Interview with Eric Coling

Title

Interview with Eric Coling

Description

Eric Coling’s father died when Eric was a child which left his mother to cope on her own economically. Eric and his sister were sent to live in an orphanage but their mother was able to visit monthly. When Eric left the orphanage he began working for the railway and was proudly eventually able to own his own home and reunite his family. Eric volunteered for aircrew and trained as an observer. During his weeks at the Occupational Training Unit four aircraft crashed with the loss of twenty three lives. He was posted as a bomb aimer to 50 Squadron based at RAF Skellingthorpe. On his final operation Eric’s plane was shot down and after managing to eventually inflate the dinghy the crew scrambled on board with the exception of the navigator Bernard Ridsdale who was swept away. The crew managed to survive several days at sea until they were rescued by Danish fisherman who returned with them to Denmark. Eric and his crewmates became prisoners of war.

Creator

Date

2018-01-10

Language

Type

Format

00:44:06 audio recording

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

AColingE180110, PCollingE1801

Transcription

This is Gary Rushbrooke for the International Bomber Command Centre on the 10th of January 2018 and because of illness I am going to narrate the story of Warrant Officer Eric Coling with his permission. When Eric was four his father who was a London Midland Scottish Railway guard died leaving Eric’s mother to bring him up and his sister Muriel who was eight at the time, on her own. Eric’s mother’s railway pension was ten shilling a week and her rent was also ten shillings a week so she was compelled to take in lodgers. The Railways in the 1920s made extensive use of lodging houses for workers such as guards and drivers who needed to stay overnight before returning home with another train the next day to London or Birmingham for example. To make room for lodgers Muriel had to go and live in a Railway Servant’s Orphanage in Derby and at the age of six Eric joined her. Their mother visited them once a month and they spent four weeks in August at home for a summer holiday. Eric had a tough but practical schooling at the orphanage which was home to around three hundred children. On arrival at the age of six his first lesson was if you want something doing do it yourself. The boy’s warden was an ex-Navy chief petty officer called Joe Peach who divided the boys in to four teams. Nelson, Raleigh, Drake and Collingwood. I was in Nelson. You had to work your way up within the team. Joe Peach was strict but fair. By the age of ten Eric was working in the school’s kitchen garden where they grew all their own vegetables. He learned to mend his own shoes and attend boxing classes. He was told, ‘Don’t start a fight but never walk away from one. And don’t strike the first blow but make sure your first blow counts.’ Sundays were fully devoted to religious activities. The Collect with breakfast which the children were expected to learn. Then morning service. I went to the Congregational Church because my mother was a non-conformist. We were just a small group and I enjoyed it because they made a fuss of us. Sunday School occupied the afternoon and then bible stories and choruses in the evening such as, “And the Burden of My Heart Rolled Away,” And, “I Lost It On Calvary’s Hill.” And I can still remember every word. Eric was a bright pupil and was top of the class but by fourteen was itching to leave and get a job. He went for an interview for a job on the Railway. You had to be five foot tall so Eric was measured. He was told to stand on tiptoes and then, ‘You’ll do lad,’ said the man. So, in early 1936 Eric started working in the signal box at Altofts Junction. He worked a twenty four hour shift system and forty eight hours a week. Sunday was my day off and nights and any hours worked on a Sunday were paid as overtime on top of the basic wage of sixteen shilling a week. He worked as a train recorder who assisted the signalman and logged the handovers of the trains from one box to the next. The signal box at Altofts was complex. There were three up lines, slow freight, fast freight and main, and three similar down lines plus a junction where lines spurred off towards York. The signals and points were managed by ninety interlocking levers which had to be set in the correct sequence for each train. A proud moment came when Eric was fifteen. He was earning enough money to rent his own house in Altofts. He went to see his mother telling her, ‘I’ve rented us a house and it’s got a garden at the front and one at the back as well.’ Eric settled with his mother in the new house but was soon seeking promotion with the railways. He passed exams to become a permanent pensionable LMS staff and then worked in the booking office, again on a twenty four hour shifts system selling tickets during the day and balancing the books at night. War with Germany was declared in September 1939. Eric was seventeen, and a year later he volunteered to fight. He didn’t fancy the Army or Navy so he volunteered to become Royal Air Force aircrew in January 1941. He completed the then tortuous Service bureaucracy and in April was summoned to attend an aircrew selection board at Padgate in Cheshire. On the first day there there was a prolonged searching medical. And on the second day intelligence, aptitude and spatial awareness tests followed by an interview board. Eric was then told that he had been accepted for training as an observer. Later called NavB. I was given a RAF Volunteer Reserve badge which could be worn though I was not officially in the RAF. Official enrolment happened in August when Eric was summoned to the RAF Reception Centre located at Lords Cricket Ground in St Johns Wood. He was enrolled, kitted out and then spent three to four weeks attending time filling useless lectures before his observer training started in earnest. The observer role covered navigation, bomb aiming and gunnery and in September ’41 Eric embarked on a lengthy series of training courses. Thirteen weeks initial training in Paignton. Basic military training. Survival. Followed by thirteen weeks elementary training in Eastbourne where all the basics of navigation and meteorology were taught. Navigation in those days was based on dead reckoning and astrological plotting. Dead reckoning is the most basic form of air navigation but is still a requirement for pilots today. The principle is based on knowledge of a fixed position. First the departure airfield and then any accurate way points along the route. For example, a landmark. And then current position is regularly recalculated based on heading, speed and time flown adjusted using wind calculations and other variables. Various instruments and forms of slide computers assist in the task. It took us around fifteen minutes to make an accurate star plot using a sextant. Therefore, this was of limited use in a moving aircraft. About this time Britain secretly developed Gee, a form of radio navigation based on measuring the time delay between two radio signals to establish a fix. It was susceptible to jamming by the Germans but its accuracy was just a few hundred metres over a range of up to three hundred and fifty miles and it was still in use up until the 1960s. The next stage of training took place in South Africa away from enemy aircraft and in better weather. Several weeks were spent hanging around until we sailed on a convoy from Avonmouth on the first leg of what he refers to as his Cook’s Tour. He sailed in the Highland Chieftain, one of about twenty one troop and freight ships escorted by seven to ten destroyers and cruisers. Eric slept on deck for most of the long slow voyage due to the cramped conditions, heat and sea sickness experienced below decks. Avoiding U-boat attack they refuelled in Freetown, Sierra Leone finally disembarking in Durban and then on to Johannesburg where there was more waiting before arriving at Grahamstown Airfield in June 1942. At Grahamstown, Eric could put into practice all that he had learned flying navigational sorties in Avro Ansons and bombing training in Airspeed Oxfords. He came third on the course and the top three were interviewed for a possible permanent commission by a squadron leader. Questions included, ‘Did you go to Grammar School?’ And, ‘Do you sail?’ At the end of the interview the squadron leader’s closing remark was, ‘I am not sure you’re officer material yet, Coling.’ ‘I quite agree sir,’ replied Eric. ‘I’m just a lad with a hole in his jersey.’ At the end of the year Eric set sail on the next leg of his tour on board the Empress of Scotland renamed from Empress of Japan when Japan entered the war. Just two hundred RAF personnel were transported from Durban to New York on this luxurious cruise liner at twenty six knots. A speed at which escorts were not required. The ship was defended by a single three inch gun turret fitted to the aft deck. After a layover of five weeks in the USA Empress of Scotland sadly dry for this voyage brought Eric back to the UK with two hundred GIs. Now, some two years since he volunteered Warrant Officer Coling was soon to go in to operational service. When you get up in a morning you don’t know what fate may have in store for you. I ended up in Harrogate where most of the big hotels were being used to house RAF aircrew while they waited for their next posting. I was billeted in the Grand Hotel on Cornwall Road overlooking the Valley Gardens. In the middle of January we went on two weeks leave to visit mother in Altofts and on the way walked along the line of carriages looking for a suitable seat. Finally came to a compartment which was occupied by two young ladies in corner seats and an airman in a third corner. He entered the compartment with the intention of sitting in the fourth corner but instead found himself sitting next to a most attractive young lady. Getting in to conversation Eric discovered that the girls had been to the Mecca dancing that evening. He asked his new companion, ‘Did you meet anybody that you would like to meet again?’ It turned out that she hadn’t. Shortly before the train arrived in Harrogate Eric said, ‘Well, you didn’t meet anybody that you’d like to meet again on this trip which is a pity. So would you like to meet me again?’ She immediately replied, I don’t know why but, ‘I’d love to.’ ‘Alright. Name the place and the time,’ said Eric. ‘Tomorrow night. 7 o’clock in the station concourse,’ came the reply, quick as a flash. The concourse was dimly lit whereas everywhere else was unlit due to the blackout. Eric and Winifred went for a drink and the following evening she took Eric to meet her parents. Winifred Scott would eventually become Mrs Coling so as Eric says this only goes to show that when you wake up in a morning you don’t know what fate may have in store for you. Winifred was upset when Eric was then posted to the Operational Training Unit at Upper Heyford in early March 1943 because they both knew that now he would face real danger. The OTU brought together pilots, navigators, bomb aimers and gunners. Eric had been trained as an air observer which included both navigation and bomb aiming so it was not unusual to see two observers in a crew. Eric was posted as a bomb aimer and explains, I wanted to be able to see outside. The navigator was cooped up behind a curtain which was not for me although some quite liked it. The crewing up process was done by natural selection. I met another observer, Bunny Ridsdale who was posted as a navigator. I found out he came from Castleford three miles from where I lived so we formed a team of two. I then met a wireless operator called Alex Noble who told me he was booked to meet a Canadian pilot, Ron Code and a rear gunner Ray Moad so I arranged for us to join the meeting. This took place in a pub over a few pints. We all got on so well so a mutual agreement was arrived at. Eric was now part of a crew. Training at the OTU on Vickers Wellington aircraft was intense. Lots of bombing practice both high level and low level. Long cross-country flights both by night and day. Accidents were common. During the twelve weeks Eric was at Upper Heyford four aircraft crashed with the loss of twenty three lives. One of Eric’s final flights at OTU was a night flight to Nantes in occupied France to drop leaflets designed to counter Nazi propaganda. OTU ended on the 6th of May followed by a period of leave. Eric’s next posting was to 1660 Conversion Unit at RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire. We arrived there in early June 1943 and added a mid-upper gunner Johnny Boyton and a flight engineer Spike Langford to our crew. Both had been regular ground crew and had volunteered for aircrew. Our crew was typical of Bomber Command. Two Canadians, one Scotsman, two from Yorkshire, one from Lincolnshire and a Londoner. It was a happy and united crew living together, playing together and fighting together. We had a friendship and loyalty to each other. We first flew the twin engine Avro Manchester for six hours and moved on to the four-engined Avro Lancaster completing forty hours almost entirely at night. In early July we went down the road to 50 Squadron which was at RAF Skellingthorpe where we were welcomed by Wing Commander Robert McFarlane. He gave us a brief history of the squadron and then handed us over to a ground officer who took us to a Nissen hut which was to be our home. It had seven beds but no toilet. There was a choice of a five or six minute walk to one or there was plenty of grass outside. Of all the wartime airfields in Lincolnshire and there were a great many none can claim a closer affinity with Lincoln than Skellingthorpe. Although it was named after the nearby village it was actually within the city’s boundary. Walking distance from the centre if you missed the last bus. 50 Squadron had been in action since the early days of the war and remembered, and remained at Skellingthorpe until the end of the war. It was credited with taking part in more raids than any other heavy Bomber Command squadron. More intensive training followed before Eric’s first operational bombing raid on Hamburg on the night of 24th of July 1943. Seven hundred and forty six RAF bombers took part in the operation which was the first in which Window was used. This involved dropping thousands of tiny pieces of metal foil which jammed the enemy radar and confused the night fighters. Thanks to this only twelve aircraft were lost. They bombed Hamburg again on the 27th and 29th of July and after ten days leave Mannheim on August the 9th followed by Nuremberg the day after. They then participated in the mass bombings of Milan on the 12th and 14th of August which contributed