Group Captain Allan Wright, died aged 95 on 16th September 2015, he was a veteran of the Battle of France in 1940 and one of the last three surviving Battle of Britain ace fighter pilots.
Interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
I was born in Teignmouth, south Devon on 1st February 1920. My father was in the Royal Flying Corps and then in the RAF.
Was he in the Great War?
Yes; he had a very good RAF career; got to air commodore. The RAF was his career. He joined the RFC when it was first formed.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
I had an elder brother and a younger sister and two more younger brothers. One was a Hurricane pilot in the RAF. He was wounded in France when he crash landed and I think he had undone his straps before and didn’t have time to put them on again and he landed in a ploughed field and was thrown against the side and broke face bones. He insisted on going back and was lost (??) over the North Sea. I keep forgetting about Mandeville.
Mandeville was your brother?
He was fighting in France was he?
He went out there in the early days, before the fall.
Did you go to school in Devon?
He went to Blackfriars in Northants and then St Edmunds, somewhere in East Anglia.
Were you always going to join the RAF?
I didn’t have any other ideas. My father was RFC and then RAF and Mandeville joined so I did. Went to Cranwell.
Was it hard to get in?
Oh yes; if you wanted to make a career of it, you wanted a commission. You had to pass an exam and both Mandeville and myself got in, but on his first operational sortie he was shot down and later he was killed. He was shot down. He bullied the medics into letting him go back and he shouldn’t have done. I went straight to Cranwell after school in May 1938.
Was it just a practical exam?
It wasn’t a flying exam. It was half way between school certificate and higher certificate I suppose.
Then flying training and eventually your wings?
The normal procedure for a pilot coming in would be elementary flying training and then you’d do the next bit and then you’d do your wings…..
Many more people wanted to fly than there was room and unlike the army, where the officers are few and the men many, in the RAF the officers are the fighters. They invented a short service commission which was 5 years and no matter how good you were, on the 5th year you were out.
You had a long service commission?
Yes; my father suggested it and that’s what I did. I think you had to pay for Cranwell but I think I got a bursary of some kind because I did well in the exam. I think in my case it paid for the whole thing which was a great relief to my dad.
Did flying come quite naturally?
Yes I’d say it did. I am trying to think if I had any prangs early on…..I had one not important one when I came in too fast and ran out of runway. But they built the runways with a soft area at the end, just soft enough to stop you but not so soft it took the undercarriage off.
What were you training in?
An Avro Tutor was the first one; the Hawker Fury.
The Fury was rather similar to a Hurricane except 2 wings instead of a monoplane?
Yes; a very manoeuvrable aeroplane; you could do anything with it and one of the favourite things which was very frightening, was that you dived down here with a good speed on and then pull up like that full throttle and just keep it there and it’s to stop going up (?) and then it starts falling down you see and you do it at a fair height and when it comes down, it’s going to go this way or that way. That was one of the exciting things you could do.
Good training from an acrobatic point of view presumably?
If you’d done some aerobatics, you were used to the aeroplane being in odd positions, but you don’t intentionally do it in battle. It is only if you are following somebody else and the enemy goes like this. You hang on and hang on and you hope you fall this way and you try to catch him up. In other words, you are not afraid of any speed, fast or slow.
Did you have gunnery training?
(3rd Person) I think he should look at his photographs at the same time as you talk because it is very difficult for him to recall everything.
Fortunately I have a lot of records one way and another. I am keen to do a number on 92 squadron because I like the fact that you were flying over Dunkirk and then taken out of the line and then came back into the line for Biggin. From that point of view, the squadron had a very interesting time of it.
(3rd Person) This is the very early album; when he first went to Cranwell.
This is my brother Claude. They called him Mandeville, but he didn’t like Mandeville so he was called Claude Wright in the Air Force. He always thought Mandeville was such a soppy name. I think my grandmother was French.
Here we are – Cross country to Duxford. Cranwell, 2nd term, 22nd September 1938. So you had terms, like going to university?
Yes; taking that photograph was quite tricky in a thing like that because you couldn’t trim it; they didn’t have trims like they did later on so as soon as you let go with your hands, the thing would start twisting and so I had to try to keep the wing up over the rudder. I was lucky to be able to get that.
