Christopher Lee served as an RAF Intelligence Officer in North Africa and Italy.
I think I mentioned in my autobiography that I’d been a warder in Salisbury Prison. They said ‘You can’t sit around doing nothing at all before you go to the operational area of the Western Desert; we’ve got to give you a job to do.’ That’s what they gave me. Then I went down to Durban where I caught the New Amsterdam for Port Said. Then we went to holding camps in the Canal zone in Egypt. It was extremely unpleasant. There was a lunatic warrant officer who made everybody stand out in the heat. He was dealt with. Then gradually worked my way north until I got commissioned then got sent straight out to the Western Desert.
You were there before Alamein were you?
I seem to remember you said you saw the barrage opening.
I did, from a distance. I should think the whole of Egypt saw it; there’s never been anything quite like it. I suppose it was only exceeded by the Russian army later in the war. Guns wheel to wheel & it was pitch dark, so I’ve no idea what the guns were; 25 pounders or bigger, but the barrage just went on & on & on. The noise was horrendous & of course lit up the whole sky. That was October 42.
Had you already joined 37 squadron by that stage?
Gosh I don’t remember. 37 & 70 in point of fact. They were both Wellington bombers. 205 group. Richie was the first commander, then there was Gp. Capt. Simpson who had an enormous handlebar moustache & there was a lovely chap called Oswald Gayford who’d broken some fantastic flying record in the early 30’s or something – round the world. They were all very senior officers to me. I hadn’t even been commissioned. Amongst other things, they did what was called the milk run to Benghazi, which one of our group captains was captured – had to parachute out & was captured. Here was a huge row about that because he shouldn’t have been on the plane because he was too senior. My job was to throw out leaflets.
So you were on these trips?
Some of them, throwing out leaflets to the Arabs on the ground about forged £5 notes & things like that. On the back was written in Arabic & on the front was a representation of a £5 note, but actually it was in green so it didn’t look like a fiver anyway.
Did you find these trips at all frightening? There must have been a fair amount of flack going on.
The whole war was frightening wasn’t it. I can’t remember when I went to 37 & 70. It was certainly before Alamein. I remember a squadron leader Benbow.
When you joined, were you immediately intelligence?
Yes. When I arrived in the holding areas in Egypt they didn’t quite know what to do with me & then someone decided to put me in A & SD, administrative & special duties, & so with a lowly rank, still not commissioned, I worked for intelligence units, in Egypt & all sorts of different places, some near our lines, some not. During that period I think I’m right in saying, I was posted to 37, then 70. Then I was commissioned & sent to 260 squadron. Later on I was attached on & off to Special Forces towards the end of the North African campaign, then we went to Malta, then Sicily & Italy. Bits of this are in my book but I don’t write much about the war. The Official Secrets Act is in some cases for life & I don’t think it’s very interesting to write about the war today. There have been thousands of books written & they’re still coming out & many of them shouldn’t have been written, notably ones about SAS operations, so I kept it down to the minimum & usually used the word â€œWe as you may have noticed, instead of saying â€œI. But I can remember incidents that seem almost unbelievable. Finally, when I left to come back to the UK, I was already in Austria after the end of the war & somebody said â€œWe’ll fly you down to (I think it was) Naples & it was a Boston, which was a single pilot light bomber & behind the pilot was like a Perspex canopy, quite a long one, & he flew me down from north eastern Italy to I think Naples & he was the only person flying the plane & I was stretched out behind him absolutely flat under this Perspex canopy, a most extraordinary experiencemy head was almost over his shoulder. I think I mentioned that I went over to Naples & got involved quite wrongly in having to fly a DC3 with some of the ENSA people on board. A New Zealander said â€œYou take over & I said â€œI’m not supposed to do this you know & it was very stormy & very unpleasant & I didn’t do it for the whole time, just some of it & we got to Naples & had a few days leave & I & a couple of Australians & I tried to trace them when I was in Australia last year doing Star Wars.one was called Neil Funston, the other Murray Smith. & we went up into the crater of Vesuvius. I got down to Naples on a DC3, a communications flight just for a few days leave. In those days you hitched a ride whichever way you could get it. Two or 3 days later, it erupted! I’d gone back to the east coast to re-join my squadron & I remember I was flown back by the American Air Force in a B25 Mitchell light bomber & as far as I recall it had a dorsal gunner & I was sitting at his feet. These things come back to you. There are lots of things I’ve forgotten. It was like hitching a ride in a car really.
