I was sure that all of us, as young pilots… The Squadron had been in the Middle East for… Well, since 1915, 16, I think, because the (Elite) Transport Squadron in the Middle East, to be involved in opening up routes for the first time ever down the Persian Gulf.
Was it involved in the Takoradi Route?
Yes, they opened up that route from the very beginning, and British Airways – British Overseas, or Imperial Airways – then started using some of the facilities that these early guys had set up.
It must have been such an exciting time. I mean, flying across Africa, virgin countryside.
There was one story somewhere from the Squadron, it talks about one of the main bases, then called Khartoum West, flew in to the desert country before coming to the tropical areas, towards Lake Chad, places like (Fascha), (El Albeda), places like that name. And they’re all (out of the blue), lion country and panthers, and they’re talking about having to get in touch with the local residents and the local British chap for the area, whatever you call him, and then he has to… They tell him they’d like to get in there sometime, and they wrote a message saying clear an area that they can land their aeroplane on, it needs to be 800 yards or 600 yards, and could he get fuel. Well, he couldn’t get any (message to sods) out it the… He’s probably got one car and he gets his petrol sent out by people on (big poles), carrying it, and suddenly there’s an aeroplane coming in, wanting a couple of hundred gallons. What could he do about it? And no beacons, nothing, and the maps aren’t good. I mean, they’re basic maps.
So your Navigator’s got to be spot on.
Oh, yes. But he’s also making his map as he’s going along, you know. And there were so many stories about people getting lost. Because, you know, in the desert, the (Sulawesi), the Western Desert, there are similar stories there. Siwa in particular, yes. These South African pilots went off for a navigation trip to get used to flying in the desert, and they all got hopelessly lost, landed in the open desert, and nobody found them.
Horrible way to go. Probably you’d just die from thirst, wouldn’t you.
Yeah. And even later, there’d be the odd beacon around, and plenty of fuel, and the knowledge of the desert. Well, when you think that during the War that on the delivery journey from West Africa, Takoradi to Cairo via Khartoum – never mind all these little funny places I mentioned – from Chad on, when you think of that, they were still getting lost. The problem was it was a hair-raising journey. They had to be very carefully watched, the (most) service was pretty basic, there was a lot of ‘rule of thumb’ and that sort of stuff, even in the War. And there were beacons at the odd RAF Station, very (crude) RT, or WT. So what they did was to lead formations of Hurricanes and Spitfires and other bombers with a first-class Navigator who’d know the area like the back of his hand, who would lead the formation. That’s the way they got over the problem. I’m really thinking back to what it must have been like for this first aircraft going into the unknown.
I think Mary Coningham was involved in some of those early routes, if I remember rightly.
Really? Could well have been. But certainly something (something I enjoyed) was the ethos… Oh, what’s the word. The ethos or the morale of it all. There was something very stately about all of them. Some of the Flight Lieutenants and the old Squadron Leaders were figureheads rather, you know. The (fastest) Sergeant-Pilot when you’re 18-and-a-half or whatever…
Oh, so you weren’t commissioned immediately then?
No, I was Sergeant-Pilot. You know, (you’ll find that) quite a lot of authors and filmmakers miss out on something like 60 per cent of all those flying were NCO’s. In the Battle of Britain, all these films you see, oh, the Sergeant-Pilot was part of the story. It’s (offensive), actually, when there’s so many of them around, well, a huge number. I mean, I was commissioned in the field. That’s a nice way to do it. I’ve come through all the ranks, and we’ve had one or two Air Marshals who’ve come through all the way to the top, and they’ve all been great blokes, you know. They know the Airman, they get a feel for him. But they were pretty good anyway. The only reason I’m saying that is pre-War, pre-First World War, the Squadron I belonged to had (done) things, and their motto, the in-house motto was ‘Anywhere, anytime, anyhow, and any-bloody-way’, you know, they would do it, they would get there. They talked about one of the old boys, the first trip he ever did in the early thirties, he was on his second tour out there. He was married, his wife lived in Cairo, his kids were being educated there. It was that sort of peacetime thing we couldn’t get a grip of, these young schoolboys. There was that element there. He was talking about going to a fort somewhere in the North of Iraq, near Kirkuk, which is now well known to everybody. In those days (they were found wild), there was British outpost there, trying to keep an eye on all the wild tribesmen there at the time, who were pretty good except that every once in a while they all got into a war with each other and (enfurled) everything around, including the British setup. And so, in those days, the women and children were brought out, and so they’d (land) next to the fort in the most horrendous situations but never turned their heads, just got on and did it, brought the bloody wife and kids out. And it became… You know, when you’re there as a young pilot, as a second pilot, you can feel that, and it creates a marvellous basis for your own flying.
Confidence and certainty, you know. It can be done, but it’s got to be done properly. That sort of (deepness).
And presumably that instils a very high standard of operation within you, and pride to ensure that that continues.
Oh, yes. Yes, very much so. There was a light-heartedness at times in the Sergeants mess. There was a definite Officer/NCO divide for quite a lot of the War. And because towards the end of the War, more and more people were being commissioned on the aircrew side, that you began to get a lot more levelling out. But that was the way it was in those days. Nobody objected to that, I don’t think.
What was your background? Had you always wanted to fly?
Yes. I was brought up in a Welsh mining valley. My Father was one of these mining engineers. He wasn’t the manager of the whole mine, but it was a village where the one and only industry was the coal mine. Producing the finest (steam) coal in the world, by the way. That goes without saying. And the two choirs we had were the best in all the valleys in South Wales, and one of the reasons why they fought each other so bloody hard so that the standard goes up and up. My Father conducted one, and my best friend became a world famous baritone, a wonderful, marvellous baritone, his Father conducted the other choir. So (blood was being drawn) between tenors and basses. But the competition in the villages was enormous. Almost parts of the village and then village against village, and Rugby, you know, was tremendous.
Did you play?
Yes, yes. My Brother played for Wales. There’s (nothing I can do) in life to achieve that, unless I got fifteen caps (and this thing). But I was brought up in that environment. Enormous poverty in the early thirties when I began to understand what in life was going on. Enormous poverty. The amazing standards and pride in everyone’s hearts. You know, the brass being cleaned every day.
A lot of that standards and pride has gone completely now, hasn’t it?
Yes. But also the independence. Each house was different [inaudible]. Yes, that’s my background, anyway. Huge competition. Eight chapels. Eight different denominations, and they all fought each other…
Did you have to go to one or the other?
Oh, I went to one. Oh, yes. Welsh Methodist. Three times every Sunday with our crowd. My Father played the organ. No way you could get out. There was nothing that allowed you to get out of it.
Sunday best on?
Sunday best, yes. That’s why I can’t help (wearing Sunday dress out and then take something off) [Waiter talks. Inaudible]
But there, that’s my background. Not untypical, but the one I came from, I’d hardly ever moved out of the valley, because there wasn’t masses of money about in those days. (The only way of working) at the time was running the coal mine and keeping it going. The mines flood very easily, as you know, so he had to go in every day and manage to keep the pumps going and keep the electric things working. He was so well liked, my old Dad, that everybody set their watches as he walked through the village to the mine every night. You know, they knew he was on time. Well, I’m the worst timekeeper ever in the history of mankind, mainly because this was the choice of the (British standard). So that’s my background. When I went out of Wales, it was almost the first time ever, I went to Gloucestershire, and I’d volunteered in the 6th Form for… The Civil Service had to be evacuated… [Waiter]… From Downing Street – not Downing Street, from Whitehall, and they were all running around into the wilds of the countryside. And one or two of the (Irish) Department had gone to (Westonborough) Girls School in lovely Gloucestershire. And the only reason I (bring it up) here is that my headmaster, who hadn’t recovered from the shock of me getting through my O Levels, came in and asked for volunteers to give up your A Level training for a short time to help the Civil Service out, for the reason that far too many Civil Servants had volunteered and been allowed to join up. There was a dire shortage. And (that was from my age) to everybody else, you know, so they pulled the… The whatever-it-is down… So that’s how I got away from my home. I had a place from Cardiff University doing Economics and Geography, and they were determined that, having surprised them all by getting my O Levels, I was jolly well going to go on and do it. Because all my Brothers were on a (course), you see.
So how many Brothers did you have?
Five. And two Sisters. I was the eldest and so it was a nightmare for me… So that was the background, you know. So I was so naïve, I can’t tell you. I was the worlds most naïve little boy. To go to England, I was shocked. On the first Sunday I was in Gloucestershire, we were all allowed to take our bikes, and I was cycling from Gloucester Cathedral to get back to Westonborough (Tetbury). There were about twenty young people when I passed the RAF recruiting office on a Sunday, and it was open. Most unusual. They were so short of aircrew, they were desperate. So I parked my, told the others I had a puncture, went in and do you know? I was out in fifteen minutes. I had all the qualifications, I passed the… (There was a medical) to happen in due course.
So had it not been open it could have been..?
Well, the opportunity fulfilled my dream, because ever since I had been five I’d been nuts on aeroplanes and nobody could understand it, because you never saw aeroplanes in the South of Wales. I mean, there was only five cars in the village. The two airfields were down on the South Wales coast, a long way away. So it wasn’t as though I was living next to an airfield like kids who were brought up in Leicester or Nottingham, who had a big airfield, the all-grass airfield nearby, and some aircraft factory was there making aeroplanes. They had an interest that could be fulfilled. Mine was not. Mine was just a dream which came true. I joined when I was in… Oh, about six months later.
Obviously the War had started by that stage.
(Six, Four,) 1940. And I volunteered for this job. Three of us were taken and off we went to Tetbury. And that was… I cheated my age, anyway, when I got to Gloucester.
So you were still seventeen then?
I was seventeen and a half, yes. And then they tripped up on my birth certificate, again, so all the dates were wrong and I hadn’t bothered now to work out how to tell them.
… It’s quite boring, flying now. I mean the novelty quickly wears off.
I’d never seen an aeroplane. Never. And when I got from Gloucester they were all quite surprised that I’d had the guts to join up. I was carried along, you know, with the wave, as it were. And my parents’ didn’t know. I didn’t dare tell them. (The War), they thought I was too young, they wanted me to get this damn degree. An (education) in Wales is really something.
Were your Brothers’ all off at War?
Mmm. One joined the Territorials in ’38, so they were called to arms, and my little Brother, the very brainy one, he’d gone to the Civil Service at quite a good, high level. He’d passed a very high level, the higher something. And I think He was (first in the area that he had passed into). And then He joined the Navy. So He was (there right through the War).
He was alright? He came through it?
He came through it, yeah. Some tough times. Yeah, it’s a funny business. I stayed in the RAF. But, you know, when I got to see my first aeroplane (in Hull, Russ in Hull, on the Humber), a (Blackburn) aircraft…
Were you flying those Blackburns? Or were they Skewers?
No, no. We didn’t fly those. We saw them in the distance. But the extraordinary thing is that the… I saw my first Tigermoth and my Instructor came and got me out of a room and took me to the side and said, “This is the aeroplane that you’re going to learn to fly on. My name’s Sergeant (Wilbur).” “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir,” because I was terrified, still wondering if this was just a dream which couldn’t go right. Anyway, we got there, and I can remember touching the wingtip of this Tigermoth and thinking it was the most wonderful moment of my… (Very few moments have ever quite achieved that).
Really? In your whole life?
Well, (the key one), I couldn’t drive a car – I’d never had the chance to – and I got above average in the course. You know, there’s an instinctiveness there that was there all the time.
There was quite a lot of groundwork as well. Did you try quite hard at that?
You took all that quite seriously?
Oh, you had to. You wouldn’t move on unless you passed. The quality of RAF training, even during the War, was extraordinarily high. They never lowered the standards.
So when people got their Wings, you really were pretty confident?
And should, in theory, be able to get yourself across that bit of windswept desert?
Well, making it sound very easy but, you know, learning to fly any new aircraft is quite a problem. All the mysterious and peculiar behaviours of aeroplanes, things (that are designed and built in, things like that). But every aircraft had its qualities. But what they do say; if you’ve been taught in a Tigermoth, and you can fly a Tigermoth, I mean fly correctly in all flying circumstances, then you will almost be able to fly any aircraft, because you learn the basic, basic things. You learn… Something my Instructor said to me before leaving, He said, “Well done,” He said, “I’m not surprised. From the moment you first came in,” He said, “you’ve learnt to fly. You’ve got a good touch and you feel it right through your body.” And He said, “Remember the Tigermoth always. It’s an easy bloody aeroplane to fly, but it can kill you just like that. Just remember that.” So He said, “It’s good.” He said, “You’ve got it.” And I was taken up in a Dakota recently (at Rosscairn). Sorry, I’m diverting. I’ve got to stop talking…
No, it’s fascinating. Keep going.
I was offered a flight in a Dakota. Everybody knew I’d got a massive amount of number of hours in Dakotas. This was due to my original experience… And I went over there to (Blackbush) and they took off, flew away, and the noise was lovely, you know. I thought, ‘The smell is back’, and I’m looking over…
What is that smell? Sort of oil and..?
A bit of oil, a bit of hydraulic oil, the smell of the leather. It stays, you know? Once leather’s got any liquid in it, the leather smell always stays with that smell, or whatever it gets into. And we took off, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, He’s a bit clumsy’. And I hadn’t been near a Dakota for about twenty or thirty years. But instinctively, my past experience… And then the first Pilot got out. He was a (coldcock) Captain, and converted to Dakotas for exhibition flying. He said, “Give me a (long run up).” And I said, “Well, I’m just (picking up French) here.” And He said, “No, no. You’ve got all these bloody hours in it. I sat there and the owner was on the right, the second Pilot, and He said, “All over to you.” And I could see Ascot racing course coming up. I levelled off and his instruction… Then He said, “The controls,” He said, turn at a certain angle, direction, and I did. And it started (pulling) this way, starting to do that. I said, “Oh, am I doing something wrong? It’s your aeroplane.” He said, “No. How can you turn, how can you control an aircraft with only your fingertip and a thumb?” He said, “This is an aircraft!” I said, “I noticed you doing this. Why do you do that?” And He said, “Because that’s the way, how to fly.” And I said, “No you bloody don’t!” I just thought I’d tell you that example…
Amazing. And it all came back to you no problem at all?
All came back right away. I put one hand on the (trim) and one hand on the stick and we flew. I just used that to show you about aircraft differences.
Sure. Had you hoped to be on single engines or single seaters?
I didn’t want to be on day fighters so much as being on day attack fighters. I wanted to… Ground attack seemed to be good for me. When I heard about this night fighter, I thought if my eyes are good enough, I wouldn’t mind that, taking somebody round at night, looking for trouble as it were. We were all posted to bombers. Wellingtons. (Royally pissed). (In relation to) getting our Wings, which is something beyond imagination, I must tell you. To achieve your boyhood dream when all the odds are against you, and to find that the first thing you got then was something you didn’t want. Some people wanted bombers, in fairness, quite honestly.
