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My War at RAF Oulton by F/Sgt Sidney Pike

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Sidney_Pike

 

I lived in Essex in 1939. I was apprentice to the Post Office Engineering Department. It was from there I joined the air force. I was a youth in training, having left technical college that year. I had joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps in 1939 - which was the precursor to the Air Training Corps - the ATC grew up from that organisation, so it was natural enough that when the opportunity came to join the RAF, I did. I was given the opportunity to join the RAF, provided I joined as either a pilot or a navigator; that was the deal with the Post Office. Otherwise it would have been Royal Signals Corps in the Army, and that I didn’t want.

 

I volunteered for the air force and just after I was 19, in March 1942, I joined the Aircrew Reception Centre at St John’s Wood. From there I went to Initial Air Training Wing at Scarborough, until July 1942. Sgt Harrop, an ex- Yorkshire coal miner used to drill us. Having initially gone in as a pilot, I went to Elementary Flying Training School at Sywell, from August to September 1942. I’d never flown before I joined the air force, that was my first experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, apart from being a learning process it was great fun to fly that aircraft. If you offered me Concorde or a Tiger Moth, I'd still take the Tiger Moth every time. Dodging about in the clouds was great fun. Unfortunately I failed miserably on my landing for my solo test. Otherwise I’d been doing very well. I enjoyed it; got on with the Tiger Moth very well. I knew I’d blown it because I’d made such a mess of it. All the manoeuvres were fine; it was just purely the landing. When you know you’re on your final test you do feel pressure, possibly mistakes result.

 

So I was re-mustered to a trade I’d never even heard of: a navigator-wireless. I wondered, “What’s this navigator-wireless? What’s so different about that?’ However, I never did find out. I was sent off to No. 1 Signals School at Cranwell, where I had to learn Morse code. We trained in a “Harwell Box’ which was something like a voting booth. It was sound proof, so the only thing you heard was Morse code through your earphones. It was like a small wireless operator’s cabin in an aircraft, you were isolated from anything else. You either got the Morse or you didn’t, you were on your own. We also flew in Dominios and Ansons, doing wireless operating back to the ground. I passed the test at the sufficient speed — I think it was twelve words a minute.

 

In January 1943 I was shipped off to Canada on the Empress of Scotland, a troopship. The trip itself was pretty dicey, the waves were horrendous and the conditions on board the ship were pretty horrendous as well. We landed at New York, which was an eye opener. We went straight to the station and entrained for Canada, No. 33 Air Navigation School which 1s just outside Hamilton, Ontario. There we started again, more wireless operating. After we started the navigation part of the course we went up with another u/t

navigator as the wireless operator, or you were the navigator and he was the wireless operator. So it continued for the first month or so, then it was far more concentrated on navigation itself. Without boasting I was pretty good at mathematics, which helped with

the course. I had attended Technical College for three years. Geometry and mathematics were all very much of the course.

 

This was a totally different life. There was plenty of everything. There was plenty of food and booze, mark you: you had to be over 18 and get a liquor license. At weekends (you usually got weekends off) you’d go into Hamilton itself. If you got to know someone you’d stay overnight with them. You indulged in all the things the Canadians indulged in. We were living very well and enjoying civvy life really. I never found any problem with the Canadians. I was at 33 ANS from March 1943 to July 1943 and the recommendation at the end of the course was: ‘Not recommended for further specialist training.’

 

From 33 ANS I went to Moncton, Montreal, which was a transit camp and the next thing I was on a General Reconnaissance course up at Charlottetown, in Newfoundland. There, apart from navigating, we were doing ship recognition, German battleships, merchant shipping and so on. We used to fly in Ansons over the Gulf of St Lawrence, spotting ships. I was then sent to Vancouver Island, Patricia Bay.

 

l remember arriving, having travelled across Canada on the Canadian Pacific railway. It took about three days and you had meal vouchers for all your meals in the buffet car. At the end of the trip we'd quite a few vouchers over, when the ferry terminated at Victoria right before us was the Empress Hotel. We decided, since it was Canadian Pacific that we would go and get a meal with our vouchers. About ten of us wandered into this imposing hotel, the waiters thinking it a bit comical: a load of young sergeants walking in. We got a big round table in a magnificent dining room with chandeliers and all the rest of it. It seemed as if Victoria was the place for retired British service officers and their ladies. These old boys sat at various tables - and two or three of them had lunettes - looking thoroughly disgusted with these ten young sergeants. Understandably so, they were out for a quiet evening, dressed in all their finery with their ladies and this hairy lot walk in! Of course we were a little boisterous and noisy, but we didn’t misbehave. The hotel accepted our voucher and if you didn’t have enough, you just paid the excess.

 

At Patricia Bay we started again, more wireless operator training and navigation, using Ansons initially. Then I picked up a crew of New Zealanders, a pilot and two wireless operator/air gunners, flying Hampdens of all things. They were horrendous aircraft, a most peculiar thing; very cramped. The navigator had to more or less crawl underneath the pilot to get down into the bulbous nose. For landing the navigator had to come up from the nose and take his seat behind the pilot. The pilot’s seat had an armoured plate and the navigator held on to that as the aircraft landed. We had rather a heavy landing one day and I hit the underside of my nose on the armoured plate and split the skin open. Ray, the pilot, radioed forward for an ambulance, I was picked up and taken to a medical centre on the Canadian side. I had this little split on my lip dressed. It was made to sound far worse than in point of fact it was! I would hate to have done ops in the thing, any length of time in the air would have been very uncomfortable. The lads who flew Hampdens at the beginning of the war, and Whitleys and all that, were definite heroes; they were flying old bags of string, terrible things.

