Interview with William Anderson


Interview with William Anderson


Flight Officer William Anderson began his service in the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen when he signed up in Edinburgh. In this interview he speaks about his training, reporting to Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, being paid at the London Zoo, and having to learn quickly how to swim in Torquay. After training at RAF St Athan, he was posted to 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit, and joined a Lancaster crew based at RAF Kirmington. His first operation was on D-Day to a marshalling yard near Paris. After that Anderson recounts stories of going on mine laying operations, particularly one over the Baltic, where five out of twelve aircraft were lost on one operation.



Temporal Coverage




00:30:43 audio recording


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WA: My name is William Lesley Milne Anderson, and I’m recording this for the International Bomber Command Centre, on the seventeenth of May, 2015 [pause] at – where am I [pause] at Beverley, in Yorkshire.
MJ: Right that’ll –
WA: Right [pause] I was a flight engineer on Lancaster aircraft. My rank a, at the end was flying [emphasis] officer. [Pause] I went to Edinburgh Aircrew Recruitment Centre when I was eighteen and a quarter, hoping to join the RAF and to fly. Everybody wanted to be a pilot. I went there with a school pal of mine who was going to join up as well, but we were told, at that time, if we wanted to be down for pilots, if we pass the various medical and tests, we would have to wait for nine months before we were called up. So this friend of mine decided, ‘fair enough’, to accept nine months wait so that he could eventually become a pilot, whereas I decided that I’d go for something else, and when I asked what was available to go more or less straight away I was told ‘a flight engineer’, so I said ‘that’ll do me fine’. [Pause] I w – when war broke out I’d only be, oh, fourteen [pause] and [pause] but, I thought ‘well, if I’ve got to go into the forces, I would rather fly somewhere than walk in the Army [laughs] to get there’, so that’s why I chose the Air Force. The training was at a place called Saint Athan in South Wales, that was after – well funnily enough, I had to report to Lords cricket ground, and that was where we had a medical and were issued with a uniform, and then we were marched along to a part of London called Saint John’s Wood, and when we had to go and collect our pay one day we were marched to the zoo [emphasis], I thought – was funny, I been in the Air Force and I’ve landed in a cricket ground, in a block of flats, and I get paid from the zoo [laughs]. So I thought ‘when do I see an aeroplane’. However, I was, was going to have to wait quite a bit longer [emphasis] because after, think it was a fortnight or three weeks, we were posted to Torquay, and when we got to Torquay we found that quite a lot of the hotels [pause] had been taken over by the RAF, and there, once again [emphasis], no aeroplanes in sight! But we did the basic training, the marching, ohhhh, the guard duties, even a bit of clay pigeon [emphasis] shooting, and this went on for about twelve weeks, and after the twelve weeks we were sent off to Saint Athan, and at last [emphasis] thank goodness, there were aeroplanes, because [pause] it was – I can’t remember exactly how long, but it was interesting, not sitting in little classrooms, but in a big [pause] building – a hanger I suppose – divided up into sections, where you could hear what was going on just across the wooden division that was separating you from the next group. So anyway – oh I missed the bit out where, at – the important bit, was I couldn’t swim [emphasis] [pause] and, they didn’t tell me, when I got to Torquay, until I got to Torquay, that I had to pass a swimming [emphasis] test, and so they took us down to the harbour, and the Corporal lined at the squad I was in [?], on the harbour, and told us we were going to jump in, and swim down just about twenty yards to a set of steps so that we could climb up to the top again. Luckily we had a Mae West , but [emphasis] my name being Anderson, on some occasions, is very handy because quite often you’re first, but in this case there was a chap called Adams before me, and when the Corporal said ‘Adams, jump in’, Adams said ‘I can’t swim, I’m not jumping in’, and so he said ‘Anderson, in you go’, and I said ‘I can’t swim, I’m not jumping in’, and so he said ‘if you go in the way I tell you to, you’ll go in and hit the water without doing yourself any damage. If I’ve got to push [emphasis] you in, you might land on your head or your back or your behind’, so bearing in mind that we got a Mae West on, he said ‘curl your toes over