What was the reason why you didn’t want to go on bombers?
I wanted to be… I’m not sure. I didn’t want to be a bus driver so much. The old Wellington was a bit funny looking, and I thought of all the nice pictures I’d been seeing of other aircraft. As soon as I got to this base, they asked me to learn to fly these things.
Presumably, you were a young chap, just turned eighteen; you weren’t thinking about getting into combat or whether you were going to get killed, or anything. You were just thinking about flying.
You were just thinking about getting on, yes.
About getting your Wings and getting on the next plane.
Everything’s about the next thing, you see, and you’ve got to get onto a Squadron.
That’s the thing: When you’re young, your outlook is pretty narrow, isn’t it? You see what’s twenty yards in front of you but you don’t go much beyond that.
You’re absolutely right about that. That’s a very good comment to make. You’re determined not to put a foot wrong, because you’ll get kicked out so easily. There was an amazing standard, so you’re always trying to tow the line. You’re a bit subjective. On the other hand, subjectivity does teach you to learn the best tricks of the trade. Unless it’s… Certainly the first day I was there I was sent for, and the Adjutant and the Headquarters just said, “Pack your bags.” He said, “You’re going off on a secret posting overseas.” And that’s all they said. Now, (fine that lots of other people have been referred) to that over the years, but after ten days my (very first warrant), I’m up in…
And you had no idea?
No. Everything top secret. Train overnight…
So you did your OTU on Wellingtons, did you?
Mmm. First day I was removed. So I thought, ‘Well, that’s better than staying on Wellingtons on a damp airfield’. So I left there by train, arriving in (Glasgow) in the morning. Boy, what a hell of a place that is to arrive, (in the wartime, Glasgow) in the morning. Dirty, filthy trucks and everybody working flat out. And there was a ship at the side, and they’re all on board, and we find ourselves one of seventy two ships in a convoy going… Going somewhere, and nobody knows.
So this was in 1941.
’41, yes. That’s right, ’41. And when the old (com wire) was finally fixed, we sailed round Ireland and across the Atlantic. The worst storms in the War. It was recorded as one of the worst winter storms. And it was so frightening. I sat on bloody deck, I was under a door. You weren’t allowed to open the doors and I had to stay outside.
The boat was just pitching and..?
Absolutely. It was bloody terrifying. And then when it calmed down all the submarines started coming in. It was an amazing sight to see Destroyers and Minesweepers scooting around. It really was amazing.
Were you frightened then?
No. The apprehension goes into a shear (admiration) for the survival factor, you know. It’s not going to happen to you. We lost five ships on that crossing. They disappeared. You saw the (odd beacon) of smoke off them and you heard bangs every once in a while. But I did admire the Navy. God! Have you ever seen a Destroyer doing a full hard-right turn? It goes right over. You think it’s got to go, the sea breeze is going to tumble it over. And it doesn’t happen.
The standard of the Navy was absolutely first-class, wasn’t it? Funnily enough, I think that the area in the War that Britain was really behind was on its land forces, actually. Far more so than in the air or on the sea.
Yes. The thing was, the (discipline) was the only thing they had. From (the Red Cross point of view they were at a free lunch), and not taking things too seriously at times until they started hitting great casualties.
That must have been a wakeup call.
Well, the Army, as you know, was pretty hopeless. I mean, in your book, the comments I remember so clearly. They were trained but not trained… What was that lovely phrase you used? They were trained but not trained something.
Well, they just weren’t trained in modern warfare. [Lack of American training] Nothing, nothing.
American fighters weren’t able to absorb this, and this was a tragedy. And then (they go right through the Officers’ way). The (guys in Alaska) taught me that. An extraordinary… Involving four Squadrons with fighter operations and training. Four Squadrons of twin engined bomber/fighters from Northrop, the Scorpion, Northrop F89D. 104 rockets in two pods… And the most hopeless, dangerous, ridiculous old thing I’ve ever flown in my life. But because they were given this in the frontline, fearless, fearless people. Americans followed the band that it was a damned good fighter, and I was jumping up and down saying, “(You’ve got it all wrong). How are we going to do this?” You know, “We’ve (got to practise). The aircraft is not very good. It’ll be shot down in bloody flames by the Russians. (Don’t think you’re going to hold that area).” And they were so close, (just diving in with these things between us). And, oh, they couldn’t understand this at all. They wouldn’t listen, they wouldn’t practise, they wouldn’t train they way I wanted to. And I tried to train them the way we do in the RAF. You know, we’d take on, put all the lights out, and the radar operator would really have to direct you, and there’s no way you can see your so-called enemy in cloud or 20,000 (on waves) or in the dark. You’re really following the Navigator, and His professionalism, his ability to read the signs on the radar screens and give you a running commentary, and the best Navigators are those who’ve got it, you know. They’re literally almost in your head. And then suddenly you see the big outline of the aircraft and you’re darn close. You lift your sight up and you have one quick stab and break away, breaking off. And, you know, it’s an art form. I mean, it is bloody dangerous, and (with them) every interception was east to west, north to south.
And, of course, it’s just not like that.
I asked the Intelligence Officer at a big briefing, I said, “You’ve all got better from (me saying) that you’re not being realistic enough. Now how am I going to get over there?” I said, “I really would like to go back to the UK.” And there was a big cheer, you see. I was quite popular there, being the only Englishman and in a higher level of authority. And I couldn’t get them to train to the levels of the RAF, and I said, “It’s no good,” I said, “Could someone tell me who the chap is from the Soviet Air Force who’s agreed to come in from west to east? What a decent thing! What a powerful piece of arrangement!” And, of course, complete silence. I was accused of ridiculing the senior Officers and so I had to get over that. I said to the General in charge, “I can’t believe, Sir, that you don’t really want to have realistic training.”
What did he say?
“Oh, but, Jim, of course I do.” I said, “I’d like to be relieved. I don’t want to be part of
Were you on secondment?
Yep. Three years, specially sent up there to update them with the best RAF techniques.
And they weren’t interested?
o. I said, “Our Meteor is simpler to fly, it has the same performance. You have better weaponry but you’ll never get there to fire the better weaponry. You’re not training to fire the better weaponry.” I told them they’ve got a serious approach to your attitude to the enemy. I’m only bringing that up to say the difference between us.
Yeah. Which is vast.
It was your remarks about the (conditional) setback from the 10th Corps. Was it 10th or 2nd Corps? There was a big concern about the… And Mary Cunningham, uhh… Reacted badly… That’s the great thing about your book, you’re living it through. I can see Cunningham (saying blow, but I’m glad we lost Edmund)…
… [Copy of memo. Anglophobic Generals] Patton wasn’t rampantly Anglophobic. That was about doctrine. He didn’t like people telling Him what to do, and He hated just as many American Generals as he did British.
Oh, He did. I’m so glad you brought that out clear in the book. That comes out very well.
It annoys me that just because He’s slagging off Alexander or Monty or something, that doesn’t mean He’s rampantly Anglophobic. It just means He’s in a bad mood that day.
(He didn’t hate them in any way). He couldn’t bear taking orders from anybody else, and they knew that.
Alexander’s always been criticised. He kept changing His orders’ to Patton. I think that was very, very sensible. You know, He needed to keep Him on a tight rein because He was a loose cannon.
He could have really caused mayhem. But I love this comment about the conference with Monty held in Tripoli after… Yes, when I read that it gave me a slightly different view of Patton. I mean, He was a (dangerous bugger), always was. And He was a great a six-shooting type. But that’s an American… I’ve always tried to explain to lots of people who have been in (our) discussions, and, you know, (about meeting)… There is an element in the American psyche, the Southerner, the gun-shooting cowboy element, I said I think it was there before the cowboys started, because forever, it’s there. And quite honestly, without that, they wouldn’t be able to do very much. It’s that sort of thing that gets things done. It’s frontier war in a way, isn’t it.
Yeah. He’s not entirely unlikeable as a person. When you do read His diaries, I mean they’re fascinating. What is also fascinating is His massive insecurities. [Patton diaries] You have to be very, very careful.
Yes, it’s very interesting, that, because all the Generals get there because of quality, as long as they have quality as a leader.
Charisma coming out of every pore. [Patton’s charisma]. He didn’t agree with the use of a tactical Air Force. Coningham was just as inspirational and just as fiery when He wanted to be. I think Coningham was an absolutely marvellous…
I’ve been horrified over recent years to hear personal characteristics, derogatory or denigrating. And it (saddened) me because I used this when I was a youngster, now getting a lot of experience, and I wouldn’t have done two or three years in battle and part of the crowd and the ethos of your Squadron, you begin to hear things and you get a feel, and Cunningham’s reputation was never, ever anything but the highest. He was hugely admired.
And popular, wasn’t He?
Oh, very popular. A hard man when He wanted to be, but He really was always pushing you, (the front), and understanding what the Squadron Commanders were doing. And, you know, that was a view we all held. I only saw Him in the distance, time and time again, as He came in and the (Captain’s face was staunch). You know, He’s the Squad – the Station Commander of this desert station, to see His face was extraordinary, “Bloody hell! The Air Vice Marshall’s arriving!” And then sitting in the back seat would be Lord Taylor! And then they’d get out and they’d go, “Everything else all right?” You know, and then these eyes would be looking around, wandering in amongst the Air Crew, getting us all out in the open.
So you met all those chaps, did you?
I did later on. I met all of them, but I didn’t see too much of those two during the War. I met quite a few of the people in your book, of course. One of the reasons… In the past I’ve enjoyed reading historical books and Military history because, working out on (long-arm paper hangar) out in the desert, and then in the Med and Italy and the campaigns, all you’re concerned about at the time is to get your job done. You know you’re part of it. And then you land, you know, you see, “Oh, God! The DLI are here! There’s bloody Durham Light Infantry everywhere!” It’s (extraordinary, that thought), and it’s only when I’ve been reading the biographies or the accounts that I’ve realised more what was actually going on. For instance I had to rescue New Zealand Maoris in the Mareth Line. (A lot of them) came round and there was a trap there, and Freiberg was… No, I didn’t know anything about Freiberg. I knew General Freiberg was a famous name, but we were told, “Get into that little valley. Hop in, turn your aircraft round, and out like a flash.” And so we did run, after run, after run from our base about (50/15) miles back, and we dropped the wounded off at the hospital at Medenine, canvas tents everywhere. And the only reason I remember that is because these girls came out, and we’d never seen a girl in the western desert, and there were these nurses in khaki and white! I mean, you’re quite lost, been in the desert all this time. That’s my experience, so reading about what was actually going on I found fascinating, and why we were often held up and couldn’t go and do something, because it wasn’t quite printed). In the latest books like yours – and I mean this seriously – I’m seeing it now from an additional viewpoint from the personal, what it was like to be in that persons shoes’, you know. Quite amazing. Without going away from the point; early in your Malta book, I must tell you, you refer to that chap (Ken Bigley?), who had to go to His CO in the (Royal West Kents) for permission to marry a local girl.
And He says to Him, “Are you sure?” and went through all the routine, and (Cane is supposed to have said), “Oh, God. I got away with that!” It was Captain… And I looked at the name and it was the same bloke who’d been telling me about Malta before He died about twenty years ago, was my neighbour. Really was my neighbour!
But the way you described Him… I couldn’t get over it, and I thought, ‘Dear, dear! If only the old boy was alive, I could run down and say, “Do you remember Ken Bigley?”’ and He probably would, you see.
He read this passage from the book, and his Mother’s still alive and His Brother’s there…
Oh, that’s wonderful. That makes it all worthwhile.
I got very moved by that.
That’s very, very interesting.
When you think of all the hundreds of thousands of people that were involved.
I’m so glad you mentioned Wild Bill, Group Captain Billy…
Billy Drake. I mean, He made this mark on my life, He was so bloody wild, you know. I knew of Him in the western desert, but I never met Him. I landed on His…
Did you know Him by reputation then?
Oh, yes. He was a successful Battle of Britain pilot in amongst a lot of wild – not wild, (go-go) fighter boys there, and I think I was on one particular base that He was at. We were in delivering things and (delivering over the ocean) or whatever, and I didn’t see Him again until 1954. I commanded the first night fighter jet Squadron, Vampire 10s. And I was a new boy in fighter world, and there I was, and we flew up to Middleton St George near Doncaster to do something very special there, and we didn’t know what it was. It was going to be a big gathering of lots of fighters. Who was the Wing Commander flying there but Wild Billy Drake. He came down the line to look at my nine aircraft and He made such a fuss. He said, “I remember you! I met you in the desert!” you know. “What about you, Jimmy-Boy?” You know, and He’s on that basis. And I was going, “Well, Sir, I’m delighted to meet you. I’ve heard about you all my life.” And blah, blah, blah. And He said, “Well, are we going to have a big, big thrash in the mess tonight? By the way, this Jeep I brought up, a brand new Land Rover, that’s yours. For the whole time you’re here, that’s yours.” I said, “Oh, how very nice.” He said, “Oh, you can run the boys round and go off and do…” But finally I began to seriously think there’s a (case) here somewhere, you know. “See you for the briefing in an hours time. Tomorrow’s the big day.” And I said, “What’s it all about, Sir?” And He said, “I’ll tell you at the briefing. Better wait ‘til then and we won’t compromise it.” I then hot into His Land Rover, all the baggage, all the boys, and they all said, “Oh, lucky you. You know, you’ve got your own transport.” You know, because you’re very close in a fighter squadron, even with your CO. I got into the main briefing room and Billy stands up. And He says, “Now, you lot!” There was Group Captains and all kinds there! It looked like it was (straight at Him). And He said, “I’ve got a little problem and I’m here to resolve it this weekend.” He said, “It’s been placed on me to find a solution to how in hell we can get a mass of fighters off the ground without this delay.” You know, the after effect of every takeoff, every aircraft’s got to wait, then we’ve got three minutes, five minutes. And He said, “It takes something like half an hour to get three squadrons off into the air, and the same coming in to land.” And He said, “I’ve got a theory and I want to try it out.” And He said, “What I want to do is all of us get on the runway, the whole lot, an armada.” And it was something like 58 aircraft to go on the runway. Well, we all blanched. We knew that was not on, because the effect, you know, from the back of a jet engine is enormous, and (it was). That’s why you see RAF fighters going up first one, two, or one goes higher, the next one goes lower to get underneath. Billy had this idea that we would all go off together. And He turned round and He said, “And Jimmy James here has agreed to totally support me on this, and if He agrees, there’s no reason why you lot shouldn’t do it!” So He said, “See you tomorrow morning for the pre-flight briefing.” Well, everybody in the room is glaring at me, and I said, “I’ve done nothing! I’ve not discussed this!” Well, Billy’s gone. He conned me, the bugger. He was determined to try this out, and we were the last of this massive formation. My nine aircraft we right in the back, me in the front. Then Meteors in front of me, then F86s in front of them, then day meteors in front of them. You never saw such a force! And He said, “Roger. Ready to go, ready to go now.” And we all moved on and as we were the last people to get off, there was such a turmoil of air, I mean it was like a bloody storm. All our aircraft were rocking all over the place, and I said to all of them, “Whatever you do, get your nose down, keep your speed up and ready for the wings dropping,” you know, “Don’t pull up, try and keep it down, keep the speed.” As it happened, two of my blokes were literally blown to the side, literally on the outside, and they can move around. And I, I mean even if I’d wanted to climb, I couldn’t. If there’d been a church in the way… I mean it was so maddeningly dangerous, and I regret to this day the sort of (basket) of every (sounding) Battle of Britain at (Buxland), you know, He hears my voice and, “That’s Jimmy James! My friend, Jimmy James!” And he’s (digging me in the side) all the time. So I’m delighted that you refer to him, and the way you do.