to the surrender of Italy a few weeks later. In the spring of 1943 intelligence sources had confirmed Germany was developing long range rockets at a research and experimental centre at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. Operation Hydra on the night of the 17th of August 1943 was a massive bombing operation against Peenemunde carried out under a full moon. Five hundred and ninety five bombers and Pathfinder aircraft were involved which marks the targets with flares. Eight Mosquitoes carried out a spoof raid on Berlin to divert enemy night fighters. We weren’t told the exact nature of the target except that it was very important and that if we didn’t do a good job we’d have to go back again tomorrow and again and again. We hoped that bright moonlight would enable the different aiming points to be visually marked by the Pathfinder force. In case it was overcast and the target obscured number 5 Group, of which 50 Squadron was part would approach using the time and distance technique in which bombs would be dropped at a set time after passing a landmark. Lancaster Pathfinder aircraft carried the H2S radar system which was the first ground mapping radar able to show areas of water and built-up areas. This aided both navigation and bomb aiming although by sending out a radar signal the aircraft gave away its location to the enemy. The story of that night we took off at 21.30, passed over Lincoln Cathedral and climbed up to eight thousand before setting course. At 22.00 hours we crossed the east coast near Mablethorpe and climbed up to eighteen thousand feet. It was important not to stray south of track and overfly the guns on the German island of Sylt close to the Danish border. We were the third wave of bombers to head for a concentration point at 05 degrees east 55.25 north. From there we set course to Rügen Island and descended to eight thousand feet ready to start our time and distance run on the target. The night was clear and I could see Peenemunde in the moonlight with the second wave already making their attack ten minutes ahead. We arrived over the target area on time and heard the master of ceremonies, Group Captain Searby on the radio telling us to aim right of the centre. Don’t aim short. Hit the centre of the greens. He was actually on board a Mosquito near the target. I then took over. Bomb doors open. Bombs fused and selected. Right a little. Steady. Bombs gone. Close bomb doors. Keep it straight and level. Wait for the photo flash. Twenty seconds later it was finished and we turned homeward on a course of two hundred and ninety degrees. German night fighters had now arrived in force but Eric and his crew luckily escaped detection. We could clearly see them attacking the other aircraft in the third wave and many were going down. The Germans now had Schrage Musik, upward firing guns on their twin engine night fighters which attack the undefended underbellies of the Allied bombers. We lost forty aircraft and two hundred and fifteen crew. This was bad enough but it would have been double without the diversionary raid on Berlin. During August 1943 Eric’s sister Muriel got married. With our father having died when we were young I was needed to give Muriel away. We’d been trying to get rid of her for a long time laughs Eric. I asked the wing commander if I could have twenty four hours leave to attend the wedding. ‘No. You can have forty eight hours leave and I’ll try to keep your crew off operations if there are any whilst you’re away,’ he replied. He was a good man recalls Eric. Muriel worked for the Ministry of Information and a few weeks earlier had been posted to the now famous Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park as a teleprinter operator.
[telephone ringing – recording paused]
The wedding of Muriel Coling to Jack Flutter took place on the 27th of August. The wedding was at St Mary Magdalen Church, Altofts whose benefactor was Lord Halifax. It was a very high church and having been brought up as a non-conformist I was getting up when everyone else was sitting down. On the same day Eric became engaged to Winifred Marjorie Scott but had to return almost immediately to RAF Skellingthorpe. Eric was now twenty one and was lucky to have survived the war so far in which so many of his colleagues had died. There is a memorial in Skellingthorpe village which reads, “My sweet brief life is over. My eyes no longer see. No Christmas trees, no summer walks, no pretty girls for me. I’ve got the chop. I’ve had it. My nightly ops are done. Yet in another hundred years I’ll still be twenty one.” After the attacks on Hamburg and Peenemunde RAF Bomber Command began to feel that it was at last becoming a truly effective way damaging both German industry and also morale. There remained a hope that bombing alone might win the war. That devastating raids might undermine the Nazi regime to such an extent that the German government would