the edge of the harbour wall [pause] hold your nose, and take one step forward’, and of course, went down, and when I opened my eyes under water I saw millions of little bubbles, and with a Mae West on I was shot to the surface and up, and somehow or other I managed to get to the steps – don’t know how. But, when all the squad had been in, there was Adams, still in the water, still in the same spot where he’d jumped in, paddling like mad but going nowhere. So the Corporal said, ‘one of the swimmers, jump in, drag him to the side’, and that was our introduction to swimming. The rest of the swimming was done in the baths. And then, when we got to Saint Athan we carried on with swimming there. [Pause] Now, so, we did quite a bit of training at Saint Athan, I would say it was a very good course, and so, when the course was finished, although we’d made some friends during the time we were there, we were broken up by being posted to different placed training units up and down the country. I landed up in 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme just outside Doncaster. That was where I met the crew. The six other crew had been together for a while, flying of course, in two-engined Wellingtons, and the Conversion Unit was to convert them to four engine aircrafts so they had to pick up a flight engineer. At that time, which would be [pause] forty-three [pause] forty-three, most of the Lancasters were going from the factories to the squadrons, so we were actually trained on Halifaxes [pause] and then after a course there we went for a fortnight to RAF Hemswell which at that time was number one Lancaster finishing school, and we were only there for [pause] two weeks, and I seem to remember [pause] most of the work that we did there was ground work on the systems different in the Lancaster from the Halifaxes and the flying [pause] consisted only of circuits and bumps, daylight, circuits and bumps at night, and the number of flying errands we did was eight, and we were sent off to the squadron, and the squadron happened to be 166 Kirmington, which nowadays is, of course, Humberside International Airport. [Pause] At Kirmington [pause] it was a fairly basic [emphasis] airfield, had only opened in forty-three, near the end of the year, and [pause] roundabout in the countryside there were lots and lots of trees, forest, and the, the huts, the mission huts we were in, were in the trees. Fair bit of walking to be done to get to the airfield if you happen to miss the transports, but [pause] on the whole, it was Kirmington village, the people were very good to us, although I didn’t particularly drink, there was only one pub in the village [pause] that was in forty-four by this time – May. Now [pause] oh, got stuck, um, yes. The crew that I joined at Lindholme contained three Canadians, the mid-upper gunner, the rear gunner, and bomb aimer, were all from Canada. The pilot was English, from Halifax, the navigator was from Leicester, and the wireless operator was from a village – I’ve forgotten the name of the village again, but up somewhere around Newcastle. [Pause] Anyway, off we go, and start operations. We were lucky [pause] inasmuch that the battle for Berlin had finished roughly in the January of that year, because Berlin causalities had been heavy. Many of the trips that we did were not long trips because at that time – [pause] oh, forgotten, sixth of June, D-Day, that was the start, that was my first operation, sixth of June, D-Day, and that was to a marshalling yard north of Paris. A lot of marshalling yards had, were being attacked to make sure that the troops and supplies didn’t reach D-Day, er, reach the [pause] [knocks on something] [pause] and of course [pause] doodlebugs had put in an appearance, and so they had to be taken care of, and so many of the doodlebugs were, weren’t very far in to France, so a number of the trips were fairly short. For that we were thankful. Some of the trips of course were quite long. Anyway, we had got there in May, forty-four, and we did our last trip on the thirtieth of August forty-four. My skipper, the navigator, and myself, were all posted back to Lindholme as instructors. My skipper decided that he would like to stay in the RAF and by this time he had become a squadron leader, so he applied for a permanent commission. He stayed in and did his time after the war was finished, and finished up as Group Captain Laurie Holmes DFC, AFC [pause] and the OBE [laughs]. [Pause] When the war finished, because of my age I knew my demob group was a long way off, and I didn’t see much point in instructing to pass crews on to still to squadrons as if the war was still on, so I applied to join Transport Command. [Pause] Just as well, because, although the war finished, May, forty-five, I didn’t get