 

We were on dummy torpedo runs and submarine searches. We flew just over the Pacific and up the Straits, between Vancouver Island and the Coast Mountains. It was absolutely superb flying: the mountains on one side and this most beautiful island the other. You didn’t have to look far for the Royal Canadian Navy submarines the water was so clear! You could see a submarine, submerged, going along the seabed. The seabed was full of colour, greens and reds, an absolutely incredible sight. That was a thoroughly enjoyable course from September to December 1943, So despite the recommendation at 33 ANS that I have no further specialist training, I’d had two additional courses.

 

Coming back in January, conditions were similar to those going out. I was posted to No. 3 Advanced Flying Unit, at Halfpenny Green, Worcester, again back to Ansons. It was advanced navigation, which wasn’t very different to anything I’d already had. We didn’t learn to use the new navigation aids, Gee, H2S, or Loran. Quite what the purpose of it was I’m not at all sure.

 

I finished the course in February 1944 and went to 26 Operational Training Unit at Wing, near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. There I picked up another crew, a pilot, bomb aimer, wireless operator and two air gunners; all English. We crewed up in the usual fashion — all shoved into a room, we milled around, chatted with bods and finally you found yourself in a crew. It was a bit of a lottery. It all happened fairly quickly. A quite tall young man came over to me, a Flying Officer pilot — Frank Savage. I was a sergeant. He said, “Have you got a crew? Right come with me.” I went with him. A very good choice it proved, because he had already been a flying instructor, so he wasn’t green.

 

Frank Savage was a tall man. He was a very pleasant individual and pretty relaxed, but you knew where the orders came from. He was never overbearing or over strict. I think his stature, his rank as Flying Officer and his reputation, having been a flying instructor, gave him a certain status. He was senior in rank to all of us and he was older than the rest of us; that gave him a certain cache. He was the guv’nor, as it were, without being overbearing or shouting the odds.

 

We flew Wellingtons until June. It was a lovely aircraft to fly; geodetic construction with fabric covering, so it was very cold. The Wellington was reliable and comfortable enough for training. When we finished at OTU we were sent to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit at Stradishall, flying Stirlings. It was another aircraft taken off operations because it wasn’t up to requirements. The Stirling had a reputation for being a pilot’s nightmare to land because the undercarriage was very tall. It was so high up off the ground, it was a fantastic thing to climb into: behind the pilot’s seat there was a hatch you reached by ladder. The Stirling was cumbersome, however, I’m glad to say our pilot Frank Savage was a real expert, so we did very well with him. Again we flew Cross Countries and exercises — no more wireless operating, for me, at all.

 

On these various courses, I had always wondered about this navigator/wireless operator category. “What is this? Where are we going?’ Mosquitoes didn’t seem quite to the fore at that time. Was it Beaufighters? Were we going on torpedo bombers — the death run? You just didn’t know. Then suddenly you find yourself a plain old navigator in Bomber Command.

 

We finished our flying at Stradishall and went to 1699 HCU at Oulton, just outside Aylsham. We flew B-17s, Flying Fortresses. This was a complete change. We picked up two more air gunners so we'd a rear gunner, mid-upper and two side gunners. The Fortress was a comfortable aircraft to fly and it was different. There was a side door in the fuselage and you walked up to the pilot’s cabin, which was raised up, and you ducked down under to get into the nose. Once you were in the nose you had more headroom; you could stand up. After a couple of weeks converting to the Fortress, we were posted to 214 squadron.

 

214 Federated Malay States, Bomber Support Squadron was on the other side of the field. It was one of the squadrons of 100 Group. 100 Group was set up towards the end of 1943 specifically for Bomber Support and Radar Counter Measure operations. In 1943 bomber losses were becoming unsustainable, we couldn’t afford to keep losing aircraft, and even less so the aircrew, at that rate. The Germans were becoming more sophisticated in their electronic measures, their night fighters and their gun-laying — they were getting that down to a fine art. All the squadrons of 100 Group were based in Norfolk and group headquarters was at Bylaugh Hall.

 

214 squadron’s Fortresses were specially modified for the support role: the front gun position under the nose was removed and H2S was fitted under the nose, the belly turret was taken out and in the bomb bay there was a special transmitter. I think the Fortress was used not because it had slightly superior performance to the Lancaster, but because its bomb bay was vertical — unlike the Lancaster’s lateral bomb bay — so it was particularly useful for having this huge transmitter, the ‘Jostle’ transmitter.

 

The Jostle transmitter was a huge dustbin like thing. It must have been 4’6” high and 3’4” in diameter. It fitted the vertical bomb bay very well. We picked up another Wireless Operator on the squadron - so there were ten of us in the crew - he was a Special Duties W/Op, a German speaker, who operated the Jostle. The Fortress was fitted with a special little cabin behind the pilot and the Special Wireless Operator sat in there; it was locked up when he wasn’t occupying it. We never asked him what he was doing and he was never allowed to tell us. It was always very Top Secret stuff. There were some trips when the special operator wasn’t with us; it depended on what we were doing.

 

We only really had the faintest idea of what was going on. We were not told a great deal. We just knew the transmitter in the bomb bay was something to do with jamming. It could have been lack of interest; you were concerned with your own interests — getting the aircraft to the target, and back again, safely. I couldn’t worry about what the others were doing, they had to look after themselves — and, in doing so, the rest of us! It’s possible we could have found out more, but I doubt anyone would have wanted to tell us too much. It was very, very stum, I remember signing the Official Secrets Act. We didn’t learn a great deal, it was a case of doing what we were trained to do and everyone to himself.

 

A lot of our time was spent on spoof raids. The bombers might be going to the Ruhr, so some of us would go out to Hamburg windowing like mad, with equipment on and the Germans had to disperse their fighters to counteract what they thought was a raid on Hamburg, but in point of fact was an operation to the Ruhr. There would always be fighters to attack the bombers when they went to a target, but you had diluted their capacity to inflict damage. The need for the special operator wasn’t do great on a spoof raid, because it was the poor old gunners in the middle position who were chucking window out as fast as they could. The special operator could still, however, find German frequencies and jam them to give the impression this was a normal operation, but then the raid would fizzle out.