I mean he was tough as old boots.
He stood for nonsense, and he still doesn’t.
I like him enormously.
I really do. Even now at 87 or whatever age he is now, he’s still got a real twinkle in his eye. He’s an absolute mischief maker.
I met him in the RAF (club) about 20, 25 years ago when lots of people were leaving on the (Golden Burmas), and there was an almighty (hoolie) in the bar that day. I remember a Group Captain, who was on the committee, tried to sort of calm things down. I really said to myself at the time the best thing he could do was get out, get a taxi, and find something he had to do, you know, rather than stay there. So that’s that crowd. And (Jonny) Johnson was just as wild and bad, you know. Outrageous, Jonny Johnson. I coped with him. A lot of people hated him because he was single minded and bloody minded and wouldn’t listen, but he survived. Billy, I think, wasn’t quite in there. Billy was a bloody good shot and a hell of a good pilot, and people did follow him because they knew he was…
But also he was tough, wasn’t he? If he had a (cyclone?) on the Squadron, he didn’t lose any sleep on that at all.
Oh, he wouldn’t give them five minutes. No, no, no, once he made his mind up. So that’s the sort of characters one met.
He was a decent fellow. I think things didn’t work out that well for him after he left the RAF. He set himself up in a bar in Portugal and drank too much. Now he’s off it completely. He came back and now he’s doing chauffeur service for Paddy (Barstrum), I think.
I was there the day Paddy Barthrop and his mate (took the gentlemen bowlers?), that boy from the party I was talking about. And they stood there and they were away. They’d got what was then a huge big sum of money, and somebody said, “What are you going to do?” And he said, “I’ve just been down the road, bought myself a peaked cap, a chauffeurs peaked cap in (Jones) Street, in the hatters,” and he said, “I’ve got a grey jacket, and I’ve hired a Daimler on a long term lease. I’ve hired two,” he said. And it was (near the Battle of Britain boy with him). And they set up this luxury Daimler service, and that’s what they went into. But these two, it turned out to be a winner. Everybody wanted to have one of these (stately) cars to go to something special, you know. They didn’t even know half the time, as he said, old Barthrop, he said, “I didn’t even know where the place I was going to! I didn’t have a map, so I’m driving down the road,” and then he’d say, “Do you mind if I just stop here for a moment? I have a very special message to leave.” Then he’d go in and say, “Where the hell am I? How do I get to..?” And he told me that.
When you were first out on your horrendous storm journey to the Middle East, you obviously went round the Cape and everything?
(Oh, yes. Every ten weeks).
Round the Cape, yeah.
And all the way round they kept saying (the secret)… And when we were (in Qatar), uh, Durban, we had a week there to stretch our legs and all the people were marvellous. And then we came out of Durban, we were called to a meeting. There were 500 Australians, 480 Canadians and just under 20 RAF and New Zealanders. I’ve never known behaviour like it. I mean, we were brought up strictly, in good discipline in the RAF, but the Canadians, no, the Australians were appalling! Anyway, I mean fun, fun, fun. I became great friends with many of them afterwards when we met them in the Middle East in all sorts of jobs. We sailed up the Indian Ocean, and there were meetings, conferences held, and lectures, and we were told that we were the crème de la crème of the new bomber force that had been formed in the Canal Zone with all the new, light American bombers coming over. They were going to have an entirely new force.
All the Bostons and everything?
Bostons, Mitchells, Marylands, Marauders, all of those were flowing in, and this was going to be the new Middle East force. We were going to be taught to fly them and we had lectures showing us the dimensions, loads, ranges. What we didn’t know by the time we got (to here) wasn’t worth knowing. All we were waiting for, literally… Said, “They’ll be waiting. As soon as you get there you’re going to go through a mass training, and you’ll be second pilots at first, and the new navigators will be straight in on the job,” and so on. And we got all buoyed up. There were 1000 of us. Exactly 1000. By the time we went up the Red Sea, all the Knuks and the Aussies were right on the prow on one side, all looking and shouting, could they see anything. It was that childish, but it’s a true story, I can tell you. The Captain had to order half the people off the side because it was pushing the ship over, this thousand people. Anyway, it was exciting going up there. We landed, every ship in that convoy was unloaded. Twenty ships went on to the Far East – twenty, thirty – and the forty left were all unloaded, and we were the last ship. And we were all beginning to ask questions by now. And it was the third day, getting on for dark, and there was sort of a riotous reaction from the Australians. And eventually on Officer came and said, “You’ll all be leaving in the morning. Get you kit bags all ready and you’ll be disembarking tomorrow morning.” And they marched us off the ships on to some trucks, and we went to a tiny transit camp on the Canal Zone, on one of the big lakes. It was appalling. There weren’t enough tents for us, there weren’t enough blankets, they hadn’t expected us. We were 1000 unexpected people. And the word got round – and I’ve been quoting this at the highest levels – the word got round that the signal that had gone from the Middle East quoting American (nominature?) had said to the Air Ministry, ‘The following spares are urgently needed on the next convoy to back up all these new aeroplanes;’ and in amongst it was ‘1000 air screws’. (Nominature of the American Air Force), and the telex operator had dropped the middle ‘S’. 1000 Air Crew. I was acting as a Personal Staff Officer to an Air Chief Marshall for two years, I’m (giving on the way) up the line, and I was (gone), and the Air Marshal’s Office could (truly keep me going) with his papers, and going with him everywhere. And one day, on one particular day, my boss said to the C in C, Bomber Command, “Oh, you want to ask Jimmy about that.” And the boss from Bomber Command, and the Fighter Command chap, Basil (Emery) – as you know – and they started all joking, and the boss said, “Jimmy’s down to 1000 Air Crew, don’t you know, 1000 air screws.” And they said, “That is just a rubbishy story, Brian.” And that’s the actual words used. And Brian said, “No, there’s somebody here who was in the Air Ministry at the time. Who is it?” And it was the C in C Maintenance Command, whoever he was, and he said, “No, I was Group Captain. That actually happened. Because that 1000 Air Crews were surplus onwards for the rest of the War in the Middle East.” So my boss was making a joke that I was surplus 1000 air screws. I’ve heard it again… I quote it because I mean I’ve heard it at all sorts of levels. The only reason I brought it up is after two weeks in this hell hole we’d all lost… Oh, the morale was dreadful and we weren’t allowed to go out, and if you… All the new regulations for the Middle East; you had to wear a hat all the time, and you had to have a pass if you moved, even in the local (clearance) area. And then when a (sodding) aeroplane came over, you could hear it miles away, and over this tented camp by a lake came this great high-wing aircraft with two bloody great wheels hanging down on a permanent undercarriage, and both engines out of synchronisation, and everyone looked up. And we’re all pointing up saying, “Oh, look at this bloody aircraft!” you know. It was a joke! And it was a Bristol Bombay. And it was staggering across the sky, and it went in and landed. And we were all sort of hanging around, wondering what we were going to do – this was before… Well, no, we’d been there ten days or so. And you’ve heard about this Bush Telegraph, haven’t you? It’s amazing. I’ve seen it work so often. The Bush Telegraph came round tent to tent to tent, “The Commanding Officer of 2-16 Squadron is here to select ten Air Crew. Three full crew and two extra wireless operators for the Bombay Squadron.” And all the Australians and Canadians, “I’m not going to! I came out here to fight a war! I came out to go on fighters and bombers! I’m not going to be in that mob, that rubbish!” And so they said, “Right, we’re off!” And do you know, hundreds of these blokes – and I really mean this – all disappeared. And we were saying, “You can’t get out!” They said, “There’s a hole in the fence on the main road from Suez to Ishmalia!” And they said, “We’re going to get on a bus or get a lift.” And we were all shouting, “You’ve got to have your hat! Where’s your pass?” It seemed to be life and death to us (youngsters), they couldn’t care less. Up that road they went. I’ve often wondered what the lorry driver, who might have been going, wondered what the hell was going on. Anyway, I said to my Commander in the RAF crowd, I said, “I’m fed up with this place. I’ll fly anything. I don’t care what it is, I’ll fly. I’d rather fly the (Bristol).” So I volunteered – well, I didn’t have much of an option. And quite a few of my friends and I all got picked by the CO, and that very hour later, we were wallowing across the sky in this bloody awful aircraft. Very depressed, you know, and wondering if we’d made the right decision. And we landed on this sand airfield, you know, way out in the blue, and welcomed by the Adjutant and by the Warrant Officer, and I shall always remember saying, “You’ll get on well here. Just mind your step, be polite to the senior pilots, and when you go in the Sergeants Mess remember; it maybe a desert hut, but it’s still the Sergeants Mess!” Course, we walk in with our hats still on and there’s the biggest scream you’ve ever heard in your life, and everyone shouted, “Drinks all round! Have fun in the Mess!” you know. And it’s (great) to have that discipline, you know, it was great to know we were… Anyway, I became a Second Pilot there. I learnt to fly – it was a difficult aircraft to fly.
The Bombay. (Safe) but difficult.
That was obviously 1941 roughly, was it?
Early ’42. February, March, yes. The aircraft was designed to carry 18 stretcher cases, a load of about 3½ to 4 tons at the most, and to be a flexible aircraft, to land anywhere and do any job. It had two turrets. The one in the back had been closed because there was a centre of gravity problem, which – after a lot of crashes – they decided not to have a gun there, and there’s a point to that which I’ll mention. And in the front you had a single Vickers gas operated gun. The aircraft wasn’t very manoeuvrable, but it was a very (bothering) old beast. It was the mother duck of the Middle East. It was much loved by all the troops because it brought in the mail, and it took odd passengers out. But mainly we were in with ammunition, special (fuels), specialist supplies. Minefield tape they were always running short of, to mark the minefields. We used to see the minefields there. You can see, can’t you, how much they were using. But it was amazing how often we’d land right forward and people even carrying rank would be dragging these bales off, you know, stuffing them into the back of trucks, tanks, and armoured cars on one occasion. So we were the men of all work, do anything, anywhere.
Did you find it quite interesting?
Fabulous. I never had a second. As Second Pilot you had all sorts of jobs being given to you. The Wireless Operators were very superior, even though they were NCO’s. The Navigators were (Gods), you know, they really were. ‘Observers’, they called themselves, so they got you running around like mad. But flying was a great experience. People who had been there since before the War, it was wonderful to be old. There was an attitude and an atmosphere they created. And they would occasionally let you know why they were doing this or that, let you handle the aircraft, a few pointers. But it was all about flying the aircraft properly and skilfully, not thumping it. And we ran into the hot season pretty quickly, and the way to ride these tremendous waves of instability was quite an eye-opener as well. And eventually they started teaching me to fly it on my own and I went solo, and after lots more Second Pilots put two and a half months, I went to Malta…
In a Bombay?
Yeah, in May ’42. So that was just after… I’ll tell you why I remember; because in your book, James, I was there the day after the Opera House had been sunk down.
Ah, that was April.
hey destroyed it…
April the 7th was when that got…
Well, I was there the day after, April the 8th. We were up at the airfield, and it was bloody dangerous (with the Germans), and suddenly (they said) we were allowed to go in to (see the mess there). And we were told that we had to wait for something that was happening, so we all… The Captain of the aircraft said, “Well, let’s all jump in on this one. He’s coming straight back.” I may have told you I had my first haircut for ages in the little barber shop next to the Opera House, and it was the first hot towel I’d ever had in my life on my face, and I got (ill). And in the middle of all this wreckage, this chap continued to work. That’s why I love the Maltese.
Yes. They’re a very pragmatic people.
Pragmatic is the word. But the Opera House, the stuff was all along the road, the main road outside, as you know. It was all still there, people trying to (find a way through it). So that was my first trip to Malta. Then they converted me on as a Captain.
So where was the 216 based? Heliopolis?
Tanta. It was to the north of Heliopolis on the eastern side of the delta.
How far were you from Cairo then?
40, 42 miles.
So you could go in?
Yeah, occasionally. There were trips organised. Yes, we used to go in… Life was very quiet at first when we got to Squadron, so lots of people were…
I suppose there was also a gap in the offensive, wasn’t there? (Cassano) hadn’t opened at that point.
When all hell broke loose. We were going in and out of Gambut in those days, quite a lot, and El Adem. El Adem was always surrounded by a military crowd, you know. And there was a strip south of El Adem which we kept going into. I can remember it because they painted the stones white in case there was a sandstorm, or the wind… Which you didn’t have in El Adem. There were three airfields at Gambut – 1, 2, and 3 – and all those we got to know. We were always in and out.
And were you still flying Bombays at that time?
Oh, Bombays, yes. I got shot down in a Bombay. That was in August. The amazing thing is the Squadron had six aircraft on detachment up at Mersa Matruh, near there. From there all the great stores and everything were controlled, Headquarters, Rear Headquarters. So we would get up in the morning, and you would be told, “You’re going off.” They’d give you a landing (wire) number, a lorry would come up, fill the aircraft straight up, and go – one of the one’s I remember – and you’d go. And the Navigator had all these charts, had them marked, and…
And did you always keep the same crew?
Not always, but quite often you were with the same ones. I’ve said it again and again in the things I’ve written; the thing I was interested in most of all about the crews was that the Navigator could navigate in a sandstorm. He could read like Braille the desert surface, you know, the rocky bits, the small stones, the red sand, brown, bright yellow, somehow the odd wadi or two coming up and down. And he could actually navigate on that. And always we got there to these isolated strips with no features you could… And because you’re flying at 50 foot there’s no way you could get a perspective of where you’re going, it was literally…
You’d always fly low, would you?
Yes, yes. Only after… Yes, in the battle zone, which was where we were going. From the forward detachment we were going on to the small airfields in the front, and when the (cycles) started hopping over each other, course we were rushing in lots of those four gallon tins of…
Yeah, of course.
And quite a lot of ammo and things. I’m glad you mentioned that fellow, (Elverhurst), the Group Captain. He was a brilliant…
Yeah, amazing. They complimented each other so well, those two.
