you do and if you have the qualification and if you are willing we will train you at Aldermaston in England for three months course and you will cease to be operations officer grade 1 and if you succeed as part of the course you will be posted as flight operations officers.’ Now they don’t wear uniform. It’s not a uniform job. It was a very important job because you’d got to do all the flight planning for the civil airliners at Heathrow, at Prestwick and all these places and you’re going to save time, effort and money by shift working, in your case at Prestwick because in 19, what would it be? 1946 we left, ’48, December we came back. In ’49. In ‘49 I became a flight operations officer working for BOAC as a civilian. Nothing to do with the air force. I worked at er, as a flight operations officer for BOAC at Prestwick and I was posted then from Prestwick to Heathrow. But in September ’50, in September ’50, I remember very well all the flight operations officers throughout BOAC would become redundant and they had three months’ pay which lasted until December of that year. And the reason for it was that in the previous financial year in spring of ‘50 BOAC made an eight million pound loss which upset them. And they found that the new chairman, who was a city man, didn’t know anything about flying and he said to his board of directors, ‘Right. I’m your new boss. Tell me what the facts are. I suppose we need air crew. We couldn’t fly without them.’ ‘That’s right,’ they said. ‘And they’re very expensive.’ ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘Well, who are the next expensive people?’ ‘Well, we think the flight operations officers are.’ ‘Tell me what they do,’ he said. ‘Oh the flight operations officers throughout the world take the incoming air crew and in advance they do meteorological analysis of the future flights and when the incoming crew arrive they can just have a meal, accept what the flight operations officers has decided is the best time track for the next stage. Sign and off they go.’ ‘I see,’ said the new chairman. ‘Well, the answer simply, really to save money is to stop paying all these flight operations officers and let the air crew do their own flight planning. There’s a captain, a navigator a wireless operator why can’t they do it themselves. They’re qualified to do it.’



Sheila Bibb, “Interview with James Wright,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 17, 2024,

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