 

When you escorted bombers, you were jamming the German night fighter frequencies as they came up. The idea of the special operator was to tune in to the frequencies they were using, switch on the Jostle transmitter and to jam the frequency so they lost communication. Most operations were windowing trips anyway. It was a question of shoving out so much window it fouled up German radar.

 

Our first operation was to Hamburg. We didn’t actually cross the coast into Germany. We may well have headed off on a spoof raid, but Hamburg was raided. We committed our only blunder on that trip. We'd left the English coast at Southwold and were heading out over the North Sea. I’d given the skipper a course to fly and some time later I was taking a fix as to our position. I discovered we were nowhere near the course we should have been on. We were flying straight across towards Holland, almost 80° to the track we should have been flying. I checked up on this and told the skipper to alter course immediately, giving him a terrific alteration of course to get back on track again. We also had to increase speed to try and gain the position we should have been in at that time.

 

When we got back the skipper and I held an inquest and somehow he had translated what I had said into something quite different. Either he had misunderstood it, or I had led him astray. We never could get to bottom of it. Whatever it was, he had been flying the wrong course for about 15 minutes before I discovered the error and corrected it. We then decided how in future we would deal with changes of course. It was a question of repeating what was said a couple of times with the engineer listening in as well. We never had any problems again. That was a bit hairy. At the time I thought, ‘ My God, we’ve got to get back on course!’ It was a question of finding out what we’d done wrong and sorting it out. It was only afterwards I thought, ‘Bloody Hell! Another 15 minutes and we'd have been over the Dutch coast being shot at, the one and only target in the sky.’ I still think of it now!

 

You'd got an entry in your log book — you’d done one. I can’t recall at any time I was looking forward to the end of being on ops. I never got a twitter on: ‘My god, I’ll be glad when we’ve finished.’ I don’t think I ever felt like that. If you started to feel like that, it distracts you from doing the job. Without a shadow of a doubt when things got a bit hairy on ops you thought, “Let’s get out of this! Get me through this god and I’Il be good for evermore.’ But you never were! You did a bit of praying at times when things got hairy, but I don’t think you considered in the long term: ‘I may never get out of this.’

 

When went to targets like Leipzig and Dresden you'd a hell of a long way to go over Germany. The only mitigating fact was the frontline was moving forward all the time, lessening the period of time when you could have been in danger. You got a bit apprehensive when you got these very long trips.

 

We never did a sustained period of trips to a particular target in Germany, to get the feeling that here was a hornets’ nest you were going to fly into every night. I can understand those going to Berlin thinking, ‘My god, not again through that hell fire.’ The boys doing the Berlin raids in 43 and beginning of 44 found life was very precarious. They were horrible raids at the best of times. You can understand them being extremely apprehensive that they were going into hell — as it were — yet again. I think I took each one wondering, ‘What’s this one going to be like?’

 

The crew list was posted in the crew room that day, so you went to find out who was on the roster for that particular night. In the morning you would know if you were on that night. That’s as much as you would know. In the afternoon you took the aircraft you were flying that night out on a test flight. It was usually only 15 minutes up to 3,000 ft. It was the pilot and flight engineer’s job to ensure the aircraft was serviceable, you’d make sure your gee and electronics were all working.

 

The pilot and I were briefed together, but even the wireless operator was briefed separately. Because the knowledge imparted to him would be specialist to him. As for the special operator, I imagine he must have briefed separately too. The job of the pilot, engineer and myself was to get the plane to the target and back, so we were told courses, times and weather conditions. Others were concerned with the purpose of the trip. All of the briefings were much of a muchness. I imagine that on a particular night some crews would be carrying out spoof raids, others would be going out with the bomber stream. A support raid followed the stream, a spoof raid would had a different track to the bomber stream. Whatever it was my work would be exactly the same: to be at a set point at a certain time. The type of operation made no difference at all.

 

After the specialist briefings I’ve a feeling there was a general aircrew briefing. Then you were fed and watered before you went out. You didn’t say where you were going. You kept that very much to yourself. After you’d have your meal in the Sergeants’ Mess, you went to the crew room and put your flying gear on. The crew room had lockers with all the heavy flying gear in: silk long johns and underwear, long heavy socks, woollen jumpers, the padded electric flying suit which the aircraft electrical system warmed up, little silk gloves and some heavy gloves. We used the silk gloves for navigation work. We had an Irvin flying jacket as well. We wore a helmet with earphones and an oxygen mask. I can’t remember being very uncomfortable, very tired but not uncomfortable. I also had a big green bag with all my navigation gear in my locker.

 

The WAAFs would drive us out to the aircraft in a crew bus, about half an hour before take-off time. The aircraft was at a dispersal point on the station. We would get our kit sorted, check the gee, test your oxygen and intercom. The pilot and engineer started the engines and let them warm up, ready to go. I had a Dalton computer, sextant, rulers, pencils, callipers, charts, Mercator’s maps and topographical maps. The bomb aimer would use that for pinpoints to give the navigator some sort of aid. Generally the bomb aimer was an assistant navigator as well; in our aircraft that’s all there was to do. They weren’t bomb aimers as such, they were bomb aimers in title, but there were no bombs for them to drop. They were referred to as assistant navigators/observers, although they weren’t doing the plotting as such.

 

I sat in the navigator’s compartment on take-off. The Perspex nose was a couple of feet away. I had as good a view of the runway as the pilot. During the day take off and landing was quite exciting. At night you couldn’t see a damn thing. The Fortress was a well powered aircraft.

 

After take off you might climb to height and then set off, or you climbed to height on your way out. 23,000ft was our usual operating height; I can’t remember going much higher than that. If we were going out over the North Sea coasts, or Denmark, we very frequently went out via Southwold. Orfordness was another point we went out at. If we were going deeply into Germany we went across the Channel from Brighton or Bournemouth crossed to southern Germany.