Yes. I never met him, but we knew there was somebody really sharp in Headquarters who had the guts to say, “That Wing, you go to that airfield and we’ll get you someone there, with ammo, with water.” And, course, we were often picking up people who had been left behind, there were no trucks left, or picking up ammo that hadn’t been used in the retreat, (particularly at El Alamein). It was a lovely, Gypsy life. Bloody Bully Beef all day, (McConaughey’s) at night for supper – cold for lunch and fried for breakfast in some bloody awful oil – and McConaughey’s Stew at night with Bully Beef again. Everyone was high morale after this dreadful time. People had been shot up, sandstorms, and yet everyone was as fit as a bloody fiddle, I mean I really mean that. But people found things to do. We had a Royal Scots Navigator on ours, and he’d lay out a nine hole golf course, and what you had was a walking stick and a tennis ball. These were so precious, and as soon as you got there you had sheets of paper, and you had everybody’s scores. It was crazy, I mean, but that’s the way you entertained yourself.
You made the best of any situation.
Occasionally you had some beer come up, but never more than a bottle of Stella. The Officers often did better, but that’s a subject I’m… And so…
You enjoyed it, really?
Oh, it was the most wonderful schoolboy dream come true, you know, buccaneer and cavalier, go, get there, and come back, and that’s the orders, you know. No fanciful, “Please may I take off?” You looked around and clear skies, and belted the engines. You had two Ground Crew on board and if anything went wrong…
Were you ever… I mean, you knew the Army was in retreat, but that never bothered you particularly?
You knew, you knew, because the very people you were meeting, there was always a lot of (flap), a lot of urgency. We landed in one place when I was Second Pilot, and suddenly the First Pilot, the Captain, threw open the bloody engines, and I said, “Oh, Sir, (have I done anything wrong?) What’s the matter?” And he said, “Shut up! Get the (wander line stowed?)!” And away we went, and I said, “We can’t go ahead, there’s rough ground coming up. Can you see the rough ground here with the great big stumps?” And he said, “Look to your right! Look to your right!” And there were some vehicles with a big bloody swastika on it, a black cross on it, and they had taken over!
You never saw a Bombay move more like a fighter. I mean I learned that day how to handle a Bombay like a fighter.
So how far away were they?
Oh, they were about quarter of a mile away. They were settling in having arrived. We were going in to bring out odd bits of stuff with some Ground Crew, but they’d obviously gone. Not gone. I mean, there was nobody on the ground giving us a signal. That became really sophisticated later. So it was a wild life. Yeah, your Flight Commander was pretty hard, he wanted to know what you had done, there were many (flashes) made out every time.
So it was just like a fighter squadron?
Yes, yes. Our advanced flight up there was six aircraft and, I think, a spare and crew, and when you came back sometimes to Ma’aten Bagush, the airfield strip there, there was nobody there. And then you’d find somebody, and they’d say, “No, they’ve moved on.” So the Ground Crew had moved everything into the trucks, your beds, I mean your roll, your tents, water, and you’re gone off. And they’d give you the name of the place, and it was either back or forward. In other words it was a Gypsy life, and then I got back to base and they said, “Now, you’re going to be trained for First Pilot. We’re running short.” And I thought, ‘Bloody hell! I’ve only got 320 hours!’ You know, it was 140 hours to learn to fly and I’d done a hundred odd hours as Second Pilot. But they were pushed and this was the way they did it in the War. I had a good aptitude and my boss was a wild chap who became an Air Marshall, ex copper, Bill Coles, became Air Chief Marshall Sir William Coles. If you could ever imagine anyone seeking that in 1942, when (we had a nose that was bloody). Great thumping leader. Great chap. Bit like Billy, but ten times bigger and louder. I think, in fact, Billy liked him immensely. They met in Staff College… Air College, Air College. I got converted and I was sent off on a couple of flights to get the hang of it.
And one of those was to Malta?
Oh, no, no. That was later. No, Malta was getting hair-raising now, because the retreat was on, so I couldn’t do that. No it was down to… I went to (Shiva). And on the way back from Shiva, by the way, my first trip, the Navigator was – I’m hopeless on names – Warrant Officer (Born). Bald head, big, hairy arms, he used to lean over the front to me and say so-and-so direction. And I’d say, “Mr Born, are you giving me a new course?” You know, being pompous. I’m a Captain now! Mr Born, a man about fifteen years older than me, so he was obviously very old, do this, do that, climb. I said, “No, I’m not going to do that, Mr Born. I don’t know why you’re asking me to do these things. I’m following the briefing.” (Willpower), you know, (the will). So as we got past Cairo going on the way back – I can see Cairo now – (chap) comes up the side of the (Delta), and he said, “All new Captains have the right to fly low across the airfield, the airstrip, and beat up the Sergeants’ and the Officers’ Mess’.” The only two wooden buildings there, huts. I said, “Well I’ve never heard of that.” “Yes, yes. Get on with it. Get down.” So I went down to about 200 feet, and he said, “Oh, good God!” he says, “We’re all (falling) out of oxygen here in the back! When I say go low,” he said, “I will be the laughing stock of the Squadron, letting you not do this properly. Down!” So I went down lower, and he came up again, leaned over – he had to get on a step – and he said, “Down! For God’s sake!” he said, “Low so they can see you! This is an occasion! This is a ritual! Down!” I don’t know how I missed the Sergeants’ Mess. And the wheels almost touched the top of the Officers’ Mess, and all the things they had there in this little wooden building all fell over. Everybody woke up in a haste and fright, and I climbed away in a nice big arc, and I said to Mr Born, “Anything else now?” And I couldn’t hear anything, he wasn’t there. So I landed – oh, a good landing – and when I got out of the plane I thought, ‘Mr Born’s right, you know.’ There were five or six cars, the Commanding Officer’s staff car with a flag on it, lots of other cars, all coming out to meet me. My engines’ stopped and there they were, and I stepped out of the aircraft, and I was hit with the most mighty, mighty rollocking you’ve ever had.
So he’d just stitched you up?
Oh, the Commander was jumping up and down, the two Flight Commanders – I can see them now – they were staring, looking in disgust at me, particularly my own Commander. Absolutely, you know, whispering to…
So you (took the blame and shut up), did you?
(Shut up), yeah. And then they said, “Have you got anything to say before I see you officially in the morning? I’ll see you in my tent at 6:30 in the morning.” And I said, “Yes, Sir, yes, Sir. I’m sorry, Sir,” I said, “But Mr Born said to me that this was the ritual, and all I did was to (do it at low level).” “Ohhh!” they all said. But they were still bloody angry, and apparently they all went back to the Mess and realised that Mr Born… “Where is Mr Born?” Nowhere to be seen! Mr Born had gone away with the Arabs. He had sneaked away in the shadows of the night. That was my first thing… I did about four or five trips up and down – oh, more than that – for about four or five weeks, and every time we landed in the retreat it became more and more dangerous. You could get strafing going on, dodging the bomb holes, all that sort of thing. And then on August the 7th I was briefed – again it was stinking, horribly hot. It really was the most humid day ever – and I was called into the Flight Commander’s tent at 6 o’clock and told that I’d be taking off later –
6 a.m., yeah. We started early before the sun…
You were called in (that early), or were you just sort of..?
Well, we were all in our own tent and he sent for me. And what he did was to say that, “You’re going to do a special flight to (Burj El Arab),” And he said, “The routine flight will take off as usual at 7:30, but your flight will be late morning, about eleven.” And I said, “Ooh, Sir, doesn’t it get bumpy by them?” Because we tried to get all our (major) flying low down, over the… And he said, “No, it’ll be all right.” But it was delayed by the humidity and the unstable… I mean really bad. Without (doing anything) you were dropped huge distances. It was sickening.
One bloke was telling me he was absolutely stunned by how much turbulence there was.
Oh, it was awful. Some people said you could fly, at least you got to 5000 feet. So this was the worst time of the year. So he then said, “Let’s do it, 11 o’clock.” 11 o’clock went by. 12 o’clock, “Go and get a quick lunch with your crew. Be back here at half past 1.” We’re ready to go. By now we’re all sweating like pigs, because it’s the time of the day nobody moves around. And we were all worried about the aircraft getting off because of the full load, because of the heat and the humidity, and you know…
So you hadn’t been told anything at that stage, had you?
No. In fact, didn’t know where the aircraft was.
You were just waiting at Burg El Arab?
No, no. This was at (Kanko). And then the aircraft wasn’t by the normal (fence), it was round the corner – not a corner, it was further along. It wasn’t in the usual (liner), and that seemed odd to me. Anyway, eventually it was ready at 2 o’clock.
Why was it out of the normal liner?
Nobody knew. They just said there’d been a delay in Cairo. And so I go off on this trip with…
Have you ever been suspicious about that? Anything strange about that?
In retrospect, yes.
What do you think it could mean, signify?
I think there was some special stuff we were taking forward which had to be there. I can’t identify it. On the manifest sheet it didn’t look anything extraordinary, yet they kept insisting we went at the worst time of the day, (flew out) and all that. Anyway, we took off, and a long run, difficult, and flew to a thousand feet, bumping all over the place. Had to stay there, couldn’t go any higher, and as we cleared the delta we got into the battle zone near (Wadi Matruh), just twenty, thirty miles into the open desert, and we went straight down to fifty foot, which is the rule. Down there…
How long would it have taken you to fly from Kanko to Burj El Arab?
40 minutes. 35, 40 minutes.
So not long.
So down to fifty foot. There are some people who say it’s better flying through turbulence at that height, but it had its’ dangers, because you still get turbulence and if you dropped you hit the ground. Sometimes the wheels touched the ground and then (you reared into the air).
Yeah, really. And you couldn’t see beyond, you know… Because the hillocks are there, like looking out of the window, and you can’t see any distance. And as you were, you said to the Navigator, “Christ, I must be getting near now.” By the time you saw the sea, and he said, “Well, keep a look out, because we don’t want to go the other side.” You could easily fly into the German lines, you see, from Burj El Arab. And as we came over the last bit of hillock, suddenly the blue line of the sea. It was a great relief. And then you see all of the British Army Reserves and rear training, tanks, guns, the whole lot. You know, armoured cars by the thousand. And then we charge in and there’s the little strip. A quick circuit, a really, really tight circuit over the top. Fifty foot. It means your wingtip is almost touching the ground in the Bombay. But you flew the Bombay then like a fighter, and that’s the thing I wanted to say to you; the aircraft was so clumsy and hard (in delay), when you’re in trouble, you know, you’re really throwing it around, you know, haring around. And the thing that I’ve said again and again in talks is I still don’t know why the Army never shot at us, because we would appear from over behind a hillock and there we were, you know. And it would have been so easy for somebody to say, “Bloody hell!” you know, “Enemy aircraft!” But it must have been to do with the sound of the aircraft, this peculiar sound.
Were they all familiar with it?
Probably. As soon as you’d land, you taxied in at high speed to the…Yeah, you taxied in at high speed to one or two little tents. There were never many aircraft – if any – on that airstrip, because it was too near the frontline, and that’s an important point I’ll come onto later. But the taxi in, keep your engines running – you’re forbidden to stop your engines because it was so dangerous. Literally, the one chap…
Literally shuttled? You were in, straight out?
Yeah. You just don’t do it. And when you went in the chap on duty was always the same bloke, a Flying Officer (Whale). He had one field telephone and a map. That’s all he had for (clearing the papers). He was the Ops Controller. One telephone to Air Headquarters, and he would report that we were in. And as soon as we touched down, as we were running in, all the lorries would be coming out of bunkers and things ready to unload. And then the aircraft was literally unloaded in minutes, no matter how bulky. It was amazing how many people turned up. Everything shovelled out, if there were Jeeps and things, they charged off and away. Then you turned round and I, as the Captain of the aircraft, would run to the Officer and say, “Hello, Jonah,” Jonah Whale, (Mr Flying Officer), “There’s a copy of the Cairo Times and a bottle of beer,” just as good will. And then he’d, “God, you were lucky yesterday! Just after you took off the whole airfield was strafed!” You know, he said, “So lucky!” And this was happening day in, day out.
Did you find it quite a nerve-wracking experience?
Yeah, edgy. Edgy.
Edgy. Were you sort of looking at your watch and that sort of thing?
Well, yeah. I wouldn’t go as far as that. I’d go and say though, that you changed in your attentiveness. You always had to do that when you were a pilot anyway, but you changed on the ground to looking over your shoulder and getting ready. You never knew when an attack might come in. And he said that two days before, he said, “I forgot to tell you; three days ago when you were in last,” he said, “the airfield was pattern bombed just after you left. Did you know that yesterday we filled all the holes in? Did you see them?” I said, “Yeah, I had to dodge round them.” So it was that sort of thing. So when I was going back to the aircraft after saying see you again soon, Joan, hope you have a few days off…
And were your engines still running?
Oh, you had to keep them running.
Even if you got out and went and saw Jonah?
Oh, yes. Your Second Pilot was still in the cockpit ready. Then you’d run back to the aircraft and go. And you didn’t waste time. As soon as you took off, hair-raising turns to stop you going near the German line, right onto the deck, and fly away back toward the delta. And when you got outside of the battle zone you climbed to 2000 feet, or whatever you wanted. And on the ground when you were booking in after they’d unloaded, if there was any wounded there – severely wounded only – they’d put them all on board. And the ambulances came out on spec, in case you had room, because quite often we had to take a huge amount of stuff back, and people who were urgently wanted back in Cairo. Lots of mail. That was a priority.
So on that day in early August..?
I walked into the tent and we were chatting, and I left, said goodbye. I walked about ten or fifteen yards and I heard the phone go. These field phones, marvellous, isn’t it? I heard it ringing and he shouted out, “James! Come back, come back!” So I ran back, and he said, “Switch off.” I said, “No, no. We’re not allowed. The standard procedure is we’ve got to get off. You told me yourself about the attack. No, no,” I said, “No, I’m not allowed to. I can’t disobey orders that Squadron (sent along).” He said, “I’m ordering you. There’s the telephone. That’s straight from Air Headquarters. Stop the engines and wait. You’ve got somebody coming, somebody important.” So I said this to my Second Pilot, who really started giving me (brutal signs), because the engines were going so hard. And when your engines get so hot on the ground, into the red lines, they’re very difficult to start again. And that was the worry that all the blokes had. I shouted to one of the Ground Crew, who came running up to me, I said, “Get the ambulances to take all the wounded back on board.” It was so hot that he was saying it was like an oven in the aircraft. I said, “(Ask them to) run the ambulances round and round to get the air into the…” Never given an order in my life before that day. That was the first one. I suddenly had this awful thought and I knew there was something on.
So how many did you have on there at that time?
Fourteen wounded and two passengers.
And who were they?