Is this a Gauntlet?
Sir Phillip Sassoon’s plane; that’s a Dragon isn’t it or a Rapide?
I can’t remember.
It always amazes me that in the late 30’s people were still flying biplanes and within 6 years people were flying jet planes and actually jet planes haven’t changed that much in 60 years. They are faster and more sophisticated, but they are basically the same thing. September 1938 – sandbagging – that’s the Munich Crisis?
So you were all on stand by a bit then were you?
No, we hadn’t got any fighting aeroplanes then.
It says here Rugger at Cranwell. Were you a keen sportsman?
Oh yes; fly half I was. I remember that particularly – speed is the thing.
And nimbleness of footwork.
Oh yes; I was very good at that.
What other sports did you play?
I wasn’t very good at cricket…..tennis, but I didn’t get in the team. Rugby was my main thing.
I’ve never been to Cranwell but this looks like a lovely building.
Oh yes it was. We were stationed there when he went to teach at Cranwell later.
There are some wonderful pictures here.
(3rd person) He was always very keen on photography which is why he has so many photographs which is quite unusual.
This is at Cranwell……
They look so cumbersome.
That was a terrible thing that aircraft. See that wing? When it was going as fast as it could – full throttle – the wing would be more flat and so this part would be up in the air; ugliest aeroplane you ever saw. Look at the front. I think it’s got a front gun there.
And these were hopeless weren’t they – the Fairey Battles?
Well yes; it was a Spitfire engine in a bigger aeroplane.
But also no forward firing guns I don’t think.
No; it was a bomber but not a terribly good one because it couldn’t carry very much.
Ahh! The Gladiator!
Lovely aeroplane to fly; not very fast but you could do anything with it. It would go into a spin and come out of a spin; you could do anything.
That’s one I’ve never even heard of – a Blackburn Shaft.
That was working with the Navy. I think we had a squadron or two working with the Navy and that was a torpedo carrier.
What were the Magister’s like to fly? They were just a training aircraft weren’t they?
Every fighter squadron had what was called a communications aeroplane so that if HQ or another squadron commander wanted to see your CO, you could fly over. You never went anywhere by the ground. If you were visiting someone else, you’d get in your Magister and off you’d go.
Was it an open cockpit?
Yes; those are Furies.
They are so similar to the Hurricane aren’t they? The fuselage is. These are good pictures. Did you ever hunt?
No; I don’t like killing things. I used to love flying up above the clouds. The thing I liked best of all was when the clouds were like that; not deep this way and sort of broken up. You were in the grey and then suddenly you’d be in the light again.
It was unfortunate that you had to live through the Second World War and fight but what an amazing time to fly. Now if you want to learn to fly, you have to do X, Y and Z and you are so limited in what you can do; so regimented by health and safety and there are so many other planes up but in those days you just got up and flew and it must have felt as though the world was your oyster.
Oh very much so; as soon as you got up there, as long as you came back with some fuel left!
It’s amazing that you could take all these pictures while you were flying.
Yes well you just had to let go of the thing and get it in position.
Were you allowed to take photographs up there or did you just not mention it?
(3rd person) I think during the war they weren’t really allowed to take photographs.
I don’t know; I shouldn’t think so. But I didn’t pay any attention to that!
Oh! Sad news! Not your plane I hope?
I think it could be! First night flying in that type of aeroplane and unfortunately the weather was closing in and I couldn’t do a circuit properly because get a sight of the thing and I came in a bit fast and went into the grass at the end of the hard part of the runway and that’s what happened.
But you were all right were you?
Oh yes; it would only have been 12 miles an hour or something.
I have never heard of half of these…..Harrow, Hendon.
If you’d been a bomber, you would have but they didn’t like them very much……..height test – 18,000 feet. It took ages; you just sat there trying not to stall and see how far you got.
How much does cloud affect the performance of the aircraft?
Not at all.
You just scythe through it?
Yes; it’s like driving a car into fog. It looks pretty solid but out you come again and it’s light again.
4th term – is that a Hart or a Fury?
Fury I think…….no that’ll be a Hart.
Who are these two? Peter and Pat?