 

You were working on your navigation all the time: checking your position, using any information H2S or the bomb aimer could give you, and plotting where you were actually getting. H2S and Gee were very helpful, though Gee had a limited range. Before the frontline moved forward Gee was limited to 300 miles from the base stations which transmitted the concentric circles of signals. So you could only go so far into Germany with Gee, after which H2S became very useful. Rivers and canals showed up particularly well. If the bomb aimer was reading his map and could pinpoint the river you could get quite accurate fixes. The bomb aimer was useful, and must have been on Lancasters too — before they reached the target.

 

In the navigator’s compartment I was right in line with the propellers. Undoubtedly there was noise from the engines, you couldn’t avoid that. I wouldn’t say it was obtrusive to the point it put you off the work. The noise became a blur. You'd get up and work over your maps on the chart table. It was easier to do it standing up, than sitting. You sat down again working you gee or H2S.

 

Once you’d got there, you were always on the edge of your seat, “Have I got it right?’ You'd tell the skipper, “Anytime now you should see something.” Being up front you might get a bit of a twitch on thinking, ‘Where the hell is this target, when’s it going to start?’ Then it would start. It was always very reassuring when he came back, “Yes, I can see it in the distance.” There wasn’t quite the same buzz on the way home. All you wanted to do is get home and go to bed!

 

We stayed at the target for about ten minutes and orbited the target. If you were jamming there was no point in going out and coming back. The bombers were coming in over a period of about twenty minutes, so you needed a Fortress jamming to cover that period. We used to do it in shifts. One aircraft would arrive at five minutes before zero, he would leave at five minutes after zero. Another Fortress had arrived at zero and would leave ten minutes after zero. Another aircraft had arrived at five minutes after zero and would stay until fifteen minutes after zero. And soon. There was always coverage over a target, so we had to stay there for ten minutes. After I’d worked out my first course home, ready for the off, all I could do was sweat. You just hoped to god the ten minutes would go, so you could get the hell out of it. It gave you a good chance to see, generally, what was going on.

 

I liked the day trips. At least you could see what was going on around and below you. Day trips were far more interesting. At night it was just blackness, though you were aware of other aircraft around you. You feel an aircraft if you happened to get into its wake. The target was quite spectacular at night: an awful lot of fireworks and huge bonfires. Once a city was well alight it was always an awe-inspiring sight. Dresden was particularly bad, because the city consisted of quite a lot of wooden buildings. It really

was one hell of a great fire. An exceptional fire. A firestorm, in fact.

 

Coming back from the target we were still jamming, so the fighters wouldn’t get in the stream on the way back. There are stories about crews taking their own way home, all you had to do was get home the best way you could. We were still jamming and assisting the bomber stream, so we had to stick with them to provide jamming coverage. If anyone wanted to take a flyer, that was up to him. He’s on his own.

 

You'd have to wait your turn for clearance to land. One of our chaps was coming in to land, but another chap radioed in with an emergency and he was given priority permission to land. The first chap went round again and on the way round a Ju8&8 shot him down and killed all the crew.

 

We were picked up form the aircraft and taken back to de-briefing. All the crew would tell the intelligence officer about the trip and answering his questions. He asked about fighter activity, searchlights and flak. Gunners would say if they saw other aircraft or other aircraft being shot down. After that you got changed, walked to the Mess and had your meal, then went to bed.

 

The billet was about quarter of a mile down a little lane at Oulton. As you come out of Oulton, coming south, there’s a small lane on your left, up there was a couple of communal sites and the Sergeants’ Mess. I think there was an officers’ quarters as well. If you walked down the lane the crew room and all the squadron buildings were almost opposite. There’s nothing at Oulton now, yet there were allsorts of buildings: our Sergeants’ Mess, Officers’ Mess, the Nissan huts we lived in. It’s all National Trust now.

 

Oulton was a comfortable station, but there was one instance: part of another crew was in a hut with us and it was a bit disconcerting to be woken up by the Service Police, walking through the door and picking up all their kit. They’d been lost on that night’s raid. A bit disconcerting, but you just had to get on with it. You had to. It was all a bit of an adventure, we were young, so we looked at it that way. None of us wore white rabbit’s feet, but a number of the crew might take a talisman of some kind. It wasn’t uncommon.

 

The only time you really got fidgety was when things started to get hot over there. When searchlights were flashing around the sky, you thought, ‘God, I don’t want one of those getting on us.” Then there was flak and night fighters. We’d heard about the Me262 and then, one night, we saw it in the distance: a great jet of flame. You thought, ‘Christ, what have we got here?’ You always feared the worst, ‘What new devilry is this?’ It was towards the end of the first tour. We probably had to do one or two corkscrews during the tour. It was the gunners’ job to say whether to go, or not. I don’t think we did a lot of that, but when we did you suddenly had to start holding all your navigation gear down. I don’t think we were ever hit by flak, saw plenty of it, but never troubled by it; we were usually slightly higher than the bomber stream. I think we were lucky.

 

You did get frightened, there’s no doubt about it. I remember thinking, ‘God, get me out of this mess and Ill be a good boy forever more.’ You never were, you just forgot it when you landed. Had a few beers and forgot it. Sometimes it was an adventure, although you could be afraid going out, depending on what you were doing: “It’s a tough one tonight.” You were so knackered after it all sleeping was no problem.

 

You were your own man, if you weren't flying, to go swimming in the lake at Blickling or the local dances. We could relax when we weren’t flying, you didn’t have extra mural activities or training. I wouldn’t say we got a lot of leave. I came home once in six months, at about January 1945. Prior to that I’d had a week, I stayed up here in Norwich with a local family. I just relaxed, took off the suit and went for walks or messed about at the house. A couple of times the skipper, Frank, took several of us to the Maids Head in Norwich for a dinner. I can’t recall going anywhere with Vern. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Officers’ Mess at all. I used to spend it locally with the family. It was like a day job really. You had to go over in the morning to find out if you were flying that night. If not you pushed off home again. That was the way it went towards the end of the second tour, I didn’t spend an awful lot of time on the station at all.