One was the senior representative of the High Commission for Palestine, down there looking at the Jewish volunteers, I think. And there was one other… Bloke. So I went back to the phone, and laughing-boy Whale said to me, “It’s an important (funeral).” And he said (to the Pilot), “I think he’s going to get the job. He’s going to be the new Commander of the 8th Army.” And then the phone went again and he said, “They’re on the way, they’ll be here any minute.” And he said, “The name’s Gott, General Gott.” He said, “Strafer Gott, you know, that wild General who leaps onto armoured cars and…”
And you’d heard of him?
Yes, I’d heard of him. His name was known, but I didn’t know him well enough, but old Jonah Whale, he was the man. So I arrived back to say to the crew, “Any minute now. Get ready but wait, wait, wait!” Because it was just in the distance, and I said, “Get the ambulances back, load the aircraft up. And that’s what they were doing when to lovely, great old-fashioned Humber Hawks, those lovely desert trucks came up, and out stepped three or four people from each one. And there was lots of good-byeing and Gott came forward. He saw me – I didn’t have a hat on, and shirt (very scruffy) – and he came up and said, “Are you the Captain?” (So I couldn’t hide) my disbelief, I looked about sixteen, and I said, “Yes I am, Sir. I’m terribly sorry, I have no hat, (I can’t) salute you.” He said, “My boy, don’t worry about that.” He said, “How’s it all going? Are you ready to go?” I said, “Yes, we’re starting the engines up now.” And I was doing that, and they caught just then and started.
So big sigh of relief?
Oh, huge. And then I said, “I’m afraid we’re flying wounded and other people, but there’s room for you right at the back. And he said, “Look, I’ll sit anywhere, don’t have any worries.” And I was so impressed with him. He was looking almost right through me. He had bluish eyes, and he looked… He had such a presence. He looked enormously fit. He had a… I don’t know what it was. He looked every bit a General to me. And the thing I mentioned to you before I think, he had the smallest insignia of General rank that I’d ever seen. There were no great tabs all around here like some of the Generals I’ve met, I’ve seen one or two. He had small ones there and there, and the pips he had were very small indeed on either epaulet, and yet he definitely looked the part. He was very fit, very on the ball. He was talking to his ADCs, they were all… Some people were saying farewell to him, and the ADCs were saying, “Yes, I’ve got this, and I’ll see you in Cairo late tonight or tomorrow morning, and good luck in your meeting.” And that’s all I heard. And then I said, “If you come this way, Sir, I’ll show you your seat.” But he was so smart and direct and powerful. And I helped him up the little (ruffled) ladder, and I said, “General Gott, your seat’s here. I can’t get you in the front because I’ve got all the bits and pieces there.” “Don’t worry.” He said, “I’m very content, I shall be okay. Thank you for your care.” And so I got to the front and roared off as fast as I could, took off, and 50 foot over the dunes. And I kept shouting at the Second Pilot, a Canadian, and saying to him, “Keep your eye on the engines, because if one’s going to fail I want to pull up and be able to get a view of an area I can land in, between the dunes or down there.”
And you were worried that one might just..?
Oh, They were so hot they were in the danger zone, in the red, and I was desperately hoping to get to the end of the battle zone so I could just (keep) it up into the cooler air. Just at that moment there’s an almighty bang going on, and a whiplashing noise which I couldn’t miss, and then suddenly the starboard engine stopped dead. And the engine didn’t have a feathering device, so there was nothing I could do to make it feather and cause no drag, it was still like that. An aeroplane in that position normally keeps on rolling, but there was so much ammunition in the engine it stopped, so many rounds. And I screamed at Jim and said, “You clot!” He said, “Nothing’s changed, look!” And at that moment I saw, I looked out of the cockpit ahead of me – I was instinctively pulling back – and they were (rattling, screeching), and they were tracer shells. Because (the one I had left), the two cannon, very powerful ones, two or four – they varied – machine guns. And so the whole lot… But you could hear the ‘whoof, whoof, whoof’ of the shells over and above. And I’ll tell you, and I told some the ‘rat tat tat’ of the machine guns. And the engine stopped dead and was on fire, smoking like mad, smoke coming in the aircraft. I’d now climbed to a hundred feet with the…
Did you manage to keep quite calm?
At that moment I felt as though I could – if somebody said, “Do you want (a run with a Chelsea girl)?” Dear God, I would have run! I mean I’ve never felt tension like it in my life before. I thought, ‘What are you doing? You’re in charge, you can’t run!’ It was the first time I’d ever been in such a, you know…
And I can tell you – I told some leading soldiers – I was got to, this was a couple of years ago and they made a lot of notes about it and asked me to re-write it down. And I was still (in the process of) dealing with my heart (funny pump thing) – the other day, and he couldn’t let it go. I had an hour and a half consultation instead of 20 minutes, because he’d heard through my doctor that in my record there was this, that, and the other, wounds – “What was it like?” He asked the question you just asked. I said, “There was a moment when I felt a yellow streak go from the back of my head, I could feel it.” And I said, “It was that greeny sort of yellow, not full white yellow, lighter.” I said, “I felt it going all the way down. I’m holding on, looking for somewhere to land, and I’m feeling like hell. I feel (God, pray, give shelter). And at that moment that yellow streak hit my ankles and, honest to God, I felt it bouncing back all the way. That’s my reaction. And I could feel it going all the way up, and I could feel a lump hit me here in the head.”
What do you think it was? Just a nervous reaction?
I’ve no idea.
I’ve described to you exactly. I told the surgeons and the specialists this. That’s why they were interested in it. I had no other precedent for thinking things like this, and at that moment I changed from a naïve little, small schoolboy doing his adventure stuff into an absolute bastard of the first order. I shouted at the Second Pilot, “Get down off your seat! Get back to the back! Call the Medical Orderly, get him to the front!” He was off. He was a difficult bastard, this Canadian. Canadians don’t like orders, either, (not from any direction). He was off. And he went back and the smoke was now everywhere. The second engine stopped and failed, and we climbed to about 120 feet – something – and I was terrified I would stall, so with no engines I just thumped the stick forward and kept a gliding speed of about 80 I think – 80, 85 with a full load – It didn’t matter. I pulled up and I could see in front…
Could you hear anything from the people behind?
No, no. No sound at all. No, no. There was banging and the crew were shouting to each other.
You hadn’t actually seen (the one) at this point?
I had seen one scoot to the right, and then I saw an image of one go into the smoke on my left. And then shortly afterwards the next two came in, and they were hitting the high wing which is where the tank lies, you know, the main tank on the high wing. And they holed all those, so the fuel was pouring into the aircraft between the cockpit and the passenger area. So that caught fire, the dribbling of it, so there were fires all over the place and black smoke. The ricocheting…
Was the cockpit full of smoke as well?
Yes, it was wafting in and out, but the main (plane) wall was behind, but everything…
You weren’t struggling to breathe or anything?
No, but there were planes now coming everywhere around the place. The Wireless Operator, I noticed, had his arm shot almost off. The Second Pilot was injured but he wasn’t showing it, he was running back and forth. He was literally getting through the wall of flame, so did the first aid boy, the lad. My orders were get ‘em all off the stretcher hooks and put ‘em on the floor. I mean, this is a change for me. Believe me, I’m speaking… I don’t know where it came from, because we were a family off – well, one of my Brothers’ was a bit wild, the Rugby man, a hard man – and suddenly everything was going according to plan. I got ‘em all on the floor and they all came back to me, the first aid man – Medical Orderly, I mean – and the Second Pilot, in turn, coming back and forth saying, “Everything’s fine. Everybody’s on the ground, on the floor, and they’re all alive. Nobody’s injured in the back.” All the damage was to the wings and to the engines, and the aircraft was just about manageable. (There was no power), I’m telling you, but the noise of the smoke and the burning started to take over. But there were three separate attacks of two aircraft. Six aircraft. And I’ve said this from day one. They then broke away and I managed to land it. I don’t know, with 340 hours, it’s hardly the position, challenge, to give to a pilot in that. But landing slightly downwind – or crosswind – very different for a Bombay, and the ground is not even, and there’s a slope in the desert which is renowned. And so we touched down with a beautiful descending, and I couldn’t get the tail down, and I’m kicking the rudders to avoid running into rocks. And it’s soft sand, and I’m manhandling it, because if we hit that at a reasonable speed it would have you swirling around and over, and then there’d be a big explosion and the whole lot would go up. So I was really fighting it. Never once I would think about myself, I really was thinking of, ‘Get this aircraft under control!’ And we went on for 6½ to 8 miles down this slope. On and on and on, and all the while I’m treating it like a 10 ton truck, or like a trolley bus, I used to say. You know, hard!
You just couldn’t get the tail down?
Eventually, after a long time, it came down. I then pushed the brakes thinking, ‘Thank God!’ and they’d been shot away. So I still didn’t have it. So, again going straight down, having to hammer the rudders, and then as we got down to about 40 miles an hour, I said to the guy, to the Second Pilot who came back up, “Anything else?” I said, “Stand by to get ‘em all out. Get the Ground Crew,” I said, “Get everything. Make sure the door’s off the hinge and (sewn back), stand and operate…” “All done! All done! Everything’s fine.” And I said, “Right, when I give the order ’now’,” – even though I’m still moving at 20 miles an hour maybe – “Throw them out onto the sand.” Throw them out, because if they stay in the aircraft and we get a second attack they’re going to be blown to pieces anyway. And that was the decision I made. And through the smoke in the cockpit – and by now there were flames everywhere you know, moving all under the… My hands are absolutely gone.
You hands are burnt?
Yeah, yeah. Right across through the first deck I could see five little dots going around. And I thought, ‘The bastards, they’re coming back!’ Normally after an attack like this they would have gone and disappeared wouldn’t they, get away from the British fighters. They were expecting them, as I now find. But I was waiting for the British fighters to come, you know, and they never came. So that was the situation.
You were quite badly burnt as well.
Yeah. I didn’t notice it at the time. I knew… It didn’t have an effect on me, but at that moment I saw the dots, I said, “Jim, they’re coming back. Stand by for the shout. Get the Medical Orderly back here.” And he was standing on the floor in amongst the flames. I said, “Open the hatch at the bottom of the cockpit floor,” because the Navigator, the Wireless Operator, his arm gone, he won’t be able to get back and take his turn, “Drop him out of the front hatch under the aeroplane.” And I called Jim back, and he came running back, and I said, “Make sure the Wireless Op gets out of the floor.” And he said, “Right. All set in the back.” And I actually looked back for a moment and got a thumbs-up from some of the people at the back. And then we hit some soft sand and slowed quite considerably. I had the stick right back, keeping the tail up, and we managed to keep it on an even keel, and I said, “Now!” And with that there was nobody in the cockpit except me, and as far as I was concerned they were all being thrown out. And as I was pulling myself together, wondering… You know, I was just trying to work out, ‘Had I done everything?’ And I got hold of the stick with one hand like that, because you’re up here and you have to step down to the floor like a Lancaster, you know. And I got hold of the stick, put my foot out onto the step down the side, which you have to do, moved my bottom and my head, and then stepped down. And as I did that the second attack came in. And it came straight through the roof of the cockpit and blew every instrument up in front of my face, where my head had been seconds before. And that shattered me. There was bits of shrapnel all over the place. There was whistling and shouting, and the cacophony and the smoke and the noise were dreadful. And I kept saying to myself, “Thank God the Orderly’s gone! They’ll be out! They should be out! What am I going to do?” And I got on the floor, and the last attack – I can hear the ricocheting now, it was quite amazing – and really nobody should have been alive in that aircraft at all on that attack alone, me and everybody else. And at that point I pulled myself together – I had passed out, and I remember being very blasé – and then I pulled myself together, I think I came to and I saw that the heels of my… The soles of my brothel creepers were burning. And so I thought, ‘God, they’ll never believe this when I get back to the mess,’ you know. And I was watching it, and I watched the windows and the Perspex melting, and then I thought, ‘Bloody hell! Get back, see what you can do! That’s all you can do, get back.’ They’d all gone. And so I tried to get through the wall of flames and got blown back, but now the second attack had broken the tanks up completely, and so the flames were whooshing all round. And I tried about three times and couldn’t. And I thought, ‘Damn! Get out of the bottom floor and run round, and if there’s anybody still there you can jump in and help pull ‘em out.’ And I jumped out of the hole in the floor, and instead of being six foot up it was one foot. The aircraft had collapsed in that second attack. So I crawled out in that dark, stinking gloom of smoke and fire everywhere, and thought, ‘This is it. No way out.’ And I just saw a bloody great tyre on the left that was on fire, a big balloon tyre, and it was on an edge, on an angle. I knew if I could pass that, (anybody could help me), and my thought was, ‘Is there a way out?’ And then the stupid thing that God and nature gives you, I thought, ‘If this tyre were to burst now because of the heat, it would blow me to smithereens.’ Because it would have that effect, you know, all the tyres with the rubber. And I thought, ‘Oh, bloody hell. I’d better get on here.’ And that sort of made me try harder, and I’d just come into brilliant sunlight, blinding sunlight, and as I walked away and looked around, back at the crashed plane, one of the wings was on the floor, there was a huge crunch and a bang and the aircraft, that one foot that it had, that went down flat where I’d been a moment before. So I went round the edge of the wing, all the way right round, right round the wing, expecting to see 21 people. And there were just 4 people there. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I reared up and I said, “What the hell have you done with the passengers? Where are they? Where are they?” And they said, “They’re in there.” And I looked at the aircraft, which was now changing shape with the heat. All the paint of the camouflage had gone, the (rounders) were falling away.
It was basically just melting before your eyes?
Yeah. And do you know, the door was on and it was closed. The two Ground Crew, whose job is to take it off the hinges and throw it back, out of the way in the back, there was a new boy – and one of the two was a new boy – he’d been changed at the last hour before going off. If we’d gone off at 11 o’clock, I’d have had the old Ground Crew, a very experienced one, and this new boy had been put on. And he was the fellow who should have taken the door off, I think – I think – and what he did was to latch it, an instinctively right thing. And when you run across that open desert, despite keeping it on an even keel, it was bloody rough, and the hatch or whatever you call it, the hatch broke and it banged closed. And with the aircraft under such strain, the warping locked the door – not locked it, but jammed it. And all those people who had been alive were killed by gunfire, as I was told afterwards. So that’s the story of…
So did that include Jimmy the Canadian?
No, he was alive.
He was alive.