Pete Seymour and Pat Learmont; great friends.
This is still at Cranwell? Pat was in 92 squadron with you wasn’t he?
Yes; I think I saw him go too; that’s what’s so sad about it. Here’s a fighter plane trying to go as fast as it can without the undercarriage going up; fixed undercarriage. We had these guns and here I am having to take one to pieces and put it back together again. You are hardly like to have to do that when you are in the air!
Presumably the principle is that if you understand how it works……
You can misjudge flying but you can’t misjudge shooting – it’s either going or it isn’t. And you can’t do anything about it if it stops. It was all very thorough at Cranwell – since we were going to be officers, we’ll be officers in charge of people who look after the guns and so if we know something about the guns, we can tell whether they are working well or not.
Were a number of people thrown off the course? If they weren’t up to scratch?
Yes; mainly for misbehaving I think. I can’t remember anyone not getting through.
15 Cranwellians go on holiday on the Broads. Literally, you’d just finished Cranwell and then it was straight into the war. This was July 28 to 5 August.
Yes, that’s how it happened for us.
He was one year short because of the war.
Really? Should have been there for another year?
There are a lot of crosses on that Spitfire.
You were still at Cranwell when war was declared?
I was still at Cranwell – they concertina’d the course.
So you were pushed out?
Yes but they continued taking people but just to do a flying course. It was quite different.
I like your motor bike.
Oh yes; BSA – make a terrific noise!
Good fun though! Recalled for 5th term – war declared 3rd September. Looks like a landing in a vegetable patch there!
Yes it was! My excuse was that I got caught out in low cloud and rain and there was an Oxford coming in from somewhere else…..
This was when you were still at Cranwell?
Yes; it was just visiting or something and they kept me in the air when the weather was getting worse and worse to get this bugger in. By the time they’d got him on the runway, the weather was much worse and I misjudged it.
At least you were all right?
Well, just….this lower wing went in and pushed back and pulled the top wing with it. So the top wing was just here and if it had come any further, it would have taken my head off.
When you got your wings, were you rated on your flying ability?
I don’t think so; I think you either got your wings or you didn’t, or you might have to do that term again. They’d spent quite a lot of money on you already, so they wanted you to get through.
So practise camp, that’s before you get sent to a squadron?
Practise camp for fighters.
That’s the first time you fired live ammunition. You can’t do it at Cranwell because you haven’t got the range.
That was a nice little car.
Was it yours?
Yes, a Riley 9.
What colour was it?
Brown. You had to put white on the mudguards and black out the headlights. The next car – Pansy – inside of blacking out the headlights, he had an RAF roundel in the front of his headlights!
Squadron to Croydon – becoming operational. So you were straight into 92 squadron were you?
Yes; this thing always amuses me – the object was to see if you could change course in cloud and get onto the new course using your compass and the compass wants to stay where it is and takes a little time to catch up. So you practise in this curious place.
Very Heath Robinson.
There was a big wheel on the back and a small wheel on the front so you go like this.
Bourne End – is that where you were?
You’d met each other by this stage had you?
We met in February 1940.
It says here Recuperating from ‘flu at BE (Bourne End) 27th March.
We were reasonably close by and he used to come over.
How did you meet?
We met at a friend’s house in Bourne End. He came down with a friend, Ian MacDougal, whose aunt lived near us. We had some mutual friends – Gillian. Allan used to visit this other girl and stay there a lot. Allan wasn’t very well. He arrived on his birthday in February and Gillian’s mother hadn’t got a thermometer and thought my mother would have one because she used to do Red Cross stuff. They rang up mum and I was sent over with the thermometer. They lived the other side of the Thames and the only way to get to them was in a little rowing boat and Gillian came and collected me in a little boat and Allan always says the first time he saw me, all he can remember was my teeth! That’s how we met.
How did you know Gillian in the first place?
Gillian’s parents knew Ian MacDougal’s aunt. She apparently had her eye on me this Gillian. When Bar’s mum said “Would you like to come and stay with us next time for a change” and I said “Yes, fine,” this girl was terribly upset apparently.
I think you’re making that up a bit!
I never would have got involved with her!
Spitfires at Croydon and Gatwick; you were stationed there for a bit were you?