 

In mid September 1944 we did patrols along the Dutch coast, escorted by Spitfires. At that time London was being bombarded by the new V-2 rockets. We were trying to find out which frequencies the rockets operated on for launching and control in flight. We patrolled up and down a 30 mile stretch, about 5 miles off the Dutch coast, waiting to see if any V-2s were launched — the special operator ready to sort out the frequency on which the rockets worked. That was abandoned after a while; they didn’t work on any frequency, they were just fired off randomly.

 

The patrols were a bit boring. They were beautiful sunny days with blue skies, flying up and down the coast. It was dead easy, stooging up and down the coast. We didn’t see a great deal of the Spitfires, they stood off from our track. The gunners had to keep their eyes on what was going on inland, to see any telltale signs of rockets coming up. The Special operator was trying to find out what frequency the V-2s worked on with the “Big Ben’ equipment, but, of course, they weren’t working on any frequency at all. We escorted the US 8" Amy Air Force, 27" September, on one of their raids to Bottrop. It was quite strange to see a black Fortress amongst all these silver jobs!

 

On the night of 9"-10" of November 1944 we went to Saarbrucken. We didn’t take off til 1 o’clock in the morning. Coming back from this raid both port engines caught fire and there was a period when | thought we might be baling out. I thought, ‘Uh oh, better get hold of things in case we have to go.’ I didn’t get round to clipping my chute on, though. The skipper put the plane into a dive and got the fires out. When Frank said, "The fires are out. It’s under control.” I relaxed a bit. He then tried to feather the engines; one feathered, but the inner wouldn’t, and it wind-milled. He said to me, “Give me a course to the nearest emergency landing station.” I found the nearest was Juvincourt, in France — near Reims. I gave him a course, and we duly found the airfield, which was not long abandoned by the Germans. The runway had been patched and the holes filled where we had bombed it in the past. We landed, a hell of a bumpy landing, and the propeller fell off, hit the tail plane and took part of the tail plane off.

 

A flying officer and a couple of blokes were the only personnel at Juvincourt. They gave us a bed for the night. The pilot, bomb aimer and special operator were officers, the rest of us were NCOs; we were put in the old Luftwaffe barracks where we had straw palliases and a blanket. We thought, ‘We’ll go to Reims tomorrow and we’ll have some champagne!’ Later the same morning the squadron sent a Fortress to bring us back! We left at 3.30pm on the same morning we pranged. Would you believe it, the next night they sent us to Bremen!

 

About this time, we knew one of our gunners, Sgt. Astbury, was getting a bit fidgety, but we didn’t take any notice of it. He wasn’t very old, about 21, and he’d done three quarters of the tour, at least, but he just couldn’t take it any more. One day he just disappeared, he was discharged because he couldn’t go on. I imagine it was a case of LMF — Lack of Moral Fibre. I think they were stripped of their rank and sent to a disciplinary centre — it was a horrible business. He was married with one child, so it was a bit sad. Another gunner joined the crew.

 

One raid, which was obviously intended to disrupt morale, was on Christmas Eve 1944. At half past three in the afternoon four of us took off and made for Cologne, windowing like mad all the way. You can imagine the poor devils having to dash down the shelters, the German night fighter crews having to get kitted up and into the air, only for the raid to fizzle out. We got back at 8 o’clock in the evening, went to the Sergeants’ Mess and whooped it up with the girls. That was obviously to knock the poor old Huns’ morale, get the civilians down in the shelters, get the night fighters up in the air wasting fuel.

 

Our last trip, 14" January 1945, was another disastrous effort. In the afternoon the pilot, engineer and I took an aircraft, H for Harry, up for an air test. The aircraft was very sluggish getting off the runway. It trolled along and I thought, ‘Come on, when are you going to get off?’ It came off eventually and we did the air test. It appeared to be ok, but it was faulty.

 

When we took off that night, at the end of the runway, there was a hell of a bang. I thought, “Christ, what the hell was that?’ Nobody said a word. The moment passed and we started off for the trip. We’d got as far as the coast, Aldeburgh, when the engineer said, “Look, skipper, we’ve got to turn round, all the engines are overheating.” | thought ‘Oh well, that’s that one over.’ I didn’t get any twitches about it. We were blasé about it. So we came back and landed. We got down on the ground and went to debriefing. We explained we’d had to abort the mission. The following day we went out to see the aircraft at dispersal. The leading edge of the wing was almost flattened. The nacelles and the fins on the engine cylinders, halfway up to the propeller bosses, were full of twigs: we’d hit the trees on the end of the runway. Something had been wrong with the power of that aircraft which prevented it reaching take-off speed. That was the last trip of the first tour, enough’s enough.

 

We should have done 30 operations, officially we did 28. Some of the sorties only counted as a half. If it was a short trip, and just a window patrol, that was only half an operation, so you had to do two to get an operation. We did 34 sorties which counted as 28 operations.

 

When I finished the first tour there was talk of setting up a navigation school on the Station Heavy Conversion Unit, I don’t know why. They wanted me to stay as an instructor. As far as I knew I was just hanging around, reporting everyday with nothing to do. I enjoyed flying. I enjoyed the experience. I liked Oulton and the company I was keeping. The fact it was just a night job was attractive and I hadn’t a clue where else I was going. I didn’t know if I could carry on flying or not, but I wanted to keep flying. There was nothing altruistic about it.

 

Jack Lee, the engineer, and myself were both commissioned. We, together with the ordinary wireless operator, had volunteered to do another tour. An Australian pilot, Verner Scantleton, had finished his first tour and wanted to stay on flying. He had a couple of his crew with him and we were ail told, “You want to go flying again? Here’s another crew, off you go lads.” We picked up the remnants of this other crew who’d also done their first tour and formed a new crew.