collapse. Maintaining the momentum meant taking the offensive to the heart of Germany. To Berlin. On the 23rd of August over seven hundred bombers, mainly Lancs and Halifaxes plus one hundred Pathfinder aircraft attacked the city centre of Berlin. This was the prelude to what would be known as the Battle of Berlin. The raids on Berlin were unforgettable. The route was almost direct. A seven hour twelve hundred mile round trip. After crossing the Dutch coast we made slight detours to, detours to avoid the defences of Bremen, Hanover, Brunswick and Magdeburg. All our bombers remained unmolested on the way to the target which was the Nazi High Command buildings in the centre of the city. Any illusion of peace were shattered when the fires already burning in the city first came in to view about sixty miles out. The German controllers had ordered their regular night fighters as well as free lancing single engine fighters to concentrate on Berlin. Hundreds of searchlights and flares were picking out our aircraft aiding the eighty eight millimetre anti-aircraft guns and German night fighters. I saw at least nine of our aircraft going down in flames. We weaved and corkscrewed but on the bombing run we had to stay straight and level for at least four minutes. This is where luck plays a big part and many aircraft were shot down at this stage but we escaped safely and set course for home. The battle was so furious that some German fighters were downed by their own anti-aircraft fire. By the end of the night fifty six bombers had been shot down, Bomber Command’s greatest loss in a single night up to this time and more crashed on landing. The Battle of Berlin lasted for a further eighteen raids until March 1944. In all six hundred and twenty five aircraft and their crews were lost and a further eighty crashed on landing in Britain with a further loss of life. It was like visiting the fires of hell. None of the bomber boys who went to Berlin and lived will ever forget. After the Berlin raid, which was Eric’s tenth, pilot Ron Code and radio operator Alex Noble were awarded commissions and the crew were rewarded with a new Lancaster aircraft. The crew of L for love were pleased to have her. They had been with 50 Squadron since early July and had used a number of different aircraft during their operations. L for Love was immediately pressed into service for Eric’s second raid on Berlin on August the 31st which was a smaller scale operation than the first. Although fifty aircraft were lost on the second raid to Berlin L for Love escaped unscathed. Eric explains how he and the rest of the crew were feeling at the time. Now faces that had been familiar had disappeared as though they had caught a bus or train to some unknown destination one could not help wondering if we would also be doing likewise. Flying was no longer exciting. It was just a grim job from which there was no longer an honourable discharge. September 1943 started with ten days leave followed by a week of intense training missions including formation and low flying. Bombing operations for the crew of L for Love restarted on the 22nd of September with less eventful raids on Hanover and Mannheim. On the 27th of September we took off for Hanover again and whilst crossing the Dutch coast they were hit by flak and again hit over the target, this time badly. The radio, radar and rear gun turret were put out of action but fortunately none of the crew were hit and the engines remained serviceable. The journey back over the North Sea was made at low level below cloud and purely by dead reckoning. Landfall was made near Hull which was not the best of places to be as it was protected by barrage balloons. Fuel was low so a diversion was made to Kirmington which is now Humberside Airport. Next morning we returned to Skellingthorpe where our aircraft was made serviceable and ready for its next operation. On the 29th of September, St Michael’s Day we were one of twelve aircraft from 5 Group selected to go mine laying outside Gdynia harbour in Poland where a German Naval force was expected to arrive during the next day. Each aircraft carried six two thousand pound mines and was detailed to lay it’s mines in precise positions outside the entrance to the harbour. We were warned that we would be low on fuel on return because of the very heavy payload and would probably have to land in Scotland. The flight out was uneventful and we looked with envy at the lights of Sweden on the port side. There was bright moonlight and we could pinpoint the town of Hel at the end of the long offshore Hel peninsula quite easily. We made our run at five thousand feet dropping the mines in the target area and though there was some flak from ships in the harbour it didn’t cause us any problems. However, real trouble overtook us just after crossing the Danish coast on course towards Scotland. Ray Moad, the rear gunner reported that two JU88s were trailing us and