I must go and look at the ORB for 92 squadron. Is that Tony Barclay?
A V8 – that’s amazing!
They all used to pile into it and go off to the pub.
You can get 7 in and on that!
When you got to 92 squadron, you were immediately on Spitfires were you?
You had Blenheim’s didn’t you?
Yes; terrible aeroplanes.
They had Blenheim’s first and then went onto Spitfires.
That must have been a relief.
They wanted to increase the fighter units we flew these rotten old planes til we got Spitfires, but at least we got some flying and practising in.
That’s true. Was it just chance that you ended up with Pat in 92 squadron?
I suppose it was.
They just said you two go there and you two go over there in quite a random way?
Someone in the Air Ministry chose what squadrons we were going to go to. We had no choice.
And no choice about what you were going to fly either because Ian went onto Defiants and Sammy went up north somewhere.
But as a young, newly qualified pilot from Cranwell, presumably the plane you wanted to be flying was a Spitfire wasn’t it. The most beautiful, most modern, fastest aircraft?
Spitfires weren’t there in 1939……
I think they came in in 1938 in Duxford but the point I am trying to make is that you must have been thrilled to go onto Spitfires?
Oh yes; so much better than Hurricanes. Hurricanes and Spitfires were the 2 day fighter types available at that time.
Peter Brothers who flew Hurricanes in 32 squadron in the Battle of Britain said it was a pretty good aircraft and is quite defensive about it.
Everybody who flies an aircraft well and gets fond of it is very proud of that type of aeroplane. It was very good at manoeuvring; it could get inside a 109 when they were going like this, whereas a Spitfire would have a job to do that. But a Spitfire was much better……it was all metal too, whereas a Hurricane had canvas on ribs.
Can you remember your first flight on a Spitfire?
I don’t know that I can; I’d be inventing it.
Is John your younger brother?
Yes; John was training in South Africa and had an accident; had half his leg taken off. This is Roy Mottram doing a delicate wheels up. He couldn’t get them to lock down and when they come down a little light should come on, green, but it wouldn’t come on. So rather than land not knowing what it was going to do, he decided to put it on his stomach.
There are no squadron markings on this one – N3193.
It may have been just after it arrived when they were checking the guns.
4th May – this must have been just before you started going over Dunkirk……..posted to Northolt. What have you done to your arm?
It was the motor bike, wasn’t it? It skidded or something.
Oh yes; it was a very wet road and I was going round to the right and as I went round, it just went like this.
Can you remember flying over Dunkirk and that period?
Presumably that was the first time you saw any action?
That’s right; that was not nice at all; not nice, because we’d be patrolling up the line, up and down the coast and you were waiting for them; they weren’t waiting for you. Our forces were trying to get out on the beaches and the Germans thought we’ll kill all this lot on the beach because there was no cover. They sent their 109’s which were probably taking off only 2 minutes away and we were sent up to knock a few of them down or at least make it difficult for them but we had to go from our own bases in East Anglia across the North Sea……
And presumably from Northolt where you were at that point?
Yes and if your aeroplane was hit but you could still fly it, obviously you’d try to fly back but you’d be on your own then because once you started patrolling….. once you were in a dog fight you were on your own.
So you’d go over in a fairly tight vick and the moment something happens, you all spread to the 4 winds?
That’s right and in fact when you’d finished attacking or whatever you did there, or had to break, and still had fuel and ammunition, you did what you liked. If you found something….you had to be careful shooting up anything on the ground because it’s rather difficult to tell friend from foe.
Did you shoot anything down in that period?
Yes; 2 or 3 I think.
Oh yes….23rd May – it says ‘Offensive patrol – one possible ME109’ and that’s when Pat went down, and then later that day…..you went out again – ‘One definite and one possible.’ Quite a lot.
This is something – people send him things. You’ll probably find this very interesting.
It’s fascinating; I’ll get my camera out for that! It must have been such a shock going from training and having this lovely time going through the clouds and having a great time at Bourne End and then suddenly, you are in the thick of it and losing friends and good friends. It must have been horrible.
Religiously I am a Roman Catholic and each night I used to pray and I used to ask just for tomorrow. I thought it would be too much too ask for a week! Give me tomorrow I used to say. Before you went to bed?