 

Verner Scantleton was a fairly quiet, unassuming individual. Very laid back. He didn’t have quite the presence of Frank Savage. Vern was a very likeable, easy going sort of chap. All he ever wanted to do was fly; he was only happy when he was flying. I liked Verner.

 

Our first trip of the second tour was Dresden, 13" February 1945. That was the raid that did for us in Bomber Command. Churchill didn't want to know about that one — despite the fact he asked it should be done, because the Russians wanted Dresden raided. Of course there is plenty of information now about how essential it was to go after Dresden. It was a nine and a half hour flight, a hell of a long time. We took off at six o'clock at night and landed at three thirty the next morning. I was totally knackered by the time we got back. Coming across the channel. I could just see the English coast coming up. I was laid out in the nose of the aircraft and that was it, I was gone. I didn’t know any more about it til the aircraft was landing at Oulton. The bomb aimer had been kipping half the way there anyway and he took over. It was easy enough to find Oulton once you had got back to the English coast.

 

On the 18" February, we went to the Rhine. We had to land at North Creake on our return as we couldn’t get in at Oulton. The following night we went to Leipzig, two nights after that Krefeld, the night after that Dusseldorf — you can see the concentration. We went out night after night after night. We went to Leipzig on the 8™ of April and landed at Tangmere. I have no idea why that was the case, probably weather conditions at Oulton. On the 10" April, we went to Magdeburg, that’s another one out near Dresden again. That was 8 hours. You did 30 trips on your first tour, 20 trips on your second tour. This was our fifteenth trip, our Group Captain was waiting for us when we got back. He said, “I think you’ve done enough.” That was it. Altogether I did 47 trips.

 

In a way I was very lucky spending so long training on all these courses we were sent on. If I'd gone straight navigator training, without all this wireless operating and general reconnaissance, I would have been on operations the year before, when, though the trips were shorter, they were more dangerous. Though it has to be said the losses at the end of the war were just as bad. In the period I was at Oulton, nine or ten Fortresses were lost. There’s no question tt was getting that much easier. The dangers were still there, but they weren’t the horrendous continuous trips as there were with the Berlin campaign. That was night after night with really horrendous conditions.

 

When I finished flying I was sent to the RAF School of Administration, at Creedenhill, near Hereford. I spent six weeks studying King’s Regulations, hygiene, discipline, how to run a court martial and how to put blokes on fizzers. It obviously looked as though an adjutant’s job was in prospect. Rumour was it would be in the Far East. Halfway through the course VE Day turned up and about ten of us went A.W.O.L. for the weekend. The Wing Commander wigged us about this going over the top, “... officers don’t do that sort of thing.” He smacked our wrists and told us to clear off. So that was fine. I finished at the school and I was posted to Germany, told to report to an office in the small town of Buckeburg. A beautiful town. Close by is the spa town Bad Aalsen.

 

I duly reported to this office which had three desks, one on either side and one in the middle, one of which was vacant. As I walked in a squadron leader stood up from behind one desk. He was a very tall man, pure white hair, big white moustache, wings and all the First War medals — he’d been an RFC pilot. Bob Lloyd. We had a quick chat, all the niceties and my background. “Right” he said, “there’s your desk, sit down.” I took the vacant desk and discovered I was on Personnel staff in the Headquarters of the British Air Force of Occupation, which had just been renamed from 2" Tactical Air Force.

 

My job, as were the three of us, was postings of officers in and out of Germany. Equipment Officers, armaments officers and airfield construction officers were three of the groups I had, there were several others as well. Commanding officers would telephone us to indent for new officers or for posting officers out, they got to know us personally in the end. We went through to our opposite numbers at the Air Ministry and asked for what was needed. Occasionally, when I did come home on leave, I’d call in at the Air Ministry and pass the time of day with my opposite numbers. Adastral House is a warren of a place.

 

I signed on for an extra year in the RAF, so I was 2.1/2 years out there, doing this job the whole time, interspersed between having a hell of a good time. Whiskey, gin, all spirits were 6d a nip. We didn’t spend pounds, shillings and pence, but BAFOs in the same sort of denomination. You had to change them from your salary. Our Mess was a beautiful schloss of the Princes of Schomburg-Lippe, surrounded by a huge moat with the most magnificent carp. Our little staff of six was billeted in a large, comfortable house with several bedrooms, the house of a German general who was prisoner of war in England.

 

His wife, Frau Andre, and 14 year old daughter still lived there and she did for us, making our beds and cleaning.

 

I was first there in June. We arrived for breakfast one morning in December only to be told the schloss kitchen had caught fire. That was the end of our Mess. We were bussed to Bad Aalsen, about three miles away. There the Officers’ Mess was in big hotel, The Firschtenhof Hotel. I had a room on the third floor at the back. A number of us had a young German bat-woman between us, but no fraternisation.

 

We weren’t allowed to fraternise with the Germans at all. You had to leave the fraulins well alone. That was definitely verboten. Bob Lloyd hated them. One day a flight lieutenant and myself were walking either side of him, through the main street of town. Two Germans stood in the middle of the pavement, talking to one another. We were walking straight towards them and Bob walked straight between them. They didn’t move. Bob got hold of them and threw them aside, and we walked on. That was him, he hated them. Bob Lloyd’s survival food was gin & tonic. We called him ‘Uncle Bob’. When we sat at the table he’d look at the food and say, “Muck!”

 

“Come on, Bob, you’ve got to eat something to keep body and soul to together.”

 

“PI see you later.” And he’d go to the bar for more gin. He could stand any amount of the stuff.

