Bill Byers was a Halifax pilot serving with 429 ‘Bison’ Squadron, RCAF, part of RAF Bomber Command’s 6 Group.
You should get your logbook back from him.
I didn’t know him too well as I told you.We had a line up in the hangar one day and I remember talking to him, but I kept my distance – I didn’t want to get too close to these people. But his nephew was going to write a bookI don’t know if he ever did
Can you remember your first mission?
Well, I don’t know if it was my first mission but, we’d been flying over Germany for an hour or so, and it was quite dark and suddenly the flack started up right in front of me and we were up about 20,000 feet and evidently their radar had picked us up and I immediately changed course, about a 15 degree turn off, then a burst came off my starboard wing so I kept turning. He had me on his radar so I kept turning. If I’d kept straight ahead, he’d have got me.
That was pretty smart on your first trip.
No, it wasn’t my first trip. There was flack everywhere when you went over the big cities most of the time. There was one gun they said got 9 airplanes in one night..in the day time it was worse because the smoke stays there.
Does the plane jolt if it’s close?
I never had.well one night, it never jolted me, it flipped me up on my back. One night, I was flying along, I was just going to select the bomb doors to close and the flack burst right below, and the next thing I’m upside down.
You did manage to recover it easily?
Oh yeah, the gyro was telling me I was upside down and I was going down like that so I immediately rolled out of it. I looked at the airspeed and it was 300 and something and I knew that was stressing the airplane and I thought I better not pull out of this too fast or I’ll pull the wings off, so I kept the throttle back and let her slow down a bit, then started climbing a bit, lost about 5,000 feet, I heard a hell of a noise from the airplane
That’s the strangest thing, flying around at the back of the airplane.we checked everything and I said to the engineer â€œcheck the fuel tanks, check everything the crew had been holding their breath, and I heard a â€œPheww! and there was nothing! The blast blew us upside down with the bomb doors open but there was no damage.
There was another time we got back and there was 173 holes in the airplane.
So you never had any serious damage?
No serious damage at all
You must have been a very good pilot.
I was a very lucky pilot! I wouldn’t take any chances. The only time I took a chance was when we lost an engine coming over Holland. I was at about 15,000 feet and at that height there was light flack and heavy flack, both of which can get you. I thought shit what am I going to do? I can’t get up so I thought I’d come down. I looked up the coast and I could see flack towers about a mile apart and I was coming up to one. I flew between the 2 flack towers at about the height of the tower and I thought they won’t shoot because they’ll shoot each other! And they didn’t! I was out over the Zider Zee or whatever, and I was so close to the water and then they shot at me then I guess. I was weaving over the ocean. I could see the water but I got away with it. You do take calculated risks and that’s what I did. Anyway, I don’t know if this is helping..after the war I got my commercial licence and my instructor’s licence.
So you kept on flying?
Oh yeah, I flew Chipmunks. Then I decidedI was up doing aerobatics one day and I thought what the hell am I doing flying upside down? So I went into ground control, radar and suchRussians used to come down and check us out, see if we could pick them up.Came down to California in 1959. Got a long service medal. Knew we could do better down here.cousin.buildingcould read plans, could figure out costs.
Have you been in the San Francisco area ever since?
Never thought about going to live in England?
I love England, but we’ve children here and their children..my mother’s heart was in London. I’ve got cousins in London.
Did you ever have the problem where you were so tired, you felt like going to sleep?
One time I felt like that, I opened the side window and the cold air slapped me in the face, kept me awake. But once you’re in the circuit, there’s too much to do and you’re taking orders from ground control. There was one time, after a long trip, been in the air about 8 hours and I was just wore out, got down and the ground crew guy said â€œYou getting out skipper? I said â€œIn a minute. And my eyes were all swollen up and I was just pooped.
Speaking to wife
You knew all these guys in the war as well?
How did you meet Bill?
At a dance in North Allerton. It was so crowded in there you could hardly move.
Was it an RAF dance?
No, general, they had them every week at the catholic hall. I went with a chap and danced one dance and he was all over me and I thought this is no good, so we left, and Bill said later that he’d seen me there, but next time I was there, Bill was too and he asked me to dance. I’d gone with a girl friend..we got married when he finished his tour.
Did he talk about his brother much?
He often says â€œIf George had been here, he could’ve come into the business with us I say, â€œBut you don’t know if his wife would have wanted that and so on
You never had any doubts about going to Canada?
No, I was one of 10. Harold was in the air force, but the rest us were still at home. Harold was eldest, then Tom and then me. We had a 3 bedroomed house and Harold and Tom were in the bigger bedroom and us girls all shared another one.