Did you have a recurrence of the pain in your head that you suffered when you were training?
Oh yes. It never really left me. It blurred my vision.
You always got headaches when you flew?
No. It started when I was training in Rhodesia on Tiger Moths, which is why they grounded me. After that I didn’t fly as a pilot, except on the occasion I just described. We didn’t have oxygen. Up to 15,000 feet you didn’t have it. I remember discomfort but no..I still had slightly blurred vision, which has cleared up over the years thank God. I was on all sorts of planes. I even went on unauthorised trips on bombing attacks on the River Po. I just disappeared one night when I was intelligence officer for 260 squadron. I didn’t turn up the next morning & someone else had to brief the pilots for their operation & they wondered what on earth had happened to me but in fact I was on my way back from a night bombing raid. I can’t remember which squadron it was, 232 I think, over the Po. I thought I might as well get involved with that; I can’t stay on the ground all the time. Then there was this extraordinary exchange that started in the desert & went on into Sicily & Italy whereby officers from RAF squadrons went up to the Army. Of course we were front line squadrons, army support fighter bombers. The Kitty Hawks to begin with P40’s, then later in Italy Mustang P51’s, & they exchanged an army officer for an Air Force officer. The army officer had a splendid time doing nothing. The Air Force officers on the other hand were sent up to divisional HQ & then were posted to some very bizarre units which was very alarming. We were given strict orders not to go on patrol & the first thing they arranged for us, to see if the RAF chaps were up to it
So you did find yourself in the firing line?
Oh yes, much against my will I may say! But then of course we were so close to the German guns on our airstrips in Tunisia, Sicily & Italy that they would actually fire at our planes on the ground & the pilots didn’t think much of that.
What did you make of the desert?
Well, it’s not true desert. It’s scrub; hard ground with lots of little bushes & lots of stones. There are areas of course where there are dunes & it’s nothing but sand; a sand sea. Those were the areas where the SAS operated in the long range desert group & Popski’s private army, all of whom I was with from one time to another. But the desert along the coast from near Alamein all the way through to Tunisia, it was mostly rock escarpments & hard ground. We didn’t go through sand seas. There was the odd bit of sand of course & sand storms which were very unpleasant. I remember a huge cloud coming along the horizon at terrific speed & everyone had to bunk down in their bivvy’s, little tents, or take shelter inside a truck or something, if you could, & just wait it out. But the noise was horrific & the screaming of the wind. A real sandstorm is a very frightening thing, like a hurricane or a typhoon & of course it can go on for quite sometime & if you’re in a small bivouac tent, you can be buried under it.
The conditions must have been pretty miserable?
Not at all; it was the healthiest place I’ve ever been. Apart from the bed bugs & the flies.
So you felt fit & healthy?
Very much so. It was incredibly hot during the day & very cold at night & it was a very healthy place to be. You didn’t get much malaria in the desert. I got it very badly several times in Sicily.
Did you get the chance to swim in the Mediterranean?
And you put up with the monotony of the food alright?
Oh yes. One didn’t worry about that. By that time I was commissioned & I think we eat very well. We didn’t have anything to drink, which was probably just as well. But the food was fine; what you’d expect. Various units I served with, I don’t remember people complaining. There were endless stops for tea – brew ups.
When there were these massive hops forward, were you going in aircraft or over land?
I did both. I went in an aircraft sometimes to spy out the land you might say, find a suitable spot to lay down the track for the so called air strip & having done that I returned. Then I would go out in my truck & jeep & liaise with the engineers who would lay down this metal strip called PSP.
You had that in Africa did you?
You’ve got me there. Maybe we didn’t. We certainly had it in Sicily & Italy. Maybe it was flat enough & hard enough, but we’d choose a spot then I’d communicate with the squadron to say â€œIt’s ok. You can come in now.
So did you have quite a varied role as an intelligence officer?