How amazing! Blue section – that was the section you were in at the time?
Yes; there there were 2 J’s (??) in a squadron and then S was the individual aircraft and I began with S and then went on a bit. In other words, when an aeroplane was either shot down or no use as a fighter any more, it would lose its insignia and the one I was offered, that would have an S put on it.
With Hermann’s compliments – damaged! To lose 6 people in a squadron when there are only 18 pilots, that’s a third.
I think it comes back to you more now, doesn’t it? The feeling……as he’s getting older, it bothers him more than it did perhaps at the time.
Presumably you knew all these people as well did you?
Some, but not all.
You didn’t have a car of your own did you, so you wouldn’t have come to visit us?
I wouldn’t have been allowed to. There was no visiting on the station and I was rather young at the time! The boys taught me to drive. I often used to go and meet him at White Waltham or Bookham. He used to fly over you see. Hardly knowing how to drive, but I did! You left the car at our house probably and then someone would fly him over probably. Something to do with Pat I expect.
Here you are – 10 years readiness. That’s a good picture of Brian King (?). I’ve seen that before; he must have lent it to someone.
It’s in the book he wrote – A Willingness to Die. You’ll see a lot of those photographs in various books.
Some I recognise from Geoff’s book as well……..look at that! Funny that the Germans never had 4 engined bombers isn’t it? They never did…….Pembury, that’s a big open space. So that was after Dunkirk when you were taken out of the line. Was that to bring in the new guys so you could recuperate a bit?
Once France had been overrun, there weren’t enemy ones coming over to us but they use to end an enormous amount; great formations. The idea being to swamp the defences so you’d be sent up and give a vector (?) to fly and they’d say “They’re coming from the south” and you’d be up here and see a whacking great formation up here, which you’ve got to attack. You had to make up your mind – you’d got to do it. 18 bullet holes on 9th September. What happened?
I was bounced; I was minding my own business and an enemy aircraft saw this object and just went down to attack. You have to imagine – you’ve got goggles on and an aeroplane behind you – all you can see is what you can see there. There’s a lot of sky – all this behind there; all this underneath and to a certain extent, ahead of you so if an enemy wants to attack you, he can attack you without you knowing.
When you got bounced by this 109, all 18 bullets came from that bounce? How did you get out of it?
Just hauled it round; as soon as you take evasive action, if there is any chance of you getting on his tail, he’d vamoose.
So if you are bounced, what do you do? Flip on one side and then try to turn inside him?
The easiest and therefore the quickest thing is to go like this. Obviously you can do various things, but this side or that side; forward’s no good.
If you go forward you’ll black out?
You’ll hit the roof. You weren’t in the right position to use this ??? you do push the stick down; you pull it tight but never the less, if you’ve turned it upside down or do this, you’ll bang your head. Not badly necessarily but you change your position and you won’t be able to use your reflector (?) site. To use that you’ve got to be in a fairly small…..it’s a brilliant idea. Before, any bounce and you’d lost it. With this, you can have a certain amount of area you can be moving in and you are still using……
But if you found someone was shooting at you from behind, would you always do the same manoeuvre or would it depend on where the attacker was coming from?
The first thing you knew was a bang here and you’d do the simplest thing which was to haul back.
But if you hauled back the stick, wouldn’t you go up?
Then you are losing speed aren’t you?
You are not too worried about speed at that particular time.
Right; you’re just getting out of the line of fire?
So you just haul up and hopefully he goes underneath you? Is that the idea?
If he’s overtaking; he may just be sitting there and may want to get in another shot. You haul it round and the Spitfire has a tighter turning circle than a 109, so if you do that, he won’t be hitting you until you straighten out. If you go into the tightest turn you can do, he can’t keep up with it.
But if you are flying like this and he is coming down at an angle but like that and firing at you, then presumably the thing you want to do is to go in like that?
Yes; but if he’s coming down this side, will do that or that?
Then you are making it easier for him aren’t you so presumably you want to go in the opposite direction from which he’s……
It’s much more difficult to push this way than it is to pull back like that. At least that will put him off his aim and as soon as you’ve done that, you can turn round.