as they attacked he gave evasive action and opened fire. After a one second burst though his guns jammed and Johnny Boyton the mid-upper gunner could not get his guns on the target. Seconds later cannon shells fired from below us damaged the tail plane and set fire to both our port engines. We dived and escaped into cloud but the aircraft was almost uncontrollable. For fifteen minutes Ron Code fought to keep his aircraft airborne before we jettisoned the escape hatches and ditching, ditching stations were taken. The Lancaster was with two escape hatches on the upper surface of the fuselage along with one in the canopy over the pilot and flight engineer. When the aircraft ditched it was like hitting a brick wall and seawater rushed in through the open hatches. An immersion switch should have automatically released the dinghy from its storage bay in the upper starboard wing. However, this failed. I pulled a cord to release it manually but this also failed. Carrying an axe and an emergency pack navigator Bunny Ridsdale and I climbed out on to the starboard wing and I managed to release the dinghy cover with an axe blow. The dinghy, attached to its lanyard burst out and lodged against the tailplane. By this time the rest of the crew were on the fuselage and rushed towards the dinghy. Ron Code dived in and released the dinghy from where it was stuck under the tailplane and pushed it forward so the other crew could board it without having to dive in. By this time the Lancaster was low in the water and I shouted to Bunny to dive in. However, he couldn’t swim and he attempted to walk back along the fuselage but in the process was swept away by a wave. I dived in losing a boot in the process and reached the side of the dinghy just before the lanyard had to be cut. I was helped in as the aircraft disappeared beneath the waves. It was a black night with rain and a rough sea. We could see the red light on Bunny’s Mae West and hear his whistle but could do nothing to help him. There was about ten inches of water in the open dinghy which was enough to cover our legs. We had ditched around midnight and baled all night trying to get the water out but it was a rough sea and an uphill task. When day broke we flew our kite radio aerial and operated the hand wound generator which sent out SOS signals but to no avail. We rationed the cans of water we had and estimated we had enough for about three days. The weather improved slightly by the fourth day but we saw nothing and by now we were becoming very weak. On the fifth day, October the 4th the weather worsened and again most of us were slipping in and out of consciousness. At about 10 am the dinghy crested away and I spotted a small fishing vessel before the dinghy dropped down again. I had the signal pistol and I fired a red cartridge. Cartridge which was seen by the crew of the Danish fishing boat who rescued us. It turned out that we were in [Scrarrag?] and we, and we pleaded with them to take us to Sweden. However, the Danes were from Aalborg where there was a Luftwaffe base and their families were being held hostage so they had no choice but to return. It took about two and a half hours to reach Aalborg where a German Naval officer who was definitely hostile to us detained us. Thirty minutes later two Luftwaffe officers arrived one of whom was the pilot who had shot us down. They were friendly and shook hands all around. At the Luftwaffe camp we were given a meal and were supplied with suitable footwear. We were told that we would stay the night and in the morning would be transferred to Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe interrogation camp near Frankfurt. Back home in England Erics mother and his fiancé Winifred were told that Eric was missing but that he may have baled out safely. Eric’s personal belongings were to be returned to his mother and she was asked what should be done with Eric’s bicycle? ‘Please can it be returned to me,’ she replied. ‘He’ll need it when he gets back.’ Her faith in Eric’s survival would be rewarded eventually. On the night of the 4th of October Eric and the rest of the surviving crew had their first decent night’s sleep since the 28th of September. Breakfast next day was their first proper meal since leaving Skellingthorpe and after which they were taken to the railway station. Ron Code could hardly walk because his feet were so swollen with trench foot which had developed in the intense cold and damp of the dingy. At the station some Danish women gave them apples. Their three Luftwaffe guards who spoke little or no English did not interfere. We shared our apples with our guards and they gave us some of their food and cigarettes. They were friendly but vigilant. Our destination was Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe Interrogation Centre near Frankfurt. The journey involved a stop in Hamburg where there was noticeable hostility from other passengers towards