Oh yes. I had a great deal of authority & also a great deal of responsibility. In my trailer I had to keep all the pilots up date on where the bomb line was, so we didn’t go over it & bomb the wrong place, or stay behind it & bomb the wrong place, which would have been us. I kept them up to date with what was going on in Russia & everywhere else.
A very varied role then?
And presumably you were in touch with Air HQ?
That was not til later, much later, when I was promoted to flight lieutenant & had a lot of work to do with Air Commodore Thomas Pike who eventually became chief of the air staff over here. Then Sir William Dixon who became a great friend after the war, who was the AoC of the desert air force & one was constantly liaising with them. I remember before the invasion of Southern France, AC Pike sent for me & showed me all the maps for where the various air units had to go & I had these maps & I was practically the only person who had them. When we crossed over to the west coast of Italy to near Livorno, on a certain day at a certain time, I had to call the squadron commanders in & some of the pilots & tell them what was going to happen. So I had in my possession for some time the maps & plans for the invasion of southern France.
When you were with 260 in north Africa, the Kitty Hawks were going off for a strafing run or whatever, they’d come back & tell you about it, your job was to make notes of it & try to verify it?
No, my job was to interrogate every single member of the squadron as soon as they got back from a sortie & ask â€˜did you hit the target? Where were you? Was there any anti aircraft fire? Did you see any enemy trucks or trains? Did you strafe them/bomb them? What the weather was like, if they’d seen any other aircraft. They answered as best they could, having just returned from a dangerous mission & I forwarded that to the senior intelligence officer of the wing. He’d pass it up to group who’d pass it up to HQ.
Did you find that pilots came back from sorties in very different frames of mind?
Oh yes, no doubt about that. Some seemed to be totally unaffected. There was one Scot I remember who might have been out for a walk. He never showed the slightest emotion. There was a Canadian who had a thing about anti aircraft fire & people pulled his leg all the time. There were wing commanders who were obviously a bit shaken, particularly if they’d lost people, but they kept their wits. Some almost enjoyed it on occasions especially if there was no opposition. I knew people in the war who enjoyed the war. There were people from all over; it was a polyglot air force the desert air force. The bombers were mainly South African but the fighter bombers came from all over.
Did you have anything to do with 112 squadron & Billy Drake?
Oh yes. Oh Billy is an old friend although I haven’t seen him for quite some time. Very nice chap. 112 squadron.I’m not sure if I joined the 239 wing, but one time it was commanded by a very well known man called Killer Caldwell. I think he was an Australian. I think he had some trouble with gun running at some stage of his life, but so did Errol Flynn come to that. He was very well known. We had number 3 which was Australian, number 5 which was South African, 112 which was British, 250 was British & 260, but they weren’t just British people.
You must have had a few South Africans in that one?
Oh yes we did, quite a lot. One or 2 I managed to trace & see in South Africa.
Did you ever catch up with your Australian friends?
They were dead. I did catch up with some others, Air Vice Marshall Eaton who was the head of 239 wing as a group captain. Caught up with him about 20 years ago & one of my squadron pilots called Bruce Paige. He had to land with an armed bomb under his plane. It was a hang up – wouldn’t come off.
You must have seen such a lot of the detritus of war?
Oh yes, terrible. Not just the destruction of buildings & mechanised transport, but people in them still. One certainly did see a lot of that. It was inevitable. I had to drive through these places. The pilots flew from one strip to another but I had to drive through these places, so I could see the damage on the ground. We had awful experiences – we were shot up by the American air force in Italy near Vasto. We were shot up by JU88 bombers at night, which no-one thought would ever happen, in Sicily. It was unexpected to say the least because we had air superiority. But going through these places, maybe the very next day, & seeing the appalling damage & of course all the bodieswe didn’t want the pilots to see it. There was one occasion when one of our pilots took off from an air strip in Italy. His port wing dipped & hit the strip & he catapulted off the strip into a kind of big dell where there was an army post office. One of his bombs went off & we had to rush over there, myself & the doctor, & try to keep the pilots away. We had to get this chap out & there were dead bodies everywhere & a red hot bomb still sizzling in the grass.I don’t mention this in my book because it sounds like a crusade. Then there was a time in Italy when the American air force had been on bombing raids & ran out of fuel so they landed at our air strip & all came crashing into each other. It was a terrible mess, & into some of our aircraft. I think the worst I’ve ever seen in my life was Casino.