The Wireless Operator (singed) and with his arm off nearly. Jim had wounds in him. One shell had hit him here, the back of the neck, gone right down through his body and out down here. He was so seriously wounded, it was amazing. And so I looked at him… I tried to get in the aircraft three, four, five times, and each time the heat of that thing – t was a forlorn thing but you would have to do it – and each time it blew me back. The heat actually blew me back. I was hurled to the ground or the Medical Orderly tried to stop me going, and when I was going to go he’d say, “It’s impossible, don’t be silly.” And I smashed him back out of the way and had another go. Then I got back common sense, and I couldn’t believe it. And I took my mind off it for a moment and said, “How are we going to save these?” The Medical Orderly was wounded or burnt but he was okay. One soldier was there. He’d gone delirious in the aircraft – he was delirious anyway – and he’d fallen out of the front hatch by mistake. In the course of this he hadn’t gone back to be pushed out, he’d gone forward. So he and the Second Pilot had gone back to the front to help the Wireless Operator down, as I’d ordered him, because everything was really in the back for the mass evacuation by the Ground Crew and the others, and he fell out with the Wireless Operator on to the sand. And before that, the Medical Orderly, who had rushing up to tell me, confirming that everybody was ready and everything was all set to go, he’d forgotten – in the smoke and the flames – he forgot about the hatch being open and he fell out, and the tail barely missed him. So he saw that second attack from the ground, it went over him. So there were those four, and I looked at them and they were all in a state of near to death, I mean… So I instinctively took three or four swigs out of the two or three bottles of water he’d got with him, the Medical Orderly. You know, they always carried them in the rows, they’d just sling ‘em over their shoulders. And I took three or four swigs and I said, “If anybody comes I’ve gone north-west, keeping the sun on my left and up a bit. I’ll try and get help.” And he said, “No, stay here.” I said, “No, you stay here. Don’t you dare move from here, otherwise we’re all going to get in a mess. I’m going to go for help.” And I must have walked about 2 or 3 miles, jogging of all things.
And were your feet burnt?
I didn’t know, I hadn’t looked. Everything was burnt here. I didn’t know, and as I came over…
And did you have any clothing left or was it all gone?
My shirt was burnt up here and my shorts were now very short. My socks were burnt, my shoes had been on fire and I stamped that out. And I walked about – jogged – about 2½, 3 miles and (as I was standing) I started fainting. And I looked down as I tried to steady myself, and I saw my left shoe, which was worrying me, and I was about to do the lace up or something, and it was full of blood. And that was the first time I knew I’d been wounded, and I didn’t even know.
It didn’t hurt or anything?
No, not then. And I fell and fainted, and as I fainted there was one Bedouin in a little hollow, there was about twenty camels. You used to come across these all the time in the War, in the desert, and what the hell was he doing there? I mean, it’s obviously a favourite place where they knew there was bits in the sand, and they can get water from anywhere practically. And he ran towards me and I just said, “Inglese! Inglese!” And he ran back and got a tray of the most horrible water, but of course it was water, which he fed into me. And I can only vaguely remember, he then carried me to a camel, which was hobbled, and it was pretty… Not tame. And he threw me on the back, tied my arms – because I was passing in and out – onto the hump or something near the hump. And he said, “Do this.” You see, and I just did that and he tied a rope a bit round my hands as well. And then he got hold of the camel’s neck and started walking at that very fast pace where they do the huge… you know, you’re doing about ten or fifteen miles an hour I think, is what I gather. And he was doing that, walking at the back, and I’m out cold. And he must have gone several miles, many miles, and suddenly I heard him shouting, and he’d taken his turban off, which is rare, to wave and pointing. And in the distance there was a small (salbasker) thing, and we tried to draw attention to it. And at that time I took my shirt off, my short sleeved shirt, I just tore it off and started waving. And the only reason I’m telling you that little detail is that I said, “How in the hell can I have a red shirt? I don’t have any red shirts! We haven’t got any civvies out here.” And I’d been shot badly and wounded in the back, and that was the first time I knew that I’d been shot. So I’ve got to be honest…
That was obviously just a bullet rather than a..?
I was shot down both… And all over… And they’d stopped (a bit) in the back of the heart, between the ribs, and they were jammed there.
You were devilishly unlucky in the first place but I mean, God, you’ve had some… I mean, you survived by a whisker, didn’t you? First of all when they came back for the second run…
Shouldn’t have happened.
Secondly when the wheel nearly collapsed on you, and thirdly with the bullet…
(That’s why they said), “Nobody else, including the test pilot, has ever landed a Bombay with no engines! How the hell, you James, did you do it? Brilliant!” And I said, “I don’t remember.” And he said, “Well, try and remember, because I’d like to know!” They were all saying it was an outstanding piece of airmanship on my part, but it was that sudden return that drove me out of the cocoon of youth and naivety one has, and lack of experience, you know. That training again, you see! Back to that basic training, I suppose. And eventually we drew attention, or I (was coming out of it), to the people. And there were two soldiers in the Royal Army Service Corps testing out a 1500 weight truck, out on test, working on it all afternoon, by chance they were in that area. I fell off with excitement, and all I could say was, “Telephone, telephone.” You know, they were shocked. I didn’t know why they were shocked. And they just picked me up and put me on the front seat, a young chap standing in the back of this truck, and he went like bloody mad he was so frightened. There was I in deep trouble, you know, a mess, all burnt up. What I didn’t know, as the driver said to me as he unloaded me. “You’ve got no hair. It’s all mangled, everything’s gone.” He said, “Your face is burnt, look at your hands.” And he kept saying, “Look at your hands!” And all the fingers right down to the bone were standing out, and I’d never noticed it at any time. I can’t explain anything more to you than that. It was extraordinary. They put me on a stretcher and patched me up, waiting for an ambulance to come from the Army.
Could you speak at all? Were you able to say what..?
Yes, I… As soon as I saw the Commanding Officer, he was shaving at the end of a little siesta in the afternoon, this Major was there, this canvas bucket on sticks, and suddenly this thing fell out of a lorry, this lump. And he looked down and I was just standing on the floor, and I said, “Sir, telephone Army Headquarters. General Gott has been killed. Bristol Bombay shot down.” And he said, “What was that?” And again that lump in the back of my bloody head came back, and I said, “Telephone bloody Air Headquarters! It’s an emergency, it’s an emergency! Now! Quickly! Bristol Bombay from Burj El Arab, General Gott, shot down, killed!” And he was away with a towel round him. I can see him now. Most ungainly. I was put on a stretcher and bandaged up a little bit. Lots of cotton wool, I remember, that’s all they had, some plaster. And waiting for the ambulance, and I said, “What’s going on over there?” And they said, “The Boss-man’s got a convoy to come and rescue, to your aircraft.” And there was one Jeep in the front, two ambulances, and two trucks, and there were lots of soldiers piling on with picks and shovels, and ambulance people getting in. And I crawled over to the Jeep and dragged myself into the front seat. And when the Captain driving, leading the convoy, came, he said, “You can’t be here. You’re going back to the MASH tent, hospital, they’re waiting for you.” And this is (like the) open desert, the Army unit on the edge, you know. And I said, “I’m not going there, I’m going back. I promised my crew I’d be back, and only I know the way.” He then shouted out and said, “You damn fool! The driver says you were out cold in the van, in the truck, you were out cold on the camel, because you fell off once it stopped.” He said, “You haven’t got a clue where you’ve come from!” And I said, “1 – 2 – 0! That’s what you’ve got to do.” And he set off and turned round to the Major and other people and said, “I’d like you to be witnesses that I’ve tried to get this man out of the back.” The Major got hold of me and started to haul me out, and I was in pain by now, the pains were coming through, and I had a deathlike grip on the Jeep, on that thing in front of the passenger, and they couldn’t break it. And I said, “No way!” So they said to each other, “Right, take note.” And they turned to some other soldiers, “Take note as witness. We’ve failed to get this man out. We doubt if he’ll make it.” And then we started climbing up this…
And you can remember him saying that?
I can remember him saying that. I can also remember him saying…
Did you think to yourself, ‘My God, this might be it.’
No, I didn’t think that. No, I had that determination, I had this sense of duty, all this stuff, and I became extraordinarily… What’s that word? Not big-headed, or anything like that… The sense of duty got so great. But, in fact, it was the right thing to do you know, but I wasn’t acting it out or doing what I thought somebody should do in these circumstances.
It just absolutely came instinctively?
Instinctively. And then he climbed, leading the convoy up this escarpment to get onto the desert. The unit they were taking me to was on the flat plain. Behind Alamein it’s all flat plain, and there was an escarpment up to the main… Which you may have seen. And so we’re going up there on those rickety roads, and every once in a while he said, the Captain said to me, “Are you sure now? I think it’s dead south.” And so he would turn the Jeep to go on a track. And each time I grabbed the wheel and pulled it back, and said, “No. South-west. South-west.” And he said, “But you don’t know where you’ve come from.” And I said, “South-west! Got to go!” And he did this two or three times, and the last time he stopped the little convoy and said, “I have to tell you right now that if I don’t turn onto (1 – 8) here it’s going to be dark, and all those people you’ve got there still alive, and all the evidence and things that should be seen now will be too late.” And he said, “If we don’t see anything as we come over the top of the escarpment now, I’ll be turning 1 – 8 – 0 straight down south, where I hope, I think it’s going to be.” And we came over the top of the escarpment and there’s a big, black column of smoke right on the nose of the Jeep. You know how Jeeps curve like that? It was right on the middle. He said, “This is a moment I will never, ever, ever forget.” I met him some years afterwards in Haifa – George Formby was in the aircraft I flew up to Haifa, to entertain the troops for some reason. And he was sitting at the table, and this chap came up and said, “Aren’t you Sgt James from the Bombay?” And I said, “Yes. Who are you?” And he said, “I’m the bloke who rescued you!” And I said, “Good God!” and jumped up. And he told me that story there and then. He said, “That bloody…” He told Formby, he said, “That column of smoke wasn’t to the left or to the right. The sun was setting, highlighting the colour schemes, and there was this black smoke going up to about 20,000 feet.” And he said, “And with that,” he said, “You passed out cold.” And he said, “I had a feeling you’d gone. I couldn’t stop, we had to get there, so I charged across the open, flat desert and got there.” So…
And after that, then you got back and were taken to hospital?
Yeah. I was taken to hospital. Well, I had several operations that night and the next day.
No, no. In the MASH tent… Marvellous people. And one Medical Orderly kept me alive. He kept talking to me all night round, the doctors told him to not let me sink. I don’t know how he did it, he just held my hand. He kept leaning over, he had a lovely Irish brogue, all the time, all the time, and giving me water. I think he woke me every time he thought the breathing was going silly, because he would suddenly appear in my mind’s eye. And he managed to look after me for, oh, three or four days, then I was taken by ambulance further back. And the Bombay was now coming… The routine run wasn’t coming to the front now, it was coming to some place much further back. And my best friend in my tent, we all reckoned one day we were going to get caught, so we put a couple of quid each – Egyptian piastres, one pound, two pounds each – under the tent pole, because you couldn’t trust the bloody wogs. And there were four of us in the tent so we had eight quid there, and we all agreed that if one of us got killed we would all go out and have a party in Cairo. You know, typical young schoolboy attitude. And they’d done it the night before, and the chap who was Captaining the Bombay that brought me back was going up, hurrying everybody around, and I heard the voices as I’m lying on the floor of the Bombay, semi-conscious, still in danger, (max) danger. And as he went by me my hand was out and I just touched his stocking, and he didn’t kick it away but just pulled it away, and I hit it again and he came back and said, “I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” And I said, “(Ron)!” And he said, “How did you know that?” And he nearly died on the spot, because they’d been out celebrating my death, and the Squadron, the Squadron Commander, my Flight Commanders, had been told we were all dead. And that’s the other side of the security over the Middle East. They dropped a clamp down right away, they wanted to cover everything over until they could sort out why Gott had been intercepted. And it was the most amazing (block-up), and that’s where all the wrong stories have come… So many people had made up stories to cover it, I mean, that I’d crashed into the ground, that one lone (enemy) 109 accidentally saw me and by chance said, “Oh, I’m on the way home, I’ll have a little bash!” Oh, two aircraft on another occasion. The thing I was reading last night said two aircraft suddenly came across this aircraft and decided that’s an unusual aircraft so far forward, and ‘boom’! All rubbish. The only one I read a few days ago, I was cross-checking something in your book and I came across a little leaflet of a… A cut out from a – not a cut out, a copy of a book some years ago, and in that it said that Gott was shot down and very bravely managed to get out of the aircraft, and then realised that he was the only one out of the aircraft so he rushed back in to help everybody else and was killed in the course of doing it.
Yeah, I’ve heard that one as well.
And Mrs Gott told me that. She had three different accounts, and when she asked me to go and see her and have dinner with her in 1958 when I took over Command of the first Javelin Squadron, the most advanced squadron in the world at the time, it was in the (Peterborough Column), and she… (I remember the time that she saw), not only did say how extraordinary, this chap’s coming into command – was Deputy Commander at first – of the fastest squadron, was the same bloke flying a Bombay in the Western Desert, the one that got General Gott killed and gave Monty the chance of a lifetime. And this was in Peterborough, this column. So they were on to me. And I went to see her…
And you told her the story?
She said to me on the doorstep, I’m in my best bib and tucker, I said… She said, “It’s very kind of you to come. Now, you’re not going to cross over the doorstep here until you make me two promises.” She was a big lady, a distinguished County Councillor and things of that kind, a powerful woman, and she said, “Two promises I need to have from you, assurances, and the first one is what are you going to have to drink?” And I said, “A gin and tonic.” And she turned round to – I don’t know if it was a butler or a member of staff, because it was in (Fleet), near (Aldersham) – she said, “Two large gin and tonics. Doubles, at once!” And she said, “Now, the second one…” And by now I’m taken aback. I mean, this was not Officers’ Mess life for me. I mean, I’m all ready for the big (meal stuff). And she said, “I don’t want you to come in here and give any old story or be kind or be over helpful or be this. I want you to come in and tell me from the moment you got on your aircraft,“ – this is what I’ve just done with you – “I want you to tell me the story, the account, from the beginning right to the end. Will you promise to do that, because I’m sick and tired of the letters I’ve had from the War Office, the Regiment, and from very distinguished people.” And she said, “It’s appalling that they could all differ so much. Nobody has gone into it. Everybody has picked up bits and pieces.” And that was in 1958. So I went in and we had a lovely drinks do, and everywhere I looked his face was looking down from this most marvellous portrait, his blue eyes were following me round the room, so I kept apologising to him. But I brought that up only to show you the different versions.
So how long were you in hospital for?
I was in the hospital for four months. I had more operations in Cairo. I only mentioned (Ron Lender) and the aircraft going back to show…
It’s the most amazing story.
And I wanted to tell you that to show you how much cover-up. One Commanding Officer, who should have been the first person to have been told what had happened to one of his crews and their deaths and all that sort of thing, did not know where the hell I was or what had happened. Everything was covered over. And my Flight Commander came to see me, said, you know, he said, “What the hell’s going on at the back? The Boss is really going to town on everybody because there’s been a cover-up.” And he said, “You tell me now exactly what happened.” So I told him what I’ve just said to you, literally word for word, it never changed. There was no reason to change it, there’s no gain for me. I mean it happened…
And Jimmy recovered? Jimmy the Canadian, he recovered?