Once you’ve done that, you can come down or do whatever you want to do?
There are all sorts of things you can do. What you are interested in is to get yourself out of his line of sight.
I remember last time you spoke, you defended the vick, saying that from a defensive point of view, it had its merits, because if you are all close together than you can manoeuvre quickly. If you are spread out, if you need to manoeuvre vector to a different position quickly, then it is harder to do because you are all spread out. But if you are in a tight unit, you can all go together very quickly. I think that was what you were saying.
It depends on the formation, if any, that the enemy is adopting. You don’t want to do something that is going to get in front of another portion of his wide formation flying. You want to know, if possible, what else there is there.
We were talking about tactics and I think I probably said “Do you think our tactics were correct in 1940?” Because obviously they evolved over the course of the war and you developed the Finger Four and that sort of thing but did you feel when you were flying that the tactics you’d been taught and had adopted were the correct ones?
When you say correct, I would use the word best. Some were good and the best tactics are the quickest and easiest to do and that get you out of the line of fire. Once you’ve done that, you can start manoeuvring. If you are in a tussle with a 109, because a Spitfire can turn tighter, and you went like that and he went like that, eventually he couldn’t get out of your line of sight.
Were you conscious of hitting more enemy aircraft as a direct result of that? Were there instances where that happened?
I suppose it depends what’s going on; how many there are and what they are trying to do.
Other people have said to me that they’d feel nervous beforehand and feel apprehensive while sitting in dispersal but when you are up in the air you don’t have time to feel scared; there’s so much to think about and the adrenaline’s going. The flying and aerial combat means you don’t feel scared. Would you agree with that?
Up to a point; once you are in the air, if you are in a formation of whatever kind, then you are going over enemy territory perhaps, then you have time to think and worry. Once you are being attacked, or are attacking, then it’s like playing rugger; you are not concerned about injuring yourself; you are just doing what you are trying to do. All your attention and concentration is on that.
Did you find that sitting and waiting at dispersal wore the nerves down? Bit stressful, waiting to be scrambled and wondering…….
Oh definitely; there were various ways of getting round it. You could find an exciting book or look at magazines. A bit of rudery (??) different people had different ideas; anything to distract you from……
I know that sometimes you were flying 3 sorties a day which was obviously a lot, but there is still an awful lot of time in a 24 hour period ……
Well…..not 24 because you were wither day flight or night flight.
But in your waking hours there is still a lot of time where you are on the ground and not flying, so it’s an awfully long time to think about it. You must get through a lot of books or games of cards!
Yes, quite; it isn’t nice. I keep mulling over it in my mind…..the first thing I will do……see what the ground crew are doing and where the chocks are and you go over in your mind what you are going to be doing to get up there. Or whether you are leading a section or flight or squadron or whatever it is……what the others will do; who is going to go up first, because you wait til the leader of the formation is ready and when you go out you want to know where he is. When you are at dispersal you spend quite a lot of time looking at the aeroplanes and working out who’s going to go first…….
So there are discussions going on about who’s going to go first – which section and all that sort of thing?
The flight commander or whoever is responsible.
At this stage, you were a flying officer were you by the time you were at Biggin?
I was a pilot officer probably.
You weren’t a flight commander at this point?
Tony Barclay was a character wasn’t he?
A ladies man!
Reading Tony’s book and Geoff Wellum’s book, the impression is that you go up and fly all day and then you go down to the pub, drink yourself silly and sing songs. Was it really as boozy as all that?
For some; I just didn’t like getting tight.
(Wife) My impression was that it was pretty boozy. I remember saying to Al “How do they manage to get up in the morning? How did they do it if they went out drinking so much?”
I didn’t, so I don’t know! It was their problem, not mine!
So you didn’t go down to the pub every night?
If anybody wanted to go, I’d go with them.
But you just didn’t drink as much?
At times, I felt like the odd man out. I didn’t feel quite like the others.
(Wife) When Al was shot down, he was taken off to hospital and someone sent him those photographs of it. Who was that Al who took them?
A ground crew chap.
(Wife) Did he give them to you?
Yes, but they just arrived; I don’t think he signed the letter.