 

Part of the personnel staff was a legal section, with a group captain in charge. While Bob Lloyd reminded me of a typical Prussian officer, ramrod upright with his great white moustache, Group Captain Gillings reminded me of Buddha. A big heavy jowled man, again a pilot with all the First World War medals. He didn’t stay very long, he retired soon after my arrival. We then had a much younger man, a World War Two pilot. In charge of the legal section was Wing Commander Baker, can’t think why we called him “‘Doughy’!

 

It was good to have the legal section there because you got several perks. The first perk I got was to attend the Nuremberg Trials, where, for the first time I saw my enemy firsthand. Goring, Hess, Ribbentrop, Raeder, Doenitz were amongst those on trial. The day I was there, in the VIP gallery, the prosecutors and judges were talking about the relativity of the trial to international law. The U.S prosecutor was Robert Jackson, the British one was David Maxwell- Fife. That day the charges were read out and the defendants entered a plea. They weren’t the whole gamut of charges, but quite simple charges that could be proven; not unlike those charges that they brought against Saddam in Iraq.

 

I had a good look at the enemy. The accused entered from a door between the American guards and moved down to their seats. The first one in was of course Goring. I was taken aback by the fact he was nothing like the great, portly individual that he had been portrayed. He had slimmed off a lot and looked gaunt. The charges were read out and they we were asked to plead individually. They had to stand up and walk down to the front of the court and plead. Géring got up and started to make a political speech, he was cut short in two shakes. The judge said, “You are not here to make a political speech. You are here to plead guilty or not guilty.” He said, “Not guilty” and sat down again. Hess was next. He was totally vacant; he looked up with a completely vacant stare. He stood up, zombie fashion and said, “Nothing.” So the judge said, “I take that as not guilty.” And so they went right through the lot. That was the end of my day. At least I had seen my enemy. The trial went on for a couple of months. Twenty-one were tried, eleven sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out in October 1946, by Albert Pierrepoint, the British hangman. Seven were jailed; Hess was jailed and died in Spandau prison in Berlin. Three others were acquitted. Géring took an SS cyanide pill the night before and escaped the rope.

 

I was incredulous; suddenly there is Goring, there is Hess. All these people you've heard of, just names, but suddenly they’re in front of you. It was quite exciting to see them in the flesh. It’s an experience I’m glad I had, there can’t be too many English fliers who can say, “Yes, I’ve actually seen the perishers!” These individuals were trying to pass the buck, claiming they had nothing to do with the charges. They were involved and slowly and surely their involvement was proven.

 

I went back to the job and then I was invited to the Auschwitz/Belsen Camp trial with forty-four accused facing charges. While some faced charges relating to Auschwitz and Belsen, others were charged with crimes at Belsen only. Belsen wasn’t a death camp as such, though thousands died there. They died of ill treatment, malnutrition, typhoid. Auschwitz on the other hand was a death camp. Millions of people died at that place. It was 4 British military court because it was in the British zone. It was a totally British trial. The VIP galleries were round the court, sitting opposite me was a young lady whose name ts infamous, Erma Greise.

 

Bearing in mind I was only 22 myself, Erma Greise particularly caught my attention. Any sympathy just evaporated. She grinned the whole time as evidence was read out, you couldn’t have any sympathy at all. She was SS concentration camp supervisor at Ravensbruck, Auschwitz, Berkenau and Bergen-Belsen. She’d had control of thousands of women and the power to exterminate thousands of human beings on her whim and fancy. According to witnesses, she sent thousands and thousands of people to the gas chambers. She indulged in murders, tortures, cruelty and sexual excesses. There was graphic evidence given about her behaviour, her involvement with selection for the gas chambers. She was responsible for the murders of up to thirty people a day, she directed the beating and whipping of concentration camp inmates and directed her dog to savage others. It was horrendous to listen to the evidence against this smirking girl. That’s all she was; she was 22 when she was hanged.

 

The camp commandant was Josef Kramer, “The Beast of Belsen’. A big, heavy jowled man, clean shaven, but his beard was black. He looked every inch the thug he was. Along with Kramer, Greise was the most notorious defendant in the trial. She was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, along with two other women sentenced to death by the tribunal. Of forty-four accused, eleven were sentenced to death, 19 served various terms of imprisonment and fourteen were found not guilty. Even now I find it horrendous these people could do what they did. Unbelievable. You almost felt they didn’t deserve a trial, they should have been sot on the spot, no bother.

 

I went back to the old job, again. Weekends away up in the rest camp in the hills. You booked in on a Friday evening and went the fifty miles by coach. It was mostly junior officers and WAAFs, but rank was forgotten. We all ate together, there were dances on Saturday nights, a swimming pool for the summer and beautiful walks. In the winter it was skiing and sledging — absolutely wonderful!

 

At the beginning of 1947 things began to change. Wives were coming out and boys turned into men because their wives were present. Mrs. AVM started to dabble in what the WAAFs could and couldn’t do. Things started to tighten up all round. Until then the Mess had been a place of jollity and pleasure. They all started behaving themselves, not that we misbehaved in anyway before, but it was a bit more rowdy in the Mess at times. Boys were boys, we were all ex-aircrew. It started getting more serious then.

 

I attended two more war crimes trials, of which there were about ten thousand, carried out by various allies. The legal section asked me to go to Wuppertal to attend a court, but this time I was on the court. After the war an Allied controlled commission was sent out to Germany which consisted of civilians from Britain, including judges and solicitors etc. They were part of the Judge Advocate General’s Department. The people from the JAGD set up small courts consisting of two British Officers and a judge. Our court consisted of an RAF flight lieutenant, I had been promoted to flight lieutenant by the end of December 1945, and an army captain, as well as an army prosecutor and an army defence for the accused German.