Um, yes. He wasn’t… (I was almost startled) by that dreadful, horrendous wound, they sent him home to the UK for special surgery, and then he went back onto flying in 1943 onto Beau Fighters and Mosquitos, anti-shipping, with a proper Canadian squadron. Then he disappeared in an attack on a ship in the Rhine estuary. So I only found that out a year and a half ago when I saw (his men). I do a big thing at the Egham RAF War Memorial at Runnymede, and we have 30,000 names there of people, Air Crew, with no graves. This last Sunday night I was at the… What’s it called? The (Greek) Monument in Ypres?
Oh, the Menin Gate.
I was at the Menin Gate with a party of our Air Crew people, and I said the famous words in front of thousands of people on Sunday night.
Yes, because you were saying you were going to Belgium.
Yes. But Jim died. I was so upset because I’d been chasing all through Canada his family and his contacts in Canada I have, and failed to get it. The South Africans disappeared, I’ve had people searching South African records, they can’t see anything about him.
You’ve been to Pretoria?
I haven’t contacted Pretoria, but a friend of mine did. He was…
He couldn’t get a Service Record or anything?
No. He said there’s no trace of that number, it’s an odd number. But I’ve given him the number of the man, and he was in the South African Air Force, he wasn’t in the RAF. So that’s all that lot gone.
So were you given the DFM for that?
Yes. Yeah. They came out in the December honours list, but I was till in Palestine in a recovery camp there.
But you got back to 216 eventually?
I was then sent for a medical and they passed me. I was hoping they’d fail me, I wanted to go home. I’d had enough. My schoolboy dreams had bee fulfilled and I didn’t want to go back any more. I didn’t want to get in a Bombay again and I didn’t want any detachments and Bully Beef and adventure. I’d had it. And I went for a medical exam in Jerusalem of all places, so somebody was looking after me again. They said I hadn’t had enough, so I was sent down to Cairo to Air Headquarters, and a very rude chap there said to me – this was typical of Air Headquarters in Cairo and GHQ in Cairo. They were known as the ‘(Grocky) Boys’, you know, the restaurant. Much hatred between the base people and the frontline, and this chap said, “Now,” he said, “You go back now to Cairo West, your Squadron has moved to Cairo West.” And I said, “Oh, Sir. I though I was going home. My ticket has been sent to me.” And he said, “Who on earth do you think you are telling me where you’re going? You’re going back to your Squadron, and report back there this afternoon. No (life in Paris) for you, young man!” Lovely, isn’t it? Lovely. So I went back in a ration truck, which was fine, that was normal. Got to the Squadron and had the most fantastic welcome from everybody, you know, the CO. And they (wouldn’t miss any out), you know, everybody’s in. The CO got to hear and there’s a big party, I was invited into the Officers’ Mess. I mean I (was brought back with bells on) after that, and people were absolutely delighted about the DFM, they were thrilled. There was only one ever in the whole Squadron, and only two DFC’s and one DFO, and that’s one of the most pre-eminent Squadrons in the RAF and the world of transport, you know, doing all these crazy things, landing… Oh, I landed behind lines several times, feeding the SAS in the Bombay.
Oh, yes. Yes, very hair-raising. And also took part in that raid on Tobruk when they sunk all the… We went behind the lines for that. And we flew the Fleet Air Arm, what’s the Swordfish? The Albacores. There’s a human chain for each aircraft, four Pilots, four Crews. It was these 4 gallon tins passed from the aircraft onto this Albacore… It is the Albacore, isn’t it? Yes, the twin engine, twin plane. And then up to the top, and the chap on the top, the Navigator there had a hook which he hammered in and through the cover – not a screw top, a clamp top – and straight into a funnel, and the Pilot was doing that. So that went on for four aircraft. They were then absolutely full. We were 300 miles behind the German lines, near Sidi Birani, so they had enough fuel and a full load of… Your book on Malta has taught me a lot about the weights and range, which was marvellous! So I’m telling you, I’ve learnt so much, things (that were forgotten). But I always thought you could easily make Alexandria, Tobruk and back with a full load. But you couldn’t you see, and the old Albacore proved that point. So we filled all of them up and we waited until midnight, and then the signal came through and (Julian) and I saw a German patrol car going around with a big search light on them, you know, and this light was bouncing off the aircraft. And all the (shaken) Pilots were just sat up in the cockpit with our fingers on the buttons to start for a rapid getaway. Very exciting at the time. And they went off, and we collected it. We’d (given them every cover). There was no sign of anything left behind, and we took off in the dark without any lights, flew back, and there was a huge barrage on the Alamein line that night as we were going round the south past it. It must have been late June, early July. Yes, because my Captaincy started in early July, so that was my last Second Pilot trip. That’s one type of op we did, and I did (efforts) supplying the SAS, who came out of the blue like little dots on the…
Yes, I think that was mainly July. That’s when they hit all those airfields and
We supplied them, we went out – they were out of… All those photographs you see of them with Arab headdresses. I could see them getting nearer, my Boss said – Squadron Leader Bill Coles – “I believe that’s old Charlie over there!” Charlie was the senior Major, I think, of all. So he goes running out and saying, “Hello, you old bastard!” you know, and the first Jeep came right opposite me, a Sgt Pilot, you know, trying to be… In an area, a dangerous area, but suddenly all these things that you’ve read about. And the chap said, “Morning. Lovely morning, isn’t it? How are you getting on? Good flight?” And you would have thought we were on Cheltenham High St, you know, or down the road, and that’s when I really saw the old sort of British sang froid at its best, because all the chap said, “Morning all. Good trip? What have you got for us?” You know, no flap, no panic.
I suppose that’s why they were so good at what they were doing. So how did you
track down the Luftwaffe pilot? That was only a month or two ago, wasn’t it?
Yes… I wish I’d… I’ve got a photograph of him here [inaudible]…
…Don’t worry at all.
Let me just say first of all that I was running a meeting of the Air Crew Association, this lovely branch we have of this national – all former Air Crews, it was great, absolutely marvellous, and one of the difficult buggers I’ve got there started shouting out, “Saw your name in a book the other day.” And I said, “Yes, yes. Can we get on with the meeting? See you afterwards.” And, “No, no,” he said, “It’s the chap who shot you down.” I said, “No, it can’t be, because all the German pilots in that Squadron were killed during the War.” That’s been officially stated. “No, no,” he said, “His name’s in the book, and he recounts that on his… That he actually shot the Bombay down with General Gott on board.” Well of course I nearly died. I closed the meeting immediately, had a half an hour delay. He had the book there and I got a copy of it, it’s called ‘Wartime Tactics of all the… Combat Tactics for the Different Air Forces’. And in the German one, Herr (Klaud) writes, ‘I took off on a free sortie with my swarm and I saw the Bombay and I shot it down. And after shooting it down I thought we had not… The aircraft was still okay so I sent in my Junior Pilot, Herr Bernd (Schneider), in to do one more attack’. And that’s what’s in his report. My joy was that he said in that report that I was flying at 20 to 30 metres. This is exactly what I’ve always said, and people were saying no, I shouldn’t have been up at 500 feet, that’s what Shores has got in his Operations Over the Desert, a wonderful book, wonderful. You should see the red marks all over it. I’ve given a copy to Herr laughing-boy, just showing him what I think about that account, you know, and he was highly delighted and couldn’t stop laughing about it. But the point is that that’s again one of the wrong stories told. Where was I…
You were in the meeting where you found out about…
In the meeting. And in it he said that I was at 30 metres and they attacked with a swarm. So then I knew, that was confirmation that there were these four aircraft, so when I went to Germany my mission was… When I eventually – it took nearly two years, but we’re all very close now, we’re in touch with each other and I’m hoping they’ll come over here soon – and Herr (Clouder) says quite definitely the following; 1 – That he was leading the four mentioned on that day from a base about 30 miles the other side, the western side of Alamein, and that the only thing that caught him, that was unusual… Nothing in the briefing was unusual, it was a free flight, he said, a recce, take on anything you see, and that he was to climb to 20,000 feet. And I said, “Oh, that’s unusual.” And he said, “At the last moment they said, ‘Total RT silence. No transmissions at all of any kind under any circumstances’.” He said, “That had never happened before. Never.” For a fighter unit on a loose run like that not to have communications, you know, you’ve got to have communications. So he said, “I don’t understand.” And I thought, ‘Yes, here we go’. I said, “Herr Clouder, how many aircraft attacked me?” He said, “Six.” I said, “But there’s only four in a swarm.” And he said, “Ja.” His daughter was interpreting for him. He said, “Two were added on at the last minute.” And I thought, ‘Yeah’.
So who was commanding them?
He was the leader of a Flight of four aircraft which had two more aircraft added on just before they took off. He had no special briefing, he says, there was no reference to any interception of a Bombay or to look out for it. They were to go up, recce, look around, report anything unusual, and if they got into a tangle they’d have a good air fight, or they’d attack a bomber or whatever was in the way. And he said that as he was circling an airfield, he saw an airfield with Hurricanes lined up and a few light aircraft circling around, and he saw one bigger aircraft taking off leaving huge sand clouds behind it. And I stopped him there and said, “Hang on. Burj el Arab didn’t have soft sand all over the place, it was a fairly hard, gritty surface where I was.” And I said, “There were no aeroplanes running around. There was nobody flying at all.” And I said, “I don’t think there were any Hurricanes at Burj el Arab, so you were circling not Burj el Arab when you saw this aircraft taking off, you were circling an airfield near Alexandria, you mentioned Alexandria.” And he was quite nonplussed by this, and already seemed nonplussed about the RT silence. And then he said, “We thought, we decided to go and have a crack at the big aircraft taking off.” So he said, “We turned round out to sea and came back and found the aircraft again.” And I said, “Well the aircraft you saw taking off wasn’t me.” And he couldn’t answer that, and then he said, “We came in in three twos,” exactly as I said, and he said, ”We broke away,” and he said, “I shot out your starboard engine.” So I got up and slapped him on the back and said, “Good shooting! You absolutely took the engine right out!” In other words stopped it. “Did you know the propeller couldn’t turn, you filled it so full?” And he thought that was amusing. I said, “Then the other engine was shot out.” And then he said, “I didn’t see much smoke.” And I said, “Oh, yes, the smoke was everywhere, but it was probably light smoke, and then there were fires.” He said, “There were no fires for me to see outside. Maybe the last two saw fires in the aircraft.” So we circled around this in our discussions after, we had a very pleasant time, and I broached it very carefully and slowly in the course of the – we were having a general conversation and then put something in. So he confirmed the six, he confirmed I was at 50 feet when some people said I was at 500. The leader of the formation said six, that means all the stories about an isolated or a crash, or two, or three, or four, absolute bloody rubbish. And finally the other point he made was that he was circling low down after he shot me down, and he was in two minds whether I’d crash landed and gone straight in, “And somehow,” he said, “we had doubts.” But he couldn’t explain. He’s 92 now, or over 90, he couldn’t explain. And you could see, his daughter said then his memory’s beginning to slip. And I said, “Oh, well what a pity.” I said, “I could see four little dots through the smoke, five dots circling.” And he came back right away and said, “We couldn’t understand why the British fighters didn’t attack us. We were waiting and we were hanging about while Herr Schneider went back in. What we couldn’t understand and didn’t think was possible, that there was a plot.” Yet I explained to him that he got me in the most perfect place, away from the front line, away from… In the open desert where nobody could see or hear, halfway towards the delta. Couldn’t be in a better position. And he said (then they had to escape). Anyway, he said then that they did escape. I said, “How did you do it?” And he said, “Oh, we flew south into the Qattara Depression, dived down, still waiting for the fighters to come in – they didn’t – and then we went back.” And I said, “Well I know the Depression. We used to hide behind there going up (when we were) behind the lines.” And he thought that was very funny and we started talking about points that we looked out for. And eventually what he said was, “We landed…” Now this was the really vital part here. He said, “We landed and went into the enclosures (bit).” He said, “We all got out of out cockpits,“ he said, “Oh, it was stinking hot!” And I said, “It was awful!” And he said, “Yes,” he said, “and we got out and we went into the tent, and we were just starting to talk to the Intelligence Officer when the flap of the tent flew open and there –“ and he was sitting down, I’m serious, with a neat little moustache, broad (West German), he stood up, he said, “The Commandant(ier)!” And his hands were really like that. Obviously it was an occasion that was quite out of keeping with the normal format. “The Commandantier, walking around, shaking us all by the hand, slapping us on the back!” And he’s looking at his daughter, staring, looking at me, “The Commandantier! And then he stood back and addressed us all and said, ‘Gentlemen, you have just shot down a transport aircraft and you have killed General ‘Strafer’ Gott, that’s General Gott, the new Commander of the 8th Army, on his way to Cairo.’ And he said, ‘Congratulations!’ And walked out’.” Now that would be about 5 o’clock and I, at that point, was still walking from my aeroplane, trying to get help. Nobody on the British side had heard anything. My radios didn’t work, they never worked when I was down at 50 foot, and the Wireless Operator was still trying to send SOS out, and clearly nobody heard it anyway. So the Germans were reporting the success of the mission…
They must have known.
The old boy was still (a-stance), and he kept saying to his daughter, “I did not know the plot.” So I said to her, “Do tell him that I believe him. I believe that he was not party to it, but there were things going on.” She said, “Oh, that’s very odd, Jimmy, don’t you think?” You know, this is the daughter. I said, “No, I don’t. Think of it now, all the things; picking me up at the right place, shooting me down, breaking the honour code of the Western Desert, coming back to shoot up an aircraft that was never going to fly again, ever, ever, ever, riddled and falling apart. That is a break of the (Symonds) Code that existed between us.” I said, “You’ve heard your Father talking about this same code. You’ve heard him talking about how good the RAF people were, what good aeroplanes we had, how we behaved well as prisoners, how we treated their prisoners so well.” I said, “You’ve heard it, it happened here. No civilians. Military, military only.” I said, “They broke the Code on that day. Why do you think that?” And she talked in German to him and he said, (“All he could do was that.”) It was absolute shock and surprise to him. They didn’t give in and say, “Well, I’m damned, so that’s what happened.” They didn’t say that. They were caught – not caught. What’s the word? They were… (In difficulty). She looked at me in a sense to say, ‘My Father still is quite clear that there was no plot as far as he was concerned and that he just did the job he was meant to do, which was a recce, and saw an aircraft and went down.
But even if it was, they were being set up to do that, weren’t they?