It says “After a dog fight, I send one ME109 into the sea but get surprised and hit by two others. I chased them off and limped back to England, landing eventually at Shoreham, Sussex.” That must have been quite a nerve wracking journey home when you’ve got half your rudder and elevator shot away, and you were wounded as well weren’t you?
Yes and there were drops of blood going down there. When I took my boot off afterwards, the boot had that much blood in it.
Were you in pain or was the shock kicking in?
I don’t think I was in pain in the air.
How did you manage to get your Spitfire back? It’s called Satan 3; was that because it was the third plane you had?
The third Spitfire; the other ones……….
“They put a new tyre on and wheeled Satan 3 to the edge of the aerodrome.
The other two probably ran out of time; not necessarily enemy action. They left the squadron for some reason or another.
This one was pretty badly damaged by the looks of it. One of the tyres burst presumably?
Can you remember that actual combat?
I’ve probably got it written down somewhere.
(Wife) Al took both Gillian and me up in a Magister; terrible thought really. Someone came with him so fortunately he had someone to swing the prop to get off again. I’d never flown before and I thought ‘Oh well……if I die……!’ When you are young…….! I remember that thought and I enjoyed it of course. I think they (the pilots) thought no one could do anything to them for it, so it didn’t matter.
“12 definite; 7 probables and 6 possibles.” That’s a lot”
Probable is much better than possible!
It always strikes me that one of the great advantages that the Luftwaffe chaps had was cannon. They had machine guns as well. How bad was your thigh injury?
He was in hospital and it kept him off for about 6 weeks. He came to recuperate at our house.
“5 glorious weeks for recovery!”
Did you go and visit him in hospital?
No I didn’t; I couldn’t get there.
But you knew?
Yes, he wrote and told me. Nobody would have notified me because I was only a girlfriend but I had a letter I suppose. I can’t remember the actual hearing of it.
‘I love these……
Kingerby (?) claims a Hun but finds that some of the others have had a finger in the pie too.”
There’s Kingerby and there’s the intelligence officer who’s telling him all about it. And there’s Geoff Wellum.
Did you have a particular scarf you used to wear?
Yes he did.
Tony Barclay was a great one for his sweater.
Your grey one; a sort of wool one wasn’t it? Very light wool.
But hardly anyone wore ties?
The reason you wore a scarf type thing was so your breathing wasn’t…….you want to be as free as possible and get as much air as possible into your lungs.
When you think they had to fly in their uniform; all this clobber.
“Back to Biggin again.”
These are from the camera gun; very good you see. You can assess……the camera gun points about there and so whatever you are pretending to be shooting at it’ll be below rather than above, so you put the centre point up there.
That’s his brother.
He had operation after operation.
When did you leave 92 squadron? Sometime in 1941?
Hmm – 41? 42?
When did you get married?
In June 1942 and you were in Sutton Bridge in ’42. So when did you leave 92 squadron? Probably the end of 1941 I should think.
It says “After 2 years of battle, 92 squadron is split up towards the end of the sweep season, 1941. The last of the originals, as I leave, July 3rd.” Did you become an instructor after that for a bit?
He went to Sutton Bridge and was a gunnery instructor for a bit there and that’s when we were married. He went to America at the beginning of the war to teach the Americans.
Oh yes; this was the American squadrons that were going to come over to Britain, before the USA joined the war. It was in 1942, soon after we were married; in the autumn. Three of them went and had to go in disguise more or less – as Mister – and had to wear a suit.
Were you in the Land Army?
No, I just worked for a farmer.
How did that come about?
When you reached 18, you had to do some sort of war work.
I am surprised you weren’t somehow hustled into the Land Army.
I think as long as you were doing a worthwhile job, you didn’t have to join anything.
Were you doing that at Bourne End?
Yes at Blackwell Heath, near High Wycombe.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes I did; I didn’t want to join one of the services; I just didn’t.
Well, it was much more convenient for me!
Did you worry about Allan or did you just try not to think about it?