them. We were pleased to have the protection of the three German guards. The journey continued. The journey continued overnight and they reached Frankfurt around noon. By now Ron Code couldn’t walk and was taken to hospital. Eric and the others were taken by road to Dulag Luft, strip searched and all possessions other than clothes were taken away. After this they were incarcerated in small solitary confinement cells which Eric, Eric learned could be heated to over forty five degrees as a way of softening up prisoners although he personally didn’t have to experience this. The guards never spoke and Eric feels that this was intentional. Solitary confinement in such conditions especially following a traumatic experiences created a sense of intense tension and loneliness. After four days of solitary Eric was taken to the room of an interrogating officer. Eric takes up the story when he says he spoke fluent English and adopted a friendly and sympathetic attitude but played idly with an automatic pistol. When I congratulated him on his English he told me that he had lived in Barnsley for several years. He asked me what squadron I belonged to and I replied that I wasn’t allowed to say so. He smiled and turned over a thick file on the desk. He turned it around towards me and I could read the title, “50 Squadron.” He showed me a photograph of the control tower at Skellingthorpe and read out details of the wing commanders and some squadron leaders who had served there. I told him that it appeared that he knew more about 50 Squadron than I did. He asked me what I knew about Gdynia and why we had gone there. I replied that I didn’t know the reason for the visit and hadn’t stayed long enough to have much idea of what was happening other than the flak thrown up by ships in the harbour. He said, ‘Of course, you were mining the harbour. What kind of mines were they?’ I replied that they were just mines and that I’d never been taught about them other than they explode when hit by a ship. He just smiled and said, ‘I will tell you. They were two thousand pound mines and you would not have been carrying more than five. Even a Lancaster could not carry any more in that distance.’ In fact, we had carried six but knew we would have been very short of fuel on the return to Lossiemouth. I smiled and attempted to look interested but said nothing. He did however trap me into admitting I’d been on the Peenemunde raid when he asked me why we had fired on men in the sea when they were trying to get away from the fires. I said, without thinking, ‘We didn’t fire on anybody. We were in too much of a hurry to get away.’ I was aware that as a POW all I had to give was my name, number and rank. If I had have stuck to that I’d have been in solitary for another four days. I honestly believe that I didn’t disclose any information my interrogator was unaware of. I believe that interrogating officers rarely learned much from POWs. Most information came from listening devices, stool pigeons and aircraft wreckage. Eric’s interrogation ended after forty minutes with his interrogator telling him that no POW camp would be comfortable but the less trouble he caused the less uncomfortable it would be. Eric had some experience and found he was right but without a bit of trouble life would have been more boring than it was. Next day Eric rejoined the other crew members, Ray, Johnnie and Spike and they were taken by cattle truck along with twenty other POWs to Stalag 4b near Muhlberg. Despite the search Eric still had a button compass and a handkerchief map of Germany in his pocket. The two officers in the crew, Ron Code and Alex Noble were transferred to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan housing mainly aircrew officers, famous for being the camp from which the Great Escape took place. Luft 3 was built on sandy soil to prevent tunnelling and was designed to house habitual escapers but the guards were Luftwaffe personnel too old to fight or younger injured men so the regime was less tough than at other camps. Stalag 4b located in eastern Germany between Dresden and Leipzig was a rectangle of electrified and barbed wire with guard towers complete with search lights and armed guards at strategic points around the camp perimeter. A road ran through the centre of the camp at the ends of which were the main gates and guard rooms. Along each side of the road were compounds containing huts filled with three tiered bunks and palliasses. Straw mattresses for about two hundred men. Each man was given a dirty blanket and the palliasses were little more than a bag of dirt. This resulted in Eric developing impetigo across all of his face which for many months was treated with German gentian violet paint. The camp was split into different compounds and the RAF kept more or less to themselves. Other compounds held several thousand Army POWs many of whom departed on working parties. A variety of French, Dutch and