out until, somewhere about August forty-seven! [Laughs]. But in that time I saw quite a bit of the world and got paid for it in Transport Command, flying on Yorks, which was virtually a Lancaster with a different shaped body. First flying carrying freight, because they changed the shape of the body so that freight could go easily in, or seats could be put in for passengers. After a number of trips taking us as far as Delhi and back, we were reassessed and went on to passenger carrying. Still Yorks, of course this time with seats in, and we went as far as Changi, Singapore, and that was our turnaround point, and came back. [Unclear muttering] [break in tape]. Well luck [emphasis] had to play a big part in things, I mean as I said earlier on, many, a number of our flights were fairly short because it was the time when doodlebugs were around, and they had got to be get rid [emphasis] of. Also, when you found that you were maybe down for mining. Mining was considered a, oh, quite a, you know, easy [emphasis] flight, mining, going along drop some mines in the water, come back. But we, one night, had to go to a place about fifty miles from Russia, right along the Baltic, and there were the airfield next to us, or closest to us, was called Elsham Wolds and there they had a, oh well all together there twelve Lancasters going mining at this target, all that distance away, and five were from Kirmington, and seven were from Elsham Wolds. Now because it was near the end of our tour, [unclear] some systems and some squadrons where, as you were classed as being more experienced, you moved up, from say maybe the third wave, to the second, to the first, and somebody got to be first in dropping – until this particular night we were down to drop first, the mines. But we went out with four hundred other aircraft that were going to Keel, but so we left this country, crossed the North Sea, in the company of four hundred other aircraft. Didn’t see four hundred aircraft but nevertheless, that’s what they said there were there, and then they turned off to starboard, to head for Kiel, where we kept on along the Baltic – twelve of us, supposed to be. As we got near the target [pause] a searchlight popped up, and another one, and another one, the three of them started waving around and we thought ‘they know we’re coming’. However, after they’d waved about for a little while they all went out – sigh of relief. So we were supposed to drop first. So we dropped and went through the target a bit and turned away and headed back, and as we turned away the searchlights came on, so the rest of the aircraft had to come through searchlights, but, although there was fire from the Baltic, from ships in the Baltic and [emphasis] from the harbour, we didn’t see any aircraft shot down. However, we had been told that we might not get back into Kirmington because of weather and so we were given an alternative route back to land at Lossiemouth, North of Scotland, so we landed up there, and but there weren’t twelve Lancasters, but we didn’t think much of it at the time because [pause] we knew that the weather was such that we weren’t getting back into Kirmington or Elsham, so then, landed somewhere else, maybe couldn’t get into Lossiemouth, or anyway, I don’t know, but it wasn’t until the next day that we got back to Kirmington that we found that we had lost two out of the five aircraft and word came through from Elsham Wolds that they had lost three out of the seven. Which meant five out of twelve, which wasn’t a very good result, and yet [emphasis] in coming back all [emphasis] that way, along the Baltic, we didn’t see an aircraft being attacked, or an explosion, but when the chap called – Squadron Leader Wright [?] came to read or to write the history of 166 Squadron, in doing research, they found the bodies had been washed up in, er, countries bordering the Baltic, from, from the raids. So, there we are – luck. Lost five out of twelve aircraft, but you haven’t seen one attacked, you haven’t seen one explode, you haven’t seen one on fire, you get back to Lossiemouth without any problems, you know.
MJ: And that’s unusual.
WA: Aye. But five out of twelve, aye. But for a mining trip, and people were thinking ‘oh, Holmsey [?] and crew they’ve been lucky they’ve been down to do a mining trip tonight’ you know, aye [laughs]. So, aye it’s, I don’t know. Anyway, anyway up there, that’s [break in tape].
MJ: On behalf of the International Bomber Command Oral History Project, I Michael Jeffries would like to thank Flight Officer Anderson for his recording on the date of the seventeenth of May, 2015. Thank you very much.



Michael Jeffries, “Interview with William Anderson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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