Yes but we didn’t know any different.
And you worked for the railways?
Yes in an office.
It was just work. Lots of statistics.
Did your parents like Bill?
Yes. He asked my father if he could marry me.
Did it properly!
Did you worry when he was flying?
No, I didn’t, you have faith. You’d see them go up, and hear them as well. It was a way of life; one thing added to another. You did one thing at a time.
You must become adept at making do?
Oh yes. My daughter-in-law, she has sheets that are a little washed out and she goes and buys more. I say â€œCan’t you make do?!
But you had a happy childhood?
Yes. When I was about 12 I won a scholarship to Middlesbrough High School which was about 10 miles. I could have gone to Saltburn which was only 7! Gisborough is only a little farming town.
When did you finish school?
I was 16 and a half.
That was the LNER you worked for?
Yes. I even learnt morse code because they had that in there.
You presumably saw Bill quite often?
Yes, quite often. Probably every other day. I never knew when he was coming and he went on leave with his friends sometimes too. I wasn’t thinking of marriage and nor was he then. He’s 5 years older than me.
It must have been quite hard to pitch up in Canada going 4 or 5 months without Bill. Meeting the in laws and so on.
I accepted it, and maybe going to Pickford (?) helped me, gave me a little independence. And Bill’s mother was English.
Did Bill have any other siblings?
No, only him and his twin.
What happened to your brother?
His plane went down in Hungary or somewhere like that. The bodies were burnt but buried in a grave and my brother Charlie he wrote and found out where the grave is. That was in 1943, July. The younger ones they don’t even remember him.
Bill, I remember you saying that it used to rain so much that sometimes you used to take a trip to fly, just to get the sunlight.
Yeah, at Leeming it was so bad even the birds were allit was getting awful boring and the crew was getting.I had to try to keep hold of them. So climbing up to the ceiling which was about 8,000 feet and broke through and it was January and there was bright sunshine and it was like heaven. You know you get depressed when you don’t see the sun for 2 weeks. Stayed up for 2 or 3 hours and it was great. Everyone felt better to see the light.
What was your accommodation like at Leeming? You were on the base?
Yes. It wasn’t bad. The food was pretty fair. Had a good room. It was a 2 storey building and had an officers mess and the beds were nice.
How about before you were commissioned.
We were in the quarters like where the ground crew used to be because Leeming was a station before you know.
No. houses, Nothing in them but a bed.
Did you share?
I did with my brother before he left. He was there about a month. But most people shared. They were houses though with upstairs and downstairs and kitchen and bathroom. And they put the sergeants and flight sergeants up there. There was a fireplace and a heap of coal. There were guards on the coal heap because people could have come and taken a load. And one night we knocked a hole in the fence and the guard could hear, I know he could, but it was a joke. The meals were ok. 3 square meals a day.
What was the routine if you were on a mission?
Well, you’d get up
Went over to the flight. I was in B and there was A as well. Wait around and the battle orders would come through about 10.30 or 11am because we didn’t know if there was going to be a mission or not. You got up, showered, shaved and had breakfast.
Bacon and eggs?
Oh no, porridge and a little toast. Maybe some dried eggs. No eggs and bacon were in short supply. I scrounged some at times from local farmers. You made sure you looked at the daily routine orders, everything that was going on, if you had to take an aircraft to the maintenance hangars. I had to run the post office for a while when I got the commission. I didn’t know a damn thing about it and it was in a hell of a mess when I took it over. That was December 43.
How did the commission come about?
I don’t know. I didn’t ask for it. I guess when you start operating and you’re doing what everyone else is doing, to give you more money, I guessI don’t know. The group captain wanted to see my logbook. He said â€œI don’t see much flying here, but he didn’t say he was recommending me for anything. I didn’t know this til about 10 years ago, but my navigator stayed back when I was sent down to Honeybourne, he became nav leader, he found out because he was in contact with 6th group that they considered us to be one of the better crews. I am not bragging. I wondered why as a pilot officer at the time that I was getting all these dickies, and I’d only had about 14 trips, and I used to get all these dickies, even a wing commander. We were flying to Paris one time and we had all this window, like chaff, little strips of metal that reflect on the radar. We had half a ton and a shoot to put it out but someone had to put it out, and I only had the wing commander to ask to put it out. I guess he was scared and he was glad to get down there and put this stuff out..anyway, then we had lunch
A hot meal?
And would you sit with your crew always?
Not necessarily, I sat with my wireless operator most of the time, but they’d usually come around.
Did you sit with your brother when he was there?
Well, he was gone by the time I got in the officers mess.
Oh I see, the officers would eat in a totally separate place.