 

The first trial was of a Burgomaster accused of leaving a prisoner of war without adequate medical attention. It was an Flight Lieutenant New Zealander pilot, the poor chap was so badly burned his skin was hanging off. The burgomaster refused to provide him with medical treatment. The only comfort the chap had was from other members of his crew captured with him and he died in custody. We listened to the evidence, the defence and prosecution. In the end the judge delivered a verdict, ask each of us if we agreed with his verdict and passed sentence. The burgomaster got 10 years in prison. The next trial was a couple of months later, again in Wuppertal. A German civilian had been accused of murdering a British airman. A lot of lynching of aircrew went on. On this occasion the German had pitchforked the airman to death and disposed of his body in a manure heap. Again procedure was followed, but it became too obvious for words he was as guilty as hell. The judge couldn’t sentence him to death at that level, but he referred the case to a higher court.

 

I think the war trials were fairly conducted. The case for the defence was put, the case for the prosecution was fairly put. The evidence was compelling. There was no doubt about their guilt. The Germans were happy to shop one another. Anything to get themselves out of trouble. The evidence was certainly compelling in the two cases I saw. People had witnessed the incidents and were quite prepared to give evidence. It was a foregone conclusion. It didn’t take long. We used to start at 10 am and by about 3 o’clock in the afternoon it was concluded. The sentence was passed and that was it. I never had any compulsion about that. I never lost any sleep over any of it. It was just part of what happened. War ts a terrible thing. Men start it; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. It’s no good being moral about it. There was plenty of moralising towards the end of the war and after it. It still goes on. War is war. It may sound dismissive, but I can Itve with that and have done so, happily.

 

I went back to the job. I was due for demob in November 1947. I’d got to know a WAAF and she’d been posted to Berlin. I said to Doughy, “What are the chances of getting to Berlin before I go?”

 

He said, “Leave it to me.”

 

The next thing that comes up, “We’ve got a job for you Sid, you’re going to audit the Officers’ Mess’ at RAF Gatow.” I was driven to Hanover and put on the overnight train to Berlin. I shared a compartment with an army captain. Halfway through the night the doors banged open, it was the Russian guard. “Pass!” We showed him our passes and off he went. I arrived in Berlin and was picked up by car. At Gatow, I was introduced to the Group Captain, a very nice chap. He took me under his wing and gave me quarters in the Officers’ Mess for the two nights I stayed. I audited the accounts. I don’t know anything about accounting, but it all added up, so I signed them off.

 

That was in the morning. In the afternoon the Group Captain said, “Would you like a trip round Berlin?” He wasn’t coming, but he sent me with his German driver in his group captain’s car to go round Berlin. The poor driver was absolutely paranoid with fear. I had an old Leica I’d swapped for some fags, I was poking the camera out of the window to photos and he was saying, “No, no! The Russians will see you!” We got to the Brandenburg gate and I was clicking away with the Russian guards standing there, I took a number of pictures. “Put it away. Put it away.” The driver urged. In the evening | duly met my WAAF friend and we went to the night clubs in Berlin. She got paralytic, I put her in the back of a seven tonner and that was the last I saw of her! I went back to the Mess.

 

The following day, the Group Captain said, “Would you like to come to a disarmaments meeting?” We met the Russians in a room with a long table. An Air Vice- Marshall led our group of six RAF officers; the Russian General sat opposite the AVM. The meeting was about the disposal of pillboxes, but there were a lot of tank traps still around too. The AVM kept talking about pillboxes, but the Russians kept bringing up tank traps. There was no discussion, no meeting of minds, whatsoever. It went back and forth for three quarters of an hour and they just abandoned the meeting. The Group Captain turned to me and said, “This happens everyday. We get nowhere.” I thought, ‘That’s the shape of things to come.’

 

Come the November 1947, I flew back to Northolt in a Dakota and took a train to Blackpool. There I got my suit, shoes and a trilby hat. That was your lot, I was finished in the RAF.

 

Jack Lee, the flight engineer, had to go back to his civilian occupation because he was a metropolitan police sergeant. I met him a little later after the war, when he was the Duke of Edinburgh’s chauffeur, so Jack showed me over the Royal Mews. Unfortunately I've lost touch with him. He was quite a bit older than us. He must now be dead. I have a feeling Verner went straight back to Australia. He worked for ICI and he’s still alive. I don’t know what happened to Frank Savage. He left the squadron in February/March 1945. His mum and dad had a pub in Cheltenham, but he married an American and after the war he went back to America. My bomb aimer, Tony Craven, lives up in Preston now. He told me Frank Savage had died in America.

 

I found it extremely difficult to settle down into civilian life: it had been two and a half years living the life of old Riley. I went back to the Post Office Engineering Department. I was very, very unsettled. I was up at a telephone exchange in Stepney Green, in Commercial Road. I was established as an engineer, but I didn’t like it. I was very unhappy. I left the luxury of a flight lieutenant’s position: pay, Messing and all of that. I was getting £12 a week and to come back to the Post Office, five guineas a week, was a bit of a come down.

 

I remember going back to the Air Ministry, during my lunch break, and asking if there was anything in the way of a permanent commission. I must have gone back three times. They offered me a short service commission of three years, but I didn’t know what was going to happen after that and I'd got a permanent job. A lot of chaps, at that time, hadn’t got jobs to go to. I was lucky. That was the option, the Post Office is certain, the RAF is uncertain. In point of fact, we now know that would have been converted into a permanent commission because of the Berlin Airlift and the Cold War started. Anyway I stayed with the Post Office, later British Telecom, and they’ve looked after me a treat.

 

I can look back and say, “Yes, I enjoyed it.” I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds. It was a wonderful time, it was a wonderful experience. There was a sense of camaraderie that existed then that I have never found anywhere else since. As aircrew you stuck together. There has never been anything approaching the camaraderie we had in those days, and that feeling is still thee when you meet ex-aircrew. It was something different to anything you’d experienced before or since. There’s an awful lot of positives about it; an experience I wouldn’t have missed. I get a bit cynical when governments say, “Our heroes.” I think, “Yes, just for today, then you’ll be forgotten. Same as everybody else.”

 

 

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