I always had the feeling that he would come back; it’s extraordinary really but I knew that he would. You get very down sometimes and I can remember you said you felt pretty bad from time to time. I have him my signet ring which I was very fond of and said “You take this and I know you’ll bring it back” and he did. But in fact he lost it later in the Far East. Do you remember? We were caught in a monsoon; took a boat out. It was terrible; it felt the closest to death I’d ever been. It was a motor boat and the waves were so big and Allan was trying to hold it off the beach; it was terrible. When we finally got back I didn’t have my ring on. It’s at the bottom of the South China Sea!
Can you remember the Battle of Britain going on and the threat of invasion?
Oh absolutely but looking back on it, a young person does not have the worries that you have when you are older. I am terribly bothered now.
But were you all expecting German paratroopers to descend?
Well you could do, but being the age I was I didn’t really……I wasn’t desperately worried. I can’t remember being worried at all.
Where you were, in Bourne End, you must have seen…..
Oh yes and we heard them all the time and then you’d hear the siren.
What did your parents make of you stepping out with a fighter pilot?
My mother was awfully good about it. Al used to come and stay with us.
It must have been a great refuge for you.
She was so generous; I can’t remember whether she said “This is your home” but……
People were like that then, giving sanctuary to people from London. They’d come out and stay the weekend; friends and people who worked in London. Mother was very good and treated Allan like a son.
You think Fifi approved of me as a possible?
Oh I think she did.
Fifi was your mother?
Yes; she wasn’t really Keithy. She was on the stage; both my parents were on the stage. In her youth she did a lot of acting and she was called Dora Keith. She called herself by her maiden name and so Allan called her Keithy but the one day he called her Fifi and I don’t know why but it stuck and all the grandchildren and everyone called her Fifi from then. She was really marvellous.
And your father was still an actor then was he?
Yes, he was a character actor called James Harcourt.
Did you go and watch him?
Oh yes, sometimes; we’d go up to London. That was before the war of course, when I was at school.
Is that Pete Seymour?
Yes, he was Allan’s best man.
He had a big nose!
Yes, you can see that! You got a DFC and bar didn’t you? Two DFC’s? One during the Battle of Britain and one subsequent?
Yes; one was ’41.
There you are going off in Pansy – oh there’s the RAF roundel! It’s rather good! What made you move down here?
We knew he’d be retiring in one or two years; we bought it before he retired. I think we just wanted to get away fro everything. The north coast was much wilder in those days with less people.
Cheaper too than going down south.
I knew Devon a bit because my parents lived in Exmouth. I thought if we came here, we’d be reasonably close to my parents for visiting.
We used to stay there and then come out and see houses and when we saw this one it was in a terrible state and we bought it for a song. I think it was the environment that we fell in love with. We had 4 children. Our eldest Sue went to Australia. She was engaged to a geologist and he went out to Australia to work and she went to join him and got married out there and is still there and we’ve grandchildren and great grandchildren out there. We’ve got a son out there too. Robin has been out there for 10 or so years. We have one son at Bideford and our other daughter moved about 3 years ago to near Bideford.
After 92 squadron, did you ever go back to combat flying?
Yes; I decided that day flying was too dangerous and so I thought I’d do some night operations and then you are mostly fighting the elements rather than the enemy. In fact, if you get put on to the enemy and you really know your business, you won’t get shot at all but you’ll shoot them down. You feel a bit of a cheat really. It’s a shame really but if they are going to go bombing at night well then they must take a chance.
I think the worst part of that was the training for it. He went up to Charter Hall on the Scottish borders and it was winter and how they survived I don’t know. That’s when Richard Hilary was killed in a Blenheim.
Yes, he shouldn’t have been flying – a bit like your brother.
He had trouble with his hands and he couldn’t move something or other. It was ghastly; he told me all about it. Having to cycle to do your ablutions and the weather and everything was awful. After that you were posted to …..
Maidstone was it?
You didn’t have to serve overseas in the war?
He went to Egypt; was there when peace was declared. I think you probably went there at the end of ’44.
’45 I think; peace was declared when I was there.
Do you keep up with Tony Barclay and Brian Kingham and people like that?
Occasional visits, especially latterly, but not a lot. We saw Geoff not too long ago.
He’s got a lovely new girlfriend now…………are you happy for me to photograph the log book? It would make a huge difference to me having the log book.
Do you mind?
I don’t mind, no.