Oh yes, in the officers mess. There were different places around the place. You got the ground crew, the sergeants’ mess and the officer mess. Then we were briefed with a chart up, covered up til we were in so no-one else could see the plan.
And the wing commander would give you the briefing?
Well, first you might go on the met to find out about the weather. Have the briefing and then go back to the mess for sometimes good egg dinner or something like that, something substantial and a can of juice and a couple of cookies, candy. Then it was time to go. You’d go out there half an hour before and sit there til take off, say about 8pm. By the time we got to the channel it would be dark, depending on the time of year. We’d get the machines started up and you’d see a flare, they’d fire a shot from a derry (?) pistol. Sometimes you’d fire it up and it was cancellation right away. The 2 squadrons move in from one side to the other, to the taxi strip and move off one behind the other
Could it be quite dangerous taking off?
Not really. One night we had a cross wind and the aircraft started to swing. I used the engine to straighten it out. I did take off one night and I had a fire in the engine on take off. That was scary. I was just airborne and ? officer said â€œPort engine’s on fire skipper!
You landed again?
Oh no, bombs, fuel, you couldn’t land like that, had to burn the fuel off. I had to cut that engine right away. Evidently a pipe had burst and was spewing gasoline everywhere. You can’t fly very high with 3 engines. The runway we were using there was a little hill there and they saw me, saw the flame and thought he’s going down, but I managed to climb up and drop the bombs in the North Sea. Then I had to fly around for a couple of hours to burn off enough fuel because I knew they wouldn’t let me land. The girls in the control tower were waiting for a call to say the airplane was down.
That must have been a very tense time.
Tense for them in the control tower.
Tense for you too!
Well, it wasn’t so bad for me because once I got up it was ok. I called up and gave my call sign Mustwe, and the girl in the tower said it sounded like it was a ghost because they thought we were gone. It was a scary time, fire in the air is scary. I think that was the worst time I ever had.
It can’t be much fun being attacked by night fighters.
It keeps you busy, you don’t have time to be scared.
How did you deal with .. Did you ever find it hard to get back in the cockpit?
No, that’s the way it was. I don’t understand how I flew an airplane loaded with 8 or 10 tonnes of bombs and a fuel load, fly over Germany and let them shoot at you and try and knock you down! You must be nuts! You’ve got to be nuts!
But you weren’t too scared or worried about being killed?
You’re always afraid. Don’t ever let anyone tell you they weren’t ..I had a guy say to me once, we’d been over Hanover and it was bad, and I said â€œThat was rough he said â€œPiece of cake and next mission he didn’t come back, and he’d done about 26. I looked up to him. You take it for granted and look out. You had to keep alert. I never drank or anything like that and had a good sleep
Is that why you didn’t drink?
No, I never had started drinking, and I’d seen what it does to people; it made an arse of you; I can make an arse of myself without drinking. That’s the way I look at it. My crew drank; I am not against it but it doesn’t give you full control of your mind. You do things you wouldn’t normally do. I had guys who didn’t know what they did – â€˜I had a hell of a good time last night but I can’t remember what I did.’ Anyway, you came back, you landed, there may have been 30 or 40 aircraft coming in on that circuit. 3 at 1,000, 3 at 1,500, 3 at 2,000 and so on all stacked up. You can’t take too long because you’re pretty short of fuel by then. If you were damaged they wouldn’t let you land til last; they’d keep you in the air as long as possible. One night my hydraulics were shot away and I couldn’t use the flaps and even the undercarriage didn’t want to come down and I managed to get that down by diving and pulling the aircraft up.
The undercarriage just unlocked itself?
You could unlock them, they have a spring but without the hydraulics I couldn’t get the lights on; there are 3 lights and they were all red and without the green you’re not going to have landing gear.
But what did the diving and pulling up do?
It throws the airplane; I knew I had them half down but I wanted them locked. So we landed with the undercarriage down but our flaps weren’t all down.
So the runway wasn’t long enough?
Yeah, instead of doing 130 knots I was doing 170 knots and I went right off the end of the runway. Leeming had a runway only so long.they picked you up in a van and took you off for interrogation. They had intelligence officers and there was coffee if you wanted it. I never had it but my engineer loved it. One time I gave him mine and I think he talked the padre into putting an extra slug of rum into his, so he was drunk before the briefing. That rum was over 100 proof. He made a damn fool of himself and the wingco was mad as hell and the padre was giving the booze out.
So the intelligence officers were saying how did it go?