But I said to her, “Oh, come off it,” I said, “No RT?” I said, “I’m a Fighter Leader in peacetime in very fast aircraft. I don’t know how the hell I would deal with six aircraft, telling them what I’m going to do next in total silence. I wouldn’t know when to send Herr Willie laughing-boy round to fire at me, just one.” You know, I could see myself doing it, but I said, “What your Father doesn’t understand, and please tell him again, there were three separate attacks on the ground, not one.” And she told him again, and he said, “No, no, no, nein! Bernd, I sent Bernd in only one!” And I said, “I’m sorry, but there’s a big difference between the three separate attacks.” And I said, “Those three attacks are what killed everybody on board.” So she told him that again, and he was quite ‘hmmm’, you know, about it, and I said, “You must have been surprised to see that I was still running along the desert, and that’s why you sent laughing-boy in.” And he was a bit vague about that. So then he asked his daughter to tell him – to ask me how many people were on board the aircraft, and he put his hand up, ‘Five people on the aircraft?’ Like (a quiz), you know. And when I said 22 he was absolutely rocked. I was quite worried about him, and he started to cry like a baby. “21 killed? 19 killed?” I said, “Yes, 19 killed. Three attacks. Make no mistake, three attacks.” And he was completely nonplussed. And quite interesting, that, really. But I got up, got hold of his shoulders and said, “Tell your Father this; you did your duty and you did it bloody well. That’s you duty as a pilot.” You know, I can’t do more than say that. But I said, “There were three attacks and there’s no way I will ever, ever (give way) or be (pushed out of the way) with that, and it was in the three attacks that the serious damage was done.”
Amazing. Amazing. Have you got pictures of him?
That’s when we first met in the airfield.
He still looks quite game, doesn’t he?
That’s him at the time.
Very serious-looking. Very Teutonic.
Yeah, yeah. And he had lots of Luftwaffe modern-day friends to come and join us at lunch on the first day. That’s the moment we met, 60 years. I said, “Herr Clouder, I have waited for 63 years to meet you… Again!” And then the family arranged for us to fly together, former enemies now flying together. So we did a trip together on the day. He followed me round the whole weekend, never letting me get out of his sight, carrying my bags. He was a delightful, delightful old boy, I have to tell you. That’s the aircraft we flew in. So it was a very nice occasion. And he was sitting in the chair when I told him that there were 19 killed, and he was rocked back. He simply couldn’t cope with it. I thought I would finish all this talking off by saying about this, and I didn’t mean to be this long. I would never, ever wave a flag about the Gott incident for two reasons; 1 – I was glad to be alive. Second – I was in a squadron (with an element) of people that took these things in the flow of things. I became a bit of a mascot there, but you would be slapped down quickly if you were ever to be boastful, and I never was, it never entered my head. And trying to hide my bits and pieces was (a threat) to me. After the War I kept getting fed up hearing that I was dead from various people, and I was then hearing all these cock and bull stories, and every time they came through in the first post War years, the first ten years, I would ring up the RAF Air Historical Branch, as they were, and they were hopeless. They said, “Oh, well it’s too late to do anything now. It’s not worth bothering about.” I said, “Well, it does bother me, because the people are quoting the incorrect history here.” And then I was posted to… The Personal Staff Officer to the Commander in Chief. And we were in his house and spent a lot of time together, you know, as a PSO you do, and we were talking one night about his experiences in the First World War and mine in the Western Desert, and I told him about this lack of interest in Air Headquarters and in the publishers, and he said, “Right, tomorrow morning, you know, you get on the phone as soon as you come in and have the line opened to me.” And he had a huge, long talk with the head of – or whoever it was in the Air Ministry – and said, “I want this resolved.” And he failed to get through anywhere. And by that time, his tour had ended and he was leaving the RAF anyway. But he tried. I called the Camberley Headquarters. All the Army records, at one time, went to Camberley. This was before the other place, most of them were kept there. I don’t know where in Camberley or why, but I was given the address, the telephone number, and I rang in 1970 when a new book came out by someone. And it was so horrendously silly from my point of view, I rang up this chap and I said, “Are you involved with the records of campaigns?” And he said, “Yes, yes. We have them all here.” And I said, “And do you have a library there? Do people come to you for research? And he said, “Yes, of course. That’s why we -” I said, “Could I tell you that there’s a tremendous error in blah blah blah.” And he said, “Oh, well I tell you what, give me your address and I’ll call you back.” So I never got a call back, so I called again and spoke to him and another colleague. And that’s how it’s gone on, and in the end I gave up. And then Nigel Hamilton got on to me in 1980 when he produced Monty, the book on Monty. Have you seen that? You have. Well, Nigel Hamilton was fascinated by this and did some research, and then he printed that story almost as I told him. And that’s the first breakthrough I think that I had, in terms of accuracy. Since then all sorts of funny things happened. I’ve met Herr Clouder, he’s proved the point. His story, as written, talks about a very simple affair. He won’t go any further than sending Herr Bernd Schneider in to finish it off, but he never printed the reaction of the Commandantier coming in. Now I don’t know what rank he is but I think that something was written in Germany, he has mentioned how excited they all were, that immediately they landed, this happened. My point is, to finish off, to say that I’ve never had time to do what other people might do, proper research. It’s not my field anyway. And having had a very exciting flying life, I mean for four years after the War I was the number 1 VIP pilot, so I was flying Prime Ministers. Guess who I flew? I mean, I flew Lord Allenbrooke! To Germany on two occasions, and on to Italy, and he insisted on coming up and sitting in the front in the Second Pilots seat, to the annoyance of my Second Pilot. So here am I with all the blue-bloods sitting in the front, and dear Allenbrooke, charming man, we talked about ornithology – he’s mad about birds – and we chatted about this and we chatted about bits of the War. But he was one of these deep thinkers, you could tell, and I never… It never crossed my mind to say, “Our paths crossed once. You were in Cairo.” And the other time I flew him, for the whole week I flew Field Marshall Smuts, the (chair finance to) South Africa, many of the (Royal) Cabinet, for a whole week. He took me to all the openings of State Parliaments where he spoke, the first European speech that was made after Herr Schuman’s speech was made – it was Churchill’s speech, but because Churchill was off at the election Smuts was chosen to go round five capitals and speak the speech in those capitals, about the future of a united Europe, and I heard the speech three times. So Smuts was there with me at night, he would take me along, he introduced me to the Queen, said, “This is my friend, Jimmy.” I mean, I was talking to the Queen and, oh… That’s how close we were, and it never crossed my mind, I didn’t think it was appropriate. It never crossed my mind. And yet those are two key people who were present at the meeting in Cairo. And General Sir Ian Jacob, the final thing is he was Colonel Ian Jacob, as you know, Churchill’s Military Aide throughout the War… With him all the time. He went to the Middle East with Churchill, he went up to the Line with Churchill and met all the Generals and had the famous lunches in the frontline. And then Churchill said to him, “I’d like you to go up again tomorrow, a sort of friendly visit to your friends, and bring me back what you feel and hear without me being there.” And he did that, and he said he walked into Gott’s tent – Gott hadn’t been there the previous day – and he walked into Gott’s tent, and they’d been together at this Army Staff College and they’d been serving on all the staffs, and he said, “Gott got up,” and he said, “I couldn’t believe it. Here was the man who was always immaculate. The smart man. Unshaven, tired, clapped-out and obviously switched off.” He said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was a man who could play Rugby on a filthy pitch and come off the only player with clean shorts.” He said, “The man we could go to the pubs with, he could drink us all under the table and drive us home, you know, and here he is looking clapped out.” And I said, “Well, had it struck you, Sir, that he might have been out all night and not had any sleep?” It was the critical time of Alamein, in between the two, first and seconds battles.
Because he was basically running the show.
Mm, he was running the show in the end, (once beginning to get the full authority). Well, he wasn’t too well (at the time), but the point is that Ian Jacob came to stay for the weekend with a neighbour of mine, who was a retired Major General. Major General (Matt White), a lovely old boy of the old school, comes into church on a Sunday morning, it was my first time, the first Sunday of a ten year stint as Church Warden, (God’s gift). So as he’s coming down the stairs I say, “Good morning, Sir. Lovely morning.” And he says, “Morning, Jimmy. First day, Church Warden. Good luck.” He knows it’s (the deaf male) Church Warden, and he’s more famous than I (ever was)! He goes by and he said, “Meet my friend, Ian. Staying the weekend with me. Come over and I’ll show you later.” You know, that sort of thing as he was going through, Ian. I said, “Good morning, Sir.” They went past a little vestment place, past the choir, into the knave. He turns round, he says, “Ian, that’s Jimmy James, don’t you know.” And Ian says, “Mmm, yes, yes, yes.” And he had two sticks and he had a watering eye, and he was now General Sir Ian Jacob I realised afterwards. And as they went past me into the Church, into the knave, he said, “You know, Gott’s pilot!” And that was it. The old General on the sticks, Ian Jacob, stuffed them on the ground, turned round and locked me with a stare, and said, “Rubbish! There’s been a mistake! All killed, don’t you know!” And he turned round, snatched his sticks up and he walked on into the Church. When the Major General then said to him, “No, no, that’s him, he’s Gott’s pilot. (He’s my friend, got my word).” And they were going down the knave and I decided to catch up with them, pretending to show them where they were going to sit. They knew perfectly well, they sat in the same seat every Sunday, the Whites. And I just tapped Ian Jacob on the shoulder as he was going down, (between the pews, down). I said, “By the way, I really am Gott’s pilot.” He said, “No. All killed. There’s been a terrible mistake.” Boomf! Sat down. I went back and the whole church is crammed full, and everybody’s been listening to every word! He stayed there, they were talking all through the service, these two, looking around. At the end, Ian Jacob came by and stopped, and said, “I’m very, very sorry.” He said, “There’s been a terrible mistake.” He said, “Winston… [Waitress interrupts] He said (a decent line)… We then walked outside with (Juliet), my wife, and my daughter, who’s absolutely shattered by the experience. He then stated everything about what happened in the British Embassy. He said, “I had to climb the stairs, having taken the call, and I had to wake Churchill up. He’s slumbering, his afternoon siesta. All the big Generals and the Naval Commanders and the whole of the War Cabinet, Mr (Case is in Australia), Smuts, they’re all meeting downstairs, all waiting for Churchill, Allenbrooke. And he said, “I woke Churchill up and I said, ‘I’ve got very bad news, Sir’.” “What now, Jacob?” He said, “Gott’s been killed.” And he burst into tears, Churchill. Now here was a man, the leading man in the World, having thousands of people dying, ships going down with a thousand a piece (informs) the Admiralty, and he burst into tears over… Over Gott. He said, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. This is terrible.” And got up and they got him dressed. And he came down the stairs and Jacob went up to meet him, and he was still sobbing. He came down the stairs, everyone was waiting to meet Churchill and for the meeting to start. And as he came down the stairs, sobbing bitterly. Now, is this the reaction of a man of his power over one ordinary, insignificant General? That’s the question, isn’t it?
Yeah. Clearly not, no.
And it was so bad that Lady (Lanson), the then Ambassador’s wife – who is now Lady (Killerne) because he honoured her – she couldn’t stand it any longer in front of this very impressive, famous crowd. So she grabbed Churchill by the arm, walked him to the French windows and out into the rose garden. And then she walked around the garden with him, and sat him on a bench and consoled him. And it was after 30 minutes of this that she then walked him back into the room and the meeting started. And she has put that on paper and put it on video recording, so there can be no doubting of that as an anecdotal irresponsible comment. So that was Churchill’s reaction to the man he wanted to command the 8th Army, who he deeply believed was the right man in spite of Allenbrooke and all the other quarrelling Generals, half of whom were a disgrace – some of whom were a disgrace. Some of the appointments that Auchinleck had given were absolutely disastrous. Even more than… But that was the talk of the town, Dorman-Smith being round the bend, practically, inefficiency back at GHQ.
Wasn’t he called ‘Chink’?
‘Chinky’, yeah. Joined the IRA originally, didn’t he, even joined with that. But to have so many… To promote old Richie to be Commander of the 8th Army was a classic error. Well, you’ve written about it. I’m telling you now from the, okay, rumour-factor of the day. The biggest rumour in the Middle East when they broke out and down to Alamein from Gazala, the whole thing, was the crucial battle that Richie was in Cairo at a dinner party. I mean, that was a story, but that went on in the Middle East at the time with (Decks), you know, with people talking about, “Who the hell is this chap?” You know, “He not only doesn’t know anything about real fighting…” So it must have been hell for Gott and his co-Commander – you know, Co-CO, as opposed to Corps, but he was called ‘Commander’ – to have been coping with a leader making decisions that they’ve got to fulfil. And people said that they were trying to inform, that they were disagreeing with Richie. Well, it’s not surprising when they were being asked. I mean, Gott – as you probably know from your research, people already do know – and he had some Commanders saying they wouldn’t do things. I mean, that’s not a level that’s reached in the field.
No. It was utter breakdown. I mean utter, utter breakdown.
Utter breakdown. But the one other thing I wanted to say on was that on the going back and for, going to the airfields and pulling things out, we were up and down all the time on that retreat, and all I can remember is what I consider to be an orderly retreat. Everything was in columns and there were tremendous amounts of sand, dust storms from it. But it was (miles), it went on for days and days and it was, you could say, an orderly withdrawal. There was no sense of people all over the place, ducking and diving, and the RAF was commanding the air at that time, more or less.
But I think that was the point about the orderly retreat, is it actually wouldn’t have been had the RAF not held up the Germans. The Germans, the Axis forces, couldn’t keep up with the 8th Army retreat because of what the Air Force was doing.
Sorry, forgive me. I didn’t come to that point. But that’s true, isn’t it? There’s more things in the decision making than there simply seems to be. But I read somewhere, something was written in a very serious article, ‘The Disastrous’ – (I read this at the time) – ‘The Disastrous, Uncontrolled Retreat From Alamein’. I was furious, because having seen it, I know I wasn’t on the ground, part of it, but you know, it was a pretty organised affair. And then when Monty said, you know, “This rabble, we’ve got to change it all and put it back.” I mean he ought to – well, he did have to eat those words, but he went round making it possible, the units afterwards. But it was a very tricky time. And the other thing that I thing – but I know I taught old grandma to suck eggs – but, you know, if I were an Army Commander in the field and I was facing a successful General who was getting up-to-date information, precisely where every part of my army was every day, at any given time. I mean if you played Rugby like that and you knew exactly which way they were going to go for the next… Whether they were going to kick for touch or make a breakthrough, I mean, you just swamp ‘em, don’t you? And there was so much of that that happened, you know, (the whole thing really was that). But I think to have that extraordinary piece of intelligence all the way through, and I think they knew that Monty knew that Gott was coming, because the RT got pretty plain, I gather. And also the fellows intelligence from Cairo to…
A good source.
Well, he got there the day before Gott left, that I found out. So he was there on the 6th and must have gone back to say, “The news is… And he’s leaving tomorrow.” But he wouldn’t know how to…
I’m sure you’re right about the… I’m sure the Germans knew. I’m absolutely sure you’re right about that.
(A plot like that) has a certain amount of integrity.
It all adds up, doesn’t it?
I hope I’ve not convinced you. I hope… I do reassure you that life has been so full of… To go to a dinner where a retiring General friend of mine…
[Time called! End of tape]