eventually Italian prisoners and many thousands of Russians. The majority of Russians were housed in a sub-camp, Zeithain and endured deplorable conditions in which was partly designated a hospital camp. Thousands died from malnutrition, typhus and tuberculosis. For Eric in the main camp at Muhlberg the lasting memory was the cold. Most aircrew had only the clothes they had been wearing when they were shot down which were totally inadequate for the harsh winters in eastern Germany. Each hut was fitted with a small stove and there was a ration of coal briquettes totally insufficient to warm the hut. Until the winter of 1944/45 the Germans would not allow working parties outside to collect firewood. As a result the coal store was frequently raided resulting in at least two POWs being shot and killed. Bed boards were used as fuel leaving gaps in every bed risking that the top or middle bunk occupant would fall through on to the man below. The rations were meagre. From our arrival in October and up to Christmas 1943 Red Cross parcels arrived fairly regular from Britain, USA or Canada. The Canadian ones were considered to contain the best food. Each parcel was usually shared between two prisoners. They also included fifty cigarettes, the currency of the camp with which a huge variety of things could be bought from either fellow POW or the guards. As Allied bombing disrupted communications in 1944 they became less frequent and following the Normandy invasion they more or less ceased completely. Then we were dependent on the meagre German rations and for many months lived with hunger. The POWs were aware of the progress of the war. There were several clandestine radios in the camp and newspapers were published. Single copies that were handed around. By the beginning of the 1945 it was known that the Russian Army was not far away and the excitement was intense. On the 23rd of April 1945 the camp awoke to find all the German guards had departed in the night. Shortly afterwards a few Russian troops with an officer arrived but they only remained a short time. The senior Allied officers gave orders that the POWs were to remain in the camp and await events. Despite this quite a few had already decided that they would make their own way to Allied lines. This included the bomb aimer, rear gunner and mid-upper gunner of Lancaster L for Love. The flight engineer Spike Langford decided that he would stay behind. Eric never saw him again. Outside the camp there was anarchy, explains Eric. Russians were killing Germans out of hand and devastating houses just to satisfy their hatred of the Germans. There was looting of food and goods everywhere. Most farms were desolate with the animals taken away for food. Dead bodies of Germans were to be seen in deserted houses quite a few having committed suicide. There was a mass of humanity of all descriptions some going west others travelling east. The Germans who had remained in their houses and were still unmolested welcomed RAF POWs easily recognisable by the distinctive uniforms as a safeguard against Russian intruders and Eric and his colleagues could usually find accommodation for the night. They more or less followed in the path of the Russian front-line troops who treated them with respect. By the 8th of May ‘45 they had joined up with them and were invited to celebrate VE Day with a supper of rabbit stew and a few too many glasses of vodka. Over the next few days, the following day we continued westward and soon reached the River Mulde where the railway bridge across the river had been blown up. We were able to scramble down and up the girders and then meet up with the American forces on the other side. From there we were taken to [Halle?] where some, after some four or five days we were flown to Brussels in a Dakota. We were transferred to a Stirling aircraft and landed in south east England at a flag bedecked airfield to be met by a band of ladies with tea and cakes. I finally arrived home in Altofts on the 18th of May 1945 and soon my fiancé Winifred arrived from London advising me that there was a lot to do in a very short time. Of course, this related to our wedding which took place in St Peter’s Church, Harrogate on the 22nd of June 1945. Eric and Winifred went on honeymoon to the Lake District to start a marriage that would endure sixty six years until Winifred’s death in 2011. Eric returned to the railways working for the London Midland Scottish Railway while remaining an RAF Reservist. However, in 1955 with a family that now included two small daughters Eric moved to Tanganyika now Tanzania to start a new life working for the East African Railways but that is another story. Thank you, Eric.

Collection

Citation

Gary Rushbrooke, “Interview with Eric Coling,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 2, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/9291.

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