Yeah, what did you see, what aircraft bothered you, what did you think of the view of the target, and we had to take pictures too. As soon as the bombs dropped, we had 8 pictures. The 4th picture was the one with the bomb hitting the ground. There was no saying I hit the target – the picture showed if you did or didn’t. There was one time an aircraft was going up and down the channel and being tracked by British radar and when he landed, his pictures didn’t show anything – he didn’t go on the mission. He was scared. There were peopleyou break down you know. Everybody’s different. There may be a little skinny guy with a squeaky voice – he might stay right to the end and a big guy, he can’t hack it maybe. When we got out of flying school and got our wings we found out we were going to be sent to Canada as instructors and that wasn’t our idea at all, we wanted to go to England and these 2 big Aussies came up and said â€œWe hear you don’t want to go to Canada and instruct, but they did. You don’t know how you’ll react. If a lion comes at you, you don’t know if you’ll shoot or drop the gun and run or get so scared you won’t do anything; LMF, lack of moral fibre, that’s what they called shell shock in WW2. You only could take so much; everyone’ll break down after a while after long periods.
Did you see people in your squadron suffer from it?
Well, they were very careful; but we didn’t hear about it til he’d already gone then he spent 6 months in the glasshouse because he refused to fly. Yeah, we had some. But we didn’t hear about it because it could’ve upset us. Night flying once in Saskatoon, this Oxford took off and just came straight back down and it scared all the other guys because they’re just learning. Not the airplane’s fault it was him; it was windy.
So you do the de-brief then go and get some kip.
Something to eat first, then sleep. Sometimes you didn’t get up til 11 or 12. you might be on a mission again that night.
You missed breakfast?
Yeah, you didn’t need it.
Would you ever take a nap during the day?
I don’t remember ever doing that.
Do you remember ever having a problem of not being able to see a target and thinking do I drop the bombs or not?
The bomber command had the Pathfinder Force and sometimes they had H2S; I had it towards the end. Picks up the metal in buildings. You could bomb within so many yards, but you’d hit the city. We never had any trouble getting to the target; the PFF would drop their target indicators, they looked like grapes in different colours hanging underneath, they told you what colour it was going to be. We’d head for the TI’s and drop on there. Sometimes the target was obliterated somewhat. After hours in the air, the weather may have changed. The Met did their best.
Did you ever find that the target had already been hit by Lancasters or whatever?
No, it was all controlled by bomber command.
But were you ever in a situation where you could see say Berlin on fire or Hamburg on fire?
Oh sure. It was all done very quickly you know. You could put 500 aircraft across that target within 5 minutes. Every minute you’d have a group of aircraft dropping their bombs. You couldn’t see them mind you but they were all moving in the same direction across that target.
Was the cockpit heated?
What did you wear?
Everything I had. Long silk underwear, a heavy shirt, a big silk scarf, silk gloves up to here, then fingerless gloves made out of wool, but I never wore those as the silk gloves were warm. My upper parts kept warm but my feet were cold. There was heaters coming off the engines but when it got to about 50 belowthere was no insulation. I knew my feet were on the rudder bar but I couldn’t really feel them.
The machine guns must have been really loud?
Not really. You could hear it vibrating. The .5 shook the airplane a bit but 303’s didn’t do too much. I could hear it but there was the engine roar.
Were you attacked by night fighters quite often?
Not really, it was often very peaceful. I saw engagements. My brother was shot down over the English Channel; he was going out to Dusseldorf. November 3 1943. He was a pilot too.
I got back; I was listening in the circuit for his to be read out. I went over to the control tower and most of the airplanes had landed by the time I got in because we were dispersed all over the airfield.
Did you think he could’ve been taken prisoner?
Yeah there was always that possibility. I waited a few days to hear, then a few months – the Red Cross sent through names and it took time, but.I’ve just remembered something, I’ve never had the strongest kidneys and I always had to go before I got on the airplane; once I was in the air I was fine but every time I went on a bomb run I had to go, so I peed every German city.
I was going to ask, what did you do?
There was a pipe going out here cut at an angle so you could just pull it out. It just sucked the moisture out.
As soon as you hit the bombing run, you needed a pee?
Yeah, so in a sense I wasn’t in control of the airplane.
Did you ever hand over control?
No, there were 2 of them. You’ve got to fly level, straight. The bomb aimer was telling me, left, left, steady, right, right.You sit there flack going off all around, the bomb doors open.
Did you ever get the shakes?
No I don’t remember that, no.
Did you have any superstitions or a talisman?
You had your white silk scarf. (Wife)
Yeah I always put that on, it was about 6 feet long and light and it kept my neck and chest warm. The cold was a factor.
It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer.
No, up there it’s cold. An airplane flies better the colder it is. The more power it develops.