The level of destruction?
The small town, there was only one road, heavily mined on either side & masses of huge shell holes filled with water & it was highly dangerous but it was the only way through..
You were still with 260 then?
Yes, the entire village had been literally blasted into the hillside below the monastery. You couldn’t believe there had ever been any buildings there. It was appalling.
When you first got to North Africa, are you able to say what the nature of your
It was just intelligence work. Going hither & thither, gathering information & passing it on. We had certain responsibilities; more than the average
Was that mostly in Cairo & Alex?
No, I wasn’t there for very long. I think Hezmoliya was one place. I was hardly in Cairo or Alexandria at all except on leave. We were all over the place, always on the move.
I wonder what your views were on Mary Cunningham?
I only met him once. He was the first AoC I ever saw. I don’t know what happened to him. I suppose you’d say he was the first boss of the desert air force really. He was succeeded by Broadhurst – I remember him.
What was he like?
Pretty stern – Harry Broadhurst, fighter pilot. We were both in the same hospital after the war, the RAF hospital near Aylesbury. I was having pieces taken out of me. I can’t remember what he was in there for. He was succeeded by a man we called Pussy Foster. I have no idea why he was called Pussy – he had a big moustache. He was the last AoC I knew I think. Mary Cunningham I just saw once.
But was he generally respected?
Oh yes. He always wore fore & aft. I never saw him wear an officer’s peaked cap. Nor Broadhurst, but Foster did, but he wore one without any gold braid. They all had their idiosyncrasies.
Did you ever see Alexander or Montgomery?
Oh yes, both. I have to say the only reason I did see them was when the King came. He came to what was called Libya, a place called Zuara. He came under the pseudonym of General Lyon. Just drove around in a car & Monty was sitting in the front. Then he came to see us in Italy. I met a lot of other incredible people like Paddy Maine. I was attached to his unit at one time, Bill Stirling, David Lloyd-Owen who commanded the LRDG & Popsky.
No, when I was first attached to SAS units it was in North Africa & I met Paine & Stirling & Lloyd-Owen there but Popsky was in Italy.
You met some incredible people. I should imagine being an IO was fascinating.
Well, we were always called Spy. Of course I wasn’t – you can imagine me at 6’4 blending in to the background.
You got on well with all the other chaps in 260?
Oh yes. Wonderful bunch. Very few left.
I get the impression they were very fond of their IO’s.
They had to rely on us because if we gave them the wrong information, they died. When I first joined the squadron I replaced a much-admired IO called Johnny Walker; I was the new boy & had to prove my worth.
Were you given a nick name?
They used to call me Duke for some reason; I can’t think why. Like John Wayne, or just Spy, or by my Christian name; even the senior officers would call me by my Christian name. The Australians would always call me by my Christian name. I got on very well with the Australians because my father was the first British officer to command Australians in WW1. One of the adjutants was old enough to remember & it made a hell of a difference I can tell youI don’t know why you’re asking me these questions.got commissioned.
I know you can’t remember dates, but as far as you are aware, you were with 260 before Alamein were you?
No. After, very shortly after.
Very shortly after. I think I joined them at a place called El Dhaba..
That would have been in November 42.
That can’t be right because I wasn’t commissioned til 43, I think January. But I might have gone up there as an OR. I’d reached the enormously lofty rank of LAC, I think because of my languages & things; I think they made more use of me than a lot of people. When we got into Italy I was on the go all the time.
If you were going to be an intelligence officer, you also needed intelligence.
Well one likes to think so. The responsibilities were enormous. I was 21 & the responsibility was such that if I made mistakes, people died.The Italian campaign was just horrible, particularly as we were most of the time on the east coast, including the winters which were horrific, mud & snow & our aircraft were washed out to sea sometimes. The Italian campaign was a very nasty one & so was the Sicilian one which lasted 30 something days when we were up against the best. I remember being at Catania the next day & I’ve never seen anything like it, which I think was the last major tank battle where they